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October 30, 1998

Information Technology as a Force Multiplier

Technology helped American forces outpace Saddam Hussein in Desert Storm. But can the Pentagon keep its high-tech edge? By Hoover fellow and former U.S. secretary of defense William J. Perry.


American military strategy calls for achieving battlefield dominance over any regional power with which U.S. forces might be engaged in conflict and accomplishing this through leadership in technology. During the Cold War the United States used technological superiority to offset the numerical superiority of Soviet ground forces. And in Desert Storm, our troops were equipped with weapon systems, developed in the 1970s, that used information technology to locate enemy targets on the battlefield, embedded computers to guide weapons to those targets, and employed stealth technology to evade enemy weapons. The Allied forces defeated roughly equal numbers quickly, decisively, and with remarkably few casualties. As a result, today’s technological leadership is the linchpin of U.S. national security policy and has fundamentally changed the relationship between the commercial high-tech industry and the Pentagon.

From the 1950s through the 1970s, the Defense Department was the principal supporter of R&D for the computer, communications, and semiconductor industries. Some of the most significant advances—including supercomputers, geosynchronous satellites, geographically dispersed packet-switched computer networks, and integrated circuits—were first developed for military systems. In effect, the commercial technology industry was riding on the shoulders of the Department of Defense.


Major weapons systems take ten to fifteen years to develop, and then they they are in inventory for twenty to forty years. But the computer technology behind these weapons advances by nearly a generation every two or three years.


Today the opposite is the case. Where commercial applications of computers once trailed military applications, commercial revenues now dwarf defense revenues for every technology company. This requires a profound change in the way the Defense Department does business with industry and the way it supports R&D. Most important, defense can no longer support a defense sector that is isolated from the commercial industry. It must abandon military specifications and idiosyncratic buying practices and conform to industry standards. During the 1980s the military development cycle so lagged behind commercial development that defense computer systems were generally incompatible with commercial products and obsolete by the time they could be used. This made it clear that our nation should have a single computer industry that equips both defense and commercial needs. The introduction of commercial practices and components in defense acquisition not only saves the government money but is essential to putting modern technology into our weapon systems.

Getting this type of innovation into the hands of our troops in a timely way, however, is still a serious challenge. Major weapons systems take ten to fifteen years to develop, and then they are in inventory for twenty to forty years. But the computer technology behind these weapons advances by nearly a generation every two or three years. The Department of Defense needs more than a new procurement strategy. It needs a strategy that keeps major weapon systems in the field for several decades but updates them every few years with new core capabilities.

The army recently began a large-scale experimental program to do just that. At Fort Hood, Texas, the Fourth Infantry Division is experimenting with ways to develop a computerized battlefield that it calls Force 21. The first generation of this experiment aims to insert digital subsystems into the systems of our tanks, artillery, and attack helicopters. In aggregate, these subsystems will form an integrated network of powerful computers and high-speed communications. This system of systems will transform the way commanders and their troops see and communicate on the battlefield. Commanders will be able to send and receive digital bursts of critical information about the locations of enemy and friendly forces; the rate of expenditure of food, fuel, and munitions; and the progress of current operations and the planning for future ones.

Force 21’s effect on combat operations will be revolutionary. Every commander will have “battlefield awareness”: a constant, 3-D picture of all areas of combat. Every soldier will have the information needed to carry out the commander’s orders. And an entire army division will move as one integrated battle system.

This application of information technology without the design of completely new weapons platforms is truly a breakthrough in the way the Pentagon manages technological development and acquisition. It has required the Pentagon to change the way it does business with industry—and, accordingly, it requires industry to change the way it does business with the Pentagon. To succeed, defense developers from both industry and government will have to innovate at the same pace as the best commercial technology companies. This will be a stretch, but it is not infeasible. It’s what Boeing did in developing the 777. It’s what the army is doing in Force 21. And it’s what IT companies must do to stay competitive in the defense market of the future.


William Perry is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute of International Studies. He is the Michael and Barbara Berberian Professor at Stanford University and serves as codirector of the Nuclear Risk Reduction initiative and the Preventive Defense Project. He is an expert in US foreign policy, national security, and arms control. Perry was the nineteenth secretary of defense for the United States, serving from February 1994 to January 1997.


Reprinted from Red Herring (www.redherring.com), June 1998.

Available from the Hoover Press is a videotape containing “On Guard” and “National Insecurity,” two episodes of the weekly television program Uncommon Knowledge , jointly produced by the Hoover Institution and the San Jose PBS affiliate KTEH, which feature Hoover fellows George P. Shultz and William J. Perry discussing threats and challenges facing the United States in the post–Cold War world. To order, call 800-935-2882.