[UPDDATED with Hagel memo & expert comment] REAGAN LIBRARY: After months of build-up, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel formally launched the military’s quest for a combination of new technologies to maintain America’s military supremacy over the next 20 years in the face of Russian and Chinese challenges.
In a speech before the second Reagan National Defense Forum here, Hagel divulged some crucial details as to how America could preserve its endangered technological superiority. The next morning, the Pentagon released Hagel’s memo about the effort, below.
Inside the Pentagon, this effort is known as the “Offset Strategy,” a military-industrial term of art for a cluster of technological breakthroughs that can give the US its edge over potential enemies. Nuclear weapons and their delivery systems played this role in Eisenhower’s “New Look,” offsetting (hence the term) Soviet numbers; smart weapons, stealth, sensors, and computer networks were the heart of the 1970s “Offset Strategy.” also aimed at the Soviets. Other nations have followed our lead and now both nukes and, increasingly, smart weapons are proliferating around the world, dulling America’s edge. So what’s at the heart of the “Third Offset Strategy”?
There’s no exhaustive list, but after what must have been agonizing negotiation among Pentagon staffers over every word, the following technologies made it into Hagel’s speech tonight as priority areas for the Pentagon’s dwindling investment funds: “robotics, autonomous systems, miniaturization, big data, and advanced manufacturing, including 3-D printing.”
So what do these priorities mean?
- “Robotics” and “autonomous systems” are two parts of the same thing: War machines that are not only unmanned, but able to assess situations and make decisions on their own — without the constant human monitoring by remote control that’s required for current systems like the Predator drone or bomb-handling robots. Ultimately this means computers deciding whether or not to kill people, a tremendous ethical, legal, and programming challenge. But current remote-controlled systems require many human overseers, which the military can no longer afford as personnel costs rise, and constant uninterrupted communications, which the military can no longer guarantee as potential adversaries get better at jamming and hacking.
- Why miniaturization? If you can take the bulky human being out of a weapons system — and all the life-support equipment and armor protection a human requires — then you can make the rest of it really small and cheap. Making the most of that opportunity puts a premium on making every component smaller, from warheads to sensors to electronics. The ultimate goal is “swarms” of small, expendable autonomous weapons, perhaps a cross between a guided missile (or torpedo) and a drone.
- Big Data has become a big buzzword in recent years. But the military knows better than anyone that you can drown in data — NSA intercepts, Predator video, etc. — if you don’t have a smart way to analyze it. Currently, the military relies all too much on rooms full of young enlisted personnel staring at screens until their eyes glaze over. Commercial techniques for analyzing “big data” can, in theory, create algorithms that do at least the preliminary winnowing of all this intelligence data without human intervention (notice a theme here?), highlighting potential patterns or anomalies for the human analysts to spend their limited time on.
- Advanced manufacturing is a tremendously vague term — it’s widely used to mean, in essence, “manufacturing techniques I like” — but Hagel helps us out here by specifying 3-D printing in particular. Traditional manufacturing, and traditional defense contracting for that matter, are about designing something once and then mass-producing it for years. 3-D printing allows constant, quick changes to try out brand new technology or customize existing tech for a particular situation. That’s a perfect match for a military of miniaturized autonomous weapons, where you churn out, say, mini-drones on demand to meet a specific mission. In the best case, individual warships and ground units could carry 3-D printers with them to produce spare parts as needed, freeing themselves from long lines of supply.
Notably absent from tonight’s list are cyber warfare tools, the one growing area of the budget — perhaps Hagel thought it already got enough attention? — and electronic warfare, cyber’s less publicly sexy older sister, which after two decades of neglect has gotten some traction in recent speeches by top officials. Likewise missing were hypersonics, undersea warfare, and long-range strike, three other priorities that have often come up in these discussions. But while being name-checked by the SecDef is a big deal, it hardly means technologies not listed in this speech will be neglected.
After all, one of the keys for a successful strategy is that your opponents not know key details and be misled about others.
Hagel made clear he was casting a wide net to catch as many good ideas from as many sources as possible. He’s well aware that most innovation nowadays comes from outside “traditional defense contractors,” he said, “so we will actively seek proposals from the private sector, including from firms and academic institutions outside DoD’s traditional orbit.” It’s worth noting that the second-most-senior speaker at the conference, Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. James Winnefeld, pointedly mentioned he’d come to the event straight from a morning of meetings in Silicon Valley. The head of Cyber Command, Adm. Michael Rogers, also emphasized at the conference that he’s been to Silicon Valley twice in his seven months at CYBERCOM.
But this kind of outreach is just the beginning. In the near future, Hagel said, the department “will invite some of the brightest minds from inside and outside government to start with a clean sheet of paper and assess what technologies and systems DoD ought to develop over the next 3 to 5 years.”
Coordinating all these investments will be a “Long-Range Research and Development Planning Program,” a name lifted straight from the offset efforts of the 1970s. The top level of oversight will be an “Advanced Capability and Deterrence Panel” bringing in “senior leadership” from OSD policy, intelligence, the armed services, the Joint Chiefs, and the research, development and acquisition world.
Who will lead the panel? Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work, a former Marine Corps artilleryman and a hard-driving, outspoken technophile whose former thinktank, the Center for a New American Security, has pushed hard for robotics and 3-D printing in particular. (He’s also worked at the influential Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, which has published its own vision of an “offset strategy”). Before running CNAS, Work was Undersecretary of the Navy, where he tended to overshadow the softer-spoken Secretary, Ray Mabus. Hagel has already put Work in charge of overhauling the ailing nuclear force. Now he’ll also helm Hagel’s “Defense Innovation Initiative.”
“Clearly Work enjoys the full confidence of Secretary Hagel,” said CNAS scholar Shawn Brimley, who collaborated with Work to write a disconcerting study on “War in the Robotic Age.” That said, Brimley warned me in an email, “the devil is in the details, however, and we’ll see in the next few months if this rhetoric translates into budgetary reality.”
Ben Fitzgerald, another of Work’s old CNAS colleagues, agreed. Having listened to Hagel’s remarks, he told me that “I thought it was a good speech, said all the right things, but it’s also an early statement of intent, not a final product. It will be interesting to see to what extent this initiative is talking point deep or a serious implementation. Will ‘prioritizing autonomous systems,’ for example, lead to unmanned platforms instead of a manned sixth generation fighter or will it just mean a couple of extra Switchblade variants? I hope that Pentagon and Congressional bureaucracy allow for the development and serious implementation of the vision that Hagel and Bob Work are starting to articulate.”
Hagel himself said the initiative’s “impact on DoD’s budget” will “scale up” over time. In other words, don’t expect a big impact in the 2016 budget request due early next year. The question is whether Work can find the fiscal seed corn to fund research and development of the hoped-for “game-changing” technologies.
The Defense Innovation Initiative isn’t all about technology. It relies on Under Secretary Frank Kendall‘s business practice and acquisition reform efforts to make the new tech affordable — and conversely Kendall has said the long-awaited third iteration of his Better Buying Power initiative, BBP 3.0, will focus on enabling innovation. It will also address “new operational concepts….new approaches to warfighting…. new approaches to war-gaming and professional military education…. [and even] opportunities to reimagine how we develop managers and leaders.” But those aspects remain very vague. The specifics we have so far, such as they are, are overwhelmingly about high technology, and Robert Work is unequivocally in charge.
“Bob intends to move the Pentagon firmly into the robotic age,” said Brimley. “Strap yourself in.”