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DOD official asks for faster commercial technology adoption

Michael Brown, director of the Defense Innovation Unit, said the lack of an effective approach to adopting commercial technology is a 'glaring weakness' in modernizing the DOD.

The leader of a U.S. Department of Defense organization wants Congress to consider methods to speed the adoption of commercial technology for the U.S. military.

Leaders of three DOD organizations testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities on Wednesday regarding their posture and ability to support and foster technological innovation.

The DOD faces a significant challenge because it lacks a good strategy for adopting innovative commercial technology, said Michael Brown, director of the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU). The DIU, launched in 2015, was founded to help the U.S. military take better advantage of commercial technologies.

Michael BrownMichael Brown

Commercial technology develops at faster speeds than technology grown in-house, Brown said during the hearing. Brown said DIU has transitioned 43 commercial technologies to service partners since 2015, including eight in 2022 alone.

He cited a recent example where the U.S. military prototyped commercial technology -- radar satellites -- to see through clouds at night and provide imagery of Russian forces around Ukraine, which allowed the military to "predict the invasion and prove undeniably what was happening without revealing classified sources."

He said last year, companies competing for DIU contracts represented 47 states, the District of Columbia and 17 countries. But Brown said that the DOD needs a different, faster way to asses and buy commercial technologies in order to take full advantage of them.

"Not having an effective approach to adopting commercial technology is a glaring weakness in modernizing DOD," he said.

Adopting commercial technology

Brown said that to take advantage of commercial technology, the DOD needs to become a "fast follower" to gain rapid access to technologies, as commercial technology is not only available to U.S. customers, but adversaries as well.

Not having an effective approach to adopting commercial technology is a glaring weakness in modernizing DOD.
Michael Brown Director, Defense Innovation Unit

It's important for the DOD to update its budget cycle to keep pace with the commercial cycle so the DOD "can assess vendors on a more continuous basis and refresh with a frequency that matches commercial cycles," he said.

The DOD also needs to eliminate the requirements process for commercial technology and replace it with a rapid validation of needs. Eliminating requirements that limit the "creative problem-solving of companies and limit the number of companies competing" will help the DOD take advantage of those technological capabilities in a year rather than a decade, Brown said.

Brown said he's seeing significant demand among the branches of military service to modernize, but they are inhibited by the constraints from the DOD's "historic way of doing things."

Ultimately, speed is an important competitive advantage in the technological race with China, which has become a pivotal focus for the U.S. and the Biden administration, he said.

Indeed, subcommittee chairman Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., cited U.S. competition with China as an integral reason for the U.S. to maintain its "technological superiority" through continued investments in emerging technologies as well as using all resources available for developing and adopting technology.

"The innovation ecosystems that the defense department supports work best when they leverage state, local and federal assets and investments holistically, in addition to the broader academic and commercial entities needed to power effective public-private partnerships," Kelly said during the hearing.

Makenzie Holland is a news writer covering big tech and federal regulation. Prior to joining TechTarget, she was a general reporter for the Wilmington StarNews and a crime and education reporter at the Wabash Plain Dealer.

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