Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, a long-time Washington insider and President Obama’s fourth Secretary of Defense, recently came back from a whistle-stop trip of the globe and told it like it is about China, Russia, and other major strategic uncertainties that face the United States. So what is he doing in Sun Valley at a private retreat for the super-powerful of the private sector?
It may not be as secretive as the Bilderberg Meetings or the fraternal as the Bohemian Grove, but the informal and decisively off-the-record conference, put on by the Allen & Company investment bank, has become increasingly popular for Silicon Valley and the media’s ruling elite.
Also in attendance are major foreign investors and some fashion and financial execs for good measure. In fact, the retreat is such a big deal these days that Sun Valley’s airport, a busy receptacle for private jets year round, may not have enough tarmac to park all the private jets that are flying in for conference, which are said to number more than 200.
Somehow, I don’t think Ashton Carter’s blue, white, and gold USAF executive transport will have any issue with parking, but still, the question remains: what is he doing at such a non-governmental conference? What do the likes of Zuckerberg, Musk, and Bezos have to do with defense policy? A defense secretary scurrying off to an off-the-record, ultra-plush retreat with the world’s richest people just kind of looks bad on the surface. What could be so important that the need to be there in person outweighs the potentially negative public perception of such an expedition?
The answer to that question is so Carter can give a very important speech. It’s one that you and I are not allowed to hear, but it likely mirrors the one he gave at Standford University earlier this year.
In the above speech, which I highly recommend watching, Carter asked for a renewed partnership with Silicon Valley to fight, among other things, what is becoming as large a low-intensity conflict as any other currently involving the United States. That conflict is the almost constant cyber attacks on U.S. financial, infrastructural, business, and governmental institutions.
This is especially relevant as so much game-changing technology is not originating from the Pentagon’s contracts and labs as it once was back in the days of the Cold War. As such, this new initiative would include building strong Pentagon relationships with startups and establishment tech companies, a goal that has been largely inconsistent in the past, and would allow people with special skills to migrate to the Defense Department for just a project or two, in order to “test out” if they like it or not.
This is a stunning admission for the Pentagon, as it has long been focused on relying on “growing its own” and bringing people up through its own ranks, a slow and meandering process that is totally antiquated when it comes to keeping up with modern threats.
There’s no doubt about it: working for the Pentagon is not a sexy (nor in many cases lucrative) move for the best minds in Silicon Valley. Having your life pried open and thrown into some bureaucrat’s briefcase all for a fraction of what you could make working for a major tech outfit, plus having the potential upside of starting your own innovative business taken away from you makes little sense in this day and age.
Although the idea of a new and possibly necessary era in Silicon Valley-Defense Department relations sounds great, things will have to change, and Pentagon contracts, with all the red tape that goes with them, can only go so far in the land of Facebook and Google. You can’t act like IBM while trying to acquire Apple talent. The Pentagon must streamline its approach to recruitment of cyber-talent and adapt its bungled web of red tape if it wants to do big business with the fastest corporations in the U.S., regardless their size. Not to mention the issue of intellectual property, an area where the Pentagon has not excelled in the past.
Carter, who could be the Defense Secretary our country desperately needs right now (at least when it comes to technological transformation and cyber warfare, as dealing with ISIS is another matter) is definitely on the right track. He knows young people don’t want to be tied down for a life-long career in one place, and he knows that the slow crawl through the ranks just won’t cut it when it comes to beating our enemies in cyberspace. He also knows that the Defense Sector needs to become “less dreary” for young creative minds.
It’s fantastic that all these critical issues and possible solutions are finally being recognized by someone at the top, but actually changing how the incredibly stubborn Pentagon goes about its business is a whole other story.
Maybe bringing these transformative ideas to those at the head of America’s creative free market is a better plan than shooting off never-ending memos that ricochet between the five walls of the Pentagon. As such Carter’s trip to Sun Valley may be an opening shot across the bow to those with an “old defense” mindset, while at the same time being an unconventional call to arms aimed at America’s creative elite.
Let’s hope that shot doesn’t land of deaf ears.
Contact the author Tyler@Jalopnik.com