If you’ve walked the halls of the Pentagon lately, you may have noticed some individuals you wouldn’t traditionally picture as Defense Department employees.
“We’ve been very successful in bringing in some remarkably bright folks, interesting tattooed and pierced folks that you normally wouldn’t see in the Pentagon,” said Stephen Welby, the assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering, at USGIF’s GEOINT 2016 Symposium. “The value of the ideas they bring to the table is fantastic.”
More diverse Department of Defense (DoD) hires are encouraging, yet Welby, who serves as the department’s chief technology officer, told the audience that among many issues, attracting and retaining the right talent to remain competitive is the one thing that keeps him awake at night.
“I worry about being able to compete with the private sector,” he said. “I don’t have the flexibility in terms of compensation. What I have is an interesting mission.” He worries especially about hiring talent for particular domains such as artificial intelligence and robotics.
Although Welby leads a workforce of nearly 114,000 science and engineering professionals, he acknowledges the younger generations don’t find a 30-year career in a DoD lab particularly appealing. He also said the department needs to be more flexible in terms of recruiting, such as using commercial recruiters or novel methods for reaching out to industry, academia, and international partners. He noted one step in the right direction: The department’s Force of the Future initiative that Secretary Ashton Carter proposed to help shape the future workforce mentions talent for the first time, rather than just workforce numbers.
“The people we want to bring on board have good jobs already, and I’ve got to talk them [into] it,” Welby said. This new approach is fundamentally different from that in the past, which Welby joked was “posting something on USAJOBS and hoping a Nobel Prize-winner is trolling and looking for something to do.”
Within DoD research and engineering, Welby said, a lack of innovation doesn’t threaten the department as much as a lack of resources. In addition to delivering more cost efficiency than it has in the past, he said, the department is now looking at the culmination of a 40-year run during which the United States and its allies have possessed technological capability above and beyond that of other nations. The access to technology and talent other countries are displaying, as well as the speed of the development cycle, have put the U.S. in the position of trying to restore its advantage.
Welby said it’s not surprising to see other countries investing in modernizing their military capabilities. “They are doing so at a remarkably fast pace,” he said. “We often find ourselves on the wrong side of the cost and capability curve.”
To tackle these challenges, including decreasing the speed of time to market, Welby said it’s essential the department not miss commercial sector capabilities that may help the DoD—which he emphasized will come from tech hubs around the country, not just Silicon Valley. Furthermore, he said, the department is refocusing on internal innovation.
One of the critical themes in the department is disrupting technological capabilities for potential adversaries through science and engineering, explained Welby, who oversees everything from basic science and prototyping to research at the department labs. He formerly held senior leadership positions at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
“How do we begin to disrupt ourselves before others can disrupt us,” he asked the audience. The disruptive technologies of the 1970s, for example, have shaped today’s military in many ways. Now, he said, the disruption will be around autonomy.
“In almost any domain, we’re assuming we’ll be able to take advantage of data,” Welby said. “It’s about systems that interact with their environment.” These include systems that facilitate human-machine collaborative decision-making, advanced manned-unmanned systems operations, and network-enabled, autonomous weapons.
“There’s been a lot of pushback on this from folks who’ve imagined Arnold Schwarzenegger movies,” Welby said, noting that removing humans from the equation and allowing computers to take over is not the intent. “Our focus is thinking about how new, software-enabled capabilities enable us to do things differently.”
Welby mentioned that recently he was in Portland for the christening of the Navy’s new Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel, the naval equivalent of Google’s self-driving car.
“It’s fully autonomous, triple redundancy,” Welby said. “It could leave port in the U.S. and find its way to Bahrain and radio for a pilot to bring it to port. It’s a fundamental game changer to think about these capabilities.”
Innovative opportunities at the DoD range from hypersonics and biomedical—consider the applications of a wearable device to measure the health and alertness of personnel in the field—to electronic warfare and micro-electronics.
“These things will have enormous implications on military capabilities,” Welby concluded.