Hacking For Defense In Silicon Valley

Lead, follow or get the heck out of the way

In peacetime the U.S. military is an immovable and inflexible bureaucracy. In wartime it can adapt and adopt organizational change with startling speed.

BMNT, a new Silicon Valley company, is combining the Lean Methods it learned in combat with the technology expertise and speed of startups.


But first some history…

World War II
In World War II the U.S. government reengineered its approach to building weapons. In a major break from the past, where the military designed all its own weapons, 10,000 scientists and engineers from academia worked in civilian-run weapons labs (most headquartered in universities) in an organization called the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD).

OSRD was tasked to develop military weapons systems and solve military problems but had wide autonomy to determine how to accomplish its tasks and organize its labs. (The weapons were then manufactured in volume by U.S. corporations.)


The OSRD developed advanced electronics: radar, electronic warfare, rockets, sonar, proximity fuse, Napalm, the Bazooka and new drugs such as penicillin and cures for malaria. One OSRD project – the Manhattan Project  – the development of the atomic bomb – was so secret and important that it was spun off as a separate program. The University of California managed research and development of the bomb design at Los Alamos while the US Army managed the Los Alamos facilities and the overall administration of the project.

After the war the U.S. split up the functions of the OSRD. Nuclear weapons went to the new Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), basic weapons systems research went to the Department of Defense (DOD) and all U.S. biomedical and health research went back to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In 1950, government support of basic science research in U.S. universities became the charter of the National Science Foundation (NSF). Each of these independent research organizations would support a mix of basic and applied research.

The Cold War
During the Cold War the U.S. and the Soviet Union faced off with a nuclear deterrence policy called mutually assured destruction (aptly named MAD.) But to fight a conventional war in Europe, Soviet forces had built a 3 to 1 advantage in tanks, artillery, armored personnel carriers, and soldiers. In response the U.S. developed a new strategy in the late 1970’s to counter the Warsaw Pact. Instead of matching the U.S.S.R. tank for tank or solider to solider, the U.S. saw that it could change the game and take advantage of a lead we had that was getting longer every day – using our computer and chip technology to aggressively build a new generation of weapons that the Soviet Union could not. 

At the heart of this “offset strategy” was “precision strike,” – building stealth aircraft to deliver precision guided munitions unseen by enemy radar, and designing intelligence and reconnaissance systems that would target for them. The offset strategy was smart weapons, smart sensors, and stealth using silicon chips, electronics and computers that only the U.S. could design and produce.

By the mid-1980’s the Soviet military was struggling to keep up with this “revolution in military affairs. The announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars) further destabilized the Soviet Union.

The Gulf Wars
When I first started teaching customer development (searching, validating and executing a business model), one of my students pointed out that customer development was similar to the theory of a military strategist, John Boyd. In the 1960’s, Boyd, who was a fighter pilot, proposed that instead of executing a fixed plan, wars would be won by those who can Observe, Orient, Decide and Act (the OODA Loop.) After being ignored for decades, Boyd’s OODA Loop drove the U.S. war fighting strategy in both Gulf Wars. The OODA Loop was the Lean Startup philosophy before lean.

Large ooda loop

Iraq, Afghanistan and the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force (REF)
In Afghanistan in 2002 U.S. soldiers were tasked to clear caves that the Taliban used to store equipment. Many of the caves still had Taliban fighters inside while others had been booby-trapped. To clear the caves soldiers threw grappling hooks inside then pulled the hooks out to catch trip-wires and explode bombs. But often this technique did not work and soldiers died. The Army realized they needed to do something more effective. They gave the problem to Colonel Bruce Jette, and 90 days and $750,000 later he had bypassed the existing Army acquisition system and bought existing robots from companies. Exponent provided the PackBot and the Marcbot and deployed them to the field.

From that day the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force (REF) was born.

The REF’s goal is to deliver technology solutions to front-line soldiers in days and weeks, instead of months and years either by using solutions from previous REF efforts or existing government- or commercial-off-the-shelf technologies purchased with a government credit card.

The REF had permission to shortcut the detailed 100+ page requirements documents used by the defense acquisition process. It developed a ten-line short form that listed the most important parts of the requirement. The REF also had its own budget, which it could use to acquire equipment.

Soon the REF was sending teams of civilian and military subject matter experts out into the field to discover what they needed. REF expanded its operations to include forward teams in Kuwait and Iraq to provide technology to fill capability gaps and to counter the highest priority threats.

By the end of 2007, the REF had delivered more than 550 types of equipment and more than 75,000 individual items. The average time from receiving a request from the field to delivering a solution to the soldiers was 111 days.

In 2010 Colonel Peter Newell took over the REF and turned its focus into what we would call a Lean Startup. Pete Newell
Newell insisted that REF started with a deep understanding of soldiers’ problems
 before purchasing a proposed solution. Newell found that four problems accounted for two-thirds of REF requirements:

  1. defeating roadside bombs
  2. supporting soldiers on foot with communications and load carrying devices
  3. providing soldiers with timely intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance in combat
  4. supplying and protecting small isolated combat outposts

He came up with his version of the OODA loop to explain to people how REF should behave.

REF Problem Solving Cycle

To get closer to his customers, Newell commissioned three mobile laboratories that were airlifted to forward operating bases. These labs included a Computer Numerical Control milling machine and 3-D printers for rapid prototyping.REF Mobile Lab

Hacking For Defense (H4D)
When Colonel Peter Newell left the Army, he came to Silicon Valley at the urging of a friend and fellow retired Army Colonel, Joe Felter, a Stanford PhD who moved to Palo Alto and Stanford after a career in the Special Forces. Newell accepted Felter’s invitation to join a company he had originally established. BMNT does for the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community what the REF did for the U.S. Army – build teams that deliver solutions to complex problems, with access to the entire network of suppliers and partners that Newell and Felter developed throughout their careers.

To tap into the innovation of Silicon Valley, BMNT, in collaboration with Stanford’s Preventive Defense Project organized Hacking For Defense (H4D) – a series of hackathons – to help the Department of Defense do four things:

  1. Identify new ideas that will solve problems the military expects to see in the future
  2. Map those ideas to the technology that could be used to solve them
  3. Recruit the people who can make it happen
  4. Show the DoD how to engage Silicon Valley with challenging problems and build networks of people to solve them

BMNT‘s first hackathon, “Hacking the Supply Chain,” brought together diverse teams of technologists and users to provide solutions to the questions: How do you supply troops which can be sent on short-notice, for long periods to places where there are no existing bases or supplies? How might we create the most resilient and efficient supply chain possible for our forward-deployed land forces in 2025?

“Hacking the Supply Chain” is focused on:

  • energy and power generation
  • potable water and field expedient sewage systems
  • advanced manufacturing and repair maintenance technologies
  • training and readiness technologies
  • command, control, computers, and communications technologies

In mid-April, the ideas generated at BMNT‘s first hackathon will be presented to a panel of experienced senior entrepreneurs, engineers, and military and government officials and then sent to the Department of Defense with specific recommendations on the technologies with potential to support them.

Ultimately Newell and Felter say they want to use BMNT to create an “insurgency” in Silicon Valley to get cutting-edge innovation into the organizations defending our country. (Click here for information on Hacking for Defense events.)

Hacking the Prime’s
In reality, what BMNT is trying to fix is the way the Department of Defense acquires radically new technology and ideas. While DARPA tries to fill that need, today the primary conduits for bringing new technology to the government are the prime contractors (e.g., Lockheed, Boeing, Raytheon, Northrup Grumman, L3, General Dynamics, et al.) But most of these contractors focus on fulfilling existing technology needs that can be profitable.

If a startup wants to provide new technology to the Department of Defense (DoD),  they have to sell through the prime contractors who own the relationships with the DoD. Most startups and innovative companies are unwilling to risk exposing their Intellectual Property and go through the paperwork of dealing with the government, so they choose not to pursue government ventures. In this way, the primes artificially restrict DoD’s technological funnel.  (Palantir is the most visible Silicon Valley insurgent in this space.)

Today, incentives for bringing innovation into the government with speed and urgency are not aligned with the government acquisition, budgeting, and requirements process. As a result, the DoD fails to acquire truly innovative technologies (much less paradigm-changing technologies) in a timely fashion.

Lessons Learned

  • In peacetime the U.S. military is an immovable and inflexible bureaucracy
  • In wartime it can adapt and adopt organizational change with startling speed
  • The Rapid Equipping Force operated with speed and urgency to deliver solutions to real customer problems
  • BMNT and Hacking for Defense are trying to bring this same process to Silicon Valley

20 Responses

  1. Rather than going to the prime contractors, Federally Funded R&D Centers (FFRDCs), particularly MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, are much better ways of bringing new technology to the DoD.

    As you noted, the prime contractors require that new technologies be immediately profitable. FFRDCs, on the other hand, have the mandate to develop new technology product prototypes and transition them to industry once they’re successfully deployed.

  2. Thanks – v interesting item.

  3. In WWII Churchill set up a somewhat crazy band of creative experts led by Percy Hobart – who created, for example, ‘funnies’ like the ‘crab’ flail tank to disable mines (which had flying chains that were so accurate that they knocked individual hinge rivets out of one of the main gates on D Day) and tanks with in built bridges amongst many others (See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hobart's_Funnies). The Ruhr Dam’s raid with its bouncing bomb was another example of seeing beyond the obvious. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No._617_Squadron_RAF)

    I have personal experience from the Falklands / Malvinas conflicts, as a civilian consultant it normally took two weeks paperwork and at least 3 weeks wait before anything happened in terms of access to aircraft. Just prior to the conflict I had 3 hour access and the team at 3 squadron designed new missile deployment systems on aircraft that were not supposed to have them – the idea of a very junior RAF technician… and it made a big difference we now know.

    Likewise the RAF Vulcan that bombed the ronly runway was reassembled with parts from a scrapyard and a local farm – thanks to conversations in a pub that led to them being found after supposed scrapping. Buccaneer jets had their in flight fuelling probes fitted to C130 transports etc., etc. It was a hectic time – but very creative and flexible I now realise.

    The hierarchies soon came back of course, but as you note Steve, quite a lesson.

  4. Superb example for the lean approach. I believe the same should be done for many other government departments, which would certainly ease the debt issues many countries experience.

  5. Fun one. Newsy.

    Jerry Engel 415.710.7453

  6. Much of REF seems to echo the QRC of the 60s &70s (not what I see described as current QRC). Especially for ELINT & COMINT programs. It worked then and saved time and lives. Money not so much. (I’m an old guy, retired, & so is my Website.)

    • You speak with unique experience sir — QRC. That is a correct lens with regard to the REF. Will try to contact you about “QRC” of past. Thanks.

  7. Steve, thanks very much for your acknowledgment of: 1) the historical differences (often extreme) between the peacetime military and our forces when they’ve been placed on a wartime footing; 2) John Boyd, and his amazingly prescient understanding of the need to develop and refine the OODA Loop; and 3), the current difficulties involved in creating a streamlined DOD acquisition environment that will allow our frontline troops (the only authentic “customers” the DOD has) to quickly acquire, test, and approve the latest and greatest innovative technologies during the development stage. Such experimentation, testing, and feedback is the most important Customer Discovery that our nation could be engaged in.
    Semper Fi…

  8. Steve, this is the best article I’ve ever read describing the evolution of war strategies and the federal agencies developed to support military initiatives. Having worked at both Los Alamos National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory I have spent a fair amount of time trying to piece together the history of the DOE and DoD complexes. You did this all in one article! I’ve been working with BMNT for the last five months and have enjoyed their amazing “in the moment” ability to develop strategies! Thank you for this well written summary. I believe BMNT has the right stuff to bridge the gaps between emerging Silicon Valley technologies and our rapidly changing defense needs.

  9. Reblogged this on The Netizen Blog.

  10. Well done BMNT!

  11. Wow, great read. I had no idea about this history…and I love tech and was in the Army for 9 years. I will say: the idea of anything happening quickly in the military seems like an oxymoron, although it seems the REF program helped at least a little bit.

    In my experience, not a single commander at the Brigade level and below cared about new ways to do things better. I assume this was at the Division level and above, based on the nature of how culture flows down hill.

    Will be interesting to see where this all leads…

  12. I didn’t read all article – it’s to long. I generally agree – similar to lean, but that’s why US has to lead minimum one war in time, to have good enviroment for experiments. That shows how important real experiments are.

  13. Thanks for the post. I can see the need to learn from the military. However, I feel the emphasis has tended to more on the product development side. I have always felt there are more areas the military experience can provide support on. Strategy being a good example. This is a short talk by one of my University Professors. http://www.bizstuff.co/blog/the-basics-of-strategy . Thought it might help highlight the need.

    Be good to see your thoughts 🙂

  14. The quote is: “…get the hell out of my way” and should be attributed to Chesty Puller USMC as I was taught in the USMC. Also I have NEVER know the military to move quickly on anything. If you were able to get them moving you have accomplished what many have tried and few have succeeded !!! Congrats!

  15. Also one additional consideration: the people testing the proposed solutions are usually NOT the people that will be using the equipment in the field, which often causes a disconnect between field testers and military on the ground with a need to use the equipment. So any solution proposed should be tested by the troops in the field within the same fighting conditions, lack of replacement parts when in the field, inability to keep equipment clean, etc. etc. Learn from those that will use it. Listen to the customer..or so I have been told !!!!

  16. […] Link to article: http://steveblank.com/2015/03/31/hacking-for-defense-in-silicon-valley/ […]

  17. […] This very recent post from Steve Blank really piqued our curiosity. The range of the discussion goes from the history of military technological innovation and its relationship to lean innovation to the future of military innovation in the age of startups. The post has some radical suggestions for the way in which the US Department of Defense acquires new technology. […]

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