Seeking The Edge: Getting A Handle On Game-Changing Technologies In The National Security Community

Within the first few steps inside the door, the flashes of light and the booming sounds overwhelm senses. The brain locks up. Then your eyes hunt for a reference point. A sweep of the area reveals a safe haven, and before you know it that’s where you are, standing next to something familiar. Then it hits you, that’s not why you’re there at all.

Amid the cacophony you detect footsteps behind you. The blue shirts.

You’re looking for something new. Something better. Something faster. Just another day shopping at a suburban, big-box electronics retailer.

The U.S. national security community faces many of the same challenges in identifying, and adopting, impactful new technologies. It is a lot more like a consumer venturing into a cavernous electronics emporium, or spending days trawling online sites, than not.

What consumers want to know is: How might it change my life?

What the U.S. national security community wants to know is fundamentally different, but not dissimilar. What advancements might change not just warfare and intelligence, but the broader world? Figuring this out well before anybody else is one of the defining challenges of the 21st Century.

People throughout much of the world have an increasing array of choices when it comes to picking the technologies that can change their lives. Personal technology is driving fundamental shifts in everything from dating to healthcare. But this is about much more than mobile-phone commerce in the Sahel or Instagram-feed sharing within Brooklyn’s hipster enclaves.

Getting a handle on the advanced technologies that will cause the rules of everything from urban warfare to gender roles is one of the most underappreciated, yet critical, challenges faced by the U.S. national security community. It’s even more daunting when consumer electronic product cycles are measured in months, or just over a year, while military systems development cycles are still measured in decades for the biggest efforts. There is a sense that something is out of phase, at precisely the wrong time.

With a possible sequestration budget catastrophe looming and increasingly powerful civilian-engineered technologies with military applications in the hands of non-state actors, a crucial moment in the development, and understanding, of American power is emerging. This is all the more true as U.S. forces have left Iraq and are preparing to exit Afghanistan at the same time that strategists are calling for a “pivot” toward China and the Pacific. How the U.S. military and intelligence communities shape, or just come to grips with, future technologies will have a big impact on the future of the armed forces.

After more than a decade of overseas operations since Sept. 11, 2001, there is a needed moment of reassessment as to how to equip, train and even fund the military. By the same token, a similar reassessment of potential adversaries is inevitable. Both explorations can be informed by a better understanding of what technologies, present and future, will reshape the world in the coming decades.

In June, the Defense Department’s Rapid Reaction Technology office held a one-day workshop in Rosslyn, Va. to gather together a disparate group of more than 70 scientists, technologists, service members, government officials and other subject-matter experts to examine ways of identifying game-changing technologies. (The author was commissioned to participate in and write about the event, which followed Chatham House discussion rules that grant attendees anonymity to speak freely.)

A big risk for the U.S. is that a status-quo oriented “dominant player is less likely to innovate, based on a desire to maintain existing equities,” as one attendee put it.

To avoid such pitfalls, it’s important to consider new frameworks for looking at the identification of game changing technologies, narrative’s role in technology adoption, the enemy’s vote on what’s a game changer, how humans and robotic systems will interact and what changes would help the nationals security community bring new technologies onboard sooner.

Putting The Pieces Together

One of the opening challenges put to the attendees was to establish a set of criteria that define what exactly constitutes a game-changing technology or advance.

That seemingly simple task is in fact just the beginning of a complex, but crucial, dialogue on the nature of technological change and advancements on their own, and in concert.

Looking to the past, there are clues to establishing criteria in well understood examples of technological advancements that, for example, cause military doctrine to be re-written top to bottom and assumptions about fundamental elements of society to be profoundly questioned. Some are obvious, such as the atomic bomb, while others take some teasing out to understand just what makes a “game changing” technology.

It can, according to the observations of one group, involve more than just one technology. Rather it is “really a convergence of multiple technologies and science that enable game changers.” The GPS network is an example. Without advances in rocketry and satellite design, the constellation of navigation satellites would never have had the chance to fundamentally change everything from global trade routes to weapons targeting. Therefore it’s important to get a handle on which separate systems or technologies might be used together to lead to an altogether new way of doing something down the road. These different elements may not be evolving at the same pace, which makes tracking such changes even more challenging.

When they come together, however, game changers often end up replacing an old paradigm with a wholly new one. Entire organizations or bureaucracies can become irrelevant and new ones are needed. Horse-mounted cavalry is one example from the military, but there are other striking ones from the civilian world.

A long view is important, too, particularly with profound shifts in the status quo. Some take decades to be truly understood, even if the immediate impact appears self-evident at the time. Contraceptive birth control emerged as one such “game changer” because of its long-lasting transformation of social and economic life not just in the U.S., but also around the world.

Another criteria that emerged are the inevitably gripping moral and ethical questions that go with the introduction of new technologies. The contested use of unmanned aerial vehicles, with or without offensive weapons, is among the most controversial technological advancements today. The quickly advancing development of autonomous machines in warfare will carry this debate to a new level of urgency, and possibly hysteria. Clear answers to critical questions such as establishing universal guidelines for the use of armed remote-controlled robots or the permitted use of non-lethal directed-energy weapons systems aren’t going to be forthcoming. This is in part due to enthusiastic and well dug-in sides opposing one another during such contests over law or policy -- an important tell that a major shift is underway.

How long those shifts last is another question. Some persistent, and enduring, advantages in military technology appear one year to be a crucial cornerstone of power projection. And then within a decade such an edge is irrelevant to the urgent missions of the moment. One such case, some attendees said, was stealth aircraft technology. During the Cold War, it offered American airpower a decisive upper hand. After Sept. 11, the U.S. military focused on counterinsurgency (COIN) operations and combating al-Qaeda; stealth mattered much less at that point. Some of the most crucial aircraft of the Afghan campaign were modified civilian turboprop planes packed with cutting-edge sensors and processing gear. It’s hard to find a plane further from the sleek and lethal lines of the stealthy F-22 Raptor fighter, but the Beechcraft King Air, the backbone of the Army and Air Force COIN spy plane fleet, is probably it. That underscores how some advances may not provide a relevant, and enduring, edge as once believed.

Along the same lines, the priority of the day may be a transient issue, but not something that causes a long-term shift. At the workshop, contemporary improvised explosive devices (IEDs) emerged as a development that did not, according to the emerging criteria from the workshop, constitute a true game changing development.  Disruptive, yes, but IEDs were not, generally, seen as something that fit the criteria. The implication, then, is that the operational changes to meet the threat and the spending of billions of dollars on countering the weapons in Afghanistan and Iraq are valid given the urgent dangers to U.S. and allied forces, but the tactic of employing what is essentially a simple and traditional weapon isn’t going to up-end U.S. military doctrine or, at a higher level knock the country’s national security strategy off course.

Ultimately, as one participant noted, “things dismissed today” may yet emerge to be tomorrow’s game-changing technologies.

Tell Me A Story …

Understanding when those shifts in technological developments are underway depends on the awareness that, in fact, something is shifting toward what many attendees described as a “tipping point.”

While you can press your ear to a railroad rail to detect an oncoming train, you can’t tell what it looks like from the vibrations or rumbling. Or how many cars is it pulling? Is it a freight or passenger run? And where is that train going?

It’s only when the train goes by that many of those answers become clear. But it’s still not entirely satisfying. The story of that train remains a mystery as it blows by. Getting the information to understand that requires many more vantage points than kneeling by the tracks.

Piecing together that kind of story is as important as anything in identifying game-changing technologies.

Narrative, many attendees of the conference made clear, is everything.

The best remembered stories usually revolve around people or crucial moments, usually experienced or witnessed firsthand. The nano-technology breakthroughs that occur in small university labs or in a software start-up’s windowless offices don’t have, yet, the history-shaping impact embedded in conventional thinking.

The story of radar’s role guiding British fighters during the Battle of Britain is a big part of how the technology’s adoption sped up during and after World War II.

It is “an anecdotal moment that crystallizes a game changer’ said one participant. “That becomes the narrative.”

Those narratives can also take time to develop, and even when they do, status-quo assumptions can stop them from shifting thinking. As attendees pointed out, the machine gun’s widespread use didn’t come until many decades after it was first rolled out by Dr. Richard Gatling during the Civil War. Encountering something new is one thing. Wanting to shake up traditional thinking, such as the views of the machine gun as artillery, and knowing how to use a new technology on the battlefield is something altogether different.

“You have to reach a tipping point understanding the military advantage,” said a participant.

Getting to that moment is a blending of art and science, chance and experience, to create old-fashioned stories.

The Enemy Votes Early, And Often

If the asymmetric operations of the past decade have shown anything, it’s that the challenges of a great power such as the U.S. going after a guerrilla or insurgent-like foe have yet to be truly solved by technology. Rapid battlefield DNA analysis, small GPS-guided munitions or persistent surveillance from drones are major developments on their own, yet are not enough together to drive decisive victories in unconventional conflicts.

The reason why remains tied to an old adage about the enemy getting a vote in battle, no matter how sure one side might be in its success. This is true for setting out to identify which technologies will have the biggest impact not just on a conventional battlefield, but perhaps more importantly far from one.

As one attendee put it, “An adversary, one way or another, has a vote as to whether it’s a game changer or not.”

Assumptions are inevitable in tactics, and strategy. But it is increasingly difficult to know which will withstand 21st Century warfare. At the “big war” end of things, the questions are often binary: Will the Internet continue to function as normal should a major conflict develop with China? Are the next-generation of tactical fighter aircraft already so badly hacked by cyber-spies that they will not be of much use in a major theater war? How durable is the GPS constellation? When considering how irregular adversaries may adapt their tactics to avoid the gaze of spy satellites or learning how to spoof the targeting of precision munitions, the questions are ones of degrees of effectiveness or confidence that can undermine operational as much as political imperatives.

“You have to think about at what point in the development process do you have to consider how the enemy will counter this capability,” said one participant.

At the same time, being open to innovation that may not look like the product of a military research and development facility or a defense contractor’s classified lab is critical. Another attendee put it this way: “We’re slower to adopt the adversary-developed game changer.”

That kind of openness needs to be applied to assessing risk, too. A dependence on GPS satellites is an obvious weak link for U.S. and allied forces, as well as modern adversaries. It is expected, in some circles, that that technology, for all its advantage in peacetime, will be a major liability in wartime. Assuming that a foe faces the same risks is an assumption that doesn’t stand up. “It could prove to be less of a problem for a less sophisticated enemy,” said one defense expert at the event.

That point underscores the potential risk of putting too much emphasis on a particular technological edge. More so if an advancement, such as the use of robotic soldier support systems, allows a mission to be accomplished with fewer forces than traditionally done: if someone thwarts that force multiplier or technological advantage, then will there be enough forces on hand to accomplish the mission “the old fashioned” way?

Mind over Matter, And Matter Over Mind

Among the many technologies on hand, and being developed, there are already standouts with the potential to up-end everything from civil society to urban warfare. Some of this transformation is underway, helped along by narratives formed during the last 10 years of conflict. Other developments aren’t yet in the public’s eye, but have caught the attention of military-minded technologists and scientists. Robotics, in particular, has been a focus of science fiction writers for as long as the writing genre existed. The corollary of human-performance enhancement is just as important.

The military truism that people, not technology, win wars will be borne out as never before in the coming years. The ability to modify and enhance human performance plays out in public already in the sporting realm. There, it is often illegal, or at least against the rules in professional sports like cycling or baseball. Yet the use of performance enhancing drugs persists in athletic competition. In warfare, it will be no different. Even if one side chooses to fight “clean,” an adversary with different values sets is almost certain to use every advantage at their disposal. This applies particularly to using enhancements to spur innovation and creativity. “That will be the high ground,” said one defense expert at the conference. “Everything else will come pretty easily after that.”

This is going to be particularly true as humans hustle to keep up with autonomous systems that can already outrun the man-machine decision loop. It would be ironic that the need to remain competitive, cognitively if not physically, with robots on the battlefield helped enable the use of widespread bio-enhancement. In a sense, competition with our “allies,” not our battlefield foes, could be a driver of some of the most significant changes to human performance ever seen.

There are social elements too. Already, vision-correction procedures allow service members to improve their eyesight, something that in the civilian world can be prohibitively expensive. If such treatments are normally only available to society’s wealthiest members, one attendee posited, then providing them to military service members as well begins to introduce new incentives for joining the armed forces. Already, college tuition, the attendee said, allows for a form of this trade for service.

While the debate over affordability of unmanned aircraft gets more intense the more frequently they are used, it is clear the U.S. Air Force’s appetite for them isn’t going away. The same is true for remotely controlled air, ground and sea vehicles within all the armed services. The rise of the robot out of the “Long War” operations paradigm is one of the unexpected developments of the past decade.

It is also the start of new legal, political and ethical dynamics around the use of robotic systems beyond what has been seen with armed unmanned drones. When robots begin to directly replace deploying soldiers, sailors and Marines, there is a raft of issues that are going to emerge for the U.S., and also its allies. “You could see some states who say you can deploy and some states who say you can’t deploy in our territory,” said one attendee at the event. Subjective elements, such as the perceived “honor” of deploying a robot instead of a human into some areas will also come into play.

Going for Good Enough 

Pursuing questions about cutting-edge or “game changing” technologies inevitably leads to a pulse-racing conversation about getting farthest to the future first. That may not be the best approach, however. Pushing for the so-called gold plated solution isn’t viable anymore because of budget costs, and it’s not practical because technology development is far outpacing the development cycle of major Defense Department acquisition programs.

The answer may be to spend less, more often, rather than continue on a path of drawn-out development that can cause a fighter to take more than 10 years to develop while the cyber-weapons that could be used against it are evolving at a much faster tempo.

“We need to look at second-best solutions, throw-away capabilities knowing the world will be different 15 years from now,” said one attendee at the conference.

That would require a fundamental reframing of how government acquisition works, and that is indeed what might be necessary.

“The real issue is how are we going to be proactive, instead of reactive,” said a participant.

The question, as one workshop participant put it, is “how do we find a game changing acquisition strategy?”

This comes down to notions of cultural change, where breakthroughs can be even tougher than those borne out in a lab. Attitudes are also among the hardest variables to change in the equation of identifying game-changing technologies. Being open to new ideas, and ideas that seem wacky or outlandish today, is as important as anything. “Science fiction comes true a lot,” one expert reminded at the event.

After all, the cavernous halls lined with televisions, home theater systems and mobile phones that are the staple of big-box electronics retailers are themselves on the way out. That retail consumer electronics business model doesn’t perform the way it once did in the face of persistent and aggressive competition from online retailers and peer-review consumer electronics sites. Acquisition, in a sense, began to shift years ago in the consumer world as buyers began to weave e-commerce,  and the Internet, into their lives. With identifying or developing game-changing technologies in mind, how long will it be before the national security community follows suit?

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Comments

Your point about strategy first is a really good one. From strategy, all should follow, but it doesn't. Getting at why this keeps happening is really important, particularly when national security budget choices made today are going to have a strategic impact on US ambitions/limitations within the next decade. Or sooner. To your other point about the importance of people vs. things in the defense debate, I wholly agree. There is a point approaching very soon when this traditional framework will be up-ended as mental and physical capabilities are significantly augmented and improved. High school kids are already doing this with cadged or stolen pills, in one example. They are the future, right? The question to ask: will boosting a fighter's capabilities from 4.5Gen to 5Gen be more important than boosting a pilot's reflexes or endurance (in the cockpit or in a UAS control trailer) with pharma or physical enhancements to create 1.5Gen or 2Gen aviators/pilots? This takes the excellent paradigms set out by Boyd and amps up the debate to reflect the technological advances and social changes underway.

Discussing “Game Changing Technologies” for the U.S. National Security Community is a fruitless exercise in the absence of an all encompassing National Security Strategy that will layout the roles and functions of all the members of that community in relation to achieving specific goals. Also as the late Colonel John Boyd (USAF ret.) made clear (and Mr. Cole observes) it is people not technology that make any institution or program a success or failure.