When Apple debuted its revolutionary iPad in 2010, the company made a decision that would have profound effects on technology development. Apple wisely chose to have an open-door policy for all kinds of apps, unleashing the creative brilliance of companies large and small to build everything from Google Earth to Skype.
The genius of today’s tablet and smartphone technology is that they are portable newspapers, shopping carts, TVs and many other things. The engineering and business lessons are important for the military. For too many decades we have purchased weapons that could not be further removed from the iPad and today’s ever-evolving, interconnected tech world.
Metaphorically speaking, the military services have been in the hardware-buying business for too long. For decades we have purchased weapons that all too often do not communicate with one another, are expensive to maintain and are difficult to update with new technology. In the future, we must shift our focus from buying hardware to buying software and “apps.”
Here’s why. Future success on the battlefield will be closely linked to rapidly processing information in space, in the air, and on land, sea and cyberspace. The military term for this is “multidomain operations,” and it is all about creating a force that has the best “apps” to quickly fuse data and give commanders the critical edge in decision-making. Think of a much more sophisticated and robust version of the navigational apps Waze and Google Maps that could provide commanders with real-time information about the whereabouts of the enemy, from space to under the ocean.
The old Pentagon business model, which has relied on defense contractors producing large quantities of ships, airplanes and tanks over a period of decades, served us well for a long time. But that same model, in which companies often owned the intellectual property rights and held long-term contracts to maintain those weapons, will not be flexible enough for us to compete with China and Russia in the future.
In order to build the networks that we need to deter and defeat future adversaries, we will need to fundamentally change the way we purchase weapons. For decades, defense contractors have made substantial profits on the back end of weapons sales, typically by owning the intellectual property rights and doing much of what we call weapon sustainment, or upkeep.
Altering this model will require the Pentagon and industry to work together to find a way for firms to remain profitable as they return flexibility in weapons upgrades to the military.
Future wars will be won by the side with the most relevant apps and a network to link all its weapons. One of our most important goals is helping to figure out how to build the connective network we will need to win future wars. And we must make such network development enticing and profitable to American industry.
History might hold some clues. In the 1950s, at the dawn of the nuclear age, the United States built an integrated air defense network called SAGE, or Semi-Automatic Ground Environment. The network consisted of mammoth computers that would quickly fuse information to provide a common picture of a nuclear missile and bomber attack from the Soviet Union. Anyone who has seen the movies “Dr. Strangelove” or “War Games” is familiar with the early-warning images generated by SAGE showing the precise details of an attack in progress.
Today, it might be possible to build a modern version of SAGE that could harness the power of a commercial technology revolution that has given us affordable space access, quantum computing and big data. If past is prologue, I believe we can and must do this.
Gen. Dave Goldfein is the U.S. Air Force chief of staff.