Here’s Steve Badon as Deputy Secretary of Defense Dr. Kathleen Hicks visits Stanford’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation.


It was an honor to host US Deputy Secretary of Defense Dr. Kathleen Hicks at Stanford’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation. (Think of the Deputy Secretary of Defense as the Chief Operating Officer of a company – but in this case the company has 3 million employees (~1.4 million active duty, 750,000 civilians, ~800,000 in the National Guard and Reserves.)

She came to the Gordian Knot Center to discuss our unique approach to national security and innovation and how our curriculum is training the next generation of innovators. He heard from us how the vice department can better partner with the US innovation ecosystem and help solve national security challenges.

Our goal for the Secretary’s visit was to provide an overview of how we are prioritizing the construction of the Department of Defense. Creativity Manpower. We emphasized the critical difference between a technically STEM-trained workforce (which we need) and an innovative workforce, which we lack.

Innovation involves lean methods (customer discovery, understanding the problem, MVPs, pivots), coupled with speed and urgency, and a culture where failure equals rapid learning. All these are done with minimal resources to deploy on important and desirable products/services. We pointed out that Silicon Valley and Stanford have done this for 50 years. And China has surpassed us in using the new innovations we have created, integrating commercial technology with academic research, and delivering it to the People’s Liberation Army.

This is where our Gordian Knot Center focuses – connecting STEM with policy education and leveraging the collaboration between the two to produce innovative leaders who understand technology and policy and can solve problems and deliver solutions quickly and at scale.

What we offer
A key component of the Gordian Knot Center’s mission is to prepare and inspire future leaders to make meaningful contributions as part of an innovative workforce. We combine Stanford’s unique strengths and location in Silicon Valley to address the diverse challenges that create and sustain national power. The range of resources and abilities we bring to the fight from the unique position of the center includes:

  • Stanford’s understanding and knowledge of international and national security policy leaders
  • Stanford Engineering Technology Insights and Knowledge
  • Special students who are willing to help the country win the great energy race
  • Silicon Valley’s deep business technology ecosystem
  • Experience in understanding problems quickly, iterating quickly and deploying solutions quickly and urgently
  • Access to quantitative risk capital

In the six months since establishing the Gordian Knot Center, we have focused on six initiatives that we would like to share with Secretary Hicks. Instead of Joe Felter and I doing all the talking, 25 of our students, scholars, advisors, and alumni joined us to give the author 3-5 minutes of their actual work, based on all six Gordian Knot initiatives. The main points of these approaches include:

  1. Hacking for defense teams – Vannevar Labs, FLIP, Disinformatix
  2. CONOPS development
  3. National security education – Technology, innovation and great power competition
  4. Defense Innovation Scholars Program – Now 25 students, 50 at the end of the year
  5. Policy impact and outreach – ONR Hedge Strategy, NSC Quad Emerging Technology Track 1.5 Conference
  6. Internships and professional workforce development – Creative HR Vignettes

If you can’t see the slides, click here

During the 90+ minute session, Dr. Hicks asked the students insightful questions and one of the key priorities for our sessions was to accelerate innovation across DoD, including organizational structure, processes, culture and people.

It was encouraging to hear his words.

However, from where we sit..

  1. Our national security is now inextricably linked to commercial technology and is hampered by our lack of a highly integrated strategy.
  2. Our adversaries have exploited the borders and borders between our defense and our commercial and economic interests.
  3. Our current approach – under both previous and current administrations – is piecemeal, incremental, increasingly irrelevant and inadequate to drive innovation in government.

Listening to the author’s words, I am reminded more and more of how radically our civil/military creative relationship needs to change if we are to get to know our enemies. This will leverage DoD funding, private capital, dual-use initiatives, existing prime contractors, and federal laboratories in a new configuration. It will be like this:

Create a brand new Defense ecology which includes Startups, bleeding edge metrics, prime contractors like integrators Advanced technology, federally funded R&D centers Focuses on areas not covered by commercial technology (nuclear, hypersonics,…). Make it sustainable by creating innovation education/policy.

Create brand new National championships In dual-use commercial technologies – AI/ML, Quantum, Space, Drones, High Performance Computing, Next Gen Networks, Autonomy, Biotech, Underwater Vehicles, Shipyards, etc.. Do this by picking winners. Do not give door prizes. Contracts > $100M should be as well high quality Venture-backed companies play. As long as we have new suppliers on the Major Defense Acquisition Program list, what we have at DoD is innovation. movie theater – It is not creative.

Get it fast. Today, the average DoD major acquisition program takes 9-26 years to get a weapon into the hands of a warfighter. We need a requirements, budgeting, and acquisition process that operates at business speed (18 months or less) that is 10x faster than DoD procurement cycles. Instead of writing requirements, DoD should as soon as Evaluate solutions and engage warfighters in evaluating and prototyping business solutions.

Integrating the Venture Capital/Private Equity Ecosystem and Investing in Scale. Ask funders what it would take to get them to invest more — for example, creating massive tax holidays and incentives to get dollars to tech-savvy areas.

Recruit and develop leaders within the Department of Defense to meet current threats and reorganize around this new innovation ecosystem.. DoD has world-class people and organization for a world that in many ways no longer exists.. The threats, pace of change, and technologies we face in this century require a different mindset and approach than we faced in the 20th century. Today’s DoD leaders must think and act differently than their predecessors a decade ago. Leaders at all levels must now understand the business ecosystem and how to navigate the pace and pace that China is setting.

It was clear that Deputy Secretary Hicks recognized the importance of all of these and most if not more. Unfortunately, if the DoD budget is essentially constant, creating new primes and creating a new national championship for next-generation defense technologies will be a zero-sum game. It is a politically impossible problem for the Department of Defense to solve alone. Changes to this measure would require congressional action. It is difficult to predict in a polarized political environment. But it is not impossible.

These are challenges not only for the Gordian Knot Center for National Security, but also for our nation. In the words of President John F. Kennedy, “We took them not because they were easy, but because they were hard. Because that objective serves to organize and measure our abilities and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept and that we do not want to postpone and that we intend to overcome.

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