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A Tough Scorecard for Transformation

June 2007
By Cmdr. Gregory E. Glaros, USN (Ret.)

A few years ago, the U.S. Defense Department stated that transformation is “a process that shapes the changing nature of military competition … through new combinations of concepts, capabilities, people and organizations.” It was a good enough start, but if this description is to hold, then what defines the shape of both current and future transformational success? A process without successful execution or quantitative feedback is of little value. Transformation requires more than change for change’s sake.

For the past four years, as new Defense Department concepts of operations (CONOPS) developed and policy shifts formed to defeat the emerging threat, dogmatic attention was focused on either the amount of change in capabilities, the scale of improvement in systems or the scope of change brought about by technology. Unfortunately, little attention was paid to the measurable outcome desperately needed within acquisition reform, organizational alignment and the procurement of networked capabilities that could sustain a strategic position against a dynamic threat. The processes needed to influence slow-moving bureaucratic policies made little progress.

Terms such as “qualitative change,” “change in form” and “change in kind” were plastered in briefs replete with adjectives proclaiming transformational qualities such as “step-function” improvements, “breakthrough” technology and the ubiquitous “ten-fold” increase. These were presented as all that was required to demonstrate transformational progress. But the Defense Department has difficulty pointing out anything that was truly transformational. More importantly, it has a hard time identifying what was change’s greatest challenge.

Many people correctly considered that the early success in Afghanistan demonstrated transformational CONOPS—innovative and nimble special operations teams supported by the power of the U.S. network provided by satellite communications access to aerial artillery, precision weapons and around-the-clock global reach. No other nation could compete with the information dominance, logistics support or firepower. Even Operation Iraqi Freedom was widely regarded as an example of jointness—combined arms-inspired transformation coupled with three weeks of unstoppable “shock and awe.”

Without question, the Defense Department has had a great deal to be proud of: superior technology in the hands of unmatched leadership and training. No military has possessed a more transformed force.

So why are we in such trouble today? Why is there such a constant stream of criticism of the department and its leadership? One could argue that the political gains of the last election drove the negative backlash or that while the department trained for combat, it was not and still is not prepared for stability and peace.

But the truth is that the scourge of improvised explosive devices and the endless supply of suicide bombers remain unchecked. Even though the nation’s laboratories and vendors have provided solutions in the spirit and speed of U.S. innovation, many people continue to die daily.

Is it because the Defense Department has not transformed enough? Is the department not fully focused on the problem? Is the threat environment too challenging and the enemy an even match for our forces? The simple answer is that conflict is and always has been a two-sided game—we win, they learn through defeat; as they learn quicker than we do, they win.

While the nation celebrated a premature win four years ago, the enemy transformed at a far faster pace than did the Defense Department. Because of the insurgents’ urban environment, their willingness to die and their ability to crudely adapt modern technology quickly, they successfully challenged a technologically superior force. They control the fight against time. Competitive advantage has always gone to those who move fastest and control the clock.

There are many examples of the nation’s failure to transform effectively in the fight against time. The U.S. Coast Guard’s Fast Response Cutter, the U.S. Navy’s LPD-17 fiasco, the Special Operations Command’s Advanced SEAL Delivery System (ASDS) problems, the predictability of the U.S. Air Force’s gross cost overruns in space programs and the U.S. Army’s trouble with the M4 carbine all point to not only misalignment with the current threat but also ignorance of the need for change. No institution is without fault, but will the seemingly endless list of failures continue? How much acquisition malaise, poor government oversight and operational evaluation lethargy can our troops endure?

The late Vice Adm. Arthur K. Cebrowski, USN (Ret.), former director of the Office of Force Transformation, offered unique advice on how to bring about transformation. To him transformation was created partly through new competencies and the development of new markets, which would radically and irrevocably alter the competitive environment.

It would seem that the enemy has learned this lesson well and consequently has moved off the traditional battlefield so as not to confront the U.S. military head-on. Instead, it has moved into political and social domains to pass the cost onto the United States directly. Its success in these social and political shadows represents a transformational model to which the United States must now painfully adjust. If transformation is to have a long-lasting impact on the Defense Department, a timely force structure and budget must align and coincide with winning the war and the peace, not just on waging combat man against man.