America’s adversaries today have a distinct advantage: access to commercial off-the-shelf technology that, unimpeded by a sluggish procurement process, can create powerful weapons that are confoundingly difficult to counter.
The bombs that exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15 were homemade improvised explosive devices constructed in an apartment using gunpowder from fireworks, Vaseline, shrapnel and a laptop. The improvised explosive device, also a symbol of the Iraq War, is a striking example of the sophisticated, low-cost, low-barrier-to-entry military capabilities created from commercial technologies.
The US military has a history of countering emerging and asymmetric threats with great strength. But today, the weapons of our adversaries don’t come from typical sources of recognized militaries; these devices don’t require Pentagon-size budgets or formal procurement and testing processes.
In fact, commercial technology often is the world’s best and changes too rapidly for military procurement to keep pace. Adversaries use it to innovate and improvise because it’s their only option. We call this concept “improvised everything” — the ability to leverage existing technology to rapidly bring solutions to the field.
US military leaders have already started to take a page out of adversaries’ playbooks — they have begun to see the need and value of improvising — but an unwieldy procurement process is getting in the way. The key challenge: how to make the process of accessing new commercial technologies faster and more efficient, so US forces themselves can improvise when necessary.
To start, we should employ more rapid prototyping, a quicker, more effective process to transfer new technologies and cutting-edge ideas into the hands of our military with minimum delay.
Ironically, the same commonplace commercial technologies used by the enemy can also be used by the US military for protection. Military training technology is a good example.
The US Marine Corps uses customized modules of the popular open-source code computer game “Unreal Tournament” to develop realistic training scenarios for thwarting attacks on critical facilities and taking out terrorist headquarters. On the flip side, computer games and online gaming are also providing terrorists with the same opportunities for distributed, remote and advanced training.
These rogue states and non-state actors will only expand their ability to leverage commercial R&D, and the convergence of inexpensive computing power, software and near ubiquitous communications will allow them to deploy training and logistics capabilities. In response, the US will need to focus on developing capabilities to counter a broad range of threats rather than specific point solutions, which is often the norm.
Current procurement programs are largely designed and implemented around outmoded ways of war fighting. Rapid prototyping, in comparison, uses current commercial technology and modeling to design solutions to today’s immediate threats.
For example, using 3-D printers, the US military has already realized enormous benefits in designing and developing applications, such as a model spectrometer to identify chemicals in water or find camouflaged weapons. These applications don’t require proprietary software or devices and can easily attach to popular smartphones.
Another powerful story: When DoD terrestrial mapping systems proved inadequate for urban terrain and difficult to transport, ground forces used the Microsoft Kinect for Windows software development kit to create, within a week, a program that provides 3-D mapping prototypes of urban terrain. The system cost roughly $100, but it performs in the ballpark of a half-million-dollar military system.
Using existing products, we can bring powerful tools to our soldiers quickly and effectively, saving lives and valuable resources. The public is also beginning to realize the many applications of 3-D printing and rapid prototyping. It’s only a matter of time before our adversaries do the same.
An improvised approach won’t work for all military procurement needs, but this kind of ingenuity and innovation is a step in the right direction. We shouldn’t let process and outdated procurement policies get in the way of bringing the right technology to our military forces.
Smaller, more tactical budgets and greater emphasis on efficiency will remain the norm for the foreseeable future, especially as sequestration’s effects flood the US government. To succeed, we must adapt and innovate in this new environment, finding new ways to deliver consistent performance for our military men and women with less funding.
Dr. Allan Steinhardt, left, an executive adviser, and David Smith, lead associate with Booz Allen Hamilton. Steinhardt and Smith help provide prototyping, technology roadmaps and innovation services to government clients.