Technology, Innovation, and Modern War – Class 13 – ONR– Rear Admiral Lorin Selby

We just held our thirteenth 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 Navy and Modern War.

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

Some of the readings for this week included Defense Primer: Dept of the Navy, Navy Lasers and Railguns, Navy Large Surface Combatants, Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans, Navy Large Unmanned Surface and Undersea Vehicles, China’s Navy Modernization.

Our guest speaker was Rear Admiral Lorin Selby, Chief of Naval Research, United States Navy.

Admiral Selby is responsible for the Naval Research Enterprise. It is the “venture capital” of the Navy and Marine Corps. It’s made up of ONR – the Office of Naval Research, ONR Global, the Naval Research Laboratory, and Special Projects (PMR 51.)

His insights on the future of the Navy and reimagining Naval power are insightful, innovative and exciting.

(ONR played a seminal role in the formation of Silicon Valley. Founded in August 1946 in the aftermath of World War II, ONR provided support of research projects at universities when government funding to universities had dried up. That same year, Fred Terman became Stanford’s dean of engineering, and he received four ONR research contracts for electronics and microwaves. These grants formed the heart of the Stanford Electronics Research Laboratory.)

I’ve extracted and paraphrased a few of Admiral Selby’s key insights and urge you to read the entire transcript here and watch his video.

The Naval Research Enterprise
This picture is a way I divvy up my Naval Research portfolio:

  • On the left is the division that’s home to cyber and electronic warfare. A little bit of AI but really, mostly electronic warfare.
  • The next area is ocean battlespace. This includes unmanned underwater vehicles – UUVs. And we do submarine applications and oceanographic research in that division. We take a great deal of pride in really understanding and knowing the ocean environment. Of course, the submarine is critical, but really everything from the weather, to the way our forces must flow, optimizing transit routes, all depends on currents, winds, weather. We use those factors to help us also determine what potential adversaries might or might not do. All that goes into the calculus of how we position our forces.
  • In the middle are mission capable, persistent, survivable naval platforms. This division looks at the systems that are on our platforms, i.e. pumps, valves, materials science, corrosion. There’s science to be done in perfecting some of those, and they’re critical in the operation of these platforms. This branch looks at maintenance practices, trying to make sure we protect those.
  • Warfighter performance looks at how the human body responds to stress. How we can optimize performance of the human body in combat, or in other stressful scenarios? How does the human brain work? How do we think? When I look at reimagined Naval power, I think a lot of that is not about things, it’s about processes. It’s about how we present information. It’s about how we process information, how we use machines to help us make decisions. This group traditionally has not had as much focus as the others. But I think it’s something we really need to go after.
  • The far right is aviation. Jets, missiles, also directed energy, railguns, hypervelocity projectiles and hypersonics.
  • And across the bottom is the Naval Accelerator run by Rich Carlin. This group figures out how do we go faster in getting things to the fleet. From an ideation to a thing to a Warfighter. How do we do that faster than anybody else?

Reimagining naval power is about the way we think and organize, not about hardware
I know you were assigned to read The Kill Chain. Fascinating read. As I read through this book, it really resonated with me because this is the world we’re in today. Naval officers still tend to think of the solution to the problem set as “I’ll just get a better destroyer.” Or, “I’ll just get another aircraft carrier, or a bigger, faster submarine.” And I don’t think that’s the solution.

This quote out of the book I thought was interesting, “Military innovation is less about technology than about operational and organizational transformation.” I hear you thinking, “You’re the Chief of Naval Research, and you’re saying that it’s less about technology?” Yeah, I am. When I say reimagined naval power, I’m not necessarily talking about new big gray ships or black submarines. I’m talking about changing our processes, changing about the way we think, and the way we are organized. I think a lot of the problems we have in acquisition today, in trying to go after these new technologies, is because of the way we’re organized. The way the Navy is established – separate system commands, one for Air, one for Sea systems, one for cyber systems, supply over here. They’re separate, you get stovepipes, and you get barriers. There’s friction between them. And all these differences come because of that, and that impedes progress. If we want to reimagine Naval power, we have to look in a mirror, recognize we need to change some things organizationally. We’ve got to change the way we do business.

What do you hope the fleet looks like 10 years from now to make it relevant in a fight with a near peer competitor? Is that a 355 ship Navy? Is it squadrons of unmanned vessels? Is it something in between?
I think that it’s something in between. I think that you will see more unmanned, unattended things. They’ll be networked together. I think initially, what you’re going to see, and again, this is just the way we just tend to do things as human beings. When it comes to new tech,  we take the new tech, and we jam it into a form factor of something we recognize and know. So what you’re going to see are unmanned surface vessels that look like the Sea Hunter. It looks like a catamaran. It looks like something you recognize and know. That thing, whatever it is, whether its underwater, surface, air, will initially operate in tandem with a manned platform.

I think the answer is not just to go build bigger, faster gray-hulled ships or black submarines. We still need this for a while. We’re not going to stop, go to zero and do something else. It’s going to be a gradual thing. But I think there needs to be a plan with a trajectory of slowly weaning us off of these very highly complex and expensive vessels that takes us into something else. And some of that something else might be unmanned/uncrewed. Uncrewed vessels, unattended sensors, highly networked together, passing tracking information back and forth. I think that’s more of the future, combined with how we make decisions in a more efficient, faster manner than the adversary.

You’re going to have these things as kind of wingmen that’ll be arrayed around your platform. And you may be able to send it a couple hundred miles out front to go do some probing of the adversary. Maybe it’s got some decoys and other things it can do while it’s out there, then it will then come back. You have to refuel it at some point, because it’s still going to have limited range. I think in 10 years, you’ll find many, many more unmanned things out there, but they will be operating close to the gray hull or the black hull submarine, able to go out and do things but come back. So I think that’s step one.

But over time, it’s going to be driven by the younger generations, people like you who are not constrained by thinking it’s got to be a gray hull or a black hull thing. And they will come in and look at us and go, “If you’d change the form factor, you can make that thing….” It could be a surface thing, but could also be a semi-submersible, when it needs to be. Make it so it just drops below the surface a foot. And it can still cruise along slowly. Things like that will happen. Because, again, this does happen all throughout history as technologies have been introduced. We always try to take it and make it do what the old thing did.

An Example of New Tech First Looking Like the Old – Photonics Masts on a Submarine
Submarines traditionally have a periscope. You look into the barrel; it’s got the mirrors and the glass and a prism at the top looking out. And you’re looking through a circle. That’s the world for a submariner. That’s what I looked at for 20 years, 25 years. Today, we’ve got these new, cool electronic photonics masts. Guess what? When you look at that picture in the control room of a submarine, you may be on a big flat screen, you may control it with a joystick, but it’s still looking at a slice of the world.

We didn’t go, “Hey, if I put just four cameras or six cameras up there, and I was able to set them around looking, I can have a 360-degree camera all the time.” Well, we’re just now starting to do that. We started some R&D on that several years ago and it petered out because they didn’t have the money to keep it going. But now we’re back to, this is ridiculous, let’s get 360 out of that. That’s the challenge with new tech.

The problem today is, it’s going so fast that if you wait a generation to make those kinds of advancements, you’re so far behind anybody — adversary, other companies — that you’re irrelevant. We’ve got to break that pattern. And some of that is changing those organizational constructs that still have us back in 1994. We’ve got to get to 2020, or 2018, or 2015. I’d be happy with that. But we’ve got to get out of 1994.

As far as size, you may have seen the press. The SecDef just announced the Battle Force 2045. It talks about between 120 and 240 unmanned things in concert with a bunch of manned things. And it talks about a much bigger Navy. We’ll see what happens. A lot depends what happens with Congress.

How do we find a balance between funding exquisite equipment that costs a lot of money, and that’s very hard to replace, with building lots of low-cost equipment, but that’s less capable, but easier to replace?
We have this very big appetite for highly complex, which are exquisite, phenomenal, best in the world. No question about it, costs a lot of money to build. And oh, by the way, they cost even more money to maintain over the life of a 30-, 40- or 50-year platform. We need to get away from that. Part of the answer is a lot of these uncrewed surface or underwater vessels. But even those, when we send a design over to my friends in the Pentagon to develop requirements, what they come back wanting is exquisite, too. You take this thing that should cost $10 million or $20 million, and it comes back costing $100 million, or $200 million, or worse.

I think if you could build cheaper, in more numbers that are maybe complicated, but not complex, that would be just fine. And I would build them so that they’re semi-disposable. You run them hard for 10 years, but you don’t spend a mint to refurbish them. You take them back to some yard, you recycle them. You take all materials out and build another one. That’s the way you’ve got to do it.

Another thing we have to do is recognize that we’ve got some constraints. We’ve only got a certain number of shipyards that can build these highly complex destroyers, submarines, aircraft carriers. Our industrial base is very fragile. Since we are going to still build some of those for the foreseeable future, let those yards build those exquisite things. But we need to go the nontraditional yards down along the Gulf Coast, Pacific Northwest, and other parts of country – even to boat builders, yacht builders. Let’s go to those folks to build some these unmanned things. And let’s give them some money. Let’s move some defense industrial base money around. And we can develop new expertise in different pockets that we’ve never developed before. And let’s do that at scale. And build a lot. I think that’s one of the keys to this reimagined naval power. Because again, we just cannot afford to keep building the same things.

If you went right now and asked the submariners what they want, they want SSNX, which is the next generation of submarine in roughly 2035. You talk to my aviator friends; they want the next-gen fighter about the same time. You talk to my surface warfare friends; they want the large surface combatant about the same time. Well, first of all that’s 15 years from now. So by our traditional design, build standards, that means you’ve got to start like right now, for all three. And we can’t afford that. There’s no way we can afford that.

You may have noticed the SecDef’s Battle Force 2045 came out saying you need to go to three submarines per year. So there’s a tremendous recognition that we still own the undersea. And we need to maintain that dominance. But Battle Force 2045 doesn’t call for as many surface ships, it does call for next-gen fighters. And there’s a lot of reasons for that, which we can’t talk about here. But it does not call for the large ships. At least not in numbers, and not at the same time. We’ve got to deconflict these things, and we need to build different things that are much less expensive.

How has acquisition has changed? What specifically, if anything, has changed to make us move faster?
Some of what’s changed is it we are using OTA’s – other transaction authorities. We’ve been talking about this for a long time. We’re finally really trying to drive this hard. And we’re finally getting contract shops in different parts of the Navy using them. Up until probably only a couple years ago, it was only places like ONR that would do these nontraditional ways of buying things. We’ve now got the big SYSCOM acquisition shops and contract shops, realizing, “Hey, there’s something to that.”

How do you think about the development of technologies that cross traditional functional bounds?
How do you get these folks together to solve these hard problems? We go inward, we try to find our smart folks in our own organizations that are somewhat constrained and tainted by the problem set already because they lived it. They’re inside of it.

General Stanley McChrystal in his book Team of Teams talked about how he organized to fight in the Middle East. What McChrystal realized was the value of the team of teams. The answers are not all inside my team, they may be in your team, or your team, or your team. The value or the power is how you net them all together. And so he used to do the same every single day. He would have this video teleconference. And he had one guy who ran the meeting. They would have a bunch of topics they would go over every day, a set of stuff you would do, an ops brief. And then they would have someone give a problem statement, and maybe a little bit of a brief. But then they let it go to the teams. The teams, not the team. And the synergy, the interactions of thought, it was incredible.

That is the model I’m trying to figure out how to bring to my own ecosystem, and then net in all the other teams around me. Whether they’re different warfare centers, or different parts of the Navy, Army, Air Force, whoever industry, academia. Because that’s the power.

I’m curious to hear more about why Warfighter performance wasn’t as emphasized as the other areas.
Traditionally, most of the money went to build those high-end destroyers and submarines and next-gen fighters. So that would be my vernacular in code 32, 33 35, not 34, which is human performance. That’s the code that was on the right side of that graph. As a result of that, those other high-end things got all the money, that’s also where most of the R&D money went. And most of that was focused on either another submarine, another aircraft carrier, another fighter. And because of that, there was very little left to go do, kind of human forward stuff. I still contend that that is really where we as Americans have our advantage.

How do you recruit those people who are traditionally looking at the private sector as their career over to the Navy and to your research center?
The way we traditionally do this is that someone like yourself, someone who’s in a grad program somewhere, gets involved in research sponsored by ONR, or NRL and you get your doctorate and will become a postdoc. And you continue to do that research in some field of study that we are sponsoring. And then at some point, back in DC, a vacancy opens and they say, “Hey, you can apply for this job.” Next, you get a job. A lot of Ph.Ds in my headquarters building came out of academia where they got their doctoral degree in some program sponsored by ONR.

COVID Has Changed Our Thinking About Recruiting for ONR
COVID has taught us a lot of things about how to work. Today, for instance, I was at work, but only about 30 to 35% of the workforce was there. Most people are working from home. We do some classified work, but we do enough unclassified work that you can do a lot of work from home. I told my team: “I don’t want to go back to whatever was called normal back in March. Let’s find something good that comes out of this pandemic.” I want to be able to hire people in California, in Washington State, in wherever and tell them, “Hey, you can stay there and still work for me. I may ask you to come to DC once a quarter to do some required training and just to do something else where we want to get together. But I will let you stay remote.”

Because I think we were missing out on talent. A lot of people don’t come to DC and I don’t blame them.

How Can the Navy Attract More Diversity Into It’s STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) Fields?
There’s a lot of concern in the DoD that we have some issues trying to attract STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) talent. So I’m trying to find ways to really amp up our STEM programs. I’m trying to find ways to attract more women, more diversity into our STEM field. Whether it’s undergrad internships or graduate internships. And I’m trying to find ways to get more people involved that we traditionally don’t get.

We put together a panel to give us some thoughts on how to attract the kind of talent we’re not traditionally attracting. We found it’s in middle school where we lose a lot of kids. Most elementary school kids think science is cool. I think for most kids, there’s a wow factor in science, but somewhere in middle school to high school it stops being cool. And that’s really tragic.

So we are figuring out ways to develop a cadre of mentors to go into the schools and help teachers and students, to pull them across that valley of death where we lose them. I think there’s far too many that we lose early for the wrong reasons. They don’t see someone that looks like them, they don’t think it’s cool, whatever. So we’re trying to figure that out.

Read the entire transcript of Admiral Selby’s talk and watch the video below.

If you can’t see the video click here.

Lessons Learned

  • The U.S Navy is a historic crossroads
  • We are going to start seeing uncrewed ships and submersibles
    • First as “wingmen” to existing surface ships and submarines
  • We can get more ships if build these new types of vessels so that they’re semi-disposable.
    • You run them hard for 10 years, but you don’t spend a mint to refurbish them, you recycle them
  • We can build these new types of vessels in numbers by using non-traditional shipyards
    • Keep the existing shipyards building traditional ships/submarines
    • This will create new expertise in different pockets that we’ve never developed before.
  • This is in conflict with the existing major acquisition plans for future surface ships and submarines

Technology, Innovation, and Modern War – Class 12 –The Space Force– General John Raymond

We just held our twelfth 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 Space Force and Modern War.

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

Some of the readings for this week included: CRS Report on Space ForceSummary of the Defense Space Strategy, Space Force’s Capstone Doctrine “Space Power”, State of the Space Industrial Base 2020, Space as a Warfighting Domain, Russia gears up for electronic warfare in space, Chief of Space Operations Planning Guidance

Our guest speaker was Gen. John Raymond, Chief of Space Operations, United States Space Force.

It’s amazing to think that it’s been 75 years since the U.S. created a new service, which was when the Air Force spun out of what was the Army Air Force post-World War Two. The creation of the Space Force is an indication of everything we’ve been talking about in this class – about the changes in technology and threats, the speed at which those are happening simultaneously and the new organizational models needed to counter them.

I’ve extracted and paraphrased a few of General Raymond’s key insights and urge you to read the entire transcript here and watch the video.

Formation of the Space Force
Last year, the President signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which is the birth certificate, if you will, for the United States Space Force. And I’ve been privileged and honored to lead that group of folks, some very sharp space professionals in establishing this force. There’s no checklist on how to do this. There’s really no history to go back to. But we are moving out with great speed, to be able to establish this force.

Why do we need a Space Force?
The strategic environment we face today is rapidly changing. And the nature of warfare is changing. We’ve been involved in the space business in the military since the 1950s when space was a great power competition. And what started out as nation state versus nation state has evolved to where we have students building satellites. We started developing capabilities as part of that great power competition with the Soviet Union. I’ll highlight a few demarcation points where I think there was some significant shifts.

Desert Storm and Space
In 1991 we went to war in Desert Storm to evict Iraq out of Kuwait. And that really was the first space war. It’s the first war where space was integrated into theater operations. The U.S and coalition forces did a left hook through the desert at night on a featureless terrain to maneuver against the adversary. And the way we did that was using a GPS constellation that wasn’t even fully up and operating. Iraq was also launching Scud missiles and we used Strategic Missile warning capabilities that we have (in space) to detect ICBMs, and we used them to be able to give warning of these smaller rockets.

Since that time my whole career has been focused on integrating space capabilities and everything that we do as a joint and coalition force. And today there’s nothing that we do that isn’t enabled by space, whether it’s humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and all the way up through conflict.

China’s Anti-Satellite Demonstration
The next demarcation was 2007, when China launched a missile that blew up one of their own satellites into about 3000 pieces of debris. That was the wakeup call that space may no longer be the peaceful, benign domain we hoped, or we wished it would be. It was no longer just using our space-based capabilities and integrating those capabilities into operations. Now we had to worry about protecting and defending those capabilities. Everything from jamming of GPS and communication satellites, to laser threats, to on orbit activities, to cyber threats, to missiles that can be launched from the ground that that can blow up a satellite.

Defending Space – Part 1 – Space Command
Because of this changing strategic environment, the United States over the course of the past few years has been in a dialogue on what’s the best way to organize for space.

Space had long been part of the Air Force and the thought was, we really need to elevate space to a level commensurate with its importance to national security. In the Department of Defense, we’re organized two ways. One part of the organization -the eleven combatant commands – are focused on warfighting. There used to be a command called U.S. Space Command, but it was stood down shortly after 9/11 and the responsibility for space moved underneath U.S. Strategic Command. In August 2019 we reestablished Space Command as its own combatant command.

Setting up Space Command as its own combatant command was one part of that equation. And I was privileged to plan it and then be its first commander.

Defending Space – Part 2 – The Space Force
A few months later, in December 2019, the United States decided to elevate what we call the “organize, train and equip” part of the military. That’s what services like the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and now the Space Force do. And space moved from underneath the United States Air Force to become its own independent service. I served as both the Commander of U.S Space Command and was the The Space Force chief until August 2019, when we split the hats and now there’s a new commander for U.S Space Command, and I’m solely focused on the organize, train, equip, part – the Space Force.

As a Dual-hatted Commander it Must Have Been Fun Writing Memos to Yourself
It’s interesting when you’re dual-hatted as a service chief and a combatant commander, you get to write yourself a letter saying, hey, dummy, why did you do that? And so it’s kind of fun. But a combatant commander has a much more narrow, short-term focus. He or she has to conduct operations today. A service chief tends to think longer. I want to build the service for the future. And that tension between near term and future is why that structure in the Department of Defense is so important. Where you have two different, two distinct functions, that provides a healthy tension.

In the stand up of the U.S. Space Command and the Space Force, I think Congress got it exactly right, when they said that the commander of Space Command could be the service Chief for up to a year. Because when we were standing these organizations up, I was able to make organization or enterprise level trades between the two organizations. And it was much easier. And now that we have those structures built and we have the staffs designed, almost all those trades are done. Now it’s time to split those hats and get two distinct four stars with separate focus  running fast.

Organizing the Space Force as an Independent Service
Let me give you a few thoughts on what an independent service needs to do and some of the things we’re thinking through.

There are five things we have to do to set up Space Force:

  1. Developing our own people is a big piece of what we’re focusing on. We’re inventing this service, because we don’t want to just build what we had, we want to invent something new, that’s purpose built for this domain, to be able to get after the challenges that this domain provides us.
  2. We have to have our own doctrine. And so we just published our first independent space force doctrine called “Space Power.”
  3. We have to have our own budget. We took all the dollars that were associated for space from the Air Force and brought them into the space force.
  4. We have to design our forces to be able to operate in a contested environment and to reduce duplication of effort, enhance our speed and reduce costs.
  5. We have to present those forces to a warfighting commander.

There are several lines of effort that we’re focusing on:

  1. We’re working to build the Space Force as a very Lean and Agile service. We don’t want to be big and slow, we want to go fast. The domain that we operate in is huge, it’s 100 kilometers above the surface and higher. And so that vastness of space and the speed at which things move is significant.
  2. We also want to be able to build capabilities at speed and acquire capabilities at speed.
  3. We’re developing this service as the first digital service; to have a digital headquarters, a more fluent digital workforce. Everybody that comes into the space force will learn coding and adopt digital engineering standards as our as our standard for acquisition.
  4. We’re also focusing on partnerships. We believe that with this service, we can develop closer ties to our allies around the globe and to commercial industry, and be on the cutting edge of innovative industries going forward.
  5. We need to develop space experts that understand how to operate in the contested domain. Today, we’ve got the world’s best space operators, but train them to operate in a benign domain. We’re shifting to train them to operate in a contested domain.

How Did You Organize Space Force Staff Functions?
The plan was to have over 1000 people on the staff. I thought that was going to be too clunky, too big and too slow. We’ve whittled that staff size down to less than 600. However, having said that, you have to be able to operate inside the Department of Defense. And there’s overhead that’s required just to be able to do that and to do that well. You need somebody to be able to pick up the phone and be able to understand who they’re talking to. And you don’t want to get too different so that people don’t know how to plug into you. So we came up with critical functions that we had to have to operate inside the Department of Defense.

For example, if you’re going to be a member of the Joint Chiefs, you have to have a three-star that can interact for you on your behalf with the other services. And so we stood up a three-star called the S3, so everybody understands that nomenclature inside the Pentagon. We have a hybrid approach where we have the S3 bit combined with some other functions, because we wanted to have a reduced leadership structure, so we made it the S2,3,6 and we call them the Chief Operating Officer to drive a different mindset for that position.

We’ve done the same thing on the resourcing side. And we’ve done the same thing for our human capital development where we have a hybrid approach. And then we also stood up a Chief Technology and Innovation Officer and made that a direct report to me as well. That’s the leadership team.

What’s the Role of the Space Force in Promoting Positive Norms of Behavior in Space?
Space is a warfighting domain just like air, land and sea. We do not want to get into a conflict that begins or extends into space. We want to deter that from happening. We are working to develop norms of behavior to address what is safe and professional behavior in space. We want to develop those by demonstrating good behavior on how we act. We’re very transparent, we share data broadly across the globe.

A lot of people talk about space deterrence. I just talk about deterrence – the calculus of imposing costs and denying benefits. All combatant commands have a deterrence role, U.S. Space Command does as well in the capabilities that we provide, help feed into that deterrence.

How Will You Bring in Talent from Commercial Companies?
We’ve developed a human capital plan that’s really innovative. We want to be able to bring people in from industry, laterally into the service. We want to be able to send people from the Space Force and have them go work at a company and come back. We want to do things differently. There are a lot of authorities that that we have that are underutilized; we want to use all of them.

Our first 10 months have been about building the processes to get people into the Space Force. On 20 December 2019, when the President signed the law, I was the first one. And then we got a command senior enlisted advisor, that was number two. Next, we got 86 cadets coming out of the Academy. That made 88. And then we held boards and who at the Air Force is going to apply to come in? We had ~ 9,000 applicants for 7,000 positions. Now we’re looking at doing the innovative pieces. This human capital plan will be the model for others going forward. We built the plan, we built the strategy, and now we’re focusing on implementing that.

How are You Tackling Classification?
Classification is an issue that we’re working through. Space has largely been in the classified realm. In my opinion it is overly classified. And we’re working hard to develop a strategy. If your goal is to deter conflict, you want to be able to message any potential adversary to be able to change their calculus. It’s kind of hard to do that when you can’t talk about things. 

What is the Space Force Doing Differently in Innovation- With Commercial Partners and Internally?
First, one of the big things we’re doing is adopting digital engineering as our standard. And it’s more than just the digital engineering of the thing. It’s all the way from requirements, to acquisition, to developing the capability, to testing the capability, to operating the capability. We want to have that digital thread.

We’ve worked hard over the last couple years to expand our defense industrial base. I’m not saying that the partners that we have aren’t good. They provide great capabilities, but we want to expand that. The work we’re doing with what we call SpecOT is trying to get others involved.

We are looking to build a Space Systems Command that will have disruptive innovators sitting side by side with more traditional innovators. We think there’s room and value for all. If you look at the domain and where it’s headed, and where industry is headed, there are a lot of opportunities to come up with a hybrid type of architecture. Not just a one size fits all. And we think expanding that industrial base is going to be important to us.

We’re also looking at developing a relationship with industry that is closer than the relationship that we have today. That’s going to require some different rules for operating under. We’re really focusing on pushing decision-making down to the lowest level. I want folks managing their programs, not managing the Pentagon bureaucracy. We’re really trying to delegate down to the lower levels. And if we do this right that will be another model for others to emulate.

One of the things that you can’t do: You can’t go out and kill somebody for making a mistake. We want to be able to fail forward. And we want to be able to move at speed. I think you have to do that in a domain that’s so big and where operations happen so fast.

How Does the Space Force Approach Cybersecurity?
One of those threats on that spectrum of threats is a cyber threat. And so if you look at who we’re bringing into the space force, one of the career fields that we’re bringing in are cyber professionals. We need to understand the cyber terrain to be able to operate in this contested domain. We’ve actually integrated cyber professionals on our operations floors as part of our crews to be able to protect our ability to operate. We’ve really put a lot of focus on this over the last few years to harden ourselves from any kind of cyber threat. And it’s a constant, constant vigilance thing for us. And it’s something that we take very seriously.

What Did you Think of the Netflix Show About Space Force?
No matter what you think of the show, it shows the excitement and the imagination that is going across the country about space. I think it’s going pay dividends for us. Again, it’s not just about military space, it’s about all the different sectors of space.

When I was a little kid, I remember sitting on the living room floor in West Point, NY, where my dad was a teacher and watching man first walk on the moon. And then going to the dining room table and building Apollo models. I think that with what we’re seeing, there’s going to be this enthusiasm for space that is going to help our country. If you look across the board at schools, the schools that I have engaged with over the last few months, they’ve all told me that their interest and their applications for space types of engineering things have gone up. So I think there’s value there for our country.

How Receptive Are the Other Services to Reimagine and Fix Old Organizational Structures?
First of all, we’re just beginning, we’re just creating this. It’s probably a little early to say what have you built that others our now are emulating. For example, when we did the organization for Space Force, we collapsed two layers of command. I know there’s value to us already.

And you’ll hear the department talk a lot about JADC2, joint all domain command and control. The data part of that was designed and built by the Space Force that has now been integrated into JADC2.

And if you look at the challenges that we face in the space domain today, they’re largely Big Data challenges. We track 20 or 30,000 objects in space and probably a half a million objects that we don’t track because they’re because of their size. A small portion of those are actually satellites. Though that number is growing significantly with these proliferated LEO constellations. We take 400 or so observations a day to make sure that nothing collides with other space objects, and we keep the domain safe. Those are all big data challenges. And so we’ve spent a lot of a lot of time building the data infrastructure.

How Can Students Get Involved in Space?
As we’re building the service, if anybody wants to do a research project, I can give you a laundry list of topics where we could really use your brain bytes to help us think through. And I think when you graduate, I think there are plenty of opportunities to get into the space business, including through commercial segments that traditionally haven’t been involved in the space business.

We’d love to have you in the Space Force. A lot of parents come up to me and say, “I wouldn’t want my son or daughter to join the military, but I want them to join the Space Force.” And we think there’s an opportunity to tap into a broader population. I’m excited for the opportunity to build a relationship with Stanford and other schools.

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

If you can’t see the video click here.

Lessons Learned

  • Historically the U.S. treated space as a safe haven for the few exquisite, billion-dollar national assets that we owned (imaging, communications, navigation) that no one else could approach
    • They became the backbone of how our DoD functions
  • Space is now a contested domain
    • Potential adversaries have targeted all our existing assets
  • Space Force was started as a separate military service to own everything 60 miles above the earth
  • It is trying to do things differently, building a lean and agile organization
    • Flatter organization, with a COO and CTO
    • Deeper partnerships with commercial providers
  • Space Force has the excitement of NASA, but with the mission focus of keeping us safe and secure at home
  • In an existing organization, when you when you have something disruptive and new almost everybody wants to strangle it in its crib
    • General Raymond has managed to thread the needle to make this a service

Technology, Innovation, and Modern War – Class 11 – Cyberwarfare –– Sumit Agarwal

We just held our eleventh 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 Military Applications of Cyber.

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

Some of the readings for this week’s included:

DoD Cyber Strategy, How to compete in cyberspace, Defense Primer: Cyberspace Operations, Geopolitical Impact on Cyber Threats from Nation State Actors, Divided by a Common Language: Cyber Definitions in Chinese, Russian and English.

Our guest speaker was Sumit Agarwal, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense and Senior Advisor for Cyber Innovation. Out of MIT, Sumit joined the US Air Force as part of Cyber Command and was one of the first officers in network warfare. He’s spent almost 20 years in the National Guard. But in the private sector he’s done a number of amazing things; he headed up mobile at Google, then went back into the Pentagon where he was the youngest Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense ever in the Pentagon. Then most recently, he co-founded Shape Security, one of the leading cybersecurity companies in the country. Earlier this year, Shape Security was sold to F5 for over a billion dollars.

I’ve extracted and paraphrased a few of Sumit’s key insights and urge you to read the entire transcript here and watch the video.

Safety and Security Online
The way we are going about creating safety and security online in cybersecurity and defending against cybercrime isn’t quite rational. In cybersecurity, any individual, any business of any size, from a small business all the way up to a giant bank, is at the end of the day subjected to the worst that adversaries of any sort – foreign nations, organized criminal gangs – can throw their way. And that makes no sense.

The thinking about online security is absolutely at odds with how we think about security on the land, sea, air and space. Our Army, Navy, Air Force defend our borders. So the result of no defenders in cyberspace is what one would predict. It’s a mismatch. The result is that we are less secure. You end up with companies that are losing more money online, losing more assets that belong to them and more customer data that they’re in trusted with, than they would ever lose in an offline context. And so that’s a really strange thing in the domain that we created, we are having a harder time safeguarding and securing ourselves than we do in the national domains.

I think that it’s a matter of understanding who has the authorities and the norms to defend. Who has the right to defend? Who has the obligation to defend? So that was my thesis when I left the Pentagon in 2011.

How Would You Architect a More Secure Environment?
It’s not okay the way it is. it’s as if the military said, “Hey, we protect U.S. citizens as long as they’re hanging out on a military base. I’m sorry, but if you’re not on a military base, you are totally exposed to any form of threat that can possibly exist in the world.” That is absurd in the real world.

I think that there are two or three fundamental components to it. The first one is, we as a society have spy agencies like NSA that have the preponderance of cybersecurity expertise and capability. At the national level, there really are not a lot of other agencies that have that level of expertise. What you end up with is a choice that we as a society have been unwilling to make. Which is, do we let a spy agency safeguard us domestically at home on the internet? Or do we say, it’s the DHS, the Department of Homeland Security who is the only one chartered with the mission and has the authorities to safeguard U.S. persons or people at home?

That choice is profoundly broken because DHS does not have the necessary level of capability. So with the benefit of hindsight, I think what we need is an agency that has every bit the level of technological expertise that NSA does in the area of cybersecurity, that is not a spy agency. And that agency would need to have the titles and the authority, and the charter to protect U.S. persons. And you see that same dichotomy in the FBI versus the CIA. The CIA is externally facing, it’s effectively a spy agency. FBI is all about domestic issues that exist primarily at home. So that is a very clear, bright shiny line, which we didn’t really realize in the ‘80s and ‘90s, was going to become such a problem. But at this point, we have two unpalatable choices. You can let a spy agency be in charge. Or you can let DHS which has the charter be in charge but doesn’t have the expertise. And so what you end up with is no defense. So that’s what I would do at the national level in terms of creating an agency and organizing things differently and better.

On the second piece, which is how do you create a little bit more clarity between what’s real and what’s fake? That is very challenging, because anonymity is a key, cherished belief system and value online. We all prize privacy and anonymity. So if you swing the pendulum over to say, we would have a lot more secure online experience if everybody had a hard identity. And you needed to basically jack your driver’s license into a little key card reader in order to get online, you would have a more secure environment. (A CAC card for civilians.) You would have a lot less vitriol, you’d have a lot less trolling, you’d have a lot less of the nasty things that we don’t like online, including crime. But what you would lose is anonymity and privacy. A CAC card is what we use in the military.

I’m not sure if there’s a good answer to how would I balance the reality that it’s a totally insecure, wild, wild west on the Internet, with the idea that the privacy and anonymity of the Internet, in many countries, is really important. It’s allowed the Internet to be a tool of great good, not just great bad.

What Trends Are You Seeing That Attackers Are Doing?
Attackers are always going after the softest targets. So in many ways, the softest target is everybody in society. The people who are least capable of defending themselves against sophisticated attackers are not the large corporations that have billion-dollar cybersecurity budgets, that have IT staffs and teams of professionals. It’s either small businesses, or individuals.

The number one thing that we see attackers doing is emulating real people. This is my work in identity and the idea of real versus fake on the Internet. You know, in 1993, there was that old New Yorker cartoon with the dog logging onto a computer and it said, “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.“ But ironically, 27 plus years later, on the Internet, no one knows if you’re Joe dot Felter at Gmail, or Raj Shah, at, or whatever.

Identity and Truth on the Internet.
Online you can be almost anybody you want to be. And it is so easy to social engineer, to phish, to put malware on someone’s machine and to gain access to the things that represent their identity. If you know someone’s username and password, you’ve effectively got their identity. There’s no holographic mark in the upper left corner. There’s no signature in the background, there’s no watermark, there’s no special place that can validate those photos. I mean, it’s literally less secure than college kids cutting photos out to get into bars with identities that don’t belong to them on a driver’s license. It’s that insecure.

And so amazingly, the Internet still works despite this profound lack of true security. But the trend that I always follow is, how do you tell what’s real from what’s fake? Is the thing interacting with you a human or a nonhuman? So much of what criminals do is really about writing programs and bots that simulate human behavior to do human-like things. They then use those stolen identities to have what is truly a fully synthetic actor.

It’s a little bot that has some aspect of your identity, and it will run around on the Internet trying to log into something or trying to represent itself as you. And the impact of this is far worse than the economic harm of losing $1,000. Banks are probably losing hundreds of millions of dollars on a quarterly basis. No consumer knows about it, because those funds are silently put back. No bank wants you to know how porous the banking environment is. They simply want to absorb those losses so that you don’t lose confidence. And that’s actually okay from a societal point of view.

Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior
A far worse aspect of the usage of synthetic identities is what we call Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior, CIB. For example, bad actors getting on Facebook, Twitter or TikTok and creating what appears to be a groundswell of activity and effort and belief around a particular ideology, a particular idea or a concept, none of which are true.

Even right now in our election there is coordinated inauthentic behavior that is pushing ideas and concepts that are driven by actors that are trying to interfere in our election. (In 2016, it was absolutely rampant. There’s less of that happening in 2020.) So what happens when there’s interference by Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior? When there are millions of actions, likes and posts and clicks and forwards that are inauthentic, you end up with a perversion of democracy. So this idea of real versus fake is incredibly pernicious. And it’s something that I think, is worthy of a lot of time and attention by anybody that that wants to pursue a career in cybersecurity.

Deep Fakes
Deep fakes are a really, really challenging problem. So far, there are a few technological solutions that can do frame-by-frame and pixel-by-pixel comparison and figure out when various kinds of algorithms are being used to make a mouth move saying words other than what was said in the original video. Same for images.

I’m not aware of what the fundamental long-term defense is going to be against deep fakes. However, we can create more security around official communication. If I wanted to have an official White House video, or even an official video from me, I could create that. There are long-standing concepts that have nothing to do with cyber security that you could use.

I think what we’re going end up with is the following: Official communication, like a video of Biden or Trump is eventually going to have enough watermarking and fingerprinting technology, that the major social media platforms will be able to verify authenticity. You could even use blockchain-related concepts to say, here’s the original source of that video that’s been uploaded to the public blockchain. And we know how to verify against that.

The part I have a lot more difficulty with is user-generated content. What if the video we care about is not necessarily that of a famous person? How do you solve the problem that there is no real authentication mechanism when a video or a photo is being shared and propagated and virally explodes on social media? There is no one thing to say, is this authentic? Does it have the right watermarks and digital fingerprints? When it is content that’s being generated by individuals I think it’s going to be hard for us to decide whether that video is real or fake. So a very, very complicated space that’s still emerging.

What Are Some Developments in Cyber That Might Change Offense and Defense?
I think there are two. The first one is homomorphic encryption (fully encrypted communication, without having to decrypt the underlying data.) We’re getting to the point where the compute burden on being able to take two numbers – just take the number one and the number two – and let’s encrypt them. We don’t want anyone to know what two numbers we’re adding together. And we want to add them to get the solution, which is three. In the traditional way you share keys, exchange secrets with whoever you want to be able to perform that computation. They decrypt the two numbers, add them up and get the solution – three. And they encrypt the answer and then they transmit that back to you. So that’s the old school way of doing things. And it has two fundamental problems. One, it’s vulnerable, because you have to decrypt the things that were meant to be secret. And anywhere in the process, if you have to decrypt them, that’s problematic. And the second is, you have to exchange secrets with anybody that you want to do business with.

That is fine at a limited scale, when you have a small number of partners. But when you want to have a heterogenous environment, maybe an international coalition, it doesn’t scale very well. So for a long time, DARPA has been chasing after this idea of being able to perform computation on encrypted data without decrypting it. And the problem was that as of 2010, when I was at DoD, there was a 10 to the sixth compute penalty. So a million x compute penalty on adding the number one and the number two together if you left them encrypted. And so over the last 10 years, we’ve been knocking down that exponent, and I think we’re right on the verge of being at the level of 10 to the first or ten the second. And that’s a very tolerable cost for fully encrypted compute, without having to decrypt the underlying data. That’s one exciting area.

And the other one is quantum computing. We’re getting very, very close to the point that quantum computing, certainly for defense may be available. And that is going to change everything about security online. Because at the core of security online today is about computational expense of factoring very large prime numbers. And quantum computing gives you so much more capacity, that you can in fact find many more such primes.

Do our Constitutional Protections in the U.S. Put Us at a Disadvantage Compared to Adversaries That Don’t Share Our Values?
I think the answer is 100% yes, at a tactical level, some of those constitutional freedoms put us at a slight disadvantage. But the answer is less about cybersecurity and more about liberal democracies. I think that the question that is, do liberal democracies do better than more authoritarian regimes over a much longer period of time? Because when it comes to getting something done, you don’t need to develop political will in an authoritarian regime to the same degree as in a liberal democracy.

What Do You Think Needs to Happen for Liberal Democracies to Prevail and Feel Safe?
I think that the future of warfare is going to be less and less overt, less and less hot. It’s going to be less and less about putting kinetics on a target. It’s going to be about influencing large numbers of people in very subtle ways. If you can influence people, it’s that old thing about winning hearts and minds. If you can just influence them in a certain direction, you may be able to win without fighting at all. And so you end up with a war of ideology and a war of culture in open countries.

I think that the big challenge for liberal democracies is, how do we ensure that the conversation we’re having is a real and authentic conversation with the people we think we’re having it with? I think the conversation happening on Facebook right now is incredibly polluted by people who have ill will and Ill intention. And I worry. I’m going to devote a large number of my career years to figuring out how to kind of stem that tide of inauthentic.

In terms of what the government can do, I think we’re going to have to take a more active role. We’re going to have to figure out a contract with American society that does that in a way that you’re comfortable letting us help create a lot more safety and security.

There’s a distinction between policing what happens on a social media platform – that seems very active and heavy handed – versus saying, we can ensure authenticity without compromising security and privacy. There are a lot of companies that are failing to take steps that are readily attainable that would help with this problem. And so I think that there’s also a regulatory component that says, you have to safeguard yourself using these technologies that we’ve identified. We need a much more robust framework that says, if you’re going to have an online system, this is what security means.

I’ll give you one of my favorite examples. The doors that separate your bedroom from the hallway, or the hallway from the garage are rated for a certain number of hours that they can burn in the event of a fire. So the idea of safety and security in the real world is baked into every component of the physical world with which we interact. That level of intensity has got to go into constructing a major website or a major web platform if you have any hope of it being safe or secure. Instead of the current regime, which is really everybody do their best and we’ll hope it doesn’t turn out too badly.

What Gives You the Greatest Optimism Looking Forward?
Over the long haul a freer and more open, more liberal society can suffer a lot of bruises and bumps but can find its way back to a civil discourse. As much as the brand-new tools of communication and aggregation and finding community are creating craziness like QAnon and extremist behavior. I think that there’s still an opportunity for some better version, some good version of communication, collaboration and people coming together to exist. It’s hard to point to quantitative examples of that right now, but I do believe that we will get there. These are growing pains, and growing pains take a decade or two to work their way through the system. But the entire Internet, the way we know it, is barely 25 years old. So it’s barely a young adult. There’s a lot of stories still left to be told.

Read the entire transcript of Sumit Agarwal’s talk here and watch the video below.


If you can’t see the video click here

Lessons Learned

  • Cybersecurity for U.S. civilians and business is not protected by the government
    • The U.S. military protects only its systems and people
  • Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior
    • Ideas and concepts that are driven by bad actors around a particular ideology, a particular idea or a concept, none of which are true
  • Deep fakes are a really challenging problem
    • Solvable for official communications through watermarking and fingerprinting
    • Really hard to solve otherwise for user-generated content.
      • Worse when it goes viral
  • The future of warfare is going to be less and less overt
    • It’s going to be about influencing large numbers of people in very subtle ways
    • if you can just influence people in a certain direction, you may be able to win without fighting at all.
    • And so you end up with a war of ideology and a war of culture in liberal democracies

Technology, Innovation, and Modern War – Class 10 – The DOD and Modern War –– Michèle Flournoy

We just held our tenth 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 DoD and Modern War.

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


Some of the readings for this week’s introduction to AI and modern war included: War on Autopilot? It Will Be Harder Than the Pentagon Thinks, Considering Military Culture and Values When Adopting AI, Swarms of Mass Destruction, Joby Aviation raises $590 million led by Toyota to launch an electric air taxi service, Linking combat veterans and Valley engineers.

With Michèle Flournoy, former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy joining us, we also assigned her recent article in Foreign Affairs, “How to Prevent a War in Asia”and CNAS report “Sharpening the US Military’s Edge: Critical Steps for the Next Generation”

Michèle Flournoy is rumored to be Joe Biden’s candidate for Secretary of Defense.

She served as the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy from February 2009 to February 2012. She was the principal advisor to the Secretary of Defense in the formulation of national security and defense policy, oversight of military plans and operations, and in National Security Council deliberations; and led the development of the Department of Defense’s 2012 Strategic Guidance. She’s currently Co-Founder and Managing Partner of WestExec Advisors, and former Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a bipartisan national security think tank.

I’ve extracted a few of Michèle’s key insights and I urge you to read the entire transcript here and watch the video.

On China
Throughout the 1990s, we were focused on how to integrate China into the global system so that it would become a responsible stakeholder.

And we did everything we could, WTO membership, all kinds of collaborative efforts. That worked for a while, but at a certain point, particularly under President Xi, China decided that the hide-and-bide strategy was over. It was time to take their claim, their rightful place in the international community. Be more assertive in pursuing their agenda in an international forum. And in particular in the Asia Pacific. And it became clear then that we have a number of areas where we really don’t see eye to eye – our interests and objectives are in conflict. Whether its economic, technological, military there are very important competitions that we’re going to have with China over the coming years that will determine the US ability to protect its own economic vitality, but also our security and that of our allies.

That said, there are also problems when you look around the world, whether it’s the next pandemic or climate change or Non-Proliferation where if the United States and China don’t figure out how to cooperate with one another we will both be in deep trouble. So there has to be a cooperative element of the relationship as well. And so that’s why I don’t like the Cold War frame. I think the name of the game is managing this competition, fostering cooperation where we can. Really focusing on deterring conflict between two nuclear powers, which by definition would be a disaster.

Is China becoming more confident in their capabilities and doubt of our own?
They definitely are becoming more confident in their own capabilities. They’ve invested a lot in an anti-access/area denial strategy. And you see thousands and thousands of different kinds of precision munitions, rockets and missiles. They are doing a pretty good job of trying to create a situation where it will be very costly for us to go inside the first island chain or even a second island chain. But they’re not 10 feet tall; they have a lot of challenges as a military as well.

But the thing that worries me most is the narrative that’s taking hold in in Beijing about the United States, particularly in the wake of our mishandling of the pandemic, the onset of another recession, the sort of divisions and protests you see on the streets. It’s given rise to a narrative of US decline. US self-preoccupation. US turning inward. And to the extent that Chinese leaders start to believe that and really believe that we have not done what is necessary to counter their A2/AD system, they could gain a sense of false confidence that might get them to take more risk-taking behavior. To push the envelope a little too far. A little too fast. Maybe cross some red lines they don’t know they’re crossing.

So it’s on us to be very clear – the United States – about our resolve, our commitment to defending our interest and allies, and how we define those. And to make really clear investments in the capabilities that will ensure our ability to project power and protect those interests in the future.

How Should the DoD Spend Smarter?
I think the real long pole in the tent is in developing new operational concepts, in light of a clear-eyed assessment of what we’re going to face from either China or for example Russia’s A2/AD network in Europe.

It forces us into an uncomfortable position. We like to be dominant in every domain. We like to be the one to beat. Here in every case, we’re going to have to be the asymmetric challenger. You’ve got a resident power with a huge set network of capabilities. They’re going to have more quantity than us. We’re going to have to figure out how to fight it asymmetrically for our advantage.

And so that means, first and foremost, that we really do have to think about new concepts. We have to have much more competitive processes for developing those concepts. Not sort of building consensus on lower common denominator, concepts where everybody gets an equal share of the pie. Not interested in that. We have to link that to a lot of prototyping of new capabilities, experimenting with those new capabilities. See how they can inform the new concepts and vice versa.

And so this very agile, iterative process of bringing new technologies and prototyping systems. Playing them in war games, playing them in simulations, playing them in different experiments taking that feedback, those learnings. Bringing it back to inform the next iteration of the design and so forth. This is the process that’s going to get us to the right place. And it’s something that’s just really, really hard for the Department of Defense to do. We’re not set up to do that quickly or well or at scale.

How Should the DoD Realign its Concepts, Culture, Programs and Budgets?
Well first, the sense of urgency you do hear at the top among the Pentagon leadership is not necessarily fully shared throughout the bureaucracy – surprise, surprise. We’ve started to adjust our acquisition approach. And the departments have put out some very useful new guidance on how to approach software acquisition in a very different way than hardware acquisition. But we haven’t necessarily trained our acquisition people, incented them to have a greater risk tolerance that’s required for this agile development of emerging technologies. Nor have we created real rewards promotion paths career paths for that.

And so there’s a huge human capital effort to be done here to raise the overall tech literacy of all of the folks- from the program managers to the operators. But also, to bring more tech talent into government to really help speed the transformation process.  And that requires again some culture change. You’re not going to keep tech talent if they walk into a typical Pentagon office today. You got to create a different operating culture. And I do think there’s some great examples – Kessel Run in the Air Force or the Joint AI center and parts of SOCOM. These are pockets where they’re trying a different approach, different culture, and having some success attracting the kind of tech talent the department needs. We just need to do all that at a much greater scale and with greater urgency.

Innovation Versus Innovation Adoption
Thanks to organizations like DIU we’ve gotten much better at tech scouting; finding promising technologies that might have a military application, getting them on that initial contract – on a SBIR contract or an OTA prototyping contract.

But the real problem is that almost everybody hits the famous “valley of death.” So you’ve done a great prototype, you’ve won the demonstration, everybody loves you. And then they say, “Well, the next time we can actually insert you into the program and for a production contract is 2023, two and a half years from now.” And for a startup that’s like, “What do you mean? I’ve got to have access to recurring revenue to survive until then.” And so they get pressure from their investors to forget the national security side, just go commercial. It’s this terrible situation. So what do we need to fix that?

Number one, you need a more flexible set of funding authorities to bridge that gap. One idea is to allow the services to have some greater reprogramming authorities within mission areas or across portfolios, so that at the end of the year, when they’d have something that didn’t work, they can scrape up money there and put it into the next iteration of development for the thing that does work, and maybe get another year of bridge funding to get to that production contract.

That obviously requires some working with Congress to get them comfortable that they’ll have the transparency and oversight, but they need to give the department that kind of flexibility. I also think it involves bringing the ultimate end user into the earliest contact. So you have a program manager who’s watching this thing like a hawk from the beginning. And is already thinking about how it’s going to disrupt and be integrated into something he or she is responsible for. And you have to incent that. Rather just rewarding this rigorous, we only care about cost and schedule. You’ve got incent program managers if you can get better performance at lower costs, you got to be a disrupter yourself. You got to bring new ideas into what you’re managing to do that – which is a very different approach. It’s not easy to do. But we have to try to figure that out.

How Can We Work More Closely with Allies and Partners?
For each of the key priority areas, whether it’s AI or robotics or Quantum or hypersonics, whatever it is, we could do some mapping of which of our allies really has cutting edge work going on, either in their research universities or in their innovation base. And look for opportunities of where we perhaps get farther faster by sharing some of that. There are all kinds of ways to do this. One is to cross invest. I know In-Q-Tel has started investing in UK companies, Australian companies, for example, with certain priorities in mind. I would love to see DIU get into the business of starting to bring some of those allied companies in.

I think this needs to be a topic of policy discussion of where we collectively go after some of these areas with joint ventures or joint technology development and more efforts like that at scale. It’s a very important area. Particularly given that both China and Russia are going to be leveraging these technologies in ways that are really counter to our Western values in terms of surveillance systems and without respect for personal privacy and all kinds of things. And I think the more we have a common values-based approach to technology with our allies, the stronger we can be in showing up at an international forum where standards are being set or norms are being set and so forth.

What Legacy Programs Should be Downsized to Fund Investment in Emerging Technologies?
It’s a great and necessary question, because the DoD always has more programs than budget. But I think with COVID and with the recession whoever wins the White House in November, you’re going to see a flattening of the DoD budget. The sort of assumptions of 3% to 5% growth over and above inflation, that’s not going to hold no matter who is in the White House. So you’re going to have to make some tough tradeoffs. I can’t give you an answer off top my head, but I can tell you how I would think it through.

I think we need to look mission area by mission area and look across services at portfolios of capabilities to ask, “What is the mix that we need so that we have the platforms we need, but also the money to invest and incorporate the emerging technologies that will make those legacy platforms survivable, relevant, combat effective in the future?” And so it really has to happen on a mission area basis.

I think in some cases you may find redundant capabilities within or between services. Sometimes you’ll say, I don’t want that redundancy. I’m going to make a determination and one is going to be a winner and the other is going to be a loser. But sometimes, for the sake of resilience, for the sake of complicating adversary attack planning, you may want redundancy. You may want multiple different ways to accomplish a particular task. So this has to be done with very strong analytic grounding. Looking at both performance and capability, but also cost, and so forth.

My bias is that we have to be much more aggressive in going down the road of human/machine teaming and in gaining mass, gaining capacity and complicating the other side’s planning process by incorporating unmanned in all domains. More unmanned undersea, on the sea, in the air and beyond. If we can crack the code on that integration that is going to give us for the cost of the system a lot more capacity and capability.

What Should be Done to Enhance the Recruitment and Retention of a Technologically Superior Defense Workforce?
We’re finding one of the most important things we’re doing – who knew – is creating a handbook for the DoD folks to say, “Here are all the authorities, you may not know you have for bringing tech talent is. Here are the best practices in terms of how to approach the hiring process. Here are the kinds of things you need to have in place to make those folks successful.” And give them the tools they need to really contribute. So trying to take all the learnings of where it’s been tried and failed, or where it succeeded and why. And put it in a handbook for the DoD hiring authorities to say, here’s your own learnings that you can build on to get that tech talent in at greater scale and with greater speed.

One of the key barriers is still the clearance process. That seems to hold people up for a bit. But I think the department is seriously working on trying to reduce some of those barriers. Then the second piece, I would say, is career path. The services are actually sitting on a lot of STEM talent, but they don’t manage them as STEM talent. You know they forced the young captain who is the Air Force AI specialist to leave and go out and be on a squadron staff in order to check the box, so he can get his next promotion. The services need to design career paths for technologists, so that they can get rewarded, promoted, and reach leadership positions as technologists. Otherwise, we will under leverage the people who are already in the force.

What are Some Potential DoD Problems or Operational Concepts That You Would Like Our Best and Brightest Here At Stanford’s Address in Class – Now and in the Future – and Why?
I think the long pole in the tent is this notion of joint all domain command and control in an environment that will be constantly contested. So the analogy is how do you build the equivalent of a resilient electrical grid as your command and control network? So that if on part of it you have an electronic warfare attack and one end of it goes down, the system automatically reroutes and is connecting shooters and sensors in a different way that allows them to keep operating without missing a beat.

So it’s coming up with how the key elements of stitching together a network of networks that has that resilience and an ability to connect and operate at the edge, even during periods where there’s disruption and you can’t call back to headquarters. That to me is the long pole in the tent for  future multi-domain operations this very distributed approach to warfare, that will be necessary.

The second piece is the technical aspects of human machine teaming, and how that really works – and again, in multiple domains, whether it’s undersea or on the sea or in the air or above. That is another key point. And then just lots of applications that can increase the accuracy and speed of our decision-making faster than that of the other side. Just humans still making the decisions, but getting the right information, the right analysis to them at the right moment in time, where we can make the decision and gain that advantage in the cycle of competition.

How Can the Defense Department, and Our Leadership Unify the US Against These Threats in a Highly Partisan and Divided Political Environment?
It’s a great question, and it points to this question of leadership. We need a president and a commander in chief to step forward and provide a vision to make the case, to provide the sort of nature of the challenges, the threat assessment, why it’s important to the prosperity and security of Americans at home. And what we need to do to go after it. I would love to see a moonshot moment kind of speech, a Kennedy speech that sort of says, We’re in this competition, and this is really going to matter to our way of life. But we’re America, we know how to do this. We came out of the Great Depression. We came out of World War Two. We came out of Vietnam. And we have good done this before. We are we are in crisis. We’re going to come out of this, and we’re going to be stronger and all of us need to help. So how are you going to help drive investment in the drivers of American competitiveness?

And some of it will be by doing great work in STEM in our research universities. Some of it will be investing in 21st century infrastructure. Some of it will be developing these new technologies that can transform both our society and our economy and our military. But really inspiring Americans to say, we need your talents. We need everybody to step up and help. That’s what I’m looking for. And, and I haven’t seen it recently, but I’m looking for that kind of leadership.

What Advice Would You Give America’s Best and Brightest, at Universities Across the Country on How They Can Serve and Make a Difference – Short of Joining the Military or Other US government Organizations?
I think we should all feel some desire, but also an obligation to serve. I mean, to be partaking of all the incredible freedoms and benefits of this country. What can we give back? For some of us, it’s going to be going into government service or serving in the military.

But there are ways to serve in other parts of the US government. There are ways to serve in nonprofits. There are all kinds of ways to get involved in enriching society and helping to serve the United States. And so find whatever that area of passion is for you, find the time to do that. Maybe it’s going to be through your work, but maybe it’s going to be through some of the activities you do when you’re not at work. If we all stepped up to that, sort of drive to serve, it doesn’t have to be in government, we’d enrich our society so greatly.

So the homework assignment is – find that passion and that path to service, whether it’s going into government for a stint, advising or helping or investing in some other way that’s going to make your community or the country or the world a better place.

Read the entire transcript of Michèle Flournoy’s talk here and watch the video below.


If you can’t see the video click here

Lessons Learned

  • Michèle Flournoy is an experienced former senior defense official who is thinking deeply and critically about how to best address emerging national security challenges
  • She would be a great SecDef

Technology, Innovation and Modern War – Class 9 – Autonomy – Maynard Holliday

We just held our ninth 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 Autonomy and Modern War.

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

Some of the readings for this class session included Directive 3000.09: Autonomy in Weapons Systems, U.S. Policy on Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems, International Discussions Concerning Lethal Autonomous Weapon SystemsJoint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2), A New Joint Doctrine for an Era of Multi-Domain Operations,  Six Ways the U.S. Isn’t Ready for Wars of the Future.

Autonomy and The Department of Defense
Our last two class sessions focused on AI and the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (the JAIC,) the DoD’s organization chartered to insert AI across the entire Department of Defense. In this class session Maynard Holliday of RAND describes the potential of autonomy in the DoD.

Maynard was the Senior Technical Advisor to the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistic during the previous Administration. There he provided the Secretary technical and programmatic analysis and advice on R&D, acquisition, and sustainment. He led analyses of commercial Independent Research and Development (IRAD) programs and helped establish the Department’s Defense Innovation Unit. And relevant to today’s class, he was the senior government advisor to the Defense Science Board’s 2015 Summer Study on Autonomy.

Today’s class session was helpful in differentiating between AI, robotics, autonomy and remotely operated systems. (Today, while drones are unmanned systems, they are not autonomous. They are remotely piloted/operated.)

I’ve extracted and paraphrased a few of Maynard’s key insights from his work on the Defense Science Board Autonomy study, and I urge you to read the entire transcript here and watch the video.

Autonomy Defined
There are a lot of definitions of autonomy. However, the best definition came from the Defense Science Board. They said, to be autonomous a system must have the capability to independently compose and select among different courses of action to accomplish goals based on its knowledge and understanding of the world, itself, and the situation. They offered that there were two types of Autonomy:

  • Autonomy at Rest – systems that operate virtually, in software, and include planning and expert advisory systems. For example, in Cyber, where you have to react at machine speed
  • Autonomy in Motion – systems that have a presence in the physical world. These include robotics and autonomous vehicles, missiles and other kinetic effects

A few definitions:

AI are computer systems that can perform tasks that normally require human intelligence – sense, plan, adapt, and act, including the ability to automate vision, speech, decision-making, swarming, etc. – Provides the intelligence for Autonomy.

Robotics provides kinetic movement with sensors, actuators, etc., for Autonomy in Motion.

Intelligent systems combine both Autonomy at Rest and Motion with the application of AI to a particular problem or domain.

Why Does DoD Need Autonomy? Autonomy on the Battlefield
Over the last decade, the DoD has adopted robotics and unmanned vehicle systems, but almost all are “dumb” – pre-programmed or remotely operated – rather than autonomous. Autonomous weapons and weapons platforms—aircraft, missiles, unmanned aerial systems (UAS), unmanned ground systems (UGS) and unmanned underwater systems (UUS) are the obvious applications.

Below is an illustration of a concept of operations of a battle space. You can think of this as the Taiwan Straits, or near the Korean Peninsula.

On the left you have a joint force; a carrier battle group, AWACS aircraft, satellite communications. On the right, aggressor forces in the orange bubbles are employing cyber threats, dynamic threats, denied GPS and comms (things we already see in the battlespace today.)

Another example: Adversaries have developed sophisticated anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities. In some of these environments human reaction time may be insufficient for survival.

Autonomy can increase the speed and accuracy of decision-making. Using Autonomy at Rest (cyber, electronic warfare,) as well as Autonomy in Motion, (drones, kinetic effects,) you can move faster than your adversaries can respond.

Autonomy Creates New Tactics in the Physical and Cyber Domains
The combatant commanders asked the Science Board to assess how autonomy could improve their operations. The diagram below illustrates where autonomy is most valuable. For example, in row one, on the left, you don’t need autonomy when required decision speed is low. But as the required decision speed, complexity, volume of data and danger increases, the value of autonomy goes up. In the right column you see examples of where autonomy provides value.

The Defense Science Board studied several example scenarios.

Some of these recommendations were invested in immediately. One was the DARPA OFFSET (Offensive Swarm Enabled Tactics) program run by Tim Chung. He holds the record for holding a hundred swarms. And he took his expertise to DARPA to run a swarm challenge. Another DARPA investment was the Cyber Grand Challenge, to seed-fund systems able to search big data for indicators of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) proliferation.

Can You Trust an Autonomous System?
A question that gets asked by commanders and non-combatants alike is, “Can you trust an autonomous system? The autonomy study specifically identified the issue of trust as core to the department’s success in broader adoption of autonomy. Trust is established through the design and testing of an autonomous system and is essential to its effective operation. If troops in the field can’t trust that a system will operate as intended, they will not employ it. Operators must know that if a variation in operations occurs or the system fails in any way, it will respond appropriately or can be placed under human control.

DOD order 3000.09 says that a human has to be at the end of the kill chain for any autonomous system now.

Postscript – Autonomy on the Move
A lot has happened since the 2015 Defense Science Board autonomy study. In 2018 the DoD stood up a dedicated group – the JAIC – the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, (which we talked about in the last two classes here and here) to insert AI across the DoD.

After the wave of inflated expectations, deploying completely autonomous systems to handle complex unbounded problems are much harder to build than originally thought. (A proxy for this enthusiasm versus reality can be seen in the hype versus delivery of fully autonomous cars.)

That said, all U.S. military services are working to incorporate AI into semiautonomous and autonomous vehicles into what the Defense Science Board called Autonomy in Motion. This means adding autonomy to fighters, drones, ground vehicles, and ships. The goal is to use AI to sense the environment, recognize obstacles, fuse sensor data, plan navigation, and communicate with other vehicles. All the services have built prototype systems in their R&D organizations though none have been deployed operationally.

A few examples; The Air Force Research Lab has its Loyal Wingman and Skyborg programs. DARPA built swarm drones and ground systems in its OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFFSET) program.

The Navy is building Large and Medium Unmanned Surface Vessels based on development work done by the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO). It’s called Ghost Fleet, and its Large Unmanned Surface Vessels development effort is called Overlord.

DARPA completed testing of the Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel prototype, or “Sea Hunter,” in early 2018. The Navy is testing Unmanned Ships in the NOMARS (No Manning Required Ship) Program.

Future conflicts will require decisions to be made within minutes, or seconds compared with the current multiday process to analyze the operating environment and issue commands – in some cases autonomously. An example of Autonomy at Rest is tying all the sensors from all the military services together into a single network, which will be the JACD2 (Joint All-Domain Command and Control). (The Air Force version is called ABMS (Advanced Battle Management System).

The history of warfare has shown that as new technologies become available as weapons, they are first used like their predecessors. But ultimately the winners on the battlefield are the ones who develop new doctrine and new concepts of operations. The question is, which nation will be first to develop the Autonomous winning concepts of operation? Our challenge will be to rapidly test these in war games, simulations, and in experiments. Then take that feedback and learnings to iterate and refine the systems and concepts.

Finally, in the back of everyone’s mind is that while DOD order 3000.09 prescribes what machines will be allowed to do on their own, what happens when we encounter adversaries who employ autonomous weapons that don’t have our rules of engagement?

Read the entire transcript of Maynard Holliday’s talk here and watch the video below.

If you can’t see the video click here

Lessons Learned

  • Autonomy at Rest – systems that operate virtually, in software, and include planning and expert advisory systems
    • For example, Cyber, battle networks, anywhere you must react at machine speed
  • Autonomy in Motion – systems that have a presence in the physical world
    • Includes robotics and autonomous vehicles, missiles, drones
  • AI provides the intelligence for autonomy
    • Sense, plan, adapt, and act
  • Robotics provides the kinetic movement for autonomy
    • Sensors, actuators, UAV, USVs, etc.
  • Deploying completely autonomous systems to handle complex unbounded problems are much harder than originally thought
  • All U.S. military services are working to incorporate AI into semiautonomous and autonomous vehicles and networks
  • Ultimately the winner on the battlefield will be those who develop new doctrines and new concepts of operations

Technology, Innovation, and Modern War – Class 8 – AI – Chris Lynch and Nand Mulchandani

We just held our eighth 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 Artificial Intelligence and Modern War.

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

Some of the readings for this class session included What The Machine Learning Value Chain Means For Geopolitics, How Artificial Intelligence Will Reshape The Global Order, An Understanding Of Ai’s Limitations Is Starting To Sink In, and The Panopticon Is Already Here.

AI and The Department of Defense
In our last class session General Shanahan, described the mission of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (the JAIC) which is to insert AI across the entire Department of Defense. He also said, “The most important hire I made in my time at the JAIC was the chief technology officer, Nand Mulchandani.” Nand changed the culture of the JAIC, bringing in Silicon Valley tools for product development, product management and for the first time a culture that focused on UI/UX, MVPs and continuous integration and deployment.

In this class session Nand Mulchandani, JAIC CTO who just completed an extended stint as Acting Director, continued the discussion of AI and the role of the JAIC.

In addition to Nand, the class also heard from Chris Lynch, founder of the Defense Digital Service (DDS), now the CEO of Rebellion Defense, a new vendor of AI to the DOD. One of the main purposes of the class is to expose our best and brightest to DoD challenges and inspire them to serve. Chris’s story of why he started DDS and how he built the team is a model for how you create a movement.

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


Nand Mulchandani

How the JAIC is Organized
The JAIC is a tiny team, yet we have a product directorate with 32 products that we’re building across six verticals – all the way from warfighter health to Joint warfighting to Business Process automation, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, cybersecurity and predictive maintenance. And we own the AI autonomous weapon systems ethics and policy for the DOD.

We have an acquisition arm and Congress is probably going to give us acquisition authority this year. And we have a missions team headed up by a one-star Flag Officer with six O-6 level officers (Colonels and Navy Captains) heading up the different missions.

Selling JAIC Like Enterprise Sales
When General Shanahan brought me in a year and a half ago, we were focused on building one-off products that in some sense were what I called “using a peashooter against a tank.” One product at a time wasn’t going to change the trajectory of the DOD. This is where I brought in the thinking of how we build businesses here in Silicon Valley. We needed to be building leveraged business models in scale. Leverage is a key part of how you change a 3-million-person organization through technology.

Everything that we do at the JAIC has to be built and done with leverage in mind. I organized my missions teams like an enterprise sales team. We took all the colonels and the captains and said, “You are now going out there and finding the repeatable customer patterns. You’re not finding the one-off custom projects to come build. Instead you need to find the patterns, where I can build a single piece of IP or technology and then “sell it” to all the combatant commands and services equally.” Because doing one-offs is never ever going to change the DOD.

JAIC Is Applied AI – Focused on Impact
AI is not a single technology. It’s picked up every piece of technology in statistics and regression and we’re dealing anywhere from string data to numeric data to audio, language, still image things, full motion video object recognition.

But we take this technology and apply it to a particular set of customer problems and focus on the impact. I take a very practical approach to this. I’m an entrepreneur and an implementation guy. So, my focus is on practical ways of moving this big rock, in a in a tactical, tangible way, slowly and surely, while big thinkers will the work on the broader theoretical pieces.

For instance, inside the DOD we have aging equipment and we have a number of business processes that are really less than optimum. How do we tackle those with AI which can become quick wins so that success begets success?

However, using AI for new warfighting capability that’s much, much more complicated. That’s the stuff that Rebellion and Anduril and a number of other companies are helping us with.

Connecting Systems End to End
We’re applying AI across the board. Take a look at the diagram below. On the left is the Pentagon with  highly connected data centers with high bandwidth. And on the right, you’ve got the tactical edge, where we’ve got UAVs, tanks, spacecraft, etc.

At the JAIC we’re focusing on what we call the autonomy space – close combat, AI for small unit maneuvers, around things for SOCOM, and what the Marines and others are going to have to do with the new National Defense Strategy and new operational concepts.

And then we’re also focused on autonomy. The magic words – Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) and the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) – are the automation pieces. How do you connect all of our systems end to end? That requires targeting logistics, fires, everything else. Today, it’s a process that’s half manual, half PowerPoint, half Excel, half whiteboard, and half a bunch of lieutenants, majors and colonels all drawing stuff and cobbling it together. If we agree that the next generation of warfare is going to be fought at the speed of software, you need these end-to-end systems all connected together in a backplane, a platform.

Now the problem is, in the diagram below on the left, this is what our DOD architecture looks like today. It’s a bunch of vertically integrated snowflake applications with a mouse and a keyboard and a screen. Applications are developed in silos, making it impossible to enable centralized functionality.

And for students of economics, you see the cost curve. The graph on the left just doesn’t work. Your marginal costs and your average costs of building software do not go down over time. What’s ironic is that software is one of the few businesses where the more you build, the cheaper it gets, it should.

The curve you want is on the right – lower marginal cost per application, rapid development, increased developer productivity, etc. And the only way you’re going to get there is through building common platform services and the application architecture that internet-scale companies do today. And in the DOD that discussion and ideas are completely missing. And so we continue to build stuff as it is on the left. The discussion we’re having in the Pentagon is how do we move things from left to the right.

Moving from Vertical Silos to Horizontal Platforms Enables “Software defined warfare”
Our observation is that the architecture of DOD systems is vertically scaled. What that means is that for that last few decades the goal for every weapon system is about how does each generation get a bigger and bigger version of the same weapon system?

Today that means we just made our targets bigger for our adversaries. Think of a giant aircraft carrier sitting out in the ocean with a hypersonic missile targeted against it. It’s like a giant, vertically scaled data center that we used to have 15, 20 years ago. The architecture changes we need to make in our design for the next generation Combat Systems are precisely the same things that we had to do to change the way we operated data centers. Which is moving from stateful, long running, individual systems, to horizontally scaled, stateless systems. We need them attritable, able to work in denied and degraded environments.

This is what we’re thinking when we call it “software defined warfare.”

However, AI as a services-oriented architecture has to get built out on top of an infrastructure platform. The biggest problem is that no one in the DOD owns running that. So while others can run the JEDI cloud for the DOD, nobody owns running application services for the DOD. And the JAIC can’t run them because we’re not an operational software organization.

Joint Common Foundation
One of the biggest mandates we’re focused on now is the Joint Common Foundation, the JCF. It’s an AI development and data environment for the DOD that democratizes access to compute and data.

The vision is a tactical team sitting out in one of our remote bases. Imagine if they can power up a secure laptop, crank out 30 lines of Python code; and grab a set of services – logistic services, mapping services, targeting services, etc,– that are DOD wide available directly through the JCF; and crank out a piece of code that they get into production, use it for a month and then throw it away.

That is the reconfigurability and speed that we need to have at the DOD. So if we are ever in combat, the reconfigurability of our infrastructure, whether it be hardware infrastructure at the tactical edge or a back end systems to react, that is the level of game that we have to have, or we’re toast. That’s it. It’s that simple.


Chris Lynch
Culture and the culture of change – Getting the Job to Run the Defense Digital Service
In 2015, the Chief Technology Officer at the White House, Todd Park, mentioned I ought to meet with the Department of Defense who were thinking of creating the Defense Digital Service, a DOD version of United States Digital Service. The goal was to bring modern, private-sector tools, technology, and talent into the DOD to solve high-impact challenges.

And Todd Park said, there’s going be a lot of people who want to do this, who want to lead innovation and a lot of people are going to come through, they’re going to pitch their version. I thought about the job like a startup. I came in with a pitch around a “SWAT team of nerds,” one that would work on problems of impact and things that matter. I remember the first time I walked into the waiting room for the Office of the Secretary of Defense. It felt like “Shark Tank.” There were a bunch of other people all going in to do their pitch and talk about their idea for what they wanted to build. Some of them had presentations, and all of them had things printed out of course, because it’s the Department of Defense. Here, we’re talking about technology and innovative ideas, and doing things different with technology and software, and of course, nobody was able to do an actual presentation with a computer.

I chose to show up that day representing what I thought was the culture of what it had to be from the very beginning. That if we tried to build the bridge by being what they were, it wasn’t going to be right. It wasn’t going to be authentic. And we would never attract the best people into the most important mission in the entire world – the mission of defense and national security.

So I showed up in a hoodie and I showed up as me. I didn’t print off a presentation. I pitched the idea, let’s do the SWAT team of nerds. And, and I can remember it felt really, really, weird standing in that office with people in suits and people in uniform in the military. It was just such a different world, completely and totally unlike anything that I had ever seen.

And you know, that’s what they wanted. And that’s what I wanted to be in that part of the story. Because I felt it was important that we actually get people to show up to do the mission. I think that that’s probably one of the most critical things that became the basis of how I thought about what we were building.

Recruiting for the Defense Digital Service
I told people, I want you to leave your job where you’re paid more than what I’m going to pay you. I want you to leave your job, where you’re getting free meals, where you’re living and working around a bunch of other software engineers. And I want you to come into a place that is going to be so unbelievably difficult, frustrating, sometimes demoralizing, and very, very difficult. I want you to come into that.

And I want you to give me six months to one year. But I also just want you to be you.

And when you leave, if you do your job here, if you do the thing that we showed up to do, and if we are successful in what we’re trying to accomplish, it will change your life until the day you die. You’ll never be able to get it out of your blood. And that’s the place that we built. I think that that’s the culture, I think that’s the right place to be.

Because it allowed us to show up in what we were comfortable wearing, we became known as, the people in hoodies. And you would have the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff doing a presentation for newly minted generals. And they would show a slide with a picture of me with orange tennis shoes on. And it just became our uniform. And it also made it really easy to be like, “Oh, that’s Chris Lynch. He’s a nerd, right? That’s the person that I want to talk to.”

And that was the culture that we decided to build. Just keep focused on results and not getting caught up in sizzle. But getting caught up in real things, in building real tangible stuff. And I think we were successful.

Starting Rebellion Defense
When I left the Defense Digital Service, I felt like I was standing at the shore of this vast sea of all the things that I might do next.

Rebellion Defense was built around the idea of let’s do something spectacular. Let’s continue that mission, but at a scale that would be impossible inside the DOD. And we would be able to bring in incredible new people who wanted to work on something meaningful and impactful.

Surprises from Being Outside the Government Selling In
It’s funny, one of the things I never had to worry about on the inside of the Pentagon was budget. As it turns out, finding who has a budget and can allocate funds is a lot more complicated than you’d think. Just because you find someone who has a budget, they have to find a contracting office to do the buy.

My second point is, if you simply believe that you’re going to show up with an awesome product and awesome technology, guess what? That doesn’t mean anything. if you’re selling this customer technology you already lost. The DOD is a mission-driven organization. Which means you have to understand what they are doing. If there’s a person saying, “Oh I need more AI and ML,” they’re likely not the person who has the budget at the end of the day.

Next, this space has a lot of companies in it that have been here for much longer than you. And you probably don’t know anybody in this space. They do. They know them all. They previously have occupied the jobs that the current people in those roles are doing. And so they have all those relationships. That’s a moat.

And incumbents and competitors say they do pretty much anything that you will say that you do. They’ll say, AI and Machine Learning? We do AI/ML on quantum clusters with Cheddar cheese. And literally, I have had people who send me the most random word-salad construction of words and phrases, I don’t even understand what you’re saying. I get that all the time. I can’t tell you the weird stuff that I get sent my way.

So you have to find that partner that has a belief in solving a problem. They have to know what is real and what is not.

How Will AI Be Used? Why Should Silicon Valley Engineers and Our Students Get Involved?

We either show up or we cede our ability to influence and decide on that policy.

If the world’s greatest technologists do not show up and build the systems for the Department of Defense, to lead in this area and decide the ethical and moral boundaries that we believe in, and that we as a nation are comfortable with, somebody else is going to show up and lead in the way that those technologies are built. And they will decide how they’re used and that will be the definition of ethics and morality.

So you have one very, very simple choice: Show up. If you don’t show up, then you don’t get to play a part in the discussion. Because if other countries who do not share your beliefs become the leaders in how these capabilities are used in a military context and they deploy them, it doesn’t matter what you think. That becomes the norm.

I believe that technologists – people like you, and people like me – we can’t give that up to somebody else. I don’t want somebody less capable than the best in this country to show up and build those systems.


The Department of Defense awarded a $106 million contract to build the JAIC’s Joint Common Foundation to… Deloitte Consulting.

Read the entire transcript of Chris Lynch and Nand Mulchandani talks here and here and watch the video below.

If you can’t see the video click here

Lessons Learned

 Nand Mulchandani

  • The JAIC acts like DOD’s AI service bureau, building leveraged business models in scale.
    • It’s working on a portfolio of 32 products in 6 verticals across the DOD
    • It’s looking for repeatable customer patterns
  • It’s applying AI to both autonomy and automation applications
  • The DOD needs to move from vertical silos to horizontal platforms
    • AI needs to become a services-oriented architecture built out on top of an infrastructure platform
    • Hopefully the Joint Common Foundation will do just that

Chris Lynch

  • Built the Defense Digital Service as a SWAT team of nerds
  • How he motivated his team is inspiring:
    • “If you do your job here, if you do the thing that we showed up to do, and if we are successful in what we’re trying to accomplish, it will change your life until the day you die. You’ll never be able to get it out of your blood. And that’s the place that we built.”
  • Surprises at Rebellion Defense included:
    • How to find customers with a budget
    • Competing with incumbents who came from the revolving door
    • Competing with other companies who claim “we can do that, too”
  • Why work with the DOD on AI?
    • “If the world’s greatest technologists do not show up to lead and decide the ethical and moral boundaries that we believe in, and that we as a nation are comfortable with, somebody else is going to show up and lead. And they will decide how they’re used and that will be the definition of ethics and morality.”
  • Show Up


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
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