The U.S. military faces a serious challenge. While China and other threats to American interests are becoming more acute, the defense budget and the size of the overall military are relatively static. Plans to field greater numbers of new, more capable platforms, like next-generation ships and aircraft, will take years to materialize. We need a shortcut. Better software that is commercially available might be the answer.
The Pentagon’s Problems…
Acquisition problems have been a long-term bugaboo of the Pentagon, leaving it with fewer planes, ships, and other weapons platforms than commanders and Congress say are necessary for today’s threats. For example, the Navy would like 321 to 372 manned ships for its current responsibilities. At present, it only has around 300. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall looked back on the development of the F-35 fighter—over half a decade of development time and tens of billions of dollars—and characterized it as “acquisition malpractice,” promising to do better with a new bomber under development.
Additionally, the Pentagon faces these challenges during a period of major transition from a force geared toward the counterinsurgency campaigns of the 2010s to deterring major powers, especially China’s fast-growing military. Various officials predict that Beijing could attack Taiwan, likely drawing the United States into conflict, before the end of the decade.
The late Donald Rumsfeld caused controversy when he said “you go to war with the army you have.” He wasn’t actually lamenting the state of the U.S. military; rather, he was observing the fact that changing the composition of the military takes years, especially if change requires building new ships, planes, and other complex platforms.
…Require Digital Solutions
One way America can have a big impact in deterring China rapidly is in the realm of software, especially commercially available software that can be adapted to military needs within months, not years.
Collecting, processing, and securing information better is a way to squeeze additional utilization out of the finite number of weapons systems we have today. Nowhere has this been more evident recently than on the battlefield in Ukraine. Both sides have made far more use of sensors and commercial communications compared to prior conflicts. These have often taken the form of relatively low-tech, quick-to-build, unmanned aerial vehicles. The software to process this information and the design principles to keep it secure have been crucial.
The U.S. military’s leadership understands the need to exploit technology more. For example, Secretary Kendall prescribed seven operational imperatives that included matters like resilient space architectures, optimized command-and-control that works across the military’s branches, scaling up the ability to track and engage moving targets, and communicating in hostile environments where adversaries are poking holes in our networks.
While each of these requirements needs a critical mass of old-fashioned hardware and personnel to match an adversary’s military, they can all be improved quickly with software that is better and more secure than that of the militaries we oppose. Furthermore, the software can often be retrofitted into existing weapons systems quickly and with far less expense than the hardware it is improving. This is especially true if the software can be adapted from the private sector rather than built as a “boutique” product by the government.
Take space for example. Using better software to secure space networks, which soon will include tens of thousands of private satellites in addition to the government and commercial ones already in orbit, can be a way for the U.S. military to understand the battlefield and direct its forces. It can also be necessary to collaborate with less-sophisticated partners. This has also been demonstrated in Ukraine, where commercial satellite imagery has also been used by fighters in near real-time. Government-operated spy satellites may still be the gold standard, but private-sector options are not far behind.
The thousands of satellites that private operators like SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s Kuiper are placing into orbit, combined with government-owned satellites, will be a major force multiplier if exploited and secured properly with specialized software. Specifically, older satellites and new satellites need to be upgraded and designed to employ end-to-end encryption, zero-trust software design, and decentralized encryption-key management.
Software can also account for the fact that hardware in space will be disabled through enemy action in wartime, because software is what makes networks adaptable. Software that secures information at the data level means we don’t have to worry about relying on government-only networks. When an enemy inevitably breaches a network or takes out network nodes it won’t matter as much if the military can jump between multiple networks and nodes, whether they are military or commercial satellites, billion-dollar ships and submarines, or cheap drones.
A software revolution can help squeeze more capability out of our existing military force in a timeframe that can actually help deter war with China and other adversaries—and leave us better prepared to defeat cyber aggression that has also become the norm of peacetime. But the Pentagon needs to move fast and make greater use of existing commercial technology to keep an edge.
David Pearah, an MIT-trained computer engineer, is CEO of SpiderOak, a space cybersecurity company.