Unmanned drones are already playing an important role in the fight against Isis. Photo / AP
As it wrestles with how best to attack yet another unconventional
enemy – one that is without a recognised state, driven by extreme
ideology and willing to kill innocents on civilian territory – the
Pentagon has largely stuck to a conventional strategy: Bombs away.
United States’ war against Isis (Islamic State) has largely been fought
from the air, with old reliables of the US arsenal, such as the B-1
bomber and the Tomahawk cruise missile.
But while the force the
Pentagon has deployed may be similar to the force that opened the Iraq
War’s “shock and awe” campaign more than a dozen years ago, military
leaders are scrambling to assemble a new force, equipped with the most
advanced technology for wars of the future.
The Pentagon launched
the effort, known as the Defence Innovation Initiative, or “offset
strategy”, a year ago. Slowly, its vision for how it intends to fight
the next wars – the kind of modern conflict that Isis and its attack on
Paris represent, as well as threats posed by potential rivals such as
China and Russia – is coming into view.
It is a world where big data drives decisions in real
time, where lasers replace bullets, the planes fly without pilots, and
robots are the first line of attack.
“I’m telling you right now,
10 years from now if the first person through a breach isn’t a fricking
robot, shame on us,” Deputy Defence Secretary Bob Work said this month
at the Reagan National Defence Forum in California.
about a coming “human-machine collaboration” that would feature
autonomous weapons, artificial intelligence, unmanned aircraft, wearable
electronics and even “combat apps”. The idea is to pair war fighters
with quick, fast-thinking machines able to process lots of information
and help humans make better decisions more quickly.
He cited the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, called a flying computer because it has some 8 million lines of code, as an example.
the aircraft has been criticised for not being able to manoeuvre as
adeptly as other jets, Work said the “F-35 is not a fighter plane, it is
a flying sensor computer that sucks in an enormous amount of data,
correlates it, analyses it and displays to the pilot on his helmet”.
mentioned how the Pentagon is teaming with the Palo Alto tech start-up
Palantir to crunch big data to help it monitor enemies.
10 years from now if the first person through a breach isn’t a fricking robot, shame on us.
said the Defence Department hopes that: “We would be able to take, for
example, the 90,000 Instagram posts that [Isis members post] each day
and crunch that data and say, ‘Okay, this is how we might be able to go
after this narrative’.”
He also said the Pentagon, which has long
been a top-down organisation, is trying to change its culture by
allowing more junior officers, who he said “have grown up in this
iCombat world”, to have a greater voice.
“If we can tap into the
captains and the majors and the lieutenants who have grown up in this
world and we can manage that creativity together, we will kick ass,” he
The defence industry has had to adapt to changing threats
and become more diverse and agile, Arnold Punaro, the board chairman of
the National Defence Industrial Association, said at the Reagan forum.
companies can do everything for deep outer space to deep under the
ocean,” he said. “They can do everything from hypersonic to boots on the
ground.” And there have been some demonstrable advancements.
year, for example, the navy deployed a ship, the USS Ponce, that was
equipped with a laser weapon designed to take out drones and small boats
by using a video-game-like controller.
Defence contractors such
as Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems have been working on laser technology
that would allow the weapons to be used on ground vehicles. And some
defence analysts predict that it is only a matter of time before they
are deployed on aircraft.
The problem – as the Pentagon readily
acknowledges – is that much of the technology being developed is rising
out of the commercial sector, most notably in Silicon Valley, which
tends to want little to do with the Pentagon and its dense, slow
Defence Secretary Ashton B. Carter has worked to
change that. He became the first defence secretary to visit Silicon
Valley in 20 years, hoping to persuade firms to sell their technology to
the Pentagon. The department has opened an office there, designed to
reach out to tech companies.
And in August, Carter announced the
Defence Department would spend US$75 million over five years to fund a
new research institute to develop “flexible electronics,” which could be
used as sensors embedded into soldiers’ clothing, or prosthetics “that
have the full flexibility of human skin.”
“We’re drilling tunnels
through that wall that sometimes seems to separate government from
scientists and commercial technologists – making it more permeable so
more of America’s brightest minds can contribute to our mission of
national defence, even if only for a time,” Carter said. “And we’re
developing new partnerships with America’s private sector and tech
communities, particularly here in Silicon Valley.”
non-traditional companies to become defence contractors hasn’t been
easy, given unreliable budget cycles and cumbersome contracting rules.
is all sorts of innovation that can’t break through,” Rep. Mac
Thornberry, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said
recently. He has been working to streamline the Pentagon’s acquisitions
process to encourage more companies to work with the Government. But
bureaucracy still turns off many.
“You can open all the offices
you want to, but if you don’t have an agile system then they are not
going to do business with the Pentagon,” Thornberry said. “It’s just not
worth it compared to the commercial market.”