Avoiding Technological Surprise for Tomorrow's Warfighter
Updated: Jan 12
Black swans are events that are rare, unpredictable, have major impacts, and are followed by widespread insistence, by experts, that they were obvious in hindsight. The term originated from the old-world belief that all swans are white since no one had ever seen a black swan. This changed in 1697 when a Dutch explorer discovered black swans in Australia.
The impact of a black swan event can be positive or negative. A black swan can also be a non-event as an event that has been predicted as being unavoidable, only to not occur.
Black swans are the bane of futurists and planners. Being blindsided by the future lets us know that the ground upon which we stand is not as stable as we would like it to be. It underscores the importance of adaptation and creativity.
Beware of Two Guys in a Garage
Guy Kawasaki is an American marketing specialist, author, and Silicon Valley venture capitalist. In his book, “The Art of the Start”, he made several insightful observations about businesses, large and small. To paraphrase one of his observations, he stated that the thing that keeps CEOs of large corporations up at night (or should concern them if they are wise) is the thought of two guys in a garage developing a new technology. Why?
It is more likely that individuals and small companies will be unencumbered by corporate bureaucracy and not have to play it safe to avoid embarrassment for undertaking a project
that fails on the first, second, and third try. They will be more likely to risk everything to invent and develop a new technology with which legacy technologies of large corporations cannot compete, especially if the new technology is licensed to competitors.
Large corporations and government-sponsored labs have no monopoly on creative insights, sound engineering practices, and effective execution. Heavily laden with resources tied to bureaucratic regulations, they are susceptible to operating like large ocean liners barreling across the water’s surface, unable to change course rapidly. By contrast, a small company can operate like a speedboat, able to change course quickly and travel into inlets and up tributaries to acquire special resources and to service markets that are off-limits to ocean liners.
The idea that today, only large corporations and government-sponsored labs can achieve major technological breakthroughs is simply a myth. Today, individuals and small companies have the same opportunities to apply creative insights and sound engineering practices to achieve major breakthroughs at the furthest edges of science and technology.
For example, in the 1960s, integrated circuits were expensive and not readily available to people outside of NASA, the military, and large companies. Today, integrated circuits, PCB manufacturing, sophisticated test equipment, and analysis software for basic R&D are widely available and affordable.
The greatest danger to large companies and government agencies is that their leadership becomes complacent and risk-averse. This complacency and risk aversion can set them up for adopting a mindset wherein a new technology, coming from the outside, is ignored and dismissed until it is too late.
In the case of corporations, economic disruption from licensed competitors can be financially devastating. In the case of the military, allowing new technology to fall into the hands of adversaries to be further developed and deployed can result in a catastrophic technological surprise.
Military Technology is the Most Advanced until It is Not
One commonly-held belief within the civilian population of the United States is that military
technology is ten to twenty years ahead of what the general populace is aware of.
This may be true in a general sense. Some technologies may be even further advanced than twenty years. The danger of seeing how advanced military technology is in terms of years is that the timeline can hold true until it does not. In other words, it is not only conceivable but likely, that a black-swan, end-run technological breakthrough will make the timeline irrelevant. It is even more likely that a small company will achieve the breakthrough if it has not already done so.
Cause for Concern: Technological Surprise disrupting a Critical Node
A critical node is defined as an element, position, or command and control entity whose disruption or destruction immediately degrades the ability of a force to command, control, or effectively conduct combat operations.
A hypothetical example of a technological surprise disrupting a critical node might be in the form of a new technology that can non-locally affect the timing of signal propagation within integrated circuits. No amount of shielding would protect electronic circuits from the non-local effects. In the hands of an adversary, everything from satellite communications (SATCOM) to weapons guidance systems would be subject to disruption.
Militarizing versus Civilianizing New Technology
One way to keep a technological surprise from occurring is to keep highly-advanced technologies within the confines of government-sponsored research labs and secure manufacturing facilities until they are ready to deploy. This works if new technologies are developed only within these facilities.
What if an advanced technology is developed by a few individuals or a small company operating outside of the control of the military?
What if their advanced technology is made available to the private sector (civilianized) and, unbeknownst to the company, subsequently finds its way into the hands of foreign adversaries?
What if foreign adversaries develop the technology further and integrate it to enhance their war-fighting capabilities?
What if they use the technology to severely disrupt a critical node?
If this hypothetical scenario does not give officials at the Pentagon and Intelligence Community nightmares, it should because it could happen.