Editor’s note: Stanford University hosted a brand-new class during the fall semester—Technology, Innovation, and Modern War. Steve Blank, who teaches the course along with Joe Felter and Raj Shah, wrote 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. You can read about previous sessions here. In this article, Steve, Joe, and Raj describe some of the most important takeaways from the class.
Our recent national security class at Stanford—Technology, Innovation, and Modern War—was designed to give students insights on how the onslaught of new technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, autonomy, cyber, access to space, biotech, hypersonics, and others has the potential to radically change how countries fight and deter threats.
With more than twenty guest speakers, including two secretaries of defense, senior general and flag officers, and policymakers, the class emphasized that winning future conflicts requires more than just adopting new technology and developing new weapon systems. It calls for a revolution in thinking about how these technologies can be integrated into weapons and other defense platforms, and more importantly, how they can create new operational and organizational concepts that will change the way we fight.
By the end of the class there were five important ideas that stood out.
One was a continuous refrain from senior DoD leadership that new tech, weapons, and operational concepts are insufficient to guarantee the United States will prevail in a great power conflict. In fact, these new technologies and weapons can change the odds against us.
Second, our senior military leadership recognizes that now more than ever we can’t go it alone. We need allies—existing and new ones. And that depends on a reinvigorated State Department and renewed emphasis on diplomacy in general.
Third, our national security is now inexorably intertwined with commercial technology and is hindered by our lack of an integrated strategy at the highest level.
Fourth, our adversaries have exploited the boundaries and borders between our defense, commercial and economic interests.
And finally, our current approaches to innovation across the government are piecemeal, incremental, increasingly less relevant, and insufficient.
Several more specific takeaways from our speakers are also important to note. If you’re in DoD, are conversant with the National Defense Strategy and National Military Strategy, or have read Chris Brose’s book The Kill Chain, none of this will come as a surprise.
- The 2018 National Defense Strategy focused DoD on great power competition. It called out China as a peer competitor to America, pursuing its goal of global dominance. At the same time, Russia has reemerged as a regional power.
- For the last two decades, while we were focused on combating terrorism, China has explicitly developed weapons and operational concepts to target every one of our advantages—in weapon systems and operational concepts, but also in alliances as well as economic and diplomatic power.
- Unfortunately, China has succeeded—many of our most exquisite systems at sea, in space, or in other domains are at risk. A majority of these weapons have now become legacy systems eating up future budget and resources.
- Rapid innovation in new technologies—cyber, artificial intelligence, autonomy, access to space, drones, biotech, and others—are no longer being led by military or government labs, but instead come from commercial vendors, many of them Chinese. The result is that unlike the last seventy-five years, DoD can no longer predict or control future technologies and threats.
- A surprise for many of us was the tacit acknowledgment from our military and defense leaders that we cannot win a war alone, without allies. These senior leaders emphasized the importance of a more collaborative embrace of existing allies and creation of new ones. They put a premium on diplomacy, and the need for a better funded and robust State Department.
- The result is that for the first time in almost a century, US confidence that it will win the next war is declining.
The good news is every one of our military and civilian speakers conceptually understands all of this. And even better, all want to change the status quo. However, most are coming to the conclusion that DoD is at a crossroads: substantive and sustained changes in DoD’s size, structure, policies, processes, practices, technologies, and culture are needed.
For example, our requirements and acquisition systems are driven by a seventy-year-old model predicated on predicting the future (both threats and technology) and delivering solutions decades out. It is also optimized for lifecycle costs, not rapid innovation or disposable systems. In the last four years we modernized the acquisition process, but it remains hindered by the requirements processes from the services, which still result in eighty-eight Major Defense Acquisition Programs—where we spend our acquisition dollars—to buy legacy systems mostly built for past threats.
Some hints of the future force came from multiple speakers. Adm. Lorin Selby, the chief of naval research, for example, had a compelling vision of the future fleet and an expanded industrial base.
To improve innovation, DoD has over seventy-five incubators and accelerators. The United States leads the world in demos of new technology but not in deployed systems. Few of these innovation activities have resulted in a major program of record. DoD is making the right baby steps but needs to quickly focus on scaling innovation. This, of course, will require the difficult conversation of what legacy systems will be retired.
DoD’s relationship with startups and commercial companies driving these new technologies is hindered by a lack of understanding of their own and their investors’ interests. Venture capital and startups have institutionalized disruptive innovation. In the United States they spend $150 billion a year to fund new ventures that can move with the speed and urgency that DoD now requires. While we’ve made progress, a radical reinvention of our civil-military innovation relationship is necessary if we want to keep abreast of our adversaries. This should include:
- A civil-military alliance driven by incentives, not coercion, and characterized by public-private partnerships instead of government control. Private industry—from primes to startups—incentivized at scale will ensure our leadership in science, in industry, and in new technologies;
- An overhaul of federal labs and Federally Funded Research and Development Centers to promote collaboration at scale with startups and venture investors; and
- Selections by each service of one or two startup/scale-up winners, with a commitment to buy heavily.
Pentagon leadership will need to be selected on the ability to innovate. Risk takers that understand technology must be elevated.
We’ve failed to engage the rest of the populace in our mission. Americans—including extraordinarily talented students from our top universities—are ready and willing to serve in some capacity. We’ve shown little interest in providing the incentives and expanding the opportunities required to make that happen.
However, these observations about changes needed in DoD surfaced a much bigger problem, one that civilian leadership has not yet acknowledged: National security is now inexorably intertwined with commercial technology and is hindered by our lack of a national industrial and economic policy. There is an urgent need for an integrated strategy and policies.
These are not problems of technology. They’re problems of organizational design, incentives, out-of-the-box thinking, and national will. The American people will need to demand more of their government and elected officials. The status quo will need to be broken. Substantive change will require new ideas, not better versions of the ones we have.
For example, the White House organizational structure taking shape under the new Biden administration still treats technology as a standalone issue. That’s a status quo position and a losing hand. We need to recognize that the boundaries between our defense, commercial, and economic interests are interrelated.
We also need to build innovation capacity across the interagency, coordinated and synchronized by senior executive branch leadership. One way of implementing this would be by creating a political appointee in key government agencies that acts as the interagency single point of innovation leadership cutting across organizations including but not limited to DoD, the National Security Council, the National Economic Council, OMB, and OSTP.
Another promising move would be to create a new deputy national security advisor to coordinate and synchronize innovation and industrial policies across these multiple agencies. To be successful, this position would require real influence and responsibility on budget issues, trade policy, and alliance strategy. The occupant of the role would specifically coordinate national policies on things like 5G, artificial intelligence, machine learning, autonomy, cyber, access to space, biotech, hypersonics, and microelectronics. The position would also own the civil-military alliance for engaging and incentivizing new entrants and incumbents and protecting civil assets and would sit on the National Security Council and National Economic Council.
These changes will require Congress, defense contractors, and the executive branch to pull in the same direction to change that equation.
The good news is that we have all the tools needed to succeed, we just need the willpower. And we must not forget what’s at stake. Democracies, while messy, are a force for good. Self-determination with codified freedoms is the most moral system of organization mankind has developed. Getting the reforms we examined in this class is essential to the preservation of democracy and maximization of peace. It is most certainly a noble endeavor.
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.
Joe Felter is a William J. Perry Fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. From 2017 to 2019, he served as US deputy assistant secretary of defense for South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Oceania.
Raj Shah is a technology entrepreneur and investor. He formerly served as the managing partner of the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit Experimental.
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: Kunal Mukherjee
This strategy basically advocates returning to the Manhattan Project as a research model: centralized direction, feed resources to competing teams, and see who gets to the solution first. But the Project wasn't about innovation in the strategic sense — it was about finding a solution to a specific technical problem as quickly as possible, and it was backed by essentially unlimited resources, with only one measure for return on investment.
Applying this model to commercial technology development is an investor's dream — transfer all the risk to the government.
Innovation demands a sharp eye on consumer satisfaction relative to return on investment. That tightly focuses internal R&D. It demands some level of customer willingness to accept a partially-finished product and continue refinement in operational use. Most importantly, it demands the willingness to throw away solutions the market doesn't accept and move on to something with a better RoI, whether that's additional refinement of an existing product, or a completely new product altogether. Of course, if the customer commits to solutions in advance, that removes much of the incentive to innovate, or to continue refinement…good enough is good enough.
Consider as an alternative, the aircraft industry model through the mid-'60s. A government-industry basic research partnership (through the NACA) advanced the state of the art. A very loose, functionally-oriented U.S. national aviation policy encouraged manufactures of aircraft, engines, and communications equipment to pursue market-driven solutions. Small-quantity buys allowed the services to experiment with new doctrine and tactics made possible with new technology, and to refine functional requirements fed back to research establishments and industry. Commercial requirements for payload, range, and speed drove aircraft technologies through years between the world wars; postwar, while military requirements for speed and altitude played a somewhat greater role, the same model persisted. This enabled significant improvements in combat aircraft, as well as maintaining an active aviation industrial base.
In the name of efficiency, the government sought to save money through economies of scale and less turnover — that's led to a fleet of 60-year-old aircraft, and boxed us into the a corner in terms of ability to innovate.