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.

Ghost Fleet On The Hill

In the past, readers toted a novel to the beach, shaking grains of sand out from between the pages on the commute to work the following Monday. With books on phones and tablets, people can bring fiction with to enjoy even while they might look like they are conducting serious business. Not that fiction isn’t serious. It is, and increasingly so. Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War featured this week during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the future of war. Joining the esteemed witnesses for the hearing, chaired by Sen. John McCain, was P.W. Singer, my co-writer. Ghost Fleet is fiction, but it is useful fiction, as the hearing shows. It also must be a first for a novelist to get a chance to showcase their fiction before the SASC.

From autonomous systems to cyber, the assembled experts provided an insightful walk-through of technologies, actors and trends shaping the future of war. To actually “see” what that future might look like, you can crack open the book. Serious indeed.

Watch the hearing featuring P.W. Singer: http://www.armed-services.senate.gov/hearings/15-11-03-future-of-warfare

Breaking Through The Fog

Nobody else is awake in the house. Why would they be?

I’d say this is my time, but it’s really not. The hours between five and seven in the morning belong to others: The fictional Marines, soldiers, sailors and security contractors of the future whom I struggle to give the lives they deserve; the people counting on my professional writing in the “real world” of defense and security analysis; my co-writer on the biggest professional gambit I’ve ever undertaken: a novel about the next world war.

Before I am fully awake, the keyboard keys rattle and shake in their metal bed beneath my cold fingertips. Whether those sentences that come out in three-to-four-second bursts are any good or not is less important. The most important part of this moment is the act of sitting down in the dark to get to work. Each character, word and paragraph is an incremental victory in a larger set-piece struggle that occurs every time I open my laptop before dawn.

If it’s a good day, there are creative breakthroughs. Big ones. It’s predictable, because for me the earliest hours of the day are almost always the most creative. Those breakthroughs come from the routine and practiced approach that respects an artistic tradition of early-morning productivity.

Read more at War On The Rocks.

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.

Atlantic Council: Man, machines and the bottom line

One of the abiding questions faced by the Defense Department and US defense industry is how to keep its edge in a fast-paced world where cutting edge consumer-oriented technology, much of it applicable in conflict contexts, gets steadily cheaper and more accessible. Meanwhile, the premier military platforms American armed forces are counting on in the 21st Century are becoming unaffordable and scarcer. Even attempts at buying relatively inexpensive ships such as the Littoral Combat Ship, or adopting unprecedented economies of scale as in the Joint Strike Fighter program, are not showing signs those bets will pay off as originally hoped.

There is another way to approach the problem than a singular focus on productivity, according to retired Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General James Cartwright. The industrial solution to cost-cutting is already at diminishing returns, said Cartwright, and the major savings required will not come from mere tweaks to business-as-usual weapons buying. Something bolder is needed.

“The platform is too slow to respond to a changing world,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out not how to compete with computers, but how man-machine [interface] and computational power start to come together in a way that gives you huge leverage,” said Cartwright.

Read more at the Atlantic Council’s Defense Industrialist blog.

ASP: The cost of creativity

Money is a funny subject inside the Beltway.

Civil servants get by on proscribed grade-guided salaries that often mean commuting dozens of miles to work while those on Capitol Hill learn to walk with a practiced lean against the steady gale of dollars bending and twisting American politics.

At the same time, the more than $1 billion in taxpayer dollars spent daily on defense and national security is essentially incomprehensible to the average American because of its scale. Among wonks, it is just as easy to get lost in the baroque aspects of Pentagon budgeting. Asking “how much?” instead of “why?” usually dominates conversation, particularly ahead of a full budget rollout, in part because it’s an easier question to answer.Of all the comments that have been made about what’s ahead, it’s worth paying attention to what Acting Deputy Secretary of Defense Christine Fox said Wednesday at the American Enterprise Institute. Fox, the former head of the Pentagon’s own office of eagle-eyed budget skeptics, made two important statements, which outsiders might see as contradictory.

Read more at the American Security Project’s Flashpoint blog.

Medium: Contractors on defense

The Industrial Age’s creations defined much of the thinking about 20th Century warfare. In the opening decades of the 21st Century, the influence of highly metabolic personal technology and electronic media is already unmistakable. Until recently, shipyards and aircraft production lines defined usable national power. Aircraft carriers and fighter still matter but they must share intellectual, and doctrinal, room with hackers and social media campaigns. A new era is upon Washington and the companies that supply the American defense and intelligence community. Power, and its suppliers, must change.

I’ve put up a new essay at Medium.com about the growth of the intelligence business and what the Edward Snowden case means for its future.

“During the Cold War, the heart of the aerospace and defense industry was in Southern California, where Jet Age engineers began remaking the American arsenal. The public kept pace with the change with one eye on the heavens. Overhead, they could look with pride at gleaming jetliners sharing the skies with bombers capable of striking targets inside the Soviet Union.

Since 2001, America’s defense companies evolved to take on new roles that followed an unprecedented increase in spending on private-sector defense services. The cutting edge of the defense business, focusing on the budget-rich intelligence world, has been out of sight for much of the country. The public gets glimpses of this reality, perhaps with an incongruous airplane-maker’s logo in a stale office park in suburban Virginia near the CIA. Amid the shadow wars and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the narrative of conflict and American business became intertwined in the formation of a new era for the defense industry.

Until, in an instant, a super-empowered defense contractor, Edward Snowden, opened a new window into the more than $50 billion world of intelligence contracting.”

Read the rest of the essay at Medium.com

Scandal or symptom?

After the sharp-elbowed politics of the past year’s election, the year started with hope that lawmakers and the White House would be able to finally tackle the profound and structural problems facing the United States.

The list is long. Some interpreted the Obama administration’s victory as a mandate to tackle historic problems like the debt or reforming immigration. Month by month, however, 2013 is proving to be no different than any other year in recent political history. There are a bevy of scandals at hand, constituting an incongruent sweep of subjects covering everything from the rights of reporters to work without government surveillance, embassy security in hot zones like Libya, abhorrent sexual abuse within the armed forces and the abuse of federal investigatory powers into political groups.

All the while, America’s competitiveness keeps taking blow after blow. Congress and the White House run headlong willingly into political skirmishes over these issues while ignoring the big, strategic challenges that will shape America’s security and prosperity well into the 21st Century.

Read the full post at the American Security Project’s Flashpoint blog.

Budgets used to be boring

Budgets used to be boring. Today they are the latest Beltway scorecard in the ideological back and forth over how to spend taxpayer dollars on initiatives or programs prized by Democrats and Republicans or an appropriations committee chairman and his putative rival from another state. This is the wrong way to look at how the current budget process will impact U.S. national security. The real impact, particularly on American competitiveness, comes from a lot more than a particular line item in the Defense Department budget. There is no better example of this than the defense industrial base.

See my latest post at the American Security Project’s Flashpoint blog.

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.