There are “only two ways to make money in business,” said Marc Andreesen. “One is to regroup; the other is unbundling. The founder of the first Netscape web browser has first-hand experience of this lesson that either bundling technologies and services, or unbundling and unbundling them, are the two main routes to profit in the private sector. When Microsoft began bundling browsers with its operating system in 1997, it was only a matter of time before it proved fatal to Netscape.
In the military, major weapon platforms and systems are essentially sets of capabilities. A critical requirement in the design of these systems in the past was the need to co-locate operator and platform. However, the proliferation of processors and networking technology has moved this from a requirement to a consideration. This change offers the opportunity to reinvent and reconfigure many systems and platforms. Change is difficult, however, and one of the hurdles for the military is knowing which long-standing groups should be unbundled. Other barriers are habits and emotional ties associated with existing platforms; Short, Superior gun elicits emotional reactions because they are fighter pilots, not drone pilots.
The tank, for example, combines protection, tracked mobility, firepower, a turbine engine and communications. It proved its usefulness during World War I when armies needed a platform of protected firepower to break the defensive stalemate of trench warfare. During World War II, multiple tanks in communication with each other reached a new level of speed and scale in combat. Recent developments in targeting technology and drones seen in the conflicts in Ukraine and Nagorno-Karabakh, however, raise doubts as to whether the tank can continue to provide a combat advantage in its current configuration.
Like business, warfare revolutions are usually sparked by an innovative grouping of capabilities. The Maxim pistol combined the rifle with a recoil autoloader to achieve a revolutionary increase in firing speed. The French Revolution combined a new political ideology with the mobilization of larger armies. The transition from the agricultural age to the industrial age and from the industrial age to the information age have both involved the pooling of technologies to unlock orders of magnitude of productivity and material progress. Time and time again throughout history, the new combination or disaggregation of new systems or technologies has led to innovation – bundling and unbundling. Once you have grasped this framework, it is difficult not to see everything in these terms.
Current US military convergence efforts – while accurately seeing many of the immediate possibilities of networked technologies such as crewed and uncrewed teaming – struggle to fully recognize the long-term consequences of networked technologies. To achieve the ability to leverage the concept of any catcher, any shooter requires a divergent, and perhaps revolutionary corollary: any platform, any operator. Achieving the speed, scale and dispersed footprint enabled by networked technology requires the disruptive reconfiguration of current platforms into a mix of locally and remotely operated systems.
Why is this a compelling view? While we have seen incredible advances in network capabilities and processing power, we have seen only marginal gains in mastery of physics. There’s a reason why platforms like the Chinook helicopter and the Abrams tank have been in service for over forty years: they’ve achieved only marginal improvements in top speed and range. If the maximum range of an Abrams tank is about four hundred kilometers, then nothing increases its range to four thousand kilometers on the same amount of fuel. If mastery of physics improved as rapidly as processing power, the maximum range of these systems would have doubled every eighteen months since they went into service. Barring a revolution in our mastery of physics, we are stuck with marginally improving the physical capabilities of systems for the foreseeable future.
The Abrams tank is close to the technical limits of what the bundle can accomplish without increasing the weight of the system to an unacceptable level. The M1A2 SEPv3 configuration weighs seventy-four tons, near or above the limit of many decks and carriers. Yet this increase in weight only brought incremental improvements in protection. Twenty tons of additional armor did not eliminate the threat posed by explosively formed penetrators, large improvised explosive devices, landmines, or advanced attack weapons like the Javelin.
Given these realities, the Army should consider, alongside its convergence project, a divergence project to generate options for unbundling systems and platforms and reconfiguring them to take advantage of networks and processing power. Rather than spending heavily on systems that are marginally better in the physical realm, such an approach would separate existing systems and integrate them into networks to find new ways to do more with less. This could mean fielding technically simple and affordable unmanned systems and, where possible, continuing to use older, less expensive platforms and generating improvements in combat capability by connecting them to networked systems. .
Of course, there are challenges to overcome. The strongest counterargument to network-enabled disaggregation is network reliability. Most soldiers have experienced the unreliability of army communication systems. Adversaries can disable networks with electromagnetic pulse weapons, electronic jamming, or cyber techniques. Networks depend on continuity of access and efficient administration. Operational disruptions can be the result of a simple mistake such as a lost password. Relying on the network to be the essential connective tissue of disaggregated systems presents a risk that must be mitigated.
The relentless growth of networks and the miniaturization of technology are leading to more persistent and reliable connectivity, as well as more reliable user authentication methods. If these technologies combine with improved solar and battery technology, many network devices could eventually power themselves indefinitely. With Starlink, the network has already become virtually impossible to deactivate. Mesh wireless networks established by Amazon and Apple have also connected billions of devices. The more nodes the network has, the harder it becomes to destroy. The founders of the Internet would be impressed by the solidity of their original idea for a communication system resistant to nuclear war. If the military adds additional signaling methods such as line of sight, it can deploy networks with redundant reliability on the battlefield and mitigate the risk of network disruption.
Another possibility could be the use of long-term airborne drone systems to support persistent network infrastructure. As chips continue their relentless progression to become smaller and more powerful, the possibilities for creating and maintaining battlefield networks become nearly endless. Network construction could become an integral part of battlefield tactics, just as cable laying was part of previous wars. Advances in technology will continue to create new opportunities to establish and maintain networks. For example, imagine firing thousands of one cubic inch network nodes clustered into multiple 155 millimeter artillery shells before a battle, scattering them widely to establish a mission-critical network.
Whether it’s recruiting crises or fiscal stagnation, the military (like the rest of the US military) will continue to be asked to do more with less. As the Department of Defense expands its presence in other areas of space and cyber, and supports the creation of the new service branch (the Space Force), the military and the rest of the services will continue to struggle. to achieve recruiting goals based on historical force structures.
Force reconfiguration to take advantage of remote-controlled systems would expand the range of options available to decision makers and reduce risk to the force. Separating carrier platforms is just one of the potentially attractive options created by the ever-improving processing power and networks. Going forward, the Army needs a cognitive framework to implement new systems that explicitly recognizes the huge ongoing disparities between physics proficiency and speed and the proliferation of networked processors. The idea of bundling and unbundling is useful in this environment because it specifically suggests considering not just what capacity needs to be increased or added, but what can be dismantled and reconfigured. Although the current trajectory of technological change offers the opportunity to make sweeping and possibly beneficial changes to the force, we cannot successfully leverage this situation without the right approach.
Major Jared Hirschkorn is an Army strategist currently serving with the III Armored Corps at Fort Hood, Texas.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.
Image credit: Tech. sergeant. Robert Cloys, United States Air Force