Convergence. That one word is key to understanding critical technology trends for the U.S. military in the coming years.
The information-driven, multidomain battlefield of the future is already here. Victory depends as much, if not more, on speed, agility and integrity in decision-making as it does on strength of force.
That’s the reality today for many conflicts: a classic observe-orient-decide-act (OODA) loop advantage reimagined for 21stcentury technology. In 2021, three maturing technologies — artificial intelligence, big data and ubiquitous cloud computing — will finally come together to create a disruptive wave that revolutionizes the art of combat for a generation.
These technologies, innovative themselves, become truly transformational when combined: dissolving communication stovepipes; giving U.S. military forces real-time command and control of multidomain operations; and providing a vital decision advantage to commanders.
Artificial intelligence programs, based in a cloud deployed at the operational edge, could automatically correlate sensor data from multiple sources, such as UAV video feeds, signals intelligence, and satellite surveillance — cutting through information overload to provide a continually updated, enhanced and orchestrated situational awareness of the theater.
And they could offer that all-source view, not only on screens back at headquarters, but on mobile devices in the hands of front-line warfighters and at every echelon in between.
Away from the front, the impact of this convergence over the next few years may be even more profound. Imagine critical time that can be freed up for important priorities rather than mundane administrative tasks using robotic process automation (RPA). Integrated with ubiquitous cloud computing and big data, RPA for example, can perform the rote task of assembling relevant information for analysts to enable people to focus on mission critical activities and make judgments about what the information means.
Technologically, critical pieces of this vision are all here, and their convergence has been demonstrated in exercises like the recent ABMS on-ramp.
But convergence, and the new multidomain battlespace it creates, is a threat as well as an opportunity. Since WWII, the U.S. has led the way by adopting advanced mission technologies — and by dominating the information war, enabling faster, more accurate field decisions. That edge, that advantage and the unchallengeable military advantage that goes with it, is slipping away.
Former Air Combat Command chief Gen. James M. “Mobile” Holmes warned the Air Force Association’s 2020 Air Warfare Symposium that sophisticated adversaries seek to undermine the U.S. advantage on land, air, sea and space “not by challenging us in those domains, but by challenging us in this information domain.”
Here are eight principles for managing convergence and disruptive change to maintain the U.S. technological edge and ensure its military advantage:
- Start by asking, “What are my objectives? And what capabilities do I have to possess to achieve them?” That way you can answer the question with the best technology available at that time. Technology by itself is not the answer — it is the means by which you get there.
- When it comes to getting the maximum impact from technology, people are the most important asset — and they are key to the U.S. edge over our adversaries. Invest in training and development of a digital-minded workforce that can engage with transformative technologies.
- Start small with well-defined projects to prove out concepts that either scale fast if successful or fail quickly. Failure can ultimately lead to success. Remember Edison’s quote about failure and inventing the light bulb: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
- Use open, modular standards-based approaches for acquisition to maximize participation and minimize vendor lock-in. Be agile, responsive and flexible — up to a point. Standards cannot be defined by the lowest common denominator; they have to set a bar not everyone can get over.
- Remove operational friction. Design is the key to managing complexity. A fluid user experience is critical. Great technology that’s hard to use may make things harder.
- Mission resiliency has to be baked in, not bolted on. The ability of a weapons system to fight through a cyberattack and assure mission resiliency is as essential as the ability of a firearm to function in sandy or muddy conditions.
- Learn from industry — use commercial process and product management approaches and technology to meet DoD needs.
- Data is exponentially more useful if it can be shared securely. Policy is a much bigger barrier to this than technology (something our adversaries don’t have to worry about). A data governance strategy is needed that aligns rules across DoD organizations and with allies.
Done right, this transformation will set conditions for U.S. military advantage for another generation. If the U.S. gets it wrong, the ability of its armed forces to effectively defend the nation may be in question and outpaced.
Vince Vlasho is a senior managing director and defense portfolio lead for Accenture Federal Services.