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

3 Responses

  1. Steve, what about the application of drones in targeting leaders of organizations like ISIS and al queda? It would seem that the doctrine, or strategy, occurred earlier in the cycle, but I am not familiar with the history of this technology for military use.

    Kind regards,


    Michael J. Murray, DVM, MS, CPC, DACVIM Level 5 Coaching and Consulting, LLC

    Sent from my iPhone


    • Ditto – as the progression may not be in a serial fashion as indicated in the lessons learned. In fact, sometimes the operational concept/doctrine doesn’t shift when it needs to (isn’t this happening today with the pairing/slaving of unmanned with manned)? And, could operational concepts incent or drive ideas around science/tech development?

  2. Thanks for sharing the full interview with Max. One point I felt that wasn’t touched on the interdependency we all have on each other. US, Russia / Sliver Union, China, etc. need each other as well. For example, Telsa’s largest production factory is now in China.

    Yes, the Russians do promote their interests in the US – Trump support- but they are also an important trading partner.

    The point being there are mutual dependencies between all the major players that matter as much as the competitive side.

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