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DAF senior leaders offer dialogue on defense innovation amid strategic competition

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. William A. O'Brien
  • Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs

The Ash Carter Exchange on Innovation and National Security was held May 9, bringing together pioneers and champions of innovation from government, the private sector and scientific communities to examine how to advance collaboration in pursuit of national security.

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown, Jr. were among those gathered at the event named in honor of the late Ash Carter, former secretary of defense and a trained theoretical physicist, who is credited with leading change and innovation throughout his four decades of service in government.


The Department of the Air Force and entire U.S. military is modernizing and refocusing to address strategic competition and the changing character of warfare.

In remarks to the audience, Kendall highlighted that innovation doesn’t happen alone and that the U.S. is leaning more heavily now on technology developed by partners and allies than it has historically.

“We have a lot of very smart partners out there, and integrated deterrence isn’t just about security relationships; it’s also about relationships in development and interoperability,” Kendall said. “We have very valuable partners, very capable partners, and we need to utilize them as much as possible. We’re leaning forward more than we ever have before in terms of sharing technology, and we’re also using more foreign technology.”

Speakers agreed that modernization efforts require collaboration with industry as well as the type of analytical rigor and decisiveness that were hallmarks of Carter’s leadership style.

Speaking on a panel about the future of innovation in defense moderated by Special Competitive Studies Project Chief Executive Officer Ylli Bajraktari, Brown and fellow panelists, Michèle Flournoy, co-founder of WestExec Advisors and former undersecretary of defense for policy; Dr. Eric Schmidt, chair of the SCSP and former Google CEO; and former U.S. National Security Advisor retired Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, commented on the need for innovation, change and speed, as well as Carter’s legacy and the projected role of artificial intelligence in future conflicts.

The phrase “valley of death” was used as a metaphor to illustrate the gap between innovation and adoption, whereby new processes or technology are not implemented or operationalized.

“There’s a lot of innovation on one side of the valley, but there’s not a lot of processes to get things into production and into the hands of our service members quickly,” Brown explained. “It’s how we take and nurture one of these good ideas and start to build it to scale.”

Brown also discussed the Air Force’s implementation of artificial intelligence before calling on those in the audience to help the Department of Defense and the Air Force understand and harness this and other technological advancements.

“I think too often, you’ll see ‘AI’ on a bunch of PowerPoint slides, and it’s [described as] a panacea that’s going to solve all our problems — and we don’t fully understand it,” Brown said.

During his speech, Kendall described his professional relationship and personal friendship with Carter and the ways in which Carter helped mentor him to become a strategic thinker in force building and technological development.

“He was a friend … and someone I admired enormously and still do,” Kendall said. “As I'm in my current position, one of the things I do fairly frequently is ask myself, ‘What would Ash do?’ ... As I think about how to move forward, how to cut through the bureaucracy, how to move tactically supporting strategy and how to achieve big, big objectives by piling up small things that can lead to getting to where you want to go.”

The Ash Carter Exchange was organized by the Special Competitive Studies Project, a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization. Its primary mission and purpose is offering analysis and recommendations for strengthening America’s long-term global competitiveness.