The Pentagon’s Virtuous Insurgency


We recently became part of a growing insurgency. And like all good insurgents, we’re looking to spread the word to like-minded defense reformers.

Over Columbus Day weekend, your “Strategic Outpost” columnists traveled to Chicago to attend and speak at the annual conference of DEF, the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum. DEF is an eclectic movement of over a thousand rising young leaders with a unique mission: to help solve national security problems from the bottom up. A non-profit that was sparked three years ago by some creative work on disruptive thinking, DEF puts business innovators and social entrepreneurs in the same room with junior military leaders, veterans, and national security civilians, all of whom see themselves as change agents. According to Jim Perkins, an Army captain and DEF’s volunteer executive director, “The goal of DEF is culture change – we are an insurgency against the status quo.”

DEF represents a 21st-century view of the defense world, one common among millennials, but certainly not limited to them: that current Department of Defense processes and problem-solving means are painfully slow and entirely ineffective for a world moving at fiber-optic speed. The group’s members hold an unwavering belief that better solutions to American security problems can come from marrying creative outside thinking with networked “intrapreneurs” seeking change within the defense bureaucracy and community. They are convinced that change can be driven by (mostly) young innovators who may never reach general, admiral, or assistant secretary of defense. DEFers hold periodic major events around the United States and the world to connect members, as well as small monthly local get-togethers (called agoras) that meet in homes or bars. But, as a true grassroots organization, its most important work happens from the bottom up: members who stay connected through social media and self-organize to work on specific ideas and projects, often in response to Defense Department requests for help.

So, what did we learn? Here are our four key takeaways from the conference (which you can watch through its archived live stream).

1. Even the Department of Defense recognizes that getting things done quickly now requires working around the system.

Current bureaucratic processes, whether in acquisition or information technology, are stultified, dense, and agonizingly slow. We heard from innovators in two new Defense Department organizations that are working to attack these problems unconventionally: the Defense Digital Service (DDS) and the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx). DDS has offices in the Pentagon configured to look like a crazed startup in Silicon Valley. Its members often attend strait-laced Pentagon meetings in hoodies and tee shirts. Their unofficial motto is “nerds that fix shit.” Its 20 staffers bring in private industry technology knowledge, only stay a year or two, and have been given “super powers” by Defense Secretary Ash Carter that include wholesale exceptions from nearly all Pentagon policies. One of their successful projects was Hack the Pentagon — a crowdsourced challenge in which more than 1,400 hackers found 138 vulnerabilities in five unclassified department websites, for a total cost to the taxpayer of only $150,000. And here’s the best news you’ll hear all day, all week, or maybe all year: DDS is attacking the universally despised Defense Travel Service and modernizing it to a cloud-based service aligned with industry best practices. Godspeed, awesome nerds.

DIUx, which currently has offices in Silicon Valley, Boston, and Austin, is designed to find ways to build closer ties between private sector tech companies and the Pentagon, especially by helping small companies to compete and generate solutions that can achieve results (and award contracts) quickly. Their secret weapon? Rapidly leveraging existing authorities for prototyping.  They also collaborate on crafting smart requirements jointly with industry and cut out reams of other paperwork. DIUx can get contracts signed within 60 days of a proposal. Its biggest challenge is whether it will survive congressional skepticism and the upcoming leadership transition at the Pentagon after the presidential election. Carter has personally invested a great deal of time and energy in this initiative. We hope it survives and thrives; it makes too much sense to be wiped out.

2. The military neither recognizes nor leverages junior enlisted talent.

Talent management in the military has been a hot topic recently, but virtually all of it focuses on the officer corps. According to Marine sergeant Jon Gillis, that’s a big mistake. Gillis, an infantryman with an undergraduate degree from Georgetown, gave a terrific presentation about the immense and entirely untapped resources scattered across the military’s E-1 to E-5 population. He showed us a picture of his four-man fire team in their filthy combat gear and recounted the remarkably diverse skillsets of enlisted personnel he has worked with in the past three years, including an investment banker, a legal assistant, an aerospace engineer, a welder, a diesel mechanic, a teacher, and a firefighter. Yet Gillis argued that the prevailing institutional view of junior enlisted troops could be summarized in one word: “dumb.” He argued ruefully that the Marine Corps’ school of infantry relentlessly crushes all initiative and innovation among young enlisted troops before sending them out to operational units.

Gillis’ insights apply to all four services. The armed forces don’t tap this stunningly diverse population by offering them early opportunities to use their unique skills, and they often don’t even bother to find out what talents they have. The current rigid rank hierarchy only reinforces treating every junior service member as a rookie with no life skills. Give credit to the Marine Corps for one terrific idea on how to overcome this: Gillis’ next assignment is as a special advisor at the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab. All of the services should establish similar junior enlisted liaison positions at major commands that develop policy or gear for the force, embedding talented young sergeants or petty officers who can reach out to the junior enlisted network and pass along their views straight from the foxhole or deckplates.

3. You can find success and effect important change off the “golden path.”

Many DEFers we spoke with who are serving on active duty were wrestling with whether to leave the military. Most seemed to feel that having a significant impact required relentless dedication to the “golden path” — the repeat operational command and unit assignments that comprise the rungs of the career ladder required to achieve senior rank in every service. Miriam Krieger, a DEFer recently promoted to lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, argued that making a difference does not involve a binary choice between staying in and getting out. Instead, she said that there is a third option: officers can find ways to make a difference off the golden path. Her own career is a powerful example: She was essentially kicked off the golden path after being ruled medically ineligible to fly. Now, she is finishing her Ph.D. at Georgetown while serving as a special advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. She suggested that the growing number of very influential commander’s advisory groups (CIGs and CAGs) have become pools of highly educated and talented individuals in uniform who are committed to having a significant impact, even though they may not be bound for high rank. Krieger rightly noted that straying from the golden path requires an “all-in commitment” — officers should not realistically expect to step out of the command track for a few years and then jump back in. Her advice: Define your own success, know what you want and don’t want, and be honest about what you are willing to lose. Excellent counsel for any junior leader trying to navigate through the fog that is the future.

4. Stories resonate with senior leaders far better than data.

One of DEF’s early successes was responding to a request from the Pentagon to provide military millennial input to Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s Force of the Future personnel reform initiative. Kevin Kenney, a member of the team of DEF members that quickly mobilized to do so, described how they wrote what came to be known as the F5 report, “A Perspective on the Force of the Future, From the Future Force.” Morgan Plummer, a former defense official who was deeply involved in the personnel reform effort, then drove home the unexpected impact that the F5 report had on Pentagon leaders. Despite having reams of facts, figures, and empirical analysis on the future force, Plummer noted his surprise in finding that uniformed and civilian leaders repeatedly talked about the personal stories in the F5 report: the jarring human tales about young members of the military struggling to overcome an archaic and unbending personnel system that was designed for another era. The acknowledgement that senior Pentagon leaders are inundated with overflowing inboxes and endless briefings with tons of charts and data is not new, of course. But the fact these impossibly busy senior executives in and out of uniform valued, absorbed, and acted on the striking personal stories in the F5 report attests to the animating power of anecdotes and narratives in a world dominated by metrics, flow charts, and dashboards.

The very fact that a disparate group of mostly millennial military members, veterans, and civilians has self-organized to promote bottom-up, unconventional change within our national security establishment tells us several vitally important things about today’s defense world. Our current systems are too byzantine, too slow, and too dysfunctional to meet the needs of today’s world — the same world in which the U.S. military will have to fight and win. Yet there does not seem to be any serious prospect for major organizational change or re-engineering current systems and processes. Rising leaders inside and outside defense are taking actions on their own to disruptively change the system to deliver effective and timely results.

DEF is not a panacea for all of the Pentagon’s predicaments, but it is an innovative grassroots model for connecting and empowering the most innovative and forward-looking parts of the defense community to help address them. It is energized by young millennials using social networking and the principles of design thinking to resolve intractable problems. It galvanizes a sense of community among likeminded reformers. And it provides a window into how the Department of Defense should be leveraging the amazing talent and creative thinkers who are committed to national security and want to help the Pentagon successfully move into the 21st century. DEF is a ray of hope that new thinking and new minds can help lead the way to long-term reforms that are desperately needed.


Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Both also serve as Nonresident Senior Fellows at the Atlantic Council. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every third Tuesday. To sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter, where you can track their articles as well as their public events, click here.

U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Yvette

Correction: This article originally stated, incorrectly, that Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) is exempt from the Federal Acquisition Regulation. DIUx is not exempt from any laws. It leverages the authority under 10 U.S.C. § 2371b for procurement. This authority to award other transaction agreements for prototype projects is neither an exemption to the Federal Acquisition Regulation nor a waiver of any laws. It is one of several tools in the Department of Defense toolbox for bringing innovation to the U.S. military.