Publicly and behind closed doors, an increasingly vocal faction of experts claims we need an Apollo-type program to create new technologies for homeland security and military force protection. Some may miss the days — and the model — of the Bell Labs. Some are unreformed Cold Warriors — the Manhattan Project is their analogy.
All are well intentioned, but all are quite wrong. These models are a mistake for two reasons: Today the character of the threats, and the nature of innovation, is vastly different.
Today’s threat environment is — to put it in fiction’s terms — less like that of James Bond’s Cold War and much more like Jack Bauer’s world in “24,” the award-winning TV series. Threats today are amorphous, constantly shifting, unevenly distributed and have no epicenter. This is the inverse of the Cold War conflict. Then, our defenders built big machines and tools suitable for nation-state mega-conflicts, while security forces — spies and intelligence teams — sought to head off the use of the same.
If the real-life James Bonds failed, the Cold War’s archetype for state-of-the-art defense technology was the Distant Early Warning system, the DEW line, initiated in 1952 by President Harry Truman. Based on the then-new technology of massive radars, it was strung along Arctic latitudes to form a virtual fence watching for ballistic missiles or strategic aircraft. A big threat required a big solution from big, innovative laboratories.
Welcome to the new world
While nation-state threats still exist (North Korea, Iran … doubtless others in the future), the world is now complicated by the distributed, highly variable threats of terrorists, both in civilian and battlefield environments. Defensive solutions have to mirror the threats.
Fortunately, the engine of innovation has transformed over the past half-century. It’s not just that we are no longer exclusively focused on building intercontinental ballistic missiles, satellites, SR-71 aircraft and city-sized nuclear aircraft carriers — but that the very machine tools and building blocks of our age are radically and profoundly different. Today’s building-block materials, and semiconductor machine-tools, come out of the digital revolution — with properties and capabilities unimagined even a few decades ago.
Until recently, these tools have been focused mainly on producing iPods, cell phones, video games, gigabit data streams, Internet server farms and laser-guided bombs — not on civilian or military security. As it happens, the tech revolution’s machine tools and intellectual property are well suited to producing micro-radar, and the equivalent, in chemical, biological, radiological and biometric domains, to create a constellation of 21st-century DEW lines — Distributed Early Warning systems. These can be spread across and within our society and in the 360-degree threat environment in which soldiers find themselves.
The modern DEW lines integrate information and communication systems with a burgeoning array of devices on the edges of networks. This is the same architecture of modern information, Internet and cellular communications systems. The software and networks to manage, analyze and rationalize security and defense data flows are remarkably similar to their civilian counterparts that manage business and entertainment data flows. This explains why the venerable IT players, from Cisco and Microsoft to EMC and IBM, are fully engaged in the new security-industrial complex. But there is one central difference between the two worlds.
The devices on the “edges” of the IT world’s networks are primarily phones and similar devices with embedded microprocessors, from personal computers to personal digital assistants. Compare this to the security world where the devices on the edges — on the “front lines” — are far more varied and some only now emerging: complex information-gathering sensors, frequently with embedded microprocessor designed to detect, identify or track objects or people. These sensors range from increasingly ubiquitous cameras to infrared imagers, acoustic and radar-based surveillance and all manner of biometric, chemical, biological, explosive and radiological tools. Many of the devices have embedded software, feeding massive data streams into IT-driven analytic systems. And, most of these devices, software and systems are emerging from America’s techno-capital, entrepreneurial infrastructure that is unlike anything imagined in the (original) Bond world of a half-century ago.
Bond vs. Bauer
For the new world of info-centric security, picture Jack Bauer in any episode of “24.” Unlike James Bond, he has sensor and information transparency the envy of any security officer, civilian or military. But the fiction — even the TV version of the Los Angeles Counter Terrorism Command center — reasonably portrays the emerging security-tech world. A Cold War-style, centralized tech process is ill-suited to the challenges and the architecture of the distributed security-industrial complex.
It’s Jack Bauer’s world now.