Archive for the ‘Military Culture’ Category

Over at Small Wars Journal, Benjamin Kohlmann wrote an interesting piece “The Military Needs More Disruptive Thinkers.” I especially agree on creative thinking rather than doctrine and diversifying military education. However, the author himself is too focused on business and technological innovation as in “look-I-made-a-cool-new-widget.” Frankly, a lot of people from diverse business and technology backgrounds have done a great job of “fucking up” (to borrow a Boydian phrase) not only the Pentagon but all elements of American society. Moreover, the author is too wrapped up in the “new” and the “now” as this moment of progress when it may be quite the opposite.

Business and technology does not have a monopoly on instilling creativity; in fact, they may be antithetical to it. The mention of Steve Jobs made me chuckle a little, because he was the champion of closed systems. Mac OS X is a great operating system with a lot of virtues, but it was built on the backs of open source projects and is largely proprietary. iTunes is a great media program, but it is built to make you dependent on Apple products and formats. Is AAC the best audio codec? I don’t know, but everyone uses it because Apple has fostered that dependence. The various iPods, iPhones, and now iPad are great devices, but they too are designed channel its users to proprietary services and products. The production of these widgets might be “creative,” but they follow a model that stifles creativity and choice. Why did Jobs advocate this model? To sell more widgets, not enable people. That is how Apple became a billion-dollar enterprise, and I do not think it is a model defense should emulate.

Being creative isn’t a matter of using some new gadget how Steve Jobs wanted you to use it, but taking the device and using it in creative ways. That is the origin of word “hacker”–taking a device and doing more with it than its creators intended. When I think of this kind of creativity, I think more of people like Steve Kondik who, with a team of like-minded individuals, developed a version of Android called CyanogenMod, which is intended not to sell more widgets but to overcome the limitations placed on existing Android phones by hardware manufacturers and carriers.

This mindset has direct applicability to defense. We are so wrapped up in this idea of the “new widget” whether it is an idea or a product that will win our wars; we seek to “understand the moment” as the author says. We have bought into this concept that there is this historical and technological progress that we are better now than we were, which is completely false. Case in point: the 2002 Millennium Challenge. LTG Van Riper creatively used “obsolete” tactics and techniques to overcome the whizbangery of high dollar, high technology systems. He took “old” TTP and used it in a way not imagined by their creators–to subvert high-tech surveillance. Ultimately, the vulnerability he exploited to win was the thinking of technocrats (many from business and technology backgrounds) who bought into the “new widget” rather than using widgets creatively. (As an aside, there is a great interview of LTG Van Riper over at Midrats.)

The fact that the author is so convinced that today’s digital natives have the solutions tells me he should do a better job of challenging his assumptions. No one should fool themselves into thinking that, because he or she understands the latest technology, he or she will be any less prone to repeating the poor decision making of the past. Trust me: tomorrow’s catastrophes–financial, military, or otherwise–will be brought to you by the digital natives of today.


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“To put it simply,” said one insider who wished to remain anonymous, “the Marines fucked up.”

He was speaking of the Marine Corp’s ongoing Infantry Automatic Rifle (IAR) solicitation, which intends to replace the infantry’s M249 squad automatic weapon (SAW) with a lighter, more maneuverable machine gun better suited to close quarters urban combat that will continue to be the predominant battle space of the twenty-first century.  The first round of the selection process has been completed, and candidates from FN Herstal and Colt Defense have advanced.  Both are well-established players in the defense industry, but the choice was not without controversy.

In recent months, there has been no shortage of aspersions cast towards the Pentagon’s weapons procurement process.  A common complaint is that high-tech, big-ticket weapons systems like the F-22 and the FCS are inappropriate for combating low-tech global insurgencies.  Other analysts have critiqued the Department of Defense’s freewheeling spending and lack of accountability.  In one notable example, journalist David Axe, author of War Bots, has pointed to the private sector and the use of lead systems integrators (LSI) as a source of the most egregious oversights in Defense Department procurement.  There is some indication that reform is on the horizon.  Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has put contractors on notice that “the spigot of defense funding opened by 9/11 is closing.”

However, there has been little said about how institutional culture of the Pentagon affects weapons buying.  Culture—particularly mapping “the human terrain”—has become an important lens to examine our enemies, but rarely do we turn that lens on ourselves.  Most famously, John Nagl examined the institutional cultures of the British military and the American military in order to understand why one succeeded and the other failed to defeat insurgencies in Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife.  As we will see, the IAR solicitation demonstrates a latent cultural phenomenon within the military that might be keeping the best weapons systems from reaching American warfighters.

As I have written before in “Technology, Risk Aversion, and Counterinsurgency,” risk aversion can make a serious impact on the choices the military makes not only about strategy and tactics but also equipment.  This institutional culture within the US military has, at times, left soldiers overburdened for effective counterinsurgency praxis.  The IAR solicitation gives some clue as to how this same mindset impacts procurement.

The most controversial element of the solicitation has been its exclusion of smaller, innovative companies from the latter stages of competition.  It is not an uncommon consideration to select companies based on their capacity to manufacture and deliver weapon systems in the quantities and time frame that the DoD requires, but the IAR solicitation goes a step further.  According to the criteria laid out in Marine Corps de-briefs, candidates must have “[m]inimal experience in large government weapons contracts of IAR size and scope.”  However, this factor alone eliminates all small companies, leaving a cadre of defense contractors only one of which is an American-based company, Colt.

One company that was eliminated was Knight’s Armament Company in Titusville, Florida.  A leader in innovation, KAC developed a rail interface for the M4A1 and M16A4.  Previously, operators had used duct tape to affix flashlights and other mission-critical tools to their weapons.  Today, militaries all over the world use this system to attach everything from vertical foregrips to infrared illuminators to their weapons.  Knight’s also manufactures the US Army’s M110 semi-automatic sniper rifle.

According to founder and CEO of Knight’s Armament, C. Reed Knight, Jr., the IAR solicitation has proven to be another red flag for contractors in already uncertain times.

“I spent somewhere close to $200,000 in responding to the RFP,” he said. “If they are going to disqualify me because they thought I was too small of a company or that I was not up to speed, then they should have put those qualifications up front so that we could have looked at that up front qualification and we could have made a judgment whether we wanted to respond to that or not.”

“I will guarantee you that the people that made the decision on that IAR not one of them have ever stepped foot in my factory. More importantly, we have more CNC table space [within the United States] than Saco Defense, Colt, and FN all added together,” said Mr. Knight.  “I just feel like if they told me that they didn’t like my gun because it was the wrong color or if was too little, too light, too heavy or whatever, that is one thing, but they disqualified—partially disqualified—it because of us as a manufacturer.”

“Of the companies that they accepted to the second level, H&K does not have to my knowledge an M- gun,” Knight continued.  “I do have one.  I have an M110.  I have a US Army type-classified rifle, yet H&K does not, but H&K moved to the next level.  Now, I could cry over spilt milk, but all those things being said, it has just cautioned me on how I bid on my next RFP, and basically that’s what it all boils down to.”

LWRC International was another small company excluded from the second round.  Their candidate utilized the same ergonomics of the M4 while employing new features such as a cleaner and cooler short-stroke piston as well as the ability to fire from a closed or open bolt.  LWRC has also deployed a surface conversion process that exceeds traditional anodizing and chrome lining.  This rifle was featured on the third season premier of Discovery’s Future Weapons:

According to Darren Mellors, LWRC’s Vice President of Business Development, there is another factor that makes the Marines reluctant to choose small companies and innovative, new weapon systems:  risk aversion.

“Often times, junior officers—say, a major—are in charge of the selection, and they don’t want to hang their hat on anything but a sure thing,” he said.  “If the design fails or the company can’t deliver, their career is over, so they choose the system that involves the least risk.”

Initiatives like the Marine Enhancement Program (MEP) and Rapid Fielding Initiative (RFI) have taken a chance on smaller companies who have provided innovative solutions to meet the needs of soldiers on the ground. However, procurement still involves a process better suited for the industrial age rather than the information age at a time when product development may only take a few months.  Complex procurement systems may be suited to complex weapons, but current processes have failed to balance government oversight and fast-paced innovation.  More importantly, the current system fails to reward small companies that operate at this pace.

To offset this disadvantage, some companies have allied themselves with larger companies.  Recently, MagPul Industries partnered with Bushmaster Firearms, itself a recent acquisition of private equity giant Cerebrus Capital Management.

“We’re more of a fast-paced entity,” said Eric Burt, product designer for Magpul.  “We’re going in knowing it’s an uphill battle [for smaller companies].  They don’t know us, our capacity, or our quality control.”

Even if the Pentagon does realize the value of “betting” on smaller companies, small companies themselves may no longer be willing to take the risk in the current climate.

“I have been very fortunate in that I have put a lot of effort, a lot of guestimation, a lot of capital into what I saw as the future and the numbers that I bet on—whether it be red or blacks—I’ve been more right than I’ve been wrong,” said Mr. Knight. “That’s not what I see in the future.  I am totally confused.  I don’t have any idea where it’s going from here, and I don’t know which color to bet on.  It could come up double-aughts or single-aughts green just as easily as red or black.”

According to Mr. Knight, there are a variety of forces contributing to this atmosphere of uncertainty among defense contractors.

“Mixed signals.  Lack of adult supervision.  The Marine Corps IAR is a perfect example,” Mr. Knight continued.  “The economy is in disarray.  The military climate is in disarray.  We’ve already seen an incredible shift from Republican to Democrat, and that political shift has got an entrepreneur, a capitalist, like myself looking at a very socialist-looking economy and saying I don’t want to give up, I don’t want to take a chance at giving up anything I have.  I’m just going to sit tight.  I don’t need to take the risk.  I have no need to continue betting.  I have what I have and what I have is safe if I don’t bet it on the next game.  I’m not going to double down, because it looks too uncertain.”

“I’m sure I’m not the only one thinking like this,” he said.

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The introduction of unmanned systems is one of–if not the most–significant cultural shift in the military today.  In “Air Force looks to keep more pilots grounded,” Sig Christenson provides some insight into this shift:

The top Air Force flight school students often get the best shot at the hottest planes.

But instead of listing the A-10 Warthog as the first choice on her “dream sheet” of planes she’d like to fly, 2nd Lt. Raquel Dronenburg picked the plane virtually everyone else in her class of 22 had hoped to avoid — the one that will never have room for a pilot in the cockpit.

“I wanted to actually do something productive with my time instead of sitting around and waiting for training to start,” said Dronenburg, one of the top students in the class, explaining that flying a manned aircraft meant delays that could run 15 months.

Pilots typically want to fly in the air, not from a ground-based cubicle. That’s why Monday’s graduation from the Air Force’s Unmanned Aerial System Fundamentals course, the first of its kind at Randolph AFB, was so remarkable.

It marks a shift in the Air Force’s culture. The service’s center of gravity has always been the pilot wrapped in a cockpit, engaged in mortal combat, but technology and insurgent warfare are driving big changes.

John Pike, director and founder of globalsecurity.org, a military information Web site, called the cultural change “fundamental, radical and revolutionary” — striking at the heart of how the Air Force sees itself.

“They’ve spent most of the 20th century celebrating Eddie Rickenbacker,” Pike said, referring to the renowned World War I fighter pilot. “It’s a fighter pilot’s service. Those are the heroes, those are the ones that get promoted to general. It’s a real challenge to their culture.”

I would have thought “Dronenburg” was a pseudonym, but I managed to find her profile on Facebook. Facebook? Unmanned system operator? No doubt, 2LT Dronenburg is an example of a this generation’s warfighter.

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In “COIN Perspectives From On Point: Lessons Learned in Iraq (PDF),” Sergeant Michael Hanson, USMC, writes about technology, the notion of safety, and their capacity to undermine effective counterinsurgency praxis:

Our Marines are overloaded. This weight limits their speed, mobility, range, stamina, agility and all around fighting capability. They can’t go out far and they can’t stay out long with all of this gear. It is simply too much. Combat patrols are typically four hours, and even that short amount of time is exhausting. Our Marines are being consistently outrun and outmaneuvered by an enemy with an AK, an extra magazine and a pair of running shoes.

The ideal of “all the best equipment for our soldiers” is responsible for this. The American people think they are helping their soldiers out by demanding they get as much protective equipment as possible. American civilians do not like seeing young Americans maimed and killed in foreign lands, rightly so. They see it on television, exploited by the news media and they demand “all the best equipment for our soldiers”. And to satisfy Americans at home, the troops get weighed down with more and more gear. The more gear troops wear the “safer” they are, or so the thought goes. But to that Soldier or Marine on patrol staggering along under the weight of all of this unnecessary gear it doesn’t seem to be in his best interests. No matter how new or expensive it is. All that matters to him is how much it weighs.

The connection between technology and safety can be seen across American military discourse, both within the military and among civilians.  What is often ignored is that this connection is the a product of a cultural rather than technological shift.  In the wake of the Vietnam War, American political and military leadership became caught up in what Christine Paretti called “the politics of casualty aversion.”   However, casualties were but one facet of this.  Weary of another disastrous military defeat and attendant political fallouts, military interventions after Vietnam had to be constructed in such a way that eliminated most—if not all—risk.  This contributed to the military’s need for informational dominance as well as the increased reliance on technological proxies rather than human actors on the battlefield.  Over time, the phenomenon came to permeate the military and intelligence communities.  Much in the same way “Vietnam Syndrome” affected the military, the Iran-Contra scandal triggered a growing risk aversion within the Intelligence Community.  As a result, human intelligence was on the decline in favor of sophisticated signals based intelligence systems.

This same shift makes it difficult for military and civilian leaders to adopt changes such as those Hanson recommends. They look advanced armor, organizational structure, and armored war machines not because of operational requirements but rather cultural anxieties.  Here, the strategic solutions need to affect cultural change rather than a simple adoption of counterinsurgency theory and doctrine.

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