Lessons for the New Administration – Technology, Innovation, and Modern War

Our recent national security class at Stanford, Technology, Innovation, and Modern War was designed to give students insights on how the onslaught of new technologies like AI, machine learning, autonomy, cyber, access to space, biotech, hypersonics, and others have the potential to radically change how countries fight and deter threats.

With 20+ guest speakers, including two Secretaries of Defense, Generals, Admirals and Policy makers, the class emphasized that winning future conflicts requires more than just adopting new technology and developing new weapon systems. It calls for a revolution in thinking about how these technologies can be adopted and integrated into weapons and other defense platforms, and more importantly, how they can create new operational and organizational concepts that will change the way we fight.

By the end of the class there were five surprises.

  1. One was a continuous refrain from senior DoD leadership that new tech, weapons, and operational concepts are insufficient to guarantee the U.S. will prevail in a great power conflict. In fact, these new technologies/weapons change the odds against us.
  2. Secondly, our senior military leadership recognizes that now more than ever we can’t go it alone. We need allies – existing and new ones. And that depends on a reinvigorated State Department and renewed emphasis on diplomacy in general.

Unstated by any of our speakers but painfully clear by class end were three other surprises:

  1. Our national security is now inexorably intertwined with commercial technology and is hindered by our lack of an integrated strategy at the highest level.
  2. Our adversaries have exploited the boundaries and borders between our defense, commercial and economic interests.
  3. Our current approaches – both in the past and current administration – to innovation across the government are piecemeal, incremental, increasingly less relevant and insufficient.

Lessons Learned
A few takeaways from our speakers. If you’re in the DoD and conversant with the National Defense and Military strategies and have read Chris Brose’s book The Kill Chain, none of this will come as a surprise. But for the rest of you, here they are:

  • The 2018 National Defense Strategy focused the DoD on Great Power competition. It called out China as a peer competitor to America, pursuing its goal of global dominance. At the same time, Russia has reemerged as a regional power.
  • For the last two decades, while we were focused on combating terrorism, China has explicitly developed weapons and operational concepts to target every one of our advantages- in weapon systems and operational concepts, but also in alliances, economic and diplomatic power.
  • Unfortunately, China has succeeded – many of our most exquisite systems on sea, in space or in other places are at risk. A majority of these weapons have now become legacy systems eating up future budget and resources.
  • Rapid innovation in new technologies – cyber, AI, autonomy, access to space, drones, 5G, biotech, quantum, microelectronics, etc. – are no longer being led by military/government labs, but instead come from commercial vendors – many of them Chinese. The result is that unlike the last 75 years, the DOD can no longer predict or control future technologies and threats.
  • A surprise for many of us was the tacit acknowledgment from our military and defense leaders that we cannot win a war alone, without allies. These senior leaders emphasized the importance of a more collaborative embrace of existing allies and creation of new ones. They put a premium on diplomacy, and the need for a better funded and robust State Department.
  • The result is that for the first time in almost a century, the U.S. is no longer guaranteed to win the next war.

The good news is every one of our military and civilian speakers conceptually understands all of this. And even better, all want to change the status quo. However …

Most are coming to the conclusion that the DoD is at a crossroads: Substantive and sustained changes in the DoD size, structure, policies, processes, practices, technologies, and culture are needed.

  • For example, our requirements and acquisition systems are driven by a 70-year-old model predicated on predicting the future (both threats and technology) and delivering solutions decades out; and optimized for lifecycle costs, not rapid innovation or disposable systems.
  • In the last four years we modernized the acquisition process, but it remains hindered by the requirements processes from the services, which still result in 88 Major Defense Acquisition Programs – where we spend our acquisition dollars – to buy legacy systems mostly built for past threats.
  • Some hints of the future force came from multiple speakers. Admiral Lorin Selby, the Chief of Naval Research, for example, had a compelling vision of the future fleet and an expanded industrial base.
  • The DoD has over 75 incubators and accelerators. We lead the world in demos of new technology but not in deployed systems. Few of these innovation activities have resulted in a major program of record. The DoD is making the right baby steps but needs to quickly focus on scaling innovation. This, of course, will require the difficult conversation of what legacy systems will be retired.
  • DoD’s relationship with startups and commercial companies driving these new technologies is hindered by a lack of understanding of their own and their investors’ interests. Venture capital and startups have institutionalized disruptive innovation. In the U.S. they spend $ 150 billion a year to fund new ventures that can move with the speed and urgency that the DoD now requires. While we’ve made progress, a radical reinvention of our civil/military innovation relationship is necessary if we want to keep abreast of our adversaries. This should include:
    • A Civil-Military Alliance driven by incentives not coercion. By public-private partnerships not government control. Private industry – from Primes to startups – incentivized at scale will ensure our leadership in science, in industry and in new technologies.
    • Reduce the dependence on bespoke and exquisite systems. Rapidly bring commercial technology into the DoD while adding proprietary defense components
    • Create new technology ecosystems around DoD technology needs by encouraging commercial interoperability around DoD standards. Awards and contracts to each new ecosystem.
    • Encourage and incentivize dual-use startups, scale-ups, and companies
    • Overhaul Federal Labs and Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs) to promote collaboration at scale with startups and venture investors
    • Each service should pick 1-2 startup/scale-up winners and buy heavily
  • Pentagon leadership will need to be selected on the ability to innovate – empower the innovation insurgents and elevate risk takers that understand technology.
  • We’ve failed to engage the rest of the populace in our mission. Americans – including extraordinarily talented students from our top universities — are ready and willing to serve in some capacity. We’ve shown little interest in providing the incentives and expanding the opportunities required to make that happen.

However, these observations about changes needed in the DoD surfaced a much bigger problem, one that civilian leadership has not yet acknowledged: National security is now inexorably intertwined with commercial technology and is hindered by our lack of a national industrial and economic policy. There is an urgent need for an integrated strategy and policies.

These are not problems of technology. They’re problems of organizational design, incentives, out of the box thinking and national will.

The American people will need to demand more of their government and elected officials. The status quo will need to be broken. Substantive change will require new ideas, not better versions of the ones we have. For example:

  • The new Biden senior White House organizational structure still treats technology as a standalone issue. That’s a status quo position and a losing hand. We need to recognize that the boundaries between our defense, commercial and economic interests are interrelated.
  • We need to build the innovation capacity across the interagency- coordinated and synchronized by senior executive branch leadership. One way of implementing this would be creating a political appointee in key government agencies that acts as the interagency single point of innovation leadership cutting across organizations including but not limited to the DoD, National Security Council, Council of Economic Advisors, OMB, FCC, and OSTP.
  • Create a new Deputy National Security Advisor to coordinate and synchronize innovation and industrial policies across these multiple agencies
    • With real influence and responsibility on budget, trade policy, and alliance strategy
    • Specifically coordinate national policies of 5G, AI, machine learning, autonomy, cyber, access to space, biotech, hypersonics, microelectronics, etc.
    • Owns Civil/Military alliance for engaging and incentivizing new entrants and incumbents and protecting civil assets
    • Sits on the National Security Council and National Economic Council

These changes will require Congress, defense contractors and the executive branch to pull in the same direction to change that equation.

The good news is that we have all the tools needed to succeed, we just need the willpower.  And we must not forget what’s at stake. Democracies, while messy, are a force for good.  Self-determination with codified freedoms is the most moral system of organization mankind has developed.  Getting the reforms we examined in this class is essential to the preservation of democracy and maximization of peace.  It is most certainly a noble endeavor.

In future articles we’re going to offer specific solutions to transform the DoD to face the challenges ahead, not behind.

Steve, Joe, and Raj

Steve Blank

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Technology, Innovation, and Modern War  – Wrap Up

This class, Technology, Innovation, and Modern War was designed to give our students insights on how the onslaught of new technologies like AI, machine learning, autonomy, cyber, access to space, biotech, hypersonics, and others has the potential to radically change how countries fight and deter threats.

Our 20+ guest speakers were an extraordinary collection of military and policy leaders including two Secretaries of Defense, Generals, Admirals and Policy makers.

The class emphasized that winning future conflicts requires more than just adopting new technology and developing new weapon systems. It calls for a revolution in thinking about how these technologies can be adopted and integrated into weapons and other defense platforms, and more importantly, how they can create new operational and organizational concepts that will change the way we fight.

By the time we got to the end of the class we had a firehose of perspectives on technology, weapons, and policy. It took us awhile to process it all, but out of that mass of data five surprises emerged – insights about what’s happened to the DOD and the country and how we should organize to meet these challenges. We’ve summarized them in part 2 that follows this post. But first here’s a summary of what we covered in this class.

An overview of the history of military innovation
In the first part of this course, we reminded the students that the national power of a country – its influence and footprint on the world stage – is more than just its military strength. It’s the combination of a country’s diplomacy (soft power and alliances), information/intelligence, and its innovation / economic strength as well as military prowess.

Nations decline when they lose allies, decline in economic power, lose interest in global affairs, experience internal/civil conflicts, or the  nation’s military misses disruptive technology transitions and new operational concepts.

In our opening lesson, Ex-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter shared insights and experiences from his extensive and impactful career in DoD that included tours as Undersecretary for Acquisitions, Technology and Logistics, Deputy Secretary, and Defense Secretary. Subsequent teaching team lectures provided students an overview of the history of military innovation, all the way from long bows to nuclear weapons and offset strategies with the observation that innovations and adoption in military systems follow a repeatable pattern. Max Boot, the author of “War Made New helped us understand that pattern. Next, we described the US strategies developed since World War Two to gain and maintain our technological and competitive edge during the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

Finally, we discussed the challenges raised in the 2018 National Defense Strategy. In addition to  the non-nation states (Al-Qaeda and ISIS) we’ve fought for the last two decades, our military now faces “Great Power” competition from China and Russia. Today the U.S. faces “two plus three” threats –  the two peer adversaries China and Russia, plus the three – regional threats from Iran, North Korea as well as the non-nation state actors. The strategy called for a pivot of our defense from fighting terrorists to preparing for confrontations with the “two plus three.”

To help us understand how and why the “two plus three” strategy was created, we had Bridge Colby, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and one of the strategy’s authors lead this discussion.

Next, Christian Brose, the former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the author of The Kill Chain, (one of our required readings for the class) helped us understand what our adversaries have done to put our military and country at risk over the last two decades and the consequences for the country.

Military Applications and Operational Concepts in Space, Cyber, AI, and Autonomy
Once we laid out the new 2+3 threats to the nation, we segued into the second part of the class where we examined how emerging technologies in AI, cyber, space, and autonomy would create new weapons systems and operational concepts.

We heard from the DOD officials who are acquiring these technologies including Ellen Lord, the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, and Will Roper, the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition Technology and Logistics.

We got a deep understanding of the impact and deployment of AI in the DOD from recently retired Lieutenant General Jack Shanahan, the founding director of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (the JAIC) and Nand Mulchandani the JAIC CTO. Chris Lynch, the ex-head of the Defense Digital Service and now CEO of Rebellion Defense described his company’s experience as a new defense contractor trying to build and deliver these AI-systems for the department defense.

For autonomy, Maynard Holiday, former senior advisor in the Pentagon who helped the Defense Science Board define autonomy, gave us a tutorial on the technology. And for cyber, we had Sumit Agarwal, a former DOD cyber policymaker, do the same.  For understanding space as a new contested domain, and the role of the new Space Force, we had General John Raymond, Chief of Space Operations and Commander of the Space Force. And for the impact new technologies will have on the Navy, the best person to hear from was Admiral Lorin Selby, the Chief of Naval Research, which includes ONR, and the Naval Research Lab.

Major General Mike Fenzel, Vice Director for Strategy, Plans and Policy, J5 for the Joint Chiefs, educated us on how the DOD develops operational plans and courses of action. And finally, Michele Flournoy former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy offered what a new Secretary of Defense might do to organize to match those 2+3 threats and new technologies.

Midterms and Finals
For their midterm we asked students to describe how they would reallocate the defense budget to better serve US national security interests and to make their case to Congress on why and how our defense priorities should change. They had to determine and argue how much budget should shift from legacy systems to new systems and why.  We selected the author of one of the top student submissions to present her argument and recommendations to Congressman Mike Gallagher of the House Armed Services Committee.

For their Final, students teamed up in groups of 4 to tackle thorny challenges that may face the US and its Allies in the coming decades, including misinformation, cyber, logistics, networks, and new military platforms.  The students, with the help of a military member, developed broad proposals and wrote a policy paper for the President of the United States.  In the next to last class, as prep for the students final presentations, Safi Bahcall observed that one of the most significant barriers to innovation and adoption is how organizations are designed. And he offered that the DOD needs a different organization to facilitate rapid adoption

Finally, in our last class one of our student teams presented their final project – how they would address real threats, with new operational concepts, policies, and strategies – to former Secretary of Defense General (ret) James Mattis.

To Our Students
This class has given us a lot of hope that our nation and free nations around the world will be in good hands if the students in this class-and the best and brightest of their generation beyond Stanford – make the decision to serve and to use their amazing skills for the betterment of the world. We hope you take on the challenge that General Mattis posed to “Be the change in the world that you want.” All of us are cheerleaders to all of you and in that journey. So thank you for letting us be part of this.  We are excited to see how much positive change you will make happen in the coming years.

Lessons Learned

In our next post we’re going to describe the five surprises, the insights we’ve derived and offer specific solutions to transform the DOD and country to face the challenges ahead, not behind.

Steve, Joe, and Raj

Steve Blank

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Technology, Innovation, and Modern War – Class 18 – General James Mattis

We just held our eighteenth and final session of our new national security class Technology, Innovation and Modern WarJoe FelterRaj Shah and I designed a class to examine the new military systems, operational concepts and doctrines that will emerge from 21st century technologies – Space, Cyber, AI & Machine Learning and Autonomy.

Today General James Mattis addressed the class.

Catch up with the class by reading our summaries of the previous seventeen classes here.


Our speaker for our final last class was former Secretary of Defense General Jim Mattis who gave an inspiring talk about service to the nation. General Mattis joined the Marine Corps back in 1969, and he has led Marines and then later Joint forces from every level from platoon commander as a Lieutenant all the way up to combatant commander of US Central Command as a four-star general. He recently led our entire US Defense Department as our country’s 26th Secretary of Defense. We’re fortunate to have him back here at Stanford at the Hoover Institution.

Below are select excerpts from a riveting Q&A session with the teaching team and our students. General Mattis shared a range of compelling experiences and insights that underscored many of the themes of the course.

How do we as a nation, compete against China?
The reality is that Republican and Democratic administrations have tried over 20 some years, to help China. (It was assumed) if we enable them, if we work with them, if they liberalize their economy, political liberalization will follow. It was an untested thesis. And there were a lot of people if they’d read history that might have said, I’m not so sure about that. Because as many of you are aware, the Chinese Communist Party sits on a shaky throne. They cannot liberalize politically, or they will lose power. It’s that simple. They’re not going to liberalize. They’ve made the choice. It’s loud and clear, it goes on over decades.

From Brussels to Washington, DC, certainly from Tokyo, to Canberra to New Delhi, there’s an appreciation that China wants to rewrite the rules. And there’s no reason to think an authoritarian country at home, would somehow write liberal rules abroad. That’s not what history teaches you. Countries don’t treat foreigners better than their own people. So you have to recognize the CCP is becoming more authoritarian- for example over Hong Kong, over their Uighurs, over their own people with social grades now being assigned social responsibility, job, grades, and that sort of thing.

When the National Defense Strategy came out, stating that China is our number one competitor, it was done with the idea that if we can buy the peace, keep the peace, one more year, one more month, one more week, one more day, this gives our diplomats the time to work. And try keeping our values foremost, to show the world we mean to make this work. We are not out to keep China down.

What do you think is the opportunity for Silicon Valley and the students in our class here at Stanford, to play a role in national security?
Well, the first point I would make is, we need every one of your good ideas. This is not a government that’s run in Washington and does its own thing like Beijing does, or Moscow does in their country. This is a government of the people, by the people for the people. We have no ordained right to victory on the battlefield. If we want to keep these freedoms we have – the freedoms that bring so many people from around the world to Silicon Valley – those freedoms are going to have to be defended, because there’s always people who think the way to run things is to beat heads, not to count heads.

For those countries that don’t operate off that, you cannot wish them away, you cannot make them into something you want them to be because you think the people there are like you. They are like you. A taxi driver in Leningrad, for example is much like a taxi driver in San Francisco. The problem is not with the people in those countries, it’s with a system. So we’re going to have to deal with that system, and make sure that we draw the very best of our young people.

And you don’t have to stay for 40 some years like me, but you should come in and do it for a few years. Maybe what you want to do is really emphasize education in your local community. And be on the local school board when you’re 26 years old- do your homework and go for it. Maybe you want to be on the city council and help adjust housing policies so that normal people with normal paychecks can actually afford to buy a house in this town.

We need others of you to move into these very technical issues and help us find our way forward. But the bottom line is you really need to consider that this freedom, just because the draft went away, it doesn’t mean you get to live here scot free. Some people say, a country’s like a bank, you can only take out of it what you’re willing to put in. We got a lot of people nowadays who think they can take out. But they don’t have to put anything in. Number one, that’s a good way to end up on a psychiatrist’s couch when you’re about 45 saying that in my selfish life, I didn’t do a whole lot of good to other human beings. So I don’t recommend that. But number two, it’s just a heck of a lot of fun to roll up your sleeves, and work alongside others in a great cause. You’ll never regret it, you’ll have the best days of your life, you’ll have the worst days of your life there. By golly, you’re really living when you’re doing this. And for those of you who want to go into military, I recommend it.

Are we correct to emphasize that it’s less about the technology, and more about how we use it?
Well, we’re fortunate, I think that we are at the leading edge – at the  cutting edge – on technology. It’s why so many young people who are bright come to Palo Alto and the area, or to Boston, to Seattle, Texas, all these places where we have this going on. I don’t think it’s either or, but If I was to concentrate on the area most important, it would be on the integration. I study a lot of history, not because it gives me all the answers, but it tells me how other people dealt successfully or unsuccessfully with similar situations. Not every situation is unique. And so it teaches you what questions to ask.  And I’ll give you an example of a military technology where some people didn’t develop it -didn’t develop the 2.0 version -but used it better than anyone else.

World War One, the British are sick and tired of their boys going against barbed wire and machine guns. And they say if we could cross that ground in an armored vehicle, and then fight, or fight from the armored vehicle, we’d save a lot of lives. And so they developed the tank, right in the middle of the war. They weren’t thinking ahead. They got caught flat footed. Tanks are big, they didn’t work well and everything else. But they had the tank. British had the tank. They even had some pretty good tactics to tell the truth, developed over the next few years after the war. Well, everybody else said, Oh, I want one of those too. Mankind being what they are, they’re always looking for a different way to whack each other. And so everybody starts making tanks. Guess who had the best tank by 1939? People think the Germans. Aha, not by a longshot. The French had better tanks. Tank for tank, French had the better tank by 1938/39. But the Germans integrated the tank better. So the British had tank 1.0. Let’s just say the French had 2.0. And the Germans were about 1.5. But the Germans put a radio in their tank to talk to a dive bomber overhead. And they trained their people- educated them to use initiative. And now they unleash what you and I call lightning war -blitzkrieg- across Europe in 1940. They didn’t invent the tank -they didn’t develop the tank very well. They didn’t even have the most modern tank, but they integrated that technology better than anyone else did. And they unleashed hell across Europe. So that just shows the priority of integrating capabilities better, more effectively, more broadly, in a more focused way than someone else. That’s where you get your advantage.

What new technology threats do you see?
The new threats that are coming, we can see them mostly in the cyber, and the space domains. Those are two new domains. We fought on this planet for about 10,000 years on the land and sea, then in the last hundred years, the air. In the last 15 years, we’ve added cyber and space.  I would tell you that in these areas, we are integrating them now.

But there’s also fundamental changes coming in the way we deal with one another as human beings. Talking about artificial intelligence here, how we deal with life. And all of these are double edged swords. Every one of them, I can tell you has a double edge. So we better figure out how we’re going to deal with these emerging technologies, hypersonics this sort of thing. And try to keep the peace for one more year, one more month, one more week.

What do you think the future of warfare looks like?
I got a phone call one day. I was a marine three-star in Afghanistan. The Secretary General of NATO called me. He said, I’ve been approved by your president to call you. You’re going to be put in charge of the Supreme Allied Commander for NATO transformation. And in the US, you’re going to command U.S. Joint Forces Command. Your job is to feel out future warfare. And I thought, I better start reading about this, because I’ve been an infantry guy fighting all this time. So I read 20 some books. And every military book started with Alexander the Great. There’s a reason he’s called the great by the way.

Every military that successfully transformed, successfully modernized, did one thing in particular, the ones that succeeded. They defined the specific problem they were trying to solve.  And what they did was they defined the problem so well, that the solution became more apparent to them. Go to Einstein, if he had 60 minutes to save the world, he was asked how he would compose his thoughts. He said, I’d spend 55 minutes defining the problem, then we’d save the world in five minutes. So how does that impact here? I would tell you that in this case, it is going to be a combination of the legacy systems and the breakthrough technologies that are coming right now. But remember this, I was thinking, as you all were briefing your strategies earlier, for 2022 and up to 2030. There’s a boxer who said everyone’s always got a plan until they get slugged in the face.

I remember when we were explaining to some Russian officers after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and we were meeting and actually getting along with each other in those days. It went bad under Putin, but for a little while, in this window, I remember one of our officers saying, you know, with our air forces, you weren’t going to move across Europe. He said, Oh, we weren’t worried about that.  I was kind of curious, I said, why not? He said, because you weren’t going to be flying many of your air forces when my T-72‘s. were parked on your runway.

In other words, there’s the give and take of war. Where you see an advantage that we held, and we did hold a great advantage in the air. And they didn’t have the air defenses that would have been sufficient to stop us in all most cases. But what they were going to do is using a past technology. They were going to deny us the use of ours. So what does this look like? We’ll see all these new weapons being fielded. And some will work some will not work as well, some will be destabilizing, some will actually not be used at all. Just the threat will be sufficient.

For example, right now, if you walk into a geographic combatant command, there’s a whole bunch of men and women sitting there in the senior operations shop, and they’re watching the intel on the board. And there’s a guy sitting there talking to the aircraft carriers, another one talking to the Air Force fighter, the chaos, the fighter guys, bombers, that sort of thing. There’s the army missile people in the room. There’s your maneuver brigades in the room, this sort of thing. Well, there’s also sitting there some different  looking guys and gals, mostly civilians. And they’re sitting there and they’re on keyboards, and they’re going very quickly back and forth to some other places. And they are fighting it out in cyber warfare right then. And satellites are being turned to look at certain things. And it’s going on.

And so you’re going to see the integration from the very top, all the way down to an army battalion that’s got an Air Force officer in it. That’s bringing in certain targeting data through an integrated command and control system. In other words, it’s not like it’s all going to be fought by robot, but there’ll be a lot of robots on the field and in the air overhead. It’s not all going to be high tech. In fact, some of the units will be messaging to one another, using motorcycle riders more than likely, because they can’t be cut off by cyber. You’re going to see this mix up and down the scale of technology. And certain breaking technologies are going to then dominate in certain areas. And now it’s up to you to mix and integrate that together in a way. That’s what you do.

Let me tell you what you want to do to the enemy commander. That guy who’s going to make the decision to fall back to fight harder, to do this, do that. You want him facing so many cascading dilemmas that he cannot keep up with them. As he solves this one, three more dilemmas pop up. And you want him on the “horns of a dilemma” constantly. If he moves, he’s going to get hit. If he stays put, he’s going to get hit. If he moves over here, he’s going to get hit. But if he hits you, he’s going to get hit even harder, because he’s now had to fire and now we have more intel on where he’s firing from. It’s a great, great, tragic chess game. And it will be characterized by all the things you’re studying now and surprises the enemy has up their sleeve.

A Principled Strategy- First
When I walked into the Pentagon-my first day there-it’s noon on a Saturday. And there is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, four Star Marine General, I knew well. A four star Air Force general I knew well as the vice chairman. And one holdover from the Obama administration required by law, who’s the Deputy Secretary of Defense under President Obama. And that’s the four of us, we’re going to be for six months, the people that make all the decisions there. I said, you know, guys, I’ve been asking for a strategy for a month in case the Senate asked me about it in my hearing, they didn’t, but you didn’t give it to me. I know I couldn’t give you an order beforehand, because the Senate would take umbrage. I didn’t have their consent yet. But I said, I want the strategy. And I need it right now, because I’m going to be signing next of kin letters, moms and dads. And, the Chairman, looked me right in the eye and said, we don’t have one. We hadn’t had one for 10 years.

This is not a partisan slam on the Obama administration. It’s two different parties, two different administrations. So I went home that night and I started writing it. I carried it with me in every meeting in NATO so I can talk to our allies. My first trip was just Tokyo and Seoul. I took my starting writing with them. I talked to every democrat and republican on Capitol Hill that was willing to talk with me about it. A year later, we rolled it out. And for two years in a row, I was getting record breaking budgets for the Department of Defense, with 87% of the House and Senate Democrats and Republicans voting for it.

So the answer is- do not give up on your principles, your values, your way of life, your constitutional form of government. Create a strategy, and say this is what we stand for, this is what we will not stand for. Put everything in your budget into it.

Move Past America First
I’d recommend the new administration take out of the national security strategy at the White House anything about “America First”. I don’t care how well it was intended. It did not work well. I didn’t like it in the beginning. I like it less now. We didn’t put any of that into the defense strategy. So it could probably pretty much stand. They may need to play with it a little bit and put their thumbprint on it.

But when you get strategies that are built with bipartisan support, as Senator Vandenberg, a right-wing conservative Republican was asked in Michigan 1949, how could you work with that terrible left wing, President Truman, he answered very bluntly, “politics stops at the water’s edge.” Right now we have so few people who’ve seen nonpartisan, bipartisan work. They don’t even recognize that when it happens. But that’s the solution. Real strategic thinking based on traditional strategies and traditional views of America’s role in the world, with less militarism in its foreign policy.

How can we (students) help advance national security and serving our country?
You should, number one, keep learning. Make this your first step of graduate level learning, and keep it going now. In the Marines, every time you get promoted, you get a new reading list, you have to read. Even generals get a new reading list to read. You have to read all these books. But never stop learning because this is a very dynamic world. It’s just awash in change and you have to keep learning.

How do you bring that to bear in your question? And remember, we’ve got a couple of branches of the government that would probably appeal to you. The House and the Senate Armed Services committees, intelligence committees, and foreign relations committees, love to get you bright young folks in there. Oftentimes you don’t stay but four or five years, which seems like a long time to you right now. It’s not, trust me. But it gives you an understanding of how the government works and steeps you in the issues de jure. Another way to do it would be to go into State Department, the CIA, or the Department of Defense, or the Department of Navy, Air Force, Army.

If a little more technically oriented, for example, that might be worth it. If you go to the Secretary of Defense’s office, and just say you’ve lived for a year in Jordan, or you lived for a year in China, we often times try to bring people like you in to be the deputy desk officer. So you can actually bring your knowledge right in. We think if we can snag you young, and show you what we’re doing, we’ll keep you. Years later, you’ll come back. The point I would make is, that even if you don’t stay there for a career, whether it be the Peace Corps, the Marine Corps, whether it be the military or State Department, try to find a way that you can go in and find that you get passionate about something. Because I would just tell you that once you get to that point, it’s never seems like a job. And you’ll really dig into it because you have the initiative to go deeper because you like what you’re doing.

Keep the Faith – America’s Power of Attraction
And now let me close with something.  I’m a two-star general I’m out in western Iraq. It’s 2004. It’s been 120 degrees, 127 degrees every day. At night, it cools down to 105. We’re outnumbered. We’ve been fighting and fighting and fighting and I pull in at midnight to a Lieutenant probably no more than 18 months out of his undergraduate days in college, and his Sailors and Marines. And when the sun comes up, I’m inside his perimeter out in the middle of nowhere in the desert. And he comes over and he’s telling me Okay, here’s where I’ve been fighting general. And here’s where I’ve lost men. Here’s how many enemy we’ve taken out. And by the way, General we picked up a guy last night he was putting an IED on the road you drove in on. I said, Really? That’s kind of personal. He said, Well, guess what? He lived two years in London. He speaks perfect English. You want to talk to him? I said, Sure.

Because it turns out he’s an engineer. He’s been trained in England. And so he sits down. A marine cuts off a little plastic handcuffs, the guard who’s walking around with him. And obviously, it wasn’t a good night for the man. He’s out there digging his hole. He’s got his artillery round, he’s going to put his car battery in. He’s whistling. He looks up and there’s five guys with automatic rifles pointed at him in camouflage uniforms. It is well, I think my retirement program is not in good shape right now. And I said, What are you doing this for? You’re a Sunni, I can tell that. We’re the Marines. We’re the only friend you’ve gotten this country. Why are you trying to kill us?

And he starts off well, “You’re American. You’re here to steal the oil” and all this. And I said, no, actually, we’re not. I said I pull my wallet out every time pump gas in my doggone car. “But you’re an educated man. You get to talk like that. Just go away. I don’t want to waste my time.” And the Marines stepped forward to take him away and I said, can I sit here for a minute. He said, okay. We’re sitting in the dirt right there by my vehicle. And he said, “I just don’t like foreign forces, foreign soldiers in my country.” Okay, I respect that. I wouldn’t want them in my country. I understand that. We started talking a little bit and getting a cup of coffee and he spilled it all over his hand, he’s so nervous. And I asked him about his family. He’s got a wife and two daughters. They live over on the river about 10 kilometers away. And these Marines are on ratline out in the middle of nowhere, where if they don’t stop the Syrian foreign fighters coming in they’re going to get to Baghdad they’re going to kill a lot of innocent people. So the Marines are getting antsy to get back on the road, get back on patrol and everything. And so at the time I got to get going, and he said, Can I ask you a question? I said, Sure. He said, “I guess I’m going to jail.” You sure are. Your going to be in Abu Ghraib wearing an orange jumpsuit for a good long time for this little stunt. Your doggone lucky you’re not dead. And he said, “Do you think general? You think if I’m a model prisoner, do you think my family and I could immigrate to America?”

Think about that my fine young friends. On your worst day. I want you to remember that story. Think about that. That he would give anything right now to be sitting where I’m sitting and his daughter sitting where you’re sitting, right now. As imperfect as we are, as angry as we are at each other in this country right now but seems angrier than I was even at terrorists when I’m shooting them. Think of how great this country is on its worst day, and then roll your sleeves up and make it better. It’s that simple- make it stronger. Keep faith with each other, help each other. And remember three words, “put others first.” And you won’t be going to some shrink when you’re 45 years old wondering what you did with your life. Have a good night, young folks. And thanks for having me here.

A transcript of General Mattis’s talk is here and the video is below.

If you can’t see the video click here.

Lessons Learned

  • What a fitting end to the class
  • Class summary and lessons learned in our next and final post

Steve Blank