Time for a Private-Sector Pivot on Military Technology

May 14, 2015

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The Department of Defense’s pivot to Asia has been well documented and debated, but the department is also pursuing a less discussed pivot toward commercial technology. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s recent visit to Silicon Valley highlights this growing anxiety throughout the defense community — that the commercial sector is the locus of cutting edge technology with military importance, but the department is poorly positioned to capitalize on this development. Carter’s trip demonstrates high-level interest in commercial technology within the Pentagon, as senior leaders like Carter, Deputy Secretary Bob Work and acquisitions chief Frank Kendall continue to push the organization to adapt. Big questions remain for this pivot, most notably whether or not the department will be able to undertake the necessary reforms to access the commercial technology it desires. But these are only the first order questions. Even if the department’s leadership succeeds in its pivot to commercial technology, how will the U.S. military maintain its unique warfighting advantages when using widely available technology?

A future of purely commercial technology for military purposes is unlikely. There are no Google X aircraft carriers or Apple iBombers on our horizon (although one can’t help but be curious how cool a bomber designed by Apple would look). Nonetheless, the Department of Defense must figure out how it can benefit from the rapid pace of commercial technological innovation while maintaining exclusive advantages. There is no single solution to this challenge, but there are a number of ways the department can leverage commercial technology without ceding technological privilege: adapting existing technology, initiating commercial partnerships, leveraging open source collaboration, and developing training and concepts of operation (CONOPS) that incorporate new technological developments.

Efficient resource allocation

Commercial technology is increasingly able to meet demanding military requirements. For information technology (IT), the Department of Defense frequently seeks commercial solutions, ranging from Apple and Galaxy smartphones to enterprise email, rather than developing proprietary systems for basic functions. This trend is increasingly moving from the back office to the battlefield. The government should enhance this approach beyond IT and think creatively about how to quickly adapt a broader range of technologies to various military environments. While the market will not yield a stealthy, armed drone, commercially available drones may be utilized for tactical applications at a fraction of the cost of military models. An effective division of labor that utilizes cheap and readily available commercial products can save the department time, personnel, and money to devote to more challenging, military specific, endeavors.

Effectively incorporating commercial components in unique military systems

The Department of Defense, as a long-time user of commercial components in major platforms, is seeking to better incorporate emergent commercial technologies by designing modular military systems. Designing and fielding exquisite platforms and systems is expensive and time-intensive, as evidenced by the long and costly history of the F-35. To accelerate this process, the Better Buying Power 3.0 procurement initiative will focus on agile development and modular, platform-agnostic technologies. Modular design facilitates modernization and avoids situations like the F-22 processor, where software components are rendered obsolete by the pace of technological advances. Analyzing what components can be developed using existing technology can reduce lifecycle costs and ensure the military is positioned to take advantage of technological developments. These initiatives can be taken further by adopting commercial practices, for example in the areas of user experience design or development practices. Updating DoD procurement practices will be the difference between a U.S. military that benefits from commercial innovation and one that is superseded by it.

Applying military grade engineering to wholly commercial components

Commercial components are rarely deployed prima facie as military hardware, but integrating commercially available technology can produce cost-effective systems and platforms quickly. Integrating commercial technology affords U.S. armed forces with advantages in rapid fielding, adaptation, and more varied force mixes, as well as the ability to easily export weapons systems to allies. The Textron Scorpion fighter jet uses only commercial technology, leading to an inexpensive aircraft, that used no DoD research and development funding but is still appropriate for routine missions. The Air Force has additionally integrated multiple PlayStation 3 consoles to build a supercomputer that is not only cheaper, but more energy efficient. Such approaches allow the department to manage cost, innovate rapidly, and stay connected with allies — especially for contingencies with less technologically advanced adversaries — while preserving exclusivity around unique high-end military systems.

Commercial tech as a force multiplier for military systems

Commercial technology can also be deployed in combination with military systems to expand their scope of use. One program that has adapted commercial technology for military purposes is DARPA’s Persistent Close Air Support System (PCAS). Using Android tablets, PCAS enables closer coordination between ground and air troops and provides enhanced situational awareness by integrating various data streams and lines of communication for close air support. While currently deployed on the MV-22, DARPA is looking to expand to other air platforms, which is possible due to the modular, software-based PCAS system. This approach extends the utility and lifespans of existing military systems but also imbues commercial systems with military advantages. Anyone can purchase an Android tablet, but they can’t use it to call for precision fires in a secure communications environment. The Qinetiq robotic applique kits are another example of imbuing traditionally commercial platforms, in this case a Bobcat truck, with functionality for military applications and missions. Adapting common applications for a military purpose allows the Department of Defense to leverage a tested, functional product in the private domain and adapt it to a military environment.

Lead markets

Leveraging commercial technology for military purposes can also spur private-sector opportunities. History is rife with examples of government-commercial symbioses, including the Internet and GPS technologies, which have created new, mutually beneficial markets, as Carter pointed out in his recent Stanford speech. While initially public-sector projects, the government relies on commercial collaboration and initiatives to cost-effectively scale these technologies. The mutual benefits of these partnerships are illustrated by companies such as Palantir and SpaceX that develop prototype technologies before their competitors, attract venture capital funding, and leverage this capital and experience working with government customers as a prelude to commercial expansion. Commercial partnerships allow the government to take advantage of others’ R&D capital, as it is distributed among the companies and their VC backers, and rapid innovation spurred by market opportunity to mature technology and drive cost down. Similar partnerships from the 1960s and 70s also provided strategic advantages, catapulting U.S. companies into dominant positions in global markets, driving tax revenue and job creation, and allowing U.S. values and interests to heavily influence the deployment and use of technologies like the Internet and GPS.

Compete outside of information technology

While technology is developing at a rapid pace, the vast majority of this innovation is occurring in the realm of information technology, as lamented by Neal Stephenson, Peter Thiel, and others. Information technologies, including enablers like microprocessors and computer networking equipment, also underpin the U.S. military advantage. While continuing to maintain this advantage in information technologies, the Department of Defense should also intentionally exploit technological advantages in areas such as propulsion, electromagnetic or directed energy, and survivability. These technologies require engineering, capital intensity and other inputs, for example power for directed energy systems, which preclude mass market proliferation in the short to medium term. Driving competition in technology areas that align with DoD strengths, where possible, will help the Pentagon attract collaborators and maintain an advantage over certain adversaries.

Open Source and Crowdsource

The Department of Defense has already shown it can use the power of open collaboration methods despite concerns about information or operational security. DARPA maintains an open catalogue of software, allowing it to maximize the impact of DARPA’s software investments and benefit from the expertise of a wider developer base than it would be able to contract in-house. The U.S. Army has also experimented with the crowdsourcing of particular capability issues and solutions, building on the innovative business model of Local Motors — the makers of the world’s first 3D printed car. While not all military systems can be designed or developed in the open, many can, and are particularly valuable when competing with an adaptive adversary. Open collaboration provides DoD with the opportunity to identify capability needs directly from users, and design and build systems faster, with more expert input — often at little or no cost — leading to innovative solutions and more rigorously tested systems.

Operator Advantage

Many of these approaches rely on another U.S. military advantage — human capital. Through training and leadership development programs, U.S. military professionals have the ability to think critically about how to leverage technology in innovative ways, for example when designing CONOPS or considering how to command and adapt various weapons systems to achieve military objectives. The effective deployment of technology does not happen in a vacuum, and necessitates active human leadership and management to merge new technology developments and existing force structures. Investing in commercial technology provides the opportunity to diversify the U.S. force mix, creating a greater variety of combined arms opportunities and firmly placing the locus of advantage with the human commander rather than the features of a weapons system. To the extent that the Department of Defense can invest in technologies and warfighting regimes with human talent as a key differentiator, it will have a distinct advantage over other militaries.

Commercial technology will not cure all of the department’s ills, nor will it always be in the U.S. military’s best interest to implement commercial technology over military-developed solutions. Nevertheless, to remain competitive against adaptive adversaries in a global context, the Department of Defense must adapt to be able to better take advantage of commercial technology. None of the efforts listed here will yield game-changing or leap-ahead technologies that provide decades-long advantage. But they are available today and can help enable persistent competition over short cycles, something the Pentagon has to re-learn in order to maintain its warfighting advantage. Short-term advantage is better than no advantage at all.

Note: This list of methods by which to create unique military advantage is a non-exhaustive starting point. We’d like to hear your suggestions and approaches in the comments section or on Twitter.


Ben FitzGerald is the director of the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. He co-directs the “Beyond Offset” initiative at CNAS.

Katrina Timlin is a Senior Analyst at Avascent, where she researches cybersecurity and technology in government-driven markets.

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9 thoughts on “Time for a Private-Sector Pivot on Military Technology

  1. Here’s a thought, if the DoD wants to keep pace with the commercial sector, then it needs to streamline the acquisition process to the rapid acquisition and fielding model that SOCOM is allowed to use. That’s one piece. The 2nd is that the research labs including DARPA, IARPA, AFRL, ARL, and NRL need a complete overhaul. They remain stuck in the Cold War era, where they could do research for years and maybe they bring something to the operational community and maybe they don’t. There is too much duplication of effort across the DOD labs and the acquisition process frankly needs to be abandoned. By the time it takes to release an RFP, accept and review proposals, award a contract(s), move funding to a contract and then actually being work on a project….even people in a university setting would have already produced something, let alone the commercial sector………. The SBIR/STTR program needs to be expanded to allow a continuous year rounds submissions and short duration contracts so the research labs can get new tech to the field the same year.
    There needs to be more programs like AFRL’s sponsored Tec Edge…..workshops set up for companies and lab directorates to sponsor projects using college interns.

    1. “There is too much duplication of effort across the DOD labs..”

      That may be true to a point, but I think we also don’t to encourage permanet “rice bowls”. During the first part of the Iraq war, an order came down from the Army that all the duplicative ground UGV programs would be shut down and TARDEC would take the lead. To me, that was the wrong approach – some of the other RDECs may have had a better solution than anything TARDEC had, but nobody stpped to look. What they should have done was have a “shoot out” between the different programs, and the winner got the job,whether UGV’s were part of their charter or not. Instead, TARDEC got the ball because “It’s their yob”…and how many UGV systems did we field to Iraq?

    2. Mike- Are you familar with the TechFAR? It is designed to streamline the acquisition process, but has not received a critical mass of adoption.

      Also a part of acquisition efficiency is market research. We developed a social platform called jivango to act as a dating service between the government and tech.

      To implement these commercialization and rapid innovation, we need structural change to incentivize the military to go after emerging technologies. NSF is ahead of the game by implementing the Lean Startup methodologies in their Innovation Corps which is the brain child of Steve Blank. This is starting to make its way into DoD. Blank has a great posts on what he calls “Innovation 50x.”

  2. What the article dances around and avoids is the mention of requirements. “Military grade” equipment isn’t more complex and expensive just to make it that way, it’s because somewhere, there’s a requirement driving those extra, cost-adding features. Technology demonstrators like PCAS are often held up as an example of what’s possible, if only we’d quit gold-plating requirements. But tech demonstrators pushed straight into the field often expose operational shortcomings. The then-RQ-1 Predator having no de-icing capability, which didn’t matter during tests in the U.S. Southwest, but did in winter skies over the Balkans. What happens to the PCAS iPad when someone drops it in the rocks three days into the bush? Or the battery (the bane of many Apple users) runs down sooner than expected?

    The authors repeatedly caution that “…it will not always be in the U.S. military’s best interest to implement commercial technology over military-developed solutions.” The devil lives in that boundary. The DoD already buys a tremendous amount of off-the-shelf commercial equipment for non-combat use — communications and computer equipment, cars and trucks. They buy plenty more modified off-the-shelf gear, up to and including firearms and aircraft. But sometimes, particularly with equipment intended for combat, the material simply isn’t available off-the-shelf in the commercial market.

    1. There’s requirements…and then there’s requirements. In my career I’ve had to deal with the misapplication of various requirements (like an airworthiness certifier insisting that a cockpit radio had to pass the same shock and vibration testing as a man-pack radio because ‘the maintainer might drop it while he’s ervicing the aircraft.’). And I would submit that the current (Army) requirements process is broken – since the guys coming up with requirements for new systems are mostly users of the old system it is going to replace, most of their ideas center on building a bigger, badder version of what they last used.

  3. First, as anyone who has been associated with the military acquisition process realizes, the amount of bureaucratic overhead and assertive control over a company’s business process that accompanies DOD contracts will be laughed at by Silicon Valley companies. They will tell Uncle Sam’s DOD Offspring to go fly a kite. Those companies are making a rather lot of profit these days and are not about to conform to Department of Defense Dictatorial Control over their business process, sales, and profits. DOD can buy all the off the shelf hardware and software they wish, but that just makes them another commercial customer.

    Criticize Aerospace / Defense contractors all one wants, but they have the organizational structure and management methods for dealing with DOD’s imposed procedures, the administration of which would financially sink most non-DOD businesses – from my observations having worked in both environments post-Navy.

    There probably are a rather large number of off the shelf systems (hardware and / or software) that can be used by military support functions such as in office, engineering and CADD, project management, accounting, and other environments. However, any attempt to tailor that hardware or software is not an effort any Silicon Valley or other located non-defense company is going to take on if it requires they have to subordinate themselves to government controls over their accounting, profits, etc. It is not going to happen.

    Also, one needs to be cautious about presuming that commercial hardware and / or software functions in a sufficiently reliable manner just because it was produced in the for profit world.

    Microsoft Office products such as Word and Excel have numerous features that enable one to prepare reports, financial statements, etc and analyze all types of situations. However, Word for instance is in fact a bug ridden system. It contains the same bugs in it today that it has in it for years, and using it can be rather aggravating at times. Windows may be an impressive piece of software; however, ever speak to anyone about their experiences with Vista or Windows 8, etc. Or, as someone else noted, enjoy the real number of hours one can run on a battery, and don’t drop a tablet.

    The Silicon Valley (type) business crowd is again a “for profit” environment, and they are more than willing to live with software bugs — if it doesn’t eat into their sales at any sufficient level. Customer dissatisfaction is usually manageable as most expect problems, many users seem to enjoy the technical challenge of fixing those problems, using the vast collection of supporting web sites for such hobbyists; and often there is no other source that will provide the same collection of software features.

    Given the technical nature and causes of software problems, one can easily cure almost all of them by shutting down and restarting the system in the commercial world. The system will usually save your document for you?? Does a fighter pilot have that option? Would you like to operate AEGIS systems with commercially prepared software produced with the attitude that some bugs are okay – because the cost benefit analysis does not provide a sufficient return on correction investment? Or one can buy insurance for the product and replace it afterwards, if the deductible isn’t too high.

    There may be some hardware and software products from private (non-defense) Industry the military can beneficially use. But before you believe they are the fix all and cure all – remember Obama Care’s (private company coded software) roll out.

  4. The solution is modularity. Ground-up design is dead. Strength nowadays comes from a system-of-systems approach where subsystems can be swapped out for stronger ones when they become available.

    Put a different way, if you’re spending so much time redesigning subsystems to meet certain capabilities, maybe you need to readjust the system so that those capabilities are addressed in another fashion, perhaps by the new subsystem you’re designing, but maybe by another subsystem entirely.

  5. Good thing the USA never signed the 1856 Paris Declaration Respecting Maritime Law so Congress still has the right to issue Letters of Marque and Reprisal if a company in the private sector ever wants toshoulder the burden of hunting narcosubs and other threats with their own proprietary technology.

  6. The author hasn’t scratched the surface, but the commenters are equally correct.

    For both sides of the problem, just read the Ukraine efforts to develop targetable artillery data using civilian UAVs.

    GPS denial is fast and cheap, yet civilian UAVs fall out of the sky without it.

    Yes, modular software (actually developed using DO-178 rather than 178 “lite) is far more transportable and reusable.

    Yes, modular general computing cards are dead cheap. But not environmentally qualified.

    But into the mix you have to account for the services reluctance to upgrade fielded units. How much easier would my counter-parts life be if he knew if we made a mistake we could run fresh software out?

    And I’m still trying to figure out how much of my air power I can afford to relegate to “routine flights”. The term completely confuses me, but I will watch the avionics MTBF with interest.

    But as hostile as all this sounds, in fact no one would embrace the changes described as happily and quickly as the DoD contractor base.