FoW (No. 21): To succeed, we need to act less like dinosaurs and more like bacteria

FoW (No. 21): To succeed, we need to act less like dinosaurs and more like bacteria

By Matthew McClure 
Best Defense future of war essay entrant

The most successful organisms in Earth’s history are simple enough to evolve quickly in response to their environment. Dinosaurs, mammoths, and great civilizations all fall, but bacteria evolves and outlasts. Bacteria proved this resilience through the ages because of an evolutionary pace greater than its threats. Like bacteria, the future of war belongs to those who can evolve or iterate faster than their enemies.

Like watching bacteria in a petri dish, we witnessed this evolution in the fight against IEDs. The first IEDs used wireless detonators so we built jammers. They iterated and deployed a dozen new ways to explode. We created a $1 billion JIEDDO program office, waited a few years, and then deployed MRAPs. In that time, the diversity of IEDs grew large and varied through hundreds of generational iterations. For every one counter-IED system, the enemy deployed dozens of new bombs. Our enemy learned and we were out-iterated.

But it’s not the IED, consumer electronics, or even the Internet. It’s how all of these enable iteration. Want a rat-bomb? Cough up the small cash for a 3D printer ($2800), add a Raspberry Pi micro controller ($35), hit up GitHub, and iterate until it works. When they learn how to stop them, print something just different enough and try again. Better yet, print 1000 different types of Varmint Based Munitions (VBM) and see which survive and let that design reproduce. But I hope we remember it wasn’t the rat, but bacteria that killed half of Europe. For the future, look to the technologies that enable rapid, bacteria-like evolution. 3D printing, programmable microcontrollers, and open, crowdsourced software projects are just a few examples that let our enemies field hundreds of disparate systems faster than we can draft a single requirements document.

To make things worse for the United States, an enemy capable of rapid iteration is even more lethal against a monolithic bureaucracy. The multi-year program of record and the master technology plan are pointless. While we pour billions and years to create a single-use, one-time hypersonic demo, the enemy is iterating through hundreds of directed energy counters. Tomorrow’s winners will have iterated through many ideas faster than the losing bureaucracy with its zealous faith in the singular approach.

Trying many ideas fast is how my side of the generational gap works, and if you want to know what the world of tomorrow brings look at the kids. Fueled by XBox and PlayStation, we iterate through millions of hours of military tactics before the ink dries on the first War College essay. Our data are collected, aggregated, and scrutinized by millions of players around the world before that essay gets through peer review. By the time it’s published to the like-minded, we’re already on to the next war. 

King of the jungle is appealing, but will never outlast the king of the petri dish. Throughout the eons of Earth’s history, the simple and evolutionarily quick bacteria always defeat the large predator. Similarly, wars of tomorrow will go to those able to out-iterate their enemies. 

But we can keep pace and even thrive if we free the power of individual creativity from the chains of bureaucratic process. Enable a diverse pool of researchers, combat veterans, engineers, and even artists from every background and discipline with the tools of iteration. Give them a problem and get out of their way. We all evolve when they fearlessly pursue failure and then try, try again.

Matthew McClure is an engineer and defense consultant. Before that, he spent 10 years in the Air Force Research Laboratory playing video games and trying to move Title X Wargaming into the 21st century. He is also a damn millennial.

Tom note: Why not share a spoonful from your own petri dish on the future of war? Consider submitting an essay. The contest remains open for at least another few weeks. Try to keep it short — no more than 750 words, if possible. And please, no footnotes or recycled war college papers.