Are Western defence forces obsessed with platforms at the expense of technological innovation? According to a recent history of the US’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), they are; furthermore, that reactionary mindset has hampered their development.

Innovation or Platformitis? Australia's next submarine, 20 years and $50 billion away

Innovation or Platformitis? Australia’s next submarine, 20 years and $50 billion away

In 1945, the great American air commander General H.H. “Hap” Arnold contended that it is essential for an air force to “keep its doctrine ahead of its equipment and its vision far into the future”. Yet in a recent essay, the eminent military strategist and historian Edward Luttwak stated bluntly that, “The US air force has never funded any innovative research”. Luttwak’s startling accusation came in a review he wrote of a book about Darpa and its remarkable story.*

On the surface, his judgement appears unfair. For more than 60 years now, Western airmen have provided their nations with nothing less than air supremacy; indeed, their domination in a specific combat domain arguably has been unequalled in the history of warfare. That domination has been based in equal parts on high quality people and advanced technology. We might therefore reasonably assume that, as far as the technology part is concerned, the West’s military leaders have been both visionary and innovative.

Not so, according to Luttwak. The problem is the military establishment’s attachment to incrementalism – a phenomenon he describes as “platformitis” – at the expense of supporting and investing in radical, game-changing technologies. Numerous examples are cited to support this thesis.

Thus, Luttwak points to what he calls the “pseudo-innovations” presently being pursued at enormous cost by the American uniformed services, including: the Navy’s supposedly “ultra-new aircraft carrier” that in fact retains a configuration “unchanged from the 1960s”; the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that offers “30-year-old stealth as its cutting-edge novelty”; a new Army tank that “looks very much like the 1944 German Tiger” tank; and amphibious assault ships for the Marines, “even though there has not been one opposed amphibious landing … in the 65 years since [Inchon in] Korea”.

This technological conservatism is said to be a direct result of the single services’ powerful attachment to their individual traditions, institutional cultures, and career paths, which in large part are symbolised in their respective “iconic” platforms.

Continuing that theme, Luttwak notes that the vast majority of the Pentagon’s RDT&E money is parcelled out to the separate services, each of which spends almost all of its share on “enhancing its own military role and its own identity by expensively updating the weapons traditionally associated with it”.

In stark contrast, since its establishment in direct response to the shock of the Soviet Sputnik launch in 1957, Darpa has been involved in the development of a range of radical, game-changing technologies. These include the first computer network; the predecessor of the GPS satellite system; and a wide range of remotely piloted aircraft and robotic vehicles.

The economics of this mentality make compelling reading. In 2015, the US Navy spent its $16 billion of RDT&E funds on aircraft carriers, submarines, and amphibious capabilities. Similarly, the US Army spent almost all of its $6.5 billion on armoured vehicles and armed helicopters of the kind it has been using for decades. And more recently, the US Air Force allocated $21.4 billion towards developing a new unmanned bomber.

By comparison, Darpa’s budget seems almost comical. In 2015, the $2.87 billion it received came to 0.0047% of the year’s total defence budget, and its staff comprised a mere 220 people out of the Department of Defense’s total of 700,000 civilian employees.

Perhaps Luttwak overstates his case. After all, led by the United States, the West has enjoyed a manifest technological superiority over its enemies for many decades. Then again, for the past 20 years, the most advanced and best-equipped (and expensive) military forces in the history of warfare have struggled in Afghanistan and Iraq to deal with cheap, crude, home-made bombs deployed by socially primitive opponents.

At a time when the influence of computers, robotics and artificial intelligence seem likely to generate radical social change via a Third Industrial Revolution, it is fair to question our military establishments’ visceral preference to invest in tradition at the expense of genuine innovation.

* Edward Luttwak, “Platformitis”, a review of Annie Jacobsen, The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top Secret Military Research Agency (Little, Brown: 2015), in London Review of Books (Vol. 38, No. 23, 1 December 2016).

Dr Alan Stephens is a fellow of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation