In the summer of 2011, my wife and I decided our kids were old enough to appreciate the Star Wars films. We blocked out a week of evenings and launched a viewing marathon through that galaxy far, far away. On the sixth night, after the climactic battle scene in “Return of the Jedi,” one of my daughters emphatically declared, “Daddy, they shouldn’t build those Death Stars any more. They keep getting blown up.”
I always suspected the Force was strong in that one.
Inspired by her insight — that it’s a bad idea to build large, expensive, complex weapon systems — I launched a brief course of research into what else a military technologist like myself could learn from this grandest of space operas. In addition to the observation that Death Stars “keep getting blown up,” which prevents them from being very effective, I also noticed they are inevitably over budget and behind schedule. Then I read an interview in which George Lucas himself anointed the humble astromech droid R2-D2 as “the hero of the whole thing.” The conclusion for how the military spends its money was clear: Death Stars bad, droids good.
This counterintuitive finding was not entirely unexpected. Since the early 2000s, I’d been developing and experimenting with an approach to innovation based on restraint — tight budgets, short schedules, small teams, and highly focused objectives. This was a relatively unusual approach for an Air Force officer to take, given my service’s longstanding preference for spending decades and billions developing enormous, multi-role systems. Indeed, these mega-projects are the most prestigious and the surest path to promotion in the military, which helps explain why we build so many of them.
One of the more important ISR and Close Air Support tools in the last decade is also a very simple one, ROVER, which allows aircraft to stream video of their sensor pictures, such as from their targeting pods, down to the troops on the ground. That’s a classic example of a non-Death Star program that greatly increased capabilities at low cost, and in a very short time.