Start-Ups Bring Silicon Valley Ethos to a Lumbering Military-Industrial Complex

“They are not promoted by taking risks,” Banazadeh said of hiring officers. “So now you have to go through this arcane three-year process of budgeting while the warrior yells and yells and says, ‘I really want this.’ ”

Pending a decision from the Pentagon, the company recently moved to lay off some employees.

Mr. Roper, the former head of acquisitions for the Air Force, He said another problem is the Defense Department’s historical insistence on creating its own solutions to problems rather than buying new technologies from commercial firms. He noted that artificial intelligence, for example, has yet to be integrated into Air Force flight operations beyond some basic experiments.

“The Pentagon is still in an ‘invention only’ mode that goes back to the Cold War when now it needs to be in a collaborative mode to accelerate private industry,” Roper said. “And it’s failing at that.”

There are some success stories.

The Defense Innovation Unit created a program which evaluated several surveillance drones coming to market and established a procurement tool that allows Pentagon agencies to purchase them directly, without a multi-year procurement process. Mr. Austin, the defense secretary, recently announced that the Defense Innovation Unit report directly to himsupervised by a new recruit from Apple.

Skydio, one of the companies approved through the program, now sells a drone that uses artificial intelligence that allows it to fly remotely and avoid accidents, even if operated by a novice pilot. The AI-enhanced drone can fly indoors in very tight spaces, allowing it to look inside a building, for example, before troops are dispatched.

But for every success, there are plenty of other tech startups struggling to pay the bills while waiting for the Pentagon to make a buying decision.

“We are absolutely trying to address a lot of these acquisition pain points,” said Ms. Shyu, the Pentagon’s assistant secretary for research and engineering and chief technology officer. “I’m working to build a bridge over Death Valley.”