As American soldiers were being maimed by roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military was working feverishly on a solution.
One problem: It wasted nearly a decade developing one that was available off the shelf in Israel, a staunch U.S. ally.
“That’s just one anecdote of the kind of parochialism that’s been the case at the Pentagon. That mentality, that mindset needs to change,” said Ken Weinstein, president and CEO of the Hudson Institute, a Washington think tank on international affairs and technology.
More collaboration with foreign partners is needed, but that might be easier said than done, Dr. Weinstein said during a trip to Atlanta to speak at the annual AmCham Germany Business Day event organized by BridgehouseLaw at the Porsche Experience Center.
But to address threats posed by new actors armed with better technologies, both strategic competitors like Russia and China and asymmetrical actors like ISIS and al-Qaeda, the U.S. needs to work with its allies to move more nimbly to find cheaper and more effective solutions more quickly.
“Innovation … driven through our traditional defense procurement channels simply takes way too long,” Dr. Weinstein said in a speech at the all-day event, which explored avenues for U.S.-Germany-Israel innovation collaboration.
The process started in 2014 when then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel initiated the Defense Innovation Initiative, also called the “third offset,” to force the defense establishment to begin looking to the private sector both for technology and innovation models.
That means investing in the kind of innovations making waves in Silicon Valley — autonomous systems, robotics, 3D printing, big data, advanced manufacturing and more — and adapting them to the battlefield.
But underscoring the challenge in turning around the lumbering locomotive of the Pentagon, Dr. Weinstein said this might even be tougher than the first two “offsets,” which were serious affairs in themselves. President Dwight Eisenhower invested in nuclear deterrence in the early Soviet era. Later in the century, the U.S. enacted precision-guidance weapons in Eastern Europe to counter the Warsaw Pact countries’ numbers advantage.
The move for a “third offset” arises at a time of austerity, limited civilian appetite for military moonshots and shrinking research funding. It’s unclear how President Donald Trump, who vowed to “rebuild” the U.S. military, feels about a plan launched under his predecessor, and whether his vision of “America-first” on the manufacturing front leaves room for incorporating technology developed outside U.S. borders.
But this is all the more reason it’s imperative that U.S. policy makers smooth the way for better collaboration with Germany and Israel, which have unique advantages born of their cultures and particular security challenges, Dr. Weinstein said.
“The Pentagon is very cautious, it’s very hierarchical, it’s plodding, it’s slow, people are timid to take in new technologies,” Dr. Weinstein said, noting the detrimental side effects to this approach: Many of the most innovative American tech firms are shut out of the cumbersome procurement process, while longstanding contractors rest on their laurels and connections.
Israel takes the opposite tack; its daily security threats — from Iran’s nuclear program to Hezbollah in Lebanon to Palestinian rockets launched from Gaza to homegrown terror — mean there’s no time to dither or play favorites.
“The hierarchy is rather horizontal in Israel. Israelis don’t mind telling you off when you’re wrong, they don’t mind telling each other off when they’re wrong,” Dr. Weinstein said. “Politesse is not something that is in the vocabulary of Israel.” And the country’s startup culture is mirrored in the way it deploys military technology.
Meanwhile, Germany has the ability to scale up manufacturing of quality weaponry, aided in part by its strong knowledge of material science, engineering ecosystem and healthy Mittelstand, a cadre of small to mid-sized companies with highly advanced technical capabilities.
“Germany has been known for its ability to pull together strong manufacturing in a way that complements both U.S. defense capabilities and Israel’s ability to innovate,” Dr. Weinstein said.
This “innovation triangle” needs to work together to stay ahead of the curve, but headwinds abound. Defense trade treaties that give preference to countries like Canada, Australia and the U.K. need to be expanded to more “trusted partners,” Dr. Weinstein said.
There are some examples of the countries working together. Israeli automotive Mobileye was deployed in Volkswagen systems, then bought by U.S.-based Intel for upwards of $15 billion. Israel’s RoboTeam makes unmanned ground vehicles in factories staffed by U.S. veterans in Pennsylvania. But Dr. Weinstein says more should be done.
“The Pentagon really has to learn how to work with the private sector, with companies that are not part of the defense establishment, and if we don’t do this quickly, the train is going to leave the station, so to speak,” he said, adding more ominously: “If we let our guard down, we will pay a very heavy price.”