The Future of Defense: Rep. Seth Moulton

In the first episode about the Future of Defense Task Force, co-chair Congressman Seth Moulton joins host ACME General Corps.’s Ken Harbaugh for a conversation. The Future of Defense Task Force, chaired by Moulton and Congressman Jim Banks, was a bipartisan group working to strengthen our nation’s security.

Learn more about Rep. Moulton on his website and find him on Twitter at @SethMoulton. Read the full Future of Defense Task Force Report here.

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’ll hear from  political figures, military professionals, and other thought leaders about how innovation shapes our national security landscape.

We’re kicking off Accelerate Defense with a two-part series about the Future of Defense Task Force. Today, I’m talking with Congressman Seth Moulton. Seth represents Massachusetts’s sixth congressional district. He served as a US Marine in Iraq, leading one of the first infantry platoons to enter Baghdad. He also recently served alongside Congressman Jim Banks as co-chair of the Future of Defense Task Force, working to strengthen our nation’s security.

In various interviews about the report since it came out, you have said that you’re calling for a revolution in how we approach our national security. That’s a pretty ambitious statement. Why do you feel such urgency?

Rep. Seth Moulton: Well, it’s an ambitious statement because it’s bipartisan and because we have said in our report that if we do not change now, if we do not dramatically change course, we will lose the race to China. We are in a race for our national security, for our economic security, for the dominant form of government in the world for the next century. We’re currently losing. We are behind. So there’s tremendous urgency to this report and to our recommendations. The only way we’re going to get back ahead is if we make some pretty serious changes.

ACME General: One of the interesting tensions that I perceive in reading the report is that takes a 30-year view of what’s required. But as you’ve just said, it exhorts people reading it to take action immediately. I’m wondering how you balance that need for the long-term view against the need to do things right now against the bias in Congress towards short-term thinking.

SM: Well, you’re right that Congress unfortunately exercises a lot of short-term thinking. We exercise a lot of politicized thinking rather than stepping back and taking a strategic view of what’s best for our America. We’re trying to change that with this report. It’s unusual particularly on the Armed Services Committee because we have a mandate to provide a budget for the Department of Defense every single year. We’re proud of doing that in a bipartisan way every single year, but it necessarily means that we’re always looking 12 months out. What do the troops need right now? What do we need to get them for the year ahead? But the deeper issue is that a lot of politics in America’s very short-term, and members of Congress are looking for a win that they can chalk up as an accomplishment for their next re-election. Of course, in the house, we have to get reelected every two years, which means that what do you do the day after you get elected? You start working on your reelection. That is a challenge. It’s a problem, and it’s led to an awful lot of short-term thinking, which is dangerous for our national security when you have adversaries that are making investments now that will pay off decades down the road. Russia, most immediately China taking an even longer view, and they’re getting ahead of us because of that.

ACME General: When it comes to this need for political wins, one of the things that you take on mostly is the burden of legacy weapon systems. You’ve called them old, heavy, expensive legacy weapon systems that we need to take an honest look at in order to be flexible going forward. Why have they become such a hindrance to innovation?

SM: Well, there are a number of things at play here, but the first and biggest problem is they’re just incredibly expensive. So they crowd out spending on all the new technologies that we have to invest in to prepare our troops for the future. One of the inherent disadvantages that we have in fact when you look at us compared to China is that China is not trying to compete on the same terms. They’re not trying to compete with our aircraft carriers by building just a few more aircraft carriers with the same capabilities. They’re largely just building missiles to defeat them.

Now, I understand they are building some aircraft carriers. But for the price of one US aircraft carrier, China can build somewhere on the order of 1,250 anti-carrier missiles. Now, what does that mean? Well, the first five missiles they shoot might miss. But they still have 1,245 to go. So this is a real problem. You’re going to see this in all sorts of other realms when they invest more in cyber and are simply able to steal many of our good ideas. They don’t have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on research and development because they let us spend that money, and then they just take our technology. When they want to expand their writ in the Pacific, and they just bulldoze some islands and create new bases, displacing the work of decades of US Navy patrols, they’re making smart, economic, illegal by the way, but economically smart investments in their national security.

When they make investments in allies like we used to do in Europe with the Marshall plan that they copied the Marshall plan, at least its basic principles and made it into the Belt and Road Initiative, they’re winning over allies that used to be in our corner and expanding their influence all over the globe. The point is that they’re doing this with a keen eye to how much it costs. We’re spending way more to accomplish less. A big part of it is because we’re still invested in these now really old-fashioned weapon systems that China’s just finding ways to defeat.

So we’ve got to cut some of these to make room for the new. We also just have to cut them because we’re wasting a lot of time and effort and manpower supporting them, and they’re not the way that wars are going to be fought in the future.

ACME General: The report was very careful not to call out any specific legacy weapon system. Were you disappointed by-

SM: Oh, we wanted to. But the challenge was that we just did not have the time or the bandwidth to do a full accounting. So we knew it would be politically controversial, but we had a tremendously committed bipartisan panel. I mean, if you look at our recommendations, you can see that it took a little bit of political courage on both sides of the aisle to sign off on them because they’re recommendations that are critical of Democratic positions and recommendations that are critical of Republican positions. But we just didn’t have the bandwidth to do a full accounting of the breadth of legacy weapon systems across all the services.

So what we said is that we need to have an outside entity like the RAND Institute come in and do this for Congress. I mean, candidly, what we’re saying, Ken is we do not trust Congress to do this right. We expect Congress to always try to support the weapon system in their backyard, right? That’s why we need a really impartial entity to come in and make this assessment and deliver the really tough results.

ACME General:  You alluded to a measure of political courage that this report required. I want to use that as an opportunity to ask you about risk taking and the kinds of risks that you now want to incentivize among defense innovators within the defense industrial base. You’re looking to, if I’m quoting the report correctly, super-charge innovation. My question is how you balance that need to incentivize risk taking with the perennial government mandate for accountability down to the last dollar.

SM: Well, I don’t think they have to be mutually exclusive, Ken. I mean, you can account for dollars and make sure that they’re not wasted while also understanding that you take a risk, a project fails, and sometimes you learn more often. You learn more from failures than from successes. I mean, this has done in the private sector every single day. Our most innovative companies in fact have a philosophy they call lean startup theory which emphasizes failing fast, move quickly, fail fast because you’ll learn that failure and quickly improve or quickly pivot. We need to do the same thing in the national security community, and we need to get Congress and the DOD more comfortable with this kind of thinking.

ACME General: The report points out that the US government is no longer the primary funder of R&D in the US or the world. Private industry now far outpaces that. I guess my question is, so what?

SM: Well, the problem is actually twofold. First of all, because the US government at least has somewhat gotten out of the R&D business, we’re not doing the fundamental scientific research, that basic science that’s super risky because you’re not sure how it will pay off at all. In fact, there may be no commercial benefit at least immediately for anyone to see. So it’s not something that private industry will do. But that provides the foundation for all the technologies that Silicon Valley is building on right now and the technologies that underlie our national security. At the same time, DOD has to get better at integrating the technologies that are being developed with these historic R&D budgets in the private sector.

So we’re kind of missing on both counts. We’re not doing the basic early research that can only be funded by the federal government, while we’re also not quick enough to adopt the technologies that are being turned out by the private sector. So our report says we got to fix both of these things. We got to put more money into basic government R&D, and we also have to be much more nimble at taking commercial technologies and integrating them into our national defense.

ACME General:  So some of it’s obviously budgetary doubling down on R&D investment. Some of it is a bias towards action and being nimble. But the report also addresses the massive cultural chasm between DOD and the innovation drivers there within the system and Silicon Valley and other epicenters of innovation, civilian innovation across the country that just can’t seem to communicate with each other.

SM: Well, we’ve all heard the stories of employees at Google refusing to work for the Department of Defense because I don’t know they’re pacifists or something who were just opposed to DOD policy. I mean, how they could be more out of touch with young men and women like I visited at Marine Corps Base Quantico this week who are training to put their lives on the line to protect our freedoms so that those Google employees can work in peace and security in California. I mean, it is a huge chasm, and it’s frustrating. We’re a free country, and Google employees are welcome to have their opinions. But we all have to understand the risks that our young men and women are taking to ensure our freedoms, and we’ve got to make sure that we bridge that chasm.

But there are also some real bright spots. I mean, not far down the road from Google is Stanford University, where a lot of young students are engaged in a course called Hacking for Defense, where the smartest college students in the country are working on some of the most challenging national security quandaries for DOD. DOD is actually sending them unique challenges that could use some creative outside-the-box thinking. The program has been remarkably successful at developing some innovative solutions for thorny DOD challenges but also inspiring smart young Americans to want to serve our country.

ACME General: The first gap you identified really revolves around values, which is the starkest example of that cultural gap. But there are I think subtler ways in which these communities talk past each other, and it’s not always, and I would argue not even most often an issue of values or ethics. It’s just a different way of thinking. When you examined those examples of DOD reaching out to places like Stanford University, what were the most successful strategies for reaching across that gap when it’s not one driven by values but one simply driven by different means of communication?

SM: Well, one of the most successful strategies is just to be really thoughtful about personnel and find people, hire people who can bridge that gap. I’m thinking of Steve Blank, who was one of the founders of this course, Hacking for Defense. Now, he’s very much a startup guy. He can speak the language of Silicon Valley. He lives it every single day. But he happens to have a tremendous knowledge of and commitment to our national security. So he’s been a great person to help bridge that gap. So far as he leads Hacking for Defense, he kind of works for DOD, but it’s not like he’s someone who worked his way up through DOD for a couple of decades and then was sent out to Silicon Valley to try to figure it out. Right?

This is one of the challenges that we address in our personnel section, where we say that DOD has got to get much smarter and more nimble at hiring the right people. We actually gave them through Congress, a number of innovative promotion authority so that they could bring in people at higher ranks, for example, rather than saying, “Hey, if you want to be a major in cyber command, you’re going to have to go to bootcamp like everybody else and work your way up through the system.”

You’re not always going to get the right people if you insist on that. So although there’s always been some traditional value in those practices, we’ve got to innovate, and innovation isn’t just adopting new technologies. It’s also figuring out how to adopt new people.

ACME General: The report takes on this trope of innovation happening in the bowels of big defense contractors like it used to and I think takes a clear eye view about the need to engage non-traditional companies. Within DOD, how much resistance is there to that, given all of the institutional inertia and the relationships with the big contractors and just how tough it is for a small company to get that initial contract. How has that part of the report, those recommendations, how have they been received by DOD?

SM: Ken, the results speak for themselves. There are hardly any small innovative companies winning these big contracts. The incumbents are constantly trying to protect their turf. Some of the big defense primes have already reached out to us and expressed their concern to put it politely with the results of our investigation. The reality is that if DOD was open to this change, they’d already be adopting it, but they’re not. So the report is in many ways a starting point. What we all have to do now is figure out how to implement these recommendations, and often that comes down to just incentivizing DOD to do the right thing.

I mentioned earlier that some of the innovative personnel policies that we want them to exercise are authorities that they already have. It’s not a question of being prohibited by law from doing these things. Congress recognized a few years ago we need to give them this flexibility, and we did. But our report found that they’re not using it. So our next job is to figure out, how do we force or incentivize them to use these authorities, to practice this innovation, and to ultimately change the incentive structure for how companies and people are allowed to contribute to our national security.

ACME General: So the primes are getting most of the contracts that the smaller innovators are being left out in the cold, sometimes not even being made aware of these opportunities. I’d like to pose the rhetorical, so what, to you. If the primes can get it done, why not give them the opportunities?

SM: Well, this is exactly the case that I’ve made to them, right? I’ve said, “Look, you have a choice.” You can be either on the side of innovation and say, “Hey, we get it. We get it.” The right thing to do for our national security for the country’s best interest is not to just insist that we keep investing and reinvesting in these big, old, bulky weapons systems. But we’re going to be the big defense company that leads the charge on developing these new technologies, many of which are smaller and also cheaper than the old systems. But of course, these companies have a choice to make, and unfortunately, many of them see it as purely a business decision, rather than a decision about what’s best for America. I don’t doubt that some of them will choose to just double down on the strategy that’s worked for them so far and keep lobbying members of Congress and members of the Department of Defense to just keep the old programs going because they’re cash cows. They’re doing well on them, and they don’t have to innovate anymore. They just keep doing what they’ve always done.

ACME General: The report is long on recommendations. They’re all incredibly thoughtful. But I think where the rubber hits the road with this report is in some of the incentive structures that you propose, which go beyond just gentle recommendations to, I think, trying to force that cultural change that we need to see at DOD. Are there a couple of those incentive recommendations that you think stand out? I’m thinking about the one that would require every major acquisition program to evaluate on an AI component. When you build things like that into budgeting requirements, they go beyond just recommendations, and they compel real change.

SM: Well, that’s the first one I was going to use as an example myself, because there’s been pushback on that specifically, but we recognize that the future here is autonomy. Importantly, our adversaries have already recognized that. So in some ways, this is a blunt instrument to say, “Hey, you need to have one AI alternative.” Why is it one and not five? Or why is it one and not one for every 10 programs? We can debate this till the cows come home. But the point is that we need to force thinking about how artificial intelligence, how autonomy is going to play a part in our international defense. As someone just told me today, that they recently ran an exercise with an autonomous airplane fighting a pilot at F-15.

They did five different simulations, and it was five to nothing. The AI won every single time. China’s the first to deploy AI, because they’re insisting that’s part of their procurement program, we’re in for a rude awakening. This is a place where we felt as authors of the report that we had to force DOD to make some more urgent change.

ACME General: I’m guessing the pushback you’re getting is couched in the language of flexibility, basically, trust us. You need to give us the flexibility to spend dollars the way we [crosstalk 00:30:36]-

SM: Actually, some of the first pushback was we’re just not ready yet. We don’t have all the AI technologies. We need to have an alternative. Our reaction to that is, well, exactly. We’re behind here, folks. We need to get caught up. That’s why we’re going to force you to do this. But it brings up another more fundamental point, which is that even before we determine exactly what autonomy looks like for any given new weapon system, we have to develop the operational concepts for how these systems are going to be used, and that’s another place where we’re way behind. This falls squarely on the shoulders of the Department of Defense. DOD has to be able to explain to the defense contractors, to Silicon Valley, to all these folks who we want to contribute to our national security and to our defense innovation base.

We need to explain to them, how are wars going to be fought. What technology do you need? What exactly do you want this robot to be able to do? We had a lot of work to do there. As soon as you start talking about these operational concepts, you also have to have a conversation about the rule of law, the morals of fighting a war like this. This is a place where you realize, “Wow, we can not afford to have Communist China, an authoritarian regime with no regards for human rights, we can not afford to have them setting the rules of the road.” It just illustrates how much is at stake here. If we lose this race, if we lose this race to China, our whole system of government could be in peril.

ACME General: Where is the best thinking happening on those questions? Do you see it coming out of DOD, in addition to leveraging Silicon Valley and traditional startups? The report doesn’t really go into this, but are there ethicists and other think tanks and other academic institutions that you think need to be brought into the fold here?

SM: Well, many people read our report and say one of the most eye-brow raising recommendations is how strongly we recommend that state department needs to lead, that state should be leading these, discussions that they should be in many ways leading the fight when it comes to ensuring our national security. This is not a hard sell for combat veterans like myself who have been on the ground in foreign countries who have recognized exactly what Secretary Mattis has always said. If you cut the state department budget, you better buy me more ammunition. We get this, and we get it in a bipartisan way, that this recommendation flies in the face of everything the Trump administration has been doing for the last four years and yet Jim Banks, a strong Trump supporter, signed off on it, and he talks about it a lot because as veterans, we both recognize how important it is.

ACME General: You traveled around the world for this report. What was the biggest surprise you encountered?

SM: Sadly, it was how we just given up on our allies in many corners of the globe. We went to Southeast Asia to visit three interesting countries, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. Vietnam, despite such a brutal war, not all that long ago is firmly a United States ally. They want to be our friends. They want to share our values, not China’s. Cambodia, some people think we’ve already lost them. I think it’s clear that they wanted to be with us, but China’s just making a better effort.

Thailand, a historic US ally is very much teetering on the fence. They talked about their 5G competition, and the United States has come in and said, “Don’t buy Chinese 5G technology.” Well, the Thais look at us and say, “We have an open competition. Where’s your entrance?” It’s pretty embarrassing standing there as a United States Congressman and throwing up my hands and saying, “I guess we don’t have one.” We went to Eastern Africa. Kenya is another historic US ally. Their government officials plead with us. They said, “We love the United States. We’ve always been with you. But where are you now? China’s invested hundreds of millions of dollars in our infrastructure, and they just build a brand new railway to replace the one the British built a century ago.”

Then we just heard now former secretary of defense, Esper announced that he’s pulling people out of Africa, a place where China is sending many more in. Africa is a place that we used to just confidently say, “It’s in our corner.” Yeah, we’ve got some allies that are closer than others. But we certainly don’t have to worry about China and Africa. Well, that’s no longer the case. While China is investing in Africa, not just putting bases in troops there, but truly investing in African society, we’re pulling out.

Now, you can complain about the types of investments China’s making. You can talk about how they’re just casting their authoritarian regime over the continent. But I’ll tell you what. You go there on the ground, and you can see. It may not be perfect, but it’s effective, and China’s now beating us in Africa. This is happening all over the globe, and it’s sad because we’re giving up our greatest advantage. We’re giving up our values that for decades we have worked to share with the rest of the world.

ACME General: do you think we have a real opportunity here with the change in administrations to seize on some of the recommendations on your report and finally not just move the ball forward, but accomplish the kind of sea change that you’re talking about, go from giving up to digging in?

SM: We do. Michele Flournoy, the likely next secretary of defense was beating down our door and trying to get an early copy of the report. She in fact was one of the very first people to testify before the committee. So she gets it, and she wants to make changes, and we have to ensure that, that we support them. I do think that there are undoubtedly some people in the Biden national security orbit who’ve been around a long time and just kind of want to go back to the way things were before Trump. We’ve got to realize that we can no longer afford to do that. Yes, we need to restore our partnerships. But we’ve got to make sure our partnerships are modernized for a new and different world. Yes, we’ve got to make sure that historic alliances like NATO are reinforced and reinvigorated. But NATO can’t exist the way it’s existed for the last 60 years because it’s been completely incapable of dealing with the Russian cyber threat. So it has to be modernized as well.

We’ve got to look at the Pacific, where we don’t have a NATO. We have a lot of allies, but they’re not coordinated. What can we do to form new alliances with the historic strength of NATO in that part of the world. This is all important work to do, and I know a lot of people on team Biden who are excited to get started with it. But none of this is going to be easy. It’s going to be a fight. That’s why, again, it’s so significant that this report in this unbelievably divided time in American history is so bi-partisan. That’s an example that I hope everyone will recognize.

ACME General: Well, Congressman Moulton, I can’t imagine a better time or be at a more unlikely time for a report like this, given how bi-partisan it is. Thank you for your leadership. Thank you for your time today talking with us about it.

SM: It’s been a lot of fun, Ken, and this is important. So I hope people pay attention, and we’ve got to sell it to our colleagues too. There are a lot of people in Congress who need to hear the urgency of this report as well.

ACME General: Thanks again to Seth for joining us on this inaugural episode of Accelerate Defense. Join us next month to round out this conversation with another perspective on the Future of Defense Task Force Report.

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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