Loren Thompson

Loren Thompson - Georgetown University Students Get Military Buy-In On Novel Approach To Solving Security Problems

The Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service has found a novel way of quickly solving urgent problems facing the U.S. military and intelligence communities. It is offering a class in which graduate students form interdisciplinary teams that systematically apply “lean startup” strategy to the challenges. The class is called “Hacking4Defense,” and Monday night I sat in on a session. It was fascinating.

Having taught national security classes at Georgetown, Harvard and other places over the years, I can testify to the fact that the Georgetown course is really different. It adopts methods devised in Silicon Valley for facilitating business startups to identify sponsors for innovative security solutions in the government — sponsors who can increase the likelihood a good idea will be implemented and fielded faster than traditional processes would allow.

The U.S. government proponent for this class is the MD5 National Security Technology Accelerator at the National Defense University. The first course was offered at Stanford in the Spring of 2016 taught by entrepreneur Steve Blank, retired Army colonels, Pete Newell and Joe Felter, and Stanford professor Tom Byers, but standing up a class at the leading university in the nation’s capital has special significance because most of the agencies likely to sponsor novel security solutions are headquartered in and around Washington. Hacking4Defense has already attracted support from Army Cyber Command, U.S. Special Operations Command, the Air Force Research Lab, the National Reconnaissance Office, and a variety of other federal agencies. Government contractors are engaged too.

What they all see is that it isn’t enough to understand how new technology might be applied to emerging threats. You need to know how government acquisition processes work so that solutions can be tested, certified and fielded fast. So at the class I attended, half the discussion was about the application of cutting-edge technologies to operational challenges, and the other half was about the intricacies of finding partners in the military bureaucracy that could help push solutions through the system.

Georgetown University has traditionally been a pivotal institution in Washington's efforts to deal with challenges to democracy, and its Hacking4Defense course is keeping the university on the cutting edge of innovation

Georgetown University has traditionally been a pivotal institution in Washington's efforts to deal with challenges to democracy, and its Hacking4Defense course is keeping the university on the cutting edge of innovation

For instance, a representative of the Pentagon’s Joint Improvised Threat Defeat Organization was present to advise students on the complexities of combining augmented reality technology with facial recognition software so they could be used to find terrorists in crowds. Students were routinely using acronyms for government organizations and processes that many security experts don’t know even after spending decades in the field.

Several of the projects developed in the Georgetown course have already attracted public and private sponsors to carry them forward after classes have ended. And therein lies the relevance of lean startup methods to solving security problems. Hacking4Defense students are in effect launching enterprises that must find funding to be sustained. Lean startup strategy was conceived to increase the odds of such enterprises succeeding by constantly testing business hypotheses through interaction with potential users and investors.

The traditional approach to starting a business involves putting together plans largely in isolation, which helps explain why most startups ultimately fail. As Steve Blank pointed out in a 2013 Harvard Business Review essay, a smarter approach is to immediately start refining ideas through interaction with the marketplace and the investment community. Georgetown instructors Chris Taylor and Matt Zais have adapted that approach to fit the federal environment, especially the military community.

They certainly seem to have the right backgrounds for the job. Taylor is a two-time defense industry CEO, and a former enlisted Marine with a graduate degree from Harvard. Zais is deputy head of the Strategic Initiatives Group at U.S. Army Cyber Command, and holds a Ph.D. from Princeton. The class environment is very demanding, but the rapport between the students and the professors is obvious. The students realize that they are participants in a unique learning experience, and actively engage in critiquing each team’s progress.

Although the teams must satisfy a template of tasks in order to get a good grade, in a sense they are competing with each other in the class. The level of discussion is extraordinarily sophisticated, not just in assessing the maturity of relevant technologies but in grasping the bureaucratic factors that might facilitate or impede the success of a project. Although I taught at Georgetown for nearly 20 years, I have never heard students presenting and fielding questions in class at the level of insight each team exhibited Monday. And, they do all of this while the class is live-streamed to the world on Periscope and Facebook Live.

Georgetown deserves credit for supporting such an innovative offering. In the past, some universities have shied away from coursework that got too close to the business of warfighting. But with the future of our civilization increasingly called into question by the way in which new technology has empowered extremists of every stripe, that view now seems outdated. Georgetown has found a way of helping defend democracy that gives its students unique insight into how the business world really works.

Loren Thompson - NASA Space Launch System Opens Pathway To Mars

--- And Thousands Of Jobs On Earth

There's a conference next week near Capitol Hill to discuss a project that may lead to the greatest technological achievement in history -- and yet chances are, you haven't heard about it. The project is NASA's effort to develop a huge rocket and spacecraft that will one day carry astronauts to Mars. If you wanted to build a case for why our nation still has the makings of greatness, this would be Exhibit A. And if you wanted proof that such projects can be good for a country's economy, this particular project provides plenty of evidence.

The official names for the rocket and spacecraft are the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. Several of the companies involved in the effort including both prime contractors (Boeing and Lockheed Martin, respectively) contribute to my think tank, so I try to keep up with the program. In a sense, though, I've been following the Mars program since I was a kid -- decades before it was begun -- because I grew up in an America that assumed once mankind had conquered the Moon, Mars was next.

Mars was the most common setting for all those science-fiction novels I read in high school, and it was almost always Americans who were leading the way. Back then, many of us believed it was our nation's destiny to lead mankind into deep space. We now realize that the stars may be beyond our grasp -- it takes 40,000 years for light to reach the center of our galaxy from Earth -- but that makes the only other Earth-like planet in our solar system even more appealing as a destination.

If human beings are ever going to walk on the Red Planet in my lifetime or that of other baby boomers, NASA's new rocket and crew vehicle are the reasons why. The Space Launch System and Orion are the foundation of the only serious effort anywhere to return human beings to the Moon, and then begin reaching further outward. The first mission to test everything is scheduled for next year, and the first mission with astronauts on board could happen as early as 2021.

A manned mission to the Red Planet won’t come until the following decade, although President Trump might elect to speed that up (NASA currently receives one-half of 1% of the federal budget, a tenth of the share it claimed during the Apollo missions to the Moon). President Obama didn’t care much about the space agency’s manned exploration program, which shows what happens when leaders are too detail-oriented to have a vision. Like a lot of other folks these days, his idea of science was focused more on the microcosm than the cosmos.

Under continuous prompting from Congress, though, Obama at least kept open the option of one day following up all those robotic probes we send to Mars with real people. It is a daunting mission. The baseline version of the new rocket will need to lift a 77-ton payload, and the one that eventually aims for the Red Planet will lift nearly twice that -- 143 tons. Just to put that in perspective, the maximum takeoff weight of Boeing's latest 737 MAX jetliner is 88-97 tons, including fuel and passengers.

The way NASA has designed the rocket, it will gradually evolve to accomplish more challenging missions without having to undertake a redesign. Boeing's liquid-fueled core will be used on all the evolved versions, as will Aerojet Rocketdyne's four RS-25 engines. What will change with each successive variant is the upper (or second) stage and the solid-fuel rocket boosters that provide additional thrust to escape the Earth's gravity. The propulsion systems on the initial version of SLS are refined from technology previously used with the Space Shuttle -- so at least we know they work.

Superficially, the Orion crew vehicle too seems to harken back to an earlier NASA effort. It is often described as resembling the Apollo capsule that transported astronauts into an orbit around the Moon. In this case, though, looks are deceiving -- it has 50% more interior volume, can carry up to six astronauts, and is equipped with technology engineers couldn't even imagine when Apollo was designed. Orion will be safer and more habitable -- which is a good thing, because crew vehicle flights will typically last for weeks.

Initially, SLS and Orion will carry astronauts to the Moon and an asteroid to develop experience for the first Mars mission. Cis-lunar space provides a potentially fruitful staging area for Mars flights. An asteroid visit would provide useful insights if Mars missions involve the Red Planet's moons. Asteroids have other intrinsic factors justifying a mission, such as the likelihood that an asteroid impact led to the Earth's last mass-extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs. NASA has organized these missions as stepping-stones in its "journey to Mars."

The early steps in that journey will cost about four days of federal spending at current rates from its inception in 2011 through the first manned mission on Orion. But that's four days of federal spending spread out over a dozen years, and it includes everything from the launch system to the crew vehicle to the ground infrastructure to the new upper stage. Meanwhile, the program will be generating many thousands of jobs in the U.S. and dozens of technological breakthroughs.

Those jobs are spread across 49 states -- the program has 1,700 suppliers -- and currently employ over 10,000 workers. For instance, NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans where Boeing is building the liquid fuels tanks for the SLS core employs over 3,000 personnel. The SLS effort is being managed by the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, which generates many hundreds of jobs locally. And the Orion spacecraft program, which is managed from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, currently employs 3,000 workers nationwide.

That's before we even get to the economic boost NASA's new rocket and space vehicle will give Florida's Space Coast when they begin operating from Kennedy Space Center next year. Like any other big infrastructure project, NASA's journey to Mars will create lots of jobs. The difference in the space agency's case is that they will be high-tech, high-paying jobs that enable one of the greatest achievements in history. It will be an episode without parallel in the chronicle of American civilization.

Loren Thompson - U.S. Marine Corps Retools Strategy As Tech Threats Mushroom

The U.S. Marine Corps is postured for the past rather than the future. That's the conclusion its top leaders came to after a year-long review of how the threats Marines face are changing and what the Corps must do to adapt.

Eventually, these divergent trends will put Marines at a disadvantage in fighting the nation's wars. The other military services face a similar challenge, but because the Marines are America's first responders in overseas crises, they are likely to be early casualties of the chronic under-investment in new technology. Here is how the Corps describes its central problem in a recent revision of the Marine Operating Concept:

The Marine Corps is not organized, trained, and equipped to meet the demands of a future operating environment characterized by complex terrain, technology proliferation, information warfare, the need to shield and exploit signatures, and an increasingly non-permissive maritime domain.

This is not the way the Marines used to talk about challenges. The traditional message has been that the Marine Corps is almost infinitely adaptable, able to improvise and prevail no matter how austere the circumstances. But the appearance of new information technologies in the hands of foreign adversaries clearly has it worried. As my colleague Daniel Goure puts it, there aren't any low-end threats anymore -- even rag-tag extremists have smart phones, drones, GPS jammers and lethal anti-armor weapons.

So the Marine Corps has to change. This week I sat down with Lieutenant General Robert S. Walsh, the Deputy Commandant of the Marine Corps for Combat Development and Integration, to discuss where his service is headed. Walsh is dual-hatted as head of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, and thus has the lead for developing future warfighting doctrine, requirements and training concepts.

Walsh says that "we are nearing completion of an extremely exacting capabilities-based review that identified several critical gaps that must be addressed in order to fight and win against highly capable adversaries." Among other things, the review found a need for more sophisticated information warfare capabilities; additional unmanned aircraft systems; active protection of combat vehicles; and better expeditionary defenses against airborne and ballistic threats.

The good news is that the Marines have sustained their investment in the unique MV-22 tilt-rotor and stealthy F-35B fighter, both of which are capable of landing on a dime pretty much anywhere rather than requiring air strips. The ability to combine the vertical agility of a helicopter with the speed and reach of a fixed-wing plane is already delivering big operational dividends to the Corps in terms of flexibility and versatility.

But everywhere else that Walsh looks, he sees problems that need to be fixed. For instance, the minimum number of amphibious warships needed to lift two Marine Expeditionary Brigades is 38, and at the moment the Navy only operates 31. If current shipbuilding plans aren't changed, the service won't have what it needs until 2034. There's plenty of shipbuilding capacity for building additional ships sooner and the cost is not high -- a couple of days worth of federal spending at present rates -- but Congress has capped defense spending.

Without adequate resources, the Marine Corps has been forced to fund readiness while neglecting modernization. But now, Gen. Walsh says, "We've got to start modernizing -- we aren't postured for the future fight."

The Marines are not abandoning their traditional emphasis on maneuver warfare or individual initiative. If anything, the new warfighting environment will require small units to exercise even more autonomy and initiative as they operate in widely dispersed operations. So leadership training down to the most junior officer will be crucial to future success. But it is no longer enough to maneuver effectively at sea, on the ground, and in the air. The Marine Corps must also learn to maneuver on the electromagnetic spectrum.

That's where the sensors, smart weapons and networks that increasingly define modern warfare operate. If Marines can't dominate the spectrum, then their communications will be jammed, their emissions will make them vulnerable to targeting, and they may even be denied access to GPS. Enemies will use non-kinetic weapons like cyber attacks to take down systems that the Marines count on to multiply their effectiveness.

So information warfare has become central to Marine planning. The service has already shifted 6,000-7,000 Marines into information specialties to cope with the various assaults enemies may launch on the electromagnetic spectrum. That's a big commitment in an organization that currently numbers only 182,000 uniformed warfighters. But all the other requisites of modern warfare like long-range fires and armored warfare must also be serviced, so some increase in personnel will be needed just to keep the Marine Corps abreast of emerging threats.

It's unusual to hear Marines like Gen. Walsh talking about information warfare. The historic ethos of the Marine Corps was always about the human elements of war, and the importance of esprit in overcoming material obstacles. But there's just so far those values can get you when the enemy is able to track your formations, target your combat systems and disrupt your command links. So now the Marine Corps must adapt its most cherished principles to a world in which the worst actors may have the latest technology.