• Adm. James “Sandy” Winnefeld, USN (Ret.), the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talks about disruptive technologies during a keynote address at West 2017 in San Diego. Photo by Mike Carpenter
     Adm. James “Sandy” Winnefeld, USN (Ret.), the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talks about disruptive technologies during a keynote address at West 2017 in San Diego. Photo by Mike Carpenter

Disruption Today Will Make or Break the U.S. Military, Winnefeld Warns

February 22, 2017
By Sandra Jontz
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The U.S. military is at a critical innovation junction. Will it succumb to a disruptive environment or prevail? All indications point to an outcome that could go either way. 

“Disruption occurs when something happens that upends entire belief systems and fundamentally reshapes, or in some cases takes down, entire institutions,” said Adm. James “Sandy” Winnefeld, USN (Ret.), the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a keynote address at West 2017 on Wednesday to a mixed crowd of active duty and industry personnel. Too often, organizations look back and realize the clues actually were in front of them all along. “Historical change can be difficult to see when you’re actually living through it,” Winnefeld said. “But that kind of disruption may be exactly what is happening to us today.”

The nation is experiencing turbulence in what he called four strategic variables that should be kept in balance to garner national security, he said. The four are “ends, ways, means and the security environment.”

“Whenever one of those variables falls out of whack, one or more of the other variables has to be adjusted in order to maintain the equilibrium,” Adm. Winnefeld said, kicking off day two of the three-day premier naval West 2017 conference, co-sponsored by AFCEA International and the U.S. Naval Institute. “I would suggest to you that all four are out of whack today—and that is pretty dangerous.” 

The defense industry can play a critical part in maintaining the balance if the United States is going to maintain an edge over adversaries, he offered. But the strategy will require working harder in what he called the “third horizon of innovation,” or what Adm. Harry Harris, USN, commander of U.S. Pacific Command referred to a day earlier as “exponential thinking.”

Adversaries are evolving to challenge the United States on the battlefield, maturing a blend of “conventional, irregular, political, economic, legal and information warfare into a cohesive campaign that some would call hybrid warfare," Adm. Winnefeld said. 

“They’ve thrown away the rules, and we’re not ready for it.”

In order to get ready, much talk has centered on a major plus-up, or military parlance for an increase in military personnel and platforms. That type of talk invites problems, Adm. Winnefeld pointed out. For starters, it is unlikely Congress will deliver the required funding. “We’re talking about a major DOD plus-up, a huge infrastructure project, a wall, no changes to social security or other entitlements, and a very contentious tax reform package. That sounds like a real deficit buster for a nation whose deficit is already 104 percent of its [gross domestic product].”

Additionally, talk of a plus-up triggers an “overwhelming temptation to grow force structure” without careful consideration as to the exact kinds of personnel or platforms first. For example, the Army’s identity metric is soldiers. For the Navy, it’s ships. “We know that managing to the wrong metric can cause really bad behaviors, and service identity metrics are real doozies,” Adm. Winnefeld stated. 

Expanding to strategic guidance that call for either a 355-ship Navy, or even a 414-ship Navy, wouldn’t be possible in the present resource-constrained environment. Service leaders have testified before Congress that they are “flat out of resources for readiness. The media is reporting that over half of the military's Hornets are not even able to fly and that ship maintenance money is in the tank.," the admiral said.

“The warning lights are flashing red here,” he continued.   

He conceded, however, that the Navy does need more ships. “But we really need ready and modern ships that support a modern warfighting concept.”

The Defense Department must guard against investing just to survive in an environment in which “our adversaries are rapidly approaching the capability and capacity advantages that we’ve always counted on to overcome their advantages in distance and initiative.” 

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