There are “only two ways to make money in business,” Marc Andreesen has said. “One is to bundle; the other is unbundle.” The founder of the early web browser Netscape has firsthand experience with this lesson that either grouping technologies and services together or ungrouping and taking them apart are the two principal paths to profit in the private sector. When Microsoft began bundling browsers with its operating system in 1997, it was only a matter of time before it proved fatal to Netscape.
In the military, major weapons platforms and systems are essentially bundles of capabilities. A critical requirement in the design of these systems in the past was the need to colocate the operator and the platform. However, the proliferation of processors and network technology changed this from a requirement to a consideration. This change provides an opportunity to reimagine and reconfigure many systems and platforms. Change is difficult, though, and one obstacle for the military is in recognizing which longstanding bundles should be unbundled. Other obstacles are the habits and emotional connections associated with existing platforms; in short, Top Gun elicits emotional responses because it is about fighter pilots, not drone pilots.
The tank, for example, bundles protection, tracked mobility, firepower, a turbine engine, and communications. It proved its utility in World War I when armies needed a protected firepower platform to break through the defensive stalemate of trench warfare. In World War II, multiple tanks in communication with each other achieved a new level of speed and scale in combat. Recent developments in targeting and drone technology seen in the Ukraine and Nagorno-Karabakh conflicts, however, raise doubt as to whether the tank can continue to provide a combat advantage in its current configuration.
Like business, revolutions in warfare are typically sparked by innovative bundling of capabilities. The maxim gun combined the rifle with a recoil-operated autoloader to achieve a revolutionary increase in the velocity of fire. The French Revolution bundled a new political ideology with a mobilization of larger armies. The transition from the Agricultural Age to the Industrial Age and from the Industrial Age to the Information Age both involved the bundling together of technologies to unleash orders of magnitude more productivity and material progress. Repeatedly throughout history, the novel combination or disaggregation of new systems or technologies has led to innovation—bundling and unbundling. Once one grasps this framework, it’s hard not to see everything in these terms.
The US military’s current convergence efforts—while accurately perceiving many of the immediate possibilities of networked technologies such as manned-unmanned teaming—struggle to fully recognize the long-term consequences of network technologies. To achieve the capacity to leverage the concept of any sensor, any shooter requires a divergent, and perhaps revolutionary corollary: any platform, any operator. Achieving the speed, scale, and dispersed footprint enabled by networked technology requires the disruptive reconfiguration of current platforms into a mix of locally and remotely operated systems.
Why is this a compelling vision? While we have seen incredible progress in the capabilities of networks and processing power, we have seen only marginal gains in the mastery of physics. There is a reason why platforms such as the Chinook helicopter and the Abrams tank have been in service for over forty years: they have only achieved marginal improvements in terms of maximum speed and range. If the maximum range of an Abrams tank is four hundred or so kilometers, there is nothing that increases its range to four thousand kilometers on the same amount of fuel. If mastery of physics was improving as quickly as processing power, the maximum range of these systems would have doubled every eighteen months since fielding. Barring a revolution in our mastery of physics, we are stuck with marginal improvement in the physical capabilities of systems for the foreseeable future.
The Abrams tank is near the technical limits of what the bundle can accomplish without increasing the system’s weight to an unacceptable level. The M1A2 SEPv3 configuration weighs seventy-four tons—near or above the limit of many bridges and transporters. Yet this increased weight has only bought incremental improvements in protection. Twenty more tons of armor has not eliminated the threat posed by explosively formed penetrators, large improvised explosive devices, land mines, or top attack weapons like the Javelin.
Given these realities, the Army should consider, alongside its Project Convergence a Project Divergence to generate options for unbundling systems and platforms and reconfiguring them to take advantage of networks and processing power. Rather than spending massively for systems that are marginally better in the physical realm, such an approach would take existing systems apart and integrate them with networks to achieve new ways of doing more with less. This might mean fielding technically simple and affordable unmanned systems and, where practical, continuing to use old and less expensive platforms and generating improvements in combat capability from connecting them to networked systems.
There are challenges to be overcome, of course. The strongest counterargument to network-enabled disaggregation is network reliability. Most soldiers have experienced the unreliability of Army communications systems. Adversaries can disable networks through electromagnetic pulse weapons, electronic jamming, or cyber techniques. Networks depend on continuity of access and effective administration. Operational disruptions could be the result of a simple mistake such as a lost password. Relying on the network to be the critical connective tissue for disaggregated systems presents risk that requires mitigation.
The unrelenting growth of networks and miniaturization of technology is leading to more persistent and reliable connectivity, and more reliable methods of user authentication. If these technologies combine with improved solar and battery technology, many network devices may eventually power themselves indefinitely. With Starlink the network has already become virtually impossible to turn off. Mesh wireless networks established by Amazon and Apple have further connected billions of devices. The more nodes the network has, the harder it becomes to destroy. The founders of the internet would be impressed by how robust their original idea of a nuclear war–resistant communications system has become. If the military adds additional signaling methods such as line of sight, it can field networks with redundant battlefield reliability, and mitigate the risk of network disruption.
Another possibility could be the employment of long-term loitering airborne drone systems to support persistent network infrastructure. As chips continue their relentless progress to be smaller and more powerful, the possibilities for creating and maintaining battlefield networks become almost infinite. Building out the network might become an integral part of battlefield tactics, much like laying cable was a part of earlier wars. Technological progress will continue to create new opportunities to establish and maintain networks. For example, imagine firing thousands of one-cubic-inch network nodes packed into multiple 155-millimeter artillery rounds prior to a battle, scattering them widely to establish a mission-critical network.
Whether a function of recruiting crises or budgetary stagnation, the Army (like the rest of the US military) will continue to be asked to do more with less. As the Department of Defense expands its presence the into additional domains of space and cyber, and supports the establishment of the newest branch of service (the Space Force), the Army and the rest of the services will continue struggle to meet recruiting targets based on historic force structures.
Reconfiguring the force to take advantage of remotely operated systems would expand the range of options available to decision makers and reduce risk to the force. Separating platforms from operators is just one of the potentially valuable options created by the relentless improvement in processing power and networks. Going forward, the Army needs a cognitive framework for implementing new systems that explicitly acknowledges the massive disparities in progress between the mastery of physics and the speed and proliferation of networked processors. The idea of bundling and unbundling is useful in this environment because it specifically suggests considering not just what capability should be increased or added to, but what can be dismantled and reconfigured. While the current trajectory of technological change offers the ability to make radical and possibly advantageous changes to the force, we cannot successfully take advantage this situation without the right approach.
Major Jared Hirschkorn is an Army strategist currently serving in III Armored Corps at Fort Hood, Texas.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Tech. Sgt. Robert Cloys, US Air Force