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Carter Talks Innovation, Attracting New Talent to DoD

By Cheryl Pellerin DoD News, Defense Media Activity

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WASHINGTON, Dec. 2, 2015 — As part of his continuing effort to attract the best talent to the Pentagon and to foster innovation throughout the department, Defense Secretary Ash Carter yesterday spoke with students and faculty at the Harvard Institute of Politics in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The discussion last night at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum was moderated by Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

Carter, himself a former professor at the Kennedy School and a former director of the Belfer Center, noted that to remain the best, the Defense Department must ensure it can access the best technology and stay ahead of people who would harm the nation.

Technology of Consequence

“When I started out in this business … all the technology of consequence, most of it, originated in the United States, and a great deal of it originated with the government. Neither of those [statements] is true anymore,” Carter said.

“We still do a lot; we still have spinoffs,” he added, “but it's not like it used to be.”

Today, the secretary said, it’s critical for the department to connect to the technology community and get the innovators interested in defense problems.

“Some people say to themselves, when they see something like [the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks] in Paris … ‘How can I make a difference? How can I contribute?’” Carter said.

One way to contribute is to serve in uniform, but because not everyone wants to take that road, Carter said he’s creating alternatives and working to improve the attractiveness of military service to give people a chance to try public service for shorter periods.

Among his alternatives is a DoD branch of the U.S. Digital Service, which, he said, will solve some of the department’s most intractable information technology and data problems.

Another is a recently launched experimental Silicon Valley partnership called the Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental, or DIUX, that scouts emerging and breakthrough technologies and builds direct relationships to the Pentagon.

“These are ways that people who are talented can give it a try,” Carter said.

“And likewise for uniformed people … I [also] have to make it possible for them” to spend time working in corporate technology environments, he added.

“We need to manage our workforce in defense the way thoughtful companies do today,” he said. “We're not a company, we'll never be. We're a profession of arms -- it's different. But that doesn't mean we can't learn.”

Carter said he wants to learn from companies like Facebook, LinkedIn and others “because I want as many people to be a part of our mission as I can possibly attract.”

Responding to a question from the moderator, Carter said opportunities that talented young people might work on as part of the department’s innovation initiative include cyber, countering violent extremism, and biology.

Working the Future

In cyber, he said, officials at the Pentagon and elsewhere are still groping for an understanding of what is fair and not fair, safe and not safe, how to keep the peace, and whether or not concepts like deterrence -- used today in reference to nuclear weapons -- apply to cyber.

Cyber defense also is important and perfecting it is critically important, the secretary added.

“It is by far and away our highest priority because we depend, really abjectly, upon network function. Our planes, ships and tanks [don’t] do anything unless they’re connected now,” he said.

“There's a broad alignment of society's needs behind cyber defense,” Carter added. “I find that overwhelmingly important and I’ve made that very clear to our cyber officials. That's job one for me.”

On the need to counter violent extremism, the secretary said that for those whose responsibility it is to worry about protecting citizens, he expects this to be a long-term effort.

“Destructive power of greater and greater magnitude falls into the hands of smaller and smaller groups of human beings,” he said. “ … You're always going to have somebody who’s out there that's several standard deviations of estrangement from the rest of humanity.”

Violent extremism is part of the future, Carter added, and dealing with it presents new challenges to security institutions.

On the biological sciences, Carter said these will transform the world in even more ways than information technology has.

For the department and its use of products from biological science research and development, he added, “We're going to be looked at to make sure we're on the good side of that, and that we're protecting people [and conducting] ourselves ethically.”

DoD will have to live up to these and other expectations “that are really big deals,” Carter said, “so the idea that we've [completely] thought them through -- no, we haven't. We need help.”

(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter: @PellerinDoDNews)