First Breakfast

Software Is the Navy’s New Warfighting Advantage

Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Defense Concepts and Technology
A MARTAC T-24 unmanned surface vehicle (USV) drives autonomously during a demonstration for NATO mine countermeasures personnel as part of exercise Baltic Operations 2023 (BALTOPS 23). (DVIDS)
A MARTAC T-24 unmanned surface vehicle (USV) drives autonomously during a demonstration for NATO mine countermeasures personnel as part of exercise Baltic Operations 2023 (BALTOPS 23). (DVIDS)

Setting a Course for Software Dominance

With technology rapidly changing the character of warfare from the Red Sea and Ukraine to the Western Pacific, the U.S. Navy finds itself at a historic inflection point akin to the shift from sail to steam. New Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Lisa Franchetti highlighted the potential of new concepts and capabilities in her recent “America’s Warfighting Navy” speech at the 36th Surface Navy Association National Symposium, which suggested the Navy needed to overhaul its capability development approach to maintain maritime superiority in an increasingly contested and unstable environment. “Gone are the days of operating from a maritime sanctuary against competitors who cannot threaten us. . . . We must think, act, and operate differently.”

Admiral Franchetti argued that the key to maintaining an edge over opponents like China is to “integrate conventional capability with hybrid, unmanned, and disruptive technologies.” While defense officials have made this case for years, the Pentagon’s efforts at innovation continue to stall between demonstration and fielding. Experiments like the Navy’s Integrated Battle Problems demonstrate promising prototypes that could address commanders’ pressing operational problems, but they fail to reach the fleet in time or in relevant numbers.

Software is often the missing piece that prevents a disruptive new system or concept from reaching its full potential and becoming a credible capability. During the last 20 years, military forces transitioned from people integrating the force using voice communications and doctrine to machines integrating the force using datalinks and protocols. Just like our personal technology, the performance of the radars, sensors, signals, and combat systems are defined by the version of software that runs on them. The capability of the force is now as much about software as it is about weapons, platforms, systems, professional military education, and training.

But the DoD does not prioritize software as though it is central to the future of warfighting. Hardware-focused programs are mired in delays due to monolithic software development practices. Efforts to employ software for integration often perpetuate existing operational concepts and force compositions. And although it has been an option for more than three years, only a handful of program managers have availed themselves of the DoD’s new software appropriation category.

The unmanned and hybrid platforms the CNO highlighted require artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled autonomy and mission models. Incorporating these and other technologies into the force and employing them effectively will depend on AI-enabled decision-support tools and data-translation algorithms. Software is becoming one of the most important weapons in the U.S. Navy’s arsenal, and data its most lethal ammunition. Admiral Franchetti may not state it directly, but the warfighting Navy she envisions will be a software-centric one.

The Parable of Sail and Steam

The Navy’s transition from sail to steam in the late 19th century is a useful analogy for its pivot today toward software-centricity. First developed in the late 1700s, steam-powered ships offered compelling advantages in consistency, versatility, and speed over sailing vessels and were quickly adopted by commercial industry. But sailors resisted the U.S. Navy’s pivot to steam. Their reluctance was rooted in several factors: the tradition and romanticism associated with sail-powered vessels, a skepticism towards the reliability of steam engines, and the strategic and tactical reevaluations required to integrate new propulsion methods. Officers and purchasing agents alike fundamentally misunderstood the new technology and its value proposition, as they had been trained in a different era, on a different technology, to command and manage a different type of maritime operation.

Despite these reservations, strategic imperatives compelled the Navy to embrace steam power. As the advantages of steam became undeniable and other navies began to modernize their fleets, the risks of lagging behind became too great to ignore. Navy leaders recognized that clinging to sail power would render the force obsolete against increasingly modern and agile adversaries, and they pursued a collection of steam-powered ships during the mid-1800s. By the 1890s, the Navy had officially pivoted to steam propulsion. The investment paid off, with America’s modern steam-powered vessels scoring decisive victories during conflicts such as the 1898 Battle of Santiago de Cuba, where the U.S. destroyed every ship in a Spanish Flotilla and lost only a single American seaman. Such a victory would not have been possible had the Navy failed to modernize years before.

This evolution mirrors today’s need to embrace software-centricity. Just as the transition to steam required the Navy to overcome internal reservations and reevaluate tactics, strategy, and training, the current shift demands a similar reimagining of warfare in which digital technology, data analytics, artificial intelligence, and cyber capabilities become central to naval operations. Failure to make this transition risks obsolescence.

Warfighting, Warfighters, and the Foundation that Supports Them

Current operations in the Middle East make the case for a software-centric Navy. Facing persistent attacks from Houthi rebels using relatively unsophisticated drones and missiles, Navy destroyer crews are forced to make decisions in seconds. Commanders will rightfully err on the side of caution to protect their own and other ships by engaging each air threat with their best defense systems as far away as possible. However, this approach is already draining the Navy’s inventory of multi-million dollar surface-to-air interceptors.

In a similar conflict in the Western Pacific against China, the scale of the challenge becomes more daunting. While the Houthis have access to a few dozen Iranian-supplied missiles or drones at a time, the capability and capacity of PLA weapons will mandate better command and control software to ensure ship captains implement tactics that both increase lethality and optimize critical weapons inventories. With improved AI and decision support tools, ship captains could better balance the lethality of the threat with the best system response. That could include engaging threats with some combination of missiles, guns, electronic warfare, and directed energy systems or ignoring the threats completely.

Admiral Franchetti offers three strategic priorities — Warfighting, Warfighters, and the Foundation that supports them — to guide the Navy’s incorporation of unconventional and disruptive technologies to create continuous warfighting advantage. The critical enabler to achieving this vision will be a successful pivot to software-centricity:

Warfighting: Software offers unparalleled flexibility and adaptability. Software moves fast; developers can push out updates on a daily cadence, if not faster. In a domain where threats evolve rapidly, the ability to update and enhance systems at the speed of software, without the need for physical overhauls, ensures that naval forces can respond to new challenges with agility. Extended across the fleet, this means that ships, aircraft, and other platforms can be continuously improved and adapted to emerging warfighting needs without returning to port, ensuring that the Navy can maintain operational tempo and strategic surprise.

A software-centric approach fosters innovation and integration across various domains of warfare, from cyberspace to the electromagnetic spectrum. Through introducing software-defined onramps to integrate AI, machine learning, and networked systems, the Navy can harness the power of innovation to enhance decision-making, improve situational awareness, and coordinate actions across distributed forces more efficiently. This not only enhances the lethality and effectiveness of individual platforms but also the collective U.S. and Coalition forces.

Warfighters: The shift to a software-centric Navy promises to enrich the roles of sailors and officers through advanced training, increased operational insights, and more empowered decision-making. Innovative, software-backed technologies will serve as a force multiplier, automating or streamlining mundane tasks and empowering all Sailors to employ higher-order human creativity and reasoning against the warfighting functions they signed up to support. Software-centric technologies should not be seen as competitive to the warfighter — instead, they should be recognized as enhancements that will enable the entire force to be more connected, more effective, and more lethal against a shared mission. This, in turn, boosts morale and fosters a culture of innovation and excellence among the ranks.

Foundation: Building a robust digital infrastructure, investing in cybersecurity, software, and fostering a skilled workforce form the bedrock of the software-centric transformation. These foundational elements ensure that the Navy remains agile, resilient, and ahead of technological curves by being able to deploy software and move data from the sea to space. Moreover, software enables the realization of Admiral Franchetti’s vision to “put more players on the field.” Unmanned systems, whether aerial, surface, or underwater, rely heavily on sophisticated software for autonomous operations. These systems can provide persistent surveillance and take on high-risk missions without endangering human lives. As such, embracing software-centric warfare allows the Navy to expand its operational reach and presence, expand its industrial ecosystem, and ensure dominance in contested environments.

Investment Surge Priorities for 2024

The transition to a software-centric Navy is not without its challenges. It requires significant investment in digital infrastructure, cyber defense capabilities, and, most importantly, the people to buy and operate software-centric systems.

Upgrade to Secure Data Infrastructures: Delivering software—especially AI-enabled software—quickly and at scale requires environments that allow developers to write, test, and ship code securely. Moving from the 1990s model of discrete, episodic updates to 21st century software pipelines will require the Navy to upgrade its digital infrastructure to support high-speed, secure communications and data transport. Project Overmatch is doing this today for carrier strike groups, but it should expand to incorporate new unmanned and hybrid systems and allow forces to recompose in theater and create new challenges for opponents. However, as the Navy begins to depend more heavily on software, the number of systems needing to share data will increase and grow the service’s cyber vulnerability footprint. The Navy will need to invest in robust security architectures that can propagate across systems and software to eliminate any weak links.

Pursue Integration as Innovation: The DoD’s labs and its partners in the defense and commercial industrial bases already produce the most capable military systems in the world. The Navy’s challenge is usually incorporating these capabilities into the fleet and combining them in useful and creative ways to counter enemies and pursue U.S. objectives. The fastest path to innovation and gaining an advantage for the DoD is integration. Building on the models being pioneered in the Integrated Battle Problems and in units like Task Force 59, the Navy should prioritize rapid fieldability and continuous iteration. Our adversaries are quick to exploit new domains of warfare. The swift introduction of new technologies will enhance the Navy’s operational agility and ensure it remains a step ahead of potential threats.

Embrace software in acquisition, integration, and sustainment: The Navy’s newest generations of sailors already live a digital-first life and understand the role of software in delivering capability. The Navy needs to extend this software-centric view to those who buy, integrate, and maintain its forces. By training and incentivizing its acquisition and engineering organizations to employ software for decision support, predictive maintenance, and autonomous operations, the Navy can stay ahead of opponents and sustain the fleet’s relevance into the future.

Steaming to the Digital Horizon: A Call to Action

The Navy has traditionally been a platform-centric institution, a reflection deeply ingrained in its budget allocations and organizational structure. This platform-centric culture extends to the Navy’s approach towards software development, with a strong preference for creating bespoke military systems in-house rather than leveraging commercial software. Unfortunately, this inclination has often led to systems that are delivered late, over budget, and incapable of meeting the urgent needs of warfighters.

President Xi has instructed the PLA to be ready to invade Taiwan by 2027. If the U.S. Navy wants to be ready to counter this threat, it will need to be ready to confront a peer adversary in a global, multi-domain fight with more ships and munitions than ever before. The only path to credibly deter and defeat on such an aggressive timeline will come through coopting one of the nation’s strongest competitive advantages — commercial software from the American Defense Industrial Base.

This strategic shift is necessary given the operational, technological, and fiscal realties facing the Navy today.

As we steer into the digital horizon, our resolve must be as steadfast as it was in the age when we transitioned from sail to steam. Software stands as the only feasible means to significantly enhance the capacity and lethality of the Navy in the near term without the addition of more physical platforms. This strategic pivot not only aligns with Admiral Franchetti’s vision for America’s Warfighting Navy but also represents a pragmatic response to the evolving global threats, particularly with the rapid expansion of China’s naval capabilities.

The journey from a platform-centric to a software-centric Navy is emblematic of the broader evolution within the maritime domain, reflecting a commitment to technological innovation and strategic excellence. By embracing the winds of digital change, we secure our legacy and ensure our future. In the words of Admiral Franchetti, “The time is now to move with purpose and urgency: ALL AHEAD FLANK!”

Read the original article—cowritten Ron Boxall, Bryan Clark, Justin Fanelli, and Greg Little—in First Breakfast.