The Enemy of Good Enough: A Different Way to Look at Emerging Technology

By Kirk W. Smith

Exactly when is technology ready for operational use? It depends on whom, and when, you ask. People will come up with an answer based on their perspective, a viewpoint informed by their environment.

Some say an advanced technology is ready when it meets the threshold requirements, or key performance parameters, specified in a validated requirement document. That assumes the requirements are known. In the case of KPPs, it assumes select requirements are absolute minimal necessities — without which a technology should not be fielded. Additionally, it should meet all the other key attributes. That’s a good starting point, but it shouldn’t necessarily be the final determination.

As far as documented requirements are concerned, one might ask, why is the minimum, or threshold, capability the minimum? Likewise, what does the objective capability mean? Is that the capability we would rather have if it were feasible? Is that the best we can expect to achieve from a technology? Is it all we’re willing to pay for? Or is it the limit of our vision?

We generate requirements based on our experience. Generally, requirements are written to describe what we can’t presently do, and what we would like to be able to do — essentially, where we see a capability gap. Right or wrong, requirements are also influenced by what we think technology can and can’t achieve. In reality, the upper and lower limits of what a technology is operationally capable of can only be determined during operations.

Others may say an advanced technology is ready for use even when it has only limited value — perhaps just an incremental increase in a capability we don’t currently possess, a cost improvement, reliability or ease of use — that replaces what we use now. What if it provides a capability that is totally different than what we have now — an additional capability? We are routinely asked if the added capability is worth the investment. To some, this leads to the notion of a need for cost-benefit analysis.

The pursuit of an undeniable positive cost benefit can often result in continuous investment in research and development, driven by the desire to make the solution perfect, which ultimately results in deferring operational use. Then, after long, drawn out investments in technology development, we think of other creative things the technology should be able to do before we field it, further delaying fielding.

Sometimes we find that after we have invested so much time, money and effort — and have still not “perfected” the solution — we are afraid to, or can no longer afford to, procure even one system. In the end, because we are unable to achieve a certain performance, we just walk away from a capability we could employ, never to use it.

Is it possible that we need to reconsider our vision and values when assessing technology readiness for use?

I submit that a new technology might be ready to use when it demonstrates it has utility. Can it do something that we can’t presently do? If the answer is yes, more questions are likely. How much more? How much better? How valuable is it to be able to do that? Is it worth the investment?

Then it gets more interesting.

The next thing we get to decide is how we measure the value of having the additional capability. Sometimes we might be able to calculate a dollar value of benefit. But in our business that’s rarely the case. We rate ourselves by the capabilities we possess. The value is normally in the form of our ability to do things, such as getting to an objective, saving lives, protecting an aircraft and crew, better precision, and deterring or disrupting adversaries. Without some pretty creative math, these benefits are difficult to quantify. So, for the case of this discussion, let’s assume there is operational value in the capability.

Now there is an additional layer of value we must consider. We need to assess whether we should wait to use the technology until it can do more than it can presently do. If that is the decision, it assumes we are willing to forego today’s utility in the hope that someday the technology will be more capable. What we would be doing is deferring a capability available today, while more is invested in the hope for additional unquantifiable benefit.

This brings us to unmanned aerial vehicles. UAVs provide a long and tortuous example of chasing a match between missions and acceptable technological capability. For decades we toyed with the idea of fielding UAVs for various missions. Among the first modern day uses of unmanned air vehicle technology was the successful employment of the Lightning Bug in Southeast Asia. We then studied and considered the use of UAVs for about 30 years. A lot of technological advancement happened in those 30 years, most of which was not specifically for the purpose of advancing the capabilities of unmanned aircraft.

Partly as a result of those ancillary developments, we resurrected UAVs. We fielded them as the Gnat, then Predator, then armed Predator and Reaper, then Global Hawk. It has been a continuous spiral of learned requirements. It’s interesting to note that the Global Hawk’s operational requirement document and concept of operations were developed almost as Global Hawk was preparing to deploy to Tora Bora, which tells us the requirement documents were not driving fielding. At least one of its KPPs had not even been met.

In retrospect, we envisioned these UAVs to have limited capabilities: collection of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. We now know the rest of the story, so far. 

If we field a technology, even though it has not reached the limits of its capability, we may find it does things we can’t be without. By fielding not quite fully mature capabilities, we may also find that we are moving the ball down the field both operationally and technologically. We can move the ball while achieving greater advantage over our adversaries.

The fielding of the joint surveillance target attack radar system, or JSTARS, is a good vignette. We deployed a developmental test aircraft, and the complementary ground stations, in support of Operation Desert Storm. Only four months earlier, the JSTARS development program had just conducted a successful operational fielding feasibility demonstration. In fact, we used JSTARS operationally in two theaters before the first production aircraft was even delivered in 1996. This is a great example of bringing a new technology to the battlefield that provided a capability we didn’t even know we needed.

By simultaneously gaining operational experience and technology development, we can have operational capability while technology matures. Just as has been the case with UAVs, added capability has spurred development. Employing advanced technology stimulates technology development, and creates a spiral of ever-increasing potential capability.

Air Force Special Operations Command has a history of fielding burgeoning technology quickly and incrementally in an effort to get operationally relevant capabilities to the warfighter as soon as possible. That is our heritage and in our DNA.

Today we are exploring directed energy and off-board sensing, both technologies that may not have reached their full maturity yet. However, we feel the potential benefit is worth the effort. We don’t even know yet what additional utility these potential game changers bring to the table, but we know the cost of not pursuing innovative approaches is stagnation, something we can’t afford by any cost-benefit analysis.

This is not to say we should commit to every new bright idea. But we must continue to expand the envelope so that we advance the ball, increasing our operational advantage, while fostering further technology development.

Brig. Gen. Kirk W. Smith is director of strategic plans, programs and requirements at U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command.

Topics: Defense Department, Science and Engineering Technology, Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict

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