Silicon Valley is Seeking Bigger Role in Defense. Not Everyone Is on Board.

Ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt says the U.S. is in danger of losing its military edge if it doesn’t join forces with Silicon Valley

WASHINGTON—Tech-industry leaders are pushing the Pentagon to adopt commercially developed technologies on a grand scale to counter the rise of China, an initiative that could transform the military and the multibillion-dollar defense-contracting business.

The Pentagon has long led the way in developing advanced technology that found its way into civilian applications, such as GPS and the internet. That balance has shifted, according to tech leaders and others. They contend that the private sector has more talent and greater research budgets than the government—and more advanced capabilities in artificial intelligence and cloud computing—all while the military grows more reliant on technology.

“From the president on down, everyone is saying, ‘OK, we are in a competition with China,’” said Robert Work, a former U.S. deputy secretary of defense. “We are not organized to win the competition, and if we do not correct that, we are doomed to lose it.”

Mr. Work is vice chairman of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, a panel created by Congress in 2018 and chaired by former Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt. Other members include Andy Jassy, chief executive of Amazon. com Inc.; Oracle Corp. CEO Safra Catz and top scientists from Microsoft Corp. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google.

In a report released this year, the commission laid out a road map for the Pentagon to buy commercially designed software and hardware to maintain a strategic edge, as China and other nations step up their tech investments.

The effort faces an array of skeptics and critics, including in some cases rank-and-file tech engineers. Google stepped back from an AI-driven software project with the Pentagon when employees in 2018 found out about it and revolted.

The Pentagon remains a profit-rich target for big tech companies. Analysts say Amazon, Microsoft, Google and others have ambitions to win more of the billions of dollars the Pentagon spends on procurement annually, a market historically dominated by contractors such as Lockheed Martin Corp.

“They don’t enter markets with the goal of being No. 15,” Andrew Hunter, a former Pentagon official and congressional staffer now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, said of large technology companies.

Google, Microsoft and Amazon declined to comment.

Outside the industry, many of those who believe tech companies have become too powerful are concerned that regulating these companies will become even more difficult if they hold additional sway as critical defense contractors.

Tech companies cast themselves as “the only solution to what they portray as an existential threat from China,” said Shoshana Zuboff, Harvard Business School professor emerita and author of the book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.” She says that the data-collection and ad-targeting practices of Google, Microsoft, and Amazon pose the bigger threat.

The Artificial Intelligence commission’s recent findings have nonetheless won support from the Biden administration, the Pentagon and Congress.

“You have made crystal clear that our country needs to play catch-up, and fast,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Mr. Schmidt and other commission members at a conference in July.

The commission’s 756-page report concluded that China is already a peer of the U.S. in some areas of artificial intelligence and is funneling those advancements into its military. In contrast, U.S. “tech leaders and government officials talk about the importance of ‘public-private partnership,’ but there is little action in either direction to deepen it in concrete ways,” the report says.

The commission envisions the military and intelligence bureaucracy working more like a large tech company, with a vast cloud-computing infrastructure enabling teams of engineers to constantly test new software and upgrade capabilities. Other recommendations by the commission, which also includes academics and former Pentagon officials, include boosts to tech-focused research, training and recruitment efforts.

Reshaping the Department of Defense will require rewiring not only hardware and software but also sprawling bureaucracy and procurement processes, a project that has been under way for years. The Pentagon has established Silicon Valley outposts, funded promising startups and tested technologies such as autonomous aircraft. But the department has struggled to adopt new technologies on a large scale, as exemplified by the yearslong legal and administrative battle over the JEDI cloud-computing initiative.

Mr. Schmidt says these hurdles can be overcome.

“What I’ve observed about the government bureaucracy,” Mr. Schmidt said in an interview, “is you go in, and you push—and if you push really hard, you can really make something happen.”

Mr. Schmidt has been pushing his vision since the end of the Obama administration, when Secretary of Defense Ash Carter tapped him to lead the Defense Innovation Board, a panel of military tech advisers.

An antiwar protester in his younger days, Mr. Schmidt donned a Pentagon access badge, met top commanders and jetted to faraway bases. Aboard a wooden-hulled naval vessel in Bahrain several years ago, he watched a sailor sweep for mines using a computer running an outdated version of Windows.

“The government is not prepared,” Mr. Schmidt said in the interview. “There are so many examples where digital technology would completely change the way the systems work.”

Key Pentagon officials and members of Congress have endorsed ideas that Mr. Schmidt and other industry leaders back. Those have included creating a special technology section in the National Defense Strategy, a crucial document for Pentagon spending plans, and speeding up the process for buying new software.

Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, in a June speech, said the department is adopting a “software-engineering mind-set.”

Stalwart military contractors aren’t standing pat. Lockheed Martin is now competing to hire AI experts and invest in tech startups while seeking business partnerships with tech companies. Chief Technology Officer Steven Walker said Lockheed has experience from its existing military platforms that large tech companies lack.

“It’s going to require both of those entities with their different areas of expertise to provide what the U.S. and allied warfighter really need,” Mr. Walker said.

The rise of a tech-military partnership faces other obstacles, not least of which is resistance among the technologists the Pentagon needs.

In 2017, Google agreed to help the Pentagon develop AI for recognizing objects on video. When the company’s involvement in Project Maven was reported the following year, employees protested and petitioned senior executives to pull back. Google capitulated, promising not to renew the contract and later vowing not to develop AI for weapons.

Mr. Schmidt, who departed Google in 2019, has said he disagreed with Google’s decisions around Project Maven, which left sour feelings in Washington.

“I’m not sure that the people at Google will enjoy a world order that is informed by the norms and standards of Russia or China,” Gen. Joe Dunford, then chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a forum hosted by the Washington Post in 2018. “We’re the good guys.”

Microsoft received similar pushback from employees in 2019 for letting Army soldiers test the HoloLens augmented-reality headset, originally conceived for the likes of architects and surgeons.

At the AI commission’s first public event in November 2019, Mr. Schmidt invited Google policy executive Kent Walker on stage next to the officer in charge of Project Maven. Mr. Walker characterized the dust-up as an isolated event. “We are a proud American company,” he said.

Microsoft this year signed a contract worth up to $21.9 billion to supply the Army with HoloLens. All three tech giants are competing for the Pentagon’s business in cloud computing and other areas, armed with the capital and computing infrastructure to draw top talent.