Editor’s note: This fall, Stanford University is hosting a brand-new class—Technology, Innovation, and Modern War. The course is being taught by Steve Blank, Joe Felter, and Raj Shah. In addition, they have lined up a series of extraordinary guest speakers.

Dr. Felter is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia. Mr. Shah served as managing partner of the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental. Mr. Blank is known as the father of modern entrepreneurship, having created the lean startup movement, and has agreed to make the course’s subject matter widely available by writing about each class session and allowing the Modern War Institute to publish the writings.

Once a week over the next several weeks we will publish his recap of two recent classes. This inaugural installment covers the first and second classes. Class one featured former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. Max Boot, author of the book War Made New, joins for class two.

Class One

We just had our first week of our new national security class, Technology, Innovation, and Modern War. Given the tech-centricity of Stanford and Silicon Valley, Joe FelterRaj Shah, and I thought it was natural to design a class to examine the new military systems, operational concepts, and doctrines that will emerge from twenty-first-century technologies—space, cyber, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and autonomy.

Our students, a mix between international policy and engineering, will be the ones in this fight. If the past is a prologue, they’ll go off to senior roles in defense, policy, and the companies building new, disruptive technologies. Our goals are to help them understand the complexity and urgency of the issues, offer them a model to understand the obstacles and path forward, and inspire them to help lead the transformation of the Department of Defense to meet twenty-first-century challenges.

Our guest speaker this class was Ash Carter, the twenty-fifth secretary of defense.

The pre-class reading included Christian Brose’s The Kill Chain, Michèle Flournoy and Gabrielle Chefitz’s “Sharpening the US Military’s Edge,” and the 2018 summary of the National Defense Strategy.

If you can’t see the slides click here. The text below refers to the slides.

The Big Picture

Context is important. We started the class illustrating the sweep of the rise and fall of empires and nations over the last five hundred years (slide 17). The takeaways were that:

  1. National power is ephemeral.
  2. China is the only nation that declined in national power and eventually recovered it—though it took half a millennium.
  3. The rise of the United States as a national power was incredibly steep, however its trend over the last two decades is not heading in the right direction and is about to intersect with the rise of China.

While the class is focused on how new technologies will shape new weapons and doctrine, the national power of a country (its influence and footprint on the world stage) is more than just its military strength. It’s the combination of a country’s diplomacy (soft power and alliances,) information and intelligence capabilities, military power, and economic strength. This concept is known by its acronym, DIME.

It’s worth considering the reasons why nations decline: they lose allies; suffer a decline in economic power (e.g., the UK in the twentieth century); lose interest in global affairs (China in the fifteenth century); face internal/civil conflicts (Russia in the twentieth century.) We zeroed in on one of the other reasons, and the purpose of this class—a nation’s military can miss disruptive technology transitions and new operational concepts (slides 21–22).

And that has happened to us. For twenty-five years as the world’s sole superpower, the United States neglected strategic threats from China and a rearmed Russia. The country, our elected officials, and our military emotionally committed to a decades-long battle in revenge for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Meanwhile, our country’s legacy weapons systems had too many entrenched and interlocking interests (Congress, lobbyists, the DoD/contractor revolving door, service promotion of executors versus innovators) that inhibited radical change. The 2018 National Defense Strategy changed that, becoming a wakeup call for our nation (slide 25).

All this was a prelude to introducing the class’s three parts (slide 27):

  • The first part provides a broad overview of how new technology turns into weapons and doctrine.
  • Part two does a deep dive on AI, machine learning, autonomy, cyber, and space (and will touch on biotech, microelectronics, quantum, and hypersonics)—and how each can be applied in the service of national security.
  • The third part of the class gives students hypothetical problems and asks them use twenty-first-century technology to create operational concepts and doctrines that can solve them.

Technology to Weapons to Doctrine

As we described how the United States specifies and buys weapons systems to students accustomed to Amazon and the “make it happen now” culture of Silicon Valley, we could hear the “you’ve got to be kidding me” sentiments, even over zoom. We described the theory versus current practice of defense requirements, acquisition, and budgeting (slides 28–32). And we repeated the obvious—that the system is broken—and the not so obvious—that the United States is still using a McNamara-era requirements and acquisition system designed by financial managers from Ford and imposed on DoD in the early 1960s. One observation that often goes unnoticed is that government audit agencies like the Government Accountability Office and DoD Office of Inspector general are also part of the problem, as they work hard in assuring compliance with bad strategy. (Best comment from a student: “It strikes me that our acquisition system isn’t broken—it’s obsolete. Built for a world that no longer exists.” An even more sobering comment: “Was this system designed by the Chinese to ensure we can’t innovate?”)

Having a new technology and weapon doesn’t describe how it’s used to fight or win a war. Each new generation of technology (spears, bows and arrows, guns, planes, etc.) inevitably created new types of military systems. Shooting a gun instead of a longbow didn’t win a conflict. It required the development of a new operational concept and doctrine to learn: who mans it, what other activities are needed to work with it, how to sustain it, and how to use it to win. (Operational concepts are the minimum viable products of the practical application of a doctrine against a specific enemy in a specific environment.)

New adversaries like ISIS in Iraq created the need for a new doctrine (i.e., the 2006 Counterinsurgency Field Manual 3-24).

New types of disruptive technologies/weapons—like China’s or Russia’s A2/AD or China’s DF-21D and DF-26B—can create the need for new doctrine.

(Ironically, China building military bases on top of reefs in the South China Sea had nothing to do with new technology. It was simply a disruptive operational concept that used twentieth-century dredging ships and a gamble that the United States wouldn’t interfere. That move alone negated seventy-five years of US weapons and doctrine in the Pacific, and we’ll spend tens of billions of dollars to solve the problem. The Marine Corps Force Design 2030 has revamped its operational concept to meet the new reality.)

Today, the Department of Defense can’t create doctrine, new operational concepts, and new organizational structures against new technology and new types of warfare fast enough. Therefore, the purpose of this class is how to think about it systematically.

Incremental technology improvements in commercial companies and the Department of Defense tend to follow an S-curve—an initial systems capability is low as it undergoes shakedown and debugging, but climbs rapidly, then plateaus until it is replaced with another incremental improvement. However, unlike commercial systems, weapons systems are matched with a doctrine of how they are used. And incremental improvements in weapons typically result in incremental improvements in doctrine (slides 35–37). And because of the complexity of the DoD requirements and acquisition system, the incumbent contractors are typically the same. New startups/companies rarely break into the system. (There’s something wrong when the cost of entry of Palantir, SpaceX, and Anduril as new DoD contractors required billionaire founders.)

Unlike incremental technology improvements, disruptive technology is on a completely different S-curve than existing technology and forces the creation of new doctrine and operational concepts. In theory, incumbent contractors of old technology/weapons should be at a disadvantage over the suppliers for new technology systems as disruption offers opportunities for a new generation of contractors and suppliers. However, as we’ll describe in later classes, the role of Congress, incumbent contractors, and lobbyists still favor the existing prime contractors (slides 38–41).

It’s sobering to consider what our existing legacy systems are versus where they need to be in the next two decades. It’s worth looking at slide 41 for a while. Whether we want them to or not, this is where the new technologies are going to take us. Even if the chart is just directionally correct, each one of those transitions requires billions of dollars, new weapons, and new doctrine.

In both commerce and defense, there are visionaries who can look at technology (that to others appears like a toy) and imagine it fully formed a decade into the future with the new operating concepts against new threats/opportunities. Examples include the blitzkrieg (Erich von Manstein), the nuclear Navy (Adm. Hyman G. Rickover), AirLand Battle (Gen. Creighton Abrams), Andrew Marshall at ONA, and Elon Musk at SpaceX. Executors (those focused on running existing organizations) often dismiss visionaries because, truth be told, most are hallucinating. But the few that are right, change the world or win wars. The biography of John Boyd (who conceptualized the OODA loop) and his observations on “Be versus Do” in a military career is still a great read (slide 42).

The Impact of New Technology and How DoD Will Acquire It

As an introduction to this class session, one of the assignments was to watch the Slaughterbot video, a dystopian (but technically possible) future of autonomy and AI.

As a nation the United States invests a large percentage of its GDP in research and development; however, the source of those dollars has shifted from government to private industry. (The large rise in federal R&D in the 1960s was the investment in NASA and the space program.) While federal R&D is focused on the national interest, a lack of a national industrial policy or incentives for commercial R&D has those R&D dollars optimizing the greatest financial return (slide 45).

“No bucks, no Buck Rogers” describes the role that Congress plays in providing funding for all military expenditures. In the last two decades a federal budget was passed on time just four times. This plays havoc with having a predictable way to pay for new things (slides 49–51).

A glimmer of hope is occurring across DoD. An insurgency has arisen in the services and combatant commands that has essentially said, We can’t wait until our acquisition system is fixed, so we’re going to bypass it. All the services have incubators, accelerators, and SBIR programs. And they’re even making an end-around to a broken acquisition system. First driven by the Army, and now rapidly being used by the other services, a new way to write contracts, called “other transaction authorities,” has emerged to bypass the years of paperwork. Time will tell whether the existing acquisition bureaucracy beats this down or if it truly can sustain a breakout from traditional contracting and gets embraced by visionary leadership (slides 47, 52).

If you can’t see the Ash Carter video, click here.

Class Two

Our guest speaker this session was Max Boot, author of War Made New.

Some of the pre-class reading included watching the “Secret History of Silicon Valley” and reading selected chapters of Max Boot’s book, War Made New.

If you can’t see the slides click here. The text below refers to the slides.

The Technology-to-Weapons Cycle

Our second lecture was a discussion of how new technology turns into new weapons and new doctrine. Simply stated, this cycle is a repeatable pattern that has been occurring for hundreds if not thousands of years. Our proposition to the class is that once the pattern is understood we can manage it and hopefully accelerate it.

As an example of the technology-to-weapons cycle, we used the evolution of farm tractors with treads to tanks. Late in the nineteenth century, manufacturers of farm equipment put treads on tractors to navigate muddy fields. Once this technology innovation occurred, the British, French, and Germans envisioned a military use for it in World War I. Tanks would be used to defeat the machine gun and to penetrate layered trench defenses so infantry and cavalry could advance. The British were the first to use tanks on the battlefield in mass attacks. However, the early versions of tanks performed poorly at the battles of Flers-Courcelette in 1916 and Cambrai in 1917. In hindsight, they failed because: (1) the technology was at the beginning of its S-Curve (immature technology and features, buggy, prone to breakdown, etc.); and (2) there was no prior learning of how to coordinate the use tanks on the battlefield (they lacked a doctrine.)

In the years that followed, incumbents in the US Army, both internal (existing leadership) and external (existing contractors), used these early World War I failures as rationale to keep the status quo—in this case, horses/cavalry. Over the next twenty years, tank technology matured, and it was the Germans who fielded the Panzer III (each with radios) as part of a combined arms doctrine that integrated tanks with infantry, artillery, and air support (slides 3–9).

The result was that in May 1940 five panzer divisions crossed through the Ardennes and France fell to the Germans. After another half a century of refinement in tank warfare and doctrine US tanks would overwhelm the Soviet-equipped Iraqi Army at the battle of 73 Easting.

As the history of the tank shows, often the one who best exploits new technologies isn’t the inventor or the first user of a new class of weapon (which in this case was Britain in World War 1). Rather, it was the German Army that honed the operational concepts (blitzkrieg, combined arms) and added complementary tools (radios in tanks, tactical air support). We could have illustrated the same disruptive technology-to-weapon cycle by describing the introduction of the longbow, gunpowder, the airplane, or even the use of rocks versus clubs. In all cases, the story is the same. This technology-to-weapons-to-doctrine innovation cycle is illustrated in slide 9.

Institutional Inertia is a Social Problem

Looking at this diagram in slide 9, one might think that after going through this cycle once, it would be easy to continuously adopt new technologies and weapons. But the painful lessons from nations that lost wars teach us that technology/weapons leadership is ephemeral. It’s inevitable that the cutting-edge systems that leading nations build ultimately become legacy systems. They’re superseded by other nations that move more quickly through this adoption cycle.

Services, agencies, and careers are built around acquiring, operating, supporting, and fighting with legacy systems, and this hinders adoption of the next innovation cycle when it’s time to adopt the next wave of disruption.

This institutional inertia is as much a social problem as it is a technical one. General and flag officers achieved their rank because of their ability to lead people and manage known processes. Unconsciously most are most comfortable with technology and doctrine they learned in their twenties. When visionaries start promoting what at first looks like a technological toy, leadership perceives them as bringing disorder to a well-ordered system.

As a result, institutional inertia (social, budget, capacities, careers, contractors, etc.) hinders the adoption of the next-generation disruptive technology and weapons and allows adversaries to leapfrog the leaders.

This is an age-old story. Unfortunately, it’s now a story about us.

Multiple Disruptive Technologies at Once Versus Multiple Adversaries—with a Limited Budget

Today, the Department of Defense faces a proverbial Gordian knot. There’s not just one or two disruptive technologies potentially changing warfare but at least ten: cyber, AI, machine learning, autonomy, space, hypersonics, biotech, semiconductors, directed energy, and quantum. And unlike the last century, most of these innovations are no longer driven by military weapons labs that have a lock on the technology but are coming from commercial companies.

Compounding this problem of multiple new technologies is today’s reality that DoD is facing multiple adversaries. The department has to decide which of these technologies and new weapons will be most important against China, Russia, North Korea, Iran and non–nation states. For example, weapons and doctrine needed to continue to project power in the South China Sea will be different than those needed to protect the Baltic states or counter a regional threat in the Middle East. And we need to do all of this with a finite defense budget, most of which is being spent on legacy systems in eighty-eight major defense acquisition programs. Trying to kill one of these to free up money for new weapons development is a major political problem (slides 10–13).

We closed the lecture by observing that DoD may be best served if it developed an innovation doctrine to guide its leadership through these decisions. The question we left for the students was: What else might we do?

If you can’t see the Max Boot video, click here.

Steve Blank is the father of modern entrepreneurship, an entrepreneur-turned-educator, and founder of the lean startup movement. He is an adjunct professor at Stanford and a senior fellow for entrepreneurship at Columbia University.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image: A 574th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron maintainer performs depot maintenance on an F-22 Raptor. The 574th installed the first metallic 3D printed part on an operational F-22 in December 2018. (Credit: R. Nial Bradshaw, US Air Force)