Reducing the Time Between Flash and Bang

December 2009
By Maryann Lawlor
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Gen. James E. Cartwright, USMC, vice chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, maintains that providing warfighters with the information technology capabilities they need requires fundamental changes to the acquisition system.

Military faces the challenge of taking risks to find relevant solutions.

A kaleidoscope of issues, priorities, methods and rules influences the decision-making process that provides warfighters with the equipment and technical capabilities they want and need in current operations. The challenges run deeper and wider than simply fixing the acquisition processes or building a new platform. They involve aligning just the right pieces of relevance, adaptability, scalability and affordability to promote significant change while smoothly tipping the mechanisms to develop at an ample rate.

Gen. James E. Cartwright, USMC, vice chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Pentagon, is one of the forward-looking, straight-talking military leaders responsible for making sure the U.S. military gets that tipping point just right. In an interview with SIGNAL Magazine, Gen. Cartwright said that the United States no longer can afford to buy information technology systems the same way it buys weapons and platforms. To do so places U.S. troops at a disadvantage.

While Gen. Cartwright admits that each of the services and their respective military leaders have their own priorities, certain aspects are common to all. First, the general points to relevance. Military leaders must keep in mind what the warfighters need, not just what they want them to have; often these needs and wants are vastly different, he notes.

For example, the technologies that catch a commander’s eye while meeting with industry may be irrelevant to a lance corporal in the field. While the commanders are viewing the big picture, the warfighters chiefly are interested in how equipment will be transported and how it will operate in the environment of a specific theater of operations. In addition, the warfighters’ primary concern is not about the Washington, D.C., bureaucracy that affects how long it takes to acquire capabilities. They want what they need when they need it, he adds. “Those priorities don’t always get translated well,” the general relates.

The second commonality among the services’ priorities is adaptability, Gen. Cartwright explains. From platforms to weapons to sensors, the military has not yet moved to standardized systems, as has industry. Instead, the armed forces tend to build individual platforms, an approach that is particularly detrimental when it comes to information technology (IT). For example, when purchasing platforms, it may be acceptable to build an aircraft carrier that will continue in service for the next 30 years. However, information systems are more likely to follow Moore’s Law, changing at least every 18 months. Under the current acquisition system, the process for acquiring information technology is stuck in a platform-purchasing model: study, report and assess, then build for a single purpose, the general explains.

“In IT, number one, you don’t really develop it that way, and number two is its adaptability—the ability to change quickly and the constant opportunity to change quickly—that is its attribute. Yet, the system is not structured to handle that kind of risk,” the general says.

In Gen. Cartwright’s eyes, the warfighters need capabilities that offer “real, no kidding” type of change and can be updated every few weeks rather than rebuilt every 30 years. The fight against improvised explosive devices (IEDs) is one example of a critical need that currently exists. Not only do warfighters need to be able to identify IEDs, they also must be able to leverage technologies to determine the location of the human networks that are building them and the sources of the supplies. In addition, the types of IEDs are changing so frequently that they must be able to change the algorithms on current platforms just as quickly so they can adjust to the fight. This may mean placing programmers in the field so that modifications can be made at a rate that is relevant to the theater of operations, he explains.

“IEDs change every 30 days. Trying to keep up with that is not something you’re going to build a platform for; you can’t even build a sophisticated countermeasure for that. So what we’re looking for is how to string together what we have. Those are the things they [warfighters] tend to ask for,” he says.

Today, many of the military’s capabilities remain stovepiped. While some platforms are built for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, others are built for attacks. The real disadvantage is that one platform cannot communicate with another. “The reality is that the advantage is in those seams,” the general notes.

The third common denominator for needs on a tactical level has two elements: scalability and affordability. Gen. Cartwright relates that many companies offer valuable solutions, but the U.S. Defense Department can afford to purchase only a single device when the services need 100 of them. “They [the products] need to be throwaways. Often, we miss that in the desire to have the best. We really miss the whole fight, because by the time we get one of them out there, it’s irrelevant,” he says.

The general refers to this as flash-to-bang. Solutions must arrive in time to solve a problem; however, in planning to acquire capabilities, the military tends to focus on reducing risk to purchase the exact right solution. Change in the area of acquisition is a Gordian knot. It involves everything from the layers of bureaucracy to Congress to the priorities of the administration to the Constitution itself. The Defense Department must operate inside of the law, which leads to it being risk-averse and avoiding systems that have not been perfected. This may be an appropriate approach during peacetime; however, Gen. Cartwright points out that during war, systems do not have to be perfect, but rather, risk should be managed to obtain systems that are competitive.

In military acquisition, often the supplier decides what the customer wants. “That is a business model that has not worked anyplace else, and is not working here,” Gen. Cartwright says. In the commercial sector for example, the customers have the leverage to determine the success or failure of a particular product. However, in the military, this leverage exists at the core. It is the headquarters that have the best communications and situational awareness equipment to inform commanders, who then send this information to the tactical edge. “It’s the absolute backward approach to it,” the general states.

Gen. Cartwright admits that at times, focusing on headquarters’ capabilities is necessary because the battlefield does not feature robust infrastructure. “But if you are biased that way in the whole institution, you’re biasing toward a point where they [new capabilities] make the least difference,” Gen. Cartwright notes.

The acquisition process is complicated by other factors as well. The Defense Department and the services first must take a look at their present capabilities to determine if these can be fixed or if personnel can be trained efficiently to make existing solutions meet current needs.

“But at the end of the day, we have to learn to operate within the law and inside of the bureaucracy, while bringing a sense of urgency. In my mind, we need to change the risk calculus. You don’t build something to defeat IEDs the same way you build aircraft carriers. The policies don’t get in our way; generally, we do it to ourselves: we are risk averse. Ninety percent of the time it is not statutes. It is about the culture of the organization and its willingness to understand and manage risk for different priorities,” the general relates.

Changes such as these already are appearing in the Defense Department. Programs such as the Joint Tactical Radio System and Future Combat System have been under scrutiny for their costs and extended developmental time frame. In an effort to place much-needed capabilities into the hands of warfighters more quickly, they now are being examined to determine the value of the platforms as well as the value of the information technology that runs them.

Gen. Cartwright explains that these programs are an example of the crossroads at which the Defense Department finds itself. Rather than focusing on the network, the focus has been on the vehicles and tools. He believes that some programs are five to 10 years ahead of their time, and the department has been investing its funding in them instead of turning to the commercial side to pick and choose the individual capabilities that the warfighters need.

“They [established programs] wanted to get to the edge, but again go back to Moore’s Law: It’s the technology not the platform; it’s changing faster than they can field it,” the general says. As a result, some of the capabilities being sent to the areas of operations are irrelevant, and the platforms are not suited for the problems that the U.S. military is facing today, he adds.


1st Lt. Jared Tomberlin, USA (l), and an interpreter help secure the top of a mountain ridge during a reconnaissance mission near Forward Operating Base Lane in the Zabul province of Afghanistan. Gen. Cartwright points out that it is the needs of troops like these on the front lines that should be given the highest priority.

The challenges the military faces now are about more than just acquisition processes. Gen. Cartwright points out that change also is required in the way that the military educates and organizes its personnel. Troops are trained in core skills, but then are asked to adjust to the situation in which they find themselves. Because the services reward those who follow the rules with promotions, few are willing to take acceptable risks to explore and use nontraditional military communications systems, he notes.

Despite this assessment, Gen. Cartwright admits that individuals in the field know how to use the capabilities at hand when necessary. “They take what they’ve got, absolutely. The question from the executive level is trying to ensure that we train to standards and, under duress, they can fall back on exactly what they have. And, planners who are not collocated can apply a person or capability against a task with some assurance that they can do the task. We have to be careful about getting too ad hoc. By the same token, [warfighters] can’t get to the point where they say, ‘Well, it’s laying here, and it’s better than what I’ve got, but I can’t touch it because the rules say I have to use this,’” the general allows.

Improving the capabilities that are available to the warfighters involves some deep thought. At times it is possible to simply spiral a current capability to the next level. At other times, however, it is necessary either to develop or purchase a brand-new solution.

Gen. Cartwright believes that this decision is completely different when considering platforms and information technology. His rule of thumb regarding platform improvements is, “Don’t come talk to me about a new platform unless you can give me a 5x [improvement] as on what you have. So whatever it is I have today, a minimum of five times more than that, otherwise I’m not interested and let’s just spiral. Now that’s OK in platforms, but when you’re talking about IT, I’m looking for a minimum of 100. It’s got to be at least 100 times better, and most of the time, you can get up to 1,000 times better.”

Cyberspace, the newest commercial and military domain, is one of Gen. Cartwright’s particular interests. This is not surprising considering the general spent his time prior to his current position as commander of U.S. Strategic Command. While cyberspace offers many opportunities, it also increases the risk the military, the commercial sector and even individuals take every time they press a computer’s On button. However, the advantages of operating in cyberspace are so great that everyone—from the members of the military to private citizens—is willing to accept that risk, he points out.

However, this domain is different than the traditional domains of air, sea, land and space in part because it was invented, but also because it is owned and operated by the commercial sector. This poses several conundrums. For example, most law is based on ownership of property, so defending it or bringing lawbreakers to justice is a somewhat straightforward matter. This is not the case in cyberspace, where a crime can be initiated in one country, routed through another and occur in yet a third.

Initially, protecting computer networks relied on a point defense. Historically, this never has been an effective way to shield even physical property, and in cyberspace it is even less successful. First, on the Internet, it is difficult to attribute a malicious act to individuals in a specific location. Second, even if this task is accomplished, it has yet to be decided where criminals would be prosecuted. This is a work in progress, the general admits.

From a homeland defense standpoint, the issues become even more complicated. It is the Defense Department’s responsibility to protect the United States from foreign attacks, so the decision to use information technology to obtain an adversary’s intent is pretty clear-cut. However, these waters become a little muddier when using cyberspace to identify threats to U.S. citizens. Employing information systems to find adversaries within U.S. borders is complicated because issues such as privacy protections arise.

Defining clear lines between protection and privacy that can be applied in cyberspace is a topic the Defense Department is now scrutinizing. Some of the issues that need to be resolved include whether it is necessary to have separate government organizations with similar objectives operating simultaneously. Another question is whether the United States has the resources—both financial and in intellectual capital—to sustain more than one organization to be responsible for this domain, Gen. Cartwright says.

Joint Chiefs of Staff:



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