Key Transformation Decisions Affect Technologies As Well As People

June 2005
By Vice Adm. Herbert A. Browne, USN (Ret.)

When people look at the ongoing force transformation, they probably see investments in technology changing the way that the military services are equipped. The goal is for the military to be better prepared to fight the nation’s wars in the foreseeable future. This visage might translate to lighter, more agile forces; a more ground-centric military; or more automated and unmanned platforms—depending on the viewer’s perspective.

Any such perspective is probably about half right. But, to see the entire picture, viewers must take into account the people who will participate in—and be affected by—this transformation. As the government is making necessary investments in new technologies, it also must consider the role that people will play in the transformed uniform services. The U.S. Defense Department and all of the services long have maintained that people are important and high on their list of priorities. Now they must consider that importance as a vital element for both planning and implementing this transformation.

As we make the necessary technology investments to enable our forces to fight differently, we also must break some crockery and make the biggest decision of all: to look at what we are doing today and determine which elements of it we are not going to do in the future. If that decision is not made, then the cost of both technology and people will rise substantially. The technology cost will increase because of redundant or even unnecessary systems. The personnel account will increase because of staffing requirements to maintain both the old and the new systems.

What if the U.S. Army had not made this type of decision when it mechanized long ago? Suppose the Army had not decided to get rid of its mules when it put the internal combustion engine at the heart of its transportation needs? These mules would have continued to consume funds for care and maintenance—such as feed and shelter—and would have required personnel dedicated to their upkeep. Eventually, the Army would have had to get rid of those mules—not because the mules were bad, but because the mules must be a bill payer for the modernization. They had to give way so that modernization could both replace them and have the resources necessary to succeed.

Every piece of legacy technology in today’s force has its own separate camp of support. These camps will oppose any attempt to use their favorite program as a bill payer for transformation. But, if their program is not used as a bill payer—and we continue to provide personnel to support legacy systems alongside new technologies—then we will spend beyond our means. So, our technology decisions also are enormous personnel decisions.

Another part of the equation is the impact of transformation on the members of the armed forces who will be tasked with making it work—everyone. In the past, armed services personnel always knew how the military would be structured and how they could tailor their own individual roles in it. This included how to advance through the ranks to various leadership positions within the individual services. While the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols reorganization act brought the concept of jointness into that formula, that change was relatively easy to adjust to in the course of a military career.

Now, however, everything is up for bid, and even the decisions about what not to do will incur a personnel cost. A young officer today cannot see as clear a path to senior leadership positions in this transforming military. In addition to technology changes, transformation will bring about warfighting capability and methodology changes across the military, as intended. That young officer may have to ask himself or herself if there will be a future role for his or her chosen specialty. Even many seemingly indispensable functions, such as piloting aircraft, may be automated.

So, in addition to reduced personnel costs serving as a bill payer for transformation, another personnel cost is emerging in terms of uncertainty. Transformation is introducing disruptive technologies that are changing the way the military operates. Military evolution over the years always has brought about these types of changes, but transformation is making them revolutionary rather than evolutionary. The steps that are taken to achieve transformation, along with the steps that deliberately are not taken, must be carefully considered in terms of the impact on military personnel.

These considerations must begin at the service level. Service acquisition experts—the program executive officers—must focus on buying capabilities instead of platforms or systems. This is more difficult than it seems on the surface, as platforms and systems long have been viewed as the path to any of a number of capabilities. Now, planners must aim to reach their goal directly.

Just as the Army learned with its mules, the technologies and systems that must be shed to achieve success may not be bad, but they may be standing in the way of an effective transformation. And, their continued presence will place a greater strain on the human element of the armed forces. That personnel cost must not become too much of a bill payer for transformation, or else that bill will be unacceptably high.