Technology, Innovation, and Modern War

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 

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

Sep 22: DoD 101: An Introduction to the US Department of Defense: How Military Technology is Sourced, Acquired and Deployed.

Sep 24: US Defense Strategies and Military Plans in an Era of Great Power Competition

Sep 29: Technology, Ethics and War
Guest Panel

Oct 1: Congress and the power of the purse

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

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning
Oct 6: Introduction

Oct 8: Military Applications
Guest Speaker: LTG (ret) Jack Shanahan, fmr Director Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC)

Autonomy
Oct 13: Introduction
Oct 15: Military Applications

Cyber
Oct 20: Introduction
Military Applications

Space
Oct 27: Introduction
Military Applications

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

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

Nov 5: Budget and Innovation
Guest Speaker: OMB Defense lead

Nov 10: Team working sessions with DoD Mentors

Group Presentations and Critiques
Nov 12: Groups 1-2
Guest Critique:  US Indo-Pacom TBA

Nov 17: Groups 2-4

Course Reflections
Nov 19: Defending a Shared Vision for the Future
Guest Speaker James Mattis

16 Responses

  1. Thanks for sharing this. As a graduate of the War Studies BA from KCL London -https://www.kcl.ac.uk/warstudies/about . It’s really good to see more interest in learning from the military experience over the last few thousands of years. Be good to see how this goes.

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  2. Why are you experts so scared of non Americans and how many nukes do you need to feel safe?

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  3. Looks amazing, exactly the course that is needed! I hope you can record the classes and share it online!

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  4. Could be a “revolution in thinking” is way less a “lack of imagination than it is the courage to persist beyond our knowledge of personal and institutional risk.

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  5. I’m and old guy with a good memory.

    Remember two briefings:

    A tour of a new aircraft carrier and noticed reels of 2 pair wire. Asked why. Answer: If we are still afloat after an attack we can string the wire, use batteries, and have communications w/old tech.

    A few years ago a senior officer held up a new infantry tool; a field hardened tablet. then he held up a similar sized board with a hole in it. Why? The wood represented a table with a bullet hole in it.

    Lesson: On the battlefield, tech helps find the enemy and maybe protects the soldier, but it’ still boots on the ground that usually gets the job done.

    WIsh I coud take courses, but at 85, I’m past it

    Good stuff.

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  6. The seems to useful one in the present . Hope this can be recorded and share it online

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  7. Hi Steve, is this class open to the public? Will it be available on Stanford online?

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  8. Is there a way for us to audit this course online?

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  9. Hi Steve
    Sounds really relevant and interesting. Do you have plans to share across 5 eyes? I am going to share Blog with MOD Innovation leads but if not possible to share I will need to manage the expectations.
    Thanks for your thinking and openness as usual

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  10. To all who asked about sharing – I’ll do a weekly summary blog post of the speaker videos and the slides.
    As to auditing the class, Stanford believes that there’s value in attending the school and paying for the class 🙂

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  11. Would love to audit if that is available?

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  12. Hi steve, Is there any chance I can participate in this course and thank you.Sincerely,Almaw M.Sent from my Samsung Galaxy smartphone.

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  13. Steve – Looks like quite the course! As a Special Operations vet with a few years now out of the military and some experience in tech since for some perspective, this is really important to tell this story. There’s a tendency for those not from military families or communities when growing up to boil down these challenges to what is portrayed in movies and never have an opportunity to contribute. The more smart and dedicated folks from all political persuasions we have working on this the better. H4D, CMP, BMNT etc have made great strides in this so keep it up!

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