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Thursday, May 04, 2023

How the U.S. Can Rewire the Pentagon for a New Era

I worked at the Pentagon, so interesting.   During an earlier 'rewiring'.   Crucial. 

How the U.S. Can Rewire the Pentagon for a New Era, by Porter Smith and David Ulevitch

We are in the early stages of a generational defense cycle that requires unconventional thinking and tools. The invasion of Ukraine highlights this evolution: comparatively low-cost weapons, from drones to precision artillery, are leveraging cutting-edge networks, like SpaceX’s Starlink, to redefine battlefields. Meanwhile, a new variable — attritable tech — is emerging. The implications are upending how militaries fight.

Defense innovation has always sparked a helix of action and reaction, where faster evolution means greater success. In World War II, Turing’s codebreakers at Bletchley Park reacted to Nazi cryptographic improvements in a running duel that spanned years. The naval Enigma wasn’t broken once, but dozens of times. 

We are in a similar moment today, although the rate and scale of change is accelerated. Consider the lightning speed at which today’s most advanced general computing projects evolve. OpenAI’s GPT-4, which was released a little more than two years after its predecessor, can now ace bar exams and convert sketches to functioning websites — all in a compressed upgrade window that overtook competitors seemingly overnight. As general computing platforms become applicable to a host of defense applications, from programming autonomous behavior to conducting live targeting analysis, sweeping advances in software and other technologies not originally designed for defense have unintentionally compounded computing’s impact on war.

Responding to the paradigm shift requires reengineering the Pentagon’s DNA for a new era. Given that the winner of the next big war will more closely resemble a distributed computer operating at scale — programmatically collecting, sharing, and acting upon data from relatively inexpensive and configurable endpoints, like drones — computing design and organizational principles honed in the tech industry can help provide guidance to meet the challenge. 

Here are some ideas for how to do it.

1. Commoditizing hardware

As the Central Intelligence Agency’s Chief Technology Officer Nand Mulchandani pointed out in his essay “Software-Defined Warfare,” cloud computing (and modern application design, overall) ushered in an era where hardware components like servers, storage devices, and networking equipment have become interchangeable and standardized. The transition to treating servers as “cattle” instead of “pets” presaged a reduction in operational complexity, driving lower costs through commoditization. Businesses utilizing cloud resources don’t need to endure long hardware provisioning cycles just to test out new applications or features, or over-purchase hardware for peak workloads that might come just once a year. Businesses adopting cloud native design principles care relatively little about hardware at all — their workloads are packaged as application containers that can run on any virtual machine running Linux.

Modern militaries face a similar competitive landscape, but the consequences are defeat instead of bankruptcy.

For a glimpse of what’s to come, look no further than the Donbas. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) premonition of “Mosaic Warfare” — saturating an adversary with cheap complexity — has come to life. Modded quadcopters are pairing with artillery to serve as ubiquitous reconnaissance and attack assets at the lowest tactical levels. Sometimes, even drones themselves are the munition, as seen in individual tank strikes and the mass naval attack that heavily damaged the Admiral Makarov, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Drones, air defense systems, and missiles are democratizing lethality in much the same way offshoring, competition, and government subsidies relentlessly commoditized computing hardware and chips. This rapid shift in defense tech has economic implications; cheaper hardware can be deployed en masse.

Why, then, have hardware costs risen so dramatically at the Pentagon? The Air Force’s next-generation bomber, the B-21 Raider, is estimated to cost $700 million per aircraft — a 140x increase in today’s dollars over B-24 Liberators from World War II. Part of the problem is that the Department of Defense (DoD) doesn’t view most platforms as uniform endpoints in a larger network. For a substantial portion of the force, they should.

The future is modular  ... ' 

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