The U.S. military and the defense industrial base have long enjoyed being in the vanguard of technology and innovation. At one time, many of the military’s—as well as society’s—most important breakthroughs were developed by either the government or dedicated defense corporations.
The innovation landscape, however, is changing. As near-peer adversaries become more adept at countering U.S. technology advantages and exploiting their vulnerabilities, the United States must be able to field solutions in response to threats to the assets on which it relies so heavily, particularly the military satellite communications (MilSatCom) program. Some of the world’s leading technology giants already are developing rapidly deployable high-speed networks capable of operating anywhere in the world and bringing them to bear quickly and cheaply. It is critical that the Defense Department increase efforts to integrate and leverage these private industry technologies as our nation embarks on a Third Offset Strategy to maintain U.S. technological superiority.
Weighing less than half a ton, the Aquila is engineered to fly between altitudes of 60,000 and 90,000 feet for up to 90 days, all while providing a high-speed wireless communications link for mobile users within a radius of 50 kilometers.
Enter Corporate America
Two of the most influential technology companies, Facebook and Google, are on missions to provide Internet access to an estimated three to four billion people worldwide who still lack connectivity. They are not pursuing space-based solutions but instead are taking less capital-intensive, airborne approaches. The environments in which our expeditionary forces operate, and increasingly will operate in the foreseeable future, share many of the same features as those targeted by Google and Facebook in their visions to provide global Internet coverage. In Africa, the Middle East, and the western Pacific, for example, they even overlap in their coverage in large measure.
Facebook’s Innovation Lab is making impressive advances in emerging communications technology. It currently is developing a solar-powered unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) called Aquila—a massive high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) aircraft that the company envisions one day will provide wireless network connectivity to parts of the world that lack traditional communication infrastructure.
Weighing less than half a ton, the Aquila has a longer wingspan than a Boeing 737 and is being engineered to fly between altitudes of 60,000 and 90,000 feet for up to 90 days, all while providing a wireless communications link for mobile users at speeds consistent with long-term evolution (LTE) within a radius of 50 kilometers.1 Last year, Facebook conducted a successful test flight of its first full-scale Aquila, exceeding all expectations and providing the company with a clear way forward to bring this technology to fruition in the near future.2
Working toward a similar goal, Google’s X has been developing a vision for global Internet access provided by a network of high-altitude mobile balloons. Known as Project Loon, the concept involves launching hundreds of balloons into the stratosphere, each one supporting a miniaturized cell tower and providing communications between other balloons aloft and radio stations on the ground.
Although a single balloon can provide coverage across 5,000 square kilometers, the concept’s true value is realized when multiple balloons are interconnected. When arranged as a mesh network, dozens or even hundreds of these low-cost balloons can provide vital and reliable connectivity to large regions of the globe. Traveling to altitudes exceeding 60,000 feet, each balloon can stay airborne for more than 100 days and be safely brought back to earth for upgrading and recycling.3 Using sophisticated navigation and software technology, Google precisely and remotely varies each balloon’s altitude, taking advantage of the shifting winds within the stratosphere. The company recently demonstrated the ability to remotely steer one of these balloons more than 10,000 kilometers across the globe, placing it within 500 meters of a target using natural winds alone.4
Last year, Google maintained a cluster of balloons over Peru for three months, and in response to major floods in Peru this summer, deployed a balloon network that provided connectivity to tens of thousands of people in affected areas.5 Google now is applying these experiences to provide connectivity in Puerto Rico in the wake of the destruction left by Hurricane Maria. The company believes it is years closer to commercializing Loon than previously expected.6
Translating into Military Advantage
Innovations such as Aquila and Loon promise to revolutionize the way wireless Internet communication is delivered and represent significant economic and technological advances. Their potential military applications, however, offer just as much promise for the future of U.S. military capability and national security.
By leveraging this kind of technology and incorporating it into the current joint communications apparatus, the military can stay ahead of growing threats to its warfighting communications links. Further, because the technologies are low cost (Google estimates a single balloon’s daily cost will be measured in just hundreds of dollars), the services could responsibly fold these solutions into existing capabilities. Technologies like Aquila and Loon also offer financial benefits for an increasingly strained defense budget. In past and current projects, the Defense Department has borne the lion’s share of the risks associated with new technologies, as well as the losses when those projects exceed budgets or fail. By adapting technology developed by private companies, the military can unload and more efficiently share the risk inherent in emerging capabilities.
Adapting technologies such as Aquila or Loon for military purposes will demand intensive research, planning, and testing. Both platform and payload modifications (e.g., physical hardening, secure communications, antijamming, etc.) will be required, but the broader potential these systems represent, particularly as a part of the Third Offset Strategy, are worth further study.
For example, the military could employ an autonomous platform similar to Facebook’s Aquila to provide a rapid, long-reach communications relay for deployed forces. A militarized version of Aquila could be fielded rapidly from a forward-deployed staging base and provide persistent high-bandwidth communications coverage for land, sea, and/or airborne forces responding to short-notice crises, such as natural disasters or regional conflicts. In a low-threat environment, such as that encountered when responding to a natural disaster, an asset such as Aquila would prove valuable as a dedicated provider of communications capacity and would help reduce demand on a burdened MilSatCom system. Finally, for allied or regional partners—and even nongovernmental organizations—that might not have access to U.S. satellite networks, the payload of an Aquila-like platform could be modified for a specific operation and user base, providing universal and standardized communications support for all stakeholders and enabling a more coordinated and streamlined response.
In a more contested, high-threat environment, as might be encountered when confronting near-peer adversaries, leveraging a network of balloons similar to Google’s Loon concept could prove invaluable for U.S. forces. Such a network could supplement MilSatCom, providing a reliable backup link among deployed assets, battle management systems, and critical decision makers. If conventional space-based communications links were compromised or destroyed in the early phases of a high-end conflict, a readily available system of balloons arranged in a mesh network could prevent our forces from becoming deaf and blind. With dozens, or even hundreds, of these balloons deployed across the battlespace, they also could provide their own internal redundancy, so that several balloons could be lost without significant degradation in capability.
Balloons deployed as a mesh network would be difficult, if not impossible, for an adversary to effectively counter. Even attempting to do so would demand significant energy and resources. Considering those same resources might otherwise be used to target U.S. forces, a large cluster of balloons offers an attractive side benefit by presenting another layer of complexity for enemy planners and further muddling an adversary’s targeting options.
Success in the Third Offset
There are countless applications for these emerging technologies, and both projects—or at least the visions they represent—fit well into the next offset strategy. When outlining the requirements for new capabilities that would best serve the U.S. military, former Under Secretary of the Navy Robert Martinage identified four core competencies for what he called the global surveillance and strike (GSS) network of the proposed Third Offset: balance, resilience, responsiveness, and scalability.7 Given their potential capabilities, systems such as Aquila and Loon could enable a future GSS network to meet these competencies.
• Balance: Both the Aquila and Loon are inexpensive and would fit squarely at the low-end of the cost spectrum, providing balance for the higher-end platforms currently being fielded (e.g., the MQ-4 Triton, RQ-4 Global Hawk, and MQ-9 Reaper).
• Resilience: Both systems can be dispersed independently with little, if any, reliance on potentially vulnerable ground stations; and both can be modified on the spot to fit varying warfighter requirements across the range of military operations.
• Responsiveness: Both Aquila and Loon can be deployed quickly to virtually any location across the globe, making them at least as responsive as similar platforms. Aquila can be deployed from unprepared airfields using little more than pickup trucks and a handful of personnel. Google already has demonstrated an ability to deploy Loon balloons every 30 minutes from custom-built “autolaunchers.”8
• Scalability: Both Aquila and Loon easily can be employed in multiple locations for either concurrent or completely independent purposes.
Successfully embarking on the Third Offset Strategy requires that the United States look more deliberately to the commercial sector for answers to tomorrow’s challenges. By leveraging the expertise and innovation of moonshot in the commercial sector, the military can more holistically explore solutions for the vexing threats it increasingly faces. In doing so, it can develop and field new capabilities that will keep the nation and its security well positioned for the future.
1. Yael Maguire, “Building Communications Networks in the Stratosphere,” 31 July 2015, https://code.facebook.com/posts/993520160679028/building-communications-networks-in-the-stratosphere/.
2. Martin Luis Gomez and Andrew Cox, “Flying Aquila: Early Lessons from the First Full-scale Test Flight and the Path Ahead,” 22 July 2016, https://code.facebook.com/posts/268598690180189.
3. Project Loon, https://x.company/loon/technology.
4. Tom Simonite, “Project Loon,” MIT Technology Review, www.technologyreview.com/s/534986/project-loon.
5. Alastair Westgarth, “Helping out in Peru,” 17 May 2017, https://blog.x.company/helping-out-in-peru-9e5a84839fd2.
6. Richard Waters, “Google Parent Shifts Stance on Internet Balloons,” Financial Times, 17 February 2017.
7. Robert Martinage, “Toward a New Offset Strategy: Exploiting U.S. Long-Term Advantages to Restore U.S. Global Power Projection Capability,” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2014, 49.
8. Project Loon, https://x.company/loon/technology.
Editor’s Note: This essay won second prize in the second annual Emerging & Disruptive Technologies Essay Contest, sponsored with support from Leidos.In the aftermath of World War II, the Eisenhower administration’s “New Look Strategy”—centered around the development, distribution, and use of nuclear weapons—became the primary way to “offset” the numerical advantages of the Soviet Union. The beginning of the nuclear arms race and the birth of the U.S. nuclear triad heralded the “First Offset Strategy.”
Following the Vietnam War, leaders again were confronted with addressing exigent threats to national security while balancing the financial and political costs of a traditional military buildup. Out of that environment emerged the “Second Offset Strategy,” characterized by innovations in precision-guided weapons, stealth technology, and space-based communications. These developments carried U.S. military dominance through and beyond the 20th century.
Today, however, many technological advantages of the Second Offset Strategy are waning. Precision weapons are common among even underdeveloped militaries; stealth technology is becoming increasingly futile in the face of advanced radars and detection systems; and space no longer can be considered an exclusive, uncontested U.S. domain. In fact, in the event of a large-scale conflict with the United States, Chinese military strategy calls for eliminating significant elements of U.S. space-based capabilities.
Although still in the early stages, the requirements of a “Third Offset Strategy” are clear. As a Center for Strategic Budgetary Assessments report recently determined, this new strategy must use “enduring sources of U.S. advantage to maintain cost-effective, persistent forward presence and project power rapidly, including against adversaries armed with robust A2/AD [antiaccess/area denial] capabilities in general, and ever-expanding conventional missile arsenals in particular.” The report suggests a new offset strategy must “reduce dependence on close-in theater land and sea bases . . . hedge against the loss or degradation of space-based capabilities . . . take advantage of the ‘global reach’ of U.S. air and naval forces, the responsiveness of air power and missiles, and the on-station endurance and low life-cycle cost of unmanned platforms,” and “take advantage of alliance relationships to gain positional advantage and, in some cases, share financial burdens.” To achieve these objectives, the Defense Department must look to new sources of innovation and technology.
Lieutenant Commander Moffitt is an E-6B Mercury pilot, currently serving as the operations officer at Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron Seven, stationed at Tinker Air Force Base, OK.
Lieutenant Ladd is a reservist naval flight officer in Science and Technology Unit 113 of the Office of Navy Research and serves as a procurement manager for a technology company in the San Francisco Bay Area.