Editor’s note: Stanford University is hosting a brand-new class this fall—Technology, Innovation, and Modern War. Steve Blank, who teaches the course along with Joe Felter and Raj Shah, is writing about each class session—offering Modern War Institute readers an incredible opportunity to learn about the intersection of technology and war and hear from remarkable guest speakers. Read about the first two sessions here.

Class Three

Our guest speaker for session three was Anja Manuel, a former State Department official, founding partner of Rice, Hadley, Gates, and Manuel, and author of This Brave New World: India, China and the United States. Some of the readings for the session included: “Esper’s Convenient Lie,” “Compete, Contest and Collaborate: How to Win the Technology Race with China,” and “The Age of Great-Power Competition.”

If you can’t see the slides click here.

Winning the Wars We Knew

Joe Felter, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia, started the class by showing excerpts from Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s famous “Duty, Honor, Country” speech given to the Corps of Cadets at West Point in May 1962. In what would be his final address to his alma mater, MacArthur admonished these future leaders of the United States military:“Through all this welter of change and development your mission remains fixed, determined, inviolable. It is to win our wars. Everything else in your professional career is but corollary to this vital dedication. . . . You stand as the Nation’s war guardians, as its lifeguards from the raging tides of international conflict.”

Back in MacArthur’s day, fighting a conventional conflict akin to the wars America experienced in the twentieth century was certainly not expected to be easy. Confronting the massive armored formations of the Soviet Union in the Fulda Gap or engaging in a proxy war fought in another theater would be costly and difficult to prevail (not to mention the specter of escalation to a nuclear exchange). But with known adversaries and technologies the weapon systems and operational concepts we expected to rely on to win our future wars were, however, easier to anticipate and simpler to define.

For example, in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor the United States knew how—and largely where—to respond. The country mobilized its resources and industrial base, raised powerful military forces, and projected power—directing it at a defined enemy and the enemy’s industrial base. In conventional state-on-state warfare, the operational- and tactical-level activities that support a strategy to win are often clear. You mass firepower on objectives. You destroy the enemy’s military and industrial capabilities and seize terrain. All those things are missions that the military can get its head around.

In MacArthur’s time we defeated our enemies and drove them to unconditional surrender. We did so by using the superior power (both quantity and quality) of our weapons and how we employed them.

After World War II the weapons and defense systems we acquired and deployed reflected this experience. In the 1950s we leveraged our industrial capacity and innovated by producing five new fighter designs, three new classes of aircraft carriers, and nuclear-powered attack and ballistic submarines.

As we pointed out in previous class sessions, in the twentieth century, requirements were known years ahead of time and DoD built incrementally better versions of the same platforms (although our experience in Vietnam would foreshadow the issues of unconventional warfare the United States faced in Iraq and Afghanistan).

Winning our wars remains—as MacArthur characterized it—the military’s fixed and inviolable mission. However, the conditions in which we will fight in the future are much different than those of the wars we prevailed in during MacArthur’s time. How we prepare for and fight future wars must reflect these new realities of modern war. Adaptability has always been an essential attribute of successful militaries.

We will discuss these ideas further in later class sessions.

Two Acquisition Paradigm Shifts

Raj Shah, former head of the Defense Innovation Unit, pointed out that men and women in uniform have signed up to support national security with the equipment that they are given and must make do with what you give them. These men and women are quite resourceful to achieve the mission as best they can with the gear they have.

However, if we give them equipment that fails to keep up with the threat and is not state of the art, our warfighters bear a cost (ultimately with their lives) that they and the nation will pay. So, it’s incumbent on us to think about the ramifications of these acquisition decisions. It’s better to take risk in the hallways of the Pentagon than on the battlefield—risk aversion in the former will force risk acceptance in the latter, with potentially grave consequences.

There are two paradigm shifts going on in DoD. The first is the transition from buying a small number of exquisite systems toward large numbers of low-cost systems. And the second is the shift away from DoD contracting everything from defense primes toward building software themselves or serving as the integrator for off-the-shelf commercial systems.

To illustrate the escalating cost of military hardware, Norm Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin, famously graphed out how much each airplane costs. On the bottom left of his graph (slide 23), a Wright brothers’ plane in 1910 cost around $5,000 in today’s dollars. If you follow the cost line up and to the right, the F-22 Raptor is a $300 million a plane (if you include all the R&D costs).

Augustine’s tongue-in-cheek conclusion was that if we followed this trend line, by 2050 the entire defense budget will purchase just one aircraft. And that aircraft will have to be shared by the Air Force and the Navy, each for three and a half days a week, with it available to the Marines on the extra day each leap year.

While Augustine was being facetious, the consequence of escalating costs of these exquisite systems plays out in the way he described. The Air Force said we needed 750 F-22s to meet all the threats. They ended up buying 187. They said they needed 132 B-2 bombers. They ended up buying twenty-one. We design these world-beating systems, but because they’re so expensive, it takes so long to build them, and the threats change before they get deployed, we’re going to be left behind.

The same story is being played out in our satellites in space. The National Reconnaissance Office builds satellites the size of school buses and they can do more than any other country. But we just have a handful of them—all of them big, fat targets. But Planet Labs and SpaceX are launching thousands of satellites that individually aren’t as good, but collectively illustrate the trend of mass commodity versus exquisite. 

At the same time, the Department of Defense has finally realized how important software is. In fact, many of our most advanced airplanes and ships are really software delivery vehicles, meaning the software, not hardware, is the primary driver of capability. Over the last few decades, DoD’s ability to design and even understand modern software design has atrophied. The good news is that DoD has recognized this and has announced a new policy for acquiring software, and has started building “software factories” like the Air Force’s Kessel Run and the Space Force’s Kobayashi Maru. Raj had a front row seat in this revolution:

If you can’t see the video click here.

Many of the innovations that will shape future conflicts will increasingly occur in the commercial technology base. Advancements in these technologies will be driven by consumer demand and the potential for profit—not government directives. Requirements are not known years ahead of time. So, DoD needs a new way of engaging and acquiring these fast-evolving technologies. Fortunately, real progress is happening across the department. There has been a wellspring of new initiatives and reform. Hopefully the most successful of these initiatives will be broadly scaled across the department and federal government. These positive trends include: software “color of money” reform, middle-tier acquisitionsother transaction authorities, commercial outreach organizations, SBIR reform, software factories, talent pipelines, rapid prototyping, digital engineering, and more (it’s a very exciting time to be a reformer in DoD). But these initiatives will need to overcome institutional barriers to scale; our hope is that Congress, uniformed leaders, political appointees, and traditional contractors will continue to work together to improve the ability of democracies to deter and prevail against potential adversaries.

If you can’t see Anja Manuel‘s talk click here.

Class Four

Our guest speaker was Bridge Colby, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’s point person for articulating his vision for the National Defense Strategy.

Some of the readings for this fourth class session included: the 2017 National Security Strategy, the 2018 National Defense Strategy, the unclassified summary of the 2018 National Military Strategy, “The Age of Great-Power Competition,” “The China Reckoning: How Beijing Defied America’s Expectations,” “Remarks by Vice President Pence on the Administration’s Policy Toward China,” “The End of American Illusion” Trump and the World as It Is,” and the 2019 “Indo-Pacific Strategy Report.”

In this session we provided the students with an appreciation of how the United States National Security Strategy (NSS) arrived at the conclusion that we are in an era of great power competition with Russia and China. Next, we introduced the National Defense Strategy (NDS), which describes how the military supports the overall NSS. The NDS not only observed that we continued to face non–nation state threats (terrorist organizations), but conceptualized the 2+3 adversaries (China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and the violent extremism) that we have to plan for going forward. The NDS provided an outline of what we need to do (called “lines of effort”) to transform our military.

If you can’t see the slides click here.

Joe Felter (who was the deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia) began the lesson by providing background and context for understanding: What happened? Why did we shift our strategies and military plans? And what do these plans look like today?

Great Hopes for International Security

In 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, it marked the symbolic end of the Cold War. The United States emerged as the dominant power in the international system and its Cold War rivals appeared to be moving down a path of reform. We had great hopes for an international security environment that would advance common interests among large and small nations through international cooperation and engagement.

Russia at the time showed promising signs of moving closer to democracy. The breakup of former Soviet states put the country on the path of increasing liberalization and reform. Former Warsaw Pact nations expressed interest in working and aligning more closely with its former rivals. Several joined NATO.

Meanwhile, China’s economy was growing at an extraordinary rate and becoming more integrated with those of countries across the region and beyond. All prevailing theories of modernization predicted that this growth would lead to increasing liberalization and reform in China. It was considered to be on a trajectory toward becoming a responsible stakeholder willing to play by the rules of the established order.

Beyond these encouraging developments with our former Cold War rivals the United States assumed a position of unparalleled military dominance. Shortly after the fall of the wall this overmatch and dominance of US military power was put on display during Operation Desert Storm, where the United States achieved quick and decisive victory, destroying the world’s fourth largest Army in one hundred hours of ground combat.

Optimism Turns into Reality

Fast forward to 2017. Conditions were far from where we hoped they would be in the heady optimism following the Cold War. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is intent on undermining the United States and West in any way it can—aggression in Crimea and eastern Ukraine and destabilizing activities in Syria, Venezuela, and beyond. Adding to this are its state-sponsored poisonings and assassinations, cyberattacks against nations, and election meddling in the United States and other countries.

In China Xi Jinping and the Chines Communist Party (CCP) are pursuing a deliberate whole-of-government approach to projecting influence, if not dominance, in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond. Disappointingly, the liberalization and reforms so many assumed would accompany its rapid economic growth did not occur. The CCP explicitly states its intention for China to be a dominant power with benchmarks and years identified. For example, President Xi leads the Central Military Commission that in 2012 committed to building a military that can dominate the region and “fight and win” global wars by 2049.

To do this, China is pursuing a military buildup of an historic scale with a seven-fold increase in its defense budget in the last two decades. It is investing in high-tech weaponry to close the gap and in many cases extend China’s advantage in a range of military capabilities and technologies.

Beijing engages in predatory economics—driving states into significant debt burdens and forcing them to make debt-for-equity swaps in places that undermine their sovereignty. Its Belt and Road Initiative makes infrastructure and other investments with a clear nationalist agenda. It is increasing its de facto power-projection capabilities by developing and establishing access to a network of dual-use ports, airfields, and other facilities across the region. Some argue that China is even in the early stages of establishing a strategically located naval base in Cambodia, which course co-instructor Joe Felter raised the official alarm about following a visit to the southern port while serving as a senior official in the Department of Defense.

China’s militarization of features in the South China Sea is perhaps the most egregious example of its illegal efforts to build military capabilities and extend the People’s Liberation Army’s ability to project power. Despite Xi’s promise to President Barack Obama in 2015 and the international tribunal ruling by The Hauge in 2016 that its claims have no basis in international law, China continued to fortify its illegal claims by building runways, radars, missile sites, storage facilities, and other improvements.

See time-lapse videos of the reefs turning into a military base here and here.

The US National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy

These were the conditions we confronted in 2017 when the current NSS and NDS were developed. These strategies reflected the realization that we are in long-term competition with Russia and China and must make a clear-eyed assessment and treat these competitors for who they are and not as we want them to be. As the NSS states, “Just as American weakness invites challenge, American strength and confidence deters war and promotes peace.”

The NDS pulled no punches. It was a real wakeup call for the military and the country. As Bridge Colby said in his talk to the class, “Others described it as the first realist document we’ve had as a country in a long time.” Bridge points out that after the Berlin Wall fell we were the sole superpower and the country really didn’t need a defense strategy. We had so many resources relative to the plausible threats that we could essentially overwhelm any adversary.

Besides explicitly acknowledging we are in long-term strategic competition with Russia and China, it said that our regional priorities would shift from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific and China. And China is recognized as the more powerful and potentially dangerous threat. The NDS outlined three major lines of effort that the Department of Defense needed to execute to face these new 2+3 challenges:

  • Building a more lethal force;
  • Strengthening alliances and build partnerships; and
  • Reforming the Department of Defense

And the United States has made important progress across all three of these lines of effort.

(Our students heard previously about some of the efforts aimed at reforming the Department of Defense: requirements and acquisition reform fromWill Roper; new innovation organizations like the JAIC (Joint Artificial Intelligence Center) from Lt. Gen. John N.T. ShanahanAFWERXKessel Run; and NavalX. And they’ll hear more later from Gen. John W. Raymond about standing up a new service branch—the Space Force.)

So how are we doing so far? First the bad news. China is making gains and many are at the expense of state sovereignty across the region, which in some cases will be difficult to reverse (e.g., Hong Kong). Under Xi and the CCP, China is structurally set up in many ways to compete more effectively (e.g., with its coherence and continuity of leadership and its civil/academic/military fusion). Other examples include how China’s state-owned enterprises can be employed by the CCP for coordinating and projecting influence more efficiently.

But there is good news that bodes well for the outcome of this long-term competition. The United States has a vision that is largely shared and embraced by those that wish to see the region remain free and open and for the rules-based order to endure.

Significantly we are not asking states to choose between the United States and China, but rather to choose their own sovereignty and a vision for their future. Our challenge, however, is to ensure our actions match our strategy—demonstrating that the United States is a reliable partner and will deliver on its stated goals and objectives.

Bridge Colby gave us some compelling insights on the 2018 National Defense Strategy and participated in an informative Q&A session with our students. He provided an insider’s account of the development of the National Defense Strategy and an informed assessment of its execution.

Read the transcript of Bridge Colby’s talk here and watch the video below.

If you can’t see the Bridge Colby talk 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.

Image: Then-Secretary of the Army Dr. Mark T. Esper tours the manufacturing facilities at Anniston Army Depot on February 20, 2019. (Credit: Staff Sgt. Nicole Mejia, US Army)