Operation CANDLEMAKER

There are myriad ways to try to understand how robotics and autonomy will change warfare. The more creative, such as theater, the better. The short story remains one of my favorite ways to work through these kinds of questions, particularly with the idea that a carefully written narrative can help check our assumptions and biases about how we want things to unfold vs. how they might actually. My latest military future fiction short story is Operation CANDLEMAKER. It follows two frontline characters present when US forces employ autonomous weapons in combat for the first time. My favorite feedback about the story so far is that “the laws of physics and Murphy prevail.” High praise indeed.

After seventeen years in the US Navy, Commander Wayne McCabe got seasick for the first time when a robot had the helm.

Technically, there was no actual metal humanoid at the controls because the 130-foot Sea Hunter-class trimaran warship was driving itself, six miles south of Jazireh-ye Larak in the Strait of Hormuz. McCabe ground his teeth as he fought the urge to throw up yet again and wondered what he was really doing aboard the USS Nantucket. McCabe adjusted the five-point harness on the captain’s chair by feel and looked at the spot on the console in front of him where the ship’s chief engineer had duct taped a red “NO” plastic button from a party store. Just out of reach. Fitting.

If McCabe hadn’t been aboard, then it would have essentially been a ghost ship. The nine other Sea Hunter-class ships in his squadron were unmanned and were the only ships in the mine-laden waters, making him the sole American sailor in the entire strait. The ships ran as close to silent as possible, communicating just by laser burst. They kept watch using infrared search and tracking sensors that flew like parasails 1,000 feet above the ship. In the middle of this summer night, the Nantucket was all but invisible.

At least it was cool, if not cold, sitting in the “fridge,” as he had jokingly called the bridge because of the onboard air conditioning constantly battling to keep the floating computer within its optimum operating range. He wore a tan aviator’s flight suit and augmented-reality (AR) helmet, deepening his sense of irony over his lack of control. This deployment was going to be hard to explain to the kids; he was aboard the Nantucket, at the cutting edge of naval warfare, but he was no more than a passenger. He was technically in command of the entire squadron, yet practically, he was in charge of nothing. But you couldn’t court martial an algorithm, so the Navy brass had to keep a human “in the loop” in case things went awry with the onboard autonomous combat system.

Read the full story at the Art of the Future Project website.

Going West

The following is a piece on defense-industrial innovation that I co-wrote with Tim Wickham, a managing director at Avascent, where I am writer-in-residence:

Red tape, secrecy and politics. These are not things that innovative technology firms want to be known for in Silicon Valley.

These are some of the defense sector’s many burdens as it works to develop a strategic and military advantage for America that can withstand the 21st Century’s breakneck pace of technological change. The Defense Department spends hundreds of billions of dollars annually on weapons systems that are the envy of the world’s militaries, yet still finds itself falling behind the curve.

With renewed support from top officials worried about the future of the American military, the Pentagon is looking beyond the defense establishment as it searches for technologies that will give it a decisive operational edge. Incoming Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has a chance to own this initiative given his stint as the department’s top weapons buyer, and the fact that he was working in Silicon Valley before being nominated for the Pentagon’s top job in early December. Whether he is successful depends on something that so far is missing from the Pentagon’s pitch to those working on America’s technological future: the value proposition.

Read more at National Defense.

The American arsenal at a crossroads

The defense industrial base is tied to American competitiveness in the 21st Century. For that reason, leaders in the private and public sector must take steps to thrive during a drawn out period of changing expectations while also remaining committed to keeping the country strong through innovation, long-term investment and disciplined management.

The defense industrial base comprises much of the country’s aerospace know-how and directly supports the military and intelligence community. Among the threats it faces are stop-and-go program budgeting, sequestration’s across-the-board cuts and instances of poor performance by both industry and government on some of the nation’s costliest and highest profile weapons programs. This dulls America’s innovation edge.

The defense industrial base also poses a test for the country’s resolve to improve our economic capability and resiliency while also strengthening our national security in obvious and not so obvious ways. There are, of course, other crucial components of American competitiveness that also need urgent attention.

Read the latest paper on the defense industrial base and American competitiveness at the American Security Project’s Web site.