The Abqaiq attacks this month raised many questions. Who did it? How did they do it? What did they do it with? One question was notably absent: Why couldn’t Saudi Arabia stop it? The answer is not straightforward, nor is it necessarily clear that anything could have stopped it. After all, the Kingdom spends as much as any country on defense.
The uncomfortable reality is that no one knows how to deal with this threat. It is not just the Saudis. American military bases in the Middle East were likely equally exposed. Inexpensive, asymmetric, ubiquitous threats traveling at high speeds is a hard problem. They resemble something similar to an emergent property, in which simple entities (drones and cruise missiles, for example) operate in an ecosystem, forming more complex behaviors as a collective. Stopping one drone may have not been a challenge. Stopping 17 drones and eight cruise missiles launched together confusing radars, communications infrastructure, and human operators all at once are. Whether we like it or not, when it comes to this new era of defense, humans can be just as much the problem as they are the solution.
Five years ago, the Department of Defense started seriously contemplating how two major developments – a raft of new technologies, like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and autonomy, and increasingly commoditized (and therefore cheaper) sensors and hardware – posed serious risks to its existing legacy defense systems. The Pentagon released a report calling for the transformation of the defense industry, concerned that its legacy systems were no match for a rapidly approaching new era. But mainstreaming new tech into the “SOPs and TTCs” of various branches of the military ran aground. Legacy companies, late to the game and unable to attract the talent necessary to compete in the new industries, piled on and pushed for incremental change to existing technologies to defend their core business interests. A core argument of the anti-changers: humans were needed “in the loop.” HITL, as “humans in the loop” became known, conveniently reflected the operating systems of their own products.