The Object-Oriented Military

There may be a way, but is there a will?

My last longread for FastCompany.com, How Software is Eating the Military, looks at how software-based weapons, information systems, and other infrastructure are changing the ways we go to war. Here’s a bit more on putting the story together, and some other implications for the future of the military.

Northrop Grumman mechanical engineer Phil Lo holds a Universal Payload Adapter he designed (photo courtesy of Northrop Grumman)

The smiling face in the photograph above is Phil Lo, a mechanical engineer who works for Northrop Grumman. He’s credited with the design of the little piece of metal alloy he’s holding, which is known as a Universal Payload Adapter, or UPA. I like this picture in part because Lo’s grin is in decided contrast to the somewhat menacing Global Hawk parked behind him. But that Global hawk is fitted with a dozen little widgets just like the one Lo holds, and they are one of the things that turns this aircraft from an unmanned surveillance drone into a versatile tool that can be directed toward a variety of different missions, and on short notice. Together, the smiling man and the mean-looking drone make a great team.

The UPA is the hardware side of a design principle that lets the Global Hawk, among other Pentagon programs, become more than the sum of their parts (pun intended). As I describe in the Fast Company story, the UPA lets engineers switch out the surveillance hardware carried on the belly of the craft. A high-resolution camera can be swapped for a next-generation multispectral sensing system in a matter of hours. On the software side, an architecture known as Open Mission Systems lets monitoring systems on the ground work with the various pieces of equipment the Global Hawk can carry, with a minimum of fuss.

Until recently, this wasn’t the case. Military equipment is still mostly specialized to do one thing only (hopefully well), and pointing an aircraft that cost something like $200 million in a different direction (metaphorically speaking) might take months or possibly even years.

The idea that a military vehicle might support interchangeable hardware modules, or that different pieces of equipment might share a standardized architecture and messaging protocol doesn’t seem to have occurred to Pentagon leaders until pretty late in the game. Not that it should have, necessarily. It’s not part of the mission of the Department of Defense to stay abreast of best practices in software development. But if the DoD wants to create the most responsive and capable military it can, that’s just the kind of thing it may need to get on top of.

The fact is that the capabilities of those who would harm the United States and its citizens are evolving more quickly than ever before. Adversaries of all stripes (whether governments, “non-state actors,” or home-grown perpetrators of domestic terrorism) have access to cutting-edge technology in the commercial sector, and no acquisitions regulations to slow their adoption and deployment of whatever they piece together out of those bits of tech.

The Department of Defense, meanwhile, is hamstrung by regulations that often cause the technology they procure to be obsolete by the time it gets into warfighters’ hands (as I’ve written about before). While there are a number of instruments and authorizations in place now to let Pentagon leaders move faster, few are taking advantage of these tools, I’m told. The Pentagon’s risk-averse culture keeps the best tools out of the hands of those who take the big risks on the front lines of any conflict. Driving innovation may provide the way forward, but without the will to back it up, it doesn’t do much good.

The government acknowledges it isn’t doing a good enough job. A recent General Accounting Office report found that new prototyping initiatives — like those found at the Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental (DIUx) or the Rapid Equipping Force, among others — are not supported in a strategic way and will be less effective in the long run than they could be.

An Open Approach

One advantage of the Universal Payload Adapter and the open systems architecture is that it provides an environment that’s already been tested and approved, into which can be inserted new elements of technology. It’s similar to the object-oriented programming paradigm that has been the dominant approach to software development since the 1990s.

Object-oriented programming presents a common substrate that supports various pieces of code, known as “objects,” that can be developed independently, and which can provide new functionality without requiring the entire system to be rethought from the ground up. They can also be developed without needing to know what’s going on within the system they plug into. When functionality needs to be added or changed, only the new objects need to be tested, tuned, and secured, as long as the basic architecture of the system remains the same.

The military is moving in this direction — if slowly — with the Open Mission Systems architecture and some of the other initiatives mentioned in my Fast Company piece. Elsewhere, the Army’s new service pistol is a modular design, meant to accept a number of attachments such as grips and sights, and which, more importantly, is “modular for future options that you don’t yet know about.”

But as the acquisition system is currently formulated (and even under many of the reforms contemplated now, and those of the past), the Pentagon is limited in how far it can move in this direction, and how fast. Even where it has made much-needed reforms, institutional intransigence and risk aversion make program officers reluctant to take advantage of faster routes forward, insiders say.

That’s too bad, because the benefits of this kind of thinking applied on a bigger scale are potentially enormous. A military organization that is much faster at acquiring and deploying new technology and techniques is one that’s that much harder to get ahead of. As it is now, our military appears to be moving at a relatively slow pace. It has had many decades of advantage over non-state actors and even some “near-peer” adversaries, but that advantage, if it even still exists, is rapidly being eroded as technology evolves. The Department of Defense is more recently stepping on the gas, but it remains to be seen how much acceleration it can really deliver.

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