Dear Silicon Valley: The Pentagon Has Sent You a Friend Request

With the Pentagon's new startup in Silicon Valley, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter aims to give the military an injection of energy and risk taking, as well as greater familiarity with technology and tech culture. Yuri Gripas/Reuters

When Defense Secretary Ashton Carter first spoke about the Pentagon's startup in Silicon Valley, the former Harvard physicist said he had great expectations. "I've given it a very open charter," Carter said at the RSA Conference in San Francisco on March 2. "One of the ideas was for some of our people to get familiar not just with the technology but the culture."

It's called Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx), and Experimental is part of the name because the company will have many iterations, Carter explained.

A few years ago, the idea of having career military men mesh with Silicon Valley startup bros may have been the butt of jokes in San Francisco tech circles. But for the past seven months, the Pentagon has not been kidding around. Employees with the startup have ditched their military fatigues and stone-cold demeanors for relaxed jeans and happy-go-lucky smiles as they knock on their neighbors' doors, from other startups to tech giants like Google.

DIUx is emerging at a time when Washington and Silicon Valley are as far apart as they've ever been in terms of philosophical principles regarding technology. Soured first by the Edward Snowden revelations, their relations were further chilled by the Apple-FBI feud over smartphone encryption.

While some may see DIUx as the Pentagon capitulating and asking Silicon Valley for help, the company's director, George Duchak, views it differently.

"The military and the valley drifted apart for some reason in the mid-'90s," Duchak tells Newsweek. "We helped the valley grow in the '70s and '80s. Then we began to close down military bases in the Bay Area, like Alameda, Treasure Island and the Presidio in San Francisco. Now we are trying to resurrect the connective tissues."

When Newsweek visited DIUx's offices in Mountain View, California—less than 3 miles from the Googleplex campus—for its "Army Cyber Innovation Challenge" on March 31, they had the feel of a startup. Translucent, neon green and orange window panels divided one part of the room from the other, and clusters of standing desks were at every corner. The employees—all from the Army, the Navy, the Air Force and the Marines—wore loose-fitting shirts, jeans and sneakers.

Nevertheless, the vibe was still somewhat off-kilter compared with that of the typical Silicon Valley company. Posters preaching core Army values like honor and respect lined the corridors, and standing desks and jeans aside, the employees had none of the free-flowing, relaxed ethos that most startup workers in San Francisco exude. Many of these men served as soldiers during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars; some were flying F-16s six months before joining DIUx.

"In business, there is no clear delineation between military and civilians," says Ernie Bio, DIUx's director of the Cyber Element. He is also a lieutenant colonel who served in Iraq multiple times. "We can't keep doing business in the military as we have usually done," he points out.

The word agility was on the tip of most tongues during the Army Cyber Innovation Challenge, which drew more than 120 military people, interested contractors and cybersecurity experts. The Pentagon is seen as being too stratified in its chains of command to adapt quickly enough to threats such as the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) and China, which are content to launch "good enough to use now" attacks on the ground and over the internet, according to keynote speaker and local venture capitalist Steve Blank.

The Defense Innovation Unit Experimental held its Army Cyber Innovation Challenge on March 31 at its offices in Mountain View, California. DIUx

Because the Pentagon was too stuck following protocols, Carter decided it required an injection of energy and risk taking. The Pentagon needed Silicon Valley.

"Here is the problem: The Department of Defense has created an ecosystem that primarily excludes 99 percent of ways to engage new thinking," says Duchak. "The DoD is not very agile. But Silicon Valley's ethos is different. Tech is largely democratized. Companies here are allowed to make failure."

Seven months into DIUx's existence, Duchak can already declare that it is "coming out of adolescence." It is speeding up the process of approving work done for the Pentagon by outside contractors, and winners of its Army Cyber Innovation Challenge are expected to be selected and awarded grants to build prototypes within a relatively rapid 90 days.

But Duchak won't say how successful DIUx has been until its one-year mark, and he has one peculiar gauge to measure how it's doing. "I want that phone to ring and…[for the caller to be] the government saying, 'I need your help,'" he says as he points to a phone in the interview room. "It's about staying relevant. If this goes well, this can be the blueprint for other government departments."