Advancing Technology Without Operational Pull

By John C. Johnson

iStock illustration

If you want to know where you’re going, use a map with a strong compass orientation. In the defense community, achievements in generational technology have traditionally been made using product road maps coupled closely with subsystem and component-level road maps that provide a vision of the product’s next iteration.

To be viable, product road maps require user involvement where they articulate operational requirements so the engineering community can then determine the product specifications necessary to achieve them. The engineering function may not be successful in fielding the next-generation system without user involvement from the start.

In the past, the user-engineer interface has been essential to the timely fielding of state-of-the-art weapon systems, ergo preserving battlefield advantage. But when research laboratories explore and develop “visionary emerging technology” with little or no user involvement, this tried-and-true process breaks down. Instead, maturation is not driven by requirements but is driven by other motivations.

One is simple scientific curiosity. Another is national security — for example, not allowing countries less favorable to U.S. policy to develop the technology first. A third motivation is the belief that the operational applications will become obvious over time.

University and government laboratories may develop technology for these reasons, but to a far lesser extent do commercial enterprises, where return on investment is closely watched.

A dilemma arises when scientists and research engineers discover a technology that potentially leaps past previous developments. In such cases, user requirements “pull” doesn’t exist — there are no open requirements waiting to be solved. And the potential user has only a vague awareness of laboratory achievements; therefore, requirements documents, even at the highest level, are virtually impossible to script.

Scientific curiosity, national security and other motivations will move the maturation process, but at a slow and agonizing pace, like a random walk with barriers.

The question becomes: How do we advance breakthrough technology without operational pull?

From crossbows and catapults to intercontinental ballistic missiles and stealth aircraft, the intended user has articulated and documented the operational requirements and subsequently presented them to craftsmen or, today, to design engineers, who fabricate, build and produce.

This process and the various modifications that naturally flow from it have yielded weapon systems that fulfill user needs — a major exception being the atomic bomb. In 1939, a group of scientists, including Albert Einstein, presented to the government the military potential of the bomb, but it was not until 1943 that actual functionality and design specifications were documented, with contributions from the military.

Prior to then, the work had been largely theoretical with no operational pull. The atomic bomb started as a conceptual theory little known to the operational community.

But once the head of the Los Alamos National Laboratory Robert Oppenheimer and the military became involved, operational requirements were specified and the development process quickened. The military potential scientists had articulated in 1939 was the catalyst that brought the user community into the bomb’s development. Without user involvement, the maturation process of the atomic bomb would certainly have been lengthier.

Today, scientists and research engineers explore imaginative technology only they fully understand and appreciate. These individuals, with their visionary emerging technologies, reside in laboratories and small start-up companies. Their objectives focus, for the most part, solely on a particular science. In efforts to secure investment, their enthusiasm and narrow focus result in overinflated claims regarding applications, some questionable, across multiple markets. In many cases, the result outside their organization is deep skepticism.

With visionary emerging technologies — genomics, extended reality, quantum systems, artificial intelligence, augmented/virtual reality, blockchain, the metaverse continuum and so on — the research community gets excited about possible applications, but the intended customer — many yet to be identified — possesses knowledge and understanding only headline deep.

Potential product recipients cannot yet discern the level and characteristics of the technology. Though the Defense Department continues to look in the research community for the fourth and fifth offset technology to asymmetrically compensate for a disadvantage in another area, it lacks the ability to state any operational requirements in terms that are sufficient for the design engineers to outline product specifications.

In the past, innovative technology has stumbled out of the laboratories into the light, where users could conceptualize applications and thus requirements, but now the timeline to preserve battlefield advantage has shortened. Waiting for laboratory success without requirements pull is no longer acceptable.

The timeline from “discovery to functional reality” must be shortened, and this is only possible by eliciting user involvement — commercial and military — at the earliest opportunity. A graduated approach to building user consensus through a growing list of stakeholders must be taken. Research facilities and start-up companies focusing on particular technologies have a different understanding of their products’ potential value as a technical military solution than does the potential end user.

Of course, the research-and-development organization and the product users have different orientations, because large asymmetries exist between them — for example, differences in academic understanding of a particular science versus operational experience.

Also, product evaluation by the developer is based on internally defined criteria, and in some cases this orientation is removed from the operational environment and application.

User influence in the development process — and therefore the nature of product outcomes — where there is technology push and user pull is complex and multidimensional. User involvement at the earliest phase of development should result in clearer definition of possible applications. And when possible, applications are identified and operable requirements documents can then be drafted.

The time required to establish a product requirements document is insignificant compared to the length of the struggle and frustration of shaping a laboratory technology into a viable product without user pull. A requirements document provides a vision of why a product is needed, what context it will be used in, and a description of the final product.

The bottom line is that this document will provide engineering and end users a mutual understanding of how the product fulfills a defined requirement, and it sets expectations.

The user and design engineers work together to refine the product’s characteristics. Budget, resources — material and technical personnel — and a work breakdown schedule with milestones can be planned and communicated.

The earliest involvement of a cross section of the potential user community is critical to the swift fielding of a product, which provides the military with battlefield advantage and businesses with established revenue streams.

To secure grant funds, private investors and corporate sponsors, scientists and research engineers must take the time to educate the potential user community. The educational process may be arduous at times, especially regarding visionary emerging technology and a relatively unschooled user community. Scientists must become teachers with the patience of Job. Einstein and his group had to be very tolerant as well as persistent.

In some cases, a pause in the development sequence may well be necessary to structure a short lesson plan. Scientists will argue they are not professors, but they must be persuaded to wear a mortarboard if they desire to elicit user requirements to pull the technology forward — and secure investment in their revolutionary product.

Some nations such as Japan strongly blend culture and technology, and their ability to field visionary emerging technology seems to flow forth far more naturally. In China, a growing segment of the population is diligently striving for rapid discovery-to-fielding of most advanced technologies. But in the United States, our student population is drifting further away from math, science and engineering, making it more difficult to educate potential users of breakthrough technical achievements, so the task facing the U.S. scientific community is even more difficult.

Evolutionary development is direct and coherent. Revolutionary development is more difficult, but sequential while requiring tenacity. However, visionary development of emerging technology not yet fully understood or appreciated by those outside the research environment is a real challenge. Scientists and design engineers must recognize the challenge and bring in potential users early to not only secure funding but also proceed to a viable product.

So, in answer to the question, how do we advance breakthrough technology without operational pull? We don’t. A requirements document forged by users and engineers is the lodestar, guiding the way forward in the development cycle. ND

John C. Johnson is a retired Air Force colonel and former vice president and general manager at Northrop Grumman. Email:

Topics: Technical Information, Technology Tomorrow, Viewpoint

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