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People who form their ideas about the U.S. military based on Hollywood movies might get the impression that cutting-edge technology is standard in the fighting forces. In fact, the opposite is true. At nuclear sites around the country, technicians still use floppy disks. Only this summer is the U.S. Navy expected to upgrade from Windows XP, an operating system long since scrubbed from home computers. The new F-35 stealth fighter jet, touted as the most sophisticated in the world, was first conceived of in the 1990s.

So when the Defense Department announced last year that it wanted to partner with Silicon Valley to build a massive cloud storage unit where it could securely warehouse and categorize the secret data it collects from intelligence agencies and the military, some experts scoffed. Companies such as Amazon and Google are defined by an ethos of agility and innovation. The Pentagon, by contrast, is known to be clunky and risk averse. Just getting a contract through the department’s famously byzantine procurement process would require a kind of bureaucratic wrangling that a Jeff Bezos or a Tim Cook would find abhorrent.

Yet the Defense Department’s effort to advance the cloud project is making slow progress. The grueling process has revealed all the ways in which the two sides in the partnership are fundamentally incompatible. But it has also forced the Pentagon to confront a sobering truth: If it hopes to maintain U.S. military dominance, it must make such partnerships work. The imperative is bound up with the way technological innovation has shifted over the past few decades from government-funded labs around the country to commercial companies. It’s also tied to some broader changes in the world, including the rise of China as a great power.

The fact that the U.S. government pioneered many of the great technological breakthroughs of the 20th century has become common knowledge. The internet began decades ago as a computer networking project in the offices of the Advanced Research Projects Agency—essentially a Defense Department incubator. The satellite navigation systems that now feature on most smartphones were hatched in the same place.

But starting in the 1990s, as military budgets declined and investment in tech companies soared, the private sector gained a huge advantage in innovation. Most tech firms have focused on producing consumer goods. But some of the technology they’ve developed, if applied to the military, could transform the way war is waged.

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Category: Science