More than eight years ago, then Secretary of Defense Ash Carter founded the Defense Innovation Unit – then “DIUx”, or Experimental – as part of a broaderstrategic initiative to maintain U.S. technological superiority in the face of a shifting threat landscape. Secretary Carter saw then that access to advanced, commercially-developed technologies was spreading on a global scale, that the People’s Republic of China and Russia were heavily investing in offsetting U.S. military advantages, and that the United States must harness the incredible strength represented by its commercial tech sector to compete for the long run. Today, our imperative is much the same, but our time has grown dangerously short.
Recognizing this, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III realigned DIU as a direct report this past April and charged the organization with developing a plan to elevate DIU’s impact. This decision is a reflection of the central role commercially-derived technologies must play in the Department’s efforts to counter the pacing challenge of the PRC, meet the acute threat from Russia, and simultaneously address other threats across the globe.
Spurred by trillions of dollars of private investment, innovation in many technologies critical to military power is proceeding at a much faster rate in the private sector than in the traditional defense sector. Progress in 11 of the 14 critical technology areas identified by the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering is primarily led by commercial entities, which are constantly identifying, testing, refining, and replacing them through market-driven efforts aimed at meeting the relentless demands of billions of consumers and the enterprises that serve them. Recent history demonstrates that new areas and applications of relevant technology – such as artificial intelligence, autonomy, cyber, space, biotechnology, and energy – are at least as likely to emerge from the commercial crucible as they are from academia, government laboratories, or traditional defense contractors. The same will be true for new technologies like quantum, 6G and 7G, augmented and virtual reality, generative manufacturing, and AI-enabled genetic engineering, and will continue to be true for whatever comes next.
DIU 3.0 outlines the critical shift in focus, action, and resourcing DIU will undertake to deliver the rapid strategic effect demanded. It relies on the years of defense innovation experience up to this point, and on over 300 discussions with stakeholders across the Department, commercial technology companies, tech-focused investors, defense primes, the interagency, international partners, Congress, think tanks, and other non-governmental organizations. DIU 3.0’s eight mutually reinforcing lines-of-effort are designed in all respects to reflect the Secretary’s three priorities to defend the nation, take care of our people, and succeed through teamwork. Each LOE builds on the successes of DIU 2.0, and directly addresses the challenges that hampered the ability to achieve the strategic impact now required. They are:
1. Focus on the most critical capability gaps and embed with the warfighter to do so.
2. Partner at every level with DOD’s “engines of scale”
3. Catalyze the DOD’s innovation entities into a community of impact.
4. Take the partnership with the commercial tech sector to a new level.
5. Realize the enormous potential of tech partnership with allies and partners.
6. Build the trust and momentum required for speed and scale.
7. Retool DIU to support all of the above.
8. Provide the Secretary and Deputy Secretary with world class “dual fluency” advice.
The imperative for DIU 3.0 is clear. Against a backdrop of international challenges and with the world’s most capable technology sector, we can and must do more to identify and adopt impactful commercial technologies at speed and scale. With recent changes and support from DOD leadership, we are now poised to help our partners across the Department, interagency, commercial tech sector, and allied and partner nations meet these goals. We will need help from teammates both inside and outside of government to help us shape our collective efforts, to adapt and refine them to overcome the inevitable hurdles and missteps, and above all to deliver.
Download our public-facing article (PDF) that outlines the imperative, objectives, and major tenets of the DIU 3.0 plan. This article was published in partnership with the Center for a New American Security.