The Pentagon’s new data chief waited days just for an ID card

"I still have to wait in line at the visitor’s entrance."
David Roza Avatar
CAC card
Common Access Cards are one of the few constants of U.S. military life. (Airman 1st Class Scott Warner / U.S. Air Force)

Like a force of nature, U.S. military bureaucracy yields to no one, not even the guy who’s supposed to help fix it. That’s what the Pentagon’s brand-new data and artificial intelligence chief experienced after waiting in line at the five-sided funhouse’s visitor’s entrance for his first three days on the job because he was yet to receive his Common Access Card, the credit-card sized identification badge used by service members and civilians across the military.

“So let me say honestly that the bureaucracy is real,” Craig Martell, the first person to hold the new position, said Wednesday at the Department of Defense’s Digital and AI Symposium, according to Breaking Defense. “I’ve been here three days. I still don’t have a CAC card. I still have to wait in line at the visitor’s entrance.”

The former head of machine learning at the Silicon Valley ride-sharing company Lyft, Martell took up the new Pentagon post so he could make the military adopt artificial intelligence faster.

“I think they [Department of Defense] really need someone from industry who knows how to bring real AI and analytical value at scale and speed,” Martell told Breaking Defense in April. “One of the things that industry does well is, in a very agile way, turn on a dime and say, well, that’s not working, let’s try this and that’s not working, let’s try this. And you develop that muscle over time in industry and I think that’s something DoD really needs.”

Making the Department of Defense cut bureaucracy and adopt new technologies faster is a cause célèbre across the military: from Beltway generals hoping to defeat China in a possible war; to aircrew risking their lives aboard dilapidated aircraft; to sailors running a warship on 20-year-old software; to anyone misfortunate enough to have to use the Defense Travel System. However, the Excalibur of innovation is proving to be much more difficult to pull out of the stone of Pentagon bureaucracy than anyone would like.

“We are running in circles trying to fix transport/connectivity, cloud, endpoints, and various basic IT capabilities that are seen as trivial for any organization outside of the U.S. Government,” wrote Nicolas Chaillan, the Air Force’s first ever Chief Software Officer, in a LinkedIn post announcing his resignation in September. “At this point, I am just tired of continuously chasing support and money to do my job. My office still has no billet and no funding, this year and the next.”

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Chaillan is not the only one frustrated. In April, the Department of Defense’s first chief architect officer, Preston Dunlap, wrote that fighting bureaucracy in the Pentagon is akin to fighting gravity.

“[D]riving innovation and change in a large organization — let alone the largest organization on the planet, the Department of Defense — is hard, but not impossible,” Dunlap wrote in his resignation letter.

When it impedes innovation, bureaucracy could be worse than frustrating: it could be fatal in a war against China, which many experts say is rapidly wearing away the U.S. military’s decades-long technological edge.

“Success in tomorrow’s conflicts will largely depend on how warfighters are able to harness and adapt everything from mission systems on aircraft to sensor packages, networks, and decision aides,” retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula and Heather Penney who are respectively the dean and senior resident fellow for The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, in a July policy paper on network and software development.

However, the outdated bureaucracy of the Department of Defense’s funding categories “prevents software tools from being fielded and employed,” they wrote, which means warfighters are always a step behind their changing battlespace. “This is a recipe for failure given tomorrow’s challenges. To put it bluntly, software and networks shouldn’t be governed by industrial age processes.”

Those industrial age processes are some of Martell’s biggest challenges to “accelerating the adoption of data, analytics, digital solutions, and AI functions to generate decision advantage from the boardroom to the battlefield,” as the military describes his job. Martell said he did that sort of thing “at massive scale” at his old job at Lyft, but he’s never “done it at scale with the bureaucratic resistance that I predict will be here at DoD,” Breaking Defense reported.

It sounds as if Martell is getting to know those challenges real fast. It must be tough to have such a big to-do list but spend a chunk of your morning waiting in line at the visitor’s entrance just so you can get to your office. If Martell had not already tempered his expectations, the wait for a CAC likely has.

“We’re not going to change bureaucracy as a whole,” he said on Wednesday, according to Breaking Defense. “That’s not a challenge I want to put for the team. We need to find the right gaps, the right places where we can leverage value and then that value is going to drive a virtuous cycle of change.”

Go get ‘em Martell — we hope you get your CAC soon!

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