Unable To Recruit Enough Techies, The Military Is Partnering With Universities and Start-Ups

Feb 24, 2019

To keep up with potential adversaries such as China, the Pentagon is teaming with civilian technological innovators and trying to adopt some of the practices of the private sector.

The forms that modern technological innovation is taking - and its dizzying pace - mean the military can't recruit all the brain power it needs to keep up with rivals like China.

And because many techies, entrepreneurs, and academics aren't interested in military life, the Pentagon is going where they are to harness their skills.

"It's clear that for our nation to continue to succeed, we can't just tap in to the one percent of folks that are serving; we've got to be tapping into the other 99 percent," said Tommy Sowers, the Southeast Regional Director for a Department of Defense program called the MD5 National Security Technology Accelerator.

MD5 is among several new Pentagon initiatives that are trying to bridge the innovation gap. It has representatives in several tech-centric regions of the country and at a handful of universities. It's planning to create a network of about 50 "hubs" for tackling specific military problems.

The goal is to link the armed services with college students and people at venture tech companies to help bring technology to the military faster.

"Really what we're finding is they want to serve," Sowers said. "They just may not want to, say, move to Washington, D.C."

Sowers embodies the bridge that the Pentagon is trying to create between itself and the world of civilian innovation. He's a former Green Beret team leader who founded and sold a successful tech startup.

He's now based in Durham, N.C. to take advantage of the tech-heavy Research Triangle area, and his job includes helping lead a Duke University class called Hacking for Defense, which also is taught at the other universities MD5 is working with.

The students are assigned specific problems to try to solve, then work with their customers - actually military units.

Civilian methods help solve military problems

One a recent day, nine students travelled to a Special Forces compound at Fort Bragg to get a quick immersion in the work of Green Beret medics. They learned about the dangers, the complexities, and the frustrations of things like being saddled with useless equipment.

A medic showed the students case after case of equipment that he doesn't use.

Ashley Coats, a junior public policy major, gazed skeptically at the row of open cases.

"How many things are in all those boxes?"

The medic laughed. "Hundreds," he said. "Thousands."

He said he has to waste hours keep track of where they are, even though he will never take them on deployment or use them on base.

This is the kind of thing the class has been asked to help with. The students are from various graduate and undergraduate disciplines. One group of students will focus on optimizing the gear list for combat care. The other will try to come up with a robust, low-bandwidth approach for Special Operations units in remote locations to use telemedicine to connect with medical experts back home.

This is the first full year for the program in the Southeast. Besides the class, Sowers is also helping with a program that's teaching civilian methods to troops so they can solve tech problems themselves.

As part of that program, members of a Marine transportation unit from Camp Lejeune comes to an off-base hotel conference room, where they dressed in civilian clothes, ignored eacah other's ranks, and met experts in teaching cutting-edge brainstorming and problem-solving techniques from the tech world.

"There's tons of lance corporals or Green Berets who know what the problems are, who have a good idea of what the solutions are, but they run into a system that isn't really set up to surface those ideas," Sowers said. "We bring in outside trainers on design thinking and Human Centered Design, and really teaching the way startups work, which tends to be pretty fast."

All of what he tries to do involves deep interaction with the troops who would have to use the solutions.

"I can't tell you how many times I was in the military, and I got a set of kits, I'm wondering 'Who came up with this idea?" Sowers said. "Did anyone talk to the end users who are actually using this on what they actually needed?'"

Using a student as a simulated casualty, an Army medic at Fort Bragg explains his work to a Duke University class.
Credit Jay Price / American Homefront

Embassies into the tech community

Sowers' program is one of several initiatives aimed at harnessing civilian brainpower. Another is the Army Futures Command taking shape in the tech hub of Austin, Tex.

Peter Singer, author of the book Likewar: The Weaponization of Social Media, writes about the future of warfare and is a strategist at the think tank New America. He has watched the trend take shape.

"There is a whole host of these similar kind of programs out there," Singer said. "They're all over the place, whether it's the creation of Pentagon offices in Silicon Valley, Austin, Boston. Basically the Pentagon pushed out a series of what you might think of as embassies almost into the tech community."

He says there are two key reasons for all of this outreach. One is the changing nature of the challenges the Pentagon faces with technology such as robotics and artificial intelligence.

"They're both military and civilian and their application and use, so you have this sort of sea change that's going on, and the Pentagon is kind of wrestling with this," Singer said. "They're finding that the civilian market is the one that's doing the cutting edge work, and therefore they need to reach across to it in better ways."

The second catalyst is that the Pentagon has realized that China is the kind of geopolitical and technological competitor that the U.S. hasn't faced in decades.

"They might come into battle with equal or even better technology, which hasn't happened to the U.S. military essentially since the closing months of World War II," Singer said.  "While China is still behind, the speed with which it's overtaking us has military leaders lying awake at night."

The U.S. political system is different, so it's not likely to force a national effort to make advances in artificial intelligence as China has. But the Pentagon can counter by reaching out to the private sector.

"It's not about how the military creates this technology; it's about how does the military, identify it, buy it, and use it," Singer said.

The Special Forces officer who approved the Duke class's access to the Green Berets said it's just good sense to try tapping that outside brainpower.

"It's an opportunity to have outside perspective look at what we do for our systems and processes," said the lieutenant colonel, who asked to be identified by only his first name, Nathan, for security reasons. "People that are smart, they're young, they're creative, they can come in and say, 'Why do you do those things?'"

Sowers said there already are signs that the approach can work. For example, a Special Operations unit asked MD5 for help with a problem that's becoming serious for American troops: Their adversaries in the Middle East buying commercial off-the-shelf drones and strapping grenades on them.

"So what we did in that case was assembled about 150 engineers, drone pilots, academics, entrepreneurs," Sowers said, "and over the course of 48 hours, they worked in small teams, and developed 12 different new and novel solutions."

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.