The Military-Technological Complex: How the US Army Works With the Civilian Tech Industry

Microsoft's US Army deal has been getting a lot of press—and a lot of heat. But it’s hardly unique.

Microsoft workers recently grabbed headlines with a petition against the company’s $480 million deal with the military, a deal that would see US military members kitted out with up to 100,000 of Microsoft’s HoloLenses. The protesting workers object to the military’s statement that they will use the HoloLens to “increase lethality,” and say that its use on the battlefield would “[turn] warfare into a simulated ‘video game,’ further distancing soldiers from the grim stakes of war and the reality of bloodshed.”

A multimillion-dollar deal between Microsoft and the U.S. military giving soldiers access to battlefield AR has been extremely controversial. But it’s only one of the ways that the military  is working with the civilian tech market. (Image courtesy of Conrad Johnson/U.S. Army)

The deal is controversial, but it’s far from unusual. To gain an advantage in a predicted technological “arms race” with China, the US military has started using its “military-civil fusion” tactic, making direct connections with the civilian tech industry.

The HoloLens Deal

Back in November, Microsoft won a $480 million deal to help develop the military’s augmented reality (AR) program: the Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS).

While both the Israeli and the U.S. Armies have used the HoloLens for drills before, this contract would involve their use in combat. A government document quoted by Bloomberg says that the AR program is designed to “increase lethality by enhancing the ability to detect, decide and engage before the enemy.”

While Microsoft leadership was enthusiastic about the deal, not all of its workers agreed. An internal petition publicized on February 22rd called on CEO Satya Nadella and President Brad Smith to cancel the deal. The workers involved say that they “refuse to create technology for warfare and oppression,” and that engineers went into the making of the HoloLens in the understanding that it would be used for civilian pursuits like teaching, construction, space exploration and gaming. “We did not sign up to develop weapons, and we demand a say in how our work is used,” the letter reads.

While the petitioners acknowledge that Microsoft has supplied the military with technology in the past, they say that the use of the HoloLens to help kill “crossed the line” into weapons development. They also ask Microsoft to stop building weapon tech and appoint an independent ethics review board. As of February 25th, the petition had 250 signatures.

Microsoft’s response was decisive: the following Monday, Nadella said that the company wasn’t dropping the contract. “We made a principled decision that we’re not going to withhold technology from institutions that we have elected in democracies to protect the freedoms we enjoy,” Nadella told CNN Business at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

His words paralleled an October blog post by Smith, which said that, while Microsoft will continue to address “important ethical and public policy issues,” the Army should have “access to the nation’s best technology.”

“The Nation’s Best”

The U.S. military and intelligence departments are already serviced by, if not the best, then certainly the biggest tech companies in the game.

Microsoft has been working with the U.S. Army for 30 years. In 2016, it won a major $927 million information technology and consulting contract from the DoD and followed it up with a deal to provide Azure Cloud services to the major U.S. intelligence agencies in 2018. This January, Microsoft was also awarded a $1.76 billion for IT consulting and support services to branches of the DoD.

Google was briefly involved with the military’s Project Maven, a project that used machine learning to analyze drone imagery taken in combat zones to identify threats and track enemy movements.

Amazon Web Services (AWS) is one of the companies that are the most involved in both the military and intelligence agencies. It is the official cloud provider of the CIA, and it works as a computing subcontractor for the DoD. A 2013 cloud computing contract helped the CIA figure out which legacy tech was working, and a 2017 contract provided the intelligence organization with a cloud service to host data at the “secret” clearance level.

For many of these companies, the big prize is the contract for the Army’s Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI), an encrypted cloud platform meant to house most of the organization’s digital data and build AI algorithms into its[MM4]  processing. Rather than spreading the contract out between multiple contractors, the Pentagon has opted to award the entire contract as a single $10 billion deal. Oracle, Microsoft, IBM and Amazon are some of the largest companies competing for the jackpot (as was Google, before the company pulled out of the running).

“We’re the Good Guys”

The DoD’s huge budgets are tempting for large civilian tech companies. But more recent partnerships between Big Tech and the military have caused a certain amount of friction: not everyone who works at these companies signed up to be in the business of war. And the last year has seen a growing number of protests like the Microsoft petition.

The most famous one is the petition against Google’s Project Maven. Google had anticipated that there would be backlash to its contract. Leaked emails from AI researcher Fei-Fei Li ask Google colleagues to “Avoid at ALL COSTS any mention or implication of AI,” when talking to the media about it[MM5] .

But the company clearly underestimated how significant the backlash would be. After the contract was announced, over 4,000 employees signed a petition urging Google not to continue with the project, stating: “We believe that Google should not be in the business of war.” While CEO Sundar Pichai initially said that Maven was developing the AI for “non-offensive” purposes, Google pulled out of the contract in June 2018, after months of bad press.

Google’s Project Maven applied AI to drone footage like this photo to calculate things like enemy troop movements. The project was discontinued after serious controversy both inside and outside of Google. (Image courtesy of Getty.)

Later in the year, Microsoft was hit with a protest by employees over its dealings with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (better known as ICE). A corporate blog post back in January had announced that the organization was “proud” to support ICE with the company’s Azure cloud services. When the federal government started enforcing a “zero-tolerance” policy that separated children from their migrant parents, 100 employees published a letter saying that they “refuse[d] to be complicit.”

In response, CEO Nadella said that the company’s cloud services were “supporting legacy mail, calendar, messaging and document management workloads,” and that the company wasn’t directly involved in programs separating families. But not all employees were mollified by his words. Speaking to Vanity Fair, one anonymous employee said that it “hits a little too close to IBM’s work during the Holocaust,” a twelve-year alliance that saw the tech giant directly cataloguing information like the census of Germany’s Jewish population and codes for concentration camp deaths. The same technology was used also for the U.S. internment of its Japanese-American population.

The rocky relationship between certain parts of the tech industry and the military has left some members of the military frustrated. In a recent Financial Times article, National Security Technology Accelerator director Adam Jay Harrison said that too many tech businesses are “turning their backs” on the Army.

Some are even more direct. At a security forum last year, Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “[Working with the Army] is not about doing something that’s unethical, illegal or immoral. This is about ensuring that we collectively can defend the values for which we stand.” Dunforth continued, “I have a hard time with companies that are working very hard to engage in the market inside China… then don’t want to work with the U.S. military. I just have a simple expression: ‘We are the good guys.’”

Cold War II

Dunford’s statement hints why the military continues working with civilian tech companies despite conflict: many in the Army think the country’s tech has fallen behind China’s. President Xi Jinping recently wrote a clause into the constitution mandating that companies operating within China share tech know-how with the government, which is also investing heavily in tech R&D.

Many in the military see that as a problem for the U.S.—a sign that the country isn’t the only dominant power on the world stage. In a speech at John Hopkins University this January, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said, “Our competitive edge has eroded in every domain of warfare, air, land, sea, space and cyberspace, and it is continuing to erode.”

To gain an advantage in this hypothetical arms race, the DoD is trying to take on what it calls China’s “military-civil fusion”: working with civilian partners and using civilian methods. And, when big tech companies prove too difficult to work with directly, the department has been creating its own “civilian” projects.

Traditionally, the DoD has funneled much of its new technology research through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Dating back to 1957, the organization says that it “works within an innovation ecosystem that includes academic, corporate and governmental partners, with a constant focus on the Nation’s military Services.”

In practice, the department hires “program managers” from outside of the military to oversee its projects and gives them a very high budget for projects they can pitch convincingly. Right now, DARPA is planning to invest $2 billion in creating more advanced and flexible AI for military projects over the next five years.

A mixed university and Army team, after winning 2018’s MD5’s “A-Hack of the Drones” hackathon. This hackathon is one of the Army’s “embassies” to the tech industry, a way of drawing in tech talent to solve military problems. (Image courtesy of Vinicius Goecks/Texas A&M University.)

In 2015, the military also debuted the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), a Silicon-Valley-based organization that aims to work directly with companies developing cutting-edge tech, in order to get it to the military faster. Startups will send in teams to military bases to figure out how the army can incorporate their tech to make life easier—for example, by making an app for scheduling the refueling of tankers.

In addition to companies, the military works with city governments. Recently, the city of San Diego and the Marine Corps signed a “cooperative smart city agreement,” where the city and the Marines share technical information and collaborate on topics like drones and GPS phone locators.

But the newest initiative, and perhaps the one most focused on marrying the civil and the military spheres, is the MD5 National Security Technology Accelerator. Launched in 2016, the MD5 works with universities and venture tech companies to create small groups of innovators who solve big military problems. In the case of universities, the innovators are students. At classes like Duke University’s Hacking for Defense, these students are given actual military problems to solve as school assignments.

According to Tommy Sowers, Southeast Regional Director for the MD5, that model is essential to the Army’s future; “It’s clear that for our nation to continue to succeed, we can’t just tap in to the one percent of folks that are serving; we’ve got to be tapping into the other 99 percent,” says Sowers

What Next?

In 1945, a group of scientists co-signed a letter much like the Microsoft petition, urging their employer to stop developing weapons. The difference? Their employer was the US government, and the weapon in question was the atomic bomb.

Physicist Leo Szilard and 69 of his colleagues at the Manhattan Project’s “Metallurgical Laboratory” wrote to President Truman that with Germany’s defeat, the U.S. no longer needed to develop atom bombs to counter the opposing nation. They believed that Japan should be given the chance to surrender, and worried that further developing nuclear weapons could lead to them being used against the United States.

“If after this war a situation is allowed to develop in the world which permits rival powers to be in uncontrolled possession of these new means of destruction, the cities of the United States as well as the cities of other nations will be in continuous danger of sudden annihilation,” the letter says. The letter was sent on July 17, 1945. Less than a month later, the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Less than five years later, the Soviet Union tested its own nuclear bomb, sparking the arms race between the U.S. and Soviet Russia

Conflicts between the U.S. military and the scientists who help them develop tech are nothing new, and neither are arms races. What’s different now is who is involved.

The Microsoft employees protesting the HoloLens deal say that “[they] did not sign up to create weapons, and [they] demand a say in how [their] work is used.” In a tech market that’s increasingly intertwined with the military, that may be a difficult sentiment to stand by.