Innovating the Department of Defense
As many commentators have noted, most armies prepare to fight the "last war" - that is, they take the lessons they learned from previous wars and project them into the future, assuming that future wars and conflicts will resemble those from the recent past. This is why we in the US still have a heavy mechanized army, which is intended to fight large conflicts against an easily identifiable enemy. Meanwhile, our adversaries have long understood that the US has too much technology and capability to fight toe to toe in open conflict. Increasingly we face adversaries who blend into the local population, who use small arms conflict, guerilla war and terrorism rather than a single large army fighting to retain terrority. ISIS's call for "lone wolves" who can attack within the US is a good example of an adversary seeking to disrupt our fighting morale through low intensity combat.
We know all of this, but the US military is still engaged in thinking, developing and deploying large scale response. Of course we seek to shock and awe our opponents, and to never fight on an equal footing, but our thinking, planning, weapons and deployment systems must change. The battle in the future may be as much about data and information as it is about territory or lives. We have to learn to fight house to house, with minimal casualties, while demonstrating that our way of war is less invasive, less destructive and morally sound, versus what our adversaries fight.
As the pace of change has accelerated in the private sector, many corporations have adopted a number of techniques to respond, from scenario planning to ascertain the future market conditions to deeper market research and insights into emerging markets and segments. The new defense initiative should start here, forecasting the likely battles and adversaries to determine what they need to defend against, and what they may need to proactively destroy. In the US we've become too complacent about the superiority of our technology, and many of the battles we are seeing now are being fought with old military technology and new social media and information technology. Superior arms aren't enough, especially when you fight an adversary who don't fear death but use it as a recruiting tool.
While the US military is a colossus, we have lost touch and don't understand geographic needs and local conditions on the ground. We need better insight and intelligence, and better, more trustworthy allies. As a recent book by John Nagl points out, the fight in Sunni Iraq was intense until the military realized that by paying and arming the Sunnis, the intensity of the fight could be reversed. The military as a blunt weapon of force won't be able to pay dividends in the future. We may not have those kinds of fights. Meanwhile, the adversaries we do fight will morph and change. They will likely be non-state actors, like ISIS or Al Qaeda, who may decide to hold territory but who really want to wreak havoc and upset some of our allies and adversaries in the Middle East and other locations. The pace of change and the intensity of the fight are increasing.
Meanwhile our military is bound by acquisition rules that slow purchasing and that favor large integrated contractors who don't seek to bring the best ideas to the table, only the projects that can win. And how do they win? By ensuring that any large project has components made or assembled in a large number of congressional districts so that each congressperson can point to "new jobs" in their district. The planning and acquisition process for the military is exceptionally slow, artificially obtuse and difficult to enter for any firm that is new to the defense market or who is not familiar with the contracting process. This slows innovation in the form of new technologies and new products. Likewise, a focus on the lowest total price on the contract, rather than the best solution, often awards firms who focus only on cutting costs, which is antithetical to good innovation. Further, as has been documented frequently, there is a relatively high fear of risk in the military - often one "mistake" no matter how well intended can ruin a young officer's career. The military has a hierarchical culture that doesn't allow a lot of freelancing (and often rightly so) and expects people to stay in line and wait their turn. Again, the culture will resist innovation.
Hagel's decision is a good one, but I wonder if he will incorporate the best people to assist in the implementation. If good innovators have been helping the private sector, will he and his team turn to good innovators and consultants for advice? (hint hint) Will they push autonomy and creativity down to the average soldier, or isolate "innovation" in a new "long range" planning organization, creating yet another ivory tower to spawn more messages about innovation that cannot be implemented effectively by the fighting force? Will they recognize how much the battlefield and the adversaries have changed? Will they understand that the future of warfare is as much about bits as it is about bullets? Can we rationalize our planning and procurement process? Can we infect the culture of the military with more risk taking, change management and innovation?
Hagel has done the right thing - the military-industrial complex needs to innovate. But this should be defined as a radical overhaul of the entire structure, not just a way to get a few more platforms to the warriors more quickly. There are a lot of moving parts that must coalesce in order to really infect the military-industrial complex with the amount of change and innovation necessary to move to the next "offset" position. Reagan and the congress in the 80s were fortunate in their enemy - a monolithic Soviet military machine. We today are far less fortunate, because our military will be faced with small, nameless, faceless, stateless adversaries, a rising China, issues spawned from a lack of water and arable land, global warming, international criminal gangs that take over entire countries or regions and many more factors. As interconnected as the world is, and as broad as our relationships and dependencies are, we will be forced to fight in many places simultaneously, sometimes with people, sometimes with drones and sometimes with data. These changes and the options they spawn demand a much more active and nimble military structure supported by a much more flexible supply chain and information partners. Will Hagel's review and new offset provide such innovation?
Here are a couple of things to watch for. First, will Hagel and the military recognize and reward mid-grade officers who have original thinking? Second, will the review consider new contracting and new weapon development options that speed up development and cut time and cost? Third, will the review recommend to eliminate some pet projects to free up funds for other uses? Will the review spend as much time on systems, data, information and predictive analytics as it does on other factors? Fourth, will the commission call on external innovation experts who have worked in the commercial fields, or will it rely solely on historical defense contracting partners for new ideas? Finally, will we see a reworking of the entire military-industrial complex? Reagan's work solidified and cemented relationships between the military and large government contractors. For speed, nimbleness and new ideas, the military in the future will need to be open to far more "open innovation" with unfamiliar partners. Will that happen? Time will tell.