The rise of defense tech is taking Silicon Valley back to its roots – TechCrunch
The TechCrunch Global Affairs project examines the increasingly intertwined relationship between the tech industry and global politics.
The timeless quest for national competitive advantage has accelerated with globalization. During the Cold War, the United States and the USSR led an ideological and military race, but never a consumer product race: no American was interested in buying a Soviet toaster.
Now the lines are blurred; countries fight across their economies and across all areas of warfare to gain their advantage. Technological supremacy in consumer and enterprise products directly fuels the race for great power for air, land, sea, space and cyber.
Startup founders and engineers are also increasingly recognizing their role in this fight. These people are not George W. Bush jingoists, but they want to support liberal democracy and ensure that those on the front lines have the best tools to do their jobs.
This is a major shift from recent decades, when anti-war sentiment in the Bay Area, which grew out of protests against the Vietnam War, intensified into anti-war protests against the wars in Afghanistan and especially in Iraq. Despite some high-profile protests against working on national security contracts in recent years, we are now seeing a return to the original Silicon Valley culture of pioneering defense technology to protect the American homeland and its allies from adversaries. Indeed, more and more people want to work exclusively with the Pentagon and our allies on defense technology, especially since dealing with the rise of China has become one of the few truly bipartisan positions in a Washington polarized.
For engineers diving into defense technologies, the challenges and opportunities in each field are vast. In the air, China is said to have successfully tested a hypersonic missile – technology the United States is believed to be years away from obtaining based on intelligence estimates. Given the speed of its travel and the inability of sensors to detect it, a hypersonic missile would render much of the current US air defense systems ineffective.
We are also witnessing the emergence of a whole new aerial threat: swarms of cheap and violent drones that can be deployed quickly with no human operator in sight. US General Frank McKenzie recently dubbed these “Costco drones” after the warehouse retailer, and we’re likely to see countries with tiny defense budgets capable of crushing well-equipped US forces.
Likewise, at sea, we are seeing a transition from large, expensive aircraft carriers, manned by thousands of sailors, to small, cheap, self-contained vessels. Governments (or non-state actors) can now disrupt critical maritime trade lanes in ways that are very difficult to defend against. Meanwhile, underwater, there is a growing ability for adversaries to exploit and disrupt the undersea internet cables that carry a growing share of the global economy.
In space, Russia just weeks ago tested a direct-ascent anti-satellite weapon that destroys individual satellites. Such an attack could wipe out GPS and global communications (and the commerce, transportation and logistics that depend on it), as well as potentially render much of near-Earth space unusable for satellites due to the debris that result. These weapons are difficult to detect and even more difficult to stop with existing defense technologies.
Finally, in the cyber realm, despite tens of billions of dollars flooded into the cybersecurity sector over the past decade, businesses and governments remain extremely vulnerable to ransomware and espionage with denial of service initiatives. and large-scale information exfiltration. A year after the gargantuan SolarWinds hack, we are no closer to preventing or defending against state-directed cyber warfare.
All of these issues in all of these areas remain wide open, and the United States has the most to lose – economically, politically, and militarily – if it fails to confront them.
The bottom line is that complex and difficult challenges are precisely the kind of problems that the best engineers and startup founders want to work on. There is a growing chorus of criticism — even from top civil defense officials — of bureaucrats in Washington who continue to business as usual despite mounting evidence that our defenses are wrong. equipped for the challenges posed by our adversaries.
In today’s defense world, we have met the enemy and he is ourselves: Startups are immediately blocked by antiquated Pentagon procurement systems. We must immediately bypass this bureaucracy and uncomfortably displace the very comfortable, authorized and entrenched monopolies and oligopolies that do not have the best technologies but To do have the best lobbyists. We need to weed out the big “prime contractors” – as the country’s main defense contractors are called – out of the way. We would never send our once great but now lagging, slow and least competitive athletes to represent America in fierce competition at the Olympics. It would make us losers. So why do we sit idly by, allowing this to happen in the critical realm of defence?
The Department of Defense has various programs in place to onboard startups. These programs are well-intentioned, but they miss the point: the Pentagon needs to throw away its procurement manual and rebuild its defenses for the weapons our enemies actually use today. We live in a world where an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which costs over $100 million per unit or more, can be outmaneuvered by “Costco drones”. America’s longstanding superiority in defense has led countries to innovate asymmetrically — and now they’re forging ahead.
The good news is that asymmetric competition is precisely what Silicon Valley and startup founders do every day. Their rambling ambitions and limited resources mean they always do more with less. They take on well-established incumbents, identify their weaknesses and relentlessly exploit them to create a competitive advantage. We have the technology and increasingly the know-how and the people ready to strengthen the American defense. Now we just need the Pentagon to start demanding more of itself and be prepared to award big contracts to the most competitively advantaged emerging US startups.
While change at the Pentagon is paramount, beyond America there is also an opportunity to help liberal democracies around the world with their defenses. In Europe, there is an incredible wealth of talent and technology available that could be applied to the defense of the continent. Yet its defense systems are a technological tower of Babel with significant interoperability challenges. Streamlining defense standards for next-generation technologies would not only help the United States, but many of our allies as well.
America today faces the greatest challenge to our competitive advantages in recent memory, with eroding advantages in all areas of warfare and in many economic sectors. Adversaries are increasingly aggressively looking for weaknesses to exacerbate and exploit. But at its core, America’s values and influence still offer us immense soft power: an openness to new ideas, new people and new opportunities. Defending our values of openness against the encroaching authoritarianism of antagonists like China and Russia is not optional. Defense technology is the next big industry in Silicon Valley if for no other reason every other industry will be counting on the United States to secure peace for years to come.