Opinion guest column

Defense tech: social impact ... or just warheads on foreheads?

It’s time for MIT students to disrupt the defense innovation paradigm

What is the purpose of your business? Does it have one aside from making money? Does your investing or your product make the world better for anyone besides shareholders, customers, and employees? We ask because we want jobs through which we can make the world a better place, just like you. We need financial security, but we want a sense of purpose too.

We also ask because the set of companies we traditionally see labeled as “social impact” never includes the security tech companies we get excited about. Most firms with the social impact label serve disempowered groups, such as families priced out of affordable education in their community, or help correct broader negative market externalities, such as climate change. The impact of these mission-oriented social impact companies is incredible. We are thankful for them every day because the problems they tackle head-on are urgent.

These companies are just like security technology companies. A for-profit construction company with a mandate to build affordable, green homes delivers social impact in the same way as a for-profit drone manufacturer with a mandate to help democracies defend themselves. The perception of defense tech as warheads on foreheads is not inaccurate. However, it is neither (1) holistic nor (2) disqualifying from the label of social impact.

  1. Security tech is much more than missiles and drones. We can trace the origins of modern “defense tech” back to early aviation and MIT’s success developing technologies like RADAR. Cold War missile and space tech drove the industry through the 20th century, as did kit for the later war on terror, such as bomb-disarming robots. But the ecosystem is much broader. Most of the startups we follow today are using analytics or cyber or hardware solutions to solve problems for a broader array of stakeholders than just the Department of Defense. MIT security tech startups are helping first responders, election officials, intelligence agencies, energy companies, and the military.

  2. Making weapons does not disqualify a company from doing good for the world. The same RADAR that was developed at MIT — not a weapon but an essential upgrade for the “kill chain” to combat bad guys — turned the tide early in World War II. Before that technology, U-boats ran amok in the Atlantic, sinking Allied ships indiscriminately, most of which were civilian cargo vessels. With RADAR, Allied planes could finally find and target U-Boats, ending their free reign. Without that defense tech, the Nazis could have starved out Britain. Many more allied sailors and civilians crossing the Atlantic would have died. Today, Boston Dynamics’s Spot robots assist police and military units across the world, aiding in rescue operations, hostage extractions and ordinance disposal to save lives.

In summary, the ecosystem or industry we’re talking about is not just lethal defense tech, but security tech more broadly. Moreover — especially with Ukraine under attack and tensions over Taiwan rising — the security challenges faced by global democracies are severe enough to make even kill chain tech, wielded appropriately, a social net-positive. As co-presidents of what was previously Sloan’s Defense Tech Club, we have changed the name to the Global Security Tech Club.

We acknowledge the counterargument that any tech used to kill people or spy on people can be used for nefarious purposes. This counterargument is strong and viable in many cases. However, tech solutions can and must be used to strengthen our democracy. The Allied tech ecosystem must continue to overmatch Chinese and Russian militaries in technical warfighting to deter further encroachment on sovereign democracies. We must choose to shape technology to secure our intellectual property, our elections, our energy grid, our internet, and our way of life. To achieve this, we need innovative leaders in security technology. If these leaders are not at MIT, where would they be? Democracy needs MIT students thinking about the grave security challenges it faces and innovating on a mission to solve them. Democracy needs MIT students.

Damien Lewke is a Master’s student in System Design & Management.

Austin Gray is an MBA-MPA student at the Sloan School of Management and the Harvard Kennedy School.