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DoD To Silicon Valley, VCs: How ‘Bout Some Help!

Posted by Colin Clark on


Lockheed Martin's UCLASS concept.

Lockheed Martin’s UCLASS concept.

PENTAGON:  For decades the tech gurus of Silicon Valley have pretty much left Pentagon business alone, letting the military stumble along and try to buy their wares within five years of their coming out.

Take the story of former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. James “Hoss” Cartwright, hungry for an iPad that could handle classified information. Couldn’t be done, Cartwright was told. So he ordered DARPA to do it. Then it did get done, but that gives you some idea of just how hard it can be for agile tech companies to do business with the military. Or for the military to buy something new that it really wants — such as the breakthrough technologies envisioned by the newly announced “offset strategy.”

Now, confronted with an historic shift in science and technology spending from the military to commercial companies and the rapid global proliferation of precision weapons and other technologies, the Pentagon has issued a Request for Information asking anyone with a really good idea to click on a dedicated website and let them know about it.

While Lockheed, Boeing, BAE, Raytheon, Northrop and friends will certainly be listened to should they have ideas to share, this effort is really aimed at individuals and companies who traditionally don’t do business with the Pentagon. “I think that’s a very clear message,” said Stephen Welby, the deputy assistant defense secretary leading the effort, when I pressed him if the RFI’s target was companies like Google, Cisco and other tech generators.

Stephen Welby

Stephen Welby

The ideas sent in will be screened by five groups of five of the Pentagon’s best and brightest, said Welby, each specializing in a particular top-priority area: undersea technology; air dominance and strike technology; air and missile defense technology; other technology-driven concepts.

The Long Range Research Development Plan, as it’s known, will really begin taking shape in the middle of next year when the first report on it is forwarded to the next defense secretary.

In the meantime, none of this is tied to any budget lines to keep things as free from bureaucratic rumbles as possible, Welby told reporters at the Pentagon today. Once technologies or systems get selected as promising, then they will start to receive funding.

This is the third time since World War II that the United States has consciously tried to develop a cluster of technologies to ensure it a decisive military advantage. The last one, crafted in 1973, was called the “ARPA/DNA Long Range Research and Development Planning Program.” As you can see, the Pentagon didn’t change the name much from the last time. But this panel, unlike the last one, will be led only by government officials, Welby said. Last time, industry played a key role in both recommending and deciding what technologies should be pursued.

A great deal of what will be pursued this time will be software and miniaturized hardware: algorithms, tiny sensors, code that allows weapons to function autonomously are all examples. Welby said platforms aren’t necessarily the focus of this effort: It’s what they can do. (That’s why we picked the photo of UCLASS drone above. It’s autonomous, it could carry lots of new technology, and its much-debated requirements are seen as a litmus test for how seriously the Pentagon takes the offset strategy — see below.)

Screening the ideas and technologies submitted to the website will demand wisdom and smarts. “We’ve spent quite a bit of time recruiting the folks who are doing these studies,” Welby told us.

House seapower subcommittee chairman Randy Forbes (right) thanks witnesses after yesterday's hearing, including Andrew Hunter (far left) and David Ochmanek (second from left).

House seapower subcommittee chairman Randy Forbes (right) thanks witnesses after yesterday’s hearing, including Andrew Hunter (far left) and David Ochmanek (second from left).

Advice From The Hill

The offset strategy is already getting traction on Capitol Hill. Yesterday afternoon, House seapower chairman and offset enthusiast Rep. Randy Forbes convened a panel of experts. Naturally, the witnesses gave special attention to naval weapons. Robotics enthusiast Shawn Brimley said the crucial “canary in the coal mine,” the first test of whether the offset strategy is really taking root, will the detailed requirements for the Navy’s UCLASS drone (Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike). Former Navy Undersecretary Robert Martinage, who recently published his own offset strategy, added that other key “canaries” include unmanned mini-subs (UUVs, or unmanned underwater vehicles), fitting more missiles on manned submarines (VPM, the Virginia Payload Module), and directed energy (e.g. lasers).  But while each witness had his favorite technology or program, the one with the most recent experience in the Pentagon warned against picking winners or losers too hastily.

The US military has such a wide range of missions, from peacekeeping to all-out war, that the offset strategy needs to emphasize broadly applicable capabilities, said Andrew Hunter, who until last month led the Pentagon’s Joint Rapid Acquisition Cell (JRAC). “There’s a real danger of over-specifying the problem,” he told the subcommittee. “I don’t believe that  investment strategy, offset strategy, should be a list of platform-specific investments. That necessary step comes later.”

“I’m not expecting that by this time next year we’ll be on a dramatic new course,” Hunter told my colleague Sydney Freedberg after the hearing. “The Pentagon doesn’t work that way and I’m not sure it should work that way, because like I said, there is a danger that you’ll get it wrong.” Even in the original, much-lauded offset strategy of the 1970s, Hunter noted, the Pentagon invested heavily in the B-1 bomber as well as precision-guided munitions, but PGMs were arguably a much better return on that investment. Why? “Because you can spread it through the whole force, it wasn’t linked to a platform.”

Is there a modern-day equivalent? Probably the distinctly unsexy area of “sensor fusion,” Hunter said. All the services have gained from the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) revolution that’s put cameras, radars, and other sensors on a host of platforms, many unmanned — although theater commanders are always wanting more, he emphasized. Already, though, we have more data coming in, of more different types, than human analysts can deal with. Automated pattern recognition and analysis could be a huge help in a wide range of operations by a wide range of platforms and every armed service, Hunter said.

“In general, we’re really good at blowing stuff up,” Hunter went on. “I don’t think strike is the huge shortfall,” though missiles and bombers certainly matter. “To me the huge shortfall, the really hard problem, is ‘hey , how do I find the thing that they don’t want me to find?’ — whether it’s a single terrorist or it’s a road mobile [missile launcher].”

Getting offset right requires rigorous analysis, especially wargames, before you pick programs to invest in, agreed the final expert on the panel.

“The giants who gave us the offset strategy of the ’70s…didn’t wake up every morning with vacuous ideas about how to ‘transform the force,'” RAND scholar David Ochmanek told the subcommittee. “They woke up trying to solve a discrete operational problem” — specifically, how stop wave after wave of Soviet troops from overrunning West Germany.

But can we focus so clearly on any one scenario in a world so much more chaotic than the Cold War? For example, Sydney asked Ochmanek after the hearing, can we simply say our priority is a war with China?

That’s “a little narrow,” Ochmanek replied. Unlike the Cold War offset strategies, today’s problem isn’t “geographically constrained” to specific regions, he said, but you can focus on certain threats that are proliferating around the world: “It’s ballistic and cruise missiles, dense air defense, advanced fighter aircraft, etc.,” he said. “That’s a consistent set of issues that we face. What we don’t have is a consensus of exactly how we’re going to address that problem operationally.”

“We have a very serviceable suite of scenarios that we use for planning now,” Ochmanek continued. “What we don’t have is an iterative series of rigorously adjudicated wargames and analyses of those scenarios to forge a consensus about which pieces of it we’re going to place highest priority on.”

What do you think?