Military people like to look at themselves, and it has nothing to do with vanity. Rather, it is about improving, but the attention is not always welcome at the business end. Senior personnel offer the usual advice: Cooperate and learn. Do not be defensive. Looking at ourselves can only make us better, so we go along with it. And often—not always, but enough to matter—we find out important facts we did not know.
Two pictures have taken up residence in my mind over the past few weeks. They highlight the growing disconnect between the U.S. Defense Department and the broader strategic environment—not just in terms of geopolitics but also in the way the rest of the world lives, works and interacts.
The first image captures how the Defense Department views the world. It is a simple map with neat lines delineating the different joint combatant commands. While the boundaries make sense in a conventional way, they are drawn merely for geographic convenience. Implicitly, those lines preclude interaction between constituent elements.
Over the past year, I’ve had the honor of forming, organizing and implementing two teams of emerging military leaders. Both have provided valuable insights, mostly through learning from doing and adapting after failure. The adage “ask for forgiveness rather than permission” runs deep throughout both, and individual members are given high degrees of autonomy. Working with these two groups, I have learned several lessons along the way, and I hope to carry them forward into the critical second year.
Listen to many senior leaders in both the civilian and military sectors today, and it becomes apparent that there is no shortage of good ideas. Indeed, with austerity and sequestration the new reality, the lack of funds requires creativity. However, far too many fail to take personal responsibility by citing a vague “we should” mantra instead of the more powerful—and personally accountable—“I will.”
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Among many definitions, the Oxford dictionary defines a silo as a process that operates in isolation. In the U.S. Defense Department, everyone works in separate components. Computer silos have proliferated with the availability of a huge number of customized information technology solutions.
In March, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) delivered to the House Armed Services Committee a report on enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. These ERPs would be replacing legacy systems costing $890 million per year. Replacing such systems would take anywhere from seven to 14 years. However, when the ERPs finally are installed, they would cost up to $207,561 per user and have a payback time frame as high as 168 years.
Any aggregation of computers, software and networks can be viewed as a “cloud.” The U.S. Defense Department is actually a cloud consisting of thousands of networks, tens of thousands of servers and millions of access points. The department’s fiscal year 2012 spending for information technologies is $38.4 billion. This includes the costs of civilian and military payroll as well as most information technology spending on intelligence.
We now have the U.S. Defense Department information technology enterprise strategy and roadmap. The new direction calls for an overhaul of policies that guide the department’s information systems. Yet, implementation is a challenge, and several issues require the reorientation of how the Defense Department manages information technologies.
The adoption of platform-as-a-service (PaaS) has opened up new opportunities for reducing information technology costs. Now, the U.S. Defense Department must enter this option into its planning.
A smartphone that engages in conversations is the next perturbation that will dictate how the U.S. Defense Department needs to revise its information management practices. The effects of this new technology will reverberate from individual communications protocols all the way to data architectures.