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08 May 2021 | Marcin Kapuscinski

Is the defense sector in the 21st century innovative? – part 3

We invite you to the last part of the interview with Paweł Fleischer, Business Development Manager at TTMS. This time we will focus on the non-obvious dependencies between the defense and commercial sectors.

Marcin Kapuściński: “The reality is that knowledge and talent are mostly found in the commercial sector world,” assessed Brian Schimpf, co-founder and CEO of Anduril Industries, an artificial intelligence company focused on providing services to defense sector. He added that „very few people who are experts in leading-edge technologies actually go to traditional defense companies.” Do you also think human resources are key when it comes to the expanding technology gap between the civilian and military sectors?

Paweł Fleischer: I do not fully agree with Brian Schimpf’s statement. Having experienced working and speaking with numerous people in the defense and space sectors, I find that it is an ecosystem where experts move between organizations – the defense industry, Silicon Valley companies – Tesla, Google, etc. – and the academic community. The key element is the motivation of the experts themselves and their particular interests. It is hard not to agree that projects implemented by Google, Microsoft, SpaceX or Netflix can attract many software developers and experts due to the opportunity of working with modern technologies and more favorable employment conditions. On the other hand, it should be noted that organizations such as Netflix or SpaceX have a different work culture than defense corporations. Simplifying, we can assumed that work in SpaceX is more agile and labor-intensive than, for example, in the Lockheed Martin corporation, which is a powerful organization and is based mostly on the Waterfall-based work model. Additionally, it should be remembered, taking SpaceX as an example, that for the first 10 years its operation was assured in 20% from funds provided by Elon Musk and private investors, and in 80% from financing coming from NASA. At the very beginning, the salary there was lower and the conditions less favorable than in the rest of the space sector. We should also note that the de facto engineers hired worked for a long time for the government – NASA.

We should also realize that the main recipients of SpaceX rockets are state-owned organizations – space agencies, ministries of defense. Private entities, which use SpaceX rockets to launch their satellites, come next. However, at the end of the day, it turns out that the launched satellites also perform tasks and services for the state administration of various countries around the world. That is why, in my opinion, the key element of working in a given organization is the desire to realize an interesting project than the employment conditions alone.

How is it in other countries?

The problem with recruiting appropriate engineering workforce affects not only the U.S. defense industry, but a range of other economic sectors in the developed world, which require technical skills. The reason for this is the simple fact that the world’s technical development is more fast-paced than the actual engineering workforce we actually have. It should also be noted that we have large pools of qualified engineers around the world who are familiar with older technology, which is no longer taught to the younger generation. Here we should mention, for example, the Polish example from the Aviation Valley, where between 2010 and 2015 a generational change took place in the companies, due to the retirement of senior employees. The younger generation had a clear problem with handling especially this elderly technology used in the aviation sector. At that point, the entrepreneur is faced with a dilemma: whether to upgrade the equipment park or retrain the staff to operate the oldest? The second example is the United States, where the Department of Defense for many years has been struggling with the problem of replacement of software and hardware in the Strategic Automated Command and Control System, responsible for control and sustaining the nuclear forces. The system uses IBM Series 1 computers that were manufactured in 1976. Few people have the knowledge, but also the interest, to develop competence in such a niche technology.

So what is the biggest challenge facing young staff interested in acquiring knowledge in this area?

First of all, they have to find a suitable place to learn the older generation system, and on the other hand they have to ask themselves whether the gained knowledge will be useful at a later stage of their career. U.S. faces the challenge of replacing the system and equipment for the entire nuclear triad. They estimate that almost 90% of the systems should be upgraded with modern technology. It is important to remember that the new system and equipment must be reliable and resistant to cyber-attacks, for example. Through modernization we can imagine an inflow of new engineering personnel to the defense industry and directly to the Department of Defense, who have experience in, for example, artificial intelligence/machine learning, which are used, among others, in these systems. Thus, in part, the problem I mentioned above of knowledge acquisition by the younger generation of engineers will be solved.

Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, stated that if for some reason the big tech companies turn their heads away from the U.S. Department of Defense, quote, „this country will be in trouble.” Of course, speaking for the tech industry, he’s in a bit of a different position than the industries from China and Russia, where institutions under governments push through technologies without regard to the approval of companies, engineers, or citizens. How dependent is innovation in the arms industry from the commercial, civilian sector?

Jeff Bezos’ statement should be considered in the context of AWS losing a $10 billion cloud computing bid for the Pentagon. From AWS’s perspective, it was a severe defeat, given the company’s revenue, but from the perspective of Amazon as a whole, not so much. Hence Bezos’ bitter statement. Does he have a point? I believe that the technology industry in every country thanks a lot to government. Especially when it encourages the development of innovative technologies through fiscal incentives, transparent regulations, encouraging the development of human resources, etc. In the United States, Microsoft, IBM, HP have grown thanks to investments and government programs, including those dedicated to the development of defense and space technologies. It should be noted that only an effectively managed public administration is able to sustain spending on a given area of the economy or technology in the long term, thus enabling the development of innovative products/services and, in the end, gaining profits by companies and society.

It is hard to imagine such a necessity for state funding in the recent years – in the era of start-ups and venture capitals support.

Only in the last decade we have seen the emergence of new players in the technology market, such as Alphabet, Apple and Facebook, which to a lesser extent have risen from government programs. However, it is still important to remember that they used the support of the state and still cooperate with it, for example through cooperation with intelligence agencies. However, the nature of cooperation is quite different and is not related to the development of strictly military innovative technologies, but rather the needs of national security – whether in the energy security or health care. In this aspect, we already face the challenge of whether the „new corporations” control governments and citizens or, vice versa, whether they are controlled by governments.

Going back to your main question, whether innovation in the defense and military sector is dependent on the civilian sector, I would answer shortly – Yes. However, it is important to remember that innovation tends to flow between sectors. Currently, as a result of necessity of modernization and replacement of armaments and military equipment, which still remember the Cold War times, there is an opportunity to make a technical leap. I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation, that the military is particularly interested in using artificial intelligence/machine learning. The IT sector together with the automotive industry are conducting the most advanced research that can be used in the defense sector, for example, for the creation of an autonomous land combat vehicle. Machine learning based solutions implemented on a vehicle could reduce the number of crew members and even allow it to be an „autonomous cab for soldiers” on the future battlefield.

What place does the financial side have in developing innovation?

The development cost of a new advanced system is currently high, while the ROI is decreasing. Therefore, defense ministries and the defense industry are looking for technology in the civilian market to upgrade existing military weapons and equipment or create a new generation of weapons. The application of autonomous systems from the civilian market once tailored to military needs is an ideal example. In the military innovation ecosystem, there is not only spin-off technology (i.e. technologies that are the result of work performed directly for the ministries of defense and applied in the civilian market) or spin-on technology (i.e. technologies developed in the civilian market and implemented in the military environment). Currently, the trend is to look for synergies between military and civil technologies in order to bring a specific fusion and creating new solutions.

What are the most recent examples of technology adaptation in the reverse way that we have seen in recent times – from the military sector to the commercial sector? For instance, today many users of microwave ovens (which emerged from military technology developed during World War II) or drones (which were originally developed exclusively for the military) are unaware of their origins.

Staying focused on the fusion between the civil and military environments I mentioned above, we can mention a number of projects implemented and supported by DARPA that have found their way into the civilian market. One example is „Embody”, which is a technique implemented to regenerate tendon and ligament injuries by using a novel collagen-based biofabrication approach. Injuries occur not only to athletes, but also to soldiers. The next project worth mentioning is „Tasso”, involving a device for self-sampling blood on demand by medical personnel or patients – another dual-use opportunity. The „ADAPTER” project, on the other hand, explores the possibility of reducing the impact of so-called jet lag on humans. With an extensive network of military bases around the world, the US faces the problem of reduced readiness of soldiers upon arrival at their destination. Enabling control over own physiology will enable to introduce appropriate therapy in order to reduce inconveniences connected with it and will allow easier and faster acclimatization in a new place.

Not only soldiers suffer from jet lag…

Exactly. I don’t have to explain that certainly the tourism industry and people who frequently travel for business purposes would be very interested in applying this solution. Therefore, we can see the development of several projects that are not only aimed at providing health protection for the soldier on the battlefield, but also for civilians during their everyday life.

Is there a place for projects that from the very beginning could have a dual use?

Yes, the defense sector and research centers are working on multiple projects like this. Not only they focus on creating a new product, but they also study phenomena and processes in society or workplaces. For instance, DARPA is investigating and testing the impact of mixed human-machine teams on productivity. So far, research has focused on typically technical projects related to the development of artificial intelligence and system architecture. It has been rightly stated that in the near future, the methodology needed to build teams involving humans and AI-equipped machines/systems will be indispensable. Potential research findings may lead to a change in the current work practices in various sectors, including IT.

Let’s turn to the moral aspect: many commercial giants have publicly opposed the use of their products for military purposes, or other purposes they consider unethical. In the summer of 2018, Google pulled out of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Maven project, which uses artificial intelligence to direct drone attacks, after thousands of employees declared the company „should not be involved in war.” The corporation responded by releasing a set of ethical principles regarding artificial intelligence that outlined their views on responsible AI development, specifically stating that they would not design or deploy artificial intelligence into weapons systems. Have they managed to draw that line accurately enough that other companies willing to work with the defense industry will sign on?

It should be noted that Google suspended its cooperation in the Maven project, which aimed to create a tool for recognizing images captured by unmaned aerial systems. As a result of internal opposition from Google employees and the expert community, they have decided to withdraw participation in this project, as it was determined that the tool under development would be used for offensive purposes, and thus for the purpose of killing people. While the Maven project did not envisage Google’s software being used to pilot or actively participate in any form of drone warfare, Google did provide tools and expertise. However, until now, we did not know the extent of Google’s involvement in the project.

How much could Google gain from this venture?

Google’s entry into the development of artificial intelligence for unmanned systems could have generated revenues worth $250 million per year. Despite all the turmoil, Google has not suspended its activities in the defense and security sector. Through its venture capital firm, Gradient Ventures, it is backing companies that are developing projects for the U.S. armed forces using the same technology. Cogniac, one of the companies in Gradient Ventures’ portfolio, provides processing software to the U.S. Army Ground Forces for rapid analysis of combat drone data and the Arizona County Sheriff’s Department to help identify people crossing the U.S. Mexican border. I would be cautious about companies being so strongly explicit in their approach to the implementation of security and defense projects. , On the other hand, we can see that it is more important to regulate the use of artificial intelligence not at the corporate level, but at the national or international law level.

Can we predict when artificial intelligence will be widespread on the battlefield

The use of artificial intelligence in military systems is a challenge to the modern world. Currently, many regional and international organizations work to establish regulations related to the use of AI, not only in the military domain, but also in other sectors, such as health care or justice. Superpowers such as the United States, China, and Russia, as well as smaller countries, are working on the use of artificial intelligence in combat systems. At the current stage we are not able to predict how quickly military AI systems will appear on the battlefield. However, politicians, experts, and military officers know that we still have time to reach an agreement and establish appropriate regulations to protect the world from the exponential proliferation of AI combat systems. Norms and rules must be adopted at the national and international levels to protect civilians during armed conflict in accordance with International Humanitarian Law. Autonomous weapons in the future may be able to identify and destroy a target without human intervention. For this reason, the Human in the Loop approach, which I mentioned earlier, is proposed, to protect against attacking the wrong target. The use of AI in combat systems is also related to their reliability and systems security, including but not limited to resilience from cyber attacks. Today we have many questions that need to be answered, but not at the level of corporations, but precisely at the level of international organizations like the UN or the EU, or national legislation. For those who have not yet encountered this problem, I encourage you to read the so-called military sci-fi literature, especially the Red Series by Linda Nagata or „Burn-in” or „Ghost Fleet” by Peter Singer and August Cole. They present a very interesting picture of a future battlefield that is saturated with drones, robots, and information systems of various kinds.

The Pentagon has been supporting cloud solutions for some time – Microsoft won a 10-year, $10 billion contract. Can you say a little more about the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure?

JEDI is one of the largest procurement programs undertaken by the Pentagon in recent years and was announced in 2017. The program aims to provide cloud services, including data storage, networking, servers, applications and other computing services in IaaS and PaaS models. JEDI is expected to modernize the Pentagon’s IT infrastructure, in which most equipment and systems remember the late Cold War era. On the one hand, the program assures the winner of long-term primacy as a single vendor for cloud services for the Pentagon, but on the other hand, JEDI is another prestigious programme and a field of competition between cloud solution providers, i.e. Microsoft, Amazon, IBM and Oracle. The latter two companies were excluded from the proceedings in April 2019 due to their failure to meet the Pentagon’s requirements. Microsoft and Amazon remained in the race. Ultimately, Microsoft’s offer was selected to supply cloud infrastructure to the entire Department of Defense for the next decade.

Is it fair to say that JEDI will make way for this type of programmes?

The settlement of the JEDI program and its implementation is very important not only from a technical perspective, but also from a government perspective, because it sets the standards for the implementation of similar Pentagon procurement proceedings.JEDI is a large program, and another 10-year, $11.7 billion program – Defense Enclave Services – is now in play. The program led by the U.S. Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) is expected to consolidate distributed network systems across more than 22 agencies and cover 357,000 users in 309 locations worldwide making it simpler, more efficient and more secure. Currently, the Pentagon has over 600 separate contracts aimed at maintaining the network in 850 locations, which is certainly not technically or financially optimal for such a large number.

What is the position of Polish technological thought in the global ecosystem of the defense and space sector?

I will answer with a perverse answer that the current Polish technical thought on a global scale is limited, despite the fact that Polish engineers work in many innovative projects on a global level. Here I mean the simple fact that there are few Polish companies or institutes which have achieved significant successes in the last decade in the defense sector. Let me start with the space sector, as it is the youngest segment of the Polish economy, but one with considerable achievements at the international level. One of the key companies is the Finnish-Polish company ICEYE, which operates on the market of radar satellites (SAR). The company was founded by Rafał Modrzewski after he completed his studies in Finland. ICEYE specializes in the designing and production of small satellites and has developed a number of proprietary solutions, allowing to provide images with a 25 cm resolution. The company is able to provide an image to the customer within 5 minutes after the satellite transmits data to the ground station. Among other Polish entities in the space sector, we should note Astronika, a company specializing in the designing and developing mechanical equipment for scientific missions, which recently had the opportunity to send a penetrator to collect samples of the Martian surface as part of NASA’s InSight mission.

Speaking about the Polish defense sector, it should be emphasized that we have many solutions, which, for various reasons, do not find buyers outside the Polish borders. Polish technical thought in the defense sector can certainly be proud of advanced radiolocation systems. One of them is the Passive Location System (SPL) developed by PIT-Radwar, belonging to the Polish Armament Group, which is designed to provide continuous space surveillance and reconnaissance independent of active radars. The special feature of the system is that it does not emit signals, which makes it difficult to detect for enemy systems. Another product resulting from the work of Polish engineers is the Remotely Operated Tower System (ZSSW-30), which is an unmanned turret with the necessary fire equipment, ammunition, targeting devices and observation system. There are also private entities in the Polish defence sector, such as WB Group, which for many years has been developing the FONET digital communication platform, used to provide digital voice communication between military vehicles. The solution allows for integration communication and communication systems used in military vehicles, enabling digital voice communication or control of wire and radio networks.

Marcin Kapuścinski – Transition Technologies Managed Services


  • Flickr, U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos
  • Defense Visual Information Distribution Service