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The Defense Innovation Unit is undergoing a “pretty significant shift,” Doug Beck, a former vice president at Apple and captain in the Navy Reserve who took over DIU in April, told Breaking Defense.
As originally appeared on Breaking Defense.
Pentagon glitched

The Pentagon logo, after some technical difficulties. (Graphic by Breaking Defense)

WASHINGTON — By design, the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) has existed as an office always somewhat apart from the Defense Department. But under new leadership, DIU appears to be headed for a new chapter in its eight-year existence, one that is less about trying to change the game and more about playing on the same team.

The change represents a “pretty significant shift,” Doug Beck, a former vice president at Apple and captain in the Navy Reserve who took over DIU in April, told Breaking Defense, with the office aiming to become more embedded across the department. 

“It’s about taking the capability that we have built during DIU 2.0 of solving real military problems with commercial technology and getting them deployable and scalable for the warfighter, taking that capability now and applying it for strategic effect,” Beck said in an interview Sept. 13.

Beck earlier in the year said DIU was at a “tipping point” where it’ll look less at proving the worth of new technologies and more on scaling them for broad military use. As a result, he said last week, the office will be focusing away from trying to move interesting technologies into the defense sphere, and more on understanding the operational gaps faced by warfighters and combatant commands in order to fill those needs. 

“So first focusing that capability in helping us solve those problems, where a commercial technology can make the biggest difference, and then it’s about working with the rest of the department very actively including the services and our partners in the Joint Staff and the rest of the Office of the Secretary of Defense as well as, obviously, with the combatant commanders who we worked with on that in the first place to help ensure that we can actually get to scale,” Beck said. 

Pete Modigliani, vice president at Beacon Global Strategies, told Breaking Defense that what Beck described is a “natural progression” for DIU. Under the new setup, “This is less about us versus them, the innovation system versus the broader defense acquisition enterprise, and it truly is a partnership,” he said. 

There are signs that integration has begun in earnest. Earlier this month, Adm. John Acquilino, the head of US Indo-Pacific Command, announced a new directorate under his command to more easily connect industry to the military’s key innovation programs. As part of the new “Joint Mission Accelerator Directorate,” DIU will be sending an embed to INDOPACOM who will serve as the directorate’s deputy and chief technology officer, a DIU spokesperson told Breaking Defense. 

DIU will also be a key part in supporting a recently announced effort dubbed Replicator, which aims to field thousands of attritable autonomous systems in an effort to counter China’s military mass. Although its exact role within the initiative is somewhat unclear, Beck told Breaking Defense that the organization will help “set the agenda” for Replicator and help “to catalyze the rest of the team, which is really a whole of department team to get after the work of the [Defense] Innovation Steering Group, which Replictor’s the first big bang that the group is focusing on.”

DIU’s shift in focus has “all kinds of implications” for the department, Beck added. “It has implications for the role that we play in some of the key processes and working groups in the department to help things to scale,” he said. 

What DIU’s Changes Mean In Real Terms

When then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter stood up DIU in 2015, it was envisioned as sort of a go-between for the tech community and the Pentagon. The office was charged with going out and meeting with companies based in Silicon Valley — and later with expanded hubs in Boston and Austin — to both bring the best ideas back to the department and to convince those companies that investing in defense products was worth the cost.

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DIU was created a direct report to Carter, who made tech innovation a key part of his tenure. But under Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, the office was downgraded several levels, moving from a direct report to a subsidiary under the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, with a subsequent natural curtailing of influence within the Pentagon.

When Beck came on board in April, Secretary Lloyd Austin reverted the group back to its original direct-report status, something Modigliani said is “critically important.”

“It’s not going to be a silver bullet that solves all the problems, but it shows a clear signal to the rest of the department and industry how important it is,” Modigliani said in Sept. 12 interview. “So it’s less about moving boxes on an org chart, but showing that this is [secretary of defense] level of attention, it needs the support across the department, Congress and industry….If DIU is running into challenges, [Austin] can help break down some of those barriers.”

Modigliani added that DIU needs a “broader reach” and partnership with the acquisition community as well. And while there aren’t many publicly available details on Replicator, Modigliani said just having DIU involved is going to be a huge advantage for its ability to tap leading commercial technologies and vendors and leveraging rapid acquisition and contracting practices.

But while DIU expands and shifts its mission, the “devil is going to be in the details,” Will Roper, former acquisition chief for the Air Force, told Breaking Defense in a Sept. 11 interview. According to Roper, how DIU interfaces with the military services is going to be key. 

“And those details aren’t just the plan that [Beck] has brought in, it’s going to be how DIU works with the services and I think that that’s going to be an area to watch because ultimately the services have to field the systems and train people and equip for warfare….So I think it won’t just be in DIU’s hand, it’s also going to be in the rest of the department,” Roper said. 

“So I’ll be watching the DIU 3.0 pivot, but I’ll equally be watching: Is the department codifying its investment process on the whole so that private investors and startups know how to work with it?” he added. “And that is having clear roles and mission.”