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.
And yet, while they may be impressive to work on, Death Stars contribute very little to the fight, partly because they’re always behind schedule and partly because they explode on a regular basis. This pattern is not limited to the movies.
The Army’s Comanche helicopter (22 years + $7 billion = zero helicopters) and the Joint Tactical Radio System (15 years and $6 billion before it was cancelled) are just two recent examples. But as the Government Accountability Office helpfully notes, these huge projects overall tend to “cost more, take longer to field, and often encounter performance problems” — not unlike the Empire’s moon-sized battle station. This means there are economic as well as operational reasons not to build them, which perhaps explains why I get a very bad feeling whenever I’m around one.
Real-life performance data shows that the most important and high-impact technologies are not the gold-plated, over-engineered wonder weapons that turn majors into colonels, colonels into generals, and young Jedi apprentices into Sith Lords. Instead, data suggest the real winners are humble, simple, low-cost products made by small, rapid innovation teams — the type of projects that don’t attract much attention from the press or from the brass because all they do is get the mission done without any fuss.
Defense analyst Pierre Sprey has written extensively about these “cheap winners” and “expensive losers,” a pattern which also showed up in my career. As I look back on 20 years in uniform, my most important contributions to national defense came when I worked on small droidish projects where I had no time, no money, and only a few teammates. My biggest frustrations and failures happened when I was in a cast of thousands, spending buckets of money and working towards a distant deadline.
Of course, militaries are not the only organizations who heedlessly go to the Dark Side and build Death Stars. Corporations, schools, hospitals, and governments do it, too, with similar results. Across the board, any technology that is brain-meltingly complicated, consumes resources like a black hole, and aims to deliver, once and for all, an Ultimate Tool of Galactic Domination, is well on its way to becoming a Death Star, which is considerably less awesome than it sounds.
Fortunately, world-class innovation doesn’t have to cost so much, take so long, or be so complicated. Whether we are talking about military or medical equipment, software, or spacecraft, building a Death Star is not our only option. We can instead choose to build droids. These simpler alternatives are not only affordable, they are also highly effective. And while Death Stars may be sadly common, droids aren’t hard to find either.
On the military side of things, consider a manned reconnaissance airplane called the MC-12 Liberty. Initiated in July 2008, the MC-12 flew its first combat mission less than a year later, on June 10, 2009. By October 2013, Liberty had flown more than 300,000 combat hours, and the guys I know who have used that aircraft’s capabilities love it. Just as George Lucas praised R2-D2’s heroics, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said the MC-12 “reminds us that new platforms can be developed, built, and deployed in a short period of time — and the best solution isn’t always the fanciest or the most expensive.”
The Millau Viaduct in southern France offers a similar example from the civil sector. Unlike most mega-projects, the world’s tallest bridge, spanning the River Tarn, was completed on budget and ahead of schedule, largely due to the team’s emphasis on speed, thrift, simplicity, and restraint. While the initial plan for building the bridge was considered the only feasible option at first, project leaders refused to accept the inevitability of the obvious and instead quickly developed a safer, shorter, cheaper, more environmentally friendly alternative. The bridge was completed in 38 months instead ofthe 52 required by the original plan.
And returning to our space theme, in 2004 NASA’s Stardust spacecraft flew through the tail of the comet Wild-2 and, two years later, returned ancient dust particles to Earth, a journey of 3 billion miles. This achievement is all the more impressive given the program had more than $1 million left in its account on launch day. NASA’s website describes Stardust as “a simple spacecraft,” not a word often heard in the context of space exploration.
As my daughter, the Yoda-sized Jedi master, pointed out, Death Stars are overrated. In real life, just as in the movies, they tend to cost more, take longer, and do less than promised. Droids, on the other hand, follow a different path. Their very simplicity is their strength, and what they lack in prestige they make up in accomplishments. This approach to innovation doesn’t guarantee a 100 percent success rate, but it certainly increases the odds that you will live long and prosper.