Col. Steven J. Spano, USAF

January 2006
By Col. Steven J. Spano, USAF, Director, Communications and Information, A-6, Headquarters U.S. Air Forces in Europe

Which emerging technology will have the biggest impact on your organization in the future?

A good indicator of the ability to answer an esoteric question of this nature is to first ask if we successfully predicted the last technology and correctly assessed whether it had the anticipated impact. It could be argued that the answer to the former is no and the latter is perhaps marginal at best.

The U.S. Defense Department has evolved predominantly into a current operations organization. Its planning, programming and budgeting system, acquisition systems and laws center on a one-year budget execution process, a two-year program objective memorandum cycle and a five-year defense plan that is adjusted constantly in ways that hinder the ability to influence research and development, predict breakthrough technologies and field information-based capabilities rapidly. In addition, society and the military grew up in an analog world, so adapting thought processes and culture to a faster paced digital environment is inherently problematic. As such, the commercial sector, less shackled by rules and budgetary processes, is driving technology while the Defense Department has grown comfortable chasing the latest gadgets and finding innovative ways to bolt them onto existing analog processes.

Although there have been many successes, this dynamic has tended to result in performance and efficiencies that often fail to meet expectations. This military business model is not likely to change any time soon, so we must confront reality by developing a new approach to viewing and, more importantly, applying technology.

While the military may not be able to drive or predict new technologies, it can shift its focus to better respond, adapt and integrate emerging technologies into its existing processes. Achieving this requires some important changes. The military must think more digitally about how it applies technology. While the military is successful in adapting technology to fill specific needs, it is less successful at applying technology to fundamentally change the processes both within and across functional boundaries. Toward this aim, a better taxonomy for how it integrates technology is critical—one that drives its processes more horizontally than vertically, taking into account both the intended and unintended consequences. This is not an easy task given the depth, breadth and complexity of military missions and the plethora of systems.

In addition, the military must avoid the belief that solutions lie predominantly in technology. The fundamental premise behind digital thinking is to change how current technology is applied vice to change how to pursue more technology. Hence, it will not be any specific technology but rather the new processes for how the military applies existing technology that will yield the greatest impact in the future.

To illustrate, U.S. Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) is involved in a broader Air Force effort to establish a network operations function. One aspect of the effort is to consolidate Air Force Network Operation Support Centers (NOSCs) into a predetermined number of Air Force Integrated NOSCs, or I-NOSCs. The goal is improved command and control, configuration management and security of the Air Force network. This change does not involve any breakthrough technology but rather exploits existing technologies in ways that change the rules and processes by which networks are managed. Applying analog processes would no doubt build a superb I-NOSC capability. However, doing so without examining its impact on other horizontal processes would undersell its transformational potential and perhaps create significant issues in other areas. Fortunately, we are applying digital thought processes and linking the I-NOSC effort to related processes and technologies, thus using this effort as a springboard to launch a much greater transformation.

The fundamental building block of creating an I-NOSC that manages the infrastructure and eventually all information technology services across the Air Force enterprise is the ability to remotely administer every element of the network down to the desktop. Once this process is mature and extended down to each base, professionals who manage most of these services at each base today will perform only touch maintenance functions. This, in turn, slashes the size of the average unit by approximately one-third. Moreover, when other technologies and process changes are integrated, such as voice over Internet protocol, thin-client technology, regional help desk and telephone operations, the average unit will shrink even more. This calls into question how many communications squadrons are needed or how best to reshape the remaining units to be relevant in the future.

No single technology can ignite a transformation. It is the careful application of selected technologies that drive an innovative departure from the current state. While we have a long way to go to cross into the digital world, we are making strides across USAFE—and the Air Force—by reminding ourselves that it is not about the technology but how it is applied that matters.