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'NY Times' reporter details the struggle within the military to modernize its forces


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The U.S. military has been testing new weapons with remarkable capabilities using cutting-edge, digital technology, including artificial intelligence. But the process has been held up by tradition, politics, lobbyists, the procurement bureaucracy, disagreements within the military and profound ethical questions surrounding the use of autonomous deadly weapon systems. Meanwhile, the limitations of the military's current weapon systems are being tested by the war in Ukraine, the current conflict with Iran over access to the Strait of Hormuz and the preparations for a possible armed conflict with China. My guest, Eric Lipton, has been investigating the military's struggles to modernize and the obstacles that have been standing in the way. Lipton is an investigative reporter for The New York Times. His first beat at the Times was covering Rudy Giuliani when he was mayor of New York. Then Lipton transitioned to covering the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath. We recorded our interview yesterday.

Eric Lipton, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's start with the new weapons that you've reported on that the Navy is testing. Let's start there. And that includes unmanned vessels. So what does that mean, and what are they capable of that the current weapons are not capable of?

ERIC LIPTON: The primary thing that the - I was - I went - traveled to Bahrain in the Middle East, which is a small island nation in the Persian Gulf in really contested waters because the Strait of Hormuz is not very far away, and Iran has been intercepting oil tankers that have been passing through the Strait of Hormuz. So one of the things - the Navy only has a very small number of ships in that part of the world because it's moving a lot of its ships over to Asia because of the perceived threat from China. But they want to be able to cover something like 2 million square miles worth of water that the Fifth Fleet, which is based in Bahrain, covers. And they just can't do it with the number of destroyers and even Coast Guard Cutters that they have there.

So they want to basically proliferate the waters of that part of the world with these small drones that can operate for months or even a year at a time and that can be constantly doing surveillance. And they have infrared cameras. They can see at night. They can dip underwater and be completely impossible to see. And so these drones essentially expand out the kind of - the range that the Navy can patrol. And it allows them to use their military-manned ships more efficiently. And that's what they've been experimenting with. The Pentagon calls it distributed maritime operations. That's their typical, you know, acronym-heavy terminology for it. But what it really means is matching up drones with traditional platforms to expand the reach of the Navy in a much cheaper way than building more manned ships.

GROSS: So these unmanned vessels, who is controlling them, or are they controlling themselves?

LIPTON: They largely function on their own. They just - they - you give them a general area that you want them to patrol, and then there's a command center in Bahrain that I visited, the robot operations center, where the feeds from these drones are being, you know, sent back. And then if you have a artificial intelligence software that's looking at their feeds, you know, they can find and identify, you know, potential targets that they want to go inspect or targets that they perceive to be threats. And so the drones are sending in constant information feeds. And then the feeds are going into this central area where they're analyzing them and looking for threats.

GROSS: So you keep using the word drones. And I think most of us think of drones as unmanned planes, you know, like...

LIPTON: Right.

GROSS: ...Drones in the sky. But you're talking about drones in the sea.

LIPTON: Right. That's right. And I guess, I mean, what I mean by drone, it's an unmanned or uncrewed vessel. There's - and that operates autonomously. And it is - they have both aerial drones and surface drones and subsurface drones that they are using in Bahrain in the Fifth Fleet of the Navy. And that - this particular piece of the Navy has been the most forward-leaning in terms of trying to integrate this - these new technologies. These things are very cheap. They're easy to build. They're basically disposable because they're so inexpensive. If they get, you know, sunk or even stolen, it's not the worst thing in the world. And most of them are not armed. Some of them do have the capacity to carry weapons on them, but for the most part, they're what they call ISR, which is, you know, intelligence gathering - information gathering devices and not weapons.

GROSS: In Bahrain, they're also testing solar-powered vessels that don't need to be refueled for three months. So what's the significance of these vessels that are being tested?

LIPTON: Yeah. There's a couple. There's - Ocean Air is one of the manufacturers. Another is Saildrone. And these things just go - you put them out in the water, and they can be there for up to a year. And they're just - they're out there. You know, it's having another set of eyes on the water that is watching for threats. And they are largely autonomous and they, you know, are self-sustaining, and they create their own energy and, you know, they just cruise around, and they are sending information back to the command center.

And so, you know, the Navy does not think it's going to replace the need for its destroyers or aircraft carriers, but it can multiply their effectiveness if each of these groups of ships could be - have a set of these surface drones or, you know, surface vessels, uncrewed, and they were deployed internationally with these things, they could cover much more territory - domain awareness is the terminology they like to use - of a much bigger part of the oceans of the world. And so they're trying to figure out a way to get this kind of equipment out there. But they've had trouble in executing on that.

GROSS: So there's another vessel, and I think it's called the Devil Ray, that can reach speeds up to 90 mph. That seems very fast to me, but I don't really know much about, you know, drone vessels. So is that as fast as I think it is?

LIPTON: It is. It's a crazy speed for a vessel on the water. It's made by MARTAC which is a Florida-based company. And that's a - kind of a pursuit vessel. That - if you've got fast boats that are, you know, potentially attacking a tanker in the Persian Gulf, that vessel could track those fast boats from Iran, which is something that does frequently happen, and it could keep up with them. It goes faster than just about any other Navy, you know, surface vessel. And that's part of the team of these drones that the Fifth Fleet now has operating. It's got some really slow ones that have incredible duration. It's got some really fast ones that can go faster than just about anything else in the water. It also has aerial drones. You know, they're just kind of flooding the zone with inexpensive devices that can give them persistent visibility into the area that they're trying to patrol.

GROSS: So is artificial intelligence being tested in new ways with any of these vessels?

LIPTON: I think that they are using it to some extent in evaluating the feeds that they're getting and they're doing - they're identifying threats. And, you know, potentially, you know, though they don't really have targets at this point in the Middle East, but they're doing threat evaluation with artificial intelligence. So, yes, I mean, I think that, you know, one of the troubles that the Department of Defense has is that between satellites and aerial sensors and ground sensors and, you know, there's so much information. And there's just - it's impossible for humans to analyze all this data. And it's one of the things that Ukraine has really shown is you have to take all this information and fuse it immediately, find your targets and act on that information. And only a computer can do that because it can adjust this material instantaneously and identify things that it thinks are threats. And it could point to humans and say, I think this is a threat. And then the human does the, you know, the final determination as to, yes, that's a threat, we want to attack it.

GROSS: OK. So we talked about you being in Bahrain where these new naval vessels are being tested. You were also in Pascagoula, Miss., where the big battleships are being produced. And so compare those big battleships with the smaller, faster vessels. Like, what are the big battleships capable of that the smaller vessels aren't? You've described why the big battleships need the smaller vessels, but tell us about the big battleships and their cost and their advantages and limitations.

LIPTON: Right. I mean, it was quite an intense journey. I traveled from Washington, D.C., to Pascagoula, where the HII - you know, is what they call themselves now, but it's Huntington Ingalls Industries - is - it has their - one of their largest shipyards, and they build destroyers and amphibious ships and cutters there. It's just an unbelievable place. I mean, there are - there were, you know, 7,000 shipbuilders there coming in. It's just the energy of the place was just - it's just so awesome at scale. I mean, these ships are so massive, and just the amount of labor involved in fabricating them, taking them from individual pieces of steel into these massive vessels that have such power.

I boarded one of the destroyers that they're building. And as I was inside it, I just was so overwhelmed by just the strength of the vessel and just, you know, the - I just couldn't believe that you could build something that big and heavy and powerful. And this is a platform that carries all kinds of weapons. It's the workhorse of the Navy. They nicknamed it the DDG, and they're the most important vessel that - you know, of course, we always hear about aircraft carriers, you know, which are the - you know, hugely important as well. But it's the destroyers that are really the core asset that the Navy relies upon to project force and to fight when it comes to that.

And so this particular shipyard builds the destroyers. And the thing I was examining was just that - just how much money is - continues to pour into this traditional shipyard. Each of those destroyers cost $2 billion to build, and there's thousands of people involved with building it, and it takes multiple years to construct them. And it's not that we don't need the destroyers, but the pace at which the Navy is moving to multiply the effectiveness of those destroyers by matching them up with these unmanned surface vessels - that they're only giving a tiny sliver of money so far to the unmanned surface vessels. And the consensus is that they need to, you know, they need to shift some of the funding to the unmanned surface vessels to make the destroyers even more effective.

GROSS: So why is there this imbalance between the amount of money being poured into the battleships - you know, let's face it. They each cost $2 billion apiece, so they require a lot of money. But why is there such an imbalance between these old weapons and the newer ones that the military considers essential for the future?

LIPTON: I mean, a lot of it comes down to the power of lobbyists and the power of lawmakers that come from the shipbuilding states and the jobs - you know, the Huntington Ingalls - HII - shipyard is the largest manufacturing employer in Mississippi. It is so massively important in that state. And in that part of the South, it just sucks in people from Florida, from Alabama who work there.

And there are lawmakers from Connecticut, from Maine, from Wisconsin - you know, these are all states where either submarines or ships are built - that have incredible clout in Congress. They are the chairwomen or the chairmen of the appropriations and authorization committees. And they just keep driving, you know, billions and billions of dollars of extra funds to shipbuilding or submarine building. Now, again, these are important vessels for the U.S. interest, but the amount of money - Congress keeps allocating billions of dollars more than the Navy even asks for because there's such an intense lobby to drive more money to that cause because it's such an employment, you know, boom for those states. And those lawmakers, you know, are looking to get reelected, and they can issue their press releases about how, you know, we provided funding for an additional destroyer. That's $2 billion worth of additional money going to Pascagoula, basically. And that's been driving a lot of the investment.

GROSS: I think part of the logic behind that is that the new, smaller drones can conduct the kind of surveillance that would save the battleships from being destroyed. And just looking at it financially, not even taking into account the human lives that would be lost when a battleship is destroyed, you've just thrown $2 billion away.

LIPTON: Yeah. I mean, the Navy has all of the results of all these war games that are quite clear. If they were to send these destroyers or either aircraft carriers or aircraft carrier groups anywhere near China, if there was a war that occurred with China, then those things would be sunk because China has just loaded up its shores and the islands it's built in the South China Sea with missile systems, and those ships would just be, you know, knocked out. And it means that the Navy, in its traditional platforms, can't get very close to China in a Taiwan Strait scenario. So it limits its effectiveness. Even the aircraft carriers would have to be so far away. They'd have to send out four planes to keep refueling each other to get close enough to actually strike.

So, you know, the drones - if you have armed drones and unarmed drones that are matched up with surface vessels, you could send in waves of drones first. They could take fire from those missiles. They could - you know, the missiles could be burned up on those drones. Who cares? But, you know, that's the future of the way that the Navy now realizes it has to go, but it isn't moving there very quickly.

GROSS: Eric, I think you want to correct me on my use of the word battleship. So what is the current terminology for the kind of large $2 billion ships that we've been talking about?

LIPTON: It's a destroyer. The battleship was a type of a ship that is - there's no longer that class of ship. It's a destroyer, they call it now.

GROSS: OK. Thank you for the correction.

Well, I want to talk with you more, but it's time for a short break. So let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Eric Lipton, an investigative reporter for The New York Times. We'll talk more about his investigation into the military's struggles to modernize and the obstacles in the way after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Eric Lipton, an investigative reporter for The New York Times. He's been investigating the military's struggles to modernize and the obstacles that have been standing in the way.

So continuing our discussion here, you know, you've mentioned lobbyists being responsible in part for the emphasis on building new battleships. Who are the lobbyists? Who do they represent? Is it the defense industry lobbyists? Is it beyond those groups?

LIPTON: I mean, it's - most of it is the defense sector that hires these lobbyists. And, you know, they're people like Haley Barbour, the former, you know, governor of Louisiana, and Trent Lott, the former senator from Mississippi. And, I mean, it's, you know, all the names...

GROSS: Dick Gephardt, former Democrat - I mean, former Democrat in Congress.

LIPTON: Right. Dick Gephardt - yeah - the former speaker of the House. It's bipartisan and, you know, kind of pretty old-school, you know, the - kind of the Washington establishment. And they are all on retainer to HII, Huntington Ingalls, to kind of watch out for their shipbuilding budget.

And not only that, but, you know, when - I listened in to some of the hearings this year. I went over to the Capitol and sat in the rooms when they were debating the FY - the fiscal year '24 budget. And, you know, the amount of time they spent on debating, you know, the allotments that were going to benefit the individual senators' districts, you know, and the plus-ups that the House and senators wanted to, you know, add to the budget, there was so little discussion of like, how are you better preparing for this pure nation threat of China? And what's the structure of the Navy to - you know, to try to make sure that the defense dollar goes the farthest to prepare our nation for, you know, like, a totally potentially catastrophic war?

It was all about how can we allocate funds to my district? I was pretty amazed. The only other thing that came up was the social issues in the House, trying to discuss, you know, abortion and children and education that came up during the Defense Department - hijacked that debate - but very little discussion of the broader challenges that the Navy was facing. And I was quite surprised.

GROSS: You know, you were talking about how, proportionately, a lot of money is going to build new destroyers for the Navy and proportionately little money is going to building these new unmanned vessels, the drones at sea that can conduct surveillance and protect the destroyers. So can you give us a sense of how disproportionate that is, like, how little money is going for the drones versus the destroyers? It's a hard formula because the destroyers cost so much more.

LIPTON: I mean, the one example that I got was the Bahrain effort called Task Force 59, in which they, you know, had several dozen of these uncrewed vessels on the - in the Persian Gulf and area waters - that that entire operation for a year of cost was less than the fuel for one of the destroyers. It was such a minuscule amount. And the companies have sold, you know, in the dozens of these devices so far to the Department of Defense, there's very few that have been purchased. And they are quite frustrated with their inability to see a bigger purchases because they've been using, you know, private capital to keep their companies afloat while they're waiting for the Defense Department to start buying them in larger numbers.

GROSS: The companies that are behind the new, more digital drones at sea are basically like tech startups. They're not the old Defense Department contractors. So how is that affecting the whole budgeting and procurement process? - 'cause the Pentagon hasn't worked with these companies before, and it's used to these, like, huge defense contractors that have, you know, long histories with the Pentagon.

LIPTON: That's right. And this is one of the complexities with the scaling up that's going on, is that, you know, you have some of these prime contractors. There's only, you know, a handful of them that are trying to build some of these uncrewed vessels. But that's largely through the Department of Defense research programs. And some of those programs have actually had some troubles. And they've canceled some of those procurements because typically, not surprisingly, the Navy's tried to build these mini ships that are super expensive and complicated. And they've gotten - they're overbudget and behind schedule.

And so then you had these much smaller, scrappy startups that are coming in that are offering, you know, basically products that they've already built. And they're saying, we've already got this thing. We're really ready to sell it to you. Not only that, we'll just lease you the data. You don't even have to buy the device. Saildrone says, you can just buy the surveillance data from us, and you don't have to take the risk of buying the device itself.

And the Pentagon isn't really sure how to deal with these companies because, you know, it usually works in like three, four-year schedules where it's got to do what they call a POM - P-O-M - that they have to build the budget plan, and they have to go to Congress to get money appropriated. Then they have to write the requirements. Then they have to bid the contract. Then they have to build the thing to their specific specifications. It could take five years. These companies are saying, OK, here it is. We're ready to sell it to you. And they just - they don't even know how to deal with it.

And so it's really slowing things down. And so the Pentagon's racing right now to try to figure out how to bring on this type of commercial technology rapidly in - you know, with - in a different - I mean, the deputy secretary of defense has this thing she's calling the replicator initiative. She said she wants to buy thousands of these units within the next 18 to 24 months, you know, that she's going to use some new acquisition strategy to bring thousands of them on because she recognizes that the United States is moving much too slowly on this front. But part of the problem is just the acquisition process takes years, and they have to break that process and be willing to take more risk. And that's what they realize, that they have no choice but to do that at this point.

GROSS: Well, let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is investigative reporter Eric Lipton, who has been investigating the military's struggles to modernize and the obstacles that have been standing in the way. We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Eric Lipton, an investigative reporter for The New York Times. He's been investigating the military's struggles to modernize and the obstacles that have been standing in the way. The limitations of the military's current weapon systems are being tested by the war in Ukraine, the current conflict with Iran over access to the Strait of Hormuz and the preparations for a possible armed conflict with China. This is a story involving politics, lobbyists, the procurement, bureaucracy, tradition versus innovation and ethical questions surrounding the use of autonomous deadly weapons.

So is there a conflict within the military itself about the use of drones at sea and the new Air Force weapons being created with artificial intelligence? Is the - is all of the military behind that, or is the military in conflict with itself?

LIPTON: I think, generally speaking, the military is unified in a conclusion that matching up drones and artificial intelligence is - they have to do this and that they effectively have no choice and that Ukraine has demonstrated that. Because in Ukraine, the drones have been, you know, so important in terms of striking tanks, and tanks have become increasingly vulnerable because of what they call loitering munitions, that, you know, a drone that's overhead and that can operate largely autonomously and then drop, you know, right onto a tank and destroy it. And, you know, you put - you could put thousands of drones in the air. And if they can be powered by artificial intelligence and be making targeting decisions on their own, it's a new way of fighting war. And it's an incredibly terrifying way because it's - the devices themselves are making decisions.

But, you know, the folks at the Pentagon are, you know, we're going - they're going full steam ahead, you know, although the - you know, the Navy struggles with trying to acquire these things. But they have - they've decided that this is the direction that they need to go. But at the same time, there's a lot of insecurity. Anytime you ask them about this, they immediately - they get nervous because they know that the public is thinking a lot about the kind of "Terminator," you know, scenario where the drones become salient and they take over and, you know, that AI suddenly, you know, is making the choices that threatens humanity itself.

And they are very conscious of this public fear. And they're talking about how the humans will remain on the loop and that the humans will be making final target decisions. But they want the computers to, you know, speed the process of identifying targets and acting on them. So - but the change is already happening, and it's just a matter of time before our military is transformed to one in which each sector of the military is matching up, you know, human-controlled weapons with drones.

GROSS: Yeah. So you mention the military being very aware of citizens' fears about weapons turning against us - the weapons turning against our military or the creators of the weapons themselves or humanity in general. But what about within the military? What are some of the fears within the military about how unmanned drones and vessels at sea will work? Because, like, right now, the tests in the Air Force require the unmanned drones - the autonomous drones - flying alongside fighter jets that are manned vehicles so that people in the fighter jets can monitor what the unmanned, autonomous combat jets are doing. So are the people in the manned fighter jets concerned about flying alongside these unmanned combat planes?

LIPTON: Yeah. There's a lot of apprehension. And, you know, the - one of the things I kept hearing from folks at the Air Force, at the Pentagon, at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida which I visited recently, as well, and I met with the test pilots that are up there flying alongside these combat drones is, you know, the term trust is, you know, you - when you have - when you're a fighter pilot and you have a - you know, a wingman that you're flying with, you know, you developed a level of trust where you - you're almost like one person flying. You just know how the other person is going to fly, and you'd have - there's a predictability about your partner. And so for the human to get used to flying near a drone - and the drone doesn't face the limitations of G-forces that, you know, gravity or, you know, the turning that could make you, you know, black out. And so the drone can operate - it's not a human. It doesn't face any of those limits.

And so there's a lot of ground that has to be covered for the human and the drone, particularly the human building trust in the drone. And we're only at the early stages now of the Air Force pilots - and there's only a few of them. Only the test pilots are trying this out. And - but that - we have quite a number of years of work before they, themselves, can build trust. And that's something entirely different from the public at large accepting this as part of our Air Force.

GROSS: So before we started our interview, you were telling me that on Monday - on September 11, you attended an Air Force conference where you heard the Air Force secretary, Frank Kendall, speak. And I want you to tell us what he said and how you interpret that.

LIPTON: I mean, he opened the speech with the words China, China, China. The Department of Defense is obsessed with China right now. It's just - that's all you hear people talking about. We are transitioning from a kind of, you know, post-9/11, anti-terrorism posture and also to an Afghanistan and Iraq, you know, land war against a kind of rogue state posture to a posture that we have not, you know, sort of contemplated since the end of the Cold War, which is a pure nation threat. And it's - the military builds itself differently for a rogue nation, anti-terrorism posture than a pure nation threat. And so we are now transitioning back to a pure nation threat. And that's a - that requires different weapons, you know, different, you know, ships and planes and DOD is obsessed with this right now. It's all they're talking about. And it's requiring a lot of rethinking of their whole - the whole structure of the military.

GROSS: If you could briefly explain why the U.S. military seems so confident that they need to prepare for armed conflict with China. Now, I know China considers Taiwan part of China. Taiwan considers itself an independent nation. So why is the U.S. convinced that this will bring the U.S. military into armed conflict with China?

LIPTON: The U.S. military is preparing to potentially being asked to defend Taiwan against the Chinese invasion, and it's a scenario that they don't like because of - the position of Taiwan is so close to China, and the number of ships and planes and missile systems that China has, it creates a lot of trepidation on the part of the Navy and the Air Force. And similarly in the South China Sea and potential conflict in the South China Sea over some of the islands and just through - you know, passageway through the South China Sea - that's another scenario that has them quite concerned. So those are the two primary scenarios that they're worried about and that they're trying to anticipate, what would we need to have ready to go if we were to suddenly be told this is a conflict, you need to be ready to fight?

GROSS: And what are some of the advantages China would have over the U.S. in such a scenario?

LIPTON: Well, the primary is that the missile defense systems that China has built in the South China Sea - they built islands down there, and they have positioned missiles on those islands, and they have - along the coast of China, they've also put missiles. And so it's just getting close to that area. It's a denied area, is what - the terminology that the Navy and the Air Force uses. It just would be extremely difficult to even get close. So China could stage an invasion of Taiwan, and it would be very difficult for the U.S. to immediately get in there to help defend Taiwan. That's the struggle. And so by the time the U.S. was properly positioned, China could already have occupied Taiwan. So that's one of the reasons that the United States is trying to see if it can, you know, distribute more weapons to Taiwan to allow it to better defend itself.

GROSS: We have to take another break here, so let me reintroduce you. My guest is Eric Lipton, an investigative reporter for The New York Times. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Eric Lipton, an investigative reporter for The New York Times. He's been investigating the military's struggles to modernize and the obstacles that have been standing in the way. Let's talk about Ukraine and the weapons being used there. And again, like, we're not at war with Russia, but our weapons are. What are we using, and how are they working? Is the military learning lessons from how these weapons are working?

LIPTON: Yes, I mean, no question. And again, everyone you speak with at the Department of Defense will tell you that they're tracking the commercial technology in particular that's been used in Ukraine. I mean, it's the traditional, you know, missile systems and other, you know, heavy artillery that has played - it's still a 20th century war effectively that's being fought in Ukraine. But on the margins, the drones and the satellite imagery and the - you know, the artificial intelligence that is helping with targeting that Palantir is bringing - they're making significant impact on Ukraine's side and its ability to challenge a much bigger nation and a much bigger military force.

And so I think that DOD has looked at the innovative use of this new technology, and it's - and it has really shown the Pentagon that they must move more quickly to embrace, you know, everything from satellite-based imagery that's put up there by commercial companies at a much cheaper cost. You know, you can flood the orbit with these much smaller and inexpensive satellites that would be harder to take out in - by Chinese, if they were to go and strike in space. And you can, you know, build swarms of drones, and, you know, these are all things that Ukraine is - has done, and it's really sort of - it's a version of a modern war that we haven't experienced in the world before that - I think that has really enlightened the Pentagon to - that this isn't esoteric. This is real. We have to act now.

GROSS: You mentioned satellites and how they're being used in the war in Ukraine. And right now, Ukraine is relying on satellites to provide internet connection. And during part of the war, Elon Musk, who owns those satellites through his Starlink network, which is part of SpaceX - he did not turn on Ukraine's access to Crimea when Ukraine was preparing to or maybe when they had already started their attack on Russians in Crimea 'cause Russia had claimed Crimea as its own and basically took it over. So this has - puts the U.S. military in a very strange position because part of Ukraine's ability to have internet connection and to fight this war is dependent on, you know, a private person who has this huge company and can decide what to turn on and what to turn off. So where are we now with that? There was - you know, Walter Isaacson reported on this in his new book. Ronan Farrow did a great piece in The New Yorker, which he talked about on our show recently with Tonya. So where are we now with that? Like, where is the military in terms of the Starlink network and how it plans in the future to deal with this kind of scenario where, you know, a private business owns crucial technology in a war?

LIPTON: I mean, it's sort of like a Tony Stark scenario where you have a kind of - you know, a superhero that has a military arsenal of his own. And I think that this is something that the Department of Defense is concerned about. And as it moves to rely more on commercial providers for satellite access or drones or uncrewed vessels, it is definitely thinking about this question of if it doesn't own the asset, can it make sure it's going to have access to that asset at a critical military moment? And just yesterday, the secretary of the Air Force said that they are reexamining their contracts to make sure that they're not placed in a vulnerable position where, you know, you have a private-sector player that says, I'm sorry, we're not going to let the Pentagon use it for this attack, because traditionally the Pentagon has owned its own weapons and satellites entirely. And we're entering a new era where it's relying more upon the commercial sector. So this is - I think this incident has raised awareness at the Pentagon of the need to examine that question.

GROSS: Since Ukraine is now using satellites for internet connection and for drones in the war, what is the U.S. military learning about how satellites might be used in the future in wars?

LIPTON: I think the answer is that you want to really flood the zone with small, inexpensive satellites that can give you just overwhelming visibility into what's happening on the ground. And that instead of spending, like, a decade to build this really expensive, bus-sized satellite, which the Defense Department traditionally has done, which has incredibly - the optics of it are unbelievable - but you just want to have lots of smaller satellites that can give you persistent surveillance and that can help with targeting and attacks.

And that - I think Ukraine has had a flood of information from these commercial providers that have given it all kinds of data about what's going on with Russian movements. And it has allowed them to target Russian tanks and Russian troops in a super effective way. And it - again, it is accelerating the pace of warfare. They integrate that with the drone attacks and suddenly, you know, a much smaller force can fight against, you know, a superpower-sized nation. And that's what Ukraine has shown. And I think that the commercial satellite data has played a huge role in that. And the Pentagon realizes that. And they're starting to turn to commercial satellite companies increasingly.

GROSS: You write that Ukraine is losing about 10,000 drones a month. What are those drones doing, and how are so many of them being destroyed?

LIPTON: Ukraine has been adapting, like, you know, your hobbyist drone and putting essentially a modified grenade on it. And so it's a cheap product that you put in the air and then it loiters overhead. It finds a tank because it has a camera and then it drops the grenade onto the tank. And so, you know, those things are cheap. They can put hundreds or thousands of them in the air.

And one of the problems is that Russia has these - jamming technology that can wipe out their ability to communicate with the ground control that's running them, and then they just fall out of the sky because that's one of the key things that Russia has is its jamming capacity. It jams the GPS signals. It jams the radio signals and it blocks the communications, and then the devices don't work. So they can be shot down, they can be jammed and knocked down. So drones are considered expendable, but they're the new way of war. And so now you have to have drones that can operate autonomously without communication so that they can't get jammed. That's where we're headed, as well.

GROSS: You know, you flip that over and imagine an enemy of the U.S. doing the same here, you know, having all these satellites observing us, and it becomes a very bad scenario when you flip who has the satellites. We're not going to be the only ones. And we probably already aren't the only ones.

LIPTON: I mean, surveillance by satellite, I mean, China is launching it also at an incredible rate. And again, unfortunately, I think that the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, you know, and our fear of terrorism in the 22 years or so since terrorist attacks that we're entering a new era. And it's something that is going to be on our minds a lot more. And I'm hopeful that - you know, that the conflict with China does not come. But it's - we've almost been through a relatively peaceful period that I hope we aren't nostalgic for soon that we look back upon it. And - but yeah, there's - the amount of surveillance that's possible now and the amount of surveillance that's going on is many times more. I mean, it's so much cheaper and easier. The price of entry to being in space is so much lower than it used to be. And I think that there are many nations that are going to be doing more surveillance from space.

GROSS: So it's often the case that it's new tech companies creating the new technologies in weaponry as opposed to the old defense contractors. And because they can move a lot quicker than the Pentagon can in - you know, in going through the whole bureaucracy to pay them and order more weapons, these new tech companies that are on the cutting-edge of creating these new weapons, some of them are starting to run into financial trouble because things aren't - you know, contracts aren't coming through fast enough, and they're laying off people. So what are the consequences of that? What are some of the problems that these new startups are having who are creating the new weapons?

LIPTON: I mean, a lot of them, when you talk to the CEOs of these companies, they're backed by venture capital, and they all talk about what they call the valley of death, which is a term that you usually hear from the pharmaceutical industry where they've invented a new drug, but getting it to the marketplace before they run out of money is a real challenge. And the valley of death is now a term you hear in the defense industry from these high-tech, you know, Silicon Valley-styled military startups.

And so the Department of Defense is quite concerned about this because they want the innovation, the software that these new companies are bringing, but they, themselves, realize that they can't move fast enough to bring them on board under contract. And so all of the top people at the Pentagon now are talking about the valley of death. The - you know, the deputy secretary, the - Heidi Shyu, who's in charge of research and technology, talks about it. So they've got to figure out a way to start getting these companies on the contract faster before they fail.

GROSS: Eric Lipton is an investigative reporter for The New York Times. We recorded our interview yesterday. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Eric Lipton, an investigative reporter for The New York Times. He's been investigating the military's struggles to modernize and the obstacles that have been standing in the way.

Are we depleting military supplies and, you know, fighting equipment in Ukraine? Is the military falling behind on its production to replace things because on the one hand, we're talking about there not being enough money for these new innovative, autonomous fighting vessels and combat drones, and at the same time, we're spending a lot of money on weapons for Ukraine, so how is the war in Ukraine affecting our ability to plan for the future? On the one hand, we're learning a lot from what's happening in Ukraine. We're learning a lot about modern fighting. We're learning a lot about some new technology, although as you said, it's mostly a 20th-century war. But are we depleting our own supplies and budget at the same time and making it harder...

LIPTON: Yeah, I mean...

GROSS: ...To plan for the future?

LIPTON: Both things are true, and at the same time as there is this crush to innovate, there's also a really kind of depressing realization that the industrial production capacity of the United States to build everything as simple as 155-millimeter ammunition or, you know, missile systems like the Patriot missiles or HIMARS or the Stingers - these are precision missiles that are really important for defensive purposes that the United States does not nearly have enough production capacity to build them again, for a China scenario that we would be wiped of our inventory of some of the most important missile systems - less so, 155-millimeter, you know, ammunition, which is really - a 20th-century war, the United States is not going to use 155 millimeters.

But in each of the areas, I think that the United States has realized that it's ramped down in the aftermath of the Cold War, and its decision to consolidate the number of contractors to lower costs, to lower overhead, has left the United States without a supply chain that can quickly ramp up. It's like they basically took the Walmart just-in-time delivery to the defense contractors. And it means that between a combination of the pandemic and the supply chain problems - and what Ukraine has showed us as we've shifted all these weapons to Ukraine is that we can't ramp up quickly, and our production capacity is way too small. So one of the answers is not only to build up the U.S. production capacity, but to work with allies around the world in U.K. and Europe and Australia to sort of globally build alliances with production capacity. And I think all of these are lessons that have come out of the Ukraine war because a realization is that the United States cannot quickly ramp up to a wartime footing if it needed to. And that's quite apparent.

GROSS: I want to end by asking you about your first assignments at The New York Times. Your first assignment was covering Rudy Giuliani when he was the mayor of New York. And then you transitioned to covering 9/11, when Giuliani was, like, considered the heroic mayor of New York, who was holding up New Yorkers' spirits and holding the city together. He was described as - what? - America's mayor. Was that his nickname? So that was the public image of Giuliani then. You were covering Giuliani, and I'm wondering if at the time you saw any signs of him being prone to conspiracy theories or any signs that he's the kind of guy who might be indicted in the future for being part of a conspiracy to overthrow the results of the presidential election.

LIPTON: The America's mayor construct was something that always surprised me a bit. And he was, you know, distrustful and a great deal of animosity and nasty towards reporters and others that I observed firsthand and sometimes, you know, deceptive in the way that he was - you know, presented information. So, you know, the way that his career has progressed has not surprised me a great deal, to be honest.

GROSS: What is it like for you to see him be indicted and to see his mug shot?

LIPTON: It's depressing and unfortunate. I mean, I got to know him extremely well. And, you know, covering September 11, you know, I was side by side with him for weeks after the attacks. And, you know, a certain personal bond actually formed between me and the other reporters and the staff as we were, you know, living through that together. And it is sort of unfortunate to see - personally to see this happen to him.

GROSS: Eric Lipton, thank you so much for your reporting and for talking with us.

LIPTON: Thank you.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed Allison Russell's new album, "The Returner." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how the military is struggling to modernize its weapon systems. The Army and Navy are testing weapons with remarkable capabilities using cutting-edge digital technology and AI. My guest will be Eric Lipton of The New York Times, who's conducted an investigation into the weapons, the need to modernize and the obstacles in the way. I hope you'll join us. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

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Corrected: September 13, 2023 at 9:00 PM PDT
The audio of this interview incorrectly refers to Haley Barbour as a former governor of Louisiana. He is a former governor of Mississippi.
Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.