Even broadly available technologies are not equally well exploited by all powers.

At a speech on Tuesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Northrop Grumman CEO Wes Bush urged the US Defense Department to temper its enthusiasm for commercial technologies. As Politico Pro reported, Bush observed that the wonders of commercial markets notwithstanding, no one but actual defense contractors would build stealth aircraft, hypersonic missiles, and offensive cyber software. “All R&D is not equal when it comes to national security,” Bush continued, because “commercial technology, being inherently broadly available, offers no national security advantages by definition.” Or does it? On the contrary, a country’s strategic position, its armed forces’ absorptive capacity, and its industry’s skills in systems integration can substantially determine who will garner the military advantages of commercial technologies.

There’s a long history here, and we haven’t always seen it coming. In the November 2010 issue of Smithsonian, Mark Strauss named his top “Ten Inventions that Inadvertently Transformed Warfare”. Barbed wire, steamships, the telegraph, railroads, chlorine gas, caterpillar tractors, and cameras all proved huge military innovations, and rather quickly after their development for commercial purposes. Even the bayonet was originally a hunting knife, he wrote, designed to stop wild boar (near Bayonne, France) if the single shot from your musket didn’t.

All these technologies were widely available throughout Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, but not every military power used them to equal effect. In the 1820s, the Admiralty rather feared how steam power might upset Britain’s naval superiority, as this new commercial technology would render all sail power obsolete. On the other hand, by the 1870s, undersea cables greatly facilitated imperial defense; ships could steam out without waiting for other ships to first steam back with reports of trouble. Germany’s central position and early investments in a national rail network led to rapid victories over Denmark (1864), Austria-Hungary (1866), and France (1870). In the First World War, Germany’s initiation of chemical warfare was actually profoundly stupid: the prevailing winds over France and Belgium are from the west. In the latter half of the Second World War, the RAF could photo-reconnoiter all of Germany, but the Luftwaffe could not do the same with impunity to Britain. Without evidence to the contrary, the Germans based huge formations along the Pas de Calais to oppose Patton’s phantasmal First Army Group—and the Allies knew it.

These cases largely illustrate how strategic position can determine who can best utilize even a widely available commercial technology. If you have a space force and the adversary (Iran) does not, then cheaper launch technologies and satellite services provide you relative advantage. If you have an air force and the adversary (ISIS) does not, then more efficient aero-engines on drones benefit you, and harm him.

A second issue, as Michael Horowitz of the University of Pennsylvania wrote in The Diffusion of Military Power (Princeton University Press, 2010), is absorptive capacity. Putting a flat top on a cargo ship in the 1930s, he noted, was easy. So was building a wood-and-fabric biplane, whether to carry the mail or torpedoes. But figuring out how to operate airplanes from flattops was not easy, and remains challenging today. In 1917, British cannons on armored caterpillar tractors (code-named tanks) terrified the German High Command after the Battle of Cambrai. The Germans had their own, but couldn’t figure out how to use them competitively—until 1939. The simple lesson is that there’s more than innovation at play. Not all military organizations are equally good at incorporating commercial innovations into warfighting systems.

A third issue is systems integration. In response to Bush’s line about offensive cyber, Byron Callan asked pointedly about defensive cyber—it’s clearly of interest to any commercial enterprise with a computer. Logic bombs and Internet worms are often short collections of code, readily written in basements in Tehran. But the walls against them can take millions of lines, and serious investments by large software houses. We can continue to list commercial developments of great military value, but computational intensity, such as autonomics, robotics, and data analytics. Even the energy weapon on USS Ponce in the Persian Gulf is an amalgamation of seven welding lasers. But forming the beam without destructive interference, and keeping the spot on a fast-moving target, are not technically trivial problems of fire control. When technologies are broadly available to end-users in finished form, the have-nots may catch up. When weaponization requires extensive modification, it’s less clear who wins.

All this points to the need for hard strategic thinking about investments in R&D. As my colleague Steve Grundman wrote recently in Aviation Week, the Pentagon’s Third Offset Strategy “Needs A Big Idea”. Technological competition on the basis of commercially available concepts could backfire, as the Admiralty once feared. “Democratized destruction,” as Mark Revor and I wrote, is a real possibility—at least without investments in capital-intensive but low-marginal-cost countermeasures that the hackers cannot match. Before picking a new theme akin to those of the New Look or Reconnaissance-Strike Complexes, top management in defense ought to consider how strategic position, military capacities, and industrial skills will differentially contribute to building that long-term technological advantage.

James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.