SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — To take advantage of the needed capabilities offered by technology startups, the military has to focus more specifically on a smaller number of companies to nurture, the Air Force’s top officer said Saturday.

Gen. CQ Brown, speaking here on a panel at the Reagan National Defense Forum, said that he visited Silicon Valley recently and met with multiple companies and venture capitalists. While he didn’t identify specific firms, he said he “learned a lot this past week on semiconductors and artificial intelligence.”

“What we’ve got to do is actually pick some winners,” he said, pointing to rocket maker SpaceX as an example of an innovative company that has gained traction in the defense space.

“How we align and bring them forward — it’s going to take some nurturing,” Brown said of helping new tech companies move through the acquisition process. “It’s like hand-walking a staff package through the Pentagon to make sure it gets done.”

Once successful, Brown added, the military will have developed a “pattern of doing things a little differently.”

Commercial tech firms have become increasingly involved in the annual Reagan Forum, but the event’s panelists generally represent large firms, such as Microsoft or Google.

Indeed, speaking on the same panel, Karen Dahut, a former Booz Allen Hamilton executive recently tapped to run Google’s public sector business, said this is the most fruitful time for innovative companies focused on aerospace and defense, given significant VC investment.

“We need to get that capital working for us,” she said, referring to the military. “Those companies have not been able to get to a scaled program inside the department.”

Dahut advocated for picking several key technologies and giving them to troops for testing.

A group overseen by the deputy defense secretary is working aggressively to address the “pain points” faced by small companies who want to work with the Pentagon, according to Heidi Shyu, the under secretary of defense for research and engineering.

She said she presented to the deputy defense secretary a collection of issues she heard during meetings with small companies.

Kathleen Hicks, the No. 2 civilian in the department, said, ‘This is great. Let’s go tackle this,’” and then brought in other Pentagon offices, including acquisition and sustainment, the chief information office and the chief digital and artificial intelligence office, among others, Shyu said.

Now, those offices are tackling a variety of issues, from security clearance issues to workforce challenges. Hicks is holding monthly meetings on their progress, Shyu said.

The goal is to “simplify our contracting so we can award small companies much quicker, rather than taking many, many months,” she added. “We absolutely are trying to tackle a lot of acquisition pain points.”

Marjorie Censer is the editor of Defense News. She was previously editor of Inside Defense. She has also worked as the defense editor at Politico, as well as a staff writer at the Washington Post, the Carroll County Times and the Princeton Packet.

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