Pentagon official says Department of Defense needs to act more like SpaceX as he departs


A senior Pentagon official said on Monday the Department of Defense must behave more like Elon Musk’s Space X to drive innovation and stay ahead of adversaries as he announced his departure.

Preston Dunlap, the Pentagon’s first chief architect officer, said the ‘world’s largest bureaucracy’ needed ‘structural change.’

He laid out a nine-page playbook as he announced his resignation after three years in the post at the U.S. Space Force and U.S. Air Force, where he oversaw a $70 billion budget for research, development and acquisition. 

His is the latest departure among senior officials who have warned that the U.S. risks losing its technological edge over competitors such as China. 

Dunlap said the Pentagon needed to put aside internal turf wars and projects that amounted to reinventing the wheel, and focus instead on tapping the private sector, defending the country and staying apace with China. 

Musk’s satellite launch company, he said, provided him with an example during his three-year tenure.  

‘By the time the government manages to produce something, it is too often obsolete; no business would ever survive this way, nor should it. Following a commercial approach, just like Space X, allowed me to accomplish a number of “firsts” in DoD in under two years,’ he wrote in a statement posted to LinkedIn.

Preston Dunlap, the Pentagon’s first chief architect officer, announced his departure on Monday with a nine-page memo urging the Department of Defense to move faster in developing and acquiring technology or risk losing its edge over competitors

Dunlap said Elon Musk's SpaceX had served as an example for getting things done

Dunlap said Elon Musk’s SpaceX had served as an example for getting things done

SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket on Sunday from California with a top secret payload. Its first-stage booster is seen here returning to base - using technology that gave the company an advantage over competitors in the satellite launch industry

SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket on Sunday from California with a top secret payload. Its first-stage booster is seen here returning to base – using technology that gave the company an advantage over competitors in the satellite launch industry

Success included linking U.S. sensors and networks around the world in real time, and the use of AI algorithms. 

But he said the U.S. was in danger of losing its global advantage.

‘We’re falling behind the commercial base in key areas, so we’ve got to catch up,’ he told Bloomberg News.

His warning came after the Pentagon’s first ever chief software officer resigned last year in protest at the slow pace of technological transformation in the U.S. military, claiming the failure to respond to China winning the Artificial Intelligence battle was putting the U.S. at risk.

Nicolas Chaillan, 37, told the Financial Times after resigning: ‘We have no competing fighting chance against China in 15 to 20 years.’

‘Right now, it’s already a done deal – it is already over in my opinion,’ he added. ‘Whether it takes a war or not is kind of anecdotal.’

He blamed sluggish innovation, the reluctance of U.S. companies such as Google to work with the government on AI and extensive ethical debates over the technology. 

Chaillan described Monday as a ‘bad day for America’ with news of Dunlap’s departure.

‘This is bad. Really bad. I’ve officially lost hope,’ he posted on Twitter.

‘We lost all innovators and best talent… I don’t see anyone close to being able to replace Preston.’

Nicolas Chaillan said he resigned as the Pentagon’s first chief software officer because he could not stand watching China overtake the U.S.

Last year Nicolas Chaillan said he resigned as the Pentagon’s first chief software officer because he could not stand watching China overtake the U.S. 

Concerns have also been raised at the way the U.S. is falling behind China and Russia in developing hypersonic weapons – capable at traveling at more than 25 times the speech of sound and evading conventional missile defense systems.  

In his departure message, Dunlap said driving change was not so different to accelerating a rocket to 25,000 miles per hour – the speed needed to escape earth’s gravity.

‘Similarly, driving innovation and change in a large organization – let alone the largest organization on the planet, the Department of Defense – is hard. But not impossible,’ he wrote. 

‘There are any number of forces at work in a large organization: Friction, sand in the gears, the frozen middle, bureaucracy, tradition, culture, stovepipes, analysis paralysis, risk aversion, programing and budgeting, and so on.

‘The system is generally set up to pull everyone and every idea down to the status quo.

‘Driving change requires defying gravity.’

Earlier this month, the director of the Pentagon’s tech hub said the slow pace of developing or buying technology was a ‘glaring weakness.’

‘But now we’re in a serious tech competition with China and they’re not waiting for our democratic timeframes,’ Michael Brown told the Senate Armed Services Committee. 

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