Lessons for the New Administration – Technology, Innovation, and Modern War

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 AI, machine learning, autonomy, cyber, access to space, biotech, hypersonics, and others have the potential to radically change how countries fight and deter threats.

With 20+ guest speakers, including two Secretaries of Defense, Generals, Admirals and Policy makers, 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 adopted and 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 surprises.

  1. One was a continuous refrain from senior DoD leadership that new tech, weapons, and operational concepts are insufficient to guarantee the U.S. will prevail in a great power conflict. In fact, these new technologies/weapons change the odds against us.
  2. Secondly, 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.

Unstated by any of our speakers but painfully clear by class end were three other surprises:

  1. Our national security is now inexorably intertwined with commercial technology and is hindered by our lack of an integrated strategy at the highest level.
  2. Our adversaries have exploited the boundaries and borders between our defense, commercial and economic interests.
  3. Our current approaches – both in the past and current administration – to innovation across the government are piecemeal, incremental, increasingly less relevant and insufficient.

Lessons Learned
A few takeaways from our speakers. If you’re in the DoD and conversant with the National Defense and Military strategies and have read Chris Brose’s book The Kill Chain, none of this will come as a surprise. But for the rest of you, here they are:

  • The 2018 National Defense Strategy focused the 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, economic and diplomatic power.
  • Unfortunately, China has succeeded – many of our most exquisite systems on sea, in space or in other places 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, AI, autonomy, access to space, drones, 5G, biotech, quantum, microelectronics, etc. – are no longer being led by military/government labs, but instead come from commercial vendors – many of them Chinese. The result is that unlike the last 75 years, the 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, the U.S. is no longer guaranteed to win the next war.

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 the DoD is at a crossroads: Substantive and sustained changes in the DoD size, structure, policies, processes, practices, technologies, and culture are needed.

  • For example, our requirements and acquisition systems are driven by a 70-year-old model predicated on predicting the future (both threats and technology) and delivering solutions decades out; and 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 88 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. Admiral Lorin Selby, the Chief of Naval Research, for example, had a compelling vision of the future fleet and an expanded industrial base.
  • The DoD has over 75 incubators and accelerators. We lead 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. The 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 U.S. they spend $ 150 billion a year to fund new ventures that can move with the speed and urgency that the 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. By public-private partnerships not government control. Private industry – from Primes to startups – incentivized at scale will ensure our leadership in science, in industry and in new technologies.
    • Reduce the dependence on bespoke and exquisite systems. Rapidly bring commercial technology into the DoD while adding proprietary defense components
    • Create new technology ecosystems around DoD technology needs by encouraging commercial interoperability around DoD standards. Awards and contracts to each new ecosystem.
    • Encourage and incentivize dual-use startups, scale-ups, and companies
    • Overhaul Federal Labs and Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs) to promote collaboration at scale with startups and venture investors
    • Each service should pick 1-2 startup/scale-up winners and buy heavily
  • Pentagon leadership will need to be selected on the ability to innovate – empower the innovation insurgents and elevate risk takers that understand technology.
  • 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 the 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 new Biden senior White House organizational structure 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 need to build the innovation capacity across the interagency- coordinated and synchronized by senior executive branch leadership. One way of implementing this would be 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 the DoD, National Security Council, Council of Economic Advisors, OMB, FCC, and OSTP.
  • Create a new Deputy National Security Advisor to coordinate and synchronize innovation and industrial policies across these multiple agencies
    • With real influence and responsibility on budget, trade policy, and alliance strategy
    • Specifically coordinate national policies of 5G, AI, machine learning, autonomy, cyber, access to space, biotech, hypersonics, microelectronics, etc.
    • Owns Civil/Military alliance for engaging and incentivizing new entrants and incumbents and protecting civil assets
    • Sits 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.

In future articles we’re going to offer specific solutions to transform the DoD to face the challenges ahead, not behind.

Steve, Joe, and Raj

Steve Blank

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