When then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter created the Defense Innovation Unit in 2015, the goal was pretty clear: Tap into the investment and speed of advances in commercial technology to benefit the Defense Department.
“He saw that there was a lot of investment in commercial technology … and at a faster rate than what we’re able to do with military research and development alone,” Mike Brown, DIU’s director said. “He said we need an organization located in the innovation hubs where we can access that for the military. The military needs the best technology available to support its mission.”
Today — five years later — DIU has headquarters in Silicon Valley, as well as offices in Washington, Boston and Austin, Texas. They’ve awarded more than 160 contracts to commercial companies at a faster rate than what might have been expected from the Defense Department — sometimes in as little as 60 days. DIU has initiated 72 projects and brought 33 to completion, transitioning 20 commercial solutions to the Defense Department.
In 2018, former Defense Secretary James Mattis further set the expectation that DIU’s impact should exceed its relatively small size. “We increasingly are working on projects that will have an impact across the services, combatant commands and agencies. We call it a ‘transformative impact,'” Brown said.
“The Defense Innovation Unit has played a critical role in bringing new processes, methodologies and technologies to the Department,” Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper said in a congratulatory letter. “The need for the Department to move at the speed of relevance is only growing, and I challenge DIU to maintain its entrepreneurial approach to continue to deliver and scale transformational capabilities across the joint force.”
Making it easier to work with the Defense Department has been an important part of DIU’s success.”
Mike Brown, Defense Innovation Unit Director
DIU looks to the private sector for successfully deployed commercial technologies to solve problems within the Department. Areas of interest include artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, autonomous systems, human systems, commercial space, 3D printing, augmented reality and a new area for this coming fiscal year of advanced energy and materials.
“There has never been a more urgent time for DIU’s mission,” Brown said. “I say that because of great power competition and, in particular, China’s civil-military fusion strategy: Every technology developed in the commercial sector is transferred to the People’s Liberation Army by fiat.
“Unlike in China,” Brown continued, “the U.S. government can’t simply take technology developed in the private sector and require its use within the military. Instead, the military must entice the private sector to support the military. That’s DIU’s mission.
“We need the right incentives to ensure that commercial companies want to work with the Department,” he said. “But we’re also trying to achieve that top-level idea — how we ensure that the best of the commercial world is available to the military.”
DIU developed a process called the Commercial Solutions Opening that allows possible contenders for a DOD contract to compete, prove their solution in a military application and move quickly to a production award.
“Making it easier to work with the Defense Department has been an important part of DIU’s success,” Brown said. “One simple way to do that is to describe problems in language familiar to the private sector rather than in language only the military would understand.
“Next,” he continued, “we enable companies to participate in the selection process easily by responding with material they already have. It could be as few as five slides illustrating their solution rather than a long, customized request for proposal. Finally, we work quickly to get to an answer to whether the companies are selected for a prototype contract.
“As proof of the success of DIU’s effort to make working with the Defense Department easier,” Brown said. “The number of companies submitting to projects is up 40% this year. The DIU has also worked with around 120 non-traditional vendors — those not typically involved in defense contracts — and has attracted 60 companies who have never before worked with the Department to come forward with solutions to help the warfighter.
“Among those projects, is a truly transformative one that uses artificial intelligence for predictive maintenance on military aircraft,” Brown said.
We’re proud of what we’ve done in our first five years, but there’s a lot more to do.”
Mike Brown, Defense Innovation Unit Director
“The commercial aircraft world has used predictive maintenance for years. We went to one of the leading vendors and said let’s try this with military aircraft.
“When AI-based software accurately predicts what parts of an aircraft will fail next, when that aircraft is in the maintenance depot, those parts can be replaced before they fail,” Brown said. “That aircraft will spend less time in the maintenance depot for unscheduled work which, in turn, increases aircraft reliability and readiness and saves taxpayer dollars.”
DIU prototyped predictive maintenance originated with the Air Force’s E-3 Sentry, the C-5 Galaxy and then with the F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft. After proving its value with the Air Force resulting in a production contract for a vendor, C3.AI, a company that never thought about pursuing a Defense Department customer. DIU is now working with the Marines and the Army for use in ground-based vehicles and helicopters and hopes to test this technology with the Navy for use in ship maintenance.
“Another DIU project provides real-time video to the naval special warfare community through the use of hand-held quadcopters made by a company founded by a veteran called Shield AI,” Brown said. “In addition to real-time video, the small drone has infrared capability to allow operators to clear a building. That potentially saves lives. This is very attractive for any warfighter involved in close urban combat.
“One of DIU’s most recent transformative projects coming to fruition is the Blue sUAS initiative that builds on the short-range reconnaissance program for the Army. This Army program is selecting a small drone supplier so that the Army has an alternative to Chinese-made drones. The Blue sUAS initiative standardizes on the product the Army tested, for use across the Services (rather than each Service developing its own requirements and suppliers) and then aggregates the buying power across the federal government so that American suppliers are more economically viable. DIU has made five proven suppliers available to any federal agency through the GSA catalog,” Brown said. DIU has already had conversations with the Defense Security Cooperation Agency to offer these American suppliers the opportunity for foreign military sales, as well, “to aggregate that buying power across our allies.”
As an example of a project that grew beyond its original intent to a new capability for the military is Kessel Run. It started as a software development prototype for more efficient re-fueling by Air Force tankers and now has scaled into the Kessel Run Agile Software Development methodology, developing multiple software applications for the Air Force.
Right now, Brown thinks DIU is just scratching the surface of what’s possible. DIU influences about $500 million to $600 million of procurement every two years — over the course of projects underway, but the Department might buy somewhere between $300 billion and $400 billion in that same two-year period.
“So, there’s a lot more that the department buys that might benefit from commercial purchases,” he said.
“DIU received a 55% budget increase for FY20 from Congress, and we’re using that to expand capacity to do more projects. In fact, we’re doing 50% more projects this year than we did last year and that is triple the projects we did in 2018.
“There’s also a new element of DIU,” Brown said, “called National Security Innovation Capital which was approved in the 2018 NDAA. If that receives funding, DIU will serve as a catalyst to get private money aimed at dual-use hardware technology — like batteries, quantum sensors or space components — that supports departmental priorities where private capital has not typically been invested. In this way, we can grow some of the future suppliers we need in the supply base.
“We’re proud of what we’ve done in our first five years, but there’s a lot more to do,” Brown said. “There couldn’t be a more urgent need for what we’re doing in a future where our defense budgets may be under pressure and where China is making large technology bets along with civil-military fusion. DIU is one of the Department’s answers in that future.”