The DoD’s Race Against the Machine

The DoD’s new Defense Strategy and Budget Priorities clearly show its in its own Race Against the Machine.

As the DoD sunsets two wars and cuts $487B from its budget over the next decade, it is clear that advanced technology will shape the future force.  The DoD is increasing unmanned systems, cyber operations, and information, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities while decreasing personnel, manned fighter aircraft, ships, and bases.  Secretary Panetta said DoD must “leverage the lessons of recent conflicts and stay ahead of the most lethal and disruptive threats of the future.”

Race Against the Machine by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee describes how the Digital Revolution is accelerating innovation, driving productivity, and irreversibly transforming employment and the economy.  Computers increase productivity across all industries enabling products to be developed faster, cheaper, and at higher quality.  Technology has automated farm and factory work and is quickly penetrating the Service industry.  They profile some of the recent breathtaking technological breakthroughs:

  • IBM’s Watson besting human champions at Jeopardy
  • Google’s automated cars that can drive in traffic on roads and highways by themselves
  • Siri, the personal assistant on Apple’s iPhones, understands human speech well enough to answer a broad range of everyday requests

The well known Moore’s Law applies to a broad range of IT measures doubling every 18 months from processor speeds, storage capacity, network bandwidth, and energy consumption.  As we’re decades into the Digital Age, the authors highlight how we’re now reaching the exciting steep part of the exponential curve.

The latest DoD trend is from manned aircraft to remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) – AKA unmanned systems or drones.  RPAs now account for 31% of all military aircraft (7,494 RPAs vs 10,767 manned) – a rapid increase from the 5% in 2005.  The manned aircraft mafia still command 92% of the aircraft procurement budget with pricey manned systems like F-35, Next Generation Bomber, and KC-46 dominating future budgets.  The DoD spent $26B on RPAs since 2001.  See more details in the US Unmanned Aerial Systems Congressional report and the 2009 UAS Flight Plan (Hat tip: Danger Room).

The one technological misstep was the budget decision to cancel the Air Force’s Global Hawk Block 30 program and extend the 1950s era U-2 program.  The rationale was the Global Hawk Block 30 development and operational costs were at best comparable to the dinosaur of manned aircraft.  My initial reaction was to compare this to a scenario where NASA retires the Space Shuttle fleet to return to the Apollo program.  The DoD isn’t taking a 60 year step back, but will continue to invest in Global Hawk Block 40, NATO’s Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) and the Navy’s Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) – ideally at a higher ROI.  The challenge with the DoD and Defense Industry developing advanced technology solutions is they design 10+ year programs unable to leverage the benefits of Moore’s Law.  Until the DoD is able to adopt Agile practices with small, frequent capability deliveries to users, they will continue to squander exciting technological advancements and billions of taxpayer dollars.

Cyberspace meanwhile has emerged as the new operational domain where cyber attacks can achieve the same operational effects at an order of magnitude cheaper, faster, and safer than conventional military operations.  NATO forces launched 100 cruise missiles into Libya in 2011 at $1 million each to disable their air defenses.  DoD leadership considered launching a cyber attack that could have achieved the same results at a fraction of the costs.  The DoD is aggressively debating strategies and policies while developing capabilities and partnerships to execute Cyberspace operations.

As personnel costs continue to rise, particularly from healthcare, the DoD is making tough budget decisions to invest in technological advancements to achieve its missions.

Most of the personnel reductions are a result of ending two major wars, which required a considerable ramp up of personnel post 9/11.  Yet the long term US budget outlook will continue to put pressure on Defense budgets.  An increasingly networked world brings ever more complex challenges, requiring agile, impactful, and responsive military solutions.  For DoD to achieve considerable cost savings, increases in mission effectiveness, and be responsive to emerging threats, it must continue to embrace the Digital Revolution.

The largest potential for advancement and cost savings is in business operations.  Portfolio management software and data analytics can be leveraged in managing hundred billion dollar budgets instead of Power Point slides and 1960s budget software (I’m not kidding).  Many base support operations can be digitized and automated, saving billions in personnel costs.  Global military logistics operations can improve integration of technology into their processes as UPS and FedEx have perfected years ago.  DoD can radically transform headquarters operations by breaking the data silos, enabling broad collaboration, and fostering enterprise knowledge repositories.

Leveraging advanced technology and human innovation enables more efficient and effective operations while providing exciting new capabilities and opportunities to achieve our strategic military objectives.


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