In late 2013, Google announced that it had acquired Boston Dynamics, an engineering and robotics company best known for creating BigDog, a four-legged robot that can accompany soldiers into rough terrain. Much of the resulting hype focused on the Internet giant and when it might start making various types of robots. What was good news for Google, however, represented a major loss for the U.S. Department of Defense. Although Google agreed to honor Boston Dynamics’ existing defense commitments, including its contracts with the U.S. Army, the U.S. Navy, and the U.S. Marine Corps, the company indicated that it might not pursue any additional work for the military. In practice, this means that the Department of Defense could lose its edge in the emerging field of autonomous robotics, which once fell almost exclusively under its domain.
It came as no surprise that Google had the money to buy Boston Dynamics; the technology star’s growth potential and investments in research and development (R & D) far exceed those of any defense enterprise. Its market value, nearly $400 billion, is more than double that of General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon put together. And with the $60 billion it has on hand, Google could buy all the outstanding shares of any one of them.
Google may not need defense contracts, but the Pentagon needs more and better relationships with companies like Google. Only the private sector can provide the kind of cutting-edge technology that has given U.S. troops a distinct advantage for the past 70 years. And beyond courting commercial companies, the Pentagon must also adapt to an increasingly global defense industry, since critical defense technologies are no longer the sole province of U.S.-based companies.
Consider, for example, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, an aircraft developed, financed, and tested by nine countries: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Like Google’s acquisition of Boston Dynamics, the development of the F-35