During the Cold War, defense money funded much of Northern California’s nascent tech industry, and the military worked closely with universities and companies to develop electronics, microwave devices, semiconductors, and spy satellites. But the military did not stay connected to the venture capital–fueled tech industry that emerged in Silicon Valley in the 1980s. Until recently, the Pentagon didn’t see this as a liability: The United States enjoyed unmatched technological superiority on the battlefield. That advantage, though, is now dissipating. China and Russia have invested heavily in new systems. ISIS is using hobby-style drones for reconnaissance. Rebels in Syria are using iPads to aim mortars. Equipment like this was once prohibitively expensive. Now you can get a lot of what you need off the shelf. ... As much as Defense Department officials say they want better access to commercial technology, the way the Pentagon functions often makes this impossible. The military has spent decades configuring itself to work with defense contractors to build complicated systems that take years to produce, like fighter jets and aircraft carriers. With its cumbersome rules and processes, the Department of Defense is not set up to race alongside small, agile companies. ... The Pentagon is beginning to realize it must operate differently. Some of the most advanced work in computing, big data, cybersecurity, energy, robotics, and space — all areas the military draws on — is being done by tech companies, not traditional defense contractors. Last year, the Pentagon kicked off a large-scale effort called the Defense Innovation Initiative.