Want a Military Tech Job? Why You May Want to Look in Silicon Valley

Cybersecurity

SpaceX Launch, NASA photo

Even the most obstinate “dove” has to admit that were it not for the military we likely wouldn’t have a lot of today’s cutting edge technology. Radar, sonar and even the Internet all came about thanks to military innovation. Throughout most of the 20th century this technology was developed either directly by the military or through partnerships with large defense contractors.

In the 21st century, the military still turns to large defense contractors to help develop new tools of war. But increasingly the Department of Defense and its various entities are getting help from start-ups and small business.

“The way technology is developed for the military has changed forever,” said Michael Blades, aerospace & defense research director at Frost & Sullivan. “A lot of the R&D is still driven by dollars, so now we are seeing a move away from proprietary hardware and systems to open source solutions. This ensures that more companies can work with those systems, but it also keeps one large company from having a monopoly.”

In many cases what is happening in the consumer world is being mirrored when it comes to military hardware.

“Much of the innovations are coming from start ups and small companies,” Blades told ClearanceJobs. “And just like with Silicon Valley, once that technology is robust enough those smaller firms partner with a bigger firm to help with its deployment.”

Blades added that being small has an advantage. “These firms can be flexible, and in many cases it allows them to be more innovative.”

What is also changing is that for years the military often designed its own hardware and equipment. One example would be the Springfield Armory, which actually dates back to the Revolutionary War. Weapons were designed and produced there. The facility closed during the Vietnam War when private contractors and industry began to design and produce weapons under military contracts.

The same thing is now happening with the way technology is developed.

“The government doesn’t do as much R&D today, it comes from industry now,” explained Geoff Fein, defense analyst at Jane’s by IHS Markit.

The DARPA timeline vs. the office of naval research timeline

Today there isn’t one agency or department developing the tools utilized by the military. There are several different groups charged with building tomorrow’s tech. While there are partnerships, much of the research isn’t directly connected, either.

Just as the different branches of the military have different needs, the way that technology is developed varies by agencies and even department. While many might expect the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to have the same end goals as the Office of the Naval Research, the work that each is involved with can be very different.

“With DARPA they are way out and not afraid to fail when it comes to innovation,” Blades explained. “They don’t want to fail but will take on projects that other research arms won’t take on, because this is their bailiwick to get things on cutting edge. Office of National Research (ONR) is looking to improve what they have today.”

In other words while ONR may be thinking five years out, many of DARPA’s projects could be part of a 20 or even 30-year plan. Thus those looking to advance a career in the research or development of military hardware should consider their timeline as they build their proposals.

This doesn’t mean working on a DARPA-backed program will mean long term job security, just as working on a short term project shouldn’t make those individuals feel like they’re taking on a “temp assignment.”

“Our hires, nearly all of whom are on term appointments, tend to be one offs: a computer scientist, an epidemiologist, an aerospace engineer, a physicist, etc.,” said Jared B. Adams, spokesperson for DARPA.

“That being said, we do partner with industry on a number of initiatives,” Adams told ClearanceJobs. “The biggest by revenue is our partnership with Boeing on the Experimental Space Plane or XSP. Also, we have an agreement with SSL on our Robotics Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellite (RSGS) program.”

DARPA’s mission also means it has a significant commitment to working with small business.

“DARPA allows people to come to them with ideas,” added Fein. “That has been great for small businesses that have big ideas.”

The Military’s Silicon Valley

The Department of Defense has seen that the private sector could also have a leg up in terms of the development of some of the tools needed in the 21st century. This is where the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) fits in.

“Now is a good time for those with tech skills to find opportunities,” said Keith S. Bradley, director of Argonne National Laboratory’s national security programs. “For the last several years there has been recognition that there is opportunity for those outside the traditional contractor circles. The Trump administration is broadening its horizons and there is now a general belief that to win a tech war you need to hire the best people, and the military labs are now actively involved in scouting the private sector.”

In early January the Department of Defense announced a pilot program, the Defense Enterprise Science Initiative (DESI), which is designed to put teams of university and industry researchers to work on finding “novel solutions to challenging defense and national security problems.”

In addition, the Army Research Laboratory (USARL) has expanded its efforts.

“They realized a couple of years ago that they were having trouble finding talent as they were based on the east coast,” said Bradley. “They have begun to open regional offices in California, Texas and most recently Chicago.”

That most recent partnership is between the University of Chicago and USARL.

“All this will help USARL leverage talent from universities in the respective regions,” Bradley told ClearanceJobs.

Different Needs and Motivations than the Private Sector

Given all these different programs it is clear that there are opportunities for businesses as well as academia to work with the military; to serve the country and to serve the bottom line. However, the motivations are still different.

“It is safe to say that motivation from the private sector is largely about profit,” said Bradley. “This may allow business to achieve things and do it faster. One example is that Apple is larger than everything that the military does in terms of its own R&D. The question is whether you can motivate those companies to promote national security. The challenge of DUIx is to also persuade the CEOs and boards of these tech giants that they should put more into supporting the government over making a product for profit.”

Of course this is why those partnerships with universities are so crucial, because the profit motivation doesn’t exist in quite the same way.

“The military still is lagging behind having its own Silicon Valley,” added Frost & Sullivan’s Blades. “This is why DUIx is there. It is really sort of an admission that the way the military can innovate isn’t quite as flexible as in the commercial arena.”

Beyond the Tools of War

One final issue facing the military today is that there are still those in the private sector and increasingly so in the halls of academia who don’t wish to be part of the so-called “military industrial complex.” This is where PR efforts may need to be stepped up because much of what is in development isn’t as much weapons of war, but rather the tools of national security.

“There are countless non-weapons-related research programs and technologies that have been sponsored across the Naval Research Enterprise – comprised of ONR, ONR Global and the Naval Research Laboratory,” said Robert Freeman, Office of Naval Research public affairs officer.

“While that list is impossible to summarize, just a few examples include Marine Corps tactical vehicles, cyber protections, ocean sensors, autonomous unmanned vehicles – air, surface and sub-surface – robotics, machine learning, virtual and augmented reality training systems, combat medicine, undersea medicine including new diving breakthroughs; the list goes on,” Freeman told ClearanceJobs.

In addition, even as the end users may be the nation’s warfighters, many of these technologies ultimately find their way into civilian applications.

“We must remember that the Internet, which we can’t do without today, came about from DARPA,” said Argonne’s Bradley. “Just as GPS was developed by the military and we can’t live without it. The need now is going to be in a move away from kinetic weapons and towards information warfare. It isn’t how much weight you can throw, but about overpowering the enemy with information. Those will the skills of tomorrow’s warriors.”

Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at petersuciu@gmail.com.

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