Why the defense market must embrace an 'accelerate change or lose' mentality


EpiSci's chief technology officer Dan “Animal” Javorsek describes some of the needed changes to the defense acquisition system in order to help agencies take advantage of software-defined technologies.

In his first official guidance in October 2023 Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Charles Quinton Brown Jr. called on the United States to modernize its approach to warfare stating, “Our nation needs us ready to fight today’s battles but also to prepare for tomorrow’s wars.”

Brown’s long-standing belief that the U.S. needs to prepare itself by “modernizing and aggressively leading with new concepts and approaches” remains just as relevant today as when he popularized his signature motto “Accelerate Change or Lose” years ago.

Unfortunately, the US military has yet to rise to Brown’s challenge. 

Once again, America is poised at a unique moment in our nation’s history. The choice to continue following the conventional path is one that leaves us ill prepared for tomorrow’s high-end conflicts.

Those of us witnessing the rise of software powering our domestic lives while our defense acquisitions remain trapped in a defunct model cannot help but read General Brown’s guidance and think…“it’s about time.”

In the 20th Century, our defense acquisitions system built a host of incumbent processes that relied almost exclusively on the idea that to realize a new capability, we had to build new hardware.

In hindsight, it is hard to critique this model because it had persisted since antiquity. From the English Longbow in 1415, to the Gatling gun in 1861, or even the aircraft in 1903, the fundamentals have always been the same…to increase capability, we must physically build something new.

Unfortunately, as anyone who participates in this hardware game understands, capabilities from new hardware are extremely expensive and often accompanied by a slow time to market.

For example, although we were warned against it, the U.S. has been following Augustine’s 16th Law - that rising aircraft costs have significantly outpaced the marginal increases of the Air Force’s budget, which resulted in fewer aircraft. In the end, this approach trapped America in a vicious cycle in which fewer aircraft and a fear of attrition resulted in the creation of even fewer and more costly aircraft and so on.

In many ways “it’s about time” since delays are central to this cycle. A reflection of current aircraft inventory highlights the significant challenge posed by America’s outdated commitment to the hardware status quo - our “fight tonight” force is the smallest, oldest, and least ready in our nation’s history.

Fortunately, a reset of this fixation on hardware is actively underway. The Air Force is finally developing a way out of this cycle by embracing the software revolution that is so prominently taking hold of other industries. 

We find ourselves poised at the precipice of an augmented age in which software-defined systems augment human decisions across a variety of scales.

Although ChatGPT and other large language models have attracted most of the attention this past year, this revolution has been afoot for some time. While augmented age discussions typically revolve around what this means to businesses and culture, there are also significant implications for combat operations.

While hardware meets a requirement, software solves the problems warfighters care about. Software, and the data that powers it, has become dramatically more important than the hardware that long dominated our defense acquisition ecosystem.

The big companies defining our lives today - Amazon, Google, Meta, etc. - are all data-driven organizations. Like these corporations, what truly gives our military’s existing combat platforms their advantage is their software, enabled by performant hardware.

Unfortunately, many of the challenges of shifting to a software-forward mindset arise because the military’s large acquisitions programs are designed to acquire hardware from incumbent companies that have been rewarded by the existing capability model that sets in once vendor lock is achieved.

In fact, vendor lock has only strengthened since the infamous “Last Supper” of 1993 where Secretary of Defense Les Aspin encouraged dozens of companies in the defense industrial base to consolidate and merge into today’s few big prime contractors.

One of the primary virtues of software, alternatively, is that it enables a healthy ecosystem of developers. This ecosystem redistributes leverage to the government and, inherently, resists the cost overruns and price gouging that comes with monopolies like those discussed in reports this past summer. 

While the legacy defense contractors may be stuck in the vicious cycle of Augustine’s 16th Law, there are several “iron majors” championing a software-defined, hardware-enabled future.

Examples of the programs implemented by these champions include: Air Combat Command’s (ACC) Crowd Sourced Flight Data (CSFD) which enables data collection to inform future autonomy development; the ACC Federal Laboratory and their effort to modernize software capabilities onboard fielded weapon systems (Project FOX); and the Air Force Research Laboratory’s work to build the technologies necessary for networked, collaborative, autonomous platforms such as the Collaborative Small Diameter Bomb (CSDB) designed to share data and execute coordinated behaviors.

These efforts paint a promising roadmap for an American military complex that can readily embrace software capabilities to evolve alongside the needs of the modern warfighter at a pace that rises to meet Brown’s challenge to “accelerate change or lose.” 

There is no denying that it is time for America’s defense innovation priorities to change. The system must find a way to break free from the limitations of a handcuffed and outdated acquisition process to keep up with the pace of modern warfare.

We may be ready to fight today’s battles, but significant steps towards expanding our autonomy capabilities through the acquisition of rapidly scalable software technologies are essential if we are to be prepared to win tomorrow’s war…”It’s About Time.” 

Dan “Animal” Javorsek, PhD, is the chief technology officer at EpiSci, a software company that develops next generation, tactical autonomy solutions for national security problems. Prior to joining EpiSci, Javorsek was a colonel and the commander of the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center, Detachment 6. Javorsek is an accomplished test pilot with over 2,000 hours flying demonstrator, prototype, and operational aircraft.