Technology, Innovation and Modern War — Class 17 — Organizational Design — Safi Bahcall

We just held our seventeenth session of our new national security class Technology, Innovation and Modern War. Joe Felter, Raj Shah and I designed a class to examine the new military systems, operational concepts and doctrines that will emerge from 21st century technologies — Space, Cyber, AI & Machine Learning and Autonomy.

Today’s topic was Organizational Design and Modern War. And Finals Prep.

Catch up with the class by reading our summaries of the previous sixteen classes here.

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This was our next -to-last class. While this class focused on the impact new technology and operational concepts and modern war, we thought it was important to have our students understand the organizational and cognitive barriers that make adopting new technologies difficult. Our guest speaker was Safi Bahcall,author of Loonshots.

The pre-class assignment was to watch Safi’s video about Loonshots.

In addition to our speaker, today was presentation prep day for our students’ final papers. We met with all the teams and reviewed their final summaries. (A description of their final assignment follows the summary of Safi’s presentation.)

I’ve extracted and paraphrased a few of Safi’s key insights and urge you to read the entire transcript here and watch his video.

Invention versus Innovation
As I’ve been sitting in the back of the class for the last couple of months, I’ve seen great speakers on strategy, on technology, on invention. I’m using the word invention deliberately — not innovation — because invention and innovation are different things. That point is at the heart of the problem with innovation inside so many organizations.

Invention is having an idea. For example, in the 1920s, when Robert Goddard showed that we could propel metal tubes by exploding liquid fuel inside them, he invented jet propulsion. That was a great invention. It didn’t become an innovation until it was developed and deployed at scale. In the case of jet propulsion, it wasn’t the U.S. that innovated. It was Nazi Germany with the V1 and the V2 missiles, and the Messerschmitt 262, the first jet aircraft.

So what’s at the core of the problem for national security organizations? What’s stopping them from innovating faster and better? It’s not strategy. The 2018 National Defense Strategy explained very clearly and effectively what needs to get done. It’s not technology. The military has 76 innovation labs. It’s not leadership. Leaders across every service are pounding the table about innovation.

Organization Design
The military has three of the four pieces of the puzzle you need: strategy, access to technology, leadership. The fourth, however, is missing. And that’s organization design. Good teams will kill great ideas, no matter how smart the strategy, how enticing the technology, or how much leaders insist on innovation. Why that’s the case is a longer story, which I’ve written about, but the bottom line is that we need to design our organizations to solve that problem — the adoption problem. If we don’t do that, we will lose.

I’ll give you an example. For close to 60 years, IBM dominated the IT industry. The industry was known as IBM and the Seven Dwarfs because IBM’s competitors were so far behind. If there was a superpower in any industry, it was IBM in IT. There were a couple of little competitors in the 80s, who didn’t seem like much. A little company in Seattle called Microsoft. When they did their first partnership with IBM, they had just 32 employees. There was another little company in Santa Clara called Intel. They were running out of cash. Little competitors that IBM disregarded.

Does the story of a superpower ignoring distant threats from seemingly weak competitors sound familiar from the class discussions on China? For IBM, strategy was not the problem. Invention was not the problem. Just like the DOD, IBM has tons of innovation labs. Many widely used technologies originated at IBM. Leadership was not the problem. IBM has been pounding the table about innovation for years. But if you look at IBM today, it’s 1/10th the value of Microsoft, it’s half the value of Intel. Strategy, technology, leadership — those were fine. But good teams kept killing great ideas. That’s the adoption problem.

So what can we do? There are some ways. They’re not obvious. They’re not what you read about in glossy magazines. They have nothing to do with fuzzy words like culture.

It’s About Creating The Structure for Adoption
It’s about structure. How do you create the right structure that helps with adoption? One of the things I found very encouraging over the last couple years in speaking with leadership in military or intelligence is their curiosity about what’s happening in the private sector, outside their usual sandbox.

When I sat down with Admiral Selby, we talked about Google. Google, at the time, was overhauling the back end of their search engine. They built their search engine 20 years ago. And they needed to fix the guts of it because it was out of date. Not unlike big legacy systems in the military. Google was getting that job done in blocks of six months. Selby pointed out that nothing like that could get done in the military in six months. It might take six years, if not 60 years. So how does Google get it done in six months? And what can the military learn from that?

We don’t have time to get into all the details we discussed, but I’ll give you a flavor.

Five Patterns that Impede Adoption
I’ll start with five patterns I’ve observed across the service branches, and what we might do about them.

  1. The first is a preference for big versus small. Many of your previous speakers have talked about that. Bigger jets, bigger engines, bigger ships, as opposed to the small changes that can make an enormous difference.

Three Solutions
I’m not going to talk about reforming the acquisition process, which many of your class speakers have mentioned and does need to get done. Doing that is like turning an aircraft carrier. It’s incredibly slow, because of all the stakeholders. I’m going to talk about some things that are easier to do. More like a surgical strike.

  1. 1 is measurement. If you can’t measure it you can’t manage it. Conversely, the things you measure well, with easily understood and visible metrics, tend to improve without much extra push. So how you do that with innovation? Follow the money is the bottom line. But the fact that we aren’t doing that at all is a real problem. I remember speaking with someone senior at the Joint Chiefs of Staff who said, “We have no tangible way of knowing how we’re doing on innovation across the service branches. Absolutely no idea.” If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.

There’s a widespread failure to understand that being a good inventor and a good champion are vastly different skill sets. The idea of radar was discovered by a pair of scientists in the Naval Research Labs 18 years before World War II started. They were great inventors, but lousy champions. The idea sat there for a decade until a naval officer named Deak Parsons discovered it, went around to every bureau chief, pounded the table on why it mattered, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, until he got them to cough up a check for $5,000 to fund the project. Robert Goddard was another great inventor, lousy champion. It’s because there was no good champion for that idea here in the U.S. that the Nazis — who got the idea from Goddard’s papers — developed missiles and jet aircraft first.

You heard in an earlier class from General Shanahan about a bullheaded Colonel named Drew Cukor who pounded the table to stand up Project Maven and JAIC to bring AI to the military. Cukor is the most recent in a long line of internal champions, like Deak Parsons or Vannevar Bush, or Schreiver with ICBMs, or Moffett with aircraft carriers, or Rickover with the nuclear Navy. They were all great champions. Not inventors.

What we need is a new functional combatant command to attract, train, and deploy great champions. To develop the next generation of Drew Cukors or Deak Parsons or Bernard Schrievers, rather than hoping and praying that maybe we’ll get lucky and another disrupter will come along in time and modernize the military. We no longer have that luxury. We cannot afford to start our conflicts with yesterday’s technology and hope that we will catch up. Not in the era of data and algorithms. Chris Brose was quoting was John McCain when he said, “Hope is not a strategy.”

We need a separate command for the same reason that we need cyber or special operations as a separate command. The problem is endemic to all the service branches, not specific to just one. And there’s a unique skill set that needs to be developed. Good champions need to be mediators, buffers between technologists and soldiers. They need to be bilingual, to speak the language of each side fluently. They need to understand product market fit: why some ideas will get traction, others won’t. They need to identify hidden organizational barriers and come up with solutions. They need to understand horizontal influence: how to influence people over whom they have no direct authority. All of those are special skills, with best practices and useful lessons to be learned from years of examples across the different branches. Yet no such training exists today.

Google does it. Microsoft does it. They’ve understood the importance of having a special forces unit for innovation champions and have done it well. They create a career ladder to retain people in the role, to build experience and skill, to convey prestige and respect. They keep the role neutral, like Switzerland, neither on the research side, nor on the operation side, but in between, like a mediator needs to be.

If you create a joint special forces for innovation Sherpas, for program champions, you not only gain the ability to innovate faster and better as an organization. You improve your ability to attract, retain, and motivate talent. When I put out that War on the Rocks article, I got emails from very impressive people, with an entrepreneurial bent, who had left the military, but clearly wanted to contribute. They said, “If that division was there, sign me up.” You put a purple rope around it, you make that command hard to get into, you make it as cool as SOCOM.

Read the transcript of Safi’s entire talk and watch the video below.

If you can’t see the video click here.

Final Assignment– Technology Innovation and Modern War

Over this course you’ve heard from the leading voices across the military, government, and industry issue a call to action. If we are to prevail in the challenges posed by renewed great power competition it will require leveraging new technologies, new strategies, and most importantly- new approaches to problem solving.

In your final project you will address the operational challenges and strategic dilemmas created by the changing nature of warfare. This assignment will draw on your creativity, critical thinking skills, and individual experiences to present actionable recommendations to real decision-makers.

Your Final Assignment
In groups of 3–4, develop plans to address national security challenges grounded in real-world trends.

Groups will deliver a 15-minute presentation as well as a 10-page written report (<2500 words excluding appendices).

Step 1: Read the scenario and prompts that follow. The scenario depicts escalating confrontations between the U.S. and China in the near, mid, and long-term time frames.

The prompts present discrete operational or strategic problems faced by the U.S. military we’ve encountered in class readings and lectures. The prompts ask you to consider the implications of these in each of the situations presented in the scenario.

Step 2: Develop a proposal to address your problem. Assume your findings will be briefed to the U.S. President during a cabinet meeting called specifically to address these topics.

Shape your approach as you see fit, but your plan should address:

  • Specific actions to be taken including investment or divestment in specific technologies/capabilities, shifts in operations/doctrine, budget/acquisition implications, and other policy changes

For Example: An answer to the C4ISR prompt could define key vulnerabilities in U.S. communication networks, then identify how China might exploit these weaknesses differently during the political coercion of Taiwan in the near-term vs open conflict in the long-term. Students would then present potential solutions and discuss how they might differ in each case.

Groups will also be assigned military mentors, who can serve as a resource in developing realistic, actionable recommendations.

SCENARIO
Background: China advocates for peaceful reunification with Taiwan but has yet to officially renounce the use of military force as a means to resolve the issue. Moreover, the PRC has developed a range of options to coerce Taipei based on increasing capabilities in multiple domains. The three scenarios below depict a gradual escalation of Chinese actions towards Taiwan in the near-, mid-, and long-term timeframes.

Near-term, Coercion: The year is 2022 and the U.S. has passed a law that pressures Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) and other Taiwanese companies that manufacture advanced microchips to no longer sell their products to any Chinese entities. This move effectively limits China’s access to a critical resource- the custom chips that are vital to products that fuel China’s domestic and export growth. Taiwan announces its intention to comply with the U.S. law, prompting China to retaliate by trying to coerce Taiwan into restoring access to chips. China launches intense influence operations and targeted non-kinetic attacks (i.e. cyber and disinformation) to sway popular opinion and reduce support for the Taiwanese government’s decision.

Mid-term, Limited Use of Force: The year is 2025, Taiwan has yet to budge on the sale of microchips. Moreover, China’s coercive tactics have generated a backlash in Taiwan and have only served to intensify anti-Chinese sentiment. In order to demonstrate military capability and deter any thoughts of Taiwanese independence, China invades the Taiping Island (Itu Aba) and Zhongzhou Reef, small Taiwanese-occupied islands in the South China Sea. Unmanned, autonomous planes and ships play a significant role in this operation.

Long-term, High Intensity Conflict: The year is 2030. Five years of simmering resentment over Chinese actions lead to the election of a number of independence-minded politicians, some who openly voice plans for formally declaring of Taiwanese independence in the next 12 months. China launches an outright invasion of Taiwan accompanied by a blockade, and moves to secure the first island chain. The United States seeks to intervene in order to deter Chinese advances and restore the status quo. Both sides appear headed towards open hostilities and high-intensity conflict. Simultaneously, China commences heavy cyber and disinformation attacks on the United States in order to sway American sentiment by causing pain through disruption of utility, travel, and banking infrastructure.

PROMPTS

Misinformation Warfare: Disinformation campaigns designed to influence large numbers of people in subtle ways will likely be a mainstay of future conflict. States can utilize subversive and disruptive messaging on social media and other platforms to sow discord and confusion within an adversary’s borders.

  • How might China utilize influence campaigns to support their objectives in each of the scenarios described above?

Your answer could address

  • Key risks and vulnerabilities China would seek to exploit

C4ISR: The DoD relies on command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) networks to form the U.S. military’s central nervous system. However, these centralized networks are slow to move information and risk being disabled outright in the opening days of a conflict with a technologically advanced competitor.

  • How might China exploit weaknesses in the C4ISR networks fielded by Taiwan or the U.S. to facilitate the actions described in the scenarios above?

Your Answer Could Address

  • Key vulnerabilities (e.g. overreliance on communication satellites or centralized nodes)

Forward-Deployed Forces: The U.S. has long relied on military assets pre-positioned in the Asia Pacific to serve as a deterrent and first line of response. Over the last twenty years, however, China has developed the ability to precisely target fixed infrastructure in Japan, Guam and elsewhere with thousands of ballistic and cruise missiles. The U.S. forces closest to a conflict in INDOPACOM could be destroyed before they ever leave base.

  • How might China view the willingness and ability of forward deployed U.S. forces to respond to each of the scenarios described above?

Your Answer Could Address

  • The right types of capabilities/platforms to pre-position in the Asia-Pacific

Logistics: Over the last 30 years, the U.S. has enjoyed the luxury of taking months to gather and transport personnel, platforms and supplies to various parts of the globe in order to execute combat operations with overwhelming force. In the future, these critical resources could immediately come under attack as they begin to mobilize and may never make it into theater.

  • In each scenario above, how might the perceived ability of the U.S. to gather a critical mass of combat power in the INDOPACOM AOR influence China’s decision-making?

Your answer could address:

  • The best way to position resources across the globe

Non-Kinetic Attacks: Cyber and electronic warfare attacks directed against military and civilian entities may prove just as damaging in the future as missile salvos. States may be able to open a second front in conflicts by targeting physical and electronic infrastructure, commercial businesses, individuals and their personal networks.

  • How might the PRC use cyber and electronic attacks against the U.S. and Taiwan in each of the scenarios described above?

Your Answer Could Address

  • The most critical risks and vulnerabilities in each scenario

Operating in Contested Spaces: Between missile forces and more conventional platforms, China is actively building up the capability to target and strike U.S. military units operating nearly anywhere within the Asia-Pacific. In a future conflict, the nation’s primary expeditionary force, the U.S. Marine Corps, will need to operate across the AOR while remaining well within range of Chinese weapons.

  • What near, mid, and long-term steps could the USMC take to successfully deter lower-level aggression or engage Chinese forces in open conflict?

Your Answer Could Address

  • Offensive capabilities needed to effectively skirmish with Chinese forces

The Role of High-End Platforms: The U.S. military has invested billions of dollars towards a small number of high-end weapon systems designed to turn the tide of future conflicts. As we have heard repeatedly during this course, however, the Chinese military has purposefully acquired capabilities to target and defeat these platforms well before they come within range of engaging Chinese forces.

  • What value would the current U.S. inventory of high-end ships, aircraft and other platforms add in each scenario described above?

Your Answer Could Address

  • New platforms/offensive capabilities that might be required

Alliances: Any conflict with China would also impact long-standing U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific and elsewhere. Partner nations could see their own militaries and homelands subjected to the same threats and challenges that the United States would face.

  • How might the U.S. leverage regional alliances and partnerships in each scenario above?

Your Answer Could Address

  • The different offensive or defensive capabilities key allies and partners would need to acquire to effectively counter Chinese military power

Soft Power PRC initiatives such as One Belt One Road leverage diplomatic and economic influence around the world to further military and security interests. Any dispute with the United States in the Asia-Pacific would likely spill over to other realms of competition.

  • How might the PRC leverage access to global infrastructure, commercial markets, and financial resources in each scenario above?

Your Answer Could Address

  • How China could exploit key economic, financial and diplomatic vulnerabilities the U.S. faces in a global, interconnected system

Deterrence: A key theme of this course has been the need to invest in the right capabilities in order to deter and prevent future conflicts. Given that future warfare may involve activities that span from cyber-attacks to conventional strikes against the U.S. homeland, preventing conflict may require a fundamentally new understanding of deterrence.

  • Could the U.S. have fundamentally changed China’s decision calculus in each of the three scenarios above?

Your answer could address

  • The specific capabilities and employment strategies needed to create reciprocal predicaments for Chinese forces

Lessons Learned

— Invention and innovation are different things

  • Invention is having an idea

— The barrier to innovation and adoption is how organizations are designed

  • We need different organization to facilitate rapid adoption

— This new organization needs to:

  • Measure innovation

Steve Blank writes about defense innovation at www.steveblank.com

The Father of Modern Entrepreneurship

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