Aug 31, 2015 · 6 minutes

The US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter paid an official visit to Silicon Valley this weekend, his second in only six months atop the Pentagon chain of command.

When Carter came in April – delivering a  speech at the Stanford Business School and meeting at Facebook with Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg and later with Ben Horowitz – it was the first visit by a sitting Secretary of Defense since the Clinton Administration.

On Friday morning, Carter returned to Silicon Valley, landing on the tarmac at Moffett Field, the former military airfield in Mountain View now leased by Google. Carter was whisked to the far end of the NASA Ames Research Center, a stone’s throw from another parcel land Google has leased from NASA, to give a short speech within the National Full-scale Aerodynamics Complex – the world’s largest wind tunnel, operated by the Air Force to test both military and commercial aircraft, located on a shrinking island of DoD land amid the rising waters of Google and its ilk.

On his way, he passed a Google-NASA experimental quantum computer, Singularity University, and any number of technical wonders to delight the former theoretical physicist. Carter proceeded to the wind-tunnel with a hawkish focus on his goal: to develop stronger private partnerships in Silicon Valley.

The ostensible reason for the press event was the announcement of a new manufacturing “institute” in San Jose, the product of several years of wrangling in D.C. to establish a consortium of industry, government and academic partners (and $171 million in up-front funding) to be put towards the development of “flexible hybrid electronics manufacturing innovation.” The manufacturing institute is one of many across the nation that have been set up in response to a White House initiative to revitalize American manufacturing.

The Department of Defense came up with $75 million from its own budget for the San Jose facility, the rest was put up by the 162 partners of the project, which include “companies as diverse as Apple and Lockheed Martin and major research universities including Stanford and MIT” according to the press release.

Also in attendance were the Peninsula’s “troika” of US congressional representatives – Anna Eshoo, Zoe Lofgren and Mike Honda – and San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, who each delivered statements cheering the new public-private initiative.

Carter said the manufacturing institute was just one facet of his wider mission to “rebuild the bridges between the Pentagon and Silicon Valley.”

“There is no limit to what we can achieve together, which is why I am pushing the Department of Defense to think outside the five-sided box,” Carter said.

“My goal is to drill tunnels through the wall that separates the Department of Defense from the private sector, and make it more permeable.”

Many noises were made about the longstanding history of close ties between Silicon Valley tech and the Defense Department, but little mention was made of the what had driven the two worlds apart. Rep. Lofgren came closest to broaching the subject.

“We need to renew our contacts, there has been a lot of suspicion as regards certain NSA activity. But this is a new day, this is not about encryption, it’s about manufacturing,” Lofgren said.

Absolutely nobody mentioned of the fact that the last wave of DoD spin-off manufacturing, manifested in the “clean” boom of chipmakers such as Intel, Raytheon and Fairchild, left a toxic plume of still-unremediated contamination beneath the Frankensteinian wind-tunnel, a vast cavern composed of both FDR and Reagan era sections.  

The assembled crowd mostly consisted of “industry” types, but there were no hoodies or funky toe-shoes. Almost all the folding chairs assembled in the great cavern were filled with suits, representing the full spectrum of the Defense-contract supply chain, from university research to manufacturing systems developers and salesfolk, along with a few dozen government apparatchiks.

It may seem curious to Pando readers to hear the Secretary of Defense lament the deterioration of his department’s relations with Silicon Valley industrialists, since we’ve dedicated a good deal of digital ink to documenting those ongoing and blossoming relationships. If the War Department is hurting for Silicon Valley inroads, its news to us.

Judging from the Secretary’s remarks, the problem is not so much that the relationships don’t exists, but that they don’t exist the way the department would like, the way they had traditionally, when the nation’s top technologists would arrive in Silicon Valley to take advantage of the Defense funding and research facilities being lavished in the former fruit orchards.

These days, of course, Silicon Valley generates plenty of its own money, and its top companies have developed their own in-house research infrastructure. Google, for instance, which has renounced Defense contracts, employs former DARPA Director Regina Dugan at the head of it's Advanced Technology Projects Group. Former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Robert Gates has signed on to Uber as an advisor. More importantly, plenty of formerly Pentagon-funded scientists have joined the ranks of the Valley giants or started companies of their own in recent years. And since this SV boom has proven more resiliant and larger than those past, these scientists haven't come running back. 

These days, it seems Defense needs the Valley more than the Valley needs Defense. Due to the incredible fortunes to be made on the continued commercialization of former Defense-funded initiatives (the integrated circuit, the Internet, the components of smartphones...etc) the Defense Department is reduced to sending its top official to appeal to technologist’s patriotism and invite them to do “a tour of duty” for their country.

"Ideally I'd like to see people moving back and forth. People come to Silicon Valley because they care and they want to have an impact on the world. We can provide them that. And I want our people to understand what is going on in Silicon Valley as well."

To spur this interplay, the Department earlier this month opened the Defense Innovation Unit–Experimental (DIUx), led by a former DARPA project member and sited hard by the GooglePlex on the fringe of the apron of federal land at Moffett. The DIUx's vague, three-pronged mission:

  • Strengthen existing relationships and build new ones
  • Scout for breakthrough and emerging technologies
  • Serve as a local point of presence for the Department

Speaking at Stanford in April, Secretary Carter as much as admitted his department’s recruitment troubles:

"Startups are the leading edge of commercial innovation, and right now DoD doesn’t have many effective ways to harness the promising technology they come up with." 

Of the nation’s best and brightest, he said:

"They don’t want to join Ford Motor Company, and they don’t want to join a government agency; they want flexibility."

This is not only a cause for concern about the future dominance of the American military. It also represents an upending of the Silicon Valley model, which has done some 70 years of dutiful service to the economy as well as the military. Historically, it has been the Defense Department funding the moonshots, fostering research that is decades away from bearing fruit. Now Silicon Valley's largest companies are doing this for themselves, and installing the best researchers on their own campuses. 

Appropriately, The Secretary of Defense wrapped up his Friday with a visit to LinkedIn, “to learn about how the Department of Defense can do more to recruit the best people.”