Commentary

The Henry and the helicopter

Convergence is one of the central concepts that is expected to shape how the U.S. military fights future wars. But what is it? While the doctrinal definition of convergence is a potpourri of terms, the core idea is relatively simple: convergence works across all domains to “enable any shooter, with any sensor, through any headquarters, in near real time.” That vision is far from anything that today’s military can deliver. It takes not just new technologies, but new ways of buying and using those technologies, as well, which can challenge deeply ingrained cultures within the military.

New tech and new doctrine can feed each other…

The concept of “Every sensor, every shooter” is different. Really different. To put it in context, if taken literally, that concept would require about 100,000 times as many connections as the entire internet to connect every sensor to every shooter. Clearly to achieve convergence would require a completely new communications architecture, one that is distributed, resilient, and upgradeable. It’s simple enough on paper, yet those capabilities would come at the cost of significant changes to how the military buys and operates systems.

So while these types of “architectural innovation” can be a source of strategic advantage, they are also often resisted from within organizations simply because it requires such significant organizational change. The best way to ease into their adoption is to prove that they work. But how can you prove something that is still in development? Lt. Gen. Victor Krulak, a key player in the birth of helicopter warfare, found that the answer was to prove and develop simultaneously: “the evolution of a set of principles governing the helicopter employment cannot wait for the perfection of the craft itself but must run concurrently with that development.” In the case of helicopter warfare, this meant a series of ever expanding real-world exercises that tested new ideas and found areas for technical improvement.

…But culture can get in the way of change

Innovation is not a straight path into the future. Nowhere is that likely more apparent than in the history of military innovation. For example, it is perhaps surprising to hear that assault rifles — intermediate caliber rifles with high volume of fire — emerged not in the 1960s but the 1860s. While repeating rifles like the Henry or Spencer rifles did see limited service during the U.S. Civil War, their adoption was limited by cultural impediments. Despite the firepower available from their 16-shot magazines, these rifles were shorter than muzzle loaders of the day and could not mount bayonets, making them a poor fit for an infantry culture built on dense formations. Yet other forces with different cultures did adopt these weapons and use them to good effect as illustrated by Sioux warriors at the Battle of Little Big Horn 1876.

How to make it all work

The challenge of adopting a new architectural innovation like convergence is not one of overcoming culture, but of getting culture to work for the innovation. The same culture that stands in the way of progress at one point can be a powerful engine of adoption at another. To make sure that new architectural innovations get the right support at the right time, it can be helpful to think in terms of a conceive, prove, adopt framework:

Conceive: Use small groups to come up with new ideas that may run counter to prevailing ways of doing business. Providing these groups unique incentives and direct access to senior leaders can mean new ideas are not stifled by bureaucratic pressures. This also allows the main organization to continue to focus on the incremental innovations that improve current capabilities — meaning that the organization is getting better at today’s fight even as it prepares for tomorrow’s fight — the so-called ambidextrous organization.

Prove: Even the best ideas are useless if left confined to paper. Much like the example of the helicopter, organizations should create a virtuous cycle where new ideas are tested in real-world scenarios and exercises, then the concepts refined and re-tested. Throughout this iterative process continually grow the scope and scale of tests, slowly building the bureaucratic infrastructure that can make the new concepts work such as new career fields, new schoolhouses, performance evaluation criteria, and so on.

Adopt: New ideas should be scaled to the entire organization at the right time to have their desired effect; introduction — not just of new equipment but of even the ideas themselves — before the organization is ready can mean rejection. Knowing when this tipping point has been reached is really a question of measuring organizational culture, but tools like organizational network analysis and culture audits can help.

The conceive, prove, adopt model can help the military realize complex new concepts like convergence. But cultural change needed to successfully adopt innovations like convergence can take time. So, above all, don’t wait. The status quo will typically only benefit pacing adversaries as they continue to advance.

Joe Mariani is a research manager with Deloitte’s Center for Government Insights. His research focuses on innovation and technology adoption for both national security organizations and commercial businesses. His previous work includes experience as a consultant to the defense and intelligence industries, high school science teacher, and Marine Corps intelligence officer.

Adam Routh is a research manager with Deloitte’s Center for Government Insights and a PhD student in the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London. His research areas include emerging technologies, defense, and security, with a focus on space policy. Routh previously worked for the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Prior to CNAS, he worked in the private sector, where he facilitated training for Department of Defense components. He also served as a team leader with the US Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com

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