What’s Old is New Again: Leveraging Lessons from the Battle of Britain

By Alex “HEFOE” Hillman
Estimated Reading Time: 15 Minutes

Abstract: In today’s rapidly evolving security environment, the traditional development and acquisitions system is falling short of meeting warfighter needs. Even as technology becomes increasingly disruptive, the U.S. Department of Defense should look to the lessons of the past to provide a foundational construct for on-boarding novel technologies and innovative concepts. The reemergence of dual use technologies is far from new; however, harnessing development efforts from the private sector and tech industry could slingshot multi-domain capabilities forward into the 21st century and address many of the shortfalls inherent to the DoD’s current bureaucracy.

Traditional defense acquisitions is broken. Hard broke. A total loss. Whether it is bureaucratic paperwork drills or nonsensical financial management stipulations, there are many reasons why the current system is slow, laborious, and ineffective at meeting warfighter needs. The system has one job: guaranteeing that the American warfighter never has to fight a fair fight. The traditional defense acquisitions system falls short in equipping the American service member with technology and systems that provide an advantage over their enemies. The services routinely cancel multi-billion dollar acquisition programs with nothing to show for them, flushing the gross domestic product of a small nation down the drain. How many failed major programs is it going to take before the Department of Defense (DoD) fixes what it is doing wrong?

The Air Force acquisitions system has struggled for decades. It has a history of high-profile, billion-dollar failures that took too long and delivered less than promised. This is a systemic challenge for a system that strives for technology exclusivity and a system that can deliver warfighter wants and needs quickly at the right price.

The service’s “one-size fits all” approach has not served the warfighter well. The monolithic strategy of acquiring a single system that is good at everything, like the F-35 or the Littoral Combat Ship, introduces challenging requirements and extends scope and timeline to a program. This long-term acquisitions model is challenging in a fiscally uncertain budgetary climate, and it also makes pinpointing programmatic failure a tough prospect for cancelled programs that span years if not decades.

The Department of Defense is also plagued by contracting challenges. It takes months and years to navigate mountains of government paperwork to finally arrive at an agreement with the government. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found on more than one occasion that programs are unfamiliar with the government’s contracting rulebook, and that the Air Force inconsistently applies these rules in different programs. Notably, the GAO recently called out DoD contracting’s ineffective approach to acquisitions, citing “fragmented and uncoordinated” efforts throughout the DoD.

Like clockwork, in an attempt to combat these lingering challenges, the Air Force has repeatedly rolled out alleged acquisition reform. In 2010, the Air Force introduced a supposed course correction for how it acquires capabilities and materiel: “Burned by a series of high-profile failures, the Air Force has overhauled its acquisition system. New rules and procedures are designed to produce better equipment over the long term, reduce delays and cost overruns, and restore the Air Force’s contracting credibility.” These reforms were not successful, and they did nothing to help the systems currently trapped in a 7-15 year development cycle when those reforms hit the street.

Most recently, the Department of the Air Force is attempting to update how it acquires space systems and space-based capabilities. However, America’s newest service doesn’t even have an acquisitions czar to oversee its multi-billion dollar portfolio. This position calls for a presidential appointee. Since the service was activated in December 2019, this position has sat vacant, even amidst a push by senior service leaders to reform how the Space Force contracts for and acquires capabilities.

The Air Force can’t make up its mind. As recently as 2019, Will Roper, the service’s previous acquisition chief, said that reform wasn’t required, and acquirers really just need top cover to speed through the process. Immediately following these statements, his organization took part in a re-write of the DoD 5000 series, the governing documentation for how acquisitions are supposed to execute within the Department of Defense. These updates went into effect in September 2020, introducing further inconsistency into how the Air Force wants to do business. These procedural changes and bureaucratic reforms have not done what senior leaders intended them to do. Take, for example, the Air Force’s Airborne Laser platform or the Army’s Future Combat System. Quicksand-like operational requirements, high development costs, and technical feasibility eventually doomed both of these programs to fail, but not after the DoD forked out more than $5 billion and $19 billion on these programs. These are just two examples. The list goes on. The final tally of wasted funds is more than the treasury of a few small countries. That’s just in the most recent two decades.

OTH, Emerging Security Environment, Multi-Domain Operations
The Airborne Laser Platform Lands at Edwards AFB, CA

The United States military, bogged down buying incrementally better versions of legacy platforms, is quickly falling behind adversary and commercially available systems. Tech startups and big tech stalwarts alike are developing disruptive technologies that afford the military members more capability in their personal lives than in their multi-million dollar weapon systems. In the words of General Mike Holmes (retired), “We are trying to field 21st century things with a 20th century acquisitions process.”

Legacy acquisitions programs only seek to satisfy legacy, stovepiped requirements – typically only in a single operating domain. The net-ready key performance parameter carries little to no bite in the acquisition process and legacy interoperability requirements are not what they need to be to guarantee success in the high-end, multi-domain operating environment of this century.

Once a major player in the advanced technology industry, the U.S. Department of Defense comprises only a tiny fraction of the research and development spending in the United States. Industry has overtaken the DoD in real terms for R&D spending. Today industry is increasingly reluctant to work with the U.S. Department of Defense in solving complex, technical problems. Now more than ever, the US military needs to listen to the past, leveraging lessons from the Battle of Britain.

Against All Odds, Weaponized Tech Steals the Show

The Battle of Britain changed everything. It was one of the most pivotal, foundational moments in the United Kingdom’s history. The geography and history of Europe as we know it could be drastically different had the outcome been any different.

Still relevant today, the tenets of this key 20th century history lesson include multi-domain operations, anti-access/area denial strategy, and the weaponization of nascent industry technologies. Rolling these three features into a single thread, this rings eerily similar to the current situation of the Great Power Competition between the United States and China, particularly in the South China Sea.

Outmanned and outgunned, the Royal Air Force (RAF) harnessed novel and disruptive technologies to stand up to the biggest bully in Europe. They used their greatest anti-access tool in the English Channel to their advantage and built a strategy to fend off the pending German invasion with the help of new technologies. The British accomplished this feat with a rapid, agile mentality before agile was a buzzword.

Advanced manufacturing methods were the first contributing factor. British aircraft designers developed new materials, manufacturing methods and engines. Remember, air warfare during the second World War involved the principle of mass like never seen before. Dozens, if not hundreds or sometimes even a thousand aircraft would square up and fly at each other, attempting to destroy as many adversary planes as possible. British advanced manufacturing methods enabled the rapid production of a revolutionary generation of reliable fighter and bomber aircraft. This turned the Battle of Britain into a fight of attrition. Without this speed aircraft quality would have been irrelevant – the Nazis would have overrun the British in a matter of days. The Battle of Britain is still a demonstrative case study for radar’s use in military operations. The British set up a network of radar receivers to detect incoming Nazi aircraft. Using them to provide early warning, the British military distributed them all over the United Kingdom, especially near protected or strategic assets. This allowed the British to get a jump on their incoming foes, speeding up something theorists now call a kill chain. While the situational awareness afforded to the British by radar technology wasn’t perfect, it was a revolutionary capability which enabled defenders to presciently observe their adversary from further out than ever before.

British Radar Towers Circa 1940

The British also deployed the world’s first integrated air defense system. It wasn’t fancy, but it got the job done. The Dowding system, named after the Royal Air Force’s Fighter Command Commander-in-Chief, brought together radar receivers, underground command and control nodes, intelligence, and innovative radio communications technology as a unified defense against the Nazis. This ground-breaking amalgamation and integration of technology with early air battle management techniques built the foundation upon which modern air defense is based.

OTH, Emerging Security Environment, Multi-Domain Operations
RAF Fighter Control System

The Battle of Britain saw some of the first multi-domain operations in the history of armed conflict that leveraged both the air domain and the information domain. It was also executed using rudimentary anti-access/area denial tactics. The Royal Air Force deconflicted fires and coordinated command and control decision making in the air, land, and information domains. The British succeeded in the multi-domain operating environment before the term multi- or “joint all domain operations” was even invented.

These lessons are still important for the U.S. military today. The next conflict will likely be a high-end, limited peer-to-peer fight requiring the convergence of effects from multiple domains simultaneously to deliver effects that render an enemy’s system helpless, particularly against the speed and efficiency with which a joint, all-domain approach converges.

Commercial Tech will become Weaponized, Revolutionary Military Capability

Instead of acquiring a fighter jet or a tank or a ship that is slightly better than the last generation’s, the Department of Defense needs to weaponize, integrate and deploy disruptive technology – especially from the private sector. Instead of throwing good money after bad at the latest sales pitch from a major defense contractor, the DoD needs to seek alternative sources for this disruptive tech. The 2018 National Defense Strategy even blames the complexity of the global security environment on rapid technological change and the proliferation of advanced tech in every warfighting domain. The DoD’s biggest adversaries abroad are using commercial tech against them. What will it take to adopt a better acquisitions model?

Industry has already pioneered some of the technologies that the U.S. military needs to be effective in the high-end fight: Machine learning algorithms, voice and facial recognition and authentication, applied artificial intelligence, improvements in battery technology, next generation networks, 5G communications. Data is a weapon. Networks are a weapon. Data throughput and bandwidth are weapons. The list goes on – and the Department of Defense is late to implement these concepts in its monolithic, billion-dollar systems.

Integration is the true challenge. As systems become families of systems (of systems), complexity scales exponentially. This is also where the DoD fails. Colloquially many of its fancy toys only like playing in their own sand box. In other words, the DoD has fielded some of the most expensive and exquisite sensors and killing machines that cannot communicate with other defense systems. Take, for example, both the F-22 and F-35 and their tactical datalinks. Both proprietary networks were fielded with little attention paid to communicating with other U.S. platforms. This inefficiency lengthens kill chains, hampering the DoD’s ability to deliver effects on target on time.

However, look back at the Battle of Britain. Sure, the technology was simpler. However, it had never been militarized and integrated on a rapid cadence. Even this simple integration across the air, land, and information domains enabled a significant, world-changing victory that historians, theorists and tacticians still talk about today. As technology matures it becomes more of a known quantity, both to its operators and potential developers. This will help facilitate integration of capabilities for a joint all-domain operating construct.

Today’s acquisitions process is cumbersome and laborious. Particularly, the DoD’s contracting process is fraught with management and award issues. Additionally, even at its highest levels of leadership the Department of Defense recognizes that there currently exist numerous policy, bureaucratic, and regulatory hurdles for working with industry partners. In an engagement in August 2020 the Department of Defense Acting Undersecretary for R&D and the White House Chief Technologist Michael Kratsios decreed, “We must do more to bring the incredible advances currently being made in academia and private industry to bear on the department’s most difficult challenges.” While a wholesale restructuring of the DoD 5000 series, the Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation and the Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System, is unlikely, incremental change is possible. While it isn’t the gold standard for acquisitions success, the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) has now successfully executed several rapid on-ramp demonstrations, affording commercial tech an opportunity to deploy their best of the best in a military experimentation environment. With the goal of rapidly fielding commercial technologies, the “ABMS acquisition strategy is designed to spur competition and streamline the contracting process to the “speed of relevance” – weeks instead of months, months instead of years.

OTH, Emerging Security Environment, Multi-Domain Operations
An Illustration of the Intended JADC2 Concept

This strategy enables the government to keep its ear to the proverbial ground and allows commercial vendors to collaborate with the government through creative contracting vehicles like indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity or an “other transaction authority” vehicle. These vehicles, specifically for ABMS, enable contractors to receive as little as $1,000 or as much as $950 million, depending on the deliverables.

This type of innovative and forward thinking is not new in industry but for the DoD it is leads and bounds of progress. Instead of a 7-15 year program of record time horizon to field a system, these contract vehicles enable the U.S. military the chance to demo and field commercial technologies in one fell swoop. These creative on-ramping techniques, while still in need of refinement, could be the future for delivering mature commercial technologies to the fight faster and cheaper.

Innovation for the sake of innovation rarely produces positive results. Labeling something agile or innovative or even novel often dooms old ideas with new monikers to fail. However, pivoting from a slow and steady, process-oriented acquisition model to one in which faster and smarter programmatic decisions are made at lower levels of rank and authority can shift the pace of traditional acquisitions into a higher gear to avoid the Air Force’s technology edge going the way of the dinosaur.

The Department of Defense has experienced limited success in delegating milestone decision authority down to lower levels of authority. However, requiring a short list of presidential appointees confirmed by the U.S. Senate to make all of the major decisions for each of the services’ major defense acquisition programs is a recipe for bolstering bureaucracy at the risk of the speed and flexibility so needed in today’s acquisitions environment.

Think back to the Battle of Britain. A team of empowered engineers and technicians developed and fielded an advanced integrated air defense system without a literal army of paper pushers and a mountain of red tape. Returning to an acquisitions environment in which small teams of empowered critical thinkers can flourish has to be the future. The previous Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General David Goldfein (retired), preached about empowering the squadron commander and revitalizing the squadron. The new mantra for repeating technical and programmatic success like that of the British before one of the greatest air campaigns in history needs to be: Revitalize the Program Management Team.

A mentality shift for acquisitions professionals across the Department of Defense will take time. However, since Gen. Goldfein’s initiatives hit the streets a handful of years ago, squadrons have noticed some progress. Hopefully in the coming years this mentality shift can slowly take bites of the metaphorical acquisitions elephant, enabling defense procurement to develop and field 21st century solutions to complex 21st century problems.

Conventional wisdom tells us that those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it. There are many parallels that we can draw between the U.S. military today and the German Luftwaffe prior to the Battle of Britain, particularly over the next few decades as Great Power Competition heats up in both the Pacific and the Arctic.  Even with the most exquisite equipment, the most planes and the deepest pockets, the advent of inexpensive and disruptive technologies could prove these underlying factors to be irrelevant, especially if the U.S. military does not listen to the past, leveraging valuable lessons from the Battle of Britain.

Major Alex “HEFOE” Hillman is an active-duty Air Force officer currently assigned as the Chief Data Officer for the 45th Test Squadron and the Deputy Director for Emerald Flag. A U.S. Air Force Academy graduate, he holds master’s degrees in operations research, systems engineering, flight test engineering, and military operational art and science. He has previously served in various technical and leadership roles for the USAF. HEFOE is a graduate of the United States Air Force Test Pilot School and a former U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholar for Russian. He is also a recipient of the 2020 Developing Airmen We Need PhD Fellowship and will be attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for his doctorate in Engineering Systems in fall of 2021. He can be reached at ahillman@mit.edu.

The views in this article are entirely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Featured Image: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Britain

OTH, Emerging Security Environment, Multi-Domain Operations
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply