Upgrading the Armed Forces, One Software Program at a Time

By Colin Colter, Duke Government Relations

June 3, 2019

The technology supporting America’s military needs a software update. Although cyber-attacks and ransomware rule news outlet front pages, the U.S. military’s most pressing needs are more routine. Questions of how to design and budget training regimens, how to communicate medical information, and how to ‘hear’ terrorist propaganda on social media are all top of mind for local military unit commanders taking part in a special Department of Defense (DOD) program, as part of DOD’s National Security Innovation Network (NSIN), meant to upgrade the armed forces.

As part of NSIN’s work, Hacking for Defense (H4Dä) puts the ‘idea architecture’ of a university system to work solving some of the military’s most intractable problems.

Duke Hacking for Defense, which just completed its inaugural year, is a university-sponsored class that allows students of all ages and disciplines (and a handful of alumni as well) to develop an understanding of the problems and needs of government sponsors in the Department of Defense.

H4D uses the ‘Lean Startup’ method to address technological problems in national security. Developed by Steve Blank at Stanford University, the ‘Lean Startup’ methodology encourages experimentation over planning, ‘customer’ feedback over prediction, and iterative design over traditional end-product unveiling.

Working directly with their military liaisons, the students developed and prototyped solutions to the sponsor’s needs within one academic year.

Green Beret and former Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs at the United States Department of Veterans Affairs Tommy Sowers (Sanford, ’98) is one of two co-instructors for Duke’s Hacking for Defense Program, alongside Duke Entrepreneur in Residence Steve McClelland (Pratt ’95), former product lead at Twitter and Yahoo!. Both have led venture backed technology companies.

This program is unique for a variety of reasons, argued McClelland. “Within the university, it is rare to have a course with so many diverse ages, majors, schools and programs represented.” McClelland explained. “Our multi-disciplinary teams also have to work closely with people outside the university which requires a new set of organizational and teamwork skills.”

Another one of Duke’s assets in its operation of this program is simply its geography.

“One of Duke’s strengths, is that [we] happen to be in spitting distance of the largest army base and the largest marine base in the world,” noted Sowers. Camp Lejeune is the world’s largest Marine base and Ft. Bragg is the world’s largest Army base. Duke’s Hacking for Defense program brings those worlds a bit closer.

The seven Duke H4D groups each paired either with a Marine unit, an Air Force unit, or with one of five Army units. All the Army units were special operations groups.

“They solved a real-world, knotty, difficult national security project with real consequences.”

– Duke H4D co-Lead Tommy Sowers

Because of the fluid nature of their operational theaters, special operators tend to be entrepreneurial and to work well in ambiguity – perfect fits for the ‘Lean Startup’ model of solving problems, argued Sowers.

Through hundreds of interviews, dozens of site visits and team-building time between the civilian and military groups, these teams addressed some of the most defiant problems special operators face every day.

On the last day of the program, the groups each present their solution to a crowd of interested specialists, academics, military sponsors and investors. The “Shark-Tank” style pitch allows the students to petition the audience on the possible commercial viability of their project as well as the potential further use in military situations.

One team created a software solution they called Bullet Train, whichseeks to streamline the training schedule decision-making of special forces units. A unit of 12 special forces soldiers may face a variety of different scenarios and environments at any given time. Further, the unit also faces budgetary constraints in designing and implementing a training regimen for those deployments. Currently, unit commanders, the ones who plan and manage training, must seek training best practices from other unit leaders. They also have to design that training regimen and all the equipment it will need to fit the military’s draconian budgetary standards. And since the military favors promoting and advancing talent, much of a unit’s best practices leave with the unit commander upon promotion.

Bullet Train wants to hold on to that institutional training knowledge and to streamline access to it for other unit commanders. The software even pre-populates the necessary government forms and assembles a proposed budget. With its searchable catalog of training concepts, best practices, vendors (government contractors that offer specialized skills such as language training), Bullet Train gives unit commanders the ability to learn from and build on the collective training and procurement knowledge of their peers.

The inventors of Bullet Train also see the possibility for their program’s use with emergency medical services personnel and with educators.

Another project team developed a natural language processing social media integrator called Watchword. Watchword combines and analyzes the context in which words used (in English and Arabic) appear on social media. It then uses those frequencies to identify potential group loyalty.

The military sponsors for this software are so enthusiastic about its possible success, that the program will be deployed to Syria this summer, 2019.

From telemedicine software to natural language processing social media aggregators, Duke’s Hacking for Defense groups have provided much more than simply a learning experience for students. When asked about the uniqueness of this program, Sowers noted that “instead of a paper, we have 7 solutions that were actually adopted.”

“This was by far the most incredible class I’ve ever taught,” Sowers continued. “Both in the personal growth of the individual students and in what they did… they solved a real-world, knotty, difficult national security project with real consequences.”