As it wrestles with how best to attack yet another unconventional enemy—one that is without a recognized state, driven by extreme ideology and willing to kill innocents on civilian territory—the Pentagon has largely stuck to a conventional strategy: bombs away.
The U.S.’s war against the Islamic State has largely been fought from the air, with old reliables of the U.S. arsenal, such as the B-1 bomber and the Tomahawk cruise missile.
But while the force the Pentagon has deployed may be similar to the force that opened the Iraq War’s “shock and awe” campaign more than a dozen years ago, military leaders are at the same time scrambling to assemble a new force, equipped with the most advanced technology for the wars of the future.
The Pentagon launched the effort, known as the offset strategy, or the Defense Innovation Initiative, a year ago. Slowly, its vision for how it intends to fight the next wars—both the kind of modern conflict that the Islamic State and its attack on Paris represent, as well as threats posed by potential rivals such as China and Russia— is coming into view.
It is a world of where big data drives decisions in real time, where lasers replace bullets, the planes fly without pilots, and robots are the first line of attack.
“I’m telling you right now, 10 years from now if the first person through a breach isn’t a fricking robot, shame on us,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work said earlier this month at the Reagan National Defense forum in California.
Speaking at the Reagan Presidential Library, Work talked about a coming “human-machine collaboration” that would feature autonomous weapons, artificial intelligence, unmanned aircraft, wearable electronics, and even “combat apps.”
The idea is to pair war fighters with quick, fast-thinking machines able to process lots of information and help humans make better decisions, quicker. He cited the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, called a flying computer because it has some 8 million lines of code, as an example.
While the aircraft has been criticized for not being able to maneuver as adeptly as other jets, Work said that the “F-35 is not a fighter plane. It is a flying sensor computer that sucks in an enormous amount of data, correlates it, analyzes it, and displays to the pilot on his helmet.”
He mentioned how the Pentagon is teaming with Palantir, the Palo Alto tech start-up, to crunch big data to help it monitor enemies. Work said the Defense Department hopes that “we would be able to take, for example, the 90,000 Instagram posts that [Islamic State members posts] each day, and crunch that data and say, ‘Ok, this is how we might be able to go after this narrative.’ ”
He also said that the Pentagon, which has long been a top-down organization, is trying to change its culture by allowing more junior officers who he said “have grown up in this ‘iCombat’ world,” to have a greater voice.
“If we can tap into the captains and the majors and the lieutenants who have grown up in this world, and we can manage that creativity together, we will kick ass,” he said.
The defense industry has had to adapt to changing threats and become more diverse and agile, Arnold Punaro, the chairman of the National Defense Industrial Association said at the Reagan Forum.
“Our companies can do everything for deep outer space to deep under the ocean,” he said. “They can do everything from hypersonic to boots on the ground.”
And there have been some demonstrable advancements. Last year, for example, the Navy deployed a ship, the USS Ponce, that was equipped with a laser weapon designed to take out drones and small boats by using a video-game like controller. Defense contractors, such as Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems have been working on laser technology that would allow the weapons to be used on ground vehicles. And some defense analysts predict that it’s only a matter of time before they are deployed on aircraft.
The problem—as the Pentagon readily acknowledges—is that much of the technology being developed today is rising out of the commercial sector, most notably in Silicon Valley, which tends to want little to do with the Pentagon and its dense, slow bureaucracy.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has worked hard to change that. He became the first defense secretary to visit the Valley in 20 years, hoping to persuade firms to sell their technology to the Pentagon. The department has opened an office there, designed to reach out to tech companies.
And in August, Carter announced during a visit to the Valley that the defense department would spend $75 million over five years to fund a new research institute to develop “flexible electronics,” that could be used as sensors embedded into soldiers’ clothing, or prosthetics “that have the full flexibility of human skin.”
“We’re drilling tunnels through that wall that sometimes seems to separate government from scientists and commercial technologists – making it more permeable so more of America’s brightest minds can contribute to our mission of national defense, even if only for a time,” Carter said. “And we’re developing new partnerships with America’s private sector and tech communities, particularly here in Silicon Valley.”
But getting non-traditional companies to become defense contractors hasn’t been easy, given unreliable budget cycles and cumbersome contracting rules.
“There is all sorts of innovation that can’t break through,” Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a recent interview.
He’s been working to streamline the Pentagon’s acquisition’s process to encourage more companies to work with the government. But the Defense Department’s bureaucracy still turns off many companies.
“You can open all the offices you want to but if you don’t have an agile system then they are not going to do business with the Pentagon,” Thornberry said. “It’s just not worth it compared to the commercial market.”