We just held our fifth session of our new national security class Technology, Innovation and Modern War. Joe Felter, Raj Shah and I designed a class to examine the new military systems, operational concepts and doctrines that will emerge from 21st century technologies — Space, Cyber, AI & Machine Learning and Autonomy.
Today’s topic was The Challenges of Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare.
Some of the readings for this class session included: Brookings webinar moderated by Michael O’Hanlon with Christian Brose, Mara Karlin and Frank Rose, 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 2016–19 National Defense Authorization Acts. He previously was the senior policy advisor to Senator 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 transcription in this blog 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 25 to 30 years. The assumption was 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 move and shoot and communicate with near impunity and qualitatively
- 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, and commercial space, etc. 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, 20 or 30 years. Then 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. They can create different incentives for different types of industries to work with them and for them. They 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.
The 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. The DOD has to write checks to new vendors for programs at scale.
Making Change Happen
The DOD admits they have a problem. They admit they need to do things differently. Now we get down to the difficult questions of execution and implementation, which is where they have foundered in the past. They haven’t ended up in this position due to a lack of people saying the right things. We’re here because they have 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.
Read the entire transcript of Chris Brose’s talk here and watch the video below.
If you can’t see the Chris Brose’s talk click here
Student Takeaways From Chris’ Talk
— The military advantages we had as a nation in the 20th century are gone
- China has systematically negated each of our strengths
- Our nation is no longer guaranteed to win a war
— Our Defense industry has built expensive and exquisite systems that are few in number and now extremely vulnerable
- That’s no longer the correct model
- AI, machine learning, autonomous systems, distributed networking, advanced manufacturing, commercial space, etc. are largely driven by commercial innovation and companies
— The Department of Defense has given lip service to change but institutional inertia — measured by actual spending — is holding us back
- We need to rapidly pivot to using new contractors at scale
— The DOD needs to rapidly integrate commercial tech into new capabilities that
- Replace attrited assets
- Enhance existing capabilities
- Create new capabilities and concepts that leapfrog our adversaries