Silicon Valley probably can’t deliver on DoD’s offset strategy

When the first Pulsar came out at $500, no one knew it would be nearly free in a couple of years. Now we know better.

When the first Pulsar digital LED watch came out some time in the early 1970s, it retailed for, if I remember correctly, something like $500. Maybe it was $1,000. You could get a new VW Beetle then for under two grand. I had a friend who had to have one (a Pulsar, not a Beetle). He still has it and it still works, so at least the ridiculous initial price has been amortized.

It wasn’t long before local banks were giving away digital watches if you made a $100 deposit. A watch or maybe a bundle of firewood. Bank economics were different then, but microelectronics still adhere to their own exponential economics. That, plus advances in material science, make everything from smart phones to drones available to everyone. Cheap labor costs in Asia help, too.

This is what worries me about the offset strategy the Defense Department is pursuing as a way to restore the technological edge U.S. military leaders say they need for the next however many years they see ahead. Over-the-horizon sight, autonomy and robotics, laser weapons, augmentation of human intellect and physical strength — these are among the possibilities for making U.S. troops more efficient and lethal than anyone else.

As Deloitte’s Tom Captain points out in his survey of worldwide military spending, such technologies are already creeping into the arsenal.

Much has been published about the Pentagon’s outpost in Silicon Valley. This week administration officials were meeting with the Silicon Valley execs to find out how they could deny the Islamic State the means to recruit, indoctrinate and train people using the Internet (Answer: they can’t).

I juxtapose those two facts for a reason. Think of the contradiction. Here are a handful of Pentagon emissaries trying to glean from the Valley —  which is not a single, monolithic thing — some sort of secret sauce for the strategic offset. And yet the very vascular system of the Valley, the Internet and the products and services it has sparked, has been commandeered by an enemy the administration has no idea how to defeat.

That is to say, the operative function of Silicon Valley is in its seemingly magical capabilities — from microelectronic circuits to instant messaging — to quickly mature to produce instant mass markets. The average American doesn’t employ 100 microprocessors in his or her daily life because transistors keep getting more expensive.

The old strategic offsets depended on keeping hard objects out of enemy hands. Just this week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Defense officials discovered a Hellfire missile sent to Europe for NATO training purposes somehow ended up in Cuba. No matter that the missile contained no explosive. It did have all of its sensing and guidance technologies which, until now, had never been known to fall into the wrong hands. The loss happened a while ago, but the new moonlight-and-roses romance between Washington and Havana has not resulted in return of the Hellfire.

Stealth, intelligently guided weapons and other elements of the existing, but fading, offset had long half lives. But the ever-plunging prices and rapid ubiquity of the types of products churning out for consumer and commercial use would produce a strategic offset lasting about two weeks.

The Pentagon will only achieve real offset if it can latch onto a moving wavefront. It’ll need to adjust its acquisition and culture to keep itself on the edge of that wave. It will fail if it pays top dollar for Pong, only to see the enemy come back a year later with Pac-Man.

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