• Adm. Harry B. Harris, USN, commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet, discusses the need for innovation to maintain U.S. superiority after receiving the text of his speech from a remote controlled drone.
     Adm. Harry B. Harris, USN, commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet, discusses the need for innovation to maintain U.S. superiority after receiving the text of his speech from a remote controlled drone.

Innovation, Application Concerns Weigh Heavily on Planners

December 11, 2014
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

Maintaining a military technology lead is a double-edged sword that also can be blunted.

TechNet Asia-Pacific 2014

The SIGNAL Magazine Online Show Daily

Day 3

Quote of the Day:

“I believe America should always bring a gun to a knife fight ... not a butter knife.”—Adm. Harry B. Harris, USN, commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet.


The U.S. lead in military technology is too great, not enough or disappearing, depending on which expert is speaking. And, all three statements might be accurate in their own ways.

The United States holds a technology gap over allies and potential partner nations that threatens to nullify other countries’ participation in coalition operations. At the same time, other countries and terrorist groups are narrowing the gap with advances of their own. And, the lead itself may be in peril as potential rivals put innovation to their own uses.

These points were among those discussed on the final day of TechNet Asia-Pacific 2014, held December 9-11 in Honolulu. Two speakers and a panel explored many facets of those issues and offered potential solutions to thorny problems.

The threat to the U.S. technology lead was emphasized in a luncheon speech by Adm. Harry B. Harris, USN, commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet. With the United States involved in two land wars over the past 13 years, many potential adversaries have taken that time to modernize their capabilities across the full spectrum of conflict.

“Traditionally we have always counted on our overmatch in capability and capacity to offset challenges of distance and initiative in those areas where strife is most likely,” Adm. Harris said. “Now, according to the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Sandy Winnefeld, ‘That overmatch is now in jeopardy.’ And that’s got my attention.”

Adm. Harris called for innovative thinking about innovation, especially as the country faces limitations imposed by fiscal and budget constraints. “We won’t be able to just throw money at a problem,” he pointed out. “We need to think about it and come up with innovative solutions that are cost effective and that have the greatest potential to yield results.

“The best way to [maintain superiority] is to play to our strengths—American ingenuity and innovation,” he continued. “By turning our best and brightest loose, there’s no challenge we can’t meet."

That challenge will be significant as other countries threaten the U.S. technology lead, in some cases by stealing U.S. secrets and adding their own indigenous work. Adm. Harris wants U.S. industry, the military and academia to work on innovative solutions to maintain this lead.

“I believe America should always bring a gun to a knife fight ... not a butter knife,” he declared.

The negative side of the U.S. technological lead is the technology gap between the United States and potential coalition partners and allies. Panelists and speakers raised this issue earlier in the conference, and it emerged again on the final day during a panel on assured interoperability. Col. Michael Sweeney, USMC, assistant chief of staff, G-6, U.S. Marine Corps Forces Pacific, raised the issue of how U.S. forces would be able to extend their VHF and terrestrial communications to allies and coalition partners.

“There’s a gap there, and it isn’t even close,” he declared. “We created that gap, and it hinders our ability to share information when it is necessary.”

Chris Gieser, COMPACFLT (N-6D), deputy for C2/CS, Operations and Plans, weighed in on the issue. “We shouldn’t leapfrog way above our allies and coalition partners,” he said. “We must be greatly aware that they operate within a structure and a budget in their own country. We have to keep them aware too. If we do new technology, it has to be releasable or, if not, backward compatible.”

Gieser suggested another solution that would help close the gap. “Have allies participate in setting those standards and have a say in them—we’ll do all of us a favor,” he offered.

Among those Asia-Pacific allies is Australia, a longtime U.S. military partner that is increasing in importance. Lt. Gen. John A. Toolan, USMC, commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces Pacific, described how the Marine presence in Australia is still in the early stages. However, he warned that U.S. personnel must be careful they do not overextend their bounds there. He pointed out that Australia has a very close relationship with China, so the United States wants to develop its operations in Australia carefully. Maybe in two years the Corps will have a 2,500-man Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTAF) rotating in and out of Australia, Gen. Toolan offered.

The Marine Corps’ move to Australia has made a big difference in the Corps’ ability to move in theater with speed, the general explained. The Corps is looking at how it distributes its forces in the Pacific, and Australia is a key location for being able to move quickly into Southeast Asia.

While the Marine Corps is expanding its presence throughout the region, it also is struggling with deployment issues. Foremost among these is large equipment that served it well in Southwest Asia ground wars but would be a hindrance in amphibious operations. Gen. Toolan emphasized that the Corps is seeking smaller, lighter communications and networking gear. Amphibious ships do not have a lot of space, he related, and new capabilities for assured interoperable networking must be balanced against size and weight limitations for the rapidly deployable force.

Communications on the move also has its limitations. Ground forces often had to stop by the side of the road to set up satellite dishes for connectivity. With the demand for full motion video “out of control,” the Marines need large bandwidth communications on the move.

“We want an infrastructure that can provide opportunistic communications while lightening the load,” he declared.

The Corps’ focus on maneuver warfare could be extended into cyberspace by all the services. The assured interoperability panel offered that being able to respond and adapt to changes in combat conditions is as important in cyberspace as it is in the battlespace. Forces must train for changes amid contested environments in cyberspace as they do in conventional battle.

Panel moderator Rear Adm. Nancy Norton, USN, J-6, U.S. Pacific Command, said, “We can’t expect our systems to be functioning as we want them to all the time.” They could be knocked out either from acts of nature, self-inflicted accidents or enemy action. “We must develop the skills to maneuver in this domain,” she stated.

Col. Sweeney said that being in an environment that is bandwidth contested and cyber denied will present challenges for the Marine Corps. “What level of risk are you willing to accept on this weapon system that is the network?” he asked. “We have to wrestle with it, just like we do with platforms such as aircraft.”


Mark your calendars now for TechNet Asia-Pacific 2015, to be held November 17-19 in Honolulu!

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