Progress Through Innovation with Patrick Murphy

“We used to be great at innovation. We need to make sure that we invest in innovation, we invest in research, and the fruits of that research is manufacturing, and manufacturing during this information age. We have to keep it onshore, and we have to get after it, like a bulldog on a bone.” – Patrick Murphy

Patrick Murphy is a former Congressman from Pennsylvania and Acting Secretary of the Army. He’s been a paratrooper, founded a tech startup, been a leading voice on cybersecurity within government, and currently serves as the Distinguished Chair of Innovation at the United States Military Academy. He is also a Commissioner on the US Cyberspace Solarium Commission.

Learn more about Patrick at and find him on Twitter at @PatrickMurphyPA.


ACME General: Welcome to Accelerate Defense, a podcast from ACME General Corp. I’m Ken Harbaugh, Principal at ACME, and host of this month’s episode. On Accelerate Defense, we hear from political figures, military professionals, and other thought leaders about how innovation shapes our national security landscape.

My guest today is the Honorable Patrick Murphy, former Congressman from Pennsylvania and Acting Secretary of the Army. He’s been a paratrooper, founded a tech startup, been a leading voice on cybersecurity within government. He currently serves as the Distinguished Chair of Innovation at the United States Military Academy. In short, Patrick Murphy has seen just about every side of the defense innovation equation and he’s also an old friend. Murph, it’s great to have you on the show.

PM: It is great to be on with you and Happy St. Patrick’s Day Month.

ACME General: Yeah, Happy St. Patrick’s Day Month. I think we’re going out a week after the day itself, but hopefully you’re still celebrating. We’re professionals here at ACME, Murph, so from now on, you’ll be Patrick. But one of the things that really struck me in going back over your resume and all of the amazing things that you have done, is that you’ve had this almost compulsive need to embrace change in everything you’ve done, not just embrace it, but lead through it. Maybe, I’m going out on a limb here, but I’d suggest that one of the things that motivates you is an inherent belief in progress, not just technological, but social, as evidenced by your drive in Congress to abolish Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Where did you get that from, that belief that the wheel turns forward?

PM: Well, my Dad was enlisted in the Navy, and then served for 22 years as a Philadelphia Police Officer, and my mother was a Catholic nun. So, I joke that luckily, she dumped Jesus for Jack Murphy, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. But, we’re all devout Catholics still. But, they instilled in my brother and sister and I that we could change the world. Part of that was that we could serve in our communities and for our country. So, like you, I did ROTC, and when I was 19, I joined, and I was dating a girl from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and her dad was just dumbfounded and said to me, “Patrick, why would you serve? You’re a sophomore in college. You’re on the Dean’s List. You were the captain of the hockey team as a sophomore.” I’m like, “Well, Sir, I want to serve. I want to be in, in three years from now, I’m going to be a Lieutenant in the Army.” He’s like, “but what happens if a war breaks out?” I’m like, “Well, then I would go and serve. That’s what they’re training me for.” Now little did I know, nine years later, or 10 years later, I’d be in the middle of Baghdad, Iraq, in 133 degree heat, with the 82nd Airborne Division. But, my parents just instilled that it’s our responsibility to make this world a better place, and so whether it was my time in Congress, my time in the Army, you at least have to make things better, and it’s incumbent on us to make it better for the next generation.

ACME General: You’ve described yourself as a vetrepreneur. I hope I’m pronouncing that right. I love the term. Tell us what it means.

PM: It’s really just an entrepreneur who happens to be a veteran. This country was established by veterans that signed the Declaration of Independence, that served in the Continental Congress. You got to remember, our Army and Navy and Marine Corps were founded even before we had the United States of America, in 1776. We started in 1775. And through World War ll, when you had the greatest economic growth in American history, after World War ll, it was really triggered by American GIs coming home. So, half went to college under the GI bill. The other half, a lot of them went to go work for small businesses or start their own small business. And they created these incredible iconic, global brands, brands that we take for granted, but they were started as a small business, by an American troop coming back. So, whether it’s Nike, the largest sports apparel company in the world, that was started in the back of a car by Phil Bowerman, who was with 10th Mountain Division, Army Officer or Comcast, started by Navy vet, Ralph Roberts who started the largest media company in the world. Fast forward the next generation of Vietnam veterans, you have people like Fred Smith, a Marine, who came back and started FedEx. But I would say Ken, a lot of folks, access to capital was a little bit easier and now we need to make sure we’re taking care of our brothers and sisters, the next generation of vetrepreneurs, so they start their own business. But it’s less than 5% of them that actually do it.

ACME General: That’s a space that you’re very active in, not just as an advocate, as someone who tries to uplift the vets taking that leap, but you’re an advisor, an investor. You have helped in substantive ways, some of those veterans get that leg up, right?

PM: No doubt. Yeah. I mean, listen, I put my money and my time where my mouth is. So, I have a little venture capital fund. It’s called Stony Lonesome Group. We raised over $12 million. 90% of our investments are in veteran-owned companies. So, we’ve had some great success, and veterans are actually more likely to start a small business and to be successful, than civilians. It’s the positive part of veterans coming back as civic assets to our nation. So, whether it’s making that direct investment, whether it’s starting companies myself, or whether it’s teaching the next generation of leaders of character at West Point, which I do now as Chair of Innovation up there, that’s incredibly important during these defining moments.

ACME General: Talk to us about that. You are now the Distinguished Chair of Innovation and Strategic Engagement at West point. Does that allow you time in the classroom like you used to have?

PM: No, listen, I didn’t go to West Point, but I taught there as a young Army captain, and I was there teaching constitutional law and law of war for commanders, when unfortunately, our nation was attacked on 9/11. So, I had already been through Airborne and Air Assault School and I was getting ready for Ranger School. But then, I had deployed under then-General Petraeus and our Ground Forces Commander was a Colonel named Mark Milley who’s now the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. So, I deployed right after 9/11 in 2002 and came back from that deployment, and then was part of the engagement force in Iraq in 2003, and came home from Iraq in 2004. I had this great opportunity to teach at West Point. Then, after I served in Congress, I was on the board there. I mean, I drank the Kool-Aid at the place. It’s an hour and a half from my house and it is a special place. So, to be able to be up there once a month, to go, be back in classes at Thayer Hall, and just to be part of mentorship. Then connecting, frankly, West Point to better connection with the Pentagon, but better connection with the private industry, and trying to tackle our challenges, that’s incredibly important.

ACME General: Well, I don’t think I could ever admit, at least not on a podcast like this, to having drunk the West Point Kool-Aid. But, when I had the opportunity to teach at Yale, one of the highlights was bringing my class down to West Point for an exchange, and exposing those Yale undergrads to a day in the life of a cadet. For some of them, it was just mind-blowing, the dedication that is required to spend four years there, much less a day. Hats off. Tell us about your role, and what you’re doing as the Chair of Innovation. Why is innovation becoming such a touchstone at West Point, and within the Army more broadly?

PM: Yeah, well, it goes to the premise that America at its best is, she is a reluctant warrior. So, we don’t fight unnecessary wars. We don’t want to acquire anybody’s land or their treasure, but we do fight for the little guy, when need be. We stand up for our allies and others. Part of the greatness of our military is our deterrence, so we deter others from wanting to fight us or wanting to engage us or wanting to go on a world stage, and do harm to others, especially innocents. Because of that, we need to make sure that we have the best fighting force in the world, and we need to make sure that they don’t have a fair fight, that they have a technical and the tactical advantage over our enemies. So, you see that, and it’s the best training, it’s tough sledding. It’s hard to go about it, but just at Fort Campbell, Kentucky this month, and I’m there at Air Assault School, which I did back in 2000. Air Assault School’s 10 days where you’re learning how to sling load operations of a helicopter, and repel out of a helicopter 200, 250 feet in the air. The reality of it is, it’s we put these young men and women through the grinder of this tough training. We give them best-in-class weapon systems, communication systems. Then we expect them to keep their troops ready to defend our country and to keep our families safe here at home.

ACME General: Beyond providing soldiers and sailors and airmen and Marines with the best kit we can give them so that they have that unfair advantage, what’s the significance of building an innovative mindset? I mean, your role at West Point has got to involve that, right? You’re not just about kit, you’re about shaping thinking.

PM: Right. Part of that is that we have to have the underdog mentality. We have a country in China, a Communist country that – and again, I’m not trying to pick a fight, and we’re trying to deter others from wanting to fight us, but, our combat overmatch has eroded. They have a billion people. They think their destiny is to be the number one country in the world and be dominant. They don’t see it as a win-win. They see it as a win-lose. So, my priority, when I ran the Army or working with vetrepreneurs, we need to make sure that our programs are innovative programs that are on budget, that they’re on schedule. We have to understand that we are in the information age. We’re not in the manufacturing age anymore, Ken. Now, manufacturing is incredibly important, and we still have to be in manufacturing, but we got to be thinking about AI and 5G and cloud computing and have best-in-class folks come to West Point. Partnerships, these public/private partnerships with private industry, to make sure that we have that technical type of advantage over our enemies.

ACME General: The Officer Corps needs to understand that. Not just the acquisition folks or the contracting teams, but the cadre of mid-level leaders needs to understand that. Right?

PM: No doubt. I mean, Ken, you’ve been an innovator your whole life. Co-founding The Mission Continues, being a President of Team Rubicon. I mean, these are world-class organizations that you’re a national leader in. That gives our generation, our post-9/11 generation of veterans, hope and to be part of the solution. So, when you look at the Officer Corps or enlisted, those war fighters, we have to first understand, we have two ears and one mouth for a reason. We have to listen to them. We have to see what works, but the industrial base of our country, of the United States of America, again, this whole thing of defense contractors, et cetera, these are public/private partnerships, but this industrial base, Ken, that’s the arsenal of democracy. We have to make sure that we are manufacturing things, that we are developing things for the information age, that were made in America. When you stroll through a Best Buy, as you know, you won’t find anything that’s made in America. We used to be great at innovation. We need to make sure that we invest in innovation, we invest in research, and the fruits of that research is manufacturing, and manufacturing during this information age. We had to keep it onshore, and we have to get after it, like a bulldog on a bone.

ACME General: You have observed, and more than that, participated in this innovation ecosystem in just about every way imaginable. Initially as a war fighter, then at a senior government level, as Under Secretary of the Army, then Acting Secretary of the Army, and as an entrepreneur, a tech entrepreneur. What do you think the biggest challenges facing defense innovation are today?

PM: Well, if you get a chance to, and I think you’ve probably read it, The Kill Chain by Chris Brose. He was a staff director in the Senate Armed Services Committee when I was going through confirmation. But, he wrote that book, The Kill Chain, and he talks about the military industrial congressional complex, and it’s not agile, it’s wasteful. And when I’ve testified in Congress – and again, serving in the Armed Services Committee, I was there pushing out, when Ash Carter was the Under-Secretary of Defense, we were pushing out and green-lighting, MRAP vehicles with V-shaped hulls. Why is that? Because, every 34 convoys, we have a US troop that is killed in the line of duty. I lost 19 men in my Combat Unit, 82nd Airborne Division. The majority of those 19 were killed by roadside bombs, because we were in the middle of Al-Rashid, Baghdad and the Sunni and Shia area. So, we got after it. We made sure those factories were running 24 hours a day, and we put the money behind it, to make sure that we were saving lives. Then when I was running the Army, I’m testifying in Congress, asking for the budget, sitting there with, then the Chief of Staff of the Army, was Mark Milley, who’s now up to be the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But, Ken, I used to say to the Congress, “Hey, we need to make sure that we have a better infrastructure. We don’t need that more brick and mortar. We need to invest in, and make sure that we’re doing what’s necessary. We have buildings that are unoccupied. We have to get rid of them, because it’s costing the taxpayer money, and we could be using that money for better purposes.” But, if it’s in someone’s congressional district, they’re like, “Well, no, I’m not letting you shut down part of the post or part of that, or part of this.” That was shortsighted, and we have to get after it. We have to act with a sense of urgency. We have to really do what’s necessary to understand this is life or death for our sons and daughter, that warrior class that is stepping up to defend our families.

ACME General: Well, that rollout of the MRAP that you referenced, sure as hell was a life and death pursuit. It broke just about every rule in the acquisitions book, which it should have. But today, we’re left with a system, and I love your perspective from your days at the top of the food chain in the Army, where you have, for example, Army Futures Command coordinating and consolidating and driving modernization, and then Army Acquisitions, ASA(ALT), in charge of procurement. They’re both at the same level hierarchically, and just leaves a giant question mark over who is going to build that bridge between the desperate need, and the acquisition – the MRAP being, I think, a great case in point.

PM: Yeah, let’s face it. When you’re talking about the Department of Defense, with 2.5 million folks, or whether you’ve been stuck with the Army, with 1.5 million, we’re the largest of the services. In fact, we are the least-funded, because we’re in the people business. But I would say to you, it’s hard to say and make it innovative on what scale. It’s just hard to modernize the Army. But when you say, modernization, you have to have priorities. If you try to do everything, Ken, as you know, you can’t get anything done. Right? So I’m sure when you run for Congress, everyone has the magic solution. You’re running for Congress? Just go on the Oprah Winfrey show, you’ll win. Well, it’s not that easy, right? If you spend eight hours a day trying to call Oprah and everyone that you know, that on her tour and eventually connect to her, you’re going to waste a lot of your time. Right? You got to focus on what you can get done. You got to focus on two or three things. So, for me, as a leader in the country, my personnel at West Point, or when I was the Pentagon, you need two out of three, and its readiness, to make sure that our troops are ready to fight tonight. Number two, you have to have modernization, and again, that’s going into what we need to do to modernize your military, to make sure that it’s not a fair fight. That we have, frankly, combat overmatch. But, we don’t have it right now against allies or peer competitors like China or Russia. But I’ll also say to you, then you also talk about, for an Army, we’re in a people business, it’s about end strength, right? The Navy, it’s about their platform, is really, how big it is, how many ships are going to have right? Now, again, that’s the platform. So, to me, you have to be, “are we going to really invest in readiness? Are we going to really invest in modernization?” Then you got to look at the platforms. “Do you really need to have a 355-ship Navy, or do you really need to have 1.2 million soldiers?” Again, I’m not saying we don’t, but again, these things aren’t in a vacuum. They, if you pull from readiness to invest in modernization, your troops aren’t going to be as ready. If you’re so focused on getting ships, then it has to be paid for and those types of things. So, when I look at this, we’ve asked less than 1% of our nation during the longest wars in America to keep our family safe, but we really need to do a better job at creating more public/private partnerships. The government isn’t just going to have to just do this themselves. We have to partner with, not just big defense prime, we have to invest with entrepreneurs and vetrepreneurs to make sure that they’re innovative and it’s, they’re not getting crushed in what we call the Valley of Death.

ACME General: I was going to ask you about that. What are the one or two things we could do in the near term to address that Valley of Death, that while isn’t always an existential threat to these non-traditional companies and startups, it is certainly a barrier to them partnering with government, because the procurement cycles are just too long, they would rather just not deal with the hassle, and as a result, our national security suffers.

PM: Right, so, there’s great military or mass security leaders who talk about the Valley of Death and they suggest, and I agree with this, we have a bridge fund for innovative commercial firms, especially in competitive areas like artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, and quantum computing, as a way to basically stave off pressure from their investors to walk away from the Department of Defense? In the Army, we’re pretty good. We have set priorities. It’s long-range, precision fires. It’s next-gen combat vehicles. It’s future vertical lift, helicopters that go twice as fast, twice as distant. But that’s just one area, that partnership. Congress has granted the Pentagon a range of flexible authorities for quick contracting. When I look at it, I think sometimes, the acquisition workforce, frankly, they’ve lagged a little bit in using them. Joint Rapid Acquisition Cell and some others, I think sometimes that red tape that’s involved with shifting money between procurement and research and development, and operations and maintenance accounts, it’s just daunting. It’s like this clerical road march. So, I think there’s a lot of things we could do to make it easier. Again, not easier necessarily at scale, but easier to really partner with the best-in-class innovative firms that will help them survive that Valley of Death, and help them, and really partner with our Department of Defense.

ACME General: In the short time we’ve got left, I want to give you a chance to talk about the Cyberspace Solarium, and what you’re doing there, and your focus on cybersecurity, and AI in particular.

PM: Well, listen, I was honored to be asked by leaders, there are 14 of us Commissioners, Deputy Secretary of Defense and US Senators like Ben Sasse and Angus King, and US Congressman, like former Marine Mike Gallagher from Wisconsin, and Jim Langevin from Rhode Island. Then, private-sector leaders, CEOs of Southern Company, and somehow, I’m one of these 14 commissioners. We are getting, and not just the public sector, but in the private sector, we’re getting our lunch handed to us with cyber-attacks, time and time again. I’m not just talking about Russia either, by the way. With China, with intellectual property, other countries that are committing cyber-crime to our biggest companies. They’re not just doing it to America. They’re doing it all over the globe. But, when you have the number one economy in the world, we’re a big target. But, this has resulted in the death of people. We’ve had some deaths from cyber-crime over in Great Britain. We need to do a better job. I’m a big fan of General Nakasone, Defend Forward, and what does Defend Forward mean? We have to use the whole of nation approach when it comes to cybersecurity. Notice, I didn’t say whole government approach. I’m talking about whole of nation approach to partner with the private sector to defend our assets, to make sure that we’re not getting taken advantage of. And, to make sure, whether you’re talking about SolarWinds, or the other violations that have happened, and that we’re protecting ourselves from our data being stolen, whether it’s on an individual level, a company level, and certainly from the government level. So, I’m proud to be part of the commission. We had 82 recommendations. About 26 became law these past few months, in the last National Defense Authorization Act. But, we’re doing some really creative things, like if you’re looking at Sarbanes-Oxley, and partnering with the private sector, the push out information in them that they desperately need. So, didn’t mean to go too long, Ken, about talking about the US Cyberspace Solarium Commission, but we have open hearings, and we meet once a week, and it’s 14 great Americans that I’m partnering with, and a great staff that we’re trying to do what’s necessary to thread the needle when it comes to defending America. 

ACME General: No, I’m glad you went on about it, because as you said, we are getting our lunch handed to us. One of the things that irks me, whenever it comes up in this debate though, is this notion that there is something about liberal democracies that makes them inherently more vulnerable. Their bias towards openness and transparency means we cannot help to address this threat. Do you buy that?

PM: No doubt. I mean, and you saw it in 2016, and the Mueller report showed it in the 2016 presidential election. Russia was putting out disinformation – and again, they’re going from both sides. They hit the far left. They get the far left all stoked up. They get the far right all stoked up. We saw in 2016, we talked about what Russia did. We caught them red-handed. And then in 2020, the same thing. I mean, they’re trying to go against the strength of America. They’re trying to make it sound like our elections were rigged, that it wasn’t fair, that the race was stolen. Again, I’m not being partisan here. I’m saying this as an American, and most folks in Washington would agree that Russia has played a role in trying to undermine the very foundation of our democracy, that we are united at one cause, and that is freedom of democracy, not just for all Americans, but to be that shining city on the hill for other countries, and to help them. They’re trying to undermine our own people. They’ve had some success. They’re trying to do it now, and trying to scare people from taking the vaccine, whatever one you want to take. I mean, it has been effective. It’s been safe and it’ll help us establish herd immunity, and allow us to get our economy born again. But, they’re trying to scare people into not taking it, so they can do this at home. We have to get our economy back, moving again. We have to get our military stronger than ever, and hopefully, when we get the military stronger than ever, it is to have it as a deterrent effect, so we go back at our core strength, and that is America. She is that reluctant warrior that will only fight if it’s as a last resort.

ACME General: Couldn’t have said it better myself, Murph. Thank you so much for coming on the show, honored to have you.

PM: Hey, Ken, you’re the man, you’re a great American, buddy, any time. And thanks for all that you do. Accelerate Defense is an awesome podcast, brother, I love it, as you know, I’m a follower. If I can ever be helpful in the future, I’m here for you.

ACME General: Thanks again to Patrick for joining us on this month’s episode of Accelerate Defense. Next month, we’re talking to two leaders of start-ups who’ve chosen to work with the DoD – Daeil Kim of AI.Reverie and Daniela Perdomo of goTenna. We’re going to talk about the challenges, and the opportunities, that come with making that leap.

If you enjoyed today’s episode, please rate and review Accelerate Defense on Apple Podcasts – it really helps other listeners find the show.

And subscribe to the series today wherever you get your podcasts, so you get each episode in your feed when they come out every month.

Accelerate Defense is a monthly podcast from ACME General Corp. Our producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman. Special thanks to the team at ACME. I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Accelerate Defense. Thanks for listening. 

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