The Bridge Builder

Sitting in the lobby of a hotel in Washington’s waterfront Wharf neighborhood in early December, as the music in the background oscillated between smooth jazz and technopop, Doug Beck held up the pointy end of his tie. “I wear this thing right now every day when I’m out here. I don’t wear it when I’m at DIU in Mountain View.”

DIU is the Defense Innovation Unit, the U.S. Defense Department’s technology accelerator located in Mountain View, California, just a stone’s throw away from Google headquarters and a short drive from other Silicon Valley giants such as Meta, Tesla, and Beck’s recent former employer—Apple. Beck spent 13 years at the world’s second-most valuable company, reporting directly to CEO Tim Cook, before leaving last year to take the helm at DIU. 

The announcement of Beck’s appointment in early April was accompanied by a memo changing the Pentagon reporting structure so that DIU will now be overseen directly by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. It’s a recognition of the agency’s growing importance, as well as the importance writ large of adopting new and emerging technologies into the military. Russia’s war in Ukraine, where private companies such as Microsoft, Amazon, and Starlink have played a critical role in protecting Ukrainian infrastructure and aiding the country’s warfighting effort, served as a wake-up call for Western allies about the need to drastically speed up defense tech procurement. 

“We are absolutely seeing a whole variety of examples in Ukraine of the use of commercial technology,” said Beck, highlighting the particular use of drones, some of which are “literally off the shelf,” as a prime example of how DIU approaches military procurement. “We are all learning an enormous amount about use cases for those technologies that the Ukrainians are innovating on constantly and also the challenges that have to be overcome for their effectiveness.”

DIU has people embedded with the Security Assistance Group-Ukraine—a Germany-based unit under the U.S. military’s European Command that is supporting the Ukrainian war effort against Russia—monitoring troop needs in real time and identifying gaps that could be filled quickly by the commercial tech sector. “By embedding, we’re alongside them,” Beck said. “It’s working with them side by side to say, here’s the most critical problem that we’re trying to solve—how can technology help solve that problem?”

Another five DIU representatives are embedded with Indo-Pacific Command, the U.S. military combatant command responsible for operations in the backyard of an adversary the United States sees as its biggest challenge—China.

Containing China’s technological advancement and its military threat—both of which are spurred on by Beijing’s strategy of military-civil fusion, which aims to transform the Chinese military into the most technologically advanced in the world by co-opting cutting-edge applications from the civilian sector—has been a priority for the Biden administration. Washington can’t afford to be left behind. 

That’s where Beck and DIU come in. “China is central for us to solve for, and central to what we’ve got to be able to focus on from DIU, because they are working very, very hard to amass all kinds of capability, whether it’s sort of more traditional or technology in order to expand their capabilities,” Beck said, highlighting Chinese President Xi Jinping’s reported goal of having China’s military be ready to invade Taiwan by 2027. “While war is neither imminent nor inevitable with China, we have to take that seriously, and our job is to deter that and to be in a position to win if forced to fight. We are not going to be able to do that unless we fully leverage the capability that we have in our tech sector.”

The gloved hand of a soldier wearing a helmet, sunglasses, and camouflage holds a drone device.
The gloved hand of a soldier wearing a helmet, sunglasses, and camouflage holds a drone device.

A military handout shows a soldier holding a commercially made drone. Defense Innovation Unit

Beck is a natural choice to lead an organization that operates at the intersection of Washington and Silicon Valley and aims to bridge the gap between the two very different worlds. He joined Apple in 2009 from Tokyo, leading the company’s business in Northeast Asia at a time when that region was starting to become the cornerstone of Apple’s global growth plans, before coming back to add the Americas region to that portfolio and subsequently taking on a more global role. He also spent several years in China, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asia in a prior role at the consulting firm McKinsey. “I spent a lot of my time in Asia and all of my time thinking about the impact of globalization and how that was transforming businesses at scale,” he said.

His association with the defense world goes back even further. Beck has been in the U.S. Navy Reserve for 26 years—twice as long as he spent at Apple—serving in Iraq and Afghanistan before he joined the tech giant and subsequently commanding a joint reserve unit in Pearl Harbor. He also has a long association with DIU itself, having formed and led a reserve component of the agency for four years from its inception in 2015 under then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter. (It was called DIUx at the time, denoting that it was considered “experimental.”) In fact, he told me that he was even thinking about these issues as far back as graduate school in the early 1990s, when as a Rhodes scholar at the University of Oxford he wrote his thesis on how global value chains in the computer industry intersect with policy decisions.

“That intersection has always been a part of my life,” he said.

Beck sees a twofold role for what he calls “DIU 3.0.” Internally, the organization’s role is akin to that of a football quarterback, he says, bringing together commanders, acquisition officers, and agencies from all branches of the military and becoming a focal point for innovation within the Defense Department. Externally, it gives private sector players that are interested in working with the military—from tiny start-ups to corporate giants—an easy entry point into the Pentagon’s sprawling bureaucracy.

“It used to be DIU wasn’t at the table for those kinds of efforts for the department. We now help set the table,” he said. “It also provides a simple clarifying point for people from the outside.” 

On both sides of that equation, DIU’s goal is straightforward: reducing the time it takes for technology to make its way onto the battlefield. Defense contracting has traditionally been a complicated, drawn-out process dominated by behemoths such as Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and Boeing (to name a few). The commercial tech sector, on the other hand, is all about moving fast and breaking things. DIU’s raison d’être is reconciling those differences and bridging what in defense circles is ominously referred to as the “valley of death”—the long gap between prototype and procurement where promising start-ups and technologies usually fall by the wayside.

By way of illustration, Beck rattles off a list of commercial technologies that can help fulfill real military needs, such as autonomous hardware, remote sensing, energy, robotics, communications, and artificial intelligence. 

“That might take a year to have a great prototype that’s ready to swim or fly, but to go from that idea to a thing that’s swimming or flying and being tested in, say, a year, that then can be exercised over the next six months and then scaled from there—well, that’s still only 18 to 24 months,” he said. “That is dramatically faster than what more traditional processes would lead to, where doing something like that might take five or 10 years. And we don’t have five or 10 years.”

DIU is already working in several of those areas, including helping to procure new unmanned underwater vehicles for the Navy and creating an AI-enabled planning toolkit called Stormbreaker for Indo-Pacific Command. 

Its biggest swing so far is the Replicator Initiative. Announced last August by Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, the initiative aims to bring “multiple thousands” of autonomous drones into the military over the next two years. The Pentagon has begun zeroing in on the specific capabilities it wants to field, though many details on exactly what and how much it plans to buy are yet to be ironed out over the course of this year. It’ll be the biggest test yet of DIU’s mission.

“Replicator is really about two things: It’s about putting real capability in the field fast … and it’s also about building the muscle to do that quickly because we’re going to do it again and again and again,” Beck said. 

Having spent years at one of Silicon Valley’s most innovative companies, he knows that there are many areas where the commercial sector is always going to be ahead of the military. DIU’s emphasis is on “dual-use” technologies, or technologies that can be applied in both contexts.

“Demand for technology drives advancement in areas like artificial intelligence, machine learning, biotech, energy, etc. that are in some areas simply always going to go faster than anything that is bespoke for a defense-only environment,” he said. 

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin takes a closer look at the device used to control a swarm of drones that lifted off from a parking area at the Defense Innovation Unit in Mountain View, Calif, on Dec. 1, 2023.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin takes a closer look at the device used to control a swarm of drones that lifted off from a parking area at the Defense Innovation Unit in Mountain View, Calif, on Dec. 1, 2023.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin takes a closer look at the device used to control a swarm of drones that lifted off from a parking area at the Defense Innovation Unit in Mountain View, California, on Dec. 1, 2023. Lolita Baldor/AP

The United States isn’t the only government trying to fast-track commercial technology into its military. When I bring up the number of times Beck has to shuttle between Washington and San Francisco, he is quick to mention his other recent ports of call. Those include Europe, where NATO last year established its Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic—or DIANA—and India, whose iDEX accelerator partnered with DIU last year. 

“One of our greatest strengths, and one of all of our greatest strengths as an international system, is that we have friends—real friends—and our friends are incredibly capable,” he said. “Our adversaries don’t share that. They barely even have each other.” 

There’s a lot that still has to come together, but Beck feels there’s a “tipping point” that the Pentagon and its allies are well placed to take advantage of. For him personally, it’s a calling he couldn’t pass up. 

“We have an opportunity to really do something about it. You know, if there is a chance for me to come in and make even a 1 percent difference to 1 percent of the potential of our ability to deter a major war, of course I’m going to come do it,” he said. “That’s why I chose to leave a role that I loved at Apple to come and do this.”

Beck speaks quickly and passionately, but he is also not averse to taking lengthy pauses to consider his responses and find the right words. Having already squeezed an extra 10 minutes out of our allotted time before he rushes off to his next engagement, with his team hovering nervously two couches over, I ask one final question that elicits the longest pause of our conversation. Having straddled both of these very different worlds for decades, what do they get most wrong about each other? “I joke that I wear a tie when I’m out here and jeans when I’m out there. … Sometimes people in this world mistake the informality of that world for a lack of clarity or rigor, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Similarly, sometimes people in that world will see the tie or the uniform and think that means hidebound and unable to incorporate new ideas or move out quickly, and that couldn’t be further from the truth,” he said, emphasizing the words to drive his point home. 

Before he leaves, however, Beck wants to share “one more thing”—evoking the phrase made famous by Apple co-founder Steve Jobs at some of the company’s grandest product announcements.

“There can be a misconception that there is a lack of patriotism in our tech sector, and that could not be further from the truth. Technology companies are made up of great Americans who believe in what this country is, what this country can be, and who want to be part of supporting it. We just have to help them to figure out how to get their unique skill sets online to make that difference.”

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