The Iraq war so dominates the current defense debate that other military topics get short shrift from politicians and journalists. Their reasoning seems to be that until we figure out how to defeat a ragtag band of religious fanatics, less pressing challenges will have to wait. But a generation from now, the war in Iraq is likely to look more like a detour from real security concerns than a watershed event. The insurgents there pose little danger to global peace and prosperity. If we truly wanted to “pacify” the place, we could do so in a week. There might not be many Iraqis left at the end of that week, but that’s another matter — in the long march of human history, Iraq is a sideshow.
Things could be much worse. In fact, for most of the 20th Century they were worse, as successive waves of imperialism, fascism and communism posed a real danger to the survival of democracy. The reason no one worried about terrorists “getting nukes” back then was because the Soviets already had 10,000 of them aimed at us. It was in that setting that the force structure and strategy of the modern Navy was forged. It was not created to rescue “failed states” or render assistance to refugees, it was created to deter and defeat enemies who really could destroy American civilization. So the Navy focused mainly on nuclear deterrence, controlling the sea lanes, and projecting military power against other industrialized states.
It is a measure of how successful the Navy and other services have been that so many people today think Al Qaeda is the biggest security challenge we face. If that’s true, then these are extraordinarily good times to be alive. Which is why even now, after six years of a “global war on terror,” the Navy is still focused largely on other threats — because it is the other threats that nearly killed America in the past. The Navy’s most important mission is to discourage the re-emergence of such state-based threats by maintaining a posture that guarantees the quick, decisive defeat of any aggressor. That brings me, oddly enough, to the role of open architectures in developing future naval systems.
Open architecture is a design philosophy and business model that allows any qualified provider to contribute software to an information system. By separating hardware from software, publishing interface standards and building in modularity, the Navy promotes competition and innovation in the development of information tools. Since these tools have become a key source of military advantage in the modern world, it is essential not to let one contractor monopolize all the inputs to combat systems that will be at sea for decades. Having had great success in using open architecture to upgrade undersea systems in the 1990s, the service now wants to shift its acquisition culture to a mindset that mirrors the openness of the internet.
This approach is critical to keeping ahead of foreign adversaries who have access to many of the same information technologies. A handful of next-generation systems such as the carrier-based Advanced Hawkeye radar plane and Littoral Combat Ship have been “born open,” meaning designed at their inception to accommodate continuous improvement from many sources. But what about the rest of the Fleet, inherited from an earlier time? There, the challenge is to infuse weapons such as the Aegis Combat System on cruisers and destroyers with the benefits of the information revolution so they can perform missions faster, more precisely, and more flexibly. That will require preserving the expertise and dependability of the existing integration team without stifling the innovation of new contributors. Few people outside the Navy are paying attention, but whether the service makes this tradeoff successfully may matter more to national security over the long run than killing insurgents in Iraq.
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