Kicking Down Doors in a War Zone

Military technology ultimately has people on either end

I recently did a longish piece for FastCompany.com that I really enjoyed reporting and writing. But, as ever, I was left feeling like I had more to say. Here, in case it’s of interest to anyone other than myself, are some additional thoughts about the story, and about putting it together.
A US Naval Special Warfare unit conducts entering-and-clearing training in an abandoned hotel (found on Flickr)

Having spent a lot of time over the last ten years working in Silicon Valley, one of the things I want to do with my writing is put a more human face on any technology stories I might do. The piece I just did for Fast Company, on the entrepreneurs helping the Pentagon keep up with the cutting edge of innovation, was a great opportunity to do that, because it’s not just a story of how gadgets get made, but a story of what goes into a vastly powerful set of technologies that are too often covered as gadgets but which are designed to take or save human lives.

If you read behind the story (hopefully not too far behind, since I tried to bring this into the text as much as I could within the constraints of the assignment), it’s as much about the people who drive the development of these technologies—the “patriot entrepreneurs” that I spoke to for the piece—as it is about the technologies themselves, or even about the shift in perspective those people hope to bring about at the Pentagon.

The piece opens with my take on what goes into the room-by-room clearing of a building in an urban warfare environment: “As part of a Navy SEAL team in Afghanistan, Brandon Tseng got to know all too well the gut-wrenching existential uncertainty involved in kicking down doors in a war zone: Would there be an IED on the other side? A suicide bomber? An enemy combatant with a gun or grenade? An ally who might look the same at first glance? Or just an innocent little girl, caught up in a conflict that to her means only terror, grief, and despair?

I stress that this is my take, based on a handful of conversations with veterans and some reading. (I have never been to war, nor served in the armed forces.) It’s designed more to convey to a lay reader the sense of what’s at stake in those moments, rather than try to transmit an unerringly accurate picture of experience that can vary widely. The passage originally included a tip-off that this was not Brandon Tseng’s description of close-quarters work, though that got dropped in editing. Tseng tells me he enjoyed the piece, and I’m pretty sure he would have let me know if I’d gotten something very wrong.

I wanted to open with Tseng’s experience not just because it makes a good grabby lede, but because it is a particularly vivid example of how products we usually know only as gadgets in fact have very deeply human origins, evolutions, and effects. Stories about new technologies—especially military technologies—too often cover only the technology itself, and don’t give us a deeper portrait of the people behind the tech. Where the private sector is concerned that’s changing a bit, as companies come to understand more about how to embed their product story in a compelling narrative. Tseng’s company, Shield AI, is no exception here, although it felt as though they had not yet paid a lot of attention to that narrative at the time I was talking to Tseng.

The other reason I wanted to open with that imagined snapshot is because I think the thing that gets most lost in stories about military technology is what we might call the personal costs of war: the lives lost, and the lives altered, no matter what end of a weapon you happen to be on. While I’m actually fascinated to know that the B-52 airframe may still be flying 90 or possibly even 100 years after it first took to the air, it wouldn’t be out of place to talk about what effect all the upgrades that are planned will have on its capacity to produce death. Instead, I’m left to Google things like “How many people can a 2,000-pound JDAM kill?” (Here’s a thorough and vivid description of its effects. And that was almost 15 years ago.)

One effect that focusing on military technology has had on me is to pique my interest in writing about the lives of people like Tseng and other veterans. While this is pretty well traveled ground, I feel like there are still unexplored angles on these kinds of stories that I’m hoping to explore.

Bigger Pictures

Brandon Tseng was terrifically helpful while I was reporting the story, as was Brandon White (no relation), CEO of Zeuss, Inc., who provided two of the most important quotes in the piece.

One was on whether the hidebound culture of the Department of Defense would infect Silicon Valley in some way:

“The government’s challenge will be, how do they intermix here without putting the very complex that has inhibited innovation on us? The inclination will be for them to enact their system on our culture. But our culture will inherently punch them in the face.”

White is talking about the “military-industrial complex,” or the big defense contractors whose job seems to be making sure they continue to have access to multi-billion dollar contracts, regardless of whether that means promoting wars in which their weapons can be used, or working to bury innovative solutions they might not be best placed to develop. In this very real equation, lives are lost so that business can be done. Those companies have started to get the sense that younger, faster organizations may finally present something of a threat. They know they’re not keeping up with the cutting edge, and they’ve begun to react, which is also something I hope to write about soon.

White’s other great quote is a more human one, and easier to overlook:

“Traditionally, the thought is, if I don’t put on a uniform or I don’t take a government job, I’m not serving.”

That’s changing these days, in a sense. While it’s hard to argue that working for a profit is equatable with service, part of what’s happening, as the Pentagon and other government agencies look more broadly to technology companies and elsewhere in the private sector to lead them forward, is that many more people are getting the chance to contribute to the development and protection of our nation. Launching a tech company is nothing like putting your life on the line in Afghanistan, but it can now be another part of the same ecosystem.

The important point here is that the ecosystem that works to keep the country safe and secure has never been more diverse. That’s true not just of the companies that contribute to national security, and the products they make, but of the individuals as well, though that’s something we’ll need to be vigilant in order to protect. I spoke to one founder (who did not appear in the story) who had emigrated from one of the countries on the new administration’s original travel ban list. That person is now an American citizen, but they didn’t want to go on record talking about their citizenship status, for fear that it might hurt their business.

Never the Whole Story

There is of course so much more to this story than I was able to get into the Fast Company piece, including interviews I did with companies that didn’t make an appearance (like Capella Space and Sonitus Technologies, among others), closer looks at what’s going on at NSTXL and MD5 and elsewhere, and a couple of other ground-level efforts to keep parts of the armed forces more current (some of which I want to write more about in future). The issue of Pentagon acquisition reform, which is really the key to this story (since it’s part of what keeps the military-industrial complex ticking over), was just too wonky to do much with here. But I know this is going to get some close attention from some capable journalists in coming months, so keep an eye out for that.

The “cut” key also did for a bunch of background on how the Pentagon came to even consider this new approach, and on some of the institutional roadblocks it faces on the road to broad adoption. I dropped a lot of this material, partly because it’s been covered elsewhere (most often in the specialist press), but also so that we would wind up with a story that Fast Company’s readers (and my editor) would be likely to make it to the end of. But it’s interesting stuff (to me, at any rate), so I’ve included some of it below.

Oddly, the piece originated in my interest in and coverage of gaming (broadly speaking), but has focused my attention on defense issues in ways it hasn’t been before. I did a piece a while back on wargaming at the DoD, and was interested to learn, while reporting that, that wargaming was being pushed at the highest levels as one way to revivify innovation at the Pentagon. This was as part of the “Third Offset” strategy designed to give U.S. forces an advantage over those of adversaries around the world.

The Third Offset, and Onward

Since just after World War Two, our strategy for both winning and avoiding wars has been to always carry a technologically bigger stick than our adversaries. This approach has taken the form of what are called “offset strategies.” The First Offset was nuclear: to counter Soviet Russia’s overwhelming advantage in ground forces, we trained a superior arsenal of nuclear weapons on the U.S.S.R., to be delivered by advanced bombers like the brand new B-52 Stratofortress. The Second Offset, covering the later years of the Cold War, was “smart”: smart bombs, precision guided missiles, stealth fighters, and new technologies that now seem commonplace, like satellite communications and GPS.

The Third Offset was announced by then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in 2014, and while it’s most often reported as a combination of AI and unmanned military equipment like combat drones, it’s really deeper than that (in theory, at least), and focuses on developing new technologies and finding new and more effective ways to use the materiel we have access to. The Third Offset is (or should be, at least in my reading) innovative. Which presents something of a challenge for the Pentagon, as the story talks about.

The future is somewhat uncertain for most of these efforts. While the new administration will likely continue to seek out innovative technologies, it will almost certainly do so without reference to a legacy offset strategy—and possibly without the real commitment to diverse sources of technology and other solutions that is likely the only real way to be effective. Much of the innovation practices that have sprung up in the Department of Defense over the last several years have been pushed by the very smart and capable Deputy Secretary of Defense, Bob Work. But Work will likely be replaced shortly by a key Boeing executive. With the military-industrial complex very prominently entrenched at the highest levels of the Pentagon, will the defense contracting establishment be able to remember that lives are on the line? Or will Silicon Valley have to punch them in the face?

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