Remembering Ash Carter
The Innovative Secretary of Defense Who Changed the Pentagon, Silicon Valley, and the Trajectory of Our Nation
Hello, I’m Ylli Bajraktari, CEO of the Special Competitive Studies Project. In this edition of the 2-2-2, our Chair Eric Schmidt reflects on the legacy of the former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. Dr. Carter was an inspiring leader, a mentor to many on the SCSP team, and we miss him dearly.
Until 2016, I had only two memories of my time in Washington, DC. Growing up in Arlington. And, testifying before Congress as the Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of Google. But that year, Ash Carter – the 25th U.S. Secretary of Defense who we recently bid, way too early, a final farewell at the National Cathedral – called me. He wanted me to join him in serving our nation – as the Chair of the Defense Innovation Board (DIB) – which he was standing up.
Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, congratulates two army soldiers on a call from his office at the Pentagon on 30 June 2015. DoD photo by Glenn Fawcett.
That call would change the course of my career, and yet, it was just one of many calls that Ash made during his long and distinguished career in public service that changed the trajectory of our nation. For the better.
That year, he had rightly concluded that a concerning gulf had emerged between our national security community in Washington, DC and the new innovation ecosystem in Silicon Valley. The partnership between government and industry, and between private sector innovators and public servants, that had served our nation well during the Cold War had fractured. In the public narrative, especially in Silicon Valley, the leaks by Edward Snowden had led to this rupture. But in reality, as damaging as the leaks were, the gulf had started to develop much earlier. Starting in the 1990s, a new generation of tech innovators emerged in a world in which American technological (and military) primacy was uncontested and the world – rather than the government – was the primary destination for their cutting-edge products. A new generation of national security experts had also emerged, preoccupied primarily with threats from the Middle East that, serious as they were, did not always require advanced technologies to address. I had sensed this all, but Ash diagnosed it precisely. And he had a vision of how we could go about bridging the gap.
Secretary Carter does a worldwide troop talk on 1 September 2015. DoD photo by Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz.
Though Ash and I had traveled two very different career paths – him as a statesman-academic on the East Coast and me as an innovator-executive on the West Coast – we were both scientists by training. We also shared a deep appreciation for the value of public-private partnership to national security and innovation. For me, it stemmed from funding I received for my graduate work in computer science from the National Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. For Ash, I believe it stemmed from having been trained by some of the top nuclear scientists who had been involved in the Manhattan Project and the subsequent arms control proposals. In spite of our different career paths, we agreed that we were in a new world – one in which the nature of the competition facing our government and our private sector was fundamentally changing, especially from China.
Most importantly, we agreed on the urgency. Ash’s instructions were clear to me and music to my ears: get results.
In the months that followed, we assembled an incredible Defense Innovation Board of 15 innovators, scholars, and leaders, to include Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn; Walter Isaacson of the Aspen Institute; Admiral Bill McRaven, who had orchestrated the successful operation against Osama bin Laden; Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist and author; and Adam Grant, a brilliant young organizational psychologist from Wharton. We were fortunate to have Joshua Marcuse as our first Executive Director – a true public servant. Throughout our work, we traveled with Ash and members of the DIB visited countless military installations at home and abroad to hear first-hand the pressing needs of our service members. And we welcomed Ash to Silicon Valley – the first Secretary of Defense to visit in 20 years.
I invited Ash to attend the first DoD Innovation Advisory Board during the RSA Security Conference in San Francisco. DoD photo.
In the years that followed, with backing from Ash, and subsequently from Secretaries Jim Mattis and Mark Esper, the DIB successfully advocated for greater use of emerging technologies and the digital transformation of the defense enterprise, especially by incorporating artificial intelligence (AI) in defense activities. With the conviction that AI would be decisive in the ensuing great power competition, the DIB sought to help the DoD assemble the foundational building blocks it would need to lay for its adoption: cloud, data, modern software, technical talent, and so forth.
The DIB’s Software Acquisition & Practices report was instrumental in launching the “software revolution” across DoD. DIB’s recommendations helped launch Project Maven,
Fundamentally, though, what Ash started with the DIB – and the corollary initiatives of the Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental (DIU-X) and the Defense Digital Service (DDS) – forged a new partnership between Washington and Silicon Valley. He did not just rebuild trust, he fundamentally changed the relationship. Because of his outreach and the willing partners he found, gone are the days of technology engineers signing petitions against working with the U.S. government.
At DoD, the number of innovation units in each of the military services and defense agencies has blossomed since 2016 (see Graph 1). Four of the nation's premier tech companies recently reached a deal with DoD to help it transition to cloud computing.
Notably, the significant increases in R&D budget that Ash championed and began in 2015, reached new highs in last year’s FY2023 defense budget. And in an ultimate testament to the genius and strength of his ideas, Ash’s initiatives passed two fundamental tests – they survived across two U.S. presidential administrations in Washington, DC, and prompted the emergence of new disruptive technologies and executives in Silicon Valley (and beyond).
The Defense Innovation Board, now under the leadership of Mike Bloomberg, continues to make important advances, including by moving to build DoD’s partnership with Wall Street. Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental is no longer experimental – it is now a permanent Defense Innovation Unit, and has transitioned more than 50 prototypes to production. Beyond the physical hardware and software advances he affected throughout the DoD, Ash’s legacy of innovation can be found in the hearts and minds of the people he trained at Harvard and MIT, or personnel he inspired at the Pentagon.
Ash’s strategic deliverables for the nation span over thirty years. From helping to bring the Cold War to a responsible end, saving the lives of countless servicemembers by equipping them with mine-resistant vehicles, figuring out how to short circuit the “valley of death” of Pentagon’s acquisition, engineering the strategic reorientation of DoD and the U.S. government towards the Asia-Pacific, and making the U.S. military more open to all of America’s talent. The list goes on. Each is a tectonic change in its own right. But the really impressive part is how many strategic initiatives Ash could advance simultaneously, within a short period of time, and make them stick.
I was fortunate to witness first-hand Ash re-introduce the “bug of innovation” to the DoD, as he would often say. And to Silicon Valley he brought back the importance of public service. In the six years following his call to serve, I have proudly focused on carrying forward both missions – helping the Pentagon and the U.S. government more broadly to harness the promise of technologies it needs to keep America safe and encouraging companies in Silicon Valley and beyond to help our government. It is the work I did with 14 of my fellow commissioners at the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence from 2018-2021. And it is the work that I now continue with my philanthropic endeavor – the Special Competitive Studies Project. This is the most important work of my career.
I am tremendously grateful to Ash for calling on me in 2016. Our nation owes him a profound debt of gratitude for setting us on this path. As President Biden fondly noted during Ash’s service at the National Cathedral recently: “Ash was a force, a force of nature. His genius is evident. His integrity, unfailing. His commitment to service before self was literally inspiring.”
In 2018, after I left Google, a number of its employees signed a petition opposing continued work with DOD on Project Maven. Google decided not to renew the contract. I disagreed with this decision then and I continue to believe it was wrong.