August 18, 2014
What Uber Can Teach the Pentagon
By James Hasik
The appointment of SVP Emil Michael to the Defense Business Board is a good start.
Last week, the Defense Department announced that fully eight new members would be joining its Defense Business Board, the panel that advises the Pentagon on, well, business. We might hope that the Defense would pay more attention to its Business Board, but at least the makeup of the newcomers indicates renewed interest in recruiting people from the outside world. Saliently, as the Wall Street Journal noticed, the list includes Emil Michael, an SVP at Uber, that fast-growing car-sharing outfit that is making cab companies very nervous the world over. Last December, Defense Industry Daily wrote that Uber should be interesting to "anyone interested in supply chains and yield management. It’s all about minimizing idle time for capital goods.”
DID’s article referred to a much longer essay in New York Magazine, which thought of the firm more like Amazon—today taxis, tomorrow the world. Indeed, this month, the Duffle Blog carried a story—perhaps only partly humorous—about the Army disbanding its Logistics Corps, and just outsourcing the whole problem to Amazon. The notion that asset management is a solvable problem appeals at Amazon’s subsidiary Kiva Systems, which believes that “products should organize themselves.” The company builds warehouse robots that bring products to people, rather than the other way around. Outside the four walls of the factory, we know that Amazon would like to automate cargo delivery with tiny drone helicopters—and that the Marine Corps recently concluded a three-year experiment with much larger machines from Kaman. So some progress is being made.
Why is all this important? As Lt. General Brooks Bash of Air Mobility Command observed in a speech last year, precision-guided missiles and swarming small craft could pose serious threats to supply ships transiting choke points. Logistics ashore still depends on long convoys between such garden spots as Karachi and Kandahar, and the trucks have long been magnets for swarming Taliban and their roadside bombs. Either way, the supplies transported still get piled into iron mountains of materiel, which make similarly appealing and obvious targets.
Jon Drushal and Michael Llenza, recent military fellows here at the Atlantic Council, believe that 3D printing may provide a partial revolution in military logistics. The Army’s Rapid Equipping Force has had considerable success in Afghanistan with additive manufacturing in “expeditionary laboratories”. But as Jessica Knight of Stanford University countered, the Pentagon can’t completely print its way to victory: 3D methods have a long way to go before they’re as useful or ubiquitous as Star Fleet’s replicators.
Thus, military forces need more distributed solutions to problems in not just manufacturing, but logistics as well. As business models go, MakerBot has something to offer, but Amazon remains the master of mindshare amongst supply chain enthusiasts. Perhaps when they summon their next load of ammo, future troops will do so on a modular, militarized Google phone. But all that said, Uber offers something yet further: an enthusiasm for low prices, a willingness to take on regulatory madness, and the know-how to build a communications infrastructure that matches existing but underutilized supply to latent and unmet demand. Defense could use more of that sort of advice.
James Hasik is a senior fellow in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.