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Incoming

Information Age Leadership Requires a New Type of Boldness

September 1, 2013
By Lt. Ben Kohlmann, USN

 

Bureaucracies are slow to change, and few may be more anemic than the military services. With a foundational and personnel structure optimized for the Cold War and the industrial age, this unfortunate reality is acutely evident as the information age accelerates into ever more complex manifestations.

While some leadership principles remain constant regardless of the era, quite a few must be adapted to the realities of their time. Some of the characteristics already have defined, and will continue to define, effective 21st century military leadership.

One such characteristic is the ability to look outside traditional vertical hierarchies. The world is becoming increasingly interconnected, and relational networks are being fostered from Internet-based social networks that span ages and ranks. Technology is replacing itself at an increasing rate, so traditional definitions of expertise that rely on seniority are less relevant.

Very often, younger generations have a better ability to interact with technology than their more experienced senior leadership. These digital natives often will recognize capabilities and new avenues of application more quickly than their older leaders. However, traditional hierarchical structures with numerous levels of interference between the deckplate operator and senior decision maker stifle solutions that could transform an operation.

More than ever, senior commanders need to embrace crowdsourcing options and direct engagement with creative, entrepreneurial, lower-level subordinates. This could be accomplished by establishing command innovation cells characterized by open dialogue with no fear of reprisal, followed by action taken on recommendations. These are great ways to empower more junior personnel to take ownership and make an impact.

Informal, Self-Organizing, Ad Hoc
 Relational Networks Are the New Multipliers

June 1, 2013
By Lt. Ben Kohlmann, USN

The advent of social networks is transforming the way the military does business. Net-centric warfare once was in vogue, seeking to capture electrons and raw fiber to transform the way combat was fought. Yet an even more powerful and unanticipated net is making waves in remarkable ways. It is the power of relational networks, fostered by loose ties and catalyzed by the proliferation of quickly evolving online platforms.

These networks of individuals are as far removed from centralized chains of command as anyone can be. They span ranks, ages, services and communities. As with water running down a rocky mountain, they find a way to interact and build each other’s knowledge base no matter the formal obstacles laid down by bureaucracy.

The power of these relationships was made very real to me last year when I joined Twitter. Randomly following military-related users, I soon became engaged in deeply strategic conversations with people I never would have found on my own. Senior Army officers were engaging informally with enlisted sailors and deployed Air Force pilots, sparring and parrying with a flurry of articles, links and philosophical references. Nobody told these folks to work together—they simply assembled on their own.

It became apparent that not only were these self-organizing and ever-evolving groups of people learning about warfare in a totally new way, they were becoming friends. Service members continents apart from each other, never having met, now had groups of peers and friends to have a beer with while on temporary assigned duty or leave. Their virtual conversations turned into very real, face-to-face interactions.

Forward Deployed 3-D Printers Might 
Be the Next Warfighter Innovation

May 1, 2013
By Lt. Ben Kohlmann, USN

Additive manufacturing, more commonly understood in the technology world as 3-D printing, is here to stay. Integrating this technology into our fleet and logistical supply chains now could provide incredible benefits, even though the technology still is relatively nascent. The Economist calls this “the third industrial revolution,” and, indeed, these techniques could transform the way we supply materiel in the wars we fight.

Imagine you are a supply officer on a minesweeper and a relatively simple plastic gas cap disappears. Or as the commanding officer of an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, you discover that a small part of your close-in weapon system breaks and the supply chain has no more. As a submariner, you are on station for three months of deployment only to discover a malfunctioning inexpensive butterfly valve may necessitate aborting the whole mission. What do you do?

These are all true stories. In the first, the Navy spent $400 to ship that $7 gas cap halfway around the world. The destroyer’s commanding officer was forced to complete his deployment without a key defensive system. For the submarine, some enterprising machinist mates found solid copper and banged out a replacement in a matter of minutes that lasted through the end of deployment. All these situations had solutions, but none of them was ideal.

What if each of these vessels had easy access to a 3-D printer or an additive manufacturing capability organic to the ship? What if, instead of waiting six months or more for a high-fail, high-demand plastic part, a replacement could be printed instantaneously, tested and then implemented immediately?

Guest Blog: Lowering Walls and Blurring Lines

April 12, 2013
By Dr. Louis S. Metzger

The latest Incoming column from Lt. Ben Kohlmann, USN, titled “Link Warfighters to Technologists at the Lowest Possible Level” (SIGNAL Magazine, April 2013), resonated with observations I’ve made and conclusions I’ve reached over the years. I’ve been involved with the research and development and acquisition communities for a long time, including serving as the Air Force chief scientist from 1999 to 2001. Perhaps my adding to Lt. Kohlmann’s advice will help it gain additional traction, and stimulate further discussion and activity.

Leveraging technology to provide our military with improved capability requires diverse insights, multiple skills and varied roles. The insights cover current understanding of user needs, the operational environment, and the potential of existing and emerging technology. The skills span science and engineering, contracting, testing and training. And the roles include requirements developer, laboratory investigator, acquirer and support provider. The realities of specialization demand that multiple communities come together to provide all these ingredients. Unfortunately, interpretation of rules, processes and culture have built walls, and suspicion between different communities to the extent that the teamwork and collaboration needed to expeditiously develop and field new capabilities often islacking.

Link Warfighters to Technologists at the Lowest Possible Level

April 1, 2013
By Lt. Ben Kohlmann, USN

As conflicts become more complex and uncertain in the 21st century, quick pivots to new technologies will become increasingly important. The starting point for this rapid fielding must begin with more frequent, and more relational, lower level warfighter-technologist interaction.

The current system does this nominally, but the relationships usually are far removed from the waterfront or the front lines where many user-generated solutions could be discovered. Science advisers, often from places such as the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory or the Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR), are stationed regularly at critical commands throughout the services. They provide a useful link between incredibly intelligent technologists and seasoned veterans.

Unfortunately, many of the interactions are only with senior officers and not the muddy boot or deckplate warriors who know best what is giving them day-to-day headaches. Additionally, many of the officers dedicated to acquisition programs are years removed from being actual operators. With the accelerating pace of technological change, even a year away from operational status can leave noticeable knowledge gaps.

Experience certainly is valuable, but after spending a long period of time in the same profession, a person’s creativity sometimes is lost. Even known innovators can get stuck in ruts when not exposed to different views of the world over sustained periods of time. Furthermore, as technology evolves, the quickest adopters usually are the younger generations. They often have better insights into how to integrate emerging, generationally ubiquitous trends to their professions than do their seniors who relied on legacy systems.

What Color Is Your Money?

February 1, 2013
By Lt. Ben Kohlmann, USN

The Defense Department has a spending problem and must be reined in. The solution, however, goes far beyond simplistic budget cutting efforts such as across-the-board sequestration. It involves a fundamental cultural shift from both our appropriators and our subordinate-level commanders.

The past 10 years have been a financial boon for the military. This was true even as the rest of the U.S. economy was beset by recession and increasing unemployment. In 2001, the Defense Department base budget was $290.5 billion (in fiscal year 2012 dollars). By 2011, this amount had risen to $526.1 billion, excluding the funding required to sustain the Iraq and Afghan wars.

Beyond the rapid increase in the overall budget, a more pervasive and concerning trend exists: the incredible waste and inefficiency brought by established interests more concerned with keeping the spigot of money flowing than with winning wars.

Part of this is because of the ease with which the military has received unfettered access to our nation’s treasure. Because it is politically unpatriotic to question the military—and by extension, the appropriations it requests—Congress has acquiesced in pouring money into anything earmarked defense. Ironically, many of the same politicians who decry throwing money at education to improve schools hardly bat an eye when doing the same for defense.

Additionally, the constancy and security of military funding psychologically insulates the recipients of such largess from the realities of a constrained resource environment. This can lead to indifference when managing resources, especially those funded by “other people’s money”—in this case, the U.S. taxpayer.

Technology Is Good, but People Are Better

January 1, 2013
By Lt. Ben Kohlmann, USN

Uncertainty reigns in warfare, and it is impossible to fully understand the intentions of a capable, thinking adversary in the midst of conflict. Yet, the best counter to this is to have equally adept and creative personnel able to recognize that warfare does not merely consist of armed clashes, but the combination of moral, psychological, economic and political forces.

In a landmark historical incident, the onset of World War I brought about one of the more remarkable chases of 20th century warfare. As Barbara Tuchman describes in her book, “The Guns of August,” with hostilities declared in early August 1914, Germany sought then-neutral Turkey as an ally to mitigate a Russian front to its East. The masterstroke to securing this alliance involved sending the entire German Mediterranean fleet—all of two ships—in a mad dash toward the entrance of the Dardanelles on a diplomatic, not military, mission.

Not expecting this unorthodox move, Britain deployed its numerous ships to protect a French convoy sailing from Africa while also maneuvering to prevent an escape by the Germans through the Straits of Gibraltar. Through the winding fates of war, multiple opportunities were missed to sink the armed German messengers. The once-bold Nelsonian Royal Navy had revealed its evolution toward a technologically superior, but far more untested, conservative one.

The ultimate arrival of the Germans persuaded the Turkish government to renounce neutrality, causing Winston Churchill to later admit this one action caused “more slaughter, more misery and more ruin than has ever before been borne within the compass of a ship.”

Evolution Is Leading Us to Software-Defined Networks

October 1, 2012
By Paul A. Strassmann

 

The next step in the transformation of the U.S. Defense Department systems architecture will be networks defined by software instead of by hardware. Software-based network controls will extend the scope of what currently is limited only to data center operations.

Traditionally, switches and routers have been set separately from what was managed as computing inside the data center. Special-purpose devices were installed to solve specific problems of network management. This resulted in complexity and inflexibility. For example, to change networking data centers, operators had to reconfigure switches, routers, firewalls or Web authentication portals. This required updating virtual local area networks, quality-of-service settings and protocol-based tables with dedicated software tools. Network topology, as well as different software versions, had to be taken into account. Consequently, the networks remained relatively static because operators sought to minimize the risk of service disruption from hardware changes.

Enterprises today operate multiple Internet protocol networks for voice, data, sensor inputs and video. While existing networks can provide custom-made service levels for individual applications, the provisioning of network resources largely is manual. Operators configure each vendor’s equipment and adjust parameters, such as bandwidth, on a per-session, per-application basis. Because of the static nature, networks cannot adapt to changing traffic, application and user demands. With an estimated 15,000 networks in place, the Defense Department has difficulty managing such a proliferation of options.

Thrifty Can Do It for the Defense Department

September 1, 2012
By Paul A. Strassmann

The benefits of virtualization can be extended to thrifty end-users either through public clouds or via private clouds. The time has come to reach out to the millions of user devices that operate in thousands of separately programmable silos that require spending money on labor-intensive overhead. U.S.

Defense Department projects can be brought into a consolidated cloud environment where much lower costs and increased security can deliver immediate benefits.

The May 21, 2012, issue of Forbes magazine describes how start-up firms acquire information technologies without spending much money. These firms use commercial cloud services instead of setting up their own data centers.

There now is a flood of commercial offerings for low-cost cloud computing solutions. Thought should be given to switching smaller Defense Department projects to deployments through Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS). More than 2,000 such projects now exist in the Defense Department.

New projects need not be encumbered with the burden of elaborate planning, cost justification, development and acquisition of computers as dictated by existing directives. Instead, the department can adopt the method for setting up new projects inexpensively and instantly. This can be done in weeks, not months or years. An experimental system can be tried without much risk and for a small investment. Innovative applications can be tested and even discarded without committing to a multiyear stream of cost. After a new project demonstrates its suitability, it always can be scaled up.

Forbes illustrated the benefits of thrifty computing for a small venture firm:

Old Defense Department Silos Must Be Swept Out

August 2012
By Paul A. Strassmann

In last month’s column, I reported that there were 2,904 separately funded fiscal year 2012 information technology budgets. Many of these would be set up to operate their own and incompatible networking, storage, server, operating systems, middleware or control commands.

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