SILICON VALLEY, CALIFORNIA — In the middle of a vast complex on NASA’s Moffett Airfield, right in the heart of Silicon Valley, is a nondescript two-story building where the Pentagon is working with tech companies on its latest top secret project.
Except for parking spaces with tiny signs that said “DIUx Guest,” there is no indication the building is home to the Defense Innovation Unit – Experimental (DIUx), the Pentagon’s outpost for tech firms who want to create solutions for the world’s largest weapons buyer.
One example of a project on display at DIUx was the “saildrone” — a bright orange drone that looks like a surfboard with a sail on top, equipped with four-way cameras and sensors that can measure air temperature, windspeed, the size of fish and other subsurface objects
Wind- and solar-powered, the saildrone can be deployed for 12 months at a time in harsh weather conditions and to hard-to-reach places like the Arctic, potentially saving the Navy and Coast Guard millions of dollars in fuel, labor and other resources.
The Pentagon signed a contract with Saildrone, a small California-based company, last August, not to buy saildrones, but to buy the data it collects, for roughly $2,500 a day. Currently, there are about 20 saildrones today, but the plan is to have a thousand collecting data all over the world.
“This is actually a new way of looking at the acquisition of assets. We don’t need to own an asset that’s going to depreciate. We want the actual intelligence [to] do mission critical things,” said Sean Singleton, DIUx’s director of engagement. “There are a number of combatant commands that have expressed interest…about using this platform in a variety of defense-use cases.”
Could the saildrone be weaponized in the future? According to a company representative, “That is definitely not one of the use cases we are considering.”
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis viewed projects like the saildrone during his first visit to DIUx last week, during a three-day trip to the West Coast focused on learning how the Pentagon can take advantage of innovation before its adversaries do.
After 44 years in the military, the 66-year-old defense secretary and retired Marine general has spent more of his career so far getting to know the Euphrates River Valley in Iraq than Silicon Valley.
In many ways, it’s indicative of a problem the DOD has writ large. Once the forerunner of cutting edge technology — it discovered the internet — it’s now fallen way behind industry.
It was not until last year that the Pentagon began to install the latest version of Windows on all of its four million computers.
So Mattis, who President Trump has called the “closest thing we have to General George Patton” — a World War II general — struck out West to see what he could learn.
“I came out here because I want to make sure we’re taking advantage of what we all see is the intellectual ferment out here that has just buoyed Americans’ creative wealth, put us on the cutting edge,” Mattis told reporters accompanying him on the trip, including from Breitbart News.
Some in Congress are skeptical of the Pentagon’s newer efforts to reach out to Silicon Valley. DIUx was established under Mattis’ predecessor, Ash Carter in May 2016 after a failed first attempt. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX) is concerned DIUx may overlap with existing agencies like DARPA.
The idea behind DIUx was to create an office unladen by the Pentagon’s usual red tape that slows normal weapons purchases, adds additional costs, and penalizes failure. Carter often spoke about the need to fail and fail faster, so that the Pentagon could learn faster and nip ineffective weapons programs in the bud earlier. So far, DIUx has awarded $100 million in government contracts for 45 pilot projects like the saildrone.
Before his visit, Mattis also expressed skepticism about DIUx. “They’re going to show me. I want to see results. I want to see what they’re doing with their location and the ideas that they’re bringing, they’re harvesting — what are we getting out of it?”
But after his visit, Mattis expressed his full support. “There is no doubt in my mind that DIUx will not only continue to exist, it will actually — it will grow in its influence and its impact on the Department of Defense.”
Mattis also met with the leaders of Amazon and Google, as well as other giant tech company leaders.
“If there’s one thing I learned, it is how the Department of Defense acquisition program must change if we are going to stay at the top of our game in a world where change is coming so rapidly,” he said.
“There is no complacency, they don’t stop and sit back and say, ‘Well, we made it,’” he said. “And that sort of drive for excellence and that sort of effort to stay at the cutting edge and always look beyond the here and now is something we need to harness.
“I don’t ever want our troops in a fair fight,” he added.
Mattis said he found a lot of common ground between the tech industry and defense — most notably, the need to protect information.
“They have many, many shared security conditions, both in terms of threats, and in terms of jeopardy if intellectual property gets out,” he said. “What you’re ultimately trying to do is protect what is valuable to you from losing it. I found a lot of common ground.”
Underscoring the secrecy with which the tech industry operates, journalists traveling with Mattis were not allowed to accompany him to the Amazon headquarters. Journalists were also not allowed in any buildings at Google, except for a visitor’s reception area supplied with espresso and food. Journalists could not take any pictures inside the building.
Even a meeting with industry leaders at the hotel where Mattis, the defense delegation, and journalists were staying was kept very secret. Journalists were told to clear the path to the hotel’s exit shortly before anyone departed. Spotted leaving the meeting was Apple CEO Tim Cook. Defense officials would not confirm whether it was him.
The secrecy contrasted with a more transparent visit to a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine base on the first day of Mattis’ three-day trip. After giving up phones and recording devices, journalists were given a tour of the USS Pennsylvania, a submarine armed with nuclear missiles.
The Pennsylvania’s commander, Cmdr. Andrew J. Clark, however, did discuss the need for secrecy when deployed. He said some crews have had to delay their arrival back at home port, after the date of arrival leaked out via social media and put everyone at risk. He also discussed how sailors are targeted via online scams through social media.
A senior defense official said during his meeting with Google, Mattis “was very engaged in terms of how we can better protect information,” noting a discrepancy between how the Pentagon protects “physical things versus information.”
“How do you make that switch culturally?” the official said.
Highlighting the cultural gap between the military and tech worlds was Mattis’ use of the “p-word” during a rousing speech to sailors of the ballistic-missile submarine USS Henry S. Jackson, who gathered on a dock to hear from the defense secretary.
Mattis told them: “You will have some of the best days of your life and some of the worst days of your life in the U.S. Navy … . That means you’re living. That means you’re not some pussy sitting on the sidelines, you know what I mean, kind of sitting there saying, ‘Well, I should have done something with my life.'”
The sailors cracked huge smiles and appeared to loosen up. Meanwhile, Google has come under fire for sexism, after one of its employees recently suggested in a memo that the gender gap in tech was due to biological differences.
Mattis also fielded several questions from young sailors anxious that the nuclear submarine force might someday be phased out. He assured them that little would change.
“I can look you in the eye and tell you, that nothing is more certain than if you have a sailor son of yours going to the Navy one day, he could very well be doing the same thing falls if he falls in his father’s footsteps. You’ll be here,” he said.