war on the rocks

Time for a Private-Sector Pivot on Military Technology

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.