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HomeGeopolitical CompassThe AmericasSoftware-Defined Warfare: Architecting the DOD's Transition to the Digital Age

Software-Defined Warfare: Architecting the DOD’s Transition to the Digital Age

Authors: Nand Mulchandani, John N.T. Shanahan

Affiliation: CIA, Joint Artificial Intelligence Center 

Organization/Publisher: Center for Strategic and International Studies

Date/Place: September 7, 2022/USA

Type of Literature: Report

Number of Pages: 27



Keywords: Cyber-warfare, Software, Intelligence, Adaptability, the Department of Defense (DoD)




The increasing influence of software technology has permanently altered the nature of geopolitical domains. Speed has become just as important as effectiveness, and both companies and government sectors have worked to adapt to this new reality by trying to eliminate slow-moving parts of their systems. Militaries are no exception in the face of competition between different powers. Despite being at the top and outclassing all others in spending and equipment by a large margin, the United States military is not immune to this trend. The Department of Defense (DoD) has made progress in its capabilities, but it is still far behind in software technology, depriving itself of state-of-the-art elements that are common in other industries. The DoD’s monopoly over the arms industry has led to stagnation in its ability to adopt new technology. The DoD bureaucracy struggles to adapt to new technologies that are now widespread in commercial industries. The hardware advantages enjoyed by the US military do not make it immune to revolutionary changes in technology or competition with other powers. There is a need for a new design and architecture that allows for flexible reaction to changing conditions, doing so at lower costs for faster decision-making. Defense policy needs to address the concepts of network warfare and next-generation battle networks, but no concrete solutions have been proposed so far. Software needs to be the center of operating models in order to gain a competitive advantage, as deploying cyberattacks or disinformation against an enemy has become integral for modern militaries. A typical command operations center could face serious difficulties in trying to track thousands of moving objects without proper software technology. Remaining hardware-centered is no longer sufficient in the future battle spaces, and failing to adapt to new software means tactical or strategic defeats.


The DoD can learn from other domains, such as economics or the computer industry, to adapt software systems for military use. A modern military should utilize both hardware and software, as the competition over drones illustrates the importance of better software and cheap but effective hardware. There should also be a reevaluation of the value of size. An aircraft carrier is a prime example of this approach. It costs billions, carries thousands of sailors, holds various fighters, and is accompanied by a strike group. However, if it is destroyed, the strike group becomes useless. Single points of failure are vulnerabilities that can be exploited. China has developed $10 million carrier-killer missiles that can sink a $10 billion aircraft carrier, demonstrating that the biggest weapons are not always the most effective. To build a modern military force that eliminates single points of failure, there needs to be a balance between physical arms production and software systems. In addition, modern militaries require software in their services as well, connecting workflows, sensors, and military platforms. Abstracting workflows allows for better management and operational success, which depends on abandoning complex single hardware pieces in favor of an array of effective but lower-cost armaments that are better suited for a software-dependent competition with other powers. The DoD lacks a general architectural foundation on which it can quickly adapt to modern software-based warfare. It has a patchwork of hardware and software systems built by hundreds of different vendors who are not bound by any unifying structure. A modern military should have designs to develop fields that sustain its weapons systems, with a software core and a hardware shell to execute planning. Integration of the domains under a general software system that connects people, weapons, logistics, and intelligence, as well as code development and sustainment, is necessary. Larger issues should be broken down into manageable parts, each oriented to an objective. Various parts of the system can be integrated over time as reform continues to advance, with the goal of having a general architecture that unifies the various parts with the right interfaces and abstractions. 


Warfare is the combination of art and science that requires a delicate balance. The combination of size, skill, and speed determines the outcome of events. Failing to balance the art and science of war leads to defeat, especially when mismanagement is involved. As warfare becomes more complex, chaotic, and faster, it becomes essential to properly integrate elements that address competition or threats. The art of war is still central, but the growing importance of the scientific element is evident in the proliferation of new technologies and the shift to a data-centric world. In war, the side with higher agility and faster adaptability will have the advantage. This flexibility includes quickly upgrading fielded software and AI to have the necessary awareness and reflexes. To remain competitive, the DoD must ensure it has the most powerful arsenal in the new warfare landscape, including technology and software. The DoD was built during the industrial age, when hardware was the center of the system. Transitioning to the digital age presents the biggest challenge of shifting to a software-centric system. The success other industries have had in shifting to software-based structures can serve as a template for militaries to follow, allowing them to offer services or achieve objectives at a fraction of the cost in a short amount of time. The first step is to view hardware and conventional military systems as part of a larger system connected by a general structure of software. This will save time by avoiding slow workflow processes and will speed up information and decision-making processes. However, it is important to note that the human element is still central and never redundant – software is simply a tool in the hands of people. The integration of hardware and software allows for many opportunities for human-machine teamwork, aiming for optimized performance based on what each does best. Operations can be handled by specially designed software to carry out tasks designed by humans, and exceptional situations can be handled by humans directly if the software fails to do so. In a cohesive technological system, modern militaries can have adaptive software that can match individual performance, handling mundane tasks while conserving resources, while human action can be resourcefully directed towards decision-making or more sensitive objectives. Modern militaries such as China have made impressive reforms towards an effective software-based military architecture specifically designed to counter the increasingly outdated hardware-centric system of the US. The DoD has the potential to reform and stay competitive, but this remains difficult due to the nature of the institution. Given the current state of its hardware and software, the DoD is unable to reform properly at this time. 


By: Omar Fili, CIGA Research Assistant



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