This class, Technology, Innovation, and Modern War was designed to give our students insights on how the onslaught of new technologies like AI, machine learning, autonomy, cyber, access to space, biotech, hypersonics, and others has the potential to radically change how countries fight and deter threats.

Our 20+ guest speakers were an extraordinary collection of military and policy leaders including two Secretaries of Defense, Generals, Admirals and Policy makers.

The class emphasized that winning future conflicts requires more than just adopting new technology and developing new weapon systems. It calls for a revolution in thinking about how these technologies can be adopted and integrated into weapons and other defense platforms, and more importantly, how they can create new operational and organizational concepts that will change the way we fight.

By the time we got to the end of the class we had a firehose of perspectives on technology, weapons, and policy. It took us awhile to process it all, but out of that mass of data five surprises emerged – insights about what’s happened to the DOD and the country and how we should organize to meet these challenges. We’ve summarized them in part 2 that follows this post. But first here’s a summary of what we covered in this class.

An overview of the history of military innovation
In the first part of this course, we reminded the students that the national power of a country – its influence and footprint on the world stage – is more than just its military strength. It’s the combination of a country’s diplomacy (soft power and alliances), information/intelligence, and its innovation / economic strength as well as military prowess.

Nations decline when they lose allies, decline in economic power, lose interest in global affairs, experience internal/civil conflicts, or the  nation’s military misses disruptive technology transitions and new operational concepts.

In our opening lesson, Ex-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter shared insights and experiences from his extensive and impactful career in DoD that included tours as Undersecretary for Acquisitions, Technology and Logistics, Deputy Secretary, and Defense Secretary. Subsequent teaching team lectures provided students an overview of the history of military innovation, all the way from long bows to nuclear weapons and offset strategies with the observation that innovations and adoption in military systems follow a repeatable pattern. Max Boot, the author of “War Made New helped us understand that pattern. Next, we described the US strategies developed since World War Two to gain and maintain our technological and competitive edge during the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

Finally, we discussed the challenges raised in the 2018 National Defense Strategy. In addition to  the non-nation states (Al-Qaeda and ISIS) we’ve fought for the last two decades, our military now faces “Great Power” competition from China and Russia. Today the U.S. faces “two plus three” threats –  the two peer adversaries China and Russia, plus the three – regional threats from Iran, North Korea as well as the non-nation state actors. The strategy called for a pivot of our defense from fighting terrorists to preparing for confrontations with the “two plus three.”

To help us understand how and why the “two plus three” strategy was created, we had Bridge Colby, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and one of the strategy’s authors lead this discussion.

Next, Christian Brose, the former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the author of The Kill Chain, (one of our required readings for the class) helped us understand what our adversaries have done to put our military and country at risk over the last two decades and the consequences for the country.

Military Applications and Operational Concepts in Space, Cyber, AI, and Autonomy
Once we laid out the new 2+3 threats to the nation, we segued into the second part of the class where we examined how emerging technologies in AI, cyber, space, and autonomy would create new weapons systems and operational concepts.

We heard from the DOD officials who are acquiring these technologies including Ellen Lord, the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, and Will Roper, the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition Technology and Logistics.

We got a deep understanding of the impact and deployment of AI in the DOD from recently retired Lieutenant General Jack Shanahan, the founding director of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (the JAIC) and Nand Mulchandani the JAIC CTO. Chris Lynch, the ex-head of the Defense Digital Service and now CEO of Rebellion Defense described his company’s experience as a new defense contractor trying to build and deliver these AI-systems for the department defense.

For autonomy, Maynard Holiday, former senior advisor in the Pentagon who helped the Defense Science Board define autonomy, gave us a tutorial on the technology. And for cyber, we had Sumit Agarwal, a former DOD cyber policymaker, do the same.  For understanding space as a new contested domain, and the role of the new Space Force, we had General John Raymond, Chief of Space Operations and Commander of the Space Force. And for the impact new technologies will have on the Navy, the best person to hear from was Admiral Lorin Selby, the Chief of Naval Research, which includes ONR, and the Naval Research Lab.

Major General Mike Fenzel, Vice Director for Strategy, Plans and Policy, J5 for the Joint Chiefs, educated us on how the DOD develops operational plans and courses of action. And finally, Michele Flournoy former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy offered what a new Secretary of Defense might do to organize to match those 2+3 threats and new technologies.

Midterms and Finals
For their midterm we asked students to describe how they would reallocate the defense budget to better serve US national security interests and to make their case to Congress on why and how our defense priorities should change. They had to determine and argue how much budget should shift from legacy systems to new systems and why.  We selected the author of one of the top student submissions to present her argument and recommendations to Congressman Mike Gallagher of the House Armed Services Committee.

For their Final, students teamed up in groups of 4 to tackle thorny challenges that may face the US and its Allies in the coming decades, including misinformation, cyber, logistics, networks, and new military platforms.  The students, with the help of a military member, developed broad proposals and wrote a policy paper for the President of the United States.  In the next to last class, as prep for the students final presentations, Safi Bahcall observed that one of the most significant barriers to innovation and adoption is how organizations are designed. And he offered that the DOD needs a different organization to facilitate rapid adoption

Finally, in our last class one of our student teams presented their final project – how they would address real threats, with new operational concepts, policies, and strategies – to former Secretary of Defense General (ret) James Mattis.

To Our Students
This class has given us a lot of hope that our nation and free nations around the world will be in good hands if the students in this class-and the best and brightest of their generation beyond Stanford – make the decision to serve and to use their amazing skills for the betterment of the world. We hope you take on the challenge that General Mattis posed to “Be the change in the world that you want.” All of us are cheerleaders to all of you and in that journey. So thank you for letting us be part of this.  We are excited to see how much positive change you will make happen in the coming years.

Lessons Learned

In our next post we’re going to describe the five surprises, the insights we’ve derived and offer specific solutions to transform the DOD and country to face the challenges ahead, not behind.

Steve, Joe, and Raj

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