Defense Chief Pitches Pentagon Projects to Tech Workers

Secretary of Defense  Ash Carter toured Texas Advanced Computing Center and Visualization Lab last week. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter toured Texas Advanced Computing Center and Visualization Lab last week. Sgt. 1st Class Clydell Kinchen/Defense Department

AUSTIN, Texas – Defense Secretary Ash Carter grinned wide for the cameras and flashed a good ol’ University of Texas “hook ’em, horns” hand signal standing in front of giant Texas Memorial Stadium.

“A little gift for Bill McRaven,” he joked. Carter had just met with retired Navy Adm. William McRaven, the special operations commander who oversaw the Osama bin Laden raid and is now the university’s chancellor.

Sports fans come to this town on autumn Saturdays for legendary big-time Texas football. Carter came for the advanced computing, robotics, predictive simulations and modeling, bioengineering, space rockets, technology startup incubators — and to recruit hackers to become cyber warriors. So the secretary quickly got on with his daylong tour, giddy in his element among the nerds, working to connect innovators in central Texas to the Defense Department’s war on terrorism and the Islamic State.

“I’m trying to broaden the base of those who serve national defense and national security. And that includes both people and technology,” Carter said at the end of the day, following a round of rapid-fire, Shark Tank-style pitches from budding entrepreneurs at downtown Austin’s Capital Factory. Picture a typical movie set for a Silicon Valley office—in this case a private membership club 16 floors above Austin’s city limits, where $200 a month gets you three-days-a-week access to beanbag chairs, beer on tap, exposed-brick event spaces, and industrial ceilings. Innovation is buzzing. It’s like “a gym for your business,” said Liz Coufal, the shop’s vibrant “new member ambassador.”

If there’s anyone who can bridge the culture clash between the high-and-tight military officers who followed him from the Pentagon and the hoodie-wearing hipsters typing away at this innovation playground of a city, Carter is it. Visibly energized, the physics Ph.D walked through robotics labs, talking with computer programmers, engineers, and inventors. It’s almost a different Ash Carter than the one who stands stiff at press conferences, slowly and methodically thinking through occasionally less-than-clear answers to policy questions.

Here, Carter is salesman and rainmaker. After his “hook ’em” photo op and lunch in the stadium’s football-boosters club, the secretary walked out of the Texas sun into a darkened room at the Texas Advanced Computing Center. Standing before a wall-sized multi-screen display, Kelly Gaither, the center’s visualization director, described how designers build moving images for simulations and modeling—say, when a hurricane floods a coastal city, or a star spins, or a bio-pandemic begins to spread. Carter asked what kind of DOD support they have. Not much, Gaither said; they get more funding from the Department of Homeland Security, NASA, and other agencies. Somewhat sheepishly, she noted that that she’d love to have more. Carter says he’ll help connect them to the right Pentagon people. Rain.

The scene repeats later at the Capital Factory, where Carter sits to hear pitches on technology ideas, like Mark Cuban only richer and more powerful and for things that could help with war, national security, and intelligence. One company is seeking sensors that can detect exactly one type of cancer cell or chemical or antibody, which could help soldiers sense bioterrorism in the air. Effortlessly smooth and engaged, Carter peppers the presenters with in-the-weeds technical questions that fly over the heads of the national-security press corps.

Another firm is creating rockets to help launch smaller satellites, which can be put into orbit more cheaply and are more easily replaceable. Carter later says the U.S. and Defense Department need to remain leaders in that technology because it will allow for better battlefield communications and surveillance. “That’s why I was interested in that.” Not exactly beanbag chair stuff.

Many of the technology leaders Carter meets seem eager to have the attention and the chance to ask for funds for new inventions, developments, and ideas. He’s traveled several times to Silicon Valley, met with top leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and now Austin. He’s called on the CEOs of Google, Microsoft, Facebook, LinkedIn, Amazon, and more. But to what end? After roughly a year of intensive personal effort to link the worlds of national defense and private-sector technology, will the payoff be worth the time? For now, Carter said he is trying different ways to get his message out, and the announcements are beginnings—a new office in Silicon Valley, perhaps one right here. “You can bet we’re going to have a lot more presence here in Austin,” he said, at a pop-up press conference in the Capital Factory.

Carter is aware of the skeptics. On this trip, he’s making a heartstrings sell, invoking the war against ISIS and the recent terrorist bombings in Brussels: If you consider yourself an American who loves freedom and wants to serve your country, he says, you should do business with the Pentagon and help their missions. “I hope you ask yourself: What can you do? How can you make a difference? How can you be a part of something bigger than yourself?” he told University of Texas students and ROTC members.

The secretary said he’s been pleased at the reaction from the technology community.  “I do not find them uninterested, by any means,” he said at the Capital Factory. “I find innovative people very interested in working with defense. And that, for two reasons – they understand the importance of what we do and they’re people who like to make a difference. And it makes a difference to protect people. What they lack isn’t interest. It’s familiarity.”

That’s what’s different from times past, he said, when greater shares of the general public had experience with the armed forces and the most advanced technologies were government funded.

Carter departed Austin seemingly satisfied to have made more connections: “People know this is very serious business and it's essential in everything else in life to have security.”

On Friday, the secretary was in Boston, at MIT, where he helped announced the newest leg of the White House’s manufacturing initiative: a $317 million investment in “revolutionary fabrics and textiles” (the Pentagon’s share is $75 million). Carter said this would help create things like parachutes with tiny sensors that can detect rips before they happen. A U.S. Army display showed how uniforms could be embedded with fibers that light up green in night-vision goggles, allowing special operators on night raids to better tell good guys from bad.

Carter left Boston having celebrating the technologies of the future and returned to Washington, where the fight of today showed no signs of slowing. Before his plane touched down, Pentagon officials announced the U.S. had hit yet another key al-Shabaab operative in Somalia via drone strike — the technology of today.

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