Technology race against China a key concern for Pentagon acquisition nominee

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WASHINGTON — Michael Brown, a veteran tech industry executive who has led the Pentagon’s commercial outreach office since 2018, is President Biden’s pick for the Defense Department’s top procurement job, the White House announced April 2.

Brown was nominated to serve as undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment. He is currently the director of the Defense Innovation Unit, based in Silicon Valley. The Obama administration created the office in 2015 to build ties with startups and venture investors, and help transition technologies from the private sector to military programs. 

The technological competition with China has been a top concern for Brown during his time at DIU.  In 2018 he co-authored a paper on how Chinese venture investments are giving that country access to the “crown jewels of U.S. innovation.”

Chinese venture deals financing early-stage technology companies have grown rapidly in recent years, the paper said. “The technologies where China is investing are the same ones where U.S. firms are investing and that will be foundational to future innovation: artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, augmented-virtual reality, robotics and blockchain technology.”

Under Brown, DIU became an early supporter of emerging space launch companies like Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit and Relativity Space. These companies were selected by DIU to launch experimental DoD payloads as part of an effort to figure out how DoD can leverage commercial launch services. 

DIU also invested in the space surveillance startup LeoLabs which tracks satellite activities in low Earth orbit with a network of phased-array radars. 

As undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment, Brown would oversee a more than $240 billion annual budget for military products and services 

Before joining the U.S. government, Brown was the CEO of two public Silicon Valley technology firms, Symantec and Quantum.

In a recent interview with Francis Rose, host of Government Matters, Brown made the case that using commercial solutions saves taxpayer dollars.

“It’s really going to be important as budgets become tighter at the Defense Department over the next several years for us to take advantage of commercial technology,” Brown said. “ I think that’s going to be critical, so that we can save Defense Department dollars for those technologies the Defense Department in turn, needs to develop on its own — things like hypersonics or directed energy.”

Brown has advocated for the Pentagon to more quickly adopt commercial innovations. One of DIU’s goals was to not let relevant technologies languish in the so-called “valley of death” because it can take years for the Pentagon to fund a program and issue contracts.

Former senior Air Force acquisition executive Will Roper praised the selection of Brown to run DoD acquisitions. 

“This is simply fantastic news for all passionate about helping our military compete in a new era of global technology,” Roper wrote in a social media post.

Biden on Friday also nominated former National Security Agency official Ronald Moultrie to be undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security. Moutrie is currently president and CEO of Oceanus Security Strategies. 

Former Pentagon comptroller Michael McCord, who served in the Obama administration, was selected to return to his former post as undersecretary of defense (comptroller), the Pentagon’s chief financial officer. 

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin endorsed the nominations. “Each of these individuals is talented, experienced and highly qualified for the critical national security roles they will, if confirmed, undertake on behalf of the Department,” he said in a statement. “I look forward to working with the Senate for their speedy confirmation.”