White House’s chief technology officer becomes Pentagon’s top techie as well

Alan Boyle
·4-min read
Michael Kratsios
White House chief technology officer Michael Kratsios speaks at the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Tech Prom in 2018. (OSTP Photo / Erik Jacobs)

White House chief technology officer Michael Kratsios ⁠— who enlisted Amazon, Microsoft and other key players in artificial intelligence and cloud computing to fight COVID-19 ⁠— has himself been recruited for another role as the Defense Department’s top official for technology.

President Donald Trump is designating Kratsios to serve as the acting under secretary of defense for research and engineering — in effect, the Pentagon’s CTO. Kratsios will also keep his CTO role in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The previous under secretary in charge of defense tech, Mike Griffin, stepped down last week to pursue “a private-sector opportunity” along with his deputy.

Kratsios will be in the prime position to help the Pentagon pursue opportunities in emerging technologies such as AI, automation, quantum computing, robotics and 5G wireless services — frontiers that have drawn increasing attention under Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

In February, for example, the Pentagon adopted a set of principles for the ethical use of AI on the battlefield. And on another front, the Defense Department is gearing up to modernize its cloud computing capabilities under the terms of the $10 billion contract that was awarded last year to Microsoft (and challenged by Amazon).

Esper was looking for someone with Silicon Valley business experience to accelerate the Pentagon’s work with emerging technologies, and Kratsios fills the bill: Before joining the White House in 2017, he worked in the Bay Area as chief financial officer and chief compliance officer for Clarium Capital Management, and then as principal and chief of staff for Thiel Capital.

“In seeking to fill this position we wanted someone with experience in identifying and developing new technologies and working closely with a wide range of industry partners,” Esper said in a statement. “We think Michael is the right person for this job and we are excited to have him on the team.”

Kratsios won kudos from outside the administration as well.

“If the Department of Defense wants to effectively take advantage of the upcoming technology wave to modernize its weapon systems and forces, putting more emphasis on innovation and having closer ties to the private sector and innovation hubs like Silicon Valley is critical,” Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said in an emailed statement. “Michael Kratsios is ideally positioned to effectively advance this mission at the DOD.”

Kratsios played a key role in developing the White House’s American AI Initiative, standing up the National Quantum Coordination Office and facilitating the COVID-19 Open Research Dataset, or CORD-19, as well as the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium.

In October, Kratsios visited the Seattle area to meet with tech executives and researchers, and told GeekWire afterward that researchers in the region are likely to benefit from the Trump administration’s heightened focus on AI. “We think this is a game-changer moment for AI R&D in this country,” he said.

In his acting role at the Pentagon, Kratsios will oversee the largest research and development budget in the federal government — including the activities of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, as well as the Defense Innovation Unit, the Space Development Agency, the Missile Defense Agency and the Defense Department’s research labs.

“Michael has been instrumental in advancing AI for the United States, but has been equally effective in developing and implementing a strategy to ensure the United States and its allies and partners maintain distinct economic and security advantages in all other emerging and disruptive technologies,” said Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, inaugural director of the Defense Department’s Joint AI Center. “I could not think of anyone better to step in behind Dr. Mike Griffin.”

It’s unusual for one official to hold jobs at the Office of Science and Technology Policy as well as in a different corner of the federal government — but not unprecedented: OSTP Director Kelvin Droegemeier filled in as acting director of the National Science Foundation for more than two months earlier this year while waiting for the Senate to confirm Trump’s nominee.

Mark Lewis, who is currently the Pentagon’s director of defense research and engineering for modernization (and had been rumored to be a prospect to succeed Griffin), will serve under Kratsios as the acting deputy under secretary while retaining his current role.

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