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

4 Responses

  1. Hi Steve,

    Just FYI: As a fellow startup guy and military veteran, I’ve followed your blog for some time. As it happens, I created a LinkedIn group of now nearly 5,000 former & current U.S. Navy nuclear submarine officers over 12 years ago that today includes several senior-most officers on active duty. Noting today’s article you’ve published, I posted the following to the group today:

    [image: image.png]



    Mark Hughes Austin, Texas mobile: (512) 698-3248 plank owner, USS Dallas (SSN 700) LinkedIn:

  2. This course sounds interesting. I wish you had had Rob’t Gates as your first Sec of Def speaker rather than such a flawed Sec Def as Ash Carter.

    Carter turned the Pentagon into a social engineering petri dish to no great outcome. We are stuck with an entrenched body of generals who were intellectually thwarted from beating a 30K third world light infantry in the Taliban whilst the USA had force superiority, complete mastery of the air, profound intel advantages, unlimited fire power, unlimited mobility, a vastly superior on the ground leadership, and piss poor results.

    The failure was at the strategic level and in the general officer corps. In 20 years nobody figured out a strategy to beat this insignificant military force — hint, you can’t let your enemy winter over in Pakistan.

    The Taliban’s leaders were not military academy grads, hadn’t been to Airborne/Ranger Schools, the C&GSC, or the War College, but they outfought and out thought the Americans for 20 years, 8 of them during the Obama admin.

    [If one doubts this, study exactly what the Trump admin — coming from the WH itself — did to change the war v ISIS and guide that conflict to the Winners Circle. Know why Mattis is really pissed off? He was wrong and that amateur, draft dodging Orange Man was right.]

    The single most important thing in a tech war is not actually the weapon systems; it is the target list. What goes unsaid in the next war is the willingness of the US to decapitate the leadership at the strategic/national level of our opponents — talking to you, China.

    If you assume we can hit any zip code in the world, then one of the most powerful deterrents is the assurance that we intend to kill the Chinese leadership.

    The Chinese military capabilities, the quality of their battle drill, their ability to operate in a sea-land-air battlespace with a combined arms force (infantry, armor, artillery, air), the quality of their battlefield leadership are collectively grossly overrated.

    Eisenhower was right to warn us about the Mil-Ind Complex, but it is even worse to buy weapons systems from companies whose board is dominated by former generals.

    When you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you are a general, everything can be solved with a neat little two promotion, two rows of ribbons war.

    I am actually wildly pro-military having been educated at VMI and having served as a Regular in the combat engineers, but wars are way too important to be guided by generals.

    Every weapon system is only as good as its maintenance and what happens when a private first class mashes that GO button.

    Good karma to you. God bless America.

  3. Some of the problems this course describes should be taken seriously, but I think the statements are really too superficial and the solution too muddled. It also doesn’t address the political will and its effect on outcomes. As the above commentator points out, ISIS and the Taliban need not have had the success they had, if our political will was aligned correctly. China’s military improvement was helped immensely by their ability to steal our technology and our willingness by our commercial companies to share their technologies in order to sell their products in China. A review of our methodology for creating new systems and operating concepts need to take into account both our commercial activities, the cyber security with which we address that construction and whether our total reliance on commercial computers and operating systems with evolutionary upgrades hampers our ability to better than China or other potential advisories. Lastly, I agree with the above commentator. China is not 1000 feet tall. Much of what is seen as their disruptive technology for which we have no current solution is vastly exaggerated.

  4. A historical snippet to support the insight about incumbents. The following is from Stewart Wilson “Phantom”, Aerospace Publications, Fyshwick Australia (2002). Page 11: “The August 1943 decision by the US Navy to ask the only four years old and inexperienced McDonnell Aircraft Corporation to design a new carrier based jet fighter was taken mainly so as not to interrupt the war effort of the established companies.”

    McDonnell went onto become a dominant aerospace company during the 1960s+, culminating in the 1980s with the F-15 Eagle. But it fell into
    bankruptcy after the Advanced Tactical Fighter competition that selected the YF-22 over the YF-23.

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