Archive for the 'DOD' Tag

America and her partners stand astride the greatest alliance in world history. Thanks to globalization, massive coalitions, and cutting edge science and technology, we appear to be the drivers of global events. Nevertheless, present influence is often a poor predictor of future performance in the wars of nations. Technological advantage has never been more crucial in warfare, nor has it ever been so easy and quick to displace, or be displaced by, another power. The lethality and decentralization of military technology have risen in tandem, allowing renegade sects to acquire deadly missiles and advanced cyber technology for sums that wouldn’t fund a coffee mess at the Pentagon. This paradigm shift is largely due to the computing revolution’s conquest of the dark corners of the world. Distance, time, and even vast quantities of money are no longer the essential components of a military campaign. Today’s geopolitical security environment requires us not only to out-develop our opponents, but also to find immediate defenses to their latest and greatest while operating within a fiscally constrained environment.

With these constraints, and our desire to protect the world system that has allowed billions to thrive, we must find a method that realistically and consistently produces optimal outcomes. With cost as one of our primary problems, more money shall certainly not be the solution: there will not, nor should there, be a massive increase in defense spending. Cost can render even the most revolutionary technology useless, and if we continue to simply throw money at the problem rather than dramatically altering the acquisition process, we cannot be surprised when we do not get dramatically different results. Innovation is as much about making great products as it is about making them at reasonable prices. In order to foster such innovation we must leverage our often overlooked strengths and avoid becoming the victim of our greatest fear: failure. We are a nation of innovators and pioneers, why should our military not emulate, even proselytize innovation? The rigid hierarchies and structures from our foundation were necessary in an age of lawless sailors and high seas high jinks, but today’s service members are not petty criminals. In fact, they are the best and brightest we have ever had. In a rapidly changing developmental and operational environmental we must also rapidly change.

F-35B training aboard MCAS BeaufortTo overhaul the Department of Defense (DoD) and bring it into the twenty-first century, we must not rely on gadgets and whiz-bangs. Cautionary tales such as the F-35 and the DDG-1000 have shown us the perils of trying to produce cutting edge assets with a flawed acquisition process. Instead of focusing on the end product, we must focus on how we proceed from idea to proof of concept. In order to achieve this we must increase the efficacy of our greatest resource: our human capital. This should not be conflated with pushing people harder or working more. It’s about having the right people doing the right work on the right projects, the sort of deft management that is nearly impossible from a centrally-planned organization.

The millions of patriotic Americans that serve in or assist our armed forces care deeply for both our future and their profession. In order to manage these teeming masses we have developed the world’s largest bureaucracy. We have attempted to rein in its excesses and raise its efficacy with strict accountability, both within our respective chains of command and by our civilian overseers. Regrettably, as Francis Fukuyama so insightfully explains through his study of the U.S. Forest Service, such endless reporting and micromanagement breed a navel-gazing, inward-facing culture so caught up in fulfilling requirements that it is unable to do much else. This culture does not adapt, innovate, or improve under the weight of daily paperwork drills. That is not to say that there are not hundreds of thousands of superb sub-organizations and heroes within the DoD, or that determined individuals cannot overcome its strictures, they certainly can. Rather, it is that they should not have to overcome barriers in the first place. Accountability is important, but not when it is taken to the point of sapping initiative, flexibility, and risk-taking. It is a trite cliché to bemoan the burdens of bureaucracy, so we must not focus on the problem and produce another tome of a study that few will read. Instead, we must start implementing the solution, one that is as simple as it is difficult: embrace failure.

Our fear of failure is so colossal, so in-grown that we are unable to see what a culture unhindered by such paranoia could accomplish. Fearing failure discourages risk-taking, experimentation, and ultimately innovation, the essential elements of technological advancement today. The key to innovation is opening an organization up to failure and breeding a culture of creative destruction wherein from the ashes of experimentation rises the phoenix of ingenuity. To determine how we can best incubate such low-cost, high-efficiency systems we need look no further than the golden shores of California. In teams that are often no larger than a minesweeper’s crew, Silicon Valley has produced some of the defining technologies of our age. Their model of innovation is a high-risk, high-reward system characterized by extremely high human capital, independence, room for failure, and divergent thinking. While the DoD’s sprawling size, security concerns, operational requirements, and Congress make it difficult to perfectly emulate Silicon Valley, that does not mean that we cannot adapt our organization with their model as a guide. From cyber warfare to manpower-reducing automation, the possibilities are striking. However, the technology itself is not the solution; it is the process, the organization that undergirds technological development, which will best allow us to continue our mission as a global force for good. The ideas that follow are but a few of the limitless possibilities we have before us if we embrace this Silicon Valley-inspired spirit of decentralization, experimentation, and innovation.

Devolving Development

Logistics Specialist 2nd Class Robert Kennedy, a member of the CNO Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC) at Navy Warfare Development Command, demonstrates his proposal for a scan-to-issue system designed to accurately track and issue material to customers. CRIC was established to empower innovators to develop prototypes that can be rapidly transitioned to the fleet. US Navy Photo.

Logistics Specialist 2nd Class Robert Kennedy, a member of the CNO Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC) at Navy Warfare Development Command, demonstrates his proposal for a scan-to-issue system designed to accurately track and issue material to customers. CRIC was established to empower innovators to develop prototypes that can be rapidly transitioned to the fleet. US Navy.

The most crucial change must be to our centralized structure. In traditional combat, where one commander was able to gather the disparate elements of warfare into one chain of command, centralization was crucial. However, warfare and the nature of the national security apparatus have changed. For the development of breakthrough ideas and technologies we need to loosen this centralization. We need small, agile teams rather than sprawling commands with 15 layers of reporting. By the time an innovative idea runs from a peripheral command to the Pentagon it has been a decade and the opportunity is lost. We must acknowledge that admirals make great leaders but are often decades removed from deckplate leadership. We must trust our O-5s and O-6s to lead teams of junior officers in developing ideas and technologies. They will partner with scientists, developers, and contractors to take the seeds of invention and cultivate them into the saplings that admirals can grow into mighty oaks. Too often a seed is not given a chance to grow and is killed in development, or a seed is seen as so great, so interesting, that it is given far too much, killed by overmanagement. Instead, let us step back and allow these small “innovation pods” the chance to incubate and experiment with these new seeds, then take those successes to the admirals for fertilization and replication. This devolved style is necessary if we are to remain on the cutting edge. No matter how great a single idea appears, it is impossible to pick the best ideas at such early stages.

Venture Capitalism Repurposed

Of course the mechanism to determine how these nimble “pods” will be funded and their ideas advanced is just as important as their mission. Here again we can borrow from Silicon Valley. By cultivating a network of internal venture capitalists (VCs) we can revitalize the DoD and inject it with the creativity and passion that so enrich our nation’s private technology firms. Initially there would only be a few teams as the model’s kinks were worked out and its nuances adapted to the Pentagon. These teams would be composed of a mix of DoD acquisition experts and Silicon Valley VCs. The basic framework would be:

  1. The DoD issues a general call for a perceived requirement.
  2. Relevant innovation pods brainstorm ideas and submit proposed solutions.
  3. Pods are given a small amount of money to test their ideas.
  4. VC angel investors read the proposals and the results of initial testing.
  5. Top tier ideas receive additional seed capital and advance.
  6. As the ideas become increasingly mature, the most efficacious design is advanced to the highest levels.
  7. The official program then begins with the leadership of the winning pod, taking into account the lessons learned from all of the pods involved.

The pods would be highly fluid and project-based, much like those of management consultants who frequently rotate through teams and tackle extraordinarily diverse problems yet still produce outstanding results. An officer would be assigned a billet as a general innovation pod member, then apply to the pods whose goals most interest him or her or where his or her skills would be most valuable. These general pod members would be able to rotate through pods as projects and proposals come and go, sticking with those pods that best align with their interests and capabilities. Again, this is a rough framework, what matters is the spirit: the idea of having the best ideas selected through an objective and creative experimentation process. We would learn lessons faster, break barriers, eschew vested interests, and find flaws much earlier in the process, saving us untold billions. One billion dollars on 1,000 programs that lead to fifty breakthrough technologies is better than one billion dollars lost to a forced idea such as the Arsenal ship or the Army’s Crusader self-propelled howitzer. Good ideas cannot be made; they must be proven and cultivated. With an internal VC system we would find the good ideas first, before development. The Pentagon would become a market place of ideas rather than a centrally-planned laboratory and our military would thrive.

The Right to Fail

080723-N-0000X-001All of this comes back to fighting our fear of failure, of doing away with a zero-defects culture. Junior officers will mess up. Mistakes shall be made. However, these are necessary, for there is no greater teacher than failure. Instead of giving progress reports to every inquirer at every step, teams must be allowed to tinker, to have room to breathe, to have time to fail, learn from it, and improve it on a small scale. It is much simpler to fail early and fix it than it is to keep passing the buck until we end up with a useless billion dollar program and can’t even figure out the core problem because it’s so buried in paperwork, complexity, and band-aid fixes. These runaway costs and delays are endemic to our current system. “A 2009 Government Accountability Office study of 96 major defense acquisition programs found that almost two-thirds of them suffered major cost overruns — forty percent above contract prices — with average delays of nearly two years. Those overruns totaled close to $300 billion.A rigorous, specialized, small team-driven approach will help us weed out which seeds need to be developed and which must be discarded, keeping us from ending up with billion dollar lemons. We love to champion a project from start to finish, but we must switch to championing them at the mid-course stage. As what we want and what is possible often diverge significantly, nothing should be sacrosanct in the development stages.

Reinvigorating Basic Research

All of these organizational changes and small teams still require the great tools and breakthroughs that made atom bombs, supersonic missiles, and strike drones possible. We must return to our rich World War II heritage and rekindle the DoD’s role as the ultimate benefactor of basic research: research done to advance scientific understanding without being directed at specific problem. These funds will come from the savings reaped by our organizational restructuring and will be distributed to America’s world-renowned research universities and organizations. Their discoveries will further fuel the opportunities and advances achieved by the innovation pods and DoD VCs.

 Scaling Up Modularity and Allied Partnerships

160130-N-ZZ999-001Basic research will pay off in time and allow us to continue pushing the frontiers of warfighting, but we must also find innovative and evolutionary ways to get breakthrough technologies to our service members quickly and consistently. One of the most promising means of achieving this is through modularity. Despite the challenges the Navy has encountered with the Littoral Combat Ship’s (LCS) modules, the principle remains one of our most promising ideas going forward. The increased versatility, upgradability, and specialization provided by modularity drastically increase the effectiveness of a single vessel. Our guiding light should be to create platforms that can be specialized and re-specialized as is operationally necessary, rather than trying to design a Swiss Army knife today to fight tomorrow’s wars. In order to further augment these modules, and the Fleet in general, we also need to open ourselves up to more allied and off-the-shelf technology. Increasing partnerships and technology sharing with our allies, along with licensing the production of foreign designs in America – with appropriate security – would save us billions in R&D, strengthen our ties, and encourage our more reluctant allies, especially in NATO, to get more involved in the defense sector.

Extending Tours on Key Projects

On the personnel front, we must allow those who embark on long-term projects to stay longer than a typical 18-36 month billet allows. Our relatively short-term billets, especially on long-term projects, mean that there is little true ownership for programs like the F-35, which has had so many program managers and developers over the years that no one has ever been truly responsible for the results. We preach immediate accountability constantly, but pay less heed to the perils of long-term gaps in responsibility and follow-through. Just as being the head of Nuclear Reactors is a ten year job, so should more billets be of a length commensurate to the task at hand. This ownership would incentivize passion, dedication, and follow-through by giving our leaders real skin in the game and bonding with their product and team. In our innovation pod model this would kick-in when a pod “wins” and gets the green-light to go into full-scale production. Their key leadership would stay with the project and continue working on it until completion.

Seizing Opportunities & Accelerating Careers

150513-N-LV331-003In the spirit of SECNAV’s much-lauded changes from May of last year, we must continue the process of providing ever greater opportunities and career development for our best officers. Successful innovation pods should be rewarded with promotions, bonuses, and other accolades, showing our officer corps that exceptional successes and hard work have immediate and tangible benefits. These rewards will further motivate and empower our innovation pods to dare greatly and push the frontiers of the possible. Similarly, we must provide them with extensive flexibility in using the Career Intermission Pilot Program (CIPP) to pursue developmental opportunities, including those that arise suddenly. Much like then-Lieutenant Nimitz’s 1913 study in Germany to become the Navy’s foremost expert on Rudolf Diesel’s revolutionary new engines, so should officers be strongly encouraged to seize learning opportunities that benefit the Navy’s intellectual and innovative vitality. Foreign exchanges, elite graduate programs, Fortune 500 fellowships, and other external opportunities should be highly sought after and advantageous for promotion since they cultivate the diversity of ideas and perspectives that will be so crucial in twenty-first century warfare and technological development.

Ultimately, what is most important about these changes is not the organizational details or the funding mechanisms, but their spirit. It is a new cultural paradigm that will bring the DoD into the brave new world of the information age. The organizational changes will reinforce and perpetuate this spirit, but as leaders we must lead from the front and push our military to become the agile, effective organization that our country needs and the American people deserve. To do this we must embrace risk and reap the rewards of creative destruction. We must cast our zero-defects mentality asunder and implement creative development and funding mechanisms such as those of Silicon Valley. We must tinker with and cultivate great ideas, allowing fluid innovation pods to create, fail, and thrive in pursuit of cutting edge developments and technologies that will keep us at the forefront of modern warfare. We must trust our junior officers and allow them to experience opportunities throughout the Fleet and the civilian world. We must increase basic research, modularity, and partnerships and technology sharing with our allies in order to retain the technological tools necessary for our innovators and DoD VCs to pioneer novel and effective applications. These solutions are budget neutral and potentially quite cost-saving; all they require is faith. We must have faith in our government and in our officer corps, for there are none better. If we are able to rise to this occasion, embracing failure, decentralization, and the pioneering spirit that made our country great, then there will be no foe we cannot vanquish.

Serious students of the US national security enterprise are likely familiar with Dr. Amy Zegart’s Flawed by Design. In her 2000 work, she examines the creation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council, concluding that from the start, these organizations never received the appropriate authorities to effectively lead, to ensure our nation’s security and fight our nation’s wars. Her insights proved prescient in light of the 9/11 attacks and military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A4_AFPS_Dempsey_wSince the National Security Act created the DoD, JCS, CIA and the Department of the Air Force in 1947, there have been repeated attempts to build using this broken design. Each subsequent reform effort, particularly the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reform Act of 1986, added to the size and complexity of the Pentagon. Layers upon layers of oversight got added to fix and re-fix the fundamentally flawed concept. The total cost to maintain this leviathan of tens of thousands of staff is enormous and takes scarce resources away from actual warfighting needs. Significant overhead costs are not the only negative impact from this flawed design, as many DoD-wide efforts are simply not effective.

In a recent speech at the American Enterprise Institute, Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus provided examples of the DoD’s “4th Estate” dysfunctionality. He particularly focused on the growth and operating costs of the Defense Finance and Accounting Services and the Defense Logistics Agency but similar criticisms could be made against most defense organizations.

These organizations were created to efficiently provide common support functions for the military services but, over time, that concept seems to have been lost, as the size and roles of the defense establishment expanded. Today, the military services often have to change their practices to support the defense agencies, instead of the reverse.

Similar to Mr. Mabus’s criticism of the 4th Estate, Senator John McCain has been a vocal critic recently of the Defense Acquisition System and has even called for revisiting the sacred cow of Goldwater-Nichols. Sweeping changes to these two broken processes are long overdue.

While the shared interests of Secretary Mabus and Senator McCain are somewhat unusual, some may view them simply as inside-the-beltway political banter. However, DoD’s outdated organizational structure has also hampered military operations over the past decade.

My experience highlights the broad impacts from centralized oversight. Having served in both the Navy and Marine Corps for over a decade apiece, I understand naval integration is difficult to achieve; even after 200 years, it is still a work in progress. To think that four services can fully integrate to support the shared-lie of “jointness,” to confront and solve fast-evolving crises today, is an expensive fool’s errand.

General Stanley McChrystal asserts in his new book Team of Teams, that the “Limiting Factor” in our war against al Qaida was our own management of operations. He experienced first-hand the cumbersome layers of bureaucracy, siloed information sharing and over-centralized decision making, even within his own Special Operations community. My own experience at the MNC-I HQ in 2005 supports his assertions and has made me question the value of joint organizations and processes as well.

Many are familiar with the US Army’s seizure of the Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) in the initial run-up to Baghdad in 2003. There was a second, lesser known, battle for BIAP in 2005 – which pitted Marines against the Air Force.

Briefly, the Marines operated in the areas west and south of Baghdad and routinely conducted counter-fire missions through a section of the air space on the same side of BIAP. The Air Force staff at the Combined Air Operations Center wanted to expand the air space control measures above BIAP for safety of flight concerns. This change would prohibit Marines from quickly responding to attacks on ground forces—shooting back, in other words–in the area.

Despite Joint doctrine clearly favoring the ground commander, a joint staff running operations, and even having a neutral Army three star as the Corps Commander, the Air Force refused to support the ground commander’s operational needs. Eventually, a few mid-level officers and Staff NCOs worked out a solution, albeit one held together with duct tape and 550 cord, that resolved the coordination issue.

This event occurred nearly 20 years after the passage of Goldwater-Nichols and following significant investments in joint commands, joint doctrine, joint programs and the brainwashing of an entire generation of military officers on the virtues of jointness. Interservice coordination seemed no better than it was in previous military operations. Problems in Iraq were resolved by military professionals working towards common goals, as I’m sure was the practice in every war before the flawed legislation.

For the past 60 years, DoD and Congress have slowly worked towards unification of the military services. In the industrial age, centralization and the emphasis on process efficiency were widely accepted management practices. However, the complex, interconnected future, characterized by ubiquitous data and technological changes occurring rapidly, will require smaller, decentralized and agile organizations to succeed – just the opposite of our current organization design.

Not only is the idea of creating enormous Defense-wide systems, programs and organizations a bad one, it is a dangerous management approach in the information age. The recent OPM data breaches provide crystal-clear evidence of how catastrophic risk increases when we put our all of our eggs in a single basket. We cannot wall-off our stovepipes in single places and rest assured that no one can get in to our information.

Preparing for future conflict, particularly against modern professional militaries, requires more than simply investing in expensive weapon systems. It requires us to have candid conversations about what’s not working in DoD – far beyond just the broken acquisition process – and recognize the fundamental design flaws of the Department.

Over the next few years, we have a great opportunity to leverage the work started by Secretary Mabus and Senator McCain. With former naval officers Undersecretary Bob Work and General Dunford holding key positions in the 4th Estate, as well as a new Commandant and CNO both recognized for innovating thinking, and several naval officers on the Hill, we may actually be able to make some meaningful changes in the defense organization which will ensure success in the future. Making significant changes to the entrenched DoD bureaucracy are a longshot indeed, but history has shown that naval officers working together are capable of great things.


U.S. soldiers board an Air Force C-130 as they depart Afghanistan. Image: U.S. Department of Defense

General Joseph Dunford, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander, has recently told the New York Times that America’s “presence post-2014 is necessary for the gains we have made to date to be sustainable.” His reasoning was that although the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are bearing the brunt of fighting, “at the end of 2014, [they] won’t be completely independent” operationally and logistically.

Read the rest of this entry »