Defense acquisition is cumbersome, burdened by bureaucracy and competing interests, and suffering from a severe creativity gap. But you don’t have to take my word for it – former Senate Armed Services Committee staff member put his thoughts on how the U.S. might be losing the technological arms race in his book The Kill Chain, a title released in April 2020 and which made the rounds of the defense policy circuit last summer (not to be confused with the 2019 Nicholas Cage film which also probably made the rounds in the same circles…maybe).
If you read along with the ClearanceJobs book club this month, you had your chance to join that debate and hear the problems – and solutions – for how the defense procurement model is going wrong and what can be done to fix it. It’s a topic near and dear to my heart – working in Army Public Affairs at the Pentagon within the Science and Technology directorate, I had the chance to champion some of the same programs Brose derides in his book. I once lead a media extravaganza for the U.S. Army Future Combat Systems, a $32 billion program that was spun out over five years and then shuttered in 2009 by then defense secretary Robert Gates, as funding shifted from large weapons systems to counterterrorism (China? Russia? Never heard of them). At the time, as a young action officer working on the Pentagon, I appreciated how the success of the system was dependent not just on the technology itself, but the congressional buy-in and even the press and trade coverage of the strength of the program.
As someone who worked on the Hill, Brose took some significant swipes at how Congress wields the acquisition process. “A good idea rarely wins on its merits alone,” Brose writes. “Its success too often comes down, instead, to the trading of favors and the political dark arts.” The book starts and ends with this pessimistic dark shadow – a foreshadowing of future wars lost if America doesn’t adapt its acquisition and technological advancement strategies.
Air Force Instacart, Uber Lift
Brose outlines a future with a military ‘internet of things’ where intelligence machines proceeding along a set of human-created parameters. This kind of advancement has never been more necessary, with the Chinese Communist Party’s aggressive push to rise to global preeminence through artificial intelligence, biotechnology, robotics, and other advanced IT systems. What it can’t steal, it will simply acquire, often faster than the U.S. military can procure or implement it. Gone are the days when the U.S. government is the source of the greatest innovation – often the commercial sector has more capital and more creativity to bring to the government’s challenges. Brose notes how the top five artificial intelligence companies in the U.S. are all private sector companies who are often hesitant toward doing business with the U.S. military (or at least anything with the ring of ‘kill chain’ to it) – Amazon, alphabet, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple. These five companies spent a total of $70.5 billion on research and development in 2018. The top five defense companies (Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon Technologies, General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman), spent just $6.2 billion. That gap is often the difference between innovation and status quo, and an issue for U.S. military progress.
The Absence of Dominance
Perhaps the most significant (and controversial) aspect of Brose’s book is the idea of reimagining national defense with the notion of dominance off of the table. The modern kill chain is as much about speed, communication, and connectivity as it is about traditional strength terms. Rather than expensive and irreplaceable, Brose proposes systems that are cheaper and expendable. He also proposes fewer people to fight in the future, but more machines. This is the future warfare push of unmanned over manned systems.
All of this doesn’t mean smaller defense budgets – but budgets that focus less on the multi-billion dollar defense programs that will only go away when congressional scrutiny hits. It means allocating budget dollars to more, smaller programs. Those programs may not project world dominance, but they’re able to move, flex and advance rapidly and as needed.
Brose didn’t end with a lot of optimism about the ability to make the changes needed – too many years spent working in Washington, D.C. can do that to a person – but he did emphasize that it was possible, that some steps toward progress had been made, and that more change is possible – if we find the creativity to do it.