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


2 Responses

  1. Steve – Great post as always. I believe John Boyd made a similar observation on the rising cost and weight of fighters as described in Roger Coram’s biography “Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War.” That was related to the F-15 and F-18 versus the F-16.

    Somethings never change. Until they are forced to change.

  2. What people who have served in the military know that is lost on academics and theoreticians is that any weapon system is only as good as its “available for service” profile which is held hostage to maintenance which is held hostage to maintainers and the supply chain.

    A multi-million dollar weapon system can be red-lined for a $0.50 part or a screwup by a maintainer who is 19 years old. An inoperable cutting edge tech weapon is a pile of junk if it doesn’t answer the call.

    Weapons like the AK47 — which could be buried in mud for a year, washed off, and ready to fire — v the M16 (a very delicate bit of wizardry that didn’t shoot particularly well and required constant maintenance to be able to fire) show us a micro-slice of what can happen.

    The academic discussion of “conventional warfare” WWII style v asymmetrical warfare ignores the basic building block of both of those styles — the successful execution of small unit tactics at the platoon and company level.

    This is why the individual qualification of company grade officers is so important, why going to Ranger School and Airborne School is important for the professional officer corps.

    These fights are the same — platoon, company level actions and patrols — whether conventional WWII style or asymmetrical warfare.

    What we really should be studying is the experience in Afghanistan wherein the best brains in the general officer corps were unable to fashion a strategy to defeat a third world, rag tag, light infantry that had no weapons more powerful than the DShK 1938 machine gun and heavy mortars. They also wintered over in Pakistan, a subject for another time.

    Meanwhile the US had more troops, better troops, better leadership, complete air superiority, a vast array of deadly weapons, broad intel sources, inexhaustible supply chain, superior communications, and unparalleled mobility.

    What we did not have was a coherent strategy to deploy all those advantages simultaneously.

    We need to do as much work on strategy to deploy weapons, to maintain them, as we do on the weapons themselves.

    Our military is simply too small when we consider the broadening of the tech required to shoot, move, communicate on a modern battlefield.

    I enjoy your blog posts. Very thought provoking. Thank you.

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