- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter will announce new initiatives Thursday to help the military stay on the cutting edge of technology, but some worry that budget concerns may thwart the Pentagon’s initiatives to modernize.

Mr. Carter will speak in Silicon Valley about ways the Defense Department can work with private innovators as well as discuss how to attract the best people to serve in the military in growing fields like cybersecurity.

One of the initiatives Mr. Carter will speak about involves the Department of Defense setting up a full-time outreach presence in Silicon Valley. A senior defense official said Wednesday that active-duty troops, reservists and civilian personnel will all be part of the initiative in California, which the department hopes to have operational in about a month.

In addition to discussing how to bring top-tier talent into the military, Mr. Carter is also announcing a new program to make the best use of the highly skilled technological employees the government already has.

The same team that helped “rescue” the Obamacare website, HealthCare.gov, is getting the task of helping the Defense Department and Department of Veterans Affairs seamlessly share electronic health records on service members and veterans, the senior defense official said. Interoperability between the two departments’ systems has long been a complaint of veterans service organizations and has caused problems for those transitioning out of the service, who must bring CDs with PDFs of their records to the VA.

Veterans advocates have urged the two departments to come up with a system where files can simply be clicked and dragged from one system to the other to make a veteran’s transition from active service (the Defense Department) to retirement (VA) as easy as possible.

While in California’s tech hotbed, Mr. Carter will also meet with Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, to learn from the social media giant how to manage large groups of smart people, another senior defense official said.

Mr. Carter’s visit to Silicon Valley — the first by a sitting defense secretary in almost 20 years — shows his commitment to making sure the military keeps up technologically with the threats it faces, the official said.

However, in an appearance Wednesday, the Air Force’s chief of staff said he was worried too many resources were being dedicated on how to trim the military’s budget and not enough on technology modernization.

“As we make the recommendations on what to cut, you can’t not modernize. Not modernizing is not an option for an air force — not the air force of a superpower,” Air ForceGen. Mark Welsh said at a Defense One leadership briefing event.

Gen. Welsh said even in a tight budget environment, it’s important for services to continue to invest in modernization to ensure they are technologically prepared to face the next threat, which often emerges faster than services can predict.

If modernization gets cut, troops will be in the position 10 years down the road where the country asks them to act but they can’t because they don’t have the tools or capability, he said.

He also said the military needs to be able to respond more quickly to changing warfare requirements, noting that the military is regularly surprised by emerging threats like the Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL.

“We are surprised routinely by world situations that develop. Eighteen months ago, who in here had heard of ISIS?” Gen. Welsh said. “We have to be able to adjust quickly to new and emerging threats.”

He said it’s crucial for the military to be able to predict threats years in advance and prepare to defeat them instead of “waiting until it hits us in the face, then figuring out how to find a solution.”

One aspect of that is being able to keep up with the rapid pace of technological change. If the service isn’t able to do that, Gen. Welsh said the Air Force will become “irrelevant.”

“I believe the biggest threat to the Air Force is our inability to change ahead of the pace of change around us. Everything is changing so fast these days,” he said. “If we aren’t able to stay ahead of the pace of that change, again, we will become irrelevant.”

The Air Force has taken the lead in the fight against the Islamic State, conducting airstrikes over Iraq and Syria for months. Gen. Welsh said having an air component is crucial to modern warfare, both for offensive operations and other efforts like search and rescue.

“In today’s warfare, if you have a joint force fighting without today’s air and cybercapabilities that modern air forces bring to the fight, you will lose. If you don’t have air power, you will lose. It’s just plain as the nose on your face,” he said.

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