During comments at the Global Air Chiefs Conference in London in mid-July, the UK’s Minister of State for the Armed Forces, James Heappey, observed that jets being designed today should be designed and built with the capacity to integrate quantum technologies.
According to Heappey, the maturation of quantum technologies would offer the potential to fully unlock the potential of AI and automation—an increase in capability over current advanced aircraft that he likened to a “tank versus cavalry, machine gun versus humans moment.” Quantum will be particularly valuable in separating the signal—important data—from the extraordinary noise of the future battlespace at a pace that is impossible for humans to replicate and difficult for some to conceive.
Even if this eventually is likely several years away, all aircraft being designed and fielded today will still be in service when quantum computing arrives, meaning that these aircraft should be designed in a way that would allow for the rapid upgrading to quantum computing. Absent this more forward leaning approach to design and capacity to rapidly upgrade, aircraft (indeed, all military equipment) could become ineffective because “technology will pass them by.”
While Heappey’s remarks were centred on the amplifying capacity of quantum science, they certainly apply more broadly and reflect a broader multi-layered dilemma for militaries both small and large as they seek to affordably keep up with what is currently an accelerating pace of innovation in key technology areas such as machine learning, quantum, virtual and augmented reality, and others.
One element of this challenge is the one highlighted by Heappey—that is, how to design advanced equipment today that enable rapid and iterative upgrades over time as technologies mature to respond to improvements in competitor / adversary capabilities or operational concepts. One approach to dealing with this challenge was articulated in the United States Air Force’s Department of Acquisition’s 2019 – 2020 Biennial Report. The report stressed the importance of a Digital Trinity of capabilities and design approaches—digital engineering, agile software development, and open architectures/ modularity—in ensuring the mission systems and emerging technologies, not platform advances, determine the upgrade and refresh rate.
But ensuring future platform relevance also requires
- a robust understanding of what technologies may be relevant in future conflict;
- solid concepts for how the capabilities enabled by these capabilities will be used; and
- some sense of what types of capabilities competitors and adversaries are prioritizing and developing.
Similarly, militaries around the world are also struggling with how to take advantage of innovation in emerging technology areas that can provide even incremental advantage or efficiencies for operators in the short-term future by incorporating this equipment into existing or legacy systems. Ensuring new technologies operate seamlessly with other technologies as well as human operators continues to be difficult that requires extensive testing and evaluation of both new technologies and training of humans who have grown used to operating a certain platform in a particular way.
Another component of the technology integration challenge is avoiding the temptation to do too much by attempting to incorporate several technologies into new design simultaneously. For example, the US Nav’s Chief of Naval Operations observed in April of 2021 that some of the delays associated with the Ford class aircraft carrier were due to an overly ambitious technology integration plan. Admiral Gilday advocated for
a much more deliberate approach with respect to introducing new technologies to any platform. We really shouldn’t introduce more than maybe one or two new technologies on any complex platform like that in order to make sure we keep risk at a manageable level.