Technology, Innovation, and Modern War – Class 2 – Max Boot

We just held our second session of our new national security class Technology, Innovation and Modern War. Given the tech-centricity of Stanford and Silicon Valley, 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.

Catch up with the class by reading our summary of all the class sessions here..

Our guest speaker this session was Max Boot, author of War Made New.

Class 2:

Some of the pre-class reading included watching the Secret History of Silicon Valley and reading selected chapters of Max Boot’s book, War Made New.

If you can’t see the slides click here. The text below refers to the slides.

The Technology-to-Weapons-Cycle
Our second lecture was a discussion of how new technology turns into new weapons and new doctrine. Simply stated, this cycle is a repeatable pattern that has been occurring for hundreds if not thousands of years. Our proposition to the class is that once the pattern is understood we can manage it and hopefully accelerate it.

As an example of the technology to weapons cycle, we used the evolution of farm tractors with treads to tanks. Late in the 19th century, manufacturers of farm equipment put treads on tractors to navigate muddy fields. Once this technology innovation occurred, the British, French, and Germans envisioned a military use for it in World War 1. Tanks would be used to defeat the machine-gun and to penetrate layered trench defenses so infantry and cavalry could advance. The British were the first to use tanks on the battlefield in mass attacks. However, the early versions of tanks performed poorly at the battle of Flers-Courcelette in 1916 and Cambrai in 1917. In hindsight, they failed because: 1) the technology was at the beginning of its S-Curve (immature technology and features, buggy, prone to breakdown etc.) and 2) there was no prior learning of how to coordinate the use tanks on the battlefield (they lacked a doctrine.)

In the years that followed, incumbents in the U.S. Army, both internal (existing leadership) and external (existing contractors,) used these early WWW1 failures as rationale to keep the status quo – in this case horses/cavalry. Over the next 20 years, tank technology matured, and it was the Germans who fielded the Panzer III (each with radios,) as part of a combined arms doctrine that integrated tanks with infantry, artillery and air support. Slides 3-9

The result was that in May 1940 five panzer divisions crossed through the Ardennes and France fell to the Germans. After another half a century of refinement in tank warfare and doctrine U.S tanks would overwhelm the Soviet equipped Iraqi Army at the battle of 73 Easting.

As the history of the tank shows, often the ones who best exploits new technologies isn’t the inventor, or the first user of a new class of weapon (which in this case was Britain in World War 1.) Rather, it was the German Army that honed the operational concepts (Blitzkrieg, combined arms) and added complementary tools (radios in tanks, tactical air support.) We could have illustrated the same disruptive technology-to-weapon cycle by describing the introduction of the long bow, gunpowder, the airplane, or even the use of rocks versus clubs. In all cases, the story is the same. This technology-to-weapons-to doctrine innovation cycle is illustrated in the diagram below. Slide 10.

Institutional Inertia is a Social Problem
Looking at this diagram, one might think that after going through this cycle once, it would be easy to continuously adopt new technologies and weapons. But the painful lessons from nations that lost wars teach us that technology/weapons leadership is ephemeral. It’s inevitable that the cutting-edge systems that leading nations build ultimately become legacy systems. They’re superseded by other nations that move more quickly through this adoption cycle.

Services, agencies and careers are built around acquiring, operating, supporting and fighting with legacy systems, and this hinders adoption of the next innovation cycle when it’s time to adopt the next wave of disruption.

This institutional inertia is as much a social problem as it is a technical one. General/Flag Officers achieved their rank because of their ability to lead people and manage known processes. Unconsciously most are most comfortable with technology and doctrine they learned in their 20s. When visionaries start promoting what at first looks like a technological toy, leadership perceives them as bringing disorder to a well-ordered system.

As a result, institutional inertia (social, budget, capacities, careers, contractors, et al) hinders the adoption of the next-generation disruptive technology and weapons allows adversaries to leapfrog the leaders.

This is an age-old story. Unfortunately, it’s now a story about us.

Multiple Disruptive Technologies At Once Versus Multiple Adversaries – With a Limited Budget
Today, the U.S. Department of Defense faces a proverbial Gordian knot – there’s not just one or two disruptive technologies potentially changing warfare but at least ten; Cyber, AI, Machine Learning, Autonomy, Space, Hypersonics, Biotech, Semiconductors, Directed Energy and Quantum. And unlike the last century, most of these innovations are no longer driven by military weapons labs that have a lock on the technology but are coming from commercial companies.

Compounding this problem of multiple new technologies is today’s reality that the DOD is facing multiple adversaries. The Department of Defense has to decide which of these technologies and new weapons will be most important across these five: China, Russia, North Korea, Iran and non-nation states. For example, weapons and doctrine needed to continue to project power in the South China Sea will be different than those needed to protect the Baltic States or counter a regional threat in the Mideast.  And we need to do all of this with a finite defense budget, most of which is being spent on legacy systems in 88 major defense acquisition programs. Trying to kill one of these to free up money for new weapons development is a major political problem. (Slides 10-13)

We closed the lecture by observing that the DOD may be best served if it developed an Innovation Doctrine to guide its leadership through these decisions. The question we left for the students was: What else might we do?

Guest Speaker – Max Boot
Max Boot is the author of War Made New, a book that describes many of these technology to weapons cycles.

If you can’t see the Max Boot video, click here.

Our student take-aways from Max Boot’s talk are below:
Lessons Learned

  • The cycle of disruptive technology into weapons is a repeatable and predictable pattern
    • Technology Innovation >Visionaries > Early prototypes > Inertia from Status Quo > Early Adoption > New Operational Concepts/Doctrine > Offset strategy/win war
  • Institutional inertia is a social problem
    • Most people are comfortable with certainty
    • Our current requirements and acquisition system (Planning-Programming-Budgeting System) is built on assuming certainty
      • At its core is a 1960’s belief that quantitative analysis and cost accounting can reduce uncertainty and make choices of weapons systems predictable 10, 20 years in the future
      • This focus on outputs and optimization “worked” when technologies, threats and adversaries were known
      • It fails when facing unknowns. Todays threats need an agile system that can build incrementally and iteratively, and deliver with speed and urgency
  • Today ten major disruptive technologies have emerged
    • Each will create new weapons and doctrine
    • Most are coming from private companies and are widely available
  • Each of our 2+3 adversaries will require a different mix of weapons/doctrine
  • Prioritizing these new technologies and weapons is challenging
    • Our defense budget is limited
    • Yet it has 88 major defense acquisition programs, most of them legacy systems
    • Killing any of them will likely require a coordinated Justice Department and DOD effort
  • The DOD needs an Innovation Doctrine to guide the integration of disruptive tech into weapons systems, operational concepts, doctrine, new organizational designs and an agile acquisition system

Technology, Innovation, and Modern War – Class 1 – Ash Carter

We just had our first week of our new national security class Technology, Innovation and Modern War. Given the tech-centricity of Stanford and Silicon Valley, Joe Felter, Raj Shah and I thought it was natural to design 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.

Read about all the class sessions here.

Our students, a mix between international policy and engineering, will be the ones in this fight. If the past is a prologue, they’ll go off to senior roles in defense, policy and to the companies building new disruptive technologies. Our goals are to help them understand the complexity and urgency of the issues, offer them a model to understand the obstacles and path forward, and to inspire them to help lead the transformation of the Department of Defense to meet 21st century challenges.

Our guest speaker this class was Ash Carter the 25th Secretary of Defense.

The pre-class reading included: Christian Brose, The Kill Chain, Michele Flournoy and Gabriele Chefitz: Sharpening the US Military’s Edge and the 2018 summary of the National Defense Strategy.

Lecture 1:
This post describes our lecture slides below.

If you can’t see the slides click here. The text below refers to the slides.

The Big Picture
Context is important. We started the class illustrating the sweep of the rise and fall of empires and nations over the last 500 years. (Slide 17) The takeaways were that:

  1. National power is ephemeral
  2. China is the only nation that declined in national power and eventually recovered it – though it took half a millennium
  3. The rise of the United States as a national power was incredibly steep, however its trend over the last two decades is not heading in the right direction and is about to intersect with the rise of China

While the class is focused on how new technologies will shape new weapons and doctrine, the national power of a country (its influence and footprint on the world stage) is more than just its military strength. It’s the combination of a country’s diplomacy (soft power and alliances,) information/ intelligence and its military and economic strength. (This concept is known by its acronym, DIME.) (Slide 18)

It’s worth considering the reasons why nations decline — they lose allies, a decline in economic power (the UK in the 20th Century); they lose interest in global affairs (China in the 15th Century); internal/civil conflicts (Russia in the 20th Century.) We zeroed-in on one of the other reasons, and the purpose of this class – a nations military can miss disruptive technology transitions and new operational concepts (Slides 21-22).

And that has happened to us. For 25 years as the sole Superpower, the U.S. neglected strategic threats from China and a rearmed Russia. The country, our elected officials, and our military emotionally committed to a decades long battle to revenge 9/11. Meanwhile, our country’s legacy weapons systems had too many entrenched and interlocking interests (Congress, lobbyists, DOD/contractor revolving door, service promotion of executors versus innovators) that inhibited radical change. The 2018 National Defense Strategy changed that, becoming a wakeup call for our nation (Slide 25.)

All this was a prelude to introducing the class’s three parts (Slide 27):

  • The first part provides a broad overview of how new technology turns into weapons and doctrine.
  • Part two does a deep dive on AI, machine learning, autonomy, cyber and space (and will touch on biotech, microelectronics, quantum and hypersonics) and how each can be applied in the service of national security.
  • The third part of the class gives students hypothetical problems and asks them use 21st century technology to create operational concepts and doctrines that can solve them.

Technology to Weapons to Doctrine
As we described how the U.S. specifies and buys weapons systems to students accustomed to Amazon and the “make it happen now” culture of Silicon Valley, we could hear the “you got to be kidding me,” even over zoom. We described the theory versus current practice of defense requirements, acquisition and budgeting in Slides 28-32. And we repeated the obvious (that the system is broken) and the not so obvious – the U.S. is still using a McNamara-era requirements and acquisition system designed by financial managers from Ford and imposed on the DOD in the early 1960s. One observation that often goes unnoticed is that the government audit agencies – GAO, DoDIG – are also part of the problem, as they work hard in assuring compliance with bad strategy. (Best comment from a student, “It strikes me that our acquisition system isn’t broken – it’s obsolete. Built for a world that no longer exists.” An even more sobering comment was, “Was this system designed by the Chinese to ensure we can’t innovate?”)

Having a new technology and weapon doesn’t describe how it’s used to fight or win a war. Each new generation of technology (spears, bows and arrows, guns, planes, etc.) inevitably created new types of military systems. Shooting a gun instead of a longbow didn’t win a conflict; it required the development of a new operational concept and doctrine to learn; who mans it, what other activities are needed to work with it, how to sustain it, and how to use it to win. (Operational Concepts are the Minimum Viable Products of the practical application of a doctrine against a specific enemy in a specific environment.) Slide 33

New adversaries like ISIS in Iraq created the need for a new doctrine i.e. the 2006 Counterinsurgency Field Manual 3-24.

New types of disruptive technologies/weapons (China/Russia A2/AD, China’s  DF-21D and DF-26B) can create the need for new doctrine.

(Ironically, China building military bases on top of reefs in the South China Sea had nothing to do with new technology. It was simply a disruptive operational concept that used 20th-century dredging ships and a gamble that the U.S. wouldn’t interfere. That move alone negated 75 years of U.S. weapons and doctrine in the Pacific, and we’ll spend 10s of billions of dollars to solve the problem. The Marine Corps Force Design 2030 has revamped its operational concept to meet the new reality.)

Today, the Department of Defense can’t create doctrine, new operational concepts and new organizational structures against new technology and new types of warfare fast enough. Therefore, the purpose of this class – how to think about it systematically.

Incremental technology improvements in commercial companies and the Department of Defense tend to follow an S-curve – an initial systems capability is low as it undergoes shakedown and debugging, but climbs rapidly, then plateaus until it is replaced with another incremental improvement. However, unlike commercial systems, weapon systems are matched with a doctrine of how they are used. And incremental improvements in weapons typically result in incremental improvements in doctrine. And because of the complexity of the DOD requirements and acquisition system, the incumbent contractors are typically the same. New startups/companies rarely break into the system. (There’s something wrong when the cost of entry of Palantir, SpaceX and Anduril as new DOD contractors required billionaire founders.) Slides 35-37

Unlike incremental technology improvements. disruptive technology is on a completely different S-curve than existing technology and forces the creation of new doctrine and operational concepts. In theory, incumbent contractors of old technology/weapons should be at a disadvantage over the suppliers for new technology systems as disruption offers opportunities for a new generation of contractors and suppliers. However, as we’ll describe in later classes, the role of Congress, incumbent contractors, lobbyists, still favor the existing prime contractors. Slides 38-41


It’s sobering to consider what our existing legacy systems are versus where they need to be in the next two decades. It’s worth looking at the chart below for a while. Whether we want to or not this is where the new technologies are going to take us. Even if the chart is just directionally correct, each one of those transitions requires billions of dollars, new weapons and new doctrine. Slide 41

In both commerce and Defense, they are visionaries who can look at technology (that to others appears like a toy,) and they can imagine it fully formed a decade into the future with the new operating concepts against new threats/opportunities. Examples include the Blitzkrieg (Von Manstein), or the Nuclear Navy (Admiral Rickover,) or AirLand Battle (Creighton Abrams,) or Andrew Marshall at ONA, or Elon Musk at SpaceX. Executors (those focus on running existing organizations) often dismiss visionaries because, truth be told, most are hallucinating. But the few that are right, change the world or win wars. The biography of John Boyd (the author of the OODA loop) and his observations on “Be versus Do” in a military career is still a great read. Slide 42

The Impact of New Technology and How the DOD Will Acquire It
As an introduction to this class session, one of the assignments was to watch the Slaughterbot video, a dystopian (but technically possible) future of autonomy and AI.

As a nation the U.S. invests large % of its GDP in research and development; however, the source of those dollars has shifted from government to private industry. (The large rise in federal R&D in the 1960s was the investment in NASA and the space program.) While federal R&D is focused on the national interest, a lack of a national industrial policy or incentives for commercial R&D has those R&D dollars optimizing the greatest financial return. Slide 45

“No bucks, no Buck Rogers” describes the role that Congress plays in providing funding for all military expenditures. In the last two decades a federal budget was passed on time just four times. This plays havoc with having a predictable way to pay for new things. Slides 49-51

A glimmer of hope is occurring across the DOD. An insurgency has arisen in the services and combatant commands that has essentially said, “We can’t wait until our acquisition system is fixed, so we’re going to bypass it.” All the services have incubators, Accelerator’s, and SBIR programs. And they’re even making an end-around to a broken acquisition system. First driven by the Army, and now rapidly being used by the other services, a new way to write contracts, called Other Transaction Authorities (OTAs,) has emerged to bypass the years of paperwork. (Time will tell whether the existing acquisition bureaucracy beats this down or if it truly can sustain a breakout from traditional contracting and gets embraced by visionary leadership.) Slides 47 and 52

Guest Speaker – Ash Carter – SecDef


If you can’t see the Ash Carter video, click here

In the beginning of every class we ask our students for their feedback and thoughts about our guest speakers. Our student take-aways from Secretary Carter’s talk is below:

Lessons Learned

  • Technology by itself doesn’t win wars. It has to be built into a weapons system.
    • Today, many of the advanced technologies that will be used in 21st weapons are being built by private companies not the department of defense
  • Weapons by themselves don’t win wars. To be effective they have to be integrated into an operational concept/doctrine
    • Operational concepts/Doctrine describes how a weapon is used, who uses it, what else/who else needs to be used with it, how it’s maintained, etc. And the expected results when used
  • The way we describe what weapons we need (the requirements) and the way we buy them (the acquisition process) is built on a mid-20th process designed by accountants
    • Today, there are 88 Major Defense Acquisition Programs (billion+$’s.) Almost all are legacy systems – designed to fight 20th century wars
      • For example, the F-35/B-21/KC-46 aircraft, Ford-Class Carriers, Columbia-class SSBN, Virginia-class SSN, M-1 tank upgrades, etc.
    • In its attempt to minimize financial risk it has metastasized into a process that cannot field a major weapon system in less than a decade
    • The process does not differentiate between programs that are incremental improvements, versus those that are disruptive
    • The pushback to do something different i.e. the Marine Corps Force Design 2030 illustrates the institutional inertia to change -even when clearly needed
  • Existing technologies – can be described with an S-Curve
    • These systems start out with teething problems, mature, and then are replaced by better systems solving the same problem
    • Unlike commercial products, military technology/weapon systems have an associated doctrine – how it is used
    • Doctrine gets incremental improvements
    • Most often incremental weapons systems are built by existing contractors
  • Disruptive technology also goes through their own S-Curves, but they solve different problems/create new capabilities
    • Disruptive technology create new doctrine and in a perfect world, new suppliers

Technology, Innovation, and Modern War – Introduction

I’m teaching my first non-lean start up class in a decade at Stanford next week; Technology, Innovation and Modern War: Keeping America’s Edge in an Era of Great Power Competition. The class is joint listed in Stanford’s International Policy department as well as in the Engineering School, in the department of Management Science and Engineering.

Why This Course?

Five years ago, Joe Felter, Pete Newell and I realized that few of our students considered careers in the Department of Defense or Intelligence Community. In response we developed the Hacking for Defense class where students could learn about the nation’s emerging threats and security challenges while working with innovators inside the Department of Defense (DoD) and Intelligence Community to solve real national security problems. Today there is a national network of 40 colleges and universities teaching Hacking for Defense. We’ve created a network of entrepreneurial students who understand the security threats facing the country and engaged them in partnership with islands of innovation in the DOD/IC. The output of these classes is providing hundreds of solutions to critical national security problems every year. This was our first step in fostering a more agile, responsive and resilient, approach to national security in the 21st century.

Fast forward to today. For the first time since the start of the Cold War, Americans face the prospect of being unable to win in a future conflict. In 2017, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff gave a prescient warning that “In just a few years, if we do not change the trajectory, we will lose our qualitative and quantitative competitive advantage.” Those few years are now, and this warning is coming to fruition.

New emerging technologies will radically change how countries will be able to fight and deter threats across air, land, sea, space, and cyber. But winning future conflicts requires more than just adopting new technology; it requires a revolution in thinking about how this technology can be integrated into weapons systems to drive new operational and organizational concepts that change the way we fight.

Early in 2020, Joe Felter (previously Assistant Secretary of Defense for South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Oceania and Hacking for Defense co-creator) and I began to talk about the need for a new class that gave students an overview of the new technologies and explored how new technologies turn into weapons, and how new concepts to use them will emerge. We recruited Raj Shah (previously the managing director of the Defense Innovation Unit that was responsible for contracting with commercial companies to solve national security problems) and we started designing the class. One couldn’t hope for a better set of co-instructors.

The Class
War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man. Ever since someone picked up a rock and realized you could throw it, humans have embraced new technology for war. Each new generation of technology (spears, bows and arrows, guns, planes, etc.) inevitably created new types of military systems. But just picking up the rock didn’t win a conflict, it required the development of a new operational concept learning how to use it to win, i.e. what was the best way to throw a rock, how many people needed to throw rocks, the timing of when you threw it, etc. As each new technology created new military systems, new operational concepts were developed (bows and arrows were used differently than rocks, etc.). Our course will examine the new operational concepts and strategies that will emerge from 21st century technologies – Space, Cyber, AI & Machine Learning and Autonomy. We’ll describe how new military systems are acquired, funded, and fielded, and also consider the roles of Congress, incumbent contractors, lobbyists, and start-ups.

This course begins with an overview of the history of military innovation then describes the U.S. strategies developed since World War II to gain and maintain our technological competitive edge during the bipolar standoff of the Cold War. Next, we’ll discuss the challenge of our National Defense Strategy – we no longer face a single Cold War adversary but potentially five – in what are called the “2+3 threats” (China and Russia plus Iran, North Korea, and non-nation state actors.)

The course offers students the insight that for hundreds of years, innovation in military systems has followed a repeatable pattern:  technology innovation > new weapons > experimentation with new weapons/operational concepts > pushback from incumbents > first use of new operational concepts.

In the second part of course, we’ll use this framework to examine the military applications of emerging technologies in Space, Cyber, AI & Machine Learning, and Autonomy. Students will develop their own proposals for new operational concepts, defense organizations, and strategies to address these emergent technologies while heeding the funding and political hurdles to get them implemented.

The course draws on the experience and expertise of guest lecturers from industry and from across the Department of Defense and other government agencies to provide context and perspective. Bookending the class will be two past secretaries of Defense – Ash Carter and Jim Mattis.

Much like we’ve done with our past classes; – the Lean LaunchPad which became the National Science Foundation I-Corps (taught in 98 universities) and Hacking For Defense (taught in 40 schools,) – our goal is to open source this class to other universities.

As Christian Brose assesses in his prescient book “The Kill Chain”, our challenge is not the lack of money, technology, or capable and committed people in the US government, military and private industry – but of a lack of imagination. This course, like its cousin Hacking for Defense, aims to harness America’s comparative advantage in innovative thinking and the quality of its institutions of higher education, to bring imaginative and creative approaches to developing the new operational concepts we need to compete and prevail in this era of great power rivalry.

The syllabus for the class is below:

Technology, Innovation and Modern War

Part I: History, Strategy and Challenges

Sep 15: Course Introduction
Guest Speaker: Ash Carter 25th Secretary of Defense

Sep 17: History of Defense Innovation: From Long Bows to Nuclear Weapons and Off-Set Strategies.
Guest Speaker: Max Boot author War Made New

Sep 22: DoD 101: Sourced, Acquiring and Deploying Technology for Modern War.
Guest Speaker: Anja Manuel ex State Dept, responsible for South Asia Policy

Sep 24: US Defense Strategies and Military Plans in an Era of Great Power Competition
Guest Speaker: Bridge Colby ex Deputy Asst Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development

Sep 29: The Challenges of Defending America in the Future of High Tech War
Guest Speaker: Christian Brose, author The Kill Chain, head of Strategy for Anduril

Oct 1: Innovations in Acquisitions in Modern War
Guest Speaker: Will Roper Asst Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics

Part II: Military Applications, Operational Concepts, Organization and Strategy 

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning
Oct 6: Introduction
Guest Speaker: LTG General Jack Shanahan (ret)  fmr Director Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC)

Oct 8: Military Applications
Guest Speaker: Chris Lynch (CEO Rebellion Defense, ex head Defense Digital Service/Nand Mulchandani(CTO of the JAIC)

Oct 13: Introduction
Guest Speaker: Maynard Holliday

Oct 16: Military Applications
Guest Speaker: Michele Flournoy

Oct 20: Introduction
Guest Speaker: Michael Sulmeyer

Oct 22: Military Applications
Guest Speaker: Sumit Agarwal

Oct 27: Introduction/Military Applications
Guest Speaker: General John Raymond, Commander U.S. Space Force

Oct 29: Applying Innovaton to Future Plans
Guest Speaker: Admiral Lorin Selby, Chief of Naval Research

Part III: Building an integrated plan for the future (Student group project)

How to build a plan for future war
Nov 3:
Guest Speaker(s): COCOM and Joint Staff Planners

Nov 5: Conops planning
Guest Speaker: Maj. General Mike Fenzel

Nov 10: Budget and Planning/Mid Term Presentation
Guest Speaker: Congressman Mike Gallagher

Group Presentations Dry Runs and Instructor Critiques
Nov 12: All six teams

Group Presentations
Nov 17: All six teams
Guest Critique:  US Indo-Pacom TBA

Course Reflections
Nov 19: Defending a Shared Vision for the Future
Guest Speaker General (ret) James Mattis 26th Secretary of Defense

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