The future of national security technologies in shaping the battlefield of tomorrow

In a wide-ranging conversation hosted by Michael O’Hanlon of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence on Friday, July 31, representatives from some of America’s leading defense and services companies—LMI, Deloitte, Pratt & Whitney, and BAE Systems—each gave their take on the future of national security technologies and their revolutionary role in shaping the battlefield of tomorrow.

3-D printing and agile software were just some of the technologies touched upon by the panel. Jim Joyce of Deloitte highlighted the specific benefits to expeditionary military units, such as special operations forces, who could use additive manufacturing to break from heavy industrial base supply chains to support increased maneuver. At the same time, cognitive software could enhance military systems to the point that service members “come to the field with systems that are inherently adaptable,” said Dave Logan of BAE. Eventually, systems such as radios might respond autonomously to their environments in real time and help mitigate adverse conditions.

And in a twist on a more conventional technology—jet propulsion—James Kenyon of Pratt & Whitney outlined adaptive engine technology development. Having incorporated advanced new technologies and processes into the engines of the 21st century, Kenyon equated the capabilities of today’s propulsion systems to those of a Tour de France racer and his bicycle: able to immediately read the terrain ahead and adjust accordingly, optimize system efficiency over long distances and times, and at the end of the competition finish first.

Just as important, however, panelists spoke to the practical and pragmatic advances that additive manufacturing, agile software, and advanced propulsion can have in the near- to medium-term, pointing both to evolutionary and revolutionary changes taking place. Logan explained that through iterative processes that combine warfighter experience and new technology, today’s experimentation is driving new capability. Defense industry cannot simply provide more technology for the sake of more technology, he said, but must think about how it will be applied by soldiers in the field. In a similar vein, Kenyon was sure to note that even with the introduction of groundbreaking technologies, there are always system tradeoffs in capability and capacity.

Brennan Hogan of LMI noted that it’s just as important to recognize new technologies’ limitations as their breakthrough effects. She emphasized the need to understand whether new capabilities, like 3-D printing, should be used, not just how they might be employed. “We understand the DOD, especially their logistics and supply chain, and one of the things that we recognize is that just because a new technology can provide a service, like printing new things, doesn’t mean it necessarily should provide that service.” In the absence of smart strategy, throwing money and technology at a problem does not always result in smart solutions.

Lastly, the group tackled defense acquisition policy and the potential for reform. Asked to provide advice to those considering changes to the acquisition process, particularly those in Congress, panelists stressed balance. Kenyon highlighted the need to understand the difference between business and government—they cannot be run exactly the same—while Logan connected the distinction’s importance to forming viable stakeholder communities that can work together in the future despite very little previous work together.

“Technology does not respect the current organizational constructs,” added Joyce. Procurement is more than just following regulations and acquiring the right systems but accessing the full continuum of innovation. The country’s spirit of entrepreneurship must be tapped by the Defense Department, echoed Hogan, if private sector solutions are going to have public sector impacts.