Top NATO commander says his move to software startup exposed flaws in how the military buys technology

There’s a joke circulating the internet about a retired Navy veteran who gets a job as a front desk clerk at Walmart. He is excellent at his job, always friendly and enthusiastic, always ready to help customers. But there’s a problem: he’s also always late for his shift. His manager calls him into his office. He tells the front desk that he’s a real asset to the company, but it’s a problem that he’s always late. The manager, knowing that the reception is a veteran of the navy, asks him, what would they do in the navy if you showed up late in the morning? To which the veteran with a wry smile replies: “They usually stood up, saluted and said, ‘Hello, Admiral. It’s another great day in the Navy. Can I have your coffee, sir?

I remembered this joke when I spoke to Air Marshal Johnny Stinger – one of the highest ranking officers in Britain’s Royal Air Force and currently Deputy Commander of NATO’s Allied Air Command at Ramstein , Germany – of the 13 months he recently spent as an intern at a London-based software startup called Rebellion Defence.

Stringer, whose official title at Rebellion was “RAF Fellow”, had to do a lot more than just fetch coffee, which he readily admitted was much better at the start than on an RAF base. “I was exposed to every aspect of the business except running a profit and loss account and being involved in HR,” says Stringer. What he’s learned, he hopes to take back to the military as it seeks to invest in new technological capabilities.

Rebellion is one of a slew of new defense companies in the United States and Europe that hope to loosen the stranglehold that a handful of major defense contractors have on most military budgets and, in doing so, disrupt the how defense technology is acquired and delivered in major western democracies. The Rebellion, like many new entrants, is not about building tanks or missile launchers. Instead, it focuses on creating software, much of which incorporates artificial intelligence, which can do things like integrate data from different types of sensors and analyze it to give commanders a better picture of the battlefield or help them command a fleet of autonomous drones or help defend military communications networks from hackers.

The company was founded in 2019 by a group of government and national security veterans, including Chris Lynch, who previously founded the US Department of Defense’s Defense Digital Service, Nicole Camarillo, a former Cyber ​​Strategist US Army Command, and Oliver Lewis, a former Deputy Director of the British Government’s Digital Service and former British Defense Intelligence officer who served in Afghanistan. The company received funding from former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, as well as venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, Venrock – a fund that invests money for the Rockefeller family – and Lupa Systems, a company who invests money for James Murdoch.

Stringer says he was interested in spending time working for a company like Rebellion because he had just helped put together the UK’s Integrated Defense Review, which highlighted the need for forces British armies to upgrade their technological capabilities and revise procurement processes to make it easier. buy from small and medium enterprises. “I wanted to try to better understand the challenges and opportunities for companies like Rebellion trying to do business with UK Defence,” he tells me.

The UK Ministry of Defense has pledged to increase the amount of procurement spending for small and medium-sized businesses and to make it easier to secure contracts and work with the military. Today, these companies often struggle with Department of Defense red tape. “Even when you do manage to win something, there’s still a lot of legacy bureaucracy and high-volume, low-velocity paperwork before you get to running the technology,” says Lewis, co-founder of Rebellion and head of its business in the UK. .

Military bureaucracy meets startup hustle culture

Stringer says he wanted to learn more about these difficulties firsthand. He also wanted to find out how software startups like Rebellion work: with agile development processes that aim to get a working product to market quickly, then improve it with a series of updates. Most defense contractors – because they usually started life as companies building physical things like ships or tanks – tend to operate on much longer time scales and without thinking to constantly send software updates. And the military itself tends to be bureaucratic places where change happens slowly, if at all.

Additionally, modern software vendors strive to make their software work well with other software through application programming interfaces (APIs). In contrast, traditional defense contractors often created software ecosystems unique to their own military hardware, in part because it was a way to ensure that the military was locked in as customers and could not easily switch to another provider.

Ramstein Air Base, Germany

Martin Goldhahn—DPA/AFP/Getty Images

Although the UK Defense Review was written before Russia invaded Ukraine, the war has already underscored the need for some of the technological capabilities discussed in it: for example, the Ukrainians have had to create software to integrate data from both commercial drones and military data. -quality, ground cameras and a huge range of different military equipment that nations have donated. Stringer says the software can act as “information-age glue,” tying together legacy weapon systems into a cohesive whole that’s far more powerful than any one system would be on its own. “There is a lot you can do to improve [older weapons platforms]even taking into account some of the maybe antediluvian software approaches taken in the past, because of what you’re layering,” he says.

But to create this kind of software “glue” and more importantly to be able to apply AI to help commanders make better decisions, companies large and small will need to adhere to common standards that allow data to be shared between weapons and The surveillance. systems built by different defense contractors. “If you find yourself somehow locked into a program and a particular software standard, and you can’t access it, let alone exploit it and share it, that’s going to cause real problems downstream,” he says.

For Lewis, having Stringer work at the startup gave his team invaluable insights. He was able to give engineers insight into how agents would use the software — and which aspects of the user interface design were useful and which weren’t — that Lewis says they could never get into. simply reading or from brief customer trials.

He also says Stringer provided valuable lessons to Rebellion about leadership, management and organization, the kinds of things that trip up many fast-growing startups. “[Stringer] would sit in our leadership team meetings as an observer and then come up to me and say, ‘These are some of the dynamics that are working and these are things that you may need to reconsider, here are some Restructuring Ideas The team has some ideas here for being more effective in evidence-based decision making,” says Lewis.

Finally, Lewis says it would help the entire industry from small businesses trying to break into the defense industry to senior officers, such as Stringer, to “see what it’s for real, feel the pain and enjoy the successes”.

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