Experimental defense unit funds new tech but faces skeptics

President Donald Trump’s administration is throwing its support to a Barack Obama-era effort enlisting startup companies to come up with solutions to the military’s toughest technological challenges.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis made his first visit Thursday to the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, a two-year old effort that’s investing in private companies building experimental drones, new cybersecurity technology and advanced communications systems for soldiers.

Mattis said he expects the initiative, known as DIUx, will “grow in its influence and its impact” under the Republican administration. In recent weeks, his office has taken steps to secure DIUx’s place in the agency, including granting it greater authority to hire staff, negotiate contracts and promote its efforts.

“Big admirer of what they do out there, about the way they germinate ideas, the way they harvest ideas, from one breakthrough, rapidly, to another,” Mattis said before meeting with staff and local industry leaders at DIUx’s office in Mountain View, California, the hometown of Google.

The program also has offices in Cambridge; Austin, Texas, and at the Pentagon.

But DIUx continues to face questions from Republican leaders in Congress and others who view it as a still-unproven and possibly unnecessary venture.

U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, a Texas Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, which oversees defense spending, agrees the military needs to better keep abreast of the innovation happening in the commercial sector. But he’s unconvinced DIUx is the long-term solution and won’t overlap with other advanced technology offices, like the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, which dates to the 1950s and the space race.

“This question is: What is this office doing that’s different from what others are doing?” Thornberry said this month.

The proof that DIUx is working is the significant number of projects it has undertaken in a relatively short amount of time and with minimal taxpayer investment, said Col. Michael McGinley, who heads DIUx’s office in Cambridge, near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Since opening its first office in California’s Silicon Valley, DIUx has awarded $100 million in government contracts to 45 pilot projects.

The investments are modest since much of the heavy lifting has come from private investors, who have collectively pumped roughly $2 billion into the companies DIUx is working with, according to…

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