Will the US Military Lose Its Technological Edge?

Until about 1944 the USA and its allies tended to be armed with solid and reliable, but pretty unremarkable, equipment and weapons. There were exceptions – the M1 Garand, the world’s first widely issued semiautomatic rifle; the Mustang fighter, designed for the RAF then adopted by the USAF as the P-51; or the US Navy’s Iowa class, the finest of the WWII battleships. Unfortunately, there were times when innovative new technology introduced by the Third Reich caught the Allies by surprise though, so by the end of the war a new philosophy was gaining momentum – the idea that in future wars, the western powers would aim to have a technological edge over any potential enemy. And from the formation of NATO up to present day, we’ve pretty much succeeded in doing that. The US military, or any of its leading counterparts – the UK, Australia, France or South Korea – deploy advanced systems that overmatch an adversary’s in terms of processing power, communications, weapons lethality and pretty much everything else.

But, are we in danger of losing that edge?

Military procurement is a famously inefficient process, but most of the attention gets focused on how expensive it is. What often gets overlooked is that it’s also slow. That didn’t matter so much in the 1950s when technical innovation meant new engines and guns; now, with every communications and fire control system built around computers and networking technology, slow procurement is a potential disaster in the making. Every few months there’s another leap forward in making communications faster, easier and more secure. Computers are still following Moore’s Law and doubling in power every 18 months. But, a major defense project can take a decade to work its way through the system and end up in the hands of our troops.

Tech SideObviously, it’s important to make sure new equipment is reliable and secure. There is, and always will be, a need for rigorous checks before a purchase is made but the brutal fact is that we can no longer afford to wait ten years for a new radio, or 25 for a new aircraft. An adversary who’s willing to take a few risks can buy something right off the shelf and leap ahead. In Kosovo, British troops were communicating with mobile phones that Serbia could intercept, but that was a better alternative than the Clansman radios that everyone could intercept. Meanwhile, a twelve-year project to bring in a secure radio was going exactly nowhere. Right now, there are US warships that depend on expensive custom chips to keep vital combat systems running; the original manufacturers went out of business years ago and it would cost a fraction as much to just rip out the computers and replace them with an iPhone that has ten times the processing power, but the procurement system doesn’t allow that.

The area where technology’s effects are most obvious is cyberwar, and the landscape on that battlefield looks alarming. Several countries, including Israel and – alarmingly – China, seem to be way out in front of us there. But the effects are a lot wider than that. By the time a secure radio makes it into service, it’s already based on old and potentially breakable encryption technology. Radars might not be immune to ECM that’s a decade newer in concept. Even something as simple as a ruggedized laptop will be unable to run the latest version of Word by the time it’s crawled its way through the procurement labyrinth – exactly this happened with the UK’s BOWMAN secure data and radio system. In fact, BOWMAN’s procurement was so cursed that the joke is that it stands for “Better Off With Map And Nokia.”

If we’re going to maintain a technological edge, we can’t tolerate the glacial pace of project development any more. Keeping our systems reasonably up to date with the current pace of technological change is going to require much faster ways of getting them into service. Otherwise, future wars are going to hold some very nasty surprises for us.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Fergus Mason

Fergus Mason grew up in the west of Scotland. After attending university he spent 14 years in the British Army and served in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Iraq. Afterwards, he went to Afghanistan as a contractor, where he worked in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Camp Leatherneck. He now writes on a variety of topics including current affairs and military matters.
Fergus Mason

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