Speeding up the military's 'kill chain'
In his new book, The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare, former Senate staff director Christian Brose says that the Defense Department has neglected to future-proof defense technologies and is vulnerable if there is ever a shooting war with China. It's not just the fault of Pentagon leadership: Congress, the defense industrial base and the military services suffers from lack of cohesion and a "failure of imagination."
Brose, now lead strategist at Anduril Industries talked to FCW about the Pentagon's biggest problems, possible solutions and whether the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act will help.
We're in NDAA season, both congressional houses have passed their versions of the bill and they're going into conference. What are your thoughts on this year's process and how Congress has been able to get the DOD closer to closing its "kill chain."
BROSE: The Department of Defense right now is trying to reorient itself, I think, in some really important ways. They're trying to focus on the advanced technologies and military capabilities that are going to be necessary to execute the national defense strategy. And they're trying to do a lot of things that are new and different. So you look at the focus on Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2), the Air Force's Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS). The Navy's focused on unmanned surface and undersea vehicles, the Army's focus on its modernization priorities, and the Marines [are] focused on the commandant's planning guidance and his vision for reshaping the Marine Corps. So there's a lot of change happening or attempts to change.
"We don't need senior defense leaders and members of Congress to be data scientists and software engineers, but we do need them to have a level of knowledge about artificial intelligence, machine learning and networking technologies."
The challenge, as I write about in the book, is how you actually carry change out. The department still has work to do to create the political buy-in for the plans that they have, the attempts of change that they're moving out, and the programmatic shifts that they want to make.
What successes do you think there are to hold on to as an example of pushing forward?
BROSE: This process of change is still in its infancy despite the fact that we've been talking about it for a few years now. The department is only still at the beginning of trying to execute or carry off this change. I think the biggest success to date is that we're actually talking about these things, that we're actually having focused conversations and defining priorities around things that we have traditionally not identified as priorities: command and control. The fact that this is becoming an overarching priority for the Joint Force, for the Department of Defense, and increasingly a focus of the Congress is a good thing. The fact that all the services are trying to define what their future command and control capabilities are going to be in the context of this to me is success.
The critical question for all of the services and for the department writ large and for the Congress is how do you make that leap from an interesting product type and encouraging demonstration to really identifying the capabilities that can scale up to larger programs, that can really add military advantage for the Joint Force. That's where we've stumbled in the past, that's where we've failed in the past -- getting across that proverbial valley of death.
There aren't good mechanisms to do that, it's something that senior leaders have to be actively engaged in and you have to create the incentives, as I write about in the book, to do that and we still haven't gotten to that point yet.
When I talk to researchers and technologists one of their chief complaints is the chasm between them and senior leadership and that a lot of senior leadership across DOD don't quite fully understand the technology. How do you change that dynamic?
BROSE: I think that is one of the critical impediments to change: a level of technical detail among senior leaders that will make them more effective in identifying the right capabilities that they're going to need you know inside of this portfolio of advanced technologies. We don't need senior defense leaders and members of Congress to be data scientists and software engineers but we do need them to have a level of knowledge about artificial intelligence, machine learning and networking technologies.
There are a lot of people in the defense space right now who can talk at 30,000 foot levels about these technologies, but the moment it starts getting down into the details, that's where folks check out or they defer to others. And there's always going to be an element of that among senior leaders, but one of the critical things that we're missing right now are senior leaders who are technically deep enough to go down and identify [which] is better, one technology from another.
The question then becomes, of those hundreds of new capabilities that are out there, many of which may be trying to do the same thing, what's the best one? What's the one that is going to scale, what's the team that is going to be most poised to deliver success at the scales and in the ways that the U.S. military is going to need it. And as that happens how do you make the hard tradeoffs of what am I going to divest of; those are inherently technical decisions.
Where I've seen this go wrong in recent years is senior leaders aren't as technically knowledgeable as they need to be and they defer to others and others may not always have the same incentives they do or the same sense of urgency that they do or the ability to own political risk like they do. And that's where things begin to devolve back to the status quo.
That's complicated further by the fact that technologies rapidly evolve, so quickly that almost by the time you get read up on one thing, it's been improved on three times over and the threats also evolve with those changes. How should that be managed since the DOD is kind of playing catch up in this space?
BROSE: It's about understanding this sort of technology space and some clearly defined areas well enough that they're capable of understanding how that evolution is going to occur and really owning the decisions and the political risk that come behind them and being confident that when they do that, the plan that is in place is actually going to carry that through.
The challenge of where we are is that the department is moving out with a lot of energy at times and good and right directions, at times not so much. Congress really needs to be focused and sort of knowledgeable itself on pushing back on the things that are genuinely off track while preserving the things that actually have promise or are a different and better approach lest we go back to kind of old ways of doing things that I think we are doomed to fail.
That makes me think of the mention of the Army's Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) in the marks and language that didn't put the brakes on it, but more 'we need to see more of a plan on how this capability is going to be used.' Is that what you mean or something a little different?
BROSE: The way that they've been doing IVAS, it was a bit of a rocky start but the focus on soldier touch points, the focus on actually getting new capabilities out into the hands of soldiers is something that the Army has been doing.
The challenge for the Army is that they've sort of divided their modernization effort into a series of often platform-defined capabilities and the question is how all of this is going to come together across air and land maneuvers and the integration of sensing with fires. Finding those kinds of core command and control programs and activities that the Army is emphasizing, that to me is the piece that is lacking. There's a focus on building new vehicles, new aircraft, new weapons but how all of this coheres and enables the Army to fight differently, now that's the kind of thing that the Congress would be right to focus on. Where those kinds of critical enabling command and control-type capabilities that are going to allow the Army to automate more of this process, scale it you know move faster push it out to the tactical edge. That's the thing that has been, perhaps, slower in developing.
Is there enough prototyping and experimentation? Where are you seeing it work well?
BROSE: There are a lot of programs in the department from command and control to weapons to low cost unmanned systems that could be competed more routinely based on real world requirements, clearly defined metrics that allow you to measure apples to apples and actually do routine annual competitions -- fly offs, bake offs, shoot offs -- to give the department an understanding of what is best in breed now so that they can push programs and or push resources into those programs as a way of scaling the most promising new capabilities that they have. That is something that I think the department needs to be doing a lot more than they are at present.
There's a lot that has been done in this respect with small UAS (unmanned aerial systems) and counter UAS. You have companies that are building small drones that can come in and actually fly them off against one another and against other things that are out there. Then actually using that performance to drive programmatic choices and investments.
This is also applicable to a lot of the work that is being done under the Joint All Domain Command and Control rubric. Creating actual avenues so that companies or laboratories or you know people outside of government can have confidence that if they went out and made investments to develop new technology that they would actually have a path to bring it in, compete it on a level playing field and potentially win significant contracts as a result of their performance.
How important is JADC2 to improving the kill chain process and how does Congress, DOD, all of the powers that be, prevent it from becoming just another lofty idea that can't be executed?
BROSE: It's central to the kill chain because command and control is literally how the military will move from generating understanding to making decisions to taking actions -- all of the critical phases of that process. The challenge is ensuring that doesn't just become a buzzword and that everybody who has been working on something for a very long time just pour their old wine in new bottles and says this thing that I've been working hard on for the past 12 years and has not gotten the success yet is now a critical JADC2 program.
This has to be something that is directed by senior leaders against clearly defined operational problems so that there are constants that allows us to measure progress and measure performance over time. That's the thing that I don't see happening, I see inklings of it or desires for it. But in a systematic way, I don't see that playing out.
The Department of Defense is very good at being able to determine whether platforms and traditional systems perform in traditional ways -- how far does this missile fly, what profile does this aircraft have. When you get into the question of can this network of systems close the kill chain faster than that one, it's a very different problem that we have not traditionally been set up, organized, instrumented to ask and answer. That is why this change, I think, is going to be so difficult because it fundamentally challenges the way the department has been organized in the way they have engaged in a lot of these activities for decades now.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity
Lauren C. Williams is senior editor for FCW and Defense Systems, covering defense and cybersecurity.
Prior to joining FCW, Williams was the tech reporter for ThinkProgress, where she covered everything from internet culture to national security issues. In past positions, Williams covered health care, politics and crime for various publications, including The Seattle Times.
Williams graduated with a master's in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park and a bachelor's in dietetics from the University of Delaware. She can be contacted at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @lalaurenista.
Click here for previous articles by Wiliams.