Radha Iyengar Plumb, seen in a 2022 photo, has been tapped as the next Chief Data and Artificial Intelligence Officer. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

WASHINGTON — Craig Martell, the department’s founding Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Officer, will depart the Pentagon next month, the Defense Department announced today. He’ll be replaced on April 8 by current Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Radha Iyengar Plumb.

Martell’s imminent departure, first reported by Defense Scoop, comes just two years after he left rideshare giant Lyft to become the first Pentagon CDAO in 2022 — a position created to combine previously separate efforts on AI, big-data analytics and recruiting private-sector techies like himself for short tours in the Pentagon.

“I think they [DoD] really need someone from industry who knows how to bring real AI and analytical value at scale and speed,” Craig Martel told Breaking Defense at the time. “I’m convinced we’re going to be able to do some great things … but they’re going to be hard things. It’s going to be a challenge.”

The hardest of those “hard things,” announced just three weeks ago at a conference hosted by Martell, was probably the creation of a working prototype of the military’s future global battle network, formally and ponderously known as the “Minimum Viable Capability” of Combined Joint All-Domain Command & Control (CJADC2). Unlike most other AI and data efforts, where the central CDAO typically plays a supporting and enabling role to initiatives launched by the armed services or other organizations across DoD, “CJADC2 belongs to us,” Martell emphasized to reporters at the conference.

“One of the motivating factors in taking this job for me was being able to do things like CJADC2,” he said in the first minutes of his press briefing. “How do you transition something that seems stuck?”

It seems like getting CJADC2 unstuck was the last box Martell felt he had to check off before heading out.

“The Deputy Secretary of Defense, Dr. Kathleen Hicks, brought me on board two years ago to stand up the CDAO,” he emphasized in a statement the Pentagon provided to Breaking Defense. “We agreed early on that to ‘stand up’ meant developing a strategy for the organization and the DoD as a whole, developing the right roadmaps to deliver on that strategy, and creating the right organizational structure to support those roadmaps. With the release of the Department’s Data, Analytics, and AI Strategy in November 2023, the roadmap work that each of the CDAO Directorates have done, and the organizational changes we have put in place over the last few years, these were achieved.”

What comes next for Martell? Aside from a stint teaching computer science at the Naval Postgraduate School, he’d spent his life in the private sector, heading AI/machine learning efforts at major private-sector players like Lyft, DropBox and LinkedIn.

By contrast, his successor, Radha Plumb, has gone back and forth between government and industry. Before she was confirmed to her current acquisition and sustainment job last April, she was chief of staff to Hicks, who also handpicked Martell for the CDAO job. But before Hicks hired her, Plumb led research and safety efforts at Google. She’s also worked at Facebook, the thinktank RAND, the Department of Energy, the National Security Council and, in a previous DoD tour, as a civilian counterinsurgency analyst in Afghanistan.

“Radha … is no stranger to the ways of industry,” Martell said in his statement. “She has been right alongside me for the past year at many key senior leader meetings and working groups, and she will seamlessly step into the role.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin issued a laudatory statement about both leaders. “Dr. Plumb has worked to tackle pressing acquisition matters related to DoD, including building out and maintaining a robust national security industrial base and supply chain,” he said. “There is no doubt that Dr. Plumb’s technical expertise and strategic acumen will enhance the CDAO’s innovative efforts, and help accelerate the DoD’s adoption of data, analytics, and AI to generate decision advantage from the boardroom to the battlefield.”

As for Martell, Austin said, “I am grateful for his willingness to step out of the commercial sector over these past few years to contribute his talents to public service. Craig and the entire CDAO team had a monumental task of bringing together the diverse talents and cultures of four organizations to advance data, AI, and analytics for our national security, and deliver tangible results in a short time. Dr. Martell and the CDAO team have delivered on those goals and his work will have a lasting impact on how the Department approaches every data and AI driven task.”