Digital Economy Dispatch #143 -- The Drive for Digital Transformation in Defence

Digital Economy Dispatch #143 -- The Drive for Digital Transformation in Defence
6th August 2023

When making presentations some years ago on the challenges of delivering digital systems, I often used to start by telling a joke:

Q: What’s the difference between Hardware and Software?
A: If you drop it and it breaks, then it’s Hardware. If it breaks without you touching it, then it’s Software.

Beside getting a few laughs, the aim of this remark was to try to get the audience to recognize that the opportunities and challenges facing leaders deploying systems across the enterprise were becoming dominated by the need to understand the design, delivery, and management of software. Regardless of the domain, it was becoming obvious that everyone was required to gain an appreciation for the role software played, and needed to upgrade their skills to take advantage of software-based capabilities.

Over the years, repeating such observations has become unnecessary. It is over a decade ago Marc Andreesen declared that “software is eating the world”. Since then, that sentiment has been widely accepted as a realistic summary of the growing influence of software in every aspect of business and society. Yet, while the influence of software and other digital technologies is now clear to everyone, is your organization going fast enough to transform to take best advantage of the new capabilities? Are our our senior leaders being sufficiently bold in responding to the scope and impact digital transformation?

In Defence of Defence

In recent months I have been turning more of my attention to the challenge of understanding current efforts at digital transformation in the defence sector. Over several decades we have seen widescale deployment of digital technologies in many areas of defence. For example, on-going military conflicts such as those in Ukraine highlight how digital technologies are embedded in every aspect of defence. That conflict has even been described as “a living lab for AI warfare”.

Military institutions in countries such as the US and the UK are clearly advanced users of digital technologies. However, the effects of digital transformation on military strategy, leadership, and decision making are not as easy to determine. Different perspectives on digital transformation in the defence sector are emerging. One of the most interesting is a recent report by Nand Mulchandani and Jack Shanahan entitled “Software-Defined Warfare: Architecting the DOD’s Transition to the Digital Age”.

In their report, published by the Center for Strategic & International Studies, Mulchandani and Shanahan make several important observations about the challenges facing the US Department of Defence (DOD) due to the current wave of digital technology advances. Their position is that the only way for the DOD to stay competitive in a new warfighting environment is not just to deploy digital technologies as they emerge to digitize established practices, but also to redesign strategies, organizational structures, and operational tactics in light of the new digital capabilities. Something they believe is not happening as quickly or as comprehensively as required.

Effectively, this paper is designed as a provocation to Western governments to accelerate digital transformation of the warfighting function as essential to be prepared for a future disrupted by digital ways of operating. They see this as particularly important today as adversaries increase their digital investments with ambitions to excel in the adoption of digital tools and techniques to achieve their goals. In response, they argue, the DOD needs a new approach that will allow it to be far more flexible, scale on demand, and adapt dynamically to changing conditions.

Importantly, they see that learning from the digital transformation experiences in other domains is a key to how the DOD can understand the issues and define a way forward. Every other industry, they argue, has move to a software-defined approach in which the adoption of software-intensive systems has completely reshaped the industry’s way of thinking and operating. They believe this transition is inevitable across defence too. Accepting and embracing this approach will force the reshaping of fundamental elements of defence strategy.

Perhaps it is not unusual to read these kinds of comments on the opportunities and challenges of digital transformation in large complex organizations such as those seen in the defence sector. Indeed, they are central to documents such as the recent UK digital strategy for defence. However, I was struck by two particularly important aspects of the report with regard to the priorities and impact of digital transformation in defence.

The first is a request for recognition across military and political leaders that software will play such a key in the future of defence that it demands a different philosophy to leadership. Something that they describe as “software-defined warfare”:

“Software needs to be at the core of every business and operating model before any business can hope to gain an enduring competitive advantage. The DOD is no different.”

This is a distillation of many of the things I have been advocating over the past few years. Adopting a software-defined approach will bring a number of advantages in how systems are procured, designed, deployed, and evolved. As seen in other domains, a software-defined attitude will lend itself to more agile ways of working that are not so reliant on large military platform programmes (e.g., new aircraft carriers, submarines, tanks, etc.) that cost huge amounts to produce, take many years to build, and consume major resources to manage, maintain, and upgrade. It will force the military establishment to rebalance their hardware/software perspective in defence.

The second is a clearer focus on the way that decision making must change to aggregate new digital data sources, perform analysis to reason about the current environment, and act decisively even in situations of massive uncertainty. All of this must happen in a digital environment requiring speed of action while hostile forces are seeking to disrupt every aspect of the process.

They consider optimization of the decision making to be at the heart of digital transformation in every organization. Successful digital organizations, they believe, have redefined many core processes, but place a focus on out competing their peers in their ability to understand the context, review options, and make something happen.

This focus on decision-making processes is also central to military operations. Traditionally, the “OODA loop” of observe-orient-decide-act provided the structure for many elements of the way that decision making took place. Today, the report argues, these steps consist of a confusing combination of manual steps, digitally-supported human processes, and automated tasks. Something that is becoming even more difficult to align as diverse digital technologies are made available. A new approach is required to align these different elements with the flexibility required to adapt to the digitally-driven changes we’ll see continually over the coming years. This, they believe, is what a “software-defined” perspective can bring to decision making.

The Kill Chain

One of the ways Mulchandani and Shanahan distil the issues being faced in decision making is to focus on the “kill chain”.  While rather an emotive phrase, it is used commonly in defence to describe their decision-making approach from observation to action. In effect it is:

“A multistep process that involves absorbing information, converting that information into knowledge (actionable intelligence), making a decision, acting on a decision, understanding the consequences of that decision, and refining future actions accordingly.”

As acknowledged in the report, much of Mulchandani and Shanahan’s thinking in this area is heavily influenced by Christian Brose’s book, "The Kill Chain”, first published in 2020. This important and insightful work delves into the challenges and future of warfare in the age of advanced technology. Brose is a former staff director of the US Senate Armed Services Committee and a US Pentagon policy advisor. The book is a comprehensive analysis describing his perspective on how the US military must adapt to maintain its dominance in the face of emerging threats.

The core theme of the book revolves around the concept of “the kill chain”, which refers to the sequential stages involved in successfully detecting, tracking, and neutralizing an enemy target. Brose emphasizes the critical importance of integrating and improving these stages to ensure operational success on the modern battlefield.

Inevitably, Brose delves into some of the challenges making change in such a large established organization. In particular, based on his personal experiences and observations he outlines the intricacies of military bureaucracy and the barriers to adopting new technologies within the US government. He emphasizes the necessity for a more agile and streamlined decision-making process to keep up with the pace of technological developments and counter potential adversaries effectively.

Perhaps the key point of the book is that Brose draws attention to the need for new ways for the military establishment to operate with the emergence of disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence, autonomous weapons, cyber capabilities, and advanced sensors. He argues that the traditional approach to warfare, which relies heavily on large and expensive platforms like aircraft carriers and manned fighter jets, is becoming outdated and unsustainable. Instead, he advocates for embracing new, innovative, and more cost-effective technologies to stay ahead of adversaries.

Throughout the book, Brose highlights the challenges the US faces in maintaining its military supremacy and the fundamental shift that is required in the way the US military leaders and politicians think about acquisition and use of military technology. He believes that recent events in the South China sea (and subsequently in Ukraine) provide a wake-up call to policymakers, military leaders, and other. It emphasizes the urgent need for transformative change in the defence sector to adapt to operating in a digital world.

A Digital Future

In a world being reshaped by digital technologies of many kinds, it is important to recognize the disruptive nature of the transformation they drive in organizations adopting them. In domains such as the defence sector, the pressures created by this disruption can be particularly intense. Internal struggles to redesign and implement digital ways of working must be addressed. While at the same time the operating environment and mission are redefined due to emerging digital threats. A recent paper on “software-defined warfare” highlights how this disruptive force is affecting the US Department of Defence (DOD) and why new attitudes, process, and strategies are emerging as a result. The analysis and recommendations provided are not only relevant for defence, they offer important insights for every organization faced with improving their approaches to decision making in uncertain times.