Former Apple VP takes over the Pentagon's Silicon Valley adventure

Misha Lu, DIGITIMES Asia, Taipei 0

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Former Apple Vice President Doug Beck was sworn in on May 9 as the newest director of Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) – an organization under the US Department of Defense dedicated to accelerating the US military adoption of commercial and dual-use technologies. The ceremony comes just as the Pentagon has updated its National Science and Technology Strategy to improve its acquisition process in a bid to accelerate military adoption of cutting-edge technologies from the private sector, especially when 11 of the 14 critical technology priorities identified by the Pentagon are commercial technologies.

Beck, who spent thirteen years with Apple in multiple roles, the latest being VP for worldwide education, health, and government, was named DIU's new director in April.

Launched in 2015, the DIU was one of the fruits of the Pentagon's so-called "Third Offset Strategy" that sought to leverage the private sector's innovation capacity to speed up military adoption of technological breakthroughs. Headquartered in Silicon Valley, the DIU's role is to identify, prototype, and scale cutting-edge, dual-use technology. In so doing, the DIU also seeks to make it easier for commercial vendors to do business with the Pentagon.

"We at the DIU have been entrusted with a critical role by the Secretary of Defense," said the newly sworn in director, "and we have both the opportunity and the responsibility to work with our teammates across the US Department of Defense to create strategic impact at the speed and scale required by this critical moment for our national security." According to Beck, he will begin his work with "a listening tour with partners in the Pentagon and across the armed forces, with commercial technology companies, and with others in the private sector."

Following his appointment, Beck will have 90 days to provide the US Secretary of Defense with an assessment of DIU's capabilities as well as an action plan, Breaking Defense reported. At an event in May, Beck already remarked that the Pentagon hasn't done a good job in communicating its priorities to the industry. "Closing the gaps between the Pentagon's messaging and what industry brings to the table will be a key goal for the DIU as it moves forward," Beck said in a May interview with Defensescoop, noting that better communication will "help people to know where to take risks, where to make investments and where to push."

As the threat posed by Chinese military modernization and the changing nature of warfare, as demonstrated in Ukraine, looms closer, Beck's predecessor, former DIU director Michael Brown, was already expressing frustration. In an interview with Breaking Defense in May, the former Symantec CEO lamented the lack of progress and the insufficient support received by the DIU, and stressed the need to hand out actual production contracts, instead of mere R&D contracts, to attract companies. Budget was a major issue as well: the DIU saw a 20% cut in funding from fiscal 2021 to 2022.

At a congressional hearing in May, Pentagon's chief technical officer, Heidi Shyu, promised to increase the DIU's budget for fiscal 2024, and similarly echoed the challenge to move prototypes into production. "...that's where the gap is - a lot of small companies, great ideas, have produced a lot of prototypes – it's this funnel that's going down to production, and it's pull from the acquisition community that we need," said Hsyu, indicating that "somebody with experience on both sides would help."

Since its foundation in fiscal 2016 to fiscal 2022, according to the DIU's official data, the number of proposals received has been steadily growing, from 275 to 1,636. The period also saw an increase in the number of prototype contracts awarded, from 12 to 81. In the meantime, 52 commercial solutions have been successfully transitioned to military users, totalling US$4.9 billion in contract ceiling. The number of transitioned awards peaked In fiscal 2022 alone, reaching US$1.3 billion in contract ceiling. Interestingly, as indicated on the DIU's annual report for fiscal 2022, of the 360 prototype funding awards, totalling US$1.2 billion, granted between June 2016 and September 2022, only 41 awards - amounting to US$114 million - were related to AI & machine learning.