This was the first seminar ever given at Disruptive Thinkers (then the Strategy and Innovation Forum). No syllabus, just a brainstorming meeting. This is the transcript of the presentation Ben Kohlmann gave at the beginning of the seminar laying out his vision.
In the 1970’s, a group of officers and DoD officials formed a loose organization that eventually become known as “The Fighter Mafia.” John Boyd (he of OODA loop fame) was the ringleader, and attracted the likes of Pierre Sprey, Tom Christie and test pilot Col Everest Riccioni. Their goal was simple — to shake up an entrenched bureaucracy with facts and radical notions.
For those aviators in the room, the fruits of their labors are evident in what we currently fly: the F/A-18 and F-16 were direct descendants of their fight. The main tenant of basic fighter maneuvers and aircraft design was created by Boyd in a fit of engineering inspiration, and finally adopted after every trick in the book was used to try and discredit it. The E-M diagram, now a closely studied chart showing strengths and weakness of fighter aircraft when compared to others, was almost killed by a bureaucracy wedded to the status quo.
We will get to the Fighter Mafia in more depth later as this syllabus progresses, as well as the theories of Boyd himself, but their legacy sets the groundwork for what we in the Strategy and Innovation Forum seek to reform.
Nearly every military officer in this room, regardless of rank, service or community, could rattle off a list of things that frustrate us to no end about the system we exist within. But all too often, we fail to take action on those criticisms. Change, however, comes from within – and as the Fighter Mafia proved, it can be done by dedicated, well informed actors.
What inspired this group? When I was a college senior, we got a new Commanding Officer in our NRTOC unit. One of his jobs was to teach a class called Leadership and Ethics – but instead of utilizing the normal course materials, he supplemented the material with texts he discovered from VADM Stockdale’s naval war college class. Enthralled by this unorthodox approach, I began an independent study with a buddy of mine where we looked much deeper than the standard military texts to undercurrents underreported in mainstream strategic thought. Maneuver warfare, Mattis, Boyd, philosophy, insurgencies, anything that was successful against entrenched bureaucracies. I was hooked.
This venture is an offshoot from that – but it goes further.
What do we hope to accomplish? By getting innovative thinkers from both within and without the structure together, we want to ensure our military is up for the challenges of the 21st Century. The world at large is rapidly moving away from an Industrial Age model to an Information Age reality. Large, centralized institutions are fighting against this migration, and the more entrenched, the more kicking and screaming they exhibit. We are those leaders, thinkers and doers who want and can start influencing change.
Will we all agree on everything? Absolutely not – but that’s fine. I’m reminded of a quote by Christopher Hitchens (someone who many of you would agree is about as different from me as possible)…In an argument among two well informed people, it is very unlikely that either on will come away with a changed position. However, it is equally unlikely that they will leave unchanged. Opposition and intellectual sparring only sharpens the mind.
We’re not here to spout idealogy: “you can always find someone who made a well sounding statement that confirms your point of view — and, on every topic, it is possible to find a dead thinker who said the exact opposite.” The goal is to approach things with an open mind, challenge our assumptions, and think like innovators – those people who imagine the impossible, then make it reality.
When you come up with a theory, don’t start looking for evidence to prove yourself right. Look for the observation that will prove you wrong. Your ideas will be much more robust.
How are we set up? There are two elements to this endeavor. The first is academic. A graduate level study of philosophy, strategy, leadership and history. By combining literature, articles and online, open source lectures, we will explore books that aren’t traditionally thought of within the military cannon to get our minds thinking outside the traditional structures. Each monthly meeting will have a theme associated with it: This month’s is “The nexus of economics and military strategy.” The works selected reflect that theme. But it’s in the integration of those works that new ideas will spring.
And this leads directly to the second element: Shaping Policy. The monthly meetings are more than just a Socratic forum to pontificate and listen. It’s also a chance to network across professional specialties. You may meet someone who intrigues you, and you elect to pursue a collaborative venture. Brian and I are passionate about education and the lack of options available to us – we may write a paper on opening up ventures (i.e. Harvard MBA/Naval War College joint Degree program.) Ben W may find he and Cowbell want to explore open source green options for sustainable, affordable defense. The ideas are limitless. You can certainly just follow along with the readings and take in the discussions, but we want to be action oriented. Gather evidence, fight for, and fix what you see is wrong.
Finally, we want this to start adaptable cells. We will compile our syllabus and promulgate it to other like minded military and national security strategists throughout the country. They can start their own cells, tailoring the curriculum to their own local requirements. We crowd source this to some extent and though incremental change, attempt to shape the future of one of the biggest Leviathans the world knows; the DoD.
And if our grand vision fails, well, at least weve read and listened to some intriguing theories that will shape our thinking.
So, keep an open mind, share what’s on your mind (the wackier, the better), make some friends and get ready for a fight. Never forget we’re the insurgents – and insurgents always have to work harder and more diligently than the institutional adversary. But as Gladwell shows, if they don’t fight fair, they usually win.
So, the topic of the night: The Nexus of Security and Economics.
The military has lived in a bubble the last decade. We’ve gotten pretty much everything we’ve asked for: weapons, funding, respect, influence. We’ve also gotten lazy. It was somewhat humorous, but more disconcerting, to recently see a panel of flag officers dissemble in utter confusion when asked about impending budget cuts – as if such a thing were inconceivable, but nonetheless inevitable.
We haven’t had to ask hard questions about force structure and the evolution of warfare because with $650 billion in base budgets, plus tens of billions more for war costs, it’s unpatriotic to question the protectors. Yet, strategic and budget realities will force a reckoning.
We cannot continue to do business the way we have been over the past ten years. There is a strong undercurrent among junior officers and those not associated with the military-industrial complex that there is increasing bloat and inefficiency at the top. Contracts worth hundreds of billions of dollars, and decades in the making stand no chance of reform even with a new strategic landscape.
We cling to career models and a hierarchial system that were useful during the beginning of the Cold War. But solutions of the past only work in the past; new realities require new thinking.
I was talking with Chase on Tuesday night, and he mentioned something very interesting that I hadn’t considered – Whereas once military technology was a leading indicator for where civilian innovation would come, the tables are now reversed. Our systems are increasingly antiquated, and even when we install new software, it can hardly keep up with the pace of progress. Off the shelf technology is more useful than that supplied by the military and its slow, antiquated acquisition system. How many of you turn to Google Earth to map targets rather than JMPS [military procured mapping software]?
This rot in acquisition and culture is even recognized by those at the top. Then Secretary Robert Gates asked:
Why was it necessary to go outside the normal bureaucratic process to develop technologies to counter improvised explosive devices, to build MRAPs, and to quickly expand the United States’ ISR capability? In short, why was it necessary to bypass existing institutions and procedures to get the capabilities needed to protect U.S. troops and fight ongoing wars?
There are entrenched interests that benefit from the status quo; change means losing the golden goose. “That awareness of a problem does not mean much – particularly when you have special interests and self-serving institutions in play.”
It also mean a more lethal and adaptable force.
In the TED lecture on Institutions vs Collaboration, the presenter mentions that the first goal of an institution is self-preservation once told they are an obstacle. It’s not mission accomplishment, cost-savings or becoming more effective. It is maintaining the status quo. Microsoft never believed open architecture could be a means to run databases or large electronic systems, yet because they were wedded to a 1990s model in the internet 2.0 phase they have been relegated to the status of once-great companies like GE and GM. Lots of market share with somewhat useful products, but unable to innovate or grow beyond their current level of influence.
The internet age has changed everything, but even more so, the social age has opened up the ability to collaborate and innovate like never before. And money is no longer the primary motivating factor. It still plays a role, but crowd sourced entities like Wikipedia are far more useful than market driven troves of information like Encarta or Brittanica. Google has won the search wars, at least up to this point, because they have allowed users (through linking to what they perceive to be “important” websites) as opposed to a pay-to-play system like Overture (do you guys in this room even know what overture is??? Its because it lost…).
Planning has been replaced by decentralized coordination. People can spend as little or as much time on a project as they want – and do so because they are passionate about it. We are bringing the problem to the individuals, instead of bringing the individuals to the problem as with traditional institutions.
Along with this is the fact that the Information Age revels in the land of Extremistan while our structures are made to survive in the predictable Mediocristan. Averages mean nothing when 80 percent (or 99 percent!) of a system is influenced by 20 percent (or less!) of the actors. Taleb notes that our absence of forecasting errors is what should cause us the most concern, specifically when it comes to wars – they are fundamentally unpredictable.
Who in the past 50 years have we actually gone to war with that our strategists and acquisition specialists predicted we would? The only conventional place we’ve fought within over the past 20 years has been Iraq in 1991! Everywhere else has been somewhere unpredicted, and singularly unsuited for the weapons systems and structures we have in place. Sure, you can do CAS with an F/A-18, but wouldn’t an AT-6 perhaps be better? Isnt the most requested platform, the A-10, the one that was almost scrapped twenty years ago by an air force obsessed with air superiority? And although we see China as the next threat, given past history, isn’t it more likely we will be engaged in a war far different than the one we see a mirage of on the horizon?
The Information age has also revealed that gem of Adam Smith – specialization. People need to do less and less to take action on everything, and instead can focus on one area to become extremely talented and useful. And they can use their expertise in ways they never could have imagined – why anyone would spend hours putting together a Wikipedia article on the intricacies of the clan system in World of Warcraft is beyond me, but it’s there – and I can access it.
The military on the other hand, insists on making everything the same, or at least consolidating as much as possible. The JSF is a case in point. It theoretically does everything – but less well than individualized airframes specifically tailored would. It allows only limited flexibility, and at extreme cost. This is unsustainable.
So here we have the crux of our discussion for the evening. In a world that is increasingly focused on individual contributions, where extreme, unexpected events disproportionately shape reality and social knowledge informs the evolution of technology and information, how do we adapt a bureaucracy that insists on sticking to the status quo?
Why not build weapons based on collaborative need rather than centralized planning? MRAPs were created this way – why has aviation fallen by the wayside? How does a bureaucracy take advantage of a single contribution by a single actor that can revolutionize an institution? Are steeply vertical structures still relevant when the best way to quell a village riot is by relying upon a junior officer or non-commissioned officer?
How do we take advantage of crowd sourcing, the idea of cellular innovation, and harnessing creative ideas while maintaining the ability to respond to massive, unforeseen events?
Those are the thoughts I’ll leave you with as we open up the floor for discussion.