The rise of defense tech is bringing Silicon Valley back to its roots

The rise of defense tech is bringing Silicon Valley back to its roots

Josh Wolfe is the managing partner and co-founder of Lux Capital, a multi-stage venture capital firm, where he invests in deep tech companies ranging from space and advanced manufacturing to biotechnology and defense.

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The TechCrunch Global Affairs Project examines the increasingly intertwined relationship between the tech sector and global politics.

The timeless quest for national competitive advantage has accelerated with globalization. During the Cold War, the United States and the U.S.S.R. fought an ideological and a military race, but never one over consumer products: No American was interested in buying a Soviet toaster.

Now, the lines are blurred; countries are fighting across their entire economies and every domain of warfare for advantage. Technological supremacy in consumer and enterprise products feeds directly into the great power race for air, land, sea, space and cyber.

Startup founders and engineers are increasingly recognizing their role in this fight, as well. These people are not George W. Bush-style jingoists, but they do want to support liberal democracy and make sure people on the frontlines have the best tools to do their jobs.

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That’s a major shift from the last several decades when antiwar sentiment in the Bay Area that originated in the protests over the Vietnam War intensified into antiwar protests against the wars in Afghanistan and particularly Iraq. Despite some high-profile protests against working on national security contracts in recent years, we are now seeing a return to Silicon Valley’s original culture of pioneering defense tech to protect the American homeland and its allies from adversaries. Indeed, more and more people want to work exclusively with the Pentagon and our allies on defense tech, particularly as confronting the rise of China has become one of the few truly bipartisan positions in a polarized Washington.

For engineers diving into defense tech, the challenges and opportunities in every domain are extensive. In the air, China is believed to have successfully tested a hypersonic missile — a technology that the United States is considered years away from obtaining based on intelligence estimates. Given the speed of its travel and the inability of sensors to detect it, a hypersonic missile would render much of America’s current air defense systems ineffective.

We’re also seeing the emergence of an entirely new air threat: Swarms of cheap and violent drones that can be deployed rapidly with nary a human operator in sight. U.S. general Frank McKenzie recently dubbed these “Costco drones” after the warehouse retailer, and we’re likely to see countries with tiny defense budgets capable of overwhelming well-equipped U.S. forces.

Similarly at sea, we’re seeing a shift from large and expensive aircraft carriers manned by thousands of sailors to small, cheap, and autonomous vessels. Governments (or non-state actors) can now disrupt critical sea trade lanes in ways that are very difficult to defend against. Meanwhile, beneath the waters, there is a growing capability for adversaries to tap into and disrupt undersea internet cables that carry a growing bulk of the global economy.

In space, Russia just a few weeks ago tested a direct-ascent, anti-satellite weapon that destroys individual satellites. Such an attack could annihilate GPS and global communications (and the commerce, transportation, and logistics that depends on them), as well as potentially render much of near-earth space unusable for satellites due to the resulting debris. These weapons are hard to detect and even harder to stop with existing defense technologies.

Finally, in the cyber domain, despite tens of billions of dollars flooding into the cybersecurity sector over the past decade, companies and governments remain extraordinarily vulnerable to ransom and espionage with large-scale denial of service and information exfiltration initiatives. A year after the gargantuan SolarWinds hack, we are no closer to preventing or defending against state-directed cyber warfare.

All of these problems across all of these domains remain wide open, and the United States has the most to lose — economically, politically and militarily — if it fails to confront them.

The upshot is that complex and tough challenges are precisely the kinds of problems that top engineers and startup founders want to work on. There is a growing chorus of criticism — even from senior civilian defense officials — against Washington bureaucrats just continuing to do business as usual despite the increasingly mounting evidence that our defenses are ill-equipped for the challenges posed by our adversaries.

In today’s defense world, we have met the enemy and he is ourselves: startups are immediately stymied by the Pentagon’s antiquated procurement systems. We need to immediately get around this bureaucracy and uncomfortably displace the very comfortable, entitled and entrenched monopolies and oligopolies who don’t have the best technologies but do have the best lobbyists. We’ve got to get the big “primes” — as the country’s leading defense contractors are known — out of the way. We would never send our once-great but now trailing, slow-moving, least competitive athletes to represent America in fierce competition in the Olympics. It would make us sure losers. So why are we sitting idly, allowing this to happen in the critical arena of defense?

The Defense Department has put in place a variety of programs to bring on board startups. These programs are well-intentioned, but they miss the point: The Pentagon must throw out its procurement playbook and rebuild its defenses for the weapons our enemies actually use today. We live in a world where an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which costs upwards of $100 million per unit or more, can be outmaneuvered by “Costco drones.” America’s long-time defense superiority has led countries to innovate asymmetrically — and now they are pulling ahead.

The good news is that competing asymmetrically is precisely what Silicon Valley and startup founders do every day. Their scrappy ambitions and scarce resources means they repeatedly do more with less. They go up against entrenched incumbents, identify their weaknesses, and exploit them relentlessly to create competitive advantage. We have the technology and increasingly the know-how and the people ready to bolster America’s defense. Now we just need the Pentagon to start demanding more of itself, and to be willing to award large contracts to the most competitively advantaged emerging American startups.

While change at the Pentagon is paramount, beyond America, there is an opportunity to help liberal democracies globally with their defenses as well. In Europe, there is an incredible wealth of talent and available technologies that could be applied to the continent’s defense. Yet, its defense systems are a technological Tower of Babel with significant interoperability challenges. Streamlining defense standards for next-generation technologies wouldn’t help just the United States, but many of our allies as well.

America today faces the greatest challenge to our competitive advantages in recent memory, with advantages eroding across all domains of warfare and in many economic sectors. Adversaries are poking ever more aggressively for weaknesses to exacerbate and exploit. But at its heart, America’s values and influence still offers us immense soft power: an openness to new ideas, to new people, and to new opportunities. Defending our open values against the encroaching authoritarianism of antagonists like China and Russia isn’t optional. Defense tech is the next big sector for Silicon Valley if for no other reason than every other sector will rely on the United States to secure peace in the years ahead.

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