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Deputy Secretary of Defense Dr. Kathleen Hicks Speaks With Traveling Press at Purdue University

DR. HICKS:  So, end of two days of whirlwind Midwest tour.  So really the focus, you know, my job, is taking the goals that are laid out the President and the Secretary and making sure we can connect the dots from that to what we're doing in the department.  That runs straight through concepts and capabilities, often ends up in the budget, and so what I was doing in this trip and as I do everyday, is really looking at those feeders into our strategic end goals and how we're doing. 

Innovation is a huge piece of that, making sure that we can, you know, be competitive in the defense sphere in order to create stability and to deter adversaries.  That's basically the mission set, and the innovation really helps us fuel for today and then for tomorrow, the ways in which we do that.

So here at Purdue today and at Transcom this morning, more themes on the public-private partnership.  I think the biggest takeaway really, I said some of it in the public remarks, is that the U.S. advantage is in that ability to foster a private sector, economically competitive private sector, that's innovative and creative and problem oriented, and then from the government side how we tap into that, how we partner effectively with that, how we leverage that and bring it in.  That's our challenge. 

So at Transcom, you see it really in terms of how they operate.  The ability to work with the commercial sector, which is so important to everything we do day in and day out, that they're doing, for instance today, with Ukraine but if you think to really significant challenges as would happen in a war we're very dependent on being able to work with the private sector.  And then also to get innovations that often begin in the private sector into the defense sector and that can be around things like fuel economy, which seems like it's a small thing, but saves -- literally saves loads of lift. 

When we got to Purdue, same theme of public-private partnerships, how are we at DOD working closely with the research community here at Purdue and as they work together again with the commercial sector. How do we work inside that ecosystem to really get our problem statements in front of scientists and engineers- get them excited about the kinds of things, the solutions we need on the national security side?

And then how do we get that talent pipeline that we need inside the department and that we need in the broader economy?  We, you know, it's not an either-or, we need both of those things to happen.  We need folks working in government who have those STEM talents and we need that broader, vibrant economy to have it as well.  So I'm going to stop there.

STAFF:  OK.  We'll start off with Idrees.

Q:  Two quick questions.  The first in hypersonics --

DR. HICKS:  Sure.

Q:  -- I think DOD, including you, have talked about the risk of falling behind when it comes to hypersonics, and just to visualize it, if you were- and I know this is a weird question, but if you were to rank, sort of, where countries fall in the hypersonic scale, Russia, China, U.S.  Where does the U.S. fall on that, broadly, when you look at design, testing and potential deployments?  How should we be looking at? 

DR. HICKS:  So, I have not said that the U.S. is falling-

Q:  Oh, sorry.

DR. HICKS:  No, it's OK.  I'm starting there for a reason.  I think it's the wrong way to look at the problem.  It has an arms race mentality to it that doesn't -- and we hear a lot of it--so it's a fair reflection of where I think a lot of the conversation has been.  The reality is that the United States has a series of concepts for how it believes it can fight effectively, and we have a good understanding now of where we would employ hypersonic capability in that. 

It's different than how we believe the Chinese or the Russians look at how they would employ hypersonic capabilities.  The Russians, for instance, have used hypersonic capabilities in Ukraine to no noticeable effect.

So, it's wrong to focus on, you know, number of systems that we see this very clearly on the Russian tank side for instance as well.  You know, we sometimes are drawn to measuring the wrong things. And on hypersonics, the secretary is very intent on making sure we stay laser-focused on what are the capabilities that the United States needs to prosecute a campaign the way we believe is effective for warfare? 

I don't want to say much more than that, for obvious reasons, but I did mention today we are also really invested in counter-hypersonic because we want to make sure we can defend against others using hypersonic capabilities. So both the counter-hypersonic investment is there, we’re working very hard on that, and I do think we've had some really promising movement on the U.S. hypersonic programs, plural, and they're in line with how we think about the employment strategy.  

Q:  And second quick question, because you've obviously been focused on China, much like the department.  Have the past few weeks of Chinese activity in and around Taiwan changed in any way the way you're looking at China-Taiwan?  Do you think they're more likely to seize Taiwan militarily sooner?  Has it changed anything for you, I guess?

DR. HICKS:  Yeah- it has not changed it, and I think it's a situation that we need to be looking at today and into the future.  And the China challenge set is often, again, portrayed as, sort of, is it, you know, is it going to happen now or is it going to happen later?

The way we look at it in the National Defense Strategy is very clear on this point, is that our priority is on making sure we can deter and defend against and win, if necessary, a conflict with China as the pacing challenge, today and in the future.  And so, the way in which we focus our activities, our investments, our alliance arrangements in the defense space, are really over time focused on this China challenge. 

So I say it that way because, you know, if we look at it that way, we want to be vigilant today, in 2027, in 2030, in 2035 and in 2040.  And that, we can't take our eye off the ball over that whole period of time, what's happened in the last few weeks just reinforces that fact.

Q:  Thank you.

STAFF:  Let's go with Dan next. 

Q:  Thank you.  You referenced the CHIPS Act today, obviously a big deal, big legislation.

DR. HICKS:  Yes.

Q:  Looking at that, it's trying to get after a problem.  There's a gap there, at least for the moment.  As we, as a nation are trying to onshore things. What is the risk in the short-term?  And I guess, how long does the department think it takes to, to kind of, get back to a space that's more comfortable? 

DR. HICKS:  So we've been living with the problem, I think is my first answer.  So, it's not a new problem.  It's one we've figured out some ways to work through.  Our big concerns are around making sure in those everyday microelectronics that we have in our systems, largely, well entirely commercially available frankly, microelectronics.  That we understand the provenance and the supply chain around those.  We will continue to do that, so that's about, again, vigilance I think I would use around that supply chain.  That's what we're going to do in the near term, just as we have been doing.  

For some of the capabilities that are advanced, we pay a premium on that- that we believe the CHIPS Act approach by having this secure overlay strategy, will help bring down the premium and also will speed up the quality of that -- speed up the development timeline to get to the advanced quality that we need.  So, it's a price point, maybe I would say, difference and a timeline difference.  So that's really how we're managing through for now.  I don't have for you the timeline that I think I would tell you when, you know, it will all get resolved, but I think we're a few years away.

Q:  OK.  And if I could follow up on the, I guess, your travel schedule I think shows things.  It shows department priorities and otherwise.  So you make a decision to come here, you know, they're investing in hypersonics.  Obviously there's a concern there, as we look at this it seems to me you're focusing in part in places that are doing things that are adjacent to the department, but outside the department, so the department doesn't have to necessarily do all this itself.  How many, I guess as we look at this, do we need more of these places?  Or is it more a matter of do we need, you know, do we need Purdue to be all in? 

DR. HICKS:  We need more of these places.  There are other of these places, and I think the reality I'll say again, the way the U.S. has to approach innovation for defense is going to look entirely different than how another country would do it.  I think we have a really winning formula, but that formula is dependent on connecting these communities.  The academic community, the innovators who are on the commercial side, our labs as you saw, where we're putting our federal dollars.

And then for us in the Defense Department, is what are those operational needs?  What does the warfighter need?  How do we set that problem statement out in a way that energizes that community?  So, partnerships are just such an important piece of this.

If you look back, you know, let's say six to eight years, probably eight years, to something like when Ash Carter was the deputy secretary and set-up defense innovation unit.  You know, that was, kind of, and obviously the labs well proceed that, we had that lab infrastructure.  There were those early understandings that we needed to get more to the commercial sector.  Those connections now exist.  They've, you know, we got many of those kinds of connections--you probably heard about AFWERX and SPACEWERX a little bit yesterday--throughout the department.  We need to harvest that ecosystem.

The universities are another major piece of that.  Connect it--make it a real system--rather than a collection of disparate, you know, entities that don't create the kind of outcomes that we need.  That's what I'm focused on really with that.  That's why you see both in this trip and in other trips, kind of, touching different pieces of that system, trying to understand how to move the levers inside government. 

You heard some of this from what Dave Turk and I were asking, for instance, at Oak Ridge.  What are the things we should really be focused on to help shift that system into the incentives that are needed to get the outcomes, in our case,  that we need for the warfighter? 

STAFF:  OK.  Brandi.

Q:  Oh, OK.  Going to get weedy with technology. 

DR. HICKS:  That's OK. 

Q:  You know, you're OK with that.  To start, JADC2, very curious about, particularly at the last stop, sort of, what you were hearing but more so, are you satisfied with how the services are cooperating?  Do you think there needs to be more coordination? And overall, what's your biggest concern there? 

DR. HICKS:  So, I -- neither the secretary nor I are satisfied with the -- where we are in the department on advanced command and control.  We see it as incredibly promising, in terms of the decision advantage it can provide.  And you saw today at Transcom, some example of that, everyday in the department you can find examples where the speed and quality of decision-making, tactical level, operational level, up at the strategic level, can be vastly improved, and create that edge that we need for the future. 

A lot of good work going on throughout the department, what I'm really focused on right now is taking that -- those, sort of, the good work that's going on and scaling it to the enterprise level. 

And that's not going to look like a major hardware program, so if, you ask any two people what they think JADC2 is, you'll probably get different answers.  And I think that really is partly because we have a hardware-centric approach to how we think about innovations in the defense department.  This is really a software-centric enterprise problem, and our approach will look like that.  So I will just name a few things that we have started to put together.  We have put together the Joint Warfighting Cloud, JWCC, contract vehicle.  We have that out for competition now. 

We need secure cloud—enterprise-wide cloud capability--if we're going to be able to scale up that kind of speed of compute.  That's N-A-I use.  That's one big piece of the problem.  Another big piece of the problem was the lack of a technical architect, and so we created the CDAO and we brought in world-class talent into that CDAO and we've paired him now with folks like the Maven community that we've pulled into CDAO, that understand how to connect at a more tactical operational level to the AI-data-level talent.  And they're going to be really focused on creating that integration layer at the software level. 

And then we need to create some, what I would call, experimentation approaches.  And I don't want to get into too much detail there, but we're down that avenue so that the services can bring into the sandbox what they've already built so we can understand what we have to work with.  We have the standards and expectations at the integration level, and then we'll start to tie those pieces together.  So an equally weedy answer to the weedy question on JADC2, but I'm thrilled you asked it. 

Q:  And you turned it to CDAO which is where I was going to go next.  We could probably talk about this for a long time and I might try to convince you later to do that,   but there is, I have a lot of questions about, sort of, why you established the CDAO? 

DR. HICKS:  Sure.

Q:  You moved it, like it's no longer a three star general that's over it, it's a CEO from a tech company that's now leading all the AI efforts. So why, and what would you like to see CDAO accomplish this year?

DR. HICKS:  Why on CDAO?  When I came in, this is related to the JADC2 piece, when I came in we -- there were really promising shoots of activities.  First of all, we had a very successful CDO, chief data officer.  We had JAIC, which was cooking along on AI, and we had DDS which was taking design thinking.  And sort of as I responded to you before with regard to the, sort of, the innovation ecosystem more broadly, there was a developmental stage where that was the right approach.  I think we are past that developmental stage and now we are at a stage where, if you're going to make the big move on that decision advantage, on JADC2, you have to bring those pieces together.

It is no longer going to work to have the data and AI folks working separately, for example, even if they're highly companionable.  So what we did is look at best-in-class design on the outside, I asked for a few studies on that, received some feedback, talked to a lot of people, including the AI Commission Leadership, Eric Schmidt, for example, and others, Bob Work -- just a lot of that, kind of, outreach to come to the point of recommending to the secretary that we have the CDAO outcome.  Then it was about finding the right team, and I stress team.

Because yes, we brought it talent from the outside, but we paired him with a team from the inside because it's, you know, the Department of Defense is not a great place to try to break your, you know, break new ground bureaucratically if you're not well-equipped.  And the other thing we did was absolutely assure him that he's a direct report to me, and, you know, the dollars, the priorities, the direction come from the secretary and I with the CDAO and this gets back to the JADC2 answer of how we're going to make that work.

He's not going to create, you know, a ship plan, you know, a blueprint that says JADC2 structure- this is how we're going to build it.  He is doing it from a software-centric approach and there's going to be, sort of, the bottom-up from the services plugging in, and particularly at that tactical level.  They're doing a lot of really good things, but we're going to be able to bring some top-down structure into that, in that integration capability. 

Q:  And this year, what you'd like to see?

DR. HICKS:  Yes.  I mean, this year, we have a couple of key milestones that I won't go into on JADC2 development, specifically.  We also have CDAO working on what, I sometimes joke, is bringing the department into the late 20th century on how to connect the secretary's priorities with data metrics, and ensuring quantitative metrics, really. 

So, and ensuring we can use data to understand our performance, which any organization, almost anywhere in the world, would be able to do, but we are not at that point yet.  So whether you're talking about back office issues like audit, or you're talking about tell me how many Javelin are in x or y location that I want to send to Ukraine, to tell me how the -- what the return on investment is in our sustainment programs or on F-35.  Data can help us with all of tha,t and we need to take advantage of what we have today.

Q:  Thank you.

STAFF:  Jenna? 

Q:  So just briefly, so I have it on tape without playing noises in the back.

DR. HICKS:  Sure.

Q:  I was hoping you could, sort of, reiterate your concerns that you spoke about at the beginning of the trip about atrophying interest in manufacturing and aging workforce.  Those sorts of things, just briefly and simply, and then I'm curious if on this trip you were encouraged with some of those concerns?  If there's some gaps that you identified still on the trip, and what, sort of specific things you may have identified that you feel that DOD can contribute to, given some of the things that you saw? 

DR. HICKS:  Sure, on -- when we think about innovation, we are thinking first and foremost about talent.  And whether that's talent coming directly into the defense department, which we definitely need, that understand the kinds of both technologies and processes and approaches of today, or it’s talent in the broader system that we rely on, in the commercial sector and the research institutions, et cetera.  So, we absolutely need to make sure we are invested in talent and there's a, you know, I think -- I have a lot of enthusiasm about what we've been able to accomplish in this legislative cycle that can help us on that. 

So obviously on climate, on chips, even just on science, you know, there's a -- new investments going into everything from what DOD can do to the National Science Foundation.  So I think I am quite hopeful that we're on a good pathway.  The things that concern me are a multitude.  One is really the -- being able to tap into -- we have not fulfilled our promise on being able to tap into the diversity of talent that we have in this country, and to get them attracted and interested in the problems that are important for national security, I think in areas like climate it's easier.  We've have a lot of basic research in that space.  We have a lot of interest in working on deployable, commercial technologies.  So there's some areas that are great interest to the defense department where we're doing very well.

But on others, you know, I think I was more worried before I came out on this trip and coming to a place like Purdue where they are, you know, unabashedly working on energetics, and they're working on, you know, which is ammunition, and when they're working on hypersonics and radiation hardened microelectronics, they are right down the alley, they are attracting and retaining talent here and moving it into the commercial sector and into the department on the problems that we're most worried about.  I do think the aging of the talent base, which we saw some at Oak Ridge.  They commented on that.  That's something we have to think about too.

So particularly, like any employer post-COVID, we're thinking through what the future of work really looks like. How do we attract people and keep them in the environment in which their expectations are for greater flexibility than the Federal government is usually associated with?  And they can, you know, get job decisions from some employers via text in a matter of 12 hours and we still have a paper centric, long-term process. 

So we really need to look at our ability to attract and maintain STEM talent in the department. I have an Innovation Workforce Tiger Team that I've launched, which owes me back some results here this fall, and we'll see if we can move a couple of those -- move on a couple of those goals. 

STAFF:  I think we have time for one more.  Dan has a question on Ukraine. 

Q  Yes.  Just your takeaways this morning.  You know, Transcom has been doing a tremendous amount of work giving all kinds of things, to you know, to help Ukraine.  Were you takeaways any surprises this morning?  Anything that, you know, caught your interest or concern, particularly as you're involving not only U.S. military planes but sealift, charter planes, and other things? 

DR. HICKS:  I have no immediate concerns.  They're doing a phenomenal job as they did, you know, with Afghanistan as well, here at Transcom.  So, just incredible heroes to do what they do everyday, and part of what I wanted to do is make sure they understood how important they are to the mission.  Because I don't think, you know, they're not necessarily the everyday heroes but they are, you know, in terms of how they're allotted. 

You know, if I have a worry it is on sustaining the capability of our fleets, making sure we have them sized right.  We have the workforce for them.  We have the contracts in place on the commercial sector side. 

Because, you know, Ukraine, as challenging as it is, does not compare really to the level of lift and mobility and refueling that need to be done in a major conflict. 

So we watch that very closely, we've had plenty of conversations, General Van Ovost and I today about their capabilities.  I'm very confident in the capability that she's built here, and she works very closely with the combatant command -- regional combatant commander s-- but that's -- I'm very focused as I said, if we're going to connect the vision of the strategy to the outcomes.  It's going to run right through capabilities and the concepts on how we employ them, so that's where my focus is.

STAFF:  OK. 

(CROSSTALK)