May 1, 2008  

The nonlinear future

The defense industry is on the cusp of a biological transformation

The network metaphor dominates current thinking about national security. Network centricity carried to its logical conclusion, however, portends an environment that becomes increasingly biological over time. Biological environments lend themselves to nonlinear effects and outcomes. The path toward biological transformation in defense may express itself in a number of ways. It may impact the nature of system development, the operational concepts that leverage these systems and the business models that will be used by industry and government to field these new capabilities.

Nonlinearity is a general term used to describe discontinuous effects that emerge from a networked whole through robust interaction between the nodes. It can be very simplistically understood as the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. The exponential growth patterns of foundational technologies (processing power, bandwidth and storage) and the interconnectivity of nodes availing themselves of this growth is what drives emergent effects. Moore’s Law stipulates that processing power doubles every 18 months, a design goal that has been continually achieved over a period of decades. The inverted economic consequence of this doubling is that prices halve every 18 months, creating a counterintuitive situation where the best capabilities keep getting cheaper rather than more expensive. This onward march has democratized information technology, making it available and affordable to the masses. However, what is more primary than processing power or its economic impact is the notion of doubling in and of itself. If anything is doubled long enough, strange things begin to take place.


The inexorability of doubling can be illustrated by the classic hypothetical question: “Would you prefer to receive $1 million today or a penny — but that penny doubles in value daily for a month?” Go with the penny. After 30 days’ worth of doubling that penny will have grown in value to more than $10 million. Interestingly, by mid-month, choosing the penny appears to have been a poor decision. At the halfway mark, that choice will have yielded a meager $300. But with each successive doubling, an outcome is experienced that is greater than the entire history of the activity up until that point. Growth of this nature begins to take on biological characteristics similar to cell turnover rates in the human body or the spread of diseases such as AIDS among the general population. Such is the growth pattern of processing power, which, amazingly, is the least consequential of the three foundational technology areas. Bandwidth and storage growth rates significantly outpace that of processing power. The geometrically expansive profile of processors, bandwidth and storage are the explosive ingredients resident in or available to every node in the network, be it a weapon, platform, sensor, software code module or human being. More importantly, the nodes themselves are also exponentially multiplying in number and in connectivity with each other. Taken together, the combinatorial inflation of these different dimensions of growth creates the makings of a biological transformation that will impact the defense industry in ways not fully understood or appreciated.

Noteworthy shifts in systems development already are underway as exemplified by current buzz phrases such as “net-centric enterprise services” or “service-oriented architectures.” The meteoric rise in currency of such phrases belies a potential lack of understanding that can be likened to the mid-month checkpoint from the doubling penny example. A $300 understanding of a $10 million proposition is often being demonstrated. System development advances such as service-oriented architectures are more than just evolutionary improvements in interoperability and integration. They are the building blocks of a radically different paradigm characterized by composite aggregation.

Composite aggregation is the pattern that nature exhibits in creating open-ended novelty. Robust nodal recombination creates an emergent whole from distributed pieces. For example, brain memory and perception are created and linked through a dynamic process of neuron recombination operating through the robust connectivity of sparse distributed networks. Net-centricity and service-oriented architectures are not incremental spirals in systems integration improvement — they are the revolutionary foundations of a whole new approach to application development itself. A potentially infinite universe of new applications can be created by composing distributed elements fused together by ubiquitous connectivity. The new capabilities that can be created are not necessarily engineered so much as experimented with and shepherded. The force multiplier of the future will be modeling and simulation because the speed of fielding composite capabilities in virtual worlds before they are transitioned to the physical will be a key point of differentiation. This is the method by which emergent effects can be created and managed.

Biological growth and connectivity also hint of potential new military operational concepts that leverage the notion of capability equivalence. Capability equivalence refers to the different combination of assets that can be composed to yield similar effects in particular circumstances. It is analogous to the various portfolio management and risk hedging practices used in the financial services industry. Financial institutions oftentimes weave together a disparate basket of investment instruments to create synthetic stocks or options in managing portfolios with specific risk profiles. An equivalent behavioral effect can be achieved via a combination of different assets to meet the requirements of a specific transaction. Biological transformation in defense may give rise to its own version of portfolio management in which a highly networked group of modest assets might be traded against an existing platform or weapon for a given mission profile.


In a future environment of compositional novelty, situational substitutes that create “good enough” capability for a given circumstance will be highly valued. For example, a pound of persistent impact at just the right moment for a single war fighter at the retail end of the transaction is potentially worth more than a ton of always-on persistence at the wholesale level. To deliver on the former, highly distributed network constructs will be the enabler. Emergent intelligence that flows from the swarming of terrestrial-based sensors possibly combined with selected air-breathing assets can potentially disrupt certain activities traditionally dominated by space. The primitive initial capability of networked terrestrial sensors pales in comparison to that which eventually could be provided by a satellite system. However, the improvement curve follows the biological growth pattern of the foundational technologies mentioned earlier. In the time it will take to develop a fully functioning persistence capability with a space asset, the terrestrial swarm will have been swept up in countless waves of nonlinear improvement. Along the way, the terrestrial swarm will provide good enough capability to stratified classes of disadvantaged users that cannot wait for the space-based solution to arrive at some unknown point in the distant future. The space answer to persistence requires that 100 percent of a system be fielded and made fully operational to have 1 percent capability. The disruptive terrestrial swarm can provide the 1 percent capability tomorrow and then leverage biological growth for improvement over time at a mere fraction of the cost of the space alternative.

Unquestionably, there are many war-fighter needs which space alone can satisfy. However, biological environments will give rise to highly distributed last-mile considerations that favor disruptive approaches that benefit a broader vista of end users. The fielding and delivery of equivalent capability for segmented classes of unmet needs rooted in specific circumstances is the operational value that biological constructs will make possible.

Changing operational concepts may also trigger upstream business upheaval for suppliers in the defense industry. The philosophy of creating best-in-class systems that can do everything for everybody everywhere will have to share the stage with an emergent world view of building just-good-enough solutions that can do something for somebody somewhere. The latter will be a volume-driven game because networked constructs allow for greater breadth of reach into diverse micromarkets of one. Rewards will accrue to those who can discern and satisfy the unique demands of the vast universe of local nodes at the pointy end of the spear. Serving these edges effectively may require different delivery mechanisms and business models because the notion of scale in highly networked environments will change. Scale in the future must be synonymous with mass local customization. Just as the biological growth patterns in health care-related advances point to a future driven by personalized medicine, the needs of a particular soldier, sailor, airman or Marine may give birth to a new world of personalized war fighting. To meet the demands of mass local customization, system development and capability delivery may have to be viewed in a different light.


It is possible that the system of import in the future may not be a platform, weapon or sensor at all. Rather, the application of interest may be a pure networked service, not a one-off system buy. “Mission application as a networked service” is an approach that carries the promise of effectively leveraging recombinant systems in organic environments. It may fundamentally alter systems integration as a business model for large prime contractors. In the biological environment of network-driven capability, there is nothing that can be purchased today as a product or system that cannot eventually be procured as a networked service. Furthermore, it is the networked service model that is best suited to the endless variety of new applications that will be born through composite aggregation to serve vast and diverse markets of one. As systems integration itself becomes productized in networked service delivery, the competitive landscape of the defense industry may change dramatically. The large traditional primes may morph into networked service conduits, acting as effect generators by dynamically brokering endless system recombination. Meanwhile, subsystem and component vendors will explode in type and number as they become the content providers, feeding ever more organic material into the gene-splicing machine of the large primes.

The promising possibilities afforded by nonlinear constructs may also precipitate discontinuous changes in government procurement methods as well. Faced with the perfect economic storm of a looming recession, domestic exigencies such as health care and the ongoing war on terrorism, the government may have to alter its approach to acquiring future capabilities. The purchase of specific platforms and weapons is today’s proxy for laying hold of desired capabilities. A networked service that subsumes this proxy may be the “system of choice” tomorrow. The potential to flexibly instantiate desired effects on the battlefield across a wide range of threats and missions is inherent to the application as a networked service construct. Implementing effects-based operations ultimately may require the creation of effects-based procurement mechanisms.

Whatever future the nonlinear world of tomorrow may bring, existing systems development, operational concepts and business models in the defense industry likely will undergo considerable alteration. The prevailing linear thought models of today will have to be supplemented with biological ones to stand a better chance of successfully riding this coming tsunami of change.

Clement C. Chen is vice president for business innovation at Lockheed Martin and a former Navy officer who served as an operational test director for naval engineering and combat systems.