Editor’s note: Stanford University is hosting a brand-new class this fall—Technology, Innovation, and Modern War. Steve Blank, who teaches the course along with Joe Felter and Raj Shah, is writing about each class session—offering Modern War Institute readers an incredible opportunity to learn about the intersection of technology and war and hear from remarkable guest speakers. Read about previous sessions here and here.
Today’s topic was the challenges of defending America in the future of high-tech warfare. Our guest speaker was Christian Brose, author of The Kill Chain and now the head of strategy for Anduril Industries.
Some of the readings for this class session included: Brookings webinar moderated by Michael O’Hanlon with Christian Brose, Mara Karlin, and Frank Rose and “The New Revolution in Military Affairs: War’s Sci-Fi Future.”
War Made New
The required reading for this class was Chris Brose’s book The Kill Chain. We thought the students would find having the author discuss the thinking behind the book enlightening. It was.
There are few people as qualified as Chris Brose to opine on the state of national defense. Before Brose moved into the civilian world at Anduril, he was the staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee overseeing all the programs, policies, and resources of the Department of Defense, as well as confirming the department’s senior civilian and military leaders. He was also responsible for leading the production, negotiation, and passage of the 2016 through 2019 National Defense Authorization Acts. He previously was the senior policy advisor to Sen. John McCain supporting his work on the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And before the Senate he was senior editor of Foreign Policy magazine and served as policy advisor and chief speechwriter to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
This entire class session was a talk by Chris and Q&A with the students. It would be easy to just put up the video and the transcript here and be done with it. But that would do a real disservice to the insights that Chris offered. I’m going to extract and paraphrase a few below, but I urge you to read the transcript and watch the video.
Why Did Chris Write The Kill Chain?
Chris was increasingly concerned that the United States was falling behind our adversaries and nobody was paying attention to the extent of the problem.
Chris observed that the reality is that we are being disrupted in a way that most Americans and most members of Congress don’t fully understand and appreciate. China has specifically and explicitly focused on undermining the core assumptions on which the United States has been planning to project military power for twenty-five to thirty years. These assumptions were that we would:
- be able to fight on timelines of our choosing;
- control the timing and tempo of military competition and operations;
- be able to build up forces and operate from sanctuaries that an adversary couldn’t contest;
- be able to move combat power into places that we needed it;
- have military technological superiority over any competitor;
- be able to shoot, move, and communicate with near impunity and qualitatively better than adversaries; and
- dominate even quantitatively superior adversaries.
These assumptions are no longer true.
The Defense Industry
Since the end of the Cold War our defense industry has become increasingly concentrated, consolidated, uncompetitive, and essentially hollowed out. We have gotten extremely good about building a force around very small numbers of very expensive, exquisite, heavily manned, and hard to replace military systems. We built up a system to produce a certain type of military power at a time when that whole business model is being disrupted and undermined—much as Blockbuster Video’s business model was undermined by Netflix and Apple.
The new technologies and capabilities that will be central to military advantage in the future—artificial intelligence, machine learning, autonomous systems, distributed networking, advanced manufacturing, commercial space, and others—are technologies largely driven by commercial innovation and commercial companies. The future will be dominated by large quantities of small or cheaper, more autonomous, more intelligent military systems. This is also true of things that are not military platforms: networking, the movement of information, and the weaponization of data.
The Threat Landscape
We don’t know what the world is going to look like. We don’t know what our competitors are going to do. We don’t know what new technologies are going to be developed next month or next year or next decade. And we ultimately don’t know how we’re going to want to organize ourselves and build operational concepts to employ these new technologies.
We need to have more humility around the best way to experiment and feel our way through the future. And take account for what will inevitably happen: We’re going to get things wrong. We’re going to fail to predict the future. And we’re going to need to end up in places we didn’t foresee.
We’ve got to get out of the trap of trying to define the requirements for our inputs. We need to value new, innovative, completely unpredictable, and surprising capabilities, concepts, and organizational innovation that allow us to solve these problems differently.
Our system is not designed to do that. Our system is designed to try to predict the future in ten, twenty, or thirty years; write requirements to what we think it’s going to look like; and then throw a lot of money at industry to deliver that future on very long timelines. Shockingly, many of those things are irrelevant when they show up, if they ever show up at all.
As a buyer of technology and capability, the Department of Defense now can decide to buy different capabilities to match this new world. DoD can create different incentives for different types of industries to work with them and for them. The department can create incentives for private capital that’s sitting on the sidelines to flow back into the defense sector in a way that hasn’t happened for a very long time.
The only way we’re really going to change is by trying to create more and more pockets in the defense portfolio and programs that are open to real competition. We have a system that’s geared around valuing and buying inputs rather than defining what we want our outcomes to be. We need pockets of marketplace-type behavior where actual systems are competed out based on outcome-oriented metrics and we buy new things more regularly.
DoD and Congress can create incentives to take advantage of the willingness and ability of leading technology developers to solve these problems. However, they won’t create a new commercial ecosystem if they continue to dole out small SBIR account grants and million-dollar OTA’s (door prizes for showing up) while the same five national defense contractors they’ve been paying for the past three decades still get the billion-dollar programs. DoD has to write checks to new vendors for programs at scale.
Making Change Happen
The Department of Defense admits it has a problem and that it needs to do things differently. Now we get down to the difficult questions of execution and implementation, which is where DoD has foundered in the past. The department hasn’t ended up in this position due to a lack of people saying the right things, but because it has failed to do so many of the things they have said (in many cases for decades).
From an organizational standpoint, change won’t come internally. Major kinds of organizational reforms tend to originate outside of bureaucratic institutions. It’s going to take an external act, such as the secretary of defense coming in to work with the Congress, to essentially say we do need to do things differently. It is going to involve more risk and the only people in our system capable of doing it are our senior leaders, whether they’re confirmed by the Senate or elected by the American people.
Today’s topic was innovations in acquiring technologies for modern war.
Our guest speaker was Hon. Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology, and logistics.
Some of the readings for this class session included: “Defense Innovation is Falling Short,” Dr. Will Roper’s recent AMA about AFWERX and AFVentures, and the “Future of Defense Task Force Report 2020.”
Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics
In some of our class sessions you’ve heard about how acquisition in the Department of Defense hasn’t kept up with new threats, adversaries, and new technologies. But Will Roper—who is the Air Force’s service executive—gives the lie to that assertion. He gets it. And he’s running as fast as he can to move the Air Force into the twenty-first century. It was an eye-opening conversation.
Will Roper is responsible for spending $60 billion acquiring 550 programs as well as technology and logistics. His resume reads like he trained for the job: With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics and a PhD from Oxford in math, he started his career at MIT Lincoln Labs, then was chief architect at the Missile Defense Agency, and was later founding director of the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office. (The SCO imagines new, often unexpected, and game-changing uses of existing government and commercial systems.)
This entire class session was a talk by Will and Q&A with the students. Like the previous class session with Chris Brose, it would be easy to just publish the video and transcript here and be done with it. But also like the previous class, that would do a real disservice to Will’s insights. It’s interesting to note how many of his observations echo the ones Chris made in the previous session. I urge you to read the transcript and watch the video, but I’ve extracted and paraphrased a few of his ideas below.
Competition with China
The competition with China is one of the seminal challenges that we’re going to face in this century. It’s not preordained how it’s going to end. But it’s a very different challenge, because it’s not just a Cold War part two. We’re very economically intertwined with this competitor. But we do have to treat it just as if it was an existential race, because we have a very different world view than that competitor does.
Commercial Technology has Changed the DoD Model
Commercial technologies are being driven faster than any government can keep up with, though many governments are trying to steer it to their own advantages. And many of the technological breakthroughs that could be important to the military are going to be available to everyone. So, the model that worked so well in the Cold War—where you made a technology breakthrough, and because you were annexed from your competitor, you could develop that technology, instantiate it in your military, and field it for advantage—really doesn’t make a lot of sense in this decade and in this century. Technology is what it is. Governments play a strong role in it, we can incubate it, we can accelerate it, and we can create it, but we’re increasingly a smaller fraction of what happens commercially.
I view the Pentagon being in a time of crisis, where it’s really trying to figure out its role. It’s not the major funder of innovation anymore. It has a sizable budget and it’s a sizable market, but it’s not the major driver of invention. And I find most of the people working in it have a hard time with that. They have been in the building since before the Cold War and have really not been outside to see that the times have changed. But I love the times that we’re in. Technology is cheap, it’s ubiquitous, it’s fast, it’s moving.
The Pentagon’s challenge is to reboot itself, to get rid of those Cold War processes whereby we’re very good at inventing technology that would change the world.
Bringing Technology in from the Outside
Now, we have to be good at adapting technology, bringing it in from the outside and instantiating it. We need to be better at building partnerships. But it’s not actually the way we organize the business. And there are so many great areas for partnership between the military and commercial innovators, that we’re missing out on opportunities. And AFWERX and other organizations that I’ve tried to stand up in the Air Force to create partnerships are a central paradigm for how we move innovation forward.
The military is going to have to treat technology wherever it is as a battlefield in and of itself. And that is not how the Pentagon is set up to run.
If we don’t engage proactively, I think what we have seen happen with hobbyist drones a few years ago is a harbinger of what could become the status quo in future years. Where technologies may emerge in one innovative sector, if we’re not proactive and engaging with them then the supply chain and market will move overseas to another country’s advantage. And this is not the Pentagon’s playbook.
The Presupposition That the Future Can Be Predicted Is No Longer True
We are very good at having an adversary that we can forecast well—having good intelligence on them, formulating our view of their future, and creating a model of what we think they will bring to bear on the battlefield both technologically as well as operationally. We create our own counter-solution to what we predict.
We build it, hopefully get to it first, and once we field it, we hope that countering what we have predicted leads to a strategy that leads us to victory.
That worked well in the Cold War. There’s no indication that will work well in the situation we find ourselves in today. So, as I’ve engaged in Air Force and Space Force acquisition it starts with the presupposition that the future can be predicted. You won’t find that written down in any acquisition document. But it’s actually foundational to how the Pentagon works, that the future is predictable. And it’s not.
No Telling Which Technology Is Going to Lead
I have no idea what the future is going to be. I have no idea what 2030 is going to be like. Who knows what technology is going to be the next big thing. You’ll find people in radically different camps. You’ll find one group centering around AI. But you’ll find different people who will say, “No, quantum systems are going to allow radically different phenomenology to be brought to bear. Not just computing and encryption, but sensing.” And they’ll be next to a group that will say “Nope, biological systems are going to allow fundamentally different approaches to building sensors and computing and sensing.” And you’re not going to have to wait on those exquisite quantum systems because you can hack biology and do it sooner. And the camps go on.
So that just tells me this is a wonderful time for technology. It’s everywhere, and it’s not expensive to engage in. And there’s no telling which technology is going to lead to that next industrial revolution. I think that really is the competition among nations, that many of these technologies could birth a new industrial revolution. And whichever country does it, it’s going to be to such a decided advantage that the military part of the equation is probably moot.
The Pentagon Needs to Be Fast and Agile
But the military, because it is a very stabilizing and unique part of any country’s market system, has to play a catalyzing role in setting that country up to find that industrial revolution faster. The Pentagon is not suited for this. So with the $60 billion per year procurement system that I run for the Air Force and Space Force, the strategy is pretty simple. You need to be exceptionally fast and agile. The Cold War system wasn’t. And the system in this century must be. Because we don’t know what the next big thing is going to be. So let’s be ready to adapt to it. Speeding the system up is not as hard as you think. It’s just not what was valued in the past. So you just simply have to change the value system, change the culture, and the system will speed up.
The harder part is teaching the Air Force and Space Force to work in the broader ecosystem. It’s very easy to fall back into the historical process that predicts the future, derives a solution for that future, and then kicks it out to a handful of defense companies that that we have historically gone to in recent times to help us build that future. And with so many fields of technology now available, we simply can’t work with a handful of companies and expect to win.
Acquisition and Procurement Need New Rules
Defense research and development is only one-fifth of the total R&D that our nation does. At the height of the Cold War we were four-fifths. That doesn’t mean that we’ve gotten any worse at research and development at the Pentagon, it just means that the landscape has changed. And we haven’t. So teaching our acquisition system, our procurement system, that it needs a different set of rules to work in the four-fifths of our nation’s R&D that’s commercial has been exceptionally challenging. Because everything about the way we do business is hard for commercial innovators. So organizations like AFWERX that have a completely different model and culture and ethos—their job is to treat emerging commercial markets as a battlefield. And to try to bring the military’s mission as a way to accelerate commercial companies, not just to help military missions, but to accelerate them as an end state in and of itself. Because that is in our national interest.
I found that within the Air Force, we can rally around this as a core mission. That accelerating technology is something that can be understood by anyone that we’ve trained in the military because it’s easy to understand it. If that company, that technology, that market doesn’t happen in the United States first, it’s likely to happen somewhere else. And if it happens somewhere else, there’s no guarantee we’ll have access to it. So that’s a second imperative that we have to be able to work in our entire tech ecosystem.
DoD is Great in Hardware, Lagging in Software
The summary of what I’ve seen is the Pentagon is very good at maintaining technological disciplines that were born in the Cold War. We’re still very good at things based on Maxwell’s equation. We’re good at radars and stealth and antennas and radios and materials. But we have not learned to work in the commercial ecosystem.
And we have not learned to work in digital and software-driven technology. If we learn those just very small handful of lessons, we’ll be closer to being the agile, disruptive system we need to be. Now we’re competing against an adversary in China that will likely have double our GDP and quadruple our population, and perhaps have fifteen times the STEM graduates that we’ll have by the year 2030. So we’re not going to beat them at scale. Speed and agility are the only way that we can ensure that we have a leg up.
I’m very pleased with the progress the Air Force has made. This is just lap one of what is going to be a very long race. And this race doesn’t end. There’s no way to forecast what the end-state relationship will be between the United States and China.
So we need to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. For the time being that means treating every new technology or possible new technology as an opportunity to hope for but also a detriment to fear. And I hope that if we inculcate that urgency within our organization, that we will become the kind of Air Force that is ready for whatever we call this competition with China.
Some people call it a hot peace. I don’t really care about slang and slogans. I just know it’s real. We have to treat it seriously and remain urgent. So far, I’ve been very pleased with how ready for the challenge we’ve been. And I hope that we won’t be the only service to move out as aggressively as we’ve done. It’s going to take an entire team to keep this up over time.
Read the entire transcript of Will Roper’s talk here and watch the video below.
If you can’t see the video of Will Roper’s talk click here.
Steve Blank is the father of modern entrepreneurship, an entrepreneur-turned-educator, and founder of the lean startup movement. He is an adjunct professor at Stanford and a senior fellow for entrepreneurship at Columbia University.
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: 2nd Lt. Emerson Marcus, US Air Force