The Case for a Unified Future Warfare Command
In 1922, two engineers at the U.S. Navy’s research lab just outside Washington, D.C. set up a radio transmitter and receiver on opposite sides of the Potomac. They were testing new ways for ships to communicate at sea. When a ship sailing down the Potomac disrupted their signal, they quickly realized their system could be used to detect enemy ships through fog or darkness. They submitted a proposal to develop the idea. The Navy rejected it. Eight years later, the same engineers discovered their radio technology, later called radar, could detect enemy planes from miles away. Once again, they submitted a proposal. Once again, the Navy rejected it.
One career officer recalled, “It really pained me … to think how much two years of fleet experience with radar before 1941 could have saved us in lives, planes, ships and battles lost during the initial phases of the Pacific war.” A radar early warning system was still being field-tested in Hawaii on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, by 353 enemy aircraft, killed 2,403 people.
Eighty years ago, on the brink of world war, America lagged in crucial science and technologies, including radar, missiles, jet aircraft, and nuclear fission. With President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s support, Vannevar Bush, formerly the dean of engineering at MIT, created a new structure within the federal government. It transformed the ability of the military to innovate. As I and others have described, the results of his efforts turned the course of the war.
Bush’s system served the country well during World War II and the decades immediately after, when innovation referred to hardware: better, faster missiles, planes, and ships. But over the coming years, as a preliminary report from the National Security Committee on Artificial Intelligence begins to make clear, the crucial source of battlefield advantage will shift from hardware to software. And software demands a far greater pace of innovation than is possible within the current structure of U.S. defense agencies.
Today, like eighty years ago, America’s rivals are rapidly advancing emerging technologies with military application. These include autonomous weapons, swarm technologies (being developed by Russia and China), and new forms of disinformation enabled by artificial intelligence, such as targeting veterans and active-duty military personnel on social media. In a recent battlefield example, Russian operators sent bogus text messages to families in Ukraine that read “Your son is killed in action.” Those messages triggered a wave of texts to soldiers in the field, which Russia used to geolocate and bomb new targets.
The growing threat from these new technologies has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Defense. Its most recent National Defense Strategy announced a shift in focus from counter-terrorism to great power competition with China and Russia, and an urgent need for a “rapidly innovating Joint Force.”
To achieve this goal, it is time once again for the Department of Defense to consider a new organization. The military should borrow from Microsoft, Google, Intuit, and other rapidly innovating private-sector leaders: create a new combatant command to accelerate the assessment, development, and deployment of emerging technologies. Not another innovation lab, but rather a force with a unique skill set: specialists trained in overcoming organizational barriers to change, mediating between innovators and operators. Think of them as innovation Sherpas, guiding new ideas and technologies through difficult territory.
The Department of Defense has dozens of research labs and agencies inventing new technologies (76 at last count). For the same reason the military created a unique command focused solely on special operations, distinct from conventional warfare, the Department of Defense should now create a unique command focused solely on the adoption of new technologies, distinct from their creation. In the world of research and discovery, invention and adoption are different kinds of battles. They require different skills, training, and capabilities — in other words, separate commands.
Elsewhere I have described how insights from a new science of group behavior can help leaders design more innovative organizations. This starts with understanding why good teams kill great ideas — ideas like radar, which may be initially dismissed as crazy. Those insights, and my discussions over the past year with senior officers in defense, have made it evident to me that the military’s 20th century model of investing heavily in operational excellence on the one hand, and science or technology labs on the other — with no comparable investment in the transfer between the two — will no longer work.
For example, over 400,000 highly trained servicemembers conduct the core operations of the U.S. Navy. Over 5,000 researchers work for the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory on advanced technology projects, many of which are for the Navy. These two groups have different cultures and values, and frequently speak different languages. To operators, risks are to be minimized and failures are a stigma. To inventors, a lack of failure signals a serious concern: timidity in exploring the possible.
Despite the extraordinary investment in both sides, there is no dedicated group specialized in the difficult skill of translating between operators and inventors. A car needs pistons and it needs wheels, but without high-quality oil, it will not run at high speeds.
In response to threats from emerging technologies, as in the past, the Department of Defense has announced more wheels: new innovation labs. In the private sector, announcing a new innovation lab is a common response to a perceived technology gap. Those labs, however, routinely fail, occasionally taking their companies with them (such as Kodak and Xerox PARC). In the public sector, with a few notable exceptions, the track record is equally dismal.
Innovation labs rarely fail due to a lack of ideas; they fail in the transfer. For example, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, leaders at Xerox recognized the strategic threat from competitors to their dominant copier franchise. In response, those leaders established Xerox PARC, a legendary research lab. The engineers recruited to PARC produced many of the earliest, most important personal computer breakthroughs, including the first graphics-enabled PC, the first laser printer system, and the first local networking technology (ethernet). Xerox did not fail in foreseeing threats. It did not fail in creating a top-tier lab. Xerox failed in the transfer: underestimating internal barriers between the core and the new, between its massive force dedicated to the old and the small team that invented the future.
Today, the Department of Defense is similarly underestimating internal barriers to innovation. Although some tech transfer roles have been created, those positions are underpowered and poorly structured. Roles are nebulous, posts are temporary, and needed skills are poorly defined. There is no training program to share best practices and no career ladder to develop and retain top talent. Reporting lines reinforce both a lack of priority and a lack of neutrality in the inevitable tension between the core and the new. As a result, officers are ill-equipped to manage that tension to the benefit of the whole.
Decades of experience and research have shown that individual and organizational resistance to change — both psychological (distrust of the new) and structural (incentives that favor the old) — are powerful barriers to innovation. Weak tech transfer roles are insufficient. Relying on powerful leaders to legislate innovation from the top is ineffective. Operational commanders have neither the bandwidth nor the training to surface hidden barriers to change (incentives that favor using older products or systems); separate true fails from false fails (valid ideas subjected to flawed tests); and iterate through those barriers and failures until an innovation can realize its potential.
A focused new command, designed to develop and deploy a unique set of skills, can overcome these barriers.
A New Command
The command’s mission should be to accelerate the assessment, development, and deployment of new technologies. Those technologies should be sourced from research labs and agencies either within or outside the Department of Defense. Establishing and operating those centers should remain the function of the services, other commands, other agencies (such as DARPA), and external partners. The purpose of the command is to ensure that all U.S. service branches will be the initiators, rather than the victims, of innovative surprise.
To that end, the command should assemble and apply a force of innovation Sherpas skilled in promoting the spread of new technologies and strategies across all U.S. defense and national security agencies.
Individual servicemembers in this force should be trained to excel in three unique skill categories. The first might called bilingual translation: the ability to translate and mediate between the creators of new technologies (e.g., scientists, engineers, and other creatives) and the users of those technologies (e.g., service members, analysts, and leadership). Like airlocks on ships, master translators provide a buffer between two worlds. They can discuss a new technology as peers with technologists, explain how it works and why it’s useful in language soldiers quickly embrace, and translate crucial feedback from the field into language technologists will act upon. At Google, one expert in this subtle art told me, “my superpower is influencing nerds.”
We can call the second skill product-market fit, or PMF, judgment: the ability to rapidly identify practical gaps to adopting a new technology and suggest creative solutions.
Entrepreneurs and investors in early stage technologies use the term product-market-fit to describe the traction of a new idea. Masters in optimizing product-market fit not only rapidly gauge to what extent a promising technology is gaining ground, but also suggest changes or improvements customized to distinct contexts: who needs it, where they need it, and when they need it. For example, members of the U.S. Navy’s TANG team suggested using commercially available X-box controllers to operate submarine periscopes. The idea was initially dismissed as crazy, but a strong team of innovation Sherpas persisted. The controllers rapidly achieved high product-market fit and are now being widely deployed.
Finally, servicemembers should be trained in horizontal influence: persuading peers over whom one has no direct reporting relationship.
Innovation dies in the middle, not at the top. Users may be discouraged by the weaknesses of early versions of a product and dismiss it (low product-market-fit). A flawed or unlucky experiment may prematurely kill a valid, important idea (“false fail”). Incentives or political agendas may favor working with current tools rather than trying new ones. One Air Force officer put it this way: “Even when the senior leadership has intent — say for squadrons to innovate — that intent can have a hard time working its way down, like a fluid trying to get through a solid.”
Innovation mediators trained in the skills of influence, investigating failure, and identifying hidden obstacles, such as misaligned incentives, can soften the middle. They guide new ideas through difficult territory, finding creative solutions to roadblocks. The Sherpas help create a pull from the ranks for a new technology, which will be far more effective than a push from the top.
These three skills were evident in the person who eventually revived the development of radar in the U.S. military. In 1935, Lt. (later Adm.) William “Deak” Parsons, a naval officer who read Reviews of Modern Physics in his spare time, was assigned to the Naval Research Laboratory. He quickly identified the breakthrough and, after a great deal of effort, succeeded in bridging the divide. Although radar arrived too late to prevent the losses at Pearl Harbor, Vannevar Bush noted that Parsons’s effort was the principal reason that advanced radar was ready for use by American forces in time for the latter part of World War II.
In the private sector, companies use this model to maintain a competitive edge. At Intuit, a community of trained “innovation catalysts” specializes in overcoming internal barriers. At many biotechnology or pharmaceutical companies, “program champions” help bridge the gulf between biologists and chemists working on early-stage drug candidates, and development and manufacturing personnel responsible for commercial production.
For U.S. national security organizations, a force of this kind can operationalize what Adm. Parsons achieved with radar — or what Adm. Rickover achieved, years later, with nuclear propulsion.
Lessons learned from the private sector suggest that to succeed, a command of this kind should follow seven principles.
First, the command should be organizationally neutral — the Switzerland of the Pentagon — reporting neither to the core (operational leaders) nor to the new (innovation lab). Officers in this force act like mediators. When an operational leader rushes to judgment and rejects a new technology, as commonly occurs, a mediator can step in. (In 1941, on seeing the proposal from Vannevar Bush’s group for a new kind of amphibious truck, one Army general told Bush “that the Army did not want it and would not use it if they got it.” The truck, called the DUKW, became widely used in the second half of the war, including on the beaches of Normandy.) On the other side of the fence, when poor initial reception to a new idea demotivates a scientist or engineer, a mediator can step in.
These innovation Sherpas keep a new project alive and the iteration loop functioning. In other words, they manage the internal observe-orient-decide-act, or OODA, loop for the deployment of a new technology. To achieve this goal, they must be perceived as trustworthy by both sides, which requires that the command have a neutral reporting line, outside any one research lab or operational command.
Second, the command should provide a dashboard. Today the Department of Defense has no means to identify and track experiments across the joint forces. As a result, there is no fact-based way to assess innovation performance — whether defense is innovating enough or not enough, making progress or going backward. Similarly, there is no tool for avoiding loss of time and resources from duplicative experiments across the services and agencies.
A unified command can immediately add value by providing leaders with a timely, factual view of innovation across the joint forces. That view should track experiments by both category of innovation (product or strategy) and degree (low, medium, or high level of exploration), so leaders can rapidly identify gaps.
Third, the command should study best practices and provide training. The ability to influence technologists on the one hand and operators on the other is a difficult and underappreciated skill that should receive appropriate training, like other military roles. Establishing a training program begins with identifying best practices, collecting useful case examples, and recruiting top practitioners — from both the public and the private sector — to share their lessons learned.
Fourth, the command should offer a career ladder. A credible career ladder will help attract, retain, and develop top talent by providing a path to greater responsibility, by increasing service-wide respect for the role, and by creating a peer community for mentorship and sharing best practices. Without a career ladder, the role will be perceived as a low-class rotation job, reducing the influence officers will need to catalyze change.
Fifth, in establishing the command, leaders should ensure that the role of the command’s officers is well understood across the services and confers prestige. The value of a translator or bridge role is easily dismissed, especially when the role is first introduced. In the private sector, a sales force might tolerate engineers, and vice versa, but both will be skeptical about someone in the middle, who neither sells nor builds. In defense, operators and inventors may similarly tolerate each other, but be skeptical about a role designed to bridge the two sides. For mediators to succeed in influencing the middle and lower levels, leaders must consistently and frequently communicate the nature and importance of the role.
Sixth, the command should study and propose changes to incentive structures. Any servicemember would welcome a new tool that creates battlefield advantages. But if their performance is measured on quality and reproducibility, or other standard operational metrics, the incentive to try something new, which may be initially less reliable, is low. “You get promoted in the Air Force by not screwing up,” said Maj. Matthew Beaubien, a pilot in the 99th Reconnaissance Squadron. “Trying something new means risking failure, scaring people around you, and therefore risking advancement. Do what the guy before you did, and train those below you to do what you do. Safe and comfortable, stay the course, that’s the norm.”
Neglecting the impact of incentives on individual and team behavior is a mistake. Understanding how to fix that mistake requires a ground-level understanding of how new ideas spread. A command dedicated to the spread of new ideas is far better suited to this task than a traditional federal-agency personnel function.
Finally, key to achieving the command’s mission, as with the Special Operations and Cyber Commands, is independent (though limited) budget authority, which can allow for faster contracting and acquisition. That authority is critical for smaller budget, rapidly evolving technologies or missions (as is the case for special or cyber operations). The authority is less necessary for bigger budget, slower velocity purchases — for example, the large engineering projects managed by the services.
What Came Before
A unified Future Warfare Command differs in essential ways from prior attempts to achieve similar-sounding missions, such as the shuttered U.S. Joint Forces Command or the current Strategic Capabilities Office.
The lesson learned from the rise and fall of Joint Forces Command is that bloat from decades of mission creep is bad. Focusing on one critical, clearly defined mission, on the other hand, is good. Examples of the latter include the Special Operations or Cyber Commands. Like Special Operations and Cyber — and unlike Joint Forces Command — a new, Future Warfare Command would have one critical, clearly defined mission.
The bloat in U.S. Joint Forces Command traces to its winding history. In 1986, to address long-simmering inter-service rivalry issues, Congress passed the Goldwater-Nichols Act, which established the modern command structure. In 1993, Gen. Colin Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued for further integration, and consolidated the training of all forces under the U.S. Atlantic Command. In 1999, in recognition of its growing integration role and the declining Cold War threat, the Atlantic Command was renamed the Joint Forces Command. Over the coming years, many additional responsibilities were added to the command, including overseeing nearly all conventional forces based in the United States, providing military support on disaster recovery, developing doctrine for urban operations, and conducting joint intelligence operations. The mission creep created a confusing mix of responsibilities: geographic vs. functional, operational vs. experimental, and conventional vs. special operations warfare.
In 2010, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates closed Joint Forces Command, stating, “Over time, it has created an unneeded extra layer and step in the force management process.” Training responsibilities reverted to the services, while joint planning responsibilities migrated to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mission creep doomed the command.
A second legacy agency with a more focused mission that sounds similar to Future Warfare Command still exists: The Strategic Capabilities Office. This office, however, is a research and development project management agency like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). It was established in 2012 by Ash Carter (then the Deputy Secretary of Defense; later named Secretary) to focus on near-term, mildly futuristic technology. The intent was to complement DARPA’s focus on long-term, wildly futuristic technology.
The need for the Strategic Capabilities Office is currently under review: The House of Representatives’ 2019 National Defense Authorization Act explicitly called for the “elimination or transfer of the functions of the Strategic Capabilities Office to another organization or element of the Department of Defense.” The review and debate are still ongoing. It is reasonable to question the need for another research agency, given the large number of existing agencies. If the agency survives, it is reasonable that it be managed as a peer of DARPA; the goals are similar. But neither DARPA nor the Strategic Capabilities Office can address the main problem this article describes: overcoming internal resistance to change. Trying to do so violates the first principle noted above: be neutral, like Switzerland. The Strategic Capabilities Office and DARPA create. The service chiefs operate. The new command is the neutral intermediary between the two.
Although the roles and responsibilities of the Future Warfare Command I propose are new, the key to making the functional command structure work is familiar: the relationship with the services. The proven process for clarifying authorities and responsibilities is through service component commands. For example, four service components support Special Operations (Naval Special Warfare, Army Special Operations, Air Force Special Operations, Marine Corps Forces Special Operations). Four analogous service components support Cyber (Army Cyber, Fleet Cyber [10th Fleet], Air Forces Cyber [16th Air Force], Marine Corps Forces Cyberspace Command). The head of each service command is responsible, as appropriate, for executing the combatant command’s intent throughout the service.
For similar reasons, four service components should be established that support Future Warfare Command. Elements of the recently established Army Futures Command, for example, could serve that role for the Army. The Army’s 2019 Modernization Strategy report highlights eight cross-functional teams within Futures Command whose goal is to accelerate the adoption of new technologies. The teams bridge research, testing, acquisitions, and logistics. Brig. Gen. Anthony Potts leads the Soldier Lethality cross-functional team, which specializes in soldier gear. “We can spend a lot of money building something that meets every single one of our requirements,” Potts said, “and if the soldiers don’t love it, they won’t wear it.” In other words, the teams focus on product-market fit. Potts recently described how his team worked closely with soldiers in the field in a rapid feedback loop. They designed and built wearable goggles that turn 2D data from drones into 3D images and can track targets real time.
The Army created these cross-functional teams as a first step toward its goal of readiness for “multi-domain operations” — action across land, sea, air, space, and cyber. Creating a unified command of innovation enablers, which applies these teams across the services, will help achieve that goal. For example, consider the threats and opportunities from swarm technologies. While specifics of defending against swarm, or attacking with it, will vary across air, land, and sea, certain core hardware and software requirements remain similar within each domain. Reinventing the technology inside each service would cause needless delay. The command could eliminate that delay, reduce the inevitable system conflicts from separate development, and better prepare the services for seamless, joint force action.
Getting Ready for Future War
During World War II, Vannevar Bush created an extraordinarily successful system for bridging the divide between academic scientists, national research labs, industrial research labs, and the military. Decades later, he identified a stubbornly persistent gap in the structure of our defense organizations:
In staff conferences where current strategy and tactics are being discussed there should be present an individual who is master of recent technical developments that are just entering into use or are not far in the future. This principle holds at every level, even at the top where grand strategy is formulated.
That gap has still not been closed. The commander of a unified Future Warfare Command should be that “master of recent technical developments” advising the Joint Chiefs and reporting to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The commander of each service component command should be that senior officer within each service.
Several months ago, I stood aboard a nuclear submarine docked in Groton, Connecticut, with an admiral and members of his leadership team. We discussed how to balance the core and the new in the 21st century Navy. Hundreds of miles from shore, deep underwater, you don’t want to start hearing clanking noises from your nuclear engine. That’s the core. At the same time, you don’t want to be surprised by a new kind of torpedo. That’s the new.
Establishing a new command dedicated to bridging the core and the new, to overcoming internal barriers to the spread of new technologies, is a crucial change in structure our military needs to remain competitive in this century — as America’s rivals accelerate their efforts to deploy new technologies, as the nature of battlefield advantage shifts, and as the pace and scale of innovation rises to levels the U.S. military has never faced before.
Safi Bahcall is a physicist, a biotechnology entrepreneur, a former public company CEO, and the bestselling author of Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas that Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries. In 2011, he worked with President Obama’s council of science advisors (PCAST) on the future of national research. Loonshots has been translated into 18 languages, recommended by Bill Gates and three Nobel laureates, and was the #1 most recommended book of the year by CEOs and entrepreneurs in Bloomberg’s annual survey. Follow Safi on LinkedIn, Twitter, or his website.