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Transformation and Tidewater

May 2010
By Linton Wells II, SIGNAL Magazine

Transformation is much more alive among allies and coalition partners than it seems to be in the United States. Last year I listened to officials from nearly 20 foreign countries enthusiastically describe the extent to which they had transformed, or were transforming, their militaries to align with their perceptions of U.S. initiatives. A few months ago I mentioned this to a group of U.S. flag and general officers, and one commented—with support from others—“I hope you inoculated them against this kind of thinking.” What’s going on?

Between 2001 and about 2005, the Office of Force Transformation (OFT) in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) focused on ways to shape the nature of military competition. The goal was to gain an enduring advantage for the United States. Contrary to many critiques, transformation was never just about technology. It always envisioned a need to co-evolve capabilities across the full range of DOTMLPF—doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership, personnel and facilities—to which interoperability now has been added. The OFT contributed significantly to concepts such as the Network Enabled Capability (NEC), the high-speed vessel and operationally responsive space. However, it also left disgruntled memories in some quarters about OSD attempts at centralization and support for expensive programs, such as the U.S. Army’s Future Combat Systems, that later were canceled by others.

NATO’s Allied Command Transformation (ACT), whose title stimulates thoughts about what the term “transformation” means today, has contributed to a variety of studies since 2005 about the complex military picture. These studies, from the U.S. Joint Forces Command’s (JFCOM’s) Joint Operating Environment (JOE) to the ACT’s Multiple Futures Project (MFP), have pointed to complex, chaotic futures filled with surprises. Such environments are populated with “wicked” problems such as climate change, terrorism and failed states, which do not lend themselves to classical forms of analysis and for which there usually are no common definitions of the problem or agreements on the solution. Relations among participants in national security spaces are likely to reflect concurrent states of cooperation, competition and conflict, as opposed to neat transitions from one state to another. These uncertainties will be amplified by exponential technological change across several parallel scientific revolutions: information technology, biotechnology, nanotechnology, robotics, searches for alternatives to hydrocarbons and socio-cognitive research.

An enduring advantage of any sort is unlikely in these environments. The nation will need agility, endurance and resilience when surprised—as it inevitably will be.

We cannot address such futures with familiar, comfortable approaches. Neither are unilateral government solutions and unchanging courses of action likely to work. Instead, public-private, whole-of-government, transnational collaborative engagements offer more promise. The spectacular contributions of crowd sourcing and distributed collaboration in Haiti are but one example.

A key question is how to design our institutions to take advantage of these conditions and how to develop leaders to lead them. Repeated studies show that organizations must flatten and decentralize, and that out-learning adversaries is essential to success. Leaders of such organizations need to be comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity, and they must be committed to lifelong learning. Identifying and developing such leaders is a growing priority.

In this environment, education—preparation for the unknown—becomes a strategic asset for both the United States and NATO. For lessons to be learned, they must lead to changed behaviors, or otherwise problems will be admired and re-admired ad infinitum. ACT is leading this type of thinking in the NATO environment. It will not be easy. Alliance-based solutions can address only part of the likely problems. Resource challenges will continue to multiply. Still, the expected future financial constraints can offer opportunities. Many of the greatest innovations have emerged in austere times.

Transformation in these conditions must be seen as a process that shapes the changing nature of competition and cooperation through concept development and innovation management across four dimensions: people, processes, organizations and technology. In the NATO context, some of the transformative work at ACT is helping to illuminate the roles of small nations within the alliance, understand hybrid and cyber challenges, develop capabilities for NATO’s Comprehensive Approach—which is comparable to U.S. concepts of complex, civil-military operations—and improve defense planning within the alliance. It also recognizes that future conflicts may not all be small wars.

Transformational concepts have come a long way—in only a few years—from trying to ensure an enduring U.S. advantage to “promoting agility and resilience for the alliance within comprehensive approaches.” Transformation is alive and well and is, itself, continuing to transform.

This month’s Joint Warfighting Conference brings many AFCEANs back to Tidewater and the great assembly of military capabilities there. Among these is the headquarters of ACT. This conference offers all attendees a chance to think about ways ahead in a rapidly changing world. They may or may not like the term transformation, but they need to acknowledge that today’s solutions will not solve tomorrow’s problems.

Linton Wells II is the transformation chair and a distinguished research professor at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. The views expressed are his own and not those of the U.S. Defense Department or of SIGNAL Magazine.