The Path to Prototype Warfare

July 17, 2017

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Can a radical approach to weapons development help the Pentagon cope with uncertainty and improve military effectiveness? Over the past several years, the topics of decentralization of military capabilities and the rate of technological change have captured the attention of many in the defense community. As Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, observed in early 2017, “The character of war in the 21st century has changed, and if we fail to keep pace with the speed of war, we will lose the ability to compete.” These changes raise the question of how the U.S. defense community can prepare best for the uncertainty posed by the future. Specifically, current U.S. military doctrine assumes an economy and industrial base that can mass-produce high-end weapons, such as fighter aircraft, battle tanks, long range missiles, and ships. But can the U.S. economy and industrial base deliver? American defense planners may need to dramatically revise the U.S. defense procurement system to serve a hedging approach emphasizing rapid prototyping. On the basis of an exploration of how uncertainty affects defense planning, I offer a possible solution for managing the risks inherent in current U.S. defense policies.

Writing in War on the Rocks three years ago, T.X. Hammes examined the problems resulting from the convergence of artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing, nanotechnology, and autonomous systems. He concluded:

Investment in highly capable and expensive new weapons systems is predicated on specific assumptions about the future. Unfortunately, it is a truism that one can never predict the future with certainty. Thus a hedging approach is more functional than a predictive approach. With the widespread commercial shift to small, many, and smart systems as a substitute for a few, exquisite systems, it is time for the United States to rethink its equipment procurement approach.

It is through this lens that I propose a radical approach to putting novel capabilities into the arsenal of the U.S. military.

As many others have discussed, there are several factors driving uncertainty in the future security environment. These include changes in U.S. economic and political conditions, the rise of rivals with sophisticated military capabilities, the dynamic international system, and the unknown effects of emerging technology, new manufacturing techniques, autonomous systems, and revolutionary business models, such as sensors-as-a-service. Uncertainty is the bane of defense planning, which is based largely on making predictions. In 2011, former Secretary of the Navy Danzig described the systemic flaws that U.S. military planners face today. Danzig observed that because the “McNamara Revolution” enshrined Pentagon processes dependent on prediction, the unpredictability of long-term national security challenges will always confound the irresistible forces that drive prediction. Former Secretary of Defense McNamara sought to centralize control in the burgeoning Pentagon during a period of the Cold War, defined by a higher level of certainty because of the nature of competition between the two superpowers. As Danzig explains, “The mutually engaged American and Soviet military systems responded to each other’s doctrines, processes, and military products. Because the massive Soviet system became largely ponderous and predictable, the American system had unusual opportunities for forecasting.” McNamara also was concerned with alarming the Soviets and put processes in place to restrain the type of rapid adaptation needed .

Dealing with uncertainty is not a new problem for military planners, though, and research on military innovation may provide an answer for the way forward. For example, Stephen Rosen’s classic book on military innovation, Winning the Next War, identifies two types of flexibility for dealing with uncertainty. According to Rosen, “Type I” flexibility relies upon developing capabilities, such as the aircraft carrier, that have great utility over time, particularly as such can be modified as mission certainty increases. “Type II” flexibility involves buying information on weapon systems and then deferring large-scale production decisions. This usually involves bringing systems to the prototype stage and permitting military testing in field or fleet exercises. Rosen describes how this strategy was used successfully in the development of guided missile programs. At the end of World War II, it was not clear how to proceed with missile technology, as this was a period of great uncertainty both technically and politically. The Joint Chiefs of Staff adopted a hedging strategy in the late 1940s that focused on investing in the basic research and, as the operational demands of the Korean War increased, the Pentagon was able to quickly shift into full-scale missile production.

Can the Type II model of flexibility be turned into an operational advantage? This is not a new idea, but has yet to be given a fair shake by the U.S. military. In the 1990s, one U.S. Army officer predicted that this approach to capability development would result in an operationally significant concept he termed prototype warfare. In The Principles of War for the Information Age, published in 2000 and prior to the onset of the trends that Hammes discusses, Robert Leonhard argues that to create or to maintain a technical advantage in the information age, successful militaries need to adapt their economies and military doctrine to prototype warfare. He observes that technological change in the industrial age occurred at a moderate tempo and as a result, military doctrine was based on the fundamental premise of mass production. He concludes, “future warfare will feature a constant myriad of technological advances that come at a tempo that disallows mass production.”

U.S. defense leaders should consider developing limited-production prototypes deployed to operational environments as “one off” weapon systems tailored to specific missions. Implementing Leonhard’s vision of prototype warfare requires a new dynamic relationship among a state’s economy, military organization, and unit training. Military forces will need to become comfortable with deploying novel weapons, supported by novel tactics, in hopes of achieving an operational advantage against an opponent. This advantage may be realized through the principle of surprise.

The U.K. Ministry of Defence defines surprise as “the consequence of confusion induced by deliberately or incidentally introducing the unexpected.” At the strategic level, surprise is viewed often as a tool of the weaker state, as the stronger state has the option of using greater force. At the tactical level, surprise is considered to be a force multiplier. When successful, tactical surprise creates a temporary period of vulnerability in the defending force that can be exploited by the attacker. This vulnerability occurs in various degrees and in some extreme cases, the Clausewitzean “dual” ceases to exist, as the battle simply becomes a matter of accounting. According to Barton Whaley, borrowing from Liddell-Hart, the notion of multiple objectives lies at the heart of deception and surprise. Simply put, the most eloquent form of deception is when the attacker presents the defender with two options and the defender chooses the wrong one.

This logic may be extended to capabilities as well. By increasing the number and type of threats a defending force must consider during battle, the more options he has to defend against, the more likely he is to pick the wrong one. Deploying many varieties of prototypes in a battle or series of battles could plausibly create a significant dilemma for a defender, thus presenting an advantage for an attacker. For decades, U.S. military doctrine has been based on the concept of overwhelming firepower. However, in the future, the United States may face an enemy of equal or greater military strength. In this case, operational “guile” will play a prominent role.

For prototyping to become a relevant component of military doctrine, promising weapon systems will need to be delivered quickly to the operational forces in limited quantities, with the option of building or modifying the base design for future use. These prototypes may be produced at a lower cost and may only need to be operational for a short time period.

The naval services have some history doing this. The Seawolf class submarine, Zumwalt class surface combatant, and the Littoral Combat Ships — although the limited scale production was not necessarily intended to deal with uncertainty — offer some examples. Further, this concept does not apply only to new weapons systems, as shown by the recent reactivation of two modified light attack OV-10 aircraft to support counter-insurgency operations.

Why can’t the U.S. military quickly equip itself with weapons custom designed for a specific military mission? In aviation, for example, there are normally tradeoffs between range, size, and weapons payload. The result is a platform that is never truly optimized for a specific mission. The technology exists today to manufacture and deploy a system while in an operational environment. A 2015 prototype produced by the Royal Navy while at sea provides an example of this capability. Further, military leaders are already considering the benefits of manufacturing weapons on demand. Indeed, as additive manufacturing technology advances, it will become possible for military forces to produce and iterate on many different kinds of prototypes on their own in forward locations. To this end, the naval services are examining the use of commercial technology, such as Blockchain, to create a network of tactical manufacturing hubs, connected by a “digital thread.”

Consider the implications if a commander had the ability to select from a catalog of weapon systems while planning for a mission and they were manufactured based on her specifications. Will the ability to manufacture small quantities of customized weapon systems as needed lead to more tactical and operational success? Will rigid institutional factors prevent the widespread adoption of these radical approaches? These questions should be part of the debate on reforming the acquisition process and designing the future force.

The U.S. military’s bureaucratic processes make it difficult, if not impossible, to keep pace with technological changes occurring in the private sector. The Department of Defense recognized this problem and created the Strategic Capabilities Office and the Defense Experimental Units to accelerate the development of new systems, with each of the military departments engaging in similar efforts for service-specific needs. Could these new offices develop a parallel, more efficient pathway for developing and producing small-quantity weapon systems quickly? If so, the rapid deployment of unique weapons would demand that the remainder of the military institution respond in-kind by quickly developing tactics and training personnel.

The U.S. defense establishment should heed Hammes’ clarion call. U.S. military doctrine is based on the legacy premises of the Cold War and this results in an acquisition approach of costly “exquisite” weapons. This approach is outdated and will not succeed against an adaptable adversary in the future. Whether because of acquisition constraints or because of operational advantages, Leonhard’s concept of prototype warfare is worthy of consideration and its benefits must be weighed against potential costs. As Congress and the Pentagon both seek to improve the acquisition process, building flexibility into the system is critical for dealing with an uncertain future and achieving victory in military battles. Going to war with an arsenal of prototype weapons to supplement major weapon systems may create an important operational advantage.


Robert Kozloski is a program analyst with the Department of the Navy. The views expressed here are his alone.

Image: U.S. Air Force

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