Technology, Innovation, and Modern War – Class 7 – Jack Shanahan

We just held our seventh session of our new national security class Technology, Innovation and Modern WarJoe FelterRaj Shah and I designed the 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.

Today’s topic was Military Applications of Artificial Intelligence.

Catch up with the class by reading our summaries of the previous 6 classes here.


If you can’t see the slides above, click here.

Our guest speaker was General Jack Shanahan LTG (ret), former Director of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC).

Some of the readings for this class session included: Can The Pentagon Win The AI Arms Race?, The Ethical Upside To Artificial Intelligence, The Coming Revolution In Intelligence Affairs, Artificial Intelligence For Medical Evacuation In Great-Power Conflict, Congressional Research Service, Artificial Intelligence And National Security.

AI and The Department of Defense
As a lead up to this class session we’ve been talking about the impact of new technologies on the DOD. AI is constantly mentioned as a potential gamechanger for defense.

General Shanahan founded the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (the JAIC) to insert AI across the entire Department of Defense. The goal is to use AI to solve large and complex problem sets that span multiple services; then, ensure that all of the DOD has real-time access to libraries of data sets and tools. A key part of the strategy was to work with commercial companies to help build these solutions.

Prior to the JAIC General Shanahan ran Project Maven, an unintentional dry-run for how the DOD and commercial companies could partner (or not) to build AI-enabled apps. Maven partnered with Google to build a computer vision tool for imagery analysts to automatically detect objects/targets. The relationship ended when Google employees forced the company’s withdraw­­­ from the project.

There were lots of lessons on both sides — about transparency, about why companies in the 20th century had “federal systems divisions” that worked exclusively on government projects, while the rest of their company pursued commercial business — as well as a lot of relearning lessons the Valley had forgotten (see The Secret History of Silicon Valley).

This entire class session was a talk by General Shanahan and Q&A with the students. It’s interesting to note how many of his observations echo ones Chris Brose and Will Roper made in the previous sessions.

I’ve extracted and paraphrased a few of his key insights below, but there are many others throughout this substantive discussion. I urge you to read the entire transcript and watch the video.

Tactical Urgency and Strategic Patience
We have a relatively small window to transform our respective Defense Department from Industrial Age hardware-centric organizations, to Information Age software-centric, more risk tolerant ones. That demands the right combination of tactical urgency and strategic patience, but there’s no question we have to move with alacrity on this right now.

War is a very uncertain endeavor run by humans. If we find ourselves on the verge of a conflict with China in 20 years, the idea that we might have a fully AI-enabled force by then will not by itself guarantee victory. If on the other hand, in that same 20-year period, China has a fully AI-enabled force and we do not, I believe we will incur an unacceptably high risk of defeat.

Project Maven – Start With the Problem – Automate Imagery Analysis
We didn’t start Project Maven with an AI solution. We started with a problem: far too much information coming in from the intelligence enterprise; intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance. It was done manually — intensive, mind-numbing work with analysts staring at video screens for 12 hours at a shift. They couldn’t ever get through that much. It was really hard for analysts to absorb that amount of data and the data was increasing – in volume, speed and in tempo — and it was coming from all sources simultaneously, from unclassified to the highest classification levels.

We weren’t looking to do a 1x solution, a 5x solution or even a 10X solution. We wanted a 100X solution. We needed something that would really change the way we did processing exploitation and dissemination of all this intelligence coming in from all these platforms and centers in the world.

We went out and solicited everything we could find in the Department of Defense. There was tremendous AI work going on in the research labs, but nothing available for doing processing exploitation and dissemination in the near term. The problem was, while the military research labs were doing some of the best research in the world, it wasn’t getting across the classic technology valley of death. (I like to talk about Maven and the JAIC as “AI Now,” and then places like DARPA and the military research labs as “AI Next.”)

Where else did this AI technology exist? DIUx, In-Q-tel and others pointed out to us, “You lament about how much information you’re having to take in and process. Look at how much information YouTube takes in every single day. Your problems are not an overwhelming problem. There are solutions available in commercial industry.”

So how do you take technology from commercial industry, adapt it for the Department Defense purposes, and do it fast enough and do it at scale across the entire Department of Defense? The only way we could do that was to start bringing in those commercial technologies faster and faster.

So, Project Maven started us on the path of bringing an AI-enabled solution for the purpose of intelligence. Largely computer vision in going after the intake from drones. At first tactical drones, then mid-altitude drones, eventually to high altitude manned airplanes and even commercial imagery, working with the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency.

The JAIC – Go at Scale and Speed
After a couple of years of doing Project Maven, Bob Work (then-deputy Secretary of Defense) was itching to move just beyond intelligence. He said Maven was never designed to be only about the intelligence enterprise, we needed to bring in every single mission in the Department of Defense, and we needed to go much faster. There was a revolution happening in commercial industry and the DOD was not was not getting it.

I was chartered to stand up the JAIC in a form that Joe and Raj, and I’m sure Steve would appreciate. Somebody signed a memo saying, “Go stand up a joint AI Center. You don’t have any people, you don’t have any money, you don’t have anywhere to live, but you’ll figure it out.”

Lean, MVPs and the DOD
Project Maven became the basis for what we did in the JAIC. We started with a cross-functional team. In commercial tech you call that an integrated product team, It’s acquisition with software engineering with UI/UX. This idea of U/UX user interface/user experience, a ruthless focus on user experience, the DOD has never been very good at that.

It’s also learning how to put things on contract fast and get things done and field them quickly. It was whatever you can do to get away from the classic DOD stovepipe way of doing business to a much more agile software approach.

Josh Marcuse and the Defense Innovation Board were instrumental in helping us see what those agile principles were and how we could get moving and go fast. And we took the classic commercial tech approach of building minimal viable products: Get something that will work good enough. Let the user know what they’re going to get as opposed to just forcing something down their throat claiming that it was much better than it really was.

Minimal Viable Products
The idea of minimal viable product is not what the department of defense has lived with, it’s out there in pockets. But we need to be much better at that.

What’s “good enough” when we field these capabilities? It was never for us to say. It was for the users of the capabilities to tell us.  We would give some parameters like, “This is a 95% test and evaluation solution. Do you accept it?” “I don’t know. Let me try it out.”

The other reason that we wanted to push AI-enabled capabilities out to the field as quickly as possible is because until users get to play around with it, it’s just science fiction. You hear all these grandiose stories about what AI is. But few people are saying what AI is not. And in the Department Defense it’s more about what it’s not than what it is. There’s so much more we must do to get people to use those capabilities. As soon as they touch it, they say, “Well, if it can do that, what about this?” Every time they’ve said that, we said yes, it can be it can be done. So we’ll make this product better and better in a rapid sort of agile approach of continuous integration, continuous delivery.

That is the future for the Department of Defense. If we don’t get that right, we’re doomed because AI capabilities left to themselves six months down the road will become useless. Just like any commercial software, it’s got to be a continuous development cycle. So that idea of MVP, putting capabilities in the user’s hand, letting them tear it apart, tell us what worked, what didn’t work, what they’d like to see better. That was really the core concept about Maven, and then the JAIC.

The idea of Ops and Intel working closer together, those two worlds merging, is the holy grail idea of ops/Intel fusion. These AI-enabled capabilities are getting us closer and closer to that environment. And this idea of user-defined operating picture is with us today. The performance of that will increase exponentially over the next couple of years.

Continuous Integration, Continuous Development, Continuous Delivery
The other thing about AI is that you train it against one set of data that will reflect, to some extent, the real world. But once you put it in the real world you learn it never works as advertised. The first time you use it in Afghanistan you realize you never trained it against data that had women wearing full-length black burkas, it didn’t know what those were. Interesting little problem. So you get real-world data, feed it back into the algorithm and it performs better and better. A second, third time, so on, and so on. It was all about the user defining what success look like.

You need a cycle of continuous integration, continuous development and continuous delivery.

We were proud at Project Maven that the first updates of our initial algorithms were out the door in four to five months and then got better and better and better — in some cases about every two weeks. In our personal lives, we get updates pushed to us hourly in some of our apps. So that’s the goal. To be able to do that, you need this backend infrastructure and architecture, so that a soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, Space Force wherever they are, can design an app on the spot, relying on this backend infrastructure, that Joint Common Foundation.

We’re not close to doing that yet with some very limited exceptions like Kessel Run, which is not AI, although they’re starting to go down that path, too. But they’re getting into that model of, “How quickly can I get this in an agile sort of software pathway of doing things and push it out to the field as quickly as possible?”

Warfighters Need to Be Demanding Customers
The biggest role that the warfighters have in this is to be very demanding customers and to say what needs to be fixed and not just accept what we’ve done to operators too many times, which is, “Look, here’s the product, take it or leave it. We’re going to get you another version five years from now, and probably $200 million over budget.”

That world is gone. We have got to get to that point where, “Here it is. What’s wrong with it? We’ll fix it as quickly as we can and we’ll update it with real-world data, it will make it better and better.” Demanding customers provide ruthlessly candid feedback, which was never a problem with the Special Operations community.

This concept of leverage and UI/UX, and all of that is so essential to everything we’re doing. And the backend requires things in addition to a common foundation, a data management platform, open API, is all the T&E tools, everything should be available to everybody in the Department of Defense.

You Need a Disrupter
And then of course you need a classic disrupter. Somebody who does not take no for an answer, who breaks a little glass and makes some people a little bit upset in terms of overturning their apple carts. Because there are so many obstacles in the Department of Defense it would be easy to become disillusioned and just give up on the whole enterprise. The role I needed to play was top cover for the disrupter. It’s the combination of this top-down advocacy and pressure, and this bottom up innovation. And then you bring in a disrupter that gets this thing going.

This is what Raj Shah did at DIUX. It’s what AFWERX has to deal with. It’s what Hondo Geurts had to deal with when he was running SOFWERX. It’s what Enrique Oti has done up at Kessel Run, Chris Lynch at the Defense Digital Service. These were classic disruptors — strong personalities running innovation organizations in innovative ways.

Scaling The Organizations Across the DOD
But now you had to take all those models and begin to learn, how do you scale them across the Department of Defense? That is incredibly hard. And that’s what the JAIC was designed to do, you spark the movement for the next decade, 15, 20 years of movement.

But unless you take those organizational models and begin to scale them across the Department of Defense, they’re sitting there as one-off organizations. They’re critical but they’re insufficient. You need to inculcate a startup culture in the institutional bureaucracy of the Department of Defense.

One of the most important things we were working on in the JAIC is this thing called the Joint Common Foundation.

Joint Common Foundation
It is an architecture and infrastructure — for lack of a cleaner term, call it a platform as a service, a DevSecOps or AI/Ops environment. On top of an Enterprise Cloud environment that’s supposed to be called JEDI. To build this dev SEC ops, AI ops environment, which is to give everybody in the Department of Defense equal access to everything from data, to AI tools, to all the security environment, to Jupyter notebooks, you name it, everything you would need to develop AI. The JAIC is building that as a common foundation.

There are 200 people in the JAIC, and that includes contractors, it’s probably not going change the entire Department of Defense and their AI way of doing business.  But what it has to do is leverage more. The idea of everything that JAIC does is a product available to everybody else in the Department of Defense, they come, pull it off the shelf, so to speak, and use that to leverage the entire Department of Defense. Otherwise JAIC will be an interesting organization and last for a few years and go away.

The Joint Common Foundation is designed to make that available to everybody across the Department of Defense. And I think over the next few years that Joint Common Foundation will be what the JAIC becomes known for as much or more than anything else it’s doing. The services will figure out the technology piece, it’s just they need a little bit of a push, that flywheel has to get turning a little bit faster.

New Operating Concepts Versus Doctrine
Even more important than this, is the idea of developing new operating concepts. New operating concepts do not come out of the Pentagon. Pentagon writes great doctrine. Doctrine is all sorts of instructions and directives and great PowerPoint slides; the operating concepts will come from those on the tactical edge or the operational environment.

And what does the world of AI, Enterprise Cloud, 5G, and someday quantum look like? I don’t know, but it’s not for us to say, it’s for the users to be able to figure it out, by letting them try it out in operational settings.  I believe there is no mission in the Department of Defense that will not benefit – from the introduction of AI-enabled capabilities from the back office, to the battlefield, from undersea to outer space, in cyberspace and all points in between.

Read the entire transcript of General Shanahan’s talk here and watch the video below.

If you can’t see the video of General Shanahan’s talk click here

Lessons Learned

  • The DOD recognized that AI was one of the potential game changers
    • They set up the JAIC (Joint Artificial Intelligence Center) to see if they could Leverage AI across the DOD
  • They built products using modern processes – continuous integration, continuous development and continuous delivery
  • The group required a “Disrupter,” someone willing to break glass to push these ideas
  • Over time, JAIC has realized that scaling AI across the DOD will not come from delivering individual solutions
    • but by having a Joint Common AI Foundation that’s accessible by all DOD app developers

Technology, Innovation and Modern War – Class 6 – Will Roper

We just held our sixth session of our new national security class Technology, Innovation and Modern WarJoe FelterRaj 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.

Today’s topic was Innovations in Acquiring Technologies for Modern War.

Catch up with the class by reading our summaries of the previous five classes here.


Our guest speaker was Hon. Will Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force.

Some of the readings for this class session included: Defense Innovation is Falling Short, Dr. Will Roper’s recent AMA about AFWERX and AFVentures and The Future of Defense task-force-report

Acquisition, technology, and logistics
In some of our class sessions you’ve heard about how acquisition in the Department of Defense hasn’t kept up with new threats, adversaries, and new technologies. But Will Roper who runs Air Force acquisition, technology and logistics, gives lie to that assertion. He gets it. And he’s running as fast as he can to move the Air Force into the 21st century. It was an eye-opening conversation.

Will Roper is responsible for spending $60 billion acquiring 550 programs as well as technology and logistics. His resume reads like he trained for the job: bachelor’s and master’s in physics and Ph.D from Oxford in Math. He started his career at MIT Lincoln Labs, then was Chief Architect at the Missile Defense Agency, the founding Director of the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office. (The SCO imagines new, often unexpected and game-changing uses of existing government and commercial systems.)

This entire class session was a talk by Will and Q&A with the students. It would be easy to just put up the video and the transcription in this blog and be done with it. But that would do a real disservice to the insights Will offered. It’s interesting to note how many of his observations echo the ones Chris Brose made in the previous session. I’ve extracted and paraphrased a few below, but I urge you to read the transcript and watch the video.

Here’s what Will had to say:

Competition with China
I view the competition with China as one of the seminal challenges that we’re going to face in this century. It’s not a fait accompli how it’s going to end. But it’s a very different challenge, because it’s not a Cold War part two. We’re very economically intertwined with this competitor. But we do have to treat it just as if it was an existential race. Because we have a very different world view than that competitor does.

Commercial technology has changed the DOD model
Commercial technologies are being driven faster than any government can keep up with, though many governments are trying to steer it to their own advantage. And many of the technological breakthroughs that could be important to the military are going to be available to everyone. So, the model that worked so well in the Cold War, where you made a technology breakthrough, you did it exclusively inside your own country. And because you were annexed from your competitor, you could develop that technology, instantiate it in your military and field it for advantage, really doesn’t make a lot of sense in this decade and in this century. Technology is what it is. Governments play a strong role in it, we can incubate it, we can accelerate it, we can create it, but we’re increasingly a smaller fraction of what happens commercially.

I view the Pentagon being in a time of crisis, where it’s really trying to figure out its role. Where it’s not the major funder of innovation anymore. It has a sizable budget. It’s a sizable market. But it’s not the major driver of invention. And I find most of the people working in it have a hard time with that. They have been in the building since before the Cold War and have really not been outside to see that the times have changed. But I love the times that we’re in. Technology is cheap, it’s ubiquitous, it’s fast, it’s moving.

The Pentagon’s challenge is to reboot itself, to get rid of those Cold War processes that we’re very good at inventing technology that would change the world.

Now we have to be good at bringing technology in from the outside
Now, we have to be good at adapting technology, bringing it in from the outside and instantiating it. We need to be better at building partnerships. But it’s not actually the way we organize the business. And there are so many great areas for partnership between the military and commercial innovators, that we’re missing out on opportunities. And AFWERX and other organizations that I’ve tried to stand up in the Air Force to create partnerships are a central paradigm for how we move innovation forward.

The military is going to have to treat technology wherever it is as a battlefield in and of itself. And that is not how the Pentagon is set up to run.

If we don’t engage proactively, I think what we have seen happen with hobbyist drones a few years ago is a harbinger of what could become the status quo in future years. Where technologies may emerge in one innovative sector, but if we’re not proactive and engaging with them, then the supply chain and market will move overseas to another country’s advantage. And this is not the Pentagon’s playbook.

The presupposition that the future can be predicted is no longer true
We are very good at having an adversary that we can forecast well. Having good intelligence on them, formulating our view of their future, creating a model of what we think they will bring to bear on the battlefield both technologically as well as operationally. We create our own counter solution to what we predict.

We build it, hopefully get to it first. And once we field it, we hope that countering what we have done leads to a strategy that leads to us victory.

That worked well in the Cold War. There’s no indication that will work well in the situation we find ourselves in today. So, as I’ve as I’ve engaged in Air Force and Space Force acquisition it starts with the presupposition that the future can be predicted. You won’t find that written down in any acquisition document. But it’s actually foundational to how the Pentagon works. The future is predictable. And it’s not.

No telling which technology is going to lead
I have no idea what the future is going to be. I have no idea what 2030 is going to be. Who knows what technology is going to be the next big thing. You’ll find people in radically different camps. You’ll find one group centering around AI. But you’ll find different people who will say no, quantum systems are going to allow radically different phenomenology to be brought to bear. Not just computing and encryption but sensing. And they’ll be next to a group that will say “Nope, biological systems are going to allow fundamentally different approaches to building sensors and computing and sensing.” And you’re not going to have to wait on those exquisite quantum systems because you can hack biology and do it sooner. And the camps go on.

So that just tells me this is a wonderful time for technology. It’s everywhere, it’s not expensive to engage in. And there’s no telling which technology is going to lead to that next Industrial Revolution. I think that really is the competition amongst nations, that many of these technologies could birth a new industrial revolution. And whichever country does it, it’s going to be to such a decided advantage, that the military part of the equation is probably moot.

The Pentagon needs to be fast and agile
But the military, because it is a very stabilizing and unique part of any country’s market system, has to play a catalyzing role in setting that country up to find that Industrial Revolution faster. The Pentagon is not suited for this. So the $60 billion per year procurement system that I run for the Air Force and Space force, the strategy is pretty simple. You need to be exceptionally fast and agile. The Cold War system wasn’t. And the system in this century must be. Because we don’t know what the next big thing is going to be. So let’s be ready to adapt to it. Speeding the system up is not as hard as you think. It’s just not what was valued in the past. So you just simply have to change the value system, change the culture, and the system will speed up.

The harder part is teaching the Air Force and Space Force to work in the broader ecosystem. It’s very easy to fall back into the historical process that predicts the future, derives a solution for that future, and then kicks it out to a handful of companies, defense companies, that that we have historically gone to in recent times to help us build that future. And with so many fields of technology now available, we simply can’t work with a handful of companies and expect to win.

Acquisition and procurement need new rules
Defense Research and Development is only one fifth of the total R&D that our nation does. In the height of the Cold War we were four fifths. That doesn’t mean that we’ve gotten any worse at research and development at the Pentagon, it just means that the landscape has changed. And we haven’t. So teaching our acquisition system, our procurement system, that it needs a different set of rules to work in the four fifths of our nation’s R&D that’s commercial has been exceptionally challenging. Because everything about the way we do business is hard for commercial innovators. So standing up organizations like AFWERX that have a completely different model and culture and ethos, their job is to treat emerging commercial markets as a battlefield. And to try to bring the military’s mission as a way to accelerate commercial companies, not just to help military missions, but to accelerate them as an end state in and of itself. Because that is in our national interest.

Accelerating Technology
I found that within the Air Force, we can rally around this as a core mission. That accelerating technology is something that can be understood by anyone that we’ve trained in the military because it’s easy to understand it. If that company, if that technology, if that market, doesn’t happen in the US first, it’s likely to happen somewhere else. And if it happens somewhere else, there’s no guarantee we’ll have access to it. So that’s a second imperative that we have to be able to work in our entire tech ecosystem.

The DOD – Great in hardware, lagging in software
The summary of what I’ve seen is the Pentagon is very good at maintaining technological disciplines that were born in the Cold War. We’re still very good at things based on Maxwell’s equation. That radars and stealth and antennas and radios and materials. But we have not learned to work in the commercial ecosystem.

And we have not learned to work in digital and software-driven technology. If we learn those just very small handful of lessons, we’ll be closer to being the agile, disruptive system we need to be. Now we’re competing against an adversary in China that will likely have double our GDP and quadruple our population, and perhaps have 15 times the STEM graduates that we’ll have by the year 2030. So we’re not going to beat them at scale. Speed and agility are the only way that we can ensure that we have a leg up.

I’m very pleased with the progress the Air Force has made. This is just lap one of what is going to be a very long race. And this race doesn’t end. There’s no way to forecast what the end state relationship will be between the US and China.

So we need to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. For the time being that means treating every new technology or possible new technology as an opportunity to hope for but also a detriment to fear. And I hope that if we inculcate that urgency within our organization, that we will become the kind of Air Force that is ready for whatever we call this competition with China.

Some people call it a hot peace. I don’t really care about slang and slogans. I just know it’s real. We have to treat it seriously and remain urgent. So far, I’ve been very pleased with how ready for the challenge that we’ve been. And I hope that we won’t be the only service to move out as aggressively as we’ve done. It’s going to take an entire team to keep this up over time.

Read the entire transcript of Will Roper’s talk here and watch the video below.

If you can’t see the video of Will Roper’s talk click here 

It was interesting to note what Will didn’t say in a public forum as what he did say. My guess is that in this transition from legacy systems to new platforms, each of the service acquisition executives has to deal with the parochial concerns of existing contractors and congress, all scrambling to keep their part of a finite defense budget. Acquisition execs like Will likely spend more time trying to get rid of existing “legacy” programs as they do getting new ones funded. For the Air Force it’s manned versus unmanned aircraft. For the Navy it’s more carriers versus other platforms. For all services it’s exquisite systems versus mass expendable ones, etc..

And as an extra bonus read Will Roper’s talk “There is No Spoon” here.

Lessons Learned

  • Competition with China is one of the seminal challenges we’re going to face in this century
  • The Pentagon is very good at maintaining technological disciplines that were born in the Cold War
    • The Cold War model of exclusively inventing it and then using it only for your military is no longer true
    • Today’s technological breakthroughs are going to be available to everyone.
    • We’ve not learned to work in digital and software-driven technology
    • The Pentagon’s challenge is to reboot itself, to get rid of those Cold War processes
  • Now we have to be good at bringing technology in from the outside
  • The presupposition that the future can be predicted is no longer true
    • No telling which technology (AI, autonomy, biotech, space, etc.) is going to lead
  • You need to be exceptionally fast and agile. The Cold War system wasn’t
    • Speeding the system up is not what was valued in the past
    • So you have to change the value system, the culture, and the system will speed up
  • We need to work in the broader ecosystem. We simply can’t work with a handful of companies and expect to win

Technology, Innovation, and Modern War – Class 5 – Chris Brose

We just held our fifth session of our new national security class Technology, Innovation and Modern WarJoe FelterRaj 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.

Today’s topic was The Challenges of Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare.

Catch up with the class by reading our summaries of Class 1 here, Class 2 here, Class 3 here and Class 4 here.


Our guest speaker was Christian Brose, author of The Kill Chain and now the head of strategy for Anduril Industries.

Some of the readings for this class session included:Brookings webinar moderated by Michael O’Hanlon with Christian Brose, Mara Karlin and Frank Rose, The New Revolution in Military Affairs: War’s Sci-Fi Future.

War Made New
The required reading for this class was Chris Brose’s book The Kill Chain. We thought the students would find having the author discuss the thinking behind the book enlightening. It was.

There are few people as qualified as Chris Brose to opine on the state of national defense. Before Brose moved into the civilian world at Anduril, he was the staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee overseeing all the programs, policies, and resources of the Department of Defense, as well as confirming the Department’s senior civilian and military leaders. He was also responsible for leading the production, negotiation, and passage of the 2016-19 National Defense Authorization Acts. He previously was the senior policy advisor to Senator John McCain supporting his work on the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And before the Senate he was senior editor of Foreign Policy magazine and served as policy advisor and chief speechwriter to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

This entire class session was a talk by Chris and Q&A with the students. It would be easy to just put up the video and the transcription in this blog and be done with it. But that would do a real disservice to the insights that Chris offered.  I’m going to extract and paraphrase a few below, but I urge you to read the transcript and watch the video.

Why Did Chris Write The Kill Chain?
Chris was increasingly concerned that the United States was falling behind our adversaries and nobody was paying attention to the extent of the problem.

Chris observed that the reality is that we are being disrupted in a way that most Americans and most members of Congress don’t fully understand and appreciate. China has specifically and explicitly focused on undermining the core assumptions on which the United States has been planning to project military power for 25 to 30 years. The assumption was that we would:

  • be able to fight on timelines of our choosing
  • control the timing and tempo of military competition and operations
  • be able to build up forces and operate from sanctuaries that an adversary couldn’t contest
  • be able to move combat power into places that we needed it
  • have military technological superiority over any competitor
  • be able to move and shoot and communicate with near impunity and qualitatively
  • dominate even quantitatively superior adversaries

These assumptions are no longer true.

The Defense Industry
Since the end of the Cold War our defense industry has become increasingly concentrated, consolidated, uncompetitive and essentially hollowed out. We have gotten extremely good about building a force around very small numbers of very expensive exquisite, heavily manned and hard to replace military systems. We built up a system to produce a certain type of military power at a time when that whole business model is being disrupted and undermined — much as Blockbuster Video’s business model was undermined by Netflix and Apple.

Disruptive Technology
The new technologies and capabilities that will be central to military advantage in the future – artificial intelligence, machine learning, autonomous systems, distributed networking, advanced manufacturing, and commercial space, etc. are technologies largely driven by commercial innovation and commercial companies.  The future will be dominated by large quantities of small or cheaper, more autonomous, more intelligent military systems. This is also true of things that are not military platforms: networking, the movement of information, and the weaponization of data.

The Threat Landscape
We don’t know what the world is going to look like. We don’t know what our competitors are going to do. We don’t know what new technologies are going to be developed next month or next year or next decade. And we ultimately don’t know how we’re going to want to organize ourselves and build operational concepts to employ these new technologies.

We need to have more humility around the best way to experiment and feel our way through the future. And take account for what will inevitably happen: We’re going to get things wrong. We’re going to fail to predict the future and we’re going to need to end up in places we didn’t foresee.

We’ve got to get out of the trap of trying to define the requirements for our inputs. We need to value new, innovative, completely unpredictable and surprising capabilities, concepts and organizational Innovation that allow us to solve these problems differently.

Our system is not designed to do that. Our system is designed to try to predict the future in ten, 20 or 30 years. Then write requirements to what we think it’s going to look like and then throw a lot of money at industry to deliver that future on very long timelines. “Shockingly” many of those things are irrelevant when they show up, if they ever show up at all.

Changing Acquisition
As a buyer of technology and capability, the Department of Defense now can decide to buy different capabilities to match this new world. They can create different incentives for different types of industries to work with them and for them. They can create incentives for private capital that’s sitting on the sidelines to flow back into the Defense sector in a way that hasn’t happened for a very long time.

The only way we’re really going to change is by trying to create more and more pockets in the defense portfolio and programs that are open to real competition. We have a system that’s geared around valuing and buying inputs rather than defining what we want our outcomes to be. We need pockets of marketplace-type behavior where actual systems are competed out based on outcome-oriented metrics. And we buy new things more regularly.

The DOD and Congress can create incentives to take advantage of the willingness and ability of leading technology developers to solve these problems. However, they won’t create a new commercial ecosystem if they continue to dole out small SBIR account grants and million-dollar OTA’s (door prizes for showing up) while the same five national defense contractors they’ve been paying for the past three decades still get the billion-dollar programs. The DOD has to write checks to new vendors for programs at scale.

Making Change Happen
The DOD admits they have a problem. They admit they need to do things differently. Now we get down to the difficult questions of execution and implementation, which is where they have foundered in the past. They haven’t ended up in this position due to a lack of people saying the right things. We’re here because they have failed to do so many of the things they have said (in many cases for decades).

From an organizational standpoint, change won’t come internally. Major kinds of organizational reforms tend to originate outside of bureaucratic institutions. It’s going to take an external act, such as the Secretary of Defense coming in to work with the Congress, to essentially say we do need to do things differently. It is going to involve more risk and the only people in our system capable of doing it are our senior leaders, whether they’re confirmed by the Senate or elected by the American people.

Read the entire transcript of Chris Brose’s talk here and watch the video below.

If you can’t see the Chris Brose’s talk click here 

Student Takeaways From Chris’ Talk

Lessons Learned

  • The military advantages we had as a nation in the 20th century are gone
    • China has systematically negated each of our strengths
    • Our nation is no longer guaranteed to win a war
  • Our Defense industry has built expensive and exquisite systems that are few in number and now extremely vulnerable
    • That’s no longer the correct model
    • AI, machine learning, autonomous systems, distributed networking, advanced manufacturing, commercial space, etc. are largely driven by commercial innovation and companies
  • The Department of Defense has given lip service to change but institutional inertia – measured by actual spending – is holding us back
    • We need to rapidly pivot to using new contractors at scale
  • The DOD needs to rapidly integrate commercial tech into new capabilities that
    • Replace attrited assets
    • Enhance existing capabilities
    • Create new capabilities and concepts that leapfrog our adversaries

Technology, Innovation, and Modern War – Class 4 – Bridge Colby

We just held our fourth sessions of our new national security class Technology, Innovation and Modern WarJoe FelterRaj 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.

Today’s topic was Defense Strategies and Military Plans in an Era of Great Power Competition.

Catch up with the class by reading about all the class sessions here.


Our guest speaker was Bridge Colby, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and then Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’ point person for articulating his vision for the National Defense Strategy. Some of the readings for this fourth class session included: National Security Strategy, 2018 National Defense Strategy, National Military Strategy Summary, The Age of Great-Power Competition, The China Reckoning: How Beijing Defied America’s Expectations, The Administration’s Policy Toward China, The End of American Illusion. Trump and the World as It is, Indo Pacific Strategy Report 2019

In this session we provided the students with an appreciation of how the United States National Security Strategy arrived at the conclusion that we are in an era of great power competition with Russia and China. Next, we introduced the National Defense Strategy (NDS) which describes how the military supports the overall National strategy. The NDS observed that we not only faced non-nation states (terror organizations,) but going forward we have to plan for 2+3 adversaries (China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and the non-nations states.) The NDS provided an outline of what we need to do (called Lines of Effort) to transform our military.

If you can’t see the slides click here.

Joe Felter (who was the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia) began the lesson providing background and context for understanding – What happened? Why did we shift our strategies and military plans? And what do these plans look like today.

Great hopes for international security
In 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, it marked the symbolic end of the Cold War. The United States emerged as the dominant power in the international system and its Cold War rivals appeared to be moving down a path of reform. We had great hopes for an international security environment that would advance common interests among large and small nations through international cooperation and engagement. Russia at the time showed promising signs of moving closer to democracy.

The break-up of former Soviet states put the country on the path of increasing liberalization and reform. Former Warsaw Pact nations expressed interest in working with and aligning more closely with its former rivals. Several joined NATO. Meanwhile, China’s economy was growing at an extraordinary rate and becoming more integrated with countries across the region and beyond. All prevailing theories of modernization predicted that this growth and would lead to increasing liberalization and reform in China. It was considered to be on a trajectory towards becoming a “responsible stakeholder” willing to play by the rules of the established order. Beyond these encouraging developments with our former Cold War rivals the US assumed a position of unparalleled military dominance. Shortly after the fall of the wall this overmatch and dominance of US military power was put on display during Desert Storm where the US achieved quick and decisive victory destroying the world’s 4th largest Army in 100 hours of ground combat.

Optimism turns into reality
Fast forward to 2017. Conditions were far from where we hoped in the heady optimism following the Cold War. Putin’s Russia is intent on undermining the US and West in any way it can –  aggression in the Crimea and Ukraine and destabilizing activities in Syria; Venezuela and beyond. Adding to this are it’s state sponsored poisonings and assassinations, cyber-attacks against nations and election meddling in the U.S. and other countries. In China Xi Jinping and the CCP pursuing a deliberate whole of government approach to projecting influence if not dominance of the Indo-Pacific region and beyond. Disappointingly, the liberalization and reforms so many assumed would accompany its rapid economic growth did not occur.  

The CCP explicitly states its intention for China to be a dominant power with benchmarks and years identified. For example, President Xie leads the Central Military Commission that in 2012 committed to building a military that can dominate the region and “fight and win global wars by 2049.” To do this, China is pursuing a military build-up of an historic scale with a seven-fold increase in its defense budget in the last two decades. It is investing in high tech weaponry to close the gap and in many cases extend their advantage in a range of military capabilities and technologies. Beijing engages in predatory economics – driving states into significant debt burdens forcing them to make “debt- for equity” swaps in places that undermine their sovereignty Its Belt and Road Initiative makes infrastructure and other investments with a clear nationalist agenda. It is increasing its de facto project power projection capabilities by developing and establishing access to a network of dual use ports, airfields, and other facilities across region

Some argue that China is even in the early stages of establishing a strategically located naval base in Cambodia which course co-instructor Joe Felter raised the official alarm following a visit to the southern port while serving as a senior official in the Department of Defense. China’s militarization of features in the South China Sea is perhaps the most egregious example of its illegal efforts to build military capabilities and extend the PLA’s ability to project power. Despite Xie’s promise to President Obama in Jing Peng Rose garden 2015 and the international tribunal ruling by the Hauge in 2016 that its claims have no basis in international law, China continued to fortify its illegal claims building runways, radars, missile sites, storage facilities and other improvements. See time-lapse videos of the reefs turning into a military base here and here.

The U.S. National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy
These were the conditions we confronted in 2017 when the current National Security Strategy (NSS) and National Defense Strategy was developed. These strategies reflected the realization we are in long term competition with Russia and China and must make a clear-eyed assessment and treat these competitors for who they are and not as we want them to be. As the NSS states Just as American weakness invites challenge, American strength and confidence deters war and promotes peace. The 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) pulled no punches. It was a real wakeup call for the military and the country. As Bridge Colby said in his talk to the class, “others described it as the first realist document we’ve had as a country in a long time.” Bridge points out that after the Berlin Wall fell we were the sole superpower and the country really didn’t need a defense strategy. We had so many resources relative to the plausible threats that we could essentially overwhelm any adversary. Besides explicitly acknowledging we are in long term strategic competition with Russia and China. It said that our regional priorities would shift from the Middle East to Indo-Pacific and China. And China is recognized as the more powerful and potentially dangerous threat. The National Defense Strategy outlined three major lines of effort that the Department of Defense needed to execute to face these new 2+3 challenges: 

  • Line of Effort I: Build a more lethal force
  • Line of Effort II: Strengthen Alliances and Build partnerships
  • Line of Effort III: Reform the Defense Department

And the US has made important progress across all three of these lines of effort. (Our students heard this quarter about some of the efforts aimed at reforming the Department of Defense – requirements and acquisition reform from Will Roper, new innovation organizations like the JAIC (Joint Artificial Intelligence Center,) from General Shanahan, AFWERX, Kessel Run, NavalX,…and they’ll hear more later this quarter from General Raymond about standing up a new service branch – the Space Force.) So how are we doing so far? First the bad news. China is making gains and many are at the expense of state sovereignty across the region which in some cases will be difficult to reverse (ie Hong Kong.) Under Xi and the CCP, China is structurally set up in many ways to compete more effectively e.g. with its coherence and continuity of leadership, civil/academic/military fusion. Other examples include how China’s State-Owned Enterprises can be employed by the CCP for coordinating and projecting influence more efficiently. But there is good news that bodes well for the outcome of this long term competition.  The US has a vision that is largely shared and embraced by those that wish to see the region remain free and open and for the rules-based order to endure. Significantly we are not asking states to choose between the US and China- but rather to choose their own sovereignty and a vision for future. Our challenge, however, is to ensure our actions match our strategy- demonstrating that the US is a reliable partner and will deliver on its stated goals and objectives. Bridge Colby gave us some compelling insights on the 2018 National Defense Strategy and participated in an informative Q&A session with our students. He provided an insiders account of the development of the National Defense Strategy and an informed assessment of its execution.

Read the transcript of Bridge Colby’s talk here and watch the video below.

If you can’t see the Bridge Colby talk click here

Lessons Learned

  • The National Security Strategy arrived at the conclusion that we are in an era of great power competition with Russia and China
  • The National Defense Strategy (NDS) describes how the military supports our nations overall strategy
    • It observed that we still face non-nation states (terror organizations,) but have to plan for 2+3 adversaries – China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and the non-nations states
    • Our regional priorities shifted from the Middle East to Indo-Pacific
    • China is recognized as the more powerful and potentially dangerous threat
  • We want our adversaries to choose diplomacy not war. To do so, we..
    • are developing a lethal force (the NDS Line of Effort I) to decisively defeat adversaries in future conflict
    • this ensures no state calculates it can successfully use force against the US to achieve its objectives
    • and therefore it must rely on diplomacy and other means short of war
  • The US has a significant advantage in its network of alliances and partners
    • Strengthening these alliances and building new partnerships (the NDS Line of Effort II) will be critical to our ability to compete effectively

Technology, Innovation, and Modern War – Class 3 – Anja Manuel

We just held our third session of our new national security class Technology, Innovation and Modern WarJoe FelterRaj 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. Today’s topic was Sourcing, Acquiring and Deploying Technology for Modern War.

Catch up with the class by reading about all the class sessions here.


Class 3:
Our guest speaker for session 3 was Anja Manuel, former State Department official, founding partner of Rice, Hadley, Gates and Manuel and author of This Brave New World: India, China and the United States. Some of the readings for the session included: Esper’s Convenient LieHow to Win the Tech Race with ChinaThe Age of Great-Power Competition.

If you can’t see the slides click here.

Winning the Wars We Knew
Joe Felter, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia, started the class showing excerpts from General MacArthur’s famous Duty, Honor, Country speech given to the Corps of Cadets at West Point in May 1962. In what would be his final address to his alma mater, MacArthur admonished these future leaders of the United States military that, “Through all this welter of change, your mission remains fixed, determined, inviolable: it is to win our wars. Everything else in your professional career is but corollary to this vital dedication. You stand as the Nation’s war-guardian, as its lifeguard from the raging tides of international conflict.”

Back in MacArthur’s day, fighting a conventional conflict akin to the wars America experienced in the 20th century was certainly not expected to be easy. Confronting the massive armored formations of the Soviet Union in the Fulda Gap or engaging in a proxy war fought in another theater would be costly and difficult to prevail (not to mention the specter of escalation to a nuclear exchange). But with known adversaries and technologies the weapon systems and operational concepts we expected to rely on to win our future wars were, however, easier to anticipate and simpler to define. 

For example, in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor the U.S. knew how – and largely where – to respond. The country mobilized its resources and industrial base, raised powerful military forces and projected power – directing it at a defined enemy and the enemy’s industrial base. In conventional state-on-state warfare, the operational and tactical level activities that support a strategy to win are often clear. You mass fire power on objectives. You destroy the enemy’s military and industrial capabilities and seize terrain. All those things are missions that the military can get their head around. 

In MacArthur’s time we defeated our enemies and drove them to unconditional surrender. We did so by using the superior power (both quantity and quality) of our weapons and how we employed them. 

After WWII the weapons and defense systems we acquired and deployed reflected this experience. In the 1950’s we leveraged our industrial capacity and innovated by producing five new fighter designs and three new classes of aircraft carriers, and nuclear-powered attack and ballistic submarines.

As we pointed out in previous class sessions, in the 20th century, requirements were known years ahead of time and the DoD built incrementally better versions of the same platforms. (Although our experience in Vietnam would foreshadow the issues of unconventional warfare the U.S. faced in Iraq and Afghanistan.)

Winning our wars remains-as MacArthur characterized- the military’s fixed and inviolable mission. However, the conditions we will fight in the future are much different, than in the wars we prevailed in during MacArthur’s time. How we prepare for and fight future wars must reflect these new realities of modern war. Adaptability has always been an essential attribute of successful militaries. 

We will discuss these ideas further in later class sessions.

Two Acquisition Paradigm Shifts 
Raj Shah, former head of the Defense Innovation Unit, pointed out that men and women in uniform have signed up to support national security with the equipment that they are given and must make do with what you give them. These men and women are quite resourceful to achieve the mission as best they can with the gear they have.

However, if we give them equipment that fails to keep up with the threat or state of the art, our warfighters bear a cost (ultimately with their lives) that they and the nation will pay.  So, it’s incumbent on us to think about the ramifications of these acquisition decisions.  It’s better to take risk in the hallways of the Pentagon than on the battlefield – risk aversion in the former will force risk acceptance in the latter, with potentially grave consequences.

There are two paradigm shifts going on in the DOD. The first, the transition from buying a small number of exquisite systems versus large number of low-cost systems. And the second, the shift from the DOD contracting everything from defense primes to building software themselves or serving as the integrator for off-the-shelf commercial systems.

To illustrate the escalating cost of military hardware, Norm Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed famously graphed out how much each airplane costs. On the bottom left, a Wright brothers plane in 1910 cost ~$5,000 in today’s dollars. If you follow the cost line up and to the right, the F 22 Raptor – is a $300 million a plane (if you include all the R&D costs).

Augustine’s tongue-in-cheek conclusion was that if we followed this trend line, by 2050 the entire defense budget will purchase just one aircraft. And that aircraft will have to be shared by the Air Force and the Navy for three and a half days a week, except on a leap year when it will be available to the Marines for that extra day. 

While Augustine was being facetious, the consequence of escalating costs of these exquisite systems plays out in the way he described. The Air Force said we needed 750 F-22s to meet all the threats. They ended up buying 187. They said they needed 132 B-2 bombers. They ended up buying 21. We design these world-beating systems, but because they’re so expensive, and it takes so long to build them, and the threats change before they get deployed, we’re going to be left behind.

The same story is being played out in our satellites in space. The National reconnaissance office builds satellites the size of school buses and they can do more than any other countries. But we just have a handful of them — all of them big, fat targets. But Planet Labs and SpaceX are launching thousands of satellites that individually aren’t as good, but collectively illustrate the trend of mass commodity versus exquisite. 

At the same time, the Department of Defense has finally realized how important software is. In fact, many of our most advanced airplanes and ships are really software delivery vehicles, meaning the software, not hardware, is the primary driver of capability. Over the last few decades, the ability of the DoD to design and even understand modern software design had atrophied. The good news is that DoD has recognized this and has announced a new policy for acquiring software, and have start building ‘software factories’ with names like Kessel Run (USAF) and Kobiyashi Maru (Space Force). Raj had a front row seat in this revolution: 

 

If you can’t see the video click here.

Many of the innovations that will shape future conflicts will increasingly occur in the commercial technology base. Advancements in these technologies will be driven by consumer demand and the potential for profit- not government directives. Requirements are not known years ahead of time. So, the DoD needs a new way of engaging and acquiring these fast evolving technologies. Fortunately, real progress is happening across the DOD. There had been a wellspring of new initiatives and reform. Hopefully the most successful of these initiatives will be broadly scaled across the department and federal government. These positive trends include: Software color of money reform, Middle-tier acquisitions, Other Transaction Authorities (OTAs), Commercial outreach organizations, SIBR reform, software factories, talent pipelines, rapid prototyping, digital engineering, and more (it’s a very exciting time to be a reformer in the DoD). But these initiatives will need to overcome institutional barriers to scale; our hope is that Congress, uniformed leaders, political appointees, and traditional contractors will continue to work together to improve the ability of democracies to deter and prevail against potential adversaries.

Guest Speaker – Anja Manuel
Anja Manuel is the author of This Brave New World, an overview of the political and economic relationships between India, China and the US.

If you can’t see Anja Manuel‘s talk click here 

Lessons Learned

  • 20th Century U.S.-centric rules for war were built around known adversaries and technologies
    • The conditions we will fight in the future are much different 
    • The Vietnam War would foreshadow the issues of unconventional warfare the U.S. faced in Iraq and Afghanistan
  • The Department of Defense is coming to grips with two major transitions
    • from buying a small number of exquisite systems to a large number of low-cost systems
    • from the DOD contracting everything from defense primes to building software themselves or serving as the integrator for off-the-shelf commercial systems
%d bloggers like this: