The Weapons of Tomorrow Must Come Cheaper, Faster and Simpler Than Before

Instead of trying to build silver bullets for the future, policymakers and industry must become better at responding to the unpredictable.

Several years ago I came into possession of a book from 1983 entitled The Non-Nuclear Defense of Cities. The author is the late Daniel Graham, a retired Army lieutenant general and former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. His book suggests using a space-based defense system called High Frontier to counter Soviet ICBM’s. It helped shape President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (aka Star Wars) and was published to considerable acclaim 32 years ago.

I confess I haven’t read the entire book but I think the title is awesome. I’d like to imagine it was part of a long-running series of similarly futuristic books that includes an 1861 volume titled The Non-Pony Distribution of Postal Correspondence, and that 1965 classic The Non-Vinyl Storage of Popular Musical Recordings. Other books in the series remain to be written, such as The Non-Silver-Jumpsuit Approach To Space Fashion, due to be released in the middle of the 25th century.

As a historical artifact of the Cold War, Graham’s book – or at least the title of his book – is worth considering and pondering, particularly by those of us who are trying to say something meaningful about the future of war in this new century. As we strive to imagine how conflict might progress in days yet to come, The Non-Nuclear Defense Of Cities is both an example and a cautionary tale.

On the one hand, Graham demonstrated an admirable degree of creativity and imagination. He looked at the major threats in his world and described a new, better way to address those threats. He envisioned a future where “poorly conceived U.S. security policies such as MAD [Mutual Assured Destruction]” could be replaced by better policies that do not put humanity’s very survival at risk. Even well-conceived security policies require periodic re-examination and replacement, and Graham provides an outstanding example of what that process can look like and produce.

(RelatedWhat Is the Future of War?)

And yet, as far-sighted and inventive as Graham was, his book remained rooted in certain contemporary assumptions that ceased to be valid much sooner than anyone expected. This is not a flaw, per se. It is simply the nature of predictions. Although Graham was very aware that threats and technologies change, there was no way he could know in 1983 that the USSR would be gone in less than a decade, making his proposed “High Frontier” system obsolete before it got off the ground. He knew change was inevitable but could not see the specific nature or pace of those future changes… and neither can we.

Given the unpredictable nature of the world, even the most forward-leaning visionary will have a hard time keeping up with all the surprises and changes that come our way. What can be done to deal with this situation? Rather than trying to get better at guessing, we would do well to instead focus on sharpening our ability to quickly respond to unpredictable developments. We cannot know in advance what new needs will arise or when they will pop up, but we can take steps to speed up our response time and reduce the delay between recognizing a new opportunity and doing something about it.

This concept is at the heart of a book I published last year titled F.I.R.E. – How Fast, Inexpensive, Restrained, and Elegant Methods Ignite Innovation. It presents a collection of true stories, general principles and specific practices designed to help technologists of all stripes, including military technologists, deliver best-in-class new systems on short timelines and tight budgets. The basic premise is that innovation does not have to cost so much, take so long, or be so complicated. In fact, the data in my book shows that our best results come when we embrace speed, thrift and simplicity rather than adopting a “take your time, spare no expense” mentality.

Convincing the defense acquisition business to operate at the speed of need is a long-standing dream. Even Graham’s book bemoaned that “the acquisition cycle has more than doubled in length since the 1950’s.” In a commentary that is even more relevant today than it was in 1983, he observes that “…the departments have been unable to implement all the measures they themselves recognize as required for rapid and cost effective system acquisition.” Plus ca change

However, Graham ends on a hopeful note when he points out “precedent exists for shorter acquisition cycles since these continue to be successfully pursued in the case of some intelligence systems and commercial programs.” This means the endless schedule delays and sky-high budget overruns that so often plague the Pentagon are not inevitable. We can deliver world-class new technologies quickly and cheaply, and we have often done so. Graham knew it back in 1983. We know it today. The secret is to find and follow the good examples – like the Navy’s Virginia Class submarine or the USAF’s MC-12 Project Liberty aircraft – and to build on the successful precedents of those who went before us. It turns out, the key to future success just might be found in the past.