The Pentagon is learning how to change at the speed of war

For several decades, military reformers such as retired Navy Capt. Jerry Hendrix have pleaded with the Pentagon to stop buying wildly expensive but vulnerable aircraft carriers and fighter jets and instead focus on getting vast numbers of cheap drones. But nobody seemed to listen.

Buy Fords, Not Ferraris” was the title of Hendrix’s iconoclastic 2009 polemic for inexpensive survivable systems. Aircraft carriers, he wrote, “have become too expensive to operate, and too vulnerable to be risked in anything other than an unhostile environment.” Similar arguments applied to exquisite systems beloved by all the services.

Hendrix became so eager for change that he argued the Navy needed a skunk works to reinvent itself for the 21st century. He proposed using Lake Michigan, away from prying Chinese eyes, to create an “Area 52” experimentation site for autonomous naval systems. He imagined it as a Navy version of the Air Force and CIA’s famous Area 51 test site in Nevada.

But an addiction is hard to quit — especially one that benefits so many congressional districts around the country. So the military sailed on, spending ever more money on vulnerable platforms that would probably survive only for minutes in a war with China. Christian Brose, another Pentagon reformer who now works for start-up Anduril Industries, put it bluntly in a recent article for the Hoover Institution: “The US defense enterprise … is systematically broken.”

But for reformers, there’s finally a flicker of good news. Change advocates, including Hendrix and Brose, told me that the iron triangle that supports legacy systems — which Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) described as the “defense-industrial-congressional complex” — might finally be giving way to common sense. Every military service, in nearly every combatant command, is experimenting with uncrewed, autonomous systems for land, air, sea and undersea combat.

“A new consensus is emerging that we must make major changes,” Brose wrote in September. He quoted Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who argued: “If we don’t change — if we fail to adapt — we risk losing … a high-end fight.”

What’s finally driving change is the brutal lesson of the war in Ukraine. This is a drone and satellite war: Russian and Ukrainian tanks are almost defenseless against attacks from drones overhead; Russia’s huge Navy has lost control of the Black Sea because of Ukrainian naval drones; satellites can feed precise targeting information to kill anything that algorithms designate as a weapon.

But there’s a catch: The Ukraine battlefield is a blizzard of electronic warfare. So systems must be truly autonomous, able to operate without GPS or other external guidance, as I described in a recent account from Kyiv of technology developed by the software company Palantir. In makeshift weapons factories in Kyiv, and in defense labs around the United States, designers are creating systems with artificial intelligence at “the edge,” embedded in the weapons themselves, so they don’t have to depend on jammable signals from space.

Leading the campaign for Pentagon reform is Kathleen Hicks, deputy secretary of defense. In August, she announced the “Replicator Initiative,” which aimed to transfer the tech lessons of Ukraine for the potential battle areas of the Indo-Pacific. She wanted cheap drones for use in land, sea and air — and quickly. The goal, Hicks said, was to field “autonomous systems at [a] scale of multiple thousands, in multiple domains, within the next 18 to 24 months.”

That was unimaginably fast for the Pentagon. But Hicks said in a January speech that in its first five months, Replicator had achieved what normally takes the Pentagon two to three years. “If you’re not sure what is more mind-blowing — how fast we did it, or how long it normally takes — I don’t blame you,” Hicks said. “Honestly, the length of our normal process should blow your mind.”

Hicks told me last week that the key to Replicator was “transforming internal processes.” One big goal was to leap over what a generation of reformers have called the “valley of death” — the long gap between development of prototype weapons and procurement and deployment at scale. “Bureaucracies need to be shown that new ways of doing things are possible. That’s what we’re doing,” she messaged me. The first Replicator drone systems were delivered to warfighters last month.

Replicator is a striking example of Pentagon reform, but there are others. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall announced in March 2023 an innovative plan called “Collaborative Combat Aircraft” to team uncrewed jets with ones piloted by humans. The Air Force plans to buy at least 1,000 of these uncrewed jets and have them in the air by the end of the decade. In mock dogfights between human pilots and AI computers, the machines nearly always win, Kendall told me several years ago.

Now, the Navy, too, is finally embracing change. Task forces are deploying uncrewed vessels in the Persian Gulf, Mediterranean and Caribbean. The Navy last month announced a new squadron of what it hopes will be hundreds of unmanned surface vessels, known as Global Autonomous Reconnaissance Craft. The squadron’s informal name is “Hell Hounds.”

Four big uncrewed Navy vessels completed in January a five-month deployment to Hawaii, Guam, Micronesia, Australia and other destinations. Because the Pacific is such a complex and hostile environment, a robust naval drone program will need its own “robotic systems command,” with an authorities like those that created the nuclear navy, retired Vice Adm. Dave Lewis told me. As senior vice president for maritime activities at Leidos, he helped support the uncrewed four-ship flotilla that sailed the Pacific.

The Pentagon has managed for half a century to keep radical change from breaching its five walls. Carriers, bombers, tanks and fighter jets were built to last forever, and in a cozy world without peer competitors, it seemed that they could. But now, Hicks said, we’re in an era in which the Pentagon needs “deliberate discomfort” and “collaborative disruption.” It’s a revolution that’s long overdue.

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David Ignatius