Tuesday, July 31, 2012

New Website: disruptivethinkers.org

Disruptive Thinkers has moved to a new location!  Today marks the unveiling of our new website at disruptivethinkers.org

Please update your RSS feeds, bookmarks and, if you wish to continue receiving email updates about our blogs, your email addresses.

DisruptiveThinkers.org has many new features that will advance the cause of innovation within the military and beyond.  These include:

1.  A Member Ideas Forum:  Discuss the innovative challenges with Disruptive Thinkers from across the country
2.  Membership Database:  See what projects other Disruptive Thinkers are working on, and link up with them to create ad hoc partnerships.
3.  A Comprehensive database of all of our previous San Diego Seminars
4.  A National Innovation cell list
5.  A dynamic events calendar
6.  Our upcoming projects (including the Battlefields and Boardrooms mentorship program)
7.  Photo Galleries of all our previous in-person events.
8.  Future member spotlight, highlighting one Disruptive Thinker every two weeks and see what innovative projects they are working on

Furthermore, this is an iterative project.   If you see anything wrong with the new website, please email contact@disruptivethinkers.org to let us know what to fix.  We will be adding new content on a regular basis, and as always, look forward to your feedback.

Thank you to our dedicated fans -- we hope this move will continue to improve the conversation and get you more involved than ever!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Conversations Between Scientists and Sailors: UNSCRIPTED

Dylan Ottman is a member of the Office of Naval Research's TechSolutions Program.  Their goal is to allow junior warfighters to propose solutions, fund them, and see them implemented well within the standard procurement cycle.  They have been involved with numerous innovative projects in the last few years.  One of them is detailed below.


Most Navy aviation personnel are familiar with the aviation tool room, where repair maintenance personnel find the tools and supplies necessary to keep U.S. Navy aircraft in the sky and our pilots safe. These tool rooms are normally managed using a manual logging process that is time-consuming, error-prone and inaccurate for tracking HAZMAT use. The antiquated process increases maintenance time and causes errors that lead to misplaced resources.

The maintenance tool facility is centrally managed by a Sailor who is responsible for making sure that his or her fellow maintenance personnel properly check out and check in tools. The purpose is to ensure the return and safekeeping of hazardous materials, to maintain all tools and to track and order inventory.

In late June 2011, after a long day of repairing and maintaining the Navy’s air fleet, Aviation Electronics Technician 3rd Class Warren Bennett and his crew members waited in long lines to check in tools and supplies with the maintainer. The procedure was tedious, requiring the maintainer to use a pen and paper notebook to check in supplies and materials, and the Sailors in line sometimes waited hours to return supplies after a long day of work.

For the maintainer, the work can be extremely arduous; logging in materials that need to be tracked to determine supply level, recording amounts of hazardous substances before and after use, and trying to move quickly while writing clearly and accurately.

Having been a part of the process day in and day out, Bennett had accepted the system merely because it was never questioned. However, one day, Bennett began to think that in today’s information age, the process needed to be updated. New realities require adaptation.

Bennett was resourceful and had an idea to innovate the outdated process using an inventory management software program and barcode system. The software would be custom-made for the tool room and have the ability to perform inventory tracking and supply management.

“Navy Innovation depends on you, the individual Sailors.”

Bennett had heard that one-liner from Big Navy and others but, unfortunately, had not found a channel in the Navy in which to transform innovative ideas into realities. That all changed in July 2011, when he reached out to three individuals running a program at the Office of Naval Research specifically created to accept requests from Sailors and Marines and turn them into solutions: TechSolutions.

Run by two engineers and a master chief, TechSolutions is a program that gives individual Sailors and Marines a chance to speak up about a problem or challenge that technology and innovative thinking can solve. The TechSolutions process is solely dependent upon requests from Sailors and Marines to create technology solutions — facilitating technological pull, NOT technological push.

This free-flowing, unscripted conversation between scientists and Sailors is what TechSolutions needs to exist.  Both are equally instrumental to its success.

As with every project, once the TechSolutions team decided to take on Bennett’s request, they worked closely with him and other subject-matter experts to further define the problem and the required solution capabilities. They then reached out to the naval research communities for potential solution ideas.

Keeping warfighters like Bennett involved throughout the process is a major priority for TechSolutions.

“We want to ensure when we hand the completed solution prototype to the requesting Sailor or Marine, the final product is what they need to solve their problem, to improve efficiency in the fleet/force and improve their way of life.  This is why we keep the submitter involved from start to finish,” said Master Chief Charles Ziervogel head of the TechSolutions program.

The time from start to finish may surprise you. TechSolutions delivers a working prototype to the requesting Sailor or Marine within 12-18 months of their submission. The team accepts requests from all ranks, communities and rates to develop creative solutions and push them forward to become new naval capabilities. TechSolutions often takes a wide variety of pre-existing technologies or resources, both conceptual and mechanical, and recombines the parts to create new and improved capabilities.

In order for Techsolutions to be successful, the program needs active engagement from Sailors and Marines. Please get involved via the TechSolutions website (NMCI access only). To submit a request, simply answer three basic questions:  “Who are you?” “What is the problem?” and “What needs to happen to solve it?” Every query will be answered.

In the information age, innovation is the primary driver of advances in science and engineering. TechSolutions promotes a horizontal communication chain where the lines between innovator and warfighter intersect, where the knowledgeable and determined Sailor or Marine with an idea is valued.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Drones: Barrage Balloons of the Future

Matt Hipple, recent author of Cloud Combat: Thinking Machines in Future Wars for this month's Proceedings, and I have been tossing around innovative tactical uses for drones in our spare time.  Long story short, new technologies require new tactics.  This is our projection of a possible future.


circa 2035...

The American carrier battle group had been identified.   Although masterfully concealed in a shifting sea of phantom targets and spurious electro-magnetic signals, the Chinese systems had found their prey.  The screen showed a swarm of old PLANAF airplanes refitted as drones interspersed with manned modern fighter/attack aircraft converging on the American vessels.

Occasionally, red trackfiles, denoting the attacking aircraft, disappeared from the screen.  The Chinese commander had practiced the operation thousands of times before.  The American defensive screen was eliminating the aggressors at a prodigious rate, but this was a battle of numbers rather than maneuver.  Most of those downed aircraft were merely the refitted drones programmed as mindless missile sponges. As the attackers reached their air to surface launch ranges,  the missiles were released.  Up to that moment, all had gone according to plan. Then all hell broke loose.

The manned aircraft started reporting a progressive blooming on both their air to surface and air to air sensor suites.  One contact became three.  Three became nine.  Nine became a field of dispersed and re-forming shapes.  And then the contacts merely disappeared.  Chinese sensors were not being jammed; they were working perfectly: detecting something very real, something very wrong.

Pilots started declaring emergencies – engines catching on fire, stalling, sputtering.  The red blips, manned and unmanned disappeared one by one.  The American fighters, tracked by long range radar, had retired to re-arm but aircraft were being lost by the dozen. Whole formations were lost in flitting clouds of radar scatter in and amongst the clouds, fiery explosions occasionally visible as Chinese fighters were swatted out of the sky by… something.


Drones had certainly caught the public’s eye over the past two decades: high profile assassinations initially made the news more frequently before fading into the commonplace. Meanwhile,  tacticians were quietly looking for ways to employ them more subversively.

Planners came to the critical realization that radically new technologies allowed for radically new tactics.  Microdrones had been the plaything of amateur aviation hackers for years – and their experimentation, subtly observed, became a tool of crowdsourced tactical free-play by forward-thinking military tacticians.

A subculture of primarily civilian amateur swarm warfare competitions arose.  The advent of cheap, 3D printing had allowed anyone with a few thousand spare dollars to create entire fleets, and for those with less cash, experiment on online forums that leveraged a gamification of the American culture.  A series of competetive robot battle brackets assured wide-spread and rigorous testing of new concepts and technologies at minimal cost.

The possibilities became apparent as the tacticians noticed hobbyists weren’t using the drones as manned aircraft were used -- huge unitary craft carrying massive payloads of weapons.  The drones were optimized  for specific situations, and got increasingly smaller, often doubling as weapons themselves.  They would mesh, forming large targets, only to disappear into many autonomous constituent parts.  Almost all were of the quadrotor design, and hardly any sported expensive avionics or complex propulsion systems.

Soon, four junior officer innovation fellows at the Naval Warfare Development Command got ahold of this idea, and received $10 million from the newly created Disruptive Tactics Fund.  What they created would change naval warfare forever.

They were given free reign to spend the money as they saw fit, buying whatever technology they determined would be useful within their designated funds.  As they experimented, blending open crowd-sourced technology and expertise with in-house proprietary technology, they created a three step tactical paradigm for employing their new systems:

First, Obfuscate.  The modern enemy had learned to deploy overwhelming numbers to overload the advanced defenses of capitol ships. However, advances in software and miniaturization allowed blue forces the opportunity to do the same to the enemy.  If an adversary could send 100 platforms, each costing $250,000 at a capital ship, then the defender would deploy 1000 assets costing $1,000 each.   These drones would be both collaboratively cooperative and individually autonomous, depending on the situation's requirements.  They would appear to radars and far-away observers as one entity, then at the appropriate time, split into a haze of autonomous units.  Their formations would be fluid, and seemingly random.  They could create large radar cross section entities at will, then disperse to become virtually  invisible.  Indeed, their dispersal looked to the enemy as the destruction of a target – yet, it was anything but.

Next, Obliterate.  Once directed by the Air Defense Coordinator, these drones would transition to a suicidal mindset.  These obfuscators turned into microkillers intent on fouling aircraft engines or detonating as aircraft approached.  Like an airborne, maneuverable minefield, the drones would disperse into clouds of floating debris.  They could rapidly ascend and hover for extended periods of time, maneuvering at will, either en masse, or individually, to preplanned or real time defensive locations.  When an enemy airframe was identified, the drones would explode, throwing tiny titanium pellets in a small, but devastating radius.  Radars would lose the drones in the ambient returns or ignore them while attuned to cross sections much larger.

Visual pickups were nearly impossible on 12 inch quadrotors while moving at high speeds.  Even the small explosions that threw the killer shrapnel into the sky were hard to see.  The only indications were severe engine problems as drones were sucked into intakes, or titanium pellets ripped through compressor blades.

Finally, Overwhelm.  The loss of so many drones was problematic, as only finite numbers could be carried and maintained before deployment.  The answer was off the shelf 3-D printing, which could quickly produce the majority of drone parts using cheaply obtained raw materials.  Deployed aboard ships, these printers saved space and time, producing fleets of drones on demand.  If a design modification needed to be made, changes were simply uploaded to the CAD database, and a new batch was printed from raw materials gathered and previously stored. No changes in supplier, supply chain, or vast administrative system were necessary.

While deployed in a combat zone, an entire part of a carrier’s hangar deck was devoted to the production of these defensive drones.  When the loss of one was detected, another was automatically created to replace it.  A mobile, persistent chaff cloud able to wreak havoc could be produced at will.  No en route maintenance was necessary, aside from ensuring there was an available supply of silicon, carbon, titanium, and other assorted raw minerals.

Furthermore, any ship in the fleet could be outfitted with printers capable of producing these drones.  Detached from a combined fleet, individual ships assigned to anti-piracy or counter-drug operations could deploy their own fleets of swarming, easily replaceable air assets.

An additional benefit of these drone swarms was persistent, over-the-horizon surveillance provided by evenly deployed networks.  Much as radio telescopes used in detecting the farthest reaches of the universe had been linked across the globe to create physically impossible aperture sizes, so too did evenly distributed drones emanating micro-bursts of energy allow for the world’s largest radar.   The persistent, energy saving hover mode could transform hunter-killers into passive collection platforms.

When these were first deployed in wargames, fleet commanders accustomed to traditional formations and manned aircraft tactics were incredulous.  But soon they came to appreciate the effect these utterly unorthodox tactics were having on their $450 million stealth platforms.  The most traditional ignored the results, knowing that such applications could "never happen" in the real world.  A number of curious few, however, asked to further develop the tactics and integrate them into their battle plans. They understood the disruptive effect it would have on American adversaries, and that new technologies required entirely new applications.


What the Chinese commander encountered was the first application in the next evolution of warfare.  Expecting the tried-and-true tactics of a change-wary institution, they encountered a decentralized, highly resilient system using readily available technology developed by an innovative cell of junior tacticians.  Bypassing normal vetting processes the navy was able to quickly harness advances in technology, processor speed, and miniaturization. By embracing risk, rather than managing it, the Navy stole a march on its opponents by deploying the tactics of tomorrow on today’s battlefield.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Proper Response to a Long Train of Abuses and Usurpations

236 years ago, a bunch of colonists took on the most powerful empire in the world.  After years of dealing with a status quo wedded to its own power, and lacking any other reasonable means of affecting change, these colonists took it upon themselves to declare independence.

This was a Disruption heard 'round the world, and forever changed the course of world history.  The men who signed the Declaration of Independence did so knowing full well that their bold proclamation decrying tyranny made them marked men -- and if caught, certain death would follow.

Sometimes radical change is necessary for the preservation of freedom.  The only way to get it is through a rag-tag band of scrappy insurgents with astounding intellectual fervor, and characters willing to undertake the unthinkable.  Their goal may take years to accomplish, and irrevocably upend the status quo, but with a cause worth fighting for, makes the effort worth the cost.

Every year on the 4th of July, I read the Declaration of Independence in its entirety.  It is a model for arguing a case, laying out a solution, and then taking personal ownership in its submission -- signing your real name to  subversive thoughts is sometimes one of the boldest acts a person can take.  Indeed, it can start a process that leads to an entirely new political order.

So, without further ado, The American Declaration of Independence:

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.--Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

The 56 signatures on the Declaration appear in the positions indicated:

Column 1
   Button Gwinnett
   Lyman Hall
   George Walton

Column 2
North Carolina:
   William Hooper
   Joseph Hewes
   John Penn
South Carolina:
   Edward Rutledge
   Thomas Heyward, Jr.
   Thomas Lynch, Jr.
   Arthur Middleton

Column 3
John Hancock
Samuel Chase
William Paca
Thomas Stone
Charles Carroll of Carrollton
George Wythe
Richard Henry Lee
Thomas Jefferson
Benjamin Harrison
Thomas Nelson, Jr.
Francis Lightfoot Lee
Carter Braxton

Column 4
   Robert Morris
   Benjamin Rush
   Benjamin Franklin
   John Morton
   George Clymer
   James Smith
   George Taylor
   James Wilson
   George Ross
   Caesar Rodney
   George Read
   Thomas McKean

Column 5
New York:
   William Floyd
   Philip Livingston
   Francis Lewis
   Lewis Morris
New Jersey:
   Richard Stockton
   John Witherspoon
   Francis Hopkinson
   John Hart
   Abraham Clark

Column 6
New Hampshire:
   Josiah Bartlett
   William Whipple
   Samuel Adams
   John Adams
   Robert Treat Paine
   Elbridge Gerry
Rhode Island:
   Stephen Hopkins
   William Ellery
   Roger Sherman
   Samuel Huntington
   William Williams
   Oliver Wolcott
New Hampshire:
   Matthew Thornton

Thursday, June 28, 2012

"The Nexus of Security and Economics"

I found this in the dusty folders of my Dropbox account.  It's the opening speech I gave at our first Disruptive Thinkers (then called the Strategy and Innovation Forum...a blog was still months away) meeting back in Sept of 2011 -- where all five of us met in my living room.  I thought it was interesting -- and sometimes its good to see inception points. 


In the 1970’s, a group of officers and DoD officials formed a loose organization that eventually become known as “The Fighter Mafia.”  John Boyd (he of OODA loop fame) was the ringleader, and attracted the likes of Pierre Sprey, Tom Christie and test pilot Col Everest Riccioni.  Their goal was simple -- to shake up an entrenched bureaucracy with facts and radical notions.

For those aviators in the room, the fruits of their labors are evident in what we currently fly: the F/A-18 and F-16 were direct descendants of their fight.  The main tenant of basic fighter maneuvers and aircraft design was created by Boyd in a fit of engineering inspiration, and finally adopted after every trick in the book was used to try and discredit it.  The E-M diagram, now a closely studied chart showing strengths and weakness of fighter aircraft when compared to others, was almost killed by a bureaucracy wedded to the status quo.

We will get to the Fighter Mafia in more depth later as this syllabus progresses, as well as the theories of Boyd himself, but their legacy sets the groundwork for what we in the Strategy and Innovation Forum seek to reform.

Nearly every military officer in this room, regardless of rank, service or community, could rattle off a list of things that frustrate us to no end about the system we exist within.  But all too often, we fail to take action on those criticisms.  Change, however, comes from within – and as the Fighter Mafia proved, it can be done by dedicated, well informed actors.

What inspired this group?  When I was a college senior, we got a new Commanding Officer in our NRTOC unit.  One of his jobs was to teach a class called Leadership and Ethics – but instead of utilizing the normal course materials, he supplemented the material with texts he discovered from VADM Stockdale’s naval war college class.  Enthralled by this unorthodox approach, I began an independent study with a buddy of mine where we looked much deeper than the standard military texts to undercurrents underreported in mainstream strategic thought.  Maneuver warfare, Mattis, Boyd, philosophy, insurgencies, anything that was successful against entrenched bureaucracies.  I was hooked.

This venture is an offshoot from that – but it goes further.

What do we hope to accomplish?  By getting innovative thinkers from both within and without the structure together, we want to ensure our military is up for the challenges of the 21st Century.  The world at large is rapidly moving away from an Industrial Age model to an Information Age reality.  Large, centralized institutions are fighting against this migration, and the more entrenched, the more kicking and screaming they exhibit.  We are those leaders, thinkers and doers who want and can start influencing change.

Will we all agree on everything?  Absolutely not – but that’s fine.  I’m reminded of a quote by Christopher Hitchens (someone who many of you would agree is about as different from me as possible)…In an argument among two well informed people, it is very unlikely that either on will come away with a changed position. However, it is equally unlikely that they will leave unchanged.  Opposition and intellectual sparring only sharpens the mind. 

We’re not here to spout idealogy:  “you can always find someone who made a well sounding statement that confirms your point of view -- and, on every topic, it is possible to find a dead thinker who said the exact opposite.”  The goal is to approach things with an open mind, challenge our assumptions, and think like innovators – those people who imagine the impossible, then make it reality.

When you come up with a theory, don’t start looking for evidence to prove yourself right.  Look for the observation that will prove you wrong.  Your ideas will be much more robust. 

How are we set up?  There are two elements to this endeavor.  The first is academic. A graduate level study of philosophy, strategy, leadership and history.  By combining literature, articles and online, open source lectures, we will explore books that aren’t traditionally thought of within the military cannon to get our minds thinking outside the traditional structures.  Each monthly meeting will have a theme associated with it:  This month’s is “The nexus of economics and military strategy.”  The works selected reflect that theme.  But it’s in the integration of those works that new ideas will spring.

And this leads directly to the second element:  Shaping Policy.  The monthly meetings are more than just a Socratic forum to pontificate and listen. It’s also a chance to network across professional specialties.  You may meet someone who intrigues you, and you elect to pursue a collaborative venture.  Brian and I are passionate about education and the lack of options available to us – we may write a paper on opening up ventures (i.e. Harvard MBA/Naval War College joint Degree program.)  Ben W may find he and Cowbell want to explore open source green options for sustainable, affordable defense.  The ideas are limitless.  You can certainly just follow along with the readings and take in the discussions, but we want to be action oriented.  Gather evidence, fight for, and fix what you see is wrong.

Finally, we want this to start adaptable cells. We will compile our syllabus and promulgate it to other like minded military and national security strategists throughout the country.  They can start their own cells, tailoring the curriculum to their own local requirements.   We crowd source this to some extent and though incremental change, attempt to shape the future of one of the biggest Leviathans the world knows; the DoD.

And if our grand vision fails, well, at least weve read and listened to some intriguing theories that will shape our thinking.

So, keep an open mind, share what’s on your mind (the wackier, the better), make some friends and get ready for a fight.  Never forget we're the insurgents – and insurgents always have to work harder and more diligently than the institutional adversary.  But as Gladwell shows, if they don’t fight fair, they usually win.

So, the topic of the night:  The Nexus of Security and Economics.

The military has lived in a bubble the last decade.  We’ve gotten pretty much everything we’ve asked for: weapons, funding, respect, influence.  We’ve also gotten lazy.  It was somewhat humorous, but more disconcerting, to recently see a panel of flag officers dissemble in utter confusion when asked about impending budget cuts – as if such a thing were inconceivable, but nonetheless inevitable.
We haven’t had to ask hard questions about force structure and the evolution of warfare because with $650 billion in base budgets, plus tens of billions more for war costs, it’s unpatriotic to question the protectors.  Yet, strategic and budget realities will force a reckoning.

We cannot continue to do business the way we have been over the past ten years.  There is a strong undercurrent among junior officers and those not associated with the military-industrial complex that there is increasing bloat and inefficiency at the top.  Contracts worth hundreds of billions of dollars, and decades in the making stand no chance of reform even with a new strategic landscape.

We cling to career models and a hierarchial system that were useful during the beginning of the Cold War.  But solutions of the past only work in the past; new realities require new thinking.

I was talking with Chase on Tuesday night, and he mentioned something very interesting that I hadn’t considered – Whereas once military technology was a leading indicator for where civilian innovation would come, the tables are now reversed.  Our systems are increasingly antiquated, and even when we install new software, it can hardly keep up with the pace of progress.  Off the shelf technology is more useful than that supplied by the military and its slow, antiquated acquisition system.  How many of you turn to Google Earth to map targets rather than JMPS [military procured mapping software]? 

This rot in acquisition and culture is even recognized by those at the top.  Then Secretary Robert Gates asked:
Why was it necessary to go outside the normal bureaucratic process to develop technologies to counter improvised explosive devices, to build MRAPs, and to quickly expand the United States' ISR capability? In short, why was it necessary to bypass existing institutions and procedures to get the capabilities needed to protect U.S. troops and fight ongoing wars?
There are entrenched interests that benefit from the status quo; change means losing the golden goose.  “That awareness of a problem does not mean much – particularly when you have special interests and self-serving institutions in play.

It also mean a more lethal and adaptable force.

In the TED lecture on Institutions vs Collaboration, the presenter mentions that the first goal of an institution is self-preservation once told they are an obstacle.  It’s not mission accomplishment, cost-savings or becoming more effective.  It is maintaining the status quo.  Microsoft never believed open architecture could be a means to run databases or large electronic systems, yet because they were wedded to a 1990s model in the internet 2.0 phase they have been relegated to the status of once-great companies like GE and GM.  Lots of market share with somewhat useful products, but unable to innovate or grow beyond their current level of influence. 

The internet age has changed everything, but even more so, the social age has opened up the ability to collaborate and innovate like never before.  And money is no longer the primary motivating factor.  It still plays a role, but crowd sourced entities like Wikipedia are far more useful than market driven troves of information like Encarta or Brittanica.  Google has won the search wars, at least up to this point, because they have allowed users (through linking to what they perceive to be “important” websites) as opposed to a pay-to-play system like Overture (do you guys in this room even know what overture is???  Its because it lost…).

Planning has been replaced by decentralized coordination.  People can spend as little or as much time on a project as they want – and do so because they are passionate about it.  We are bringing the problem to the individuals, instead of bringing the individuals to the problem as with traditional institutions. 

Along with this is the fact that the Information Age revels in the land of Extremistan while our structures are made to survive in the predictable Mediocristan.  Averages mean nothing when 80 percent (or 99 percent!) of a system is influenced by 20 percent (or less!) of the actors.  Taleb notes that our absence of forecasting errors is what should cause us the most concern, specifically when it comes to wars – they are fundamentally unpredictable.

Who in the past 50 years have we actually gone to war with that our strategists and acquisition specialists predicted we would?  The only conventional place we’ve fought within over the past 20 years has been Iraq in 1991!  Everywhere else has been somewhere unpredicted, and singularly unsuited for the weapons systems and structures we have in place.  Sure, you can do CAS with an F/A-18, but wouldn’t an AT-6 perhaps be better?  Isnt the most requested platform, the A-10, the one that was almost scrapped twenty years ago by an air force obsessed with air superiority?  And although we see China as the next threat, given past history, isn’t it more likely we will be engaged in a war far different than the one we see a mirage of on the horizon?

The Information age has also revealed that gem of Adam Smith – specialization.  People need to do less and less to take action on everything, and instead can focus on one area to become extremely talented and useful.  And they can use their expertise in ways they never could have imagined – why anyone would spend hours putting together a Wikipedia article on the intricacies of the clan system in World of Warcraft is beyond me, but it’s there – and I can access it.

The military on the other hand, insists on making everything the same, or at least consolidating as much as possible.  The JSF is a case in point.  It theoretically does everything – but less well than individualized airframes specifically tailored would.  It allows only limited flexibility, and at extreme cost.  This is unsustainable.

So here we have the crux of our discussion for the evening.  In a world that is increasingly focused on individual contributions, where extreme, unexpected events disproportionately shape reality and social knowledge informs the evolution of technology and information, how do we adapt a bureaucracy that insists on sticking to the status quo?

Why not build weapons based on collaborative need rather than centralized planning? MRAPs were created this way – why has aviation fallen by the wayside?  How does a bureaucracy take advantage of a single contribution by a single actor that can revolutionize an institution?  Are steeply vertical structures still relevant when the best way to quell a village riot is by relying upon a junior officer or non-commissioned officer?

How do we take advantage of crowd sourcing, the idea of cellular innovation, and harnessing creative ideas while maintaining the ability to respond to massive, unforeseen events? 

Those are the thoughts I’ll leave you with as we open up the floor for discussion. 

Sunday, June 24, 2012

An Alternative Version of the Twenty First Century Sailor

About six weeks ago, I got an email from the Navy announcing their newest website, featuring the Twenty First Century sailor initiative.  Normally, I instantly delete the mass emailed spam that contains indecipherable Navy Message Traffic ALL CAPS format, but for some reason this email caught my eye. 

My optimistically na├»ve excitement that this would be an innovation portal for junior leaders to exchange ideas was almost instantaneously quashed upon clicking the link.  Instead of featuring the things the innovation generation finds energizing, nearly the entire site was devoted to politically correct platitudes and vague aspirations -- particularly the News and Media portion.  These are elements that make it difficult to create a unified, cohesive warfighting service.   

According to the Secretary of the Navy, the twenty first century sailor needs to be ready, safe, physically fit, inclusive and afforded the best transition services possible.  Much like Air-Sea Battle, where we plan to bring lots of firepower to places where threats exist using things we buy and put to sea, this vision lacks a transformational, inspiring philosophy.  

The misapplication of what the 21st century actually requires is unfortunately indicative of a broader institutional misunderstanding of how to motivate the current generation.  This is especially apparent when very few seem to actually know about the initiative – and if they have found it, have no way to interact with or comment on the material, aside from outside linked blogs.  

Among the things notably absent are any mention of combat effectiveness, and the adaptive, innovative integration of new technologies and ideas by creative sailors.  The particular emphasis on sexual assault awareness was no doubt driven by concerned Members of Congress, and as we are at their beck and call, “what interests my boss fascinates me.”  But the additional elements missed a grand opportunity to set forth a compelling vision extolling and encouraging our best tactical sailors. 
Despite the fact that our senior leaders claim our current service members are the most capable and intelligent our nation has ever seen, it says a lot when the Navy’s primary personnel vision focuses on sex-crazed, out of shape, PTSD-laden, discriminatory service members.  It may surprise some to know this is not representative of the military population as a whole.  

This focus, combined with the curious mandate that all sailors be given breathalyzers upon coming aboard ship for duty, implicitly assumes commanding officers and junior leaders are unable to police their own charges.  These are both descriptions completely at odds with the volunteers I serve with on a daily basis.  This is also completely at odds with the more horizontal hierarchies that define successful information age organizations.

As I happen to believe that 95 percent of sailors aren’t worthy of instant suspicion (except in port...), and are instead ripe resources for great ideas and new ways of thinking, I offer up a different version of “The Twenty First Century Sailor,” followed by some back of the envelope musings about what the website would ideally contain.   

Innovative:  In rebuilding the wartorn countries of Afghanistan and Iraq, our sailors have managed to do more with less, and adapt to cultural norms they never saw coming.  They have created counter-piracy strategies while aiding tens of thousands in disaster prone areas.  We killed bin Laden.  All this has been a result of rapidly adapting existing resources to local conditions with innovative and impressive talent.  We need leaders willing to leverage these skills and apply them to creating tactics to defeat future wily adversaries. 

Risk-tolerant:  Our sailors are adults.  They understand that winning wars means taking risks.  The characteristics required of combat leaders sometimes translate to adventurous off-duty interests.  They usually make informed choices, and while occasionally make mistakes, have bonds of friendship that keep them in line.  Whether it be in combat, or at home, when faced with a tough choice, they can figure a way through.  When they cannot, we provide resources to help them.  While mitigating unnecessary risks, they are willing to put themselves in harm’s way to protect our country and their families when required.  They are, on the whole, trustworthy.  As junior leaders, we are capable of disciplining those that are not.  Our sailors must embrace "good" risk, and exploit success and an enemy's weakness when they can do so. 

Emotionally and Intellectually Fit:  More sailors than ever have college educations and beyond.  While physical fitness is important, our ability to solve complex problems in a rapidly changing environment is our greatest asset.  We have put up with consistent 8-10 month deployments.  Our families feel the strain, but are proud of what we’ve accomplished.  We will continue to educate ourselves, because in the information age, knowledge counts for more than industrial age strength.  A Sound Body certainly contributes to a Sound Mind, but brains, not brawn, will win the wars of the 21st Century.  We must encourage our future leaders to expand their minds by interacting with diverse civilian thought leaders, and make it easy to get the education they need. 

Meritocratic:  Our sailors have grown up in an age where nearly everybody has been given a fair shake.  They have served beside women in combat.  They’ve absorbed the lessons of diversity and have learned immensely from those different than themselves.  More than anything, our sailors want the best people to be promoted, and are tired of a system that continually tells us to be cognizant of the “other.”  We’re not racist or sexist – we’re all Americans and "meritist."  If you’re a good leader, we don’t care what you look like or sound like.  Stop insulting our intelligences, and let us get on with the business of fighting wars.  Our promotion systems are not perfect, but there is not systematic discrimination.  We must focus on combat metrics and 360 evaluations to truly find the leaders of tomorrow.  

A Boon to Society:  We’ve had experience in the most difficult of environments.  We’ve managed many millions of dollars in assets.  We’ve traveled the world, and interacted with cultures throughout.  We have a greater perspective and understanding of what America truly stands for.  Our skills are varied, but acute.  We’re problem solvers and bursting with good ideas.  Unleash us, let us meet our potential, and see what happens. Only by embracing the innovative impulses of the twenty first century will our Navy reach its full potential. 

With these in mind, what does a true 21st Century Sailor portal look like?  It is freewheeling – twitter feeds, discussion forums, idea incubators.  A place where ideas can be fed into a database, torn apart, crowdsourced, and then debated by operators at the lowest level.  We don’t need more statements from senior officers, vetted over and over by endless staffs.  What we need are hard questions and vigorous debate from passionate junior leaders willing to experiment and make our service better at the grassroots level.  

The site should also feature true 21st Century Sailors in their own words.  An innovator of the week or month highlighting a junior enlisted person or junior officer who has created a new procedure or discovered an effective new technique.  A meetup-type calendar for in person, ad hoc informal discussions across service communities, where ideas can percolate and take shape. 

Ultimately, the 21st Century sailor is not a cookie cutter, problem-ridden individual.  They are innovative, adaptable, collaborative, creative and focused on the mission of winning our nation’s wars.  Until we recognize this, we risk squandering the true talents of 21st century personnel as they move onto other, non-military organizations looking to leverage their unique talents.  

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"What do the Taxpayers Have to do With This?"

Guest Blogger Ryan Bodenheimer is an F-15E Strike Eagle pilot, recently returned from Afghanistan.  He is a founding member of Flying Scarfs, recently profiled at Disruptive Thinkers, and OnwardGeneration.


I’ve never questioned American greatness, but I can’t help but sometimes wonder why this is so.  This was especially evident as I prepped my combat survival vest for an upcoming flight into the Hindu Kush, a mountain range in North-Eastern Afghanistan. I asked myself what separates America from everyone else.  On that Winter morning in 2011, as now, I couldn’t help but be struck by a recent quote I had read. 

As Fareed Zakaria describes in his book “The Post American World," the reasons for American strength and power have changed. 
The Tallest building in the world is now in Dubai. The world’s richest man is Mexican, and its [the world’s] largest publicly traded corporation is Chinese. The world’s biggest plane is built in Russia and Ukraine, its leading refinery is in India, and its largest factories are all in China. The world’s largest Ferris wheel is in Singapore. Its number one casino is not in Las Vegas but Macao, which has also overtaken Vegas in annual gambling revenues.
This list does not gain virtue by comparing the sizes of Ferris wheels, but instead, by illuminating categories that, twenty years ago, were dominated by the United States.

Shortly after prepping my vest, and reviewing the imagery for a coalition commander’s plan to clear a village, my flight stepped to the weather desk to receive our last update before blasting off in our F-15E Strike Eagles.

We were told that current weather conditions made the mission unworkable, and ground forces had cancelled all requests for close air support. We had jets on alert, with a 15 minute response time in case anything happened, but for the time being there was no need for us to be airborne.  Yet, we planned to press with the mission anyway.

Perplexed, I suggested to the mission commander that we save taxpayers the roughly $125,000 in jet fuel it would cost for our two jets to fly, and cancel our mission.  Unfortunately, I was the junior man, and a higher-ranking officer spoke up saying, “What do the taxpayers have to do with this?”

I could feel my heart thump harder against my chest as I looked him in the eye and saw no regard for the people I had sworn to protect.  I once swore to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” As I stood there I came to a new realization and understanding of our military: We must protect our citizens from unnecessary military spending.

During that flight we remained in the weather for the entire 5 hours, contributing nothing to America’s national security and her interests.

I understood that an enemy to the American people could also be bankrupting them with superfluous military expenses. It was clear to me that this spending, at the tip of the spear, sometimes has no real checks and balances.

Given this, I silently wondered what does, in fact, make America great.  Is it our military that makes us great? Undoubtedly, the military has some of the finest Americans within its ranks. Americans willing to sacrifice their lives and time both for people they love and for people they will never meet.

Yet, what must come first?  A great nation or a great military? If we didn’t have the resources and the resolve as a great nation to build airplanes and tanks for World War II, our military would have crumbled. Without the budget produced by taxpayers, along with innovative American companies, there would be no bank account for national defense. Without education, we would not be able to prepare military warriors for the intense curriculum demanded of the modern warfighter. To me it seems reasonable that the strength of the United States is deeply rooted in things outside the military. Education, infrastructure, hospitals, commerce, and innovation all allow for the United States to have a military rivaled by no one else in the world.

When military officers like the one I flew with on that cloudy, winter day forget who they work for, the United States starts down a path of excessive spending misaligned with the principles of trust, innovation and integrity.  It is compounded when men like him are assigned to the fast track, as he was, attending prestigious leadership schools with a likelihood of being promoted to a position of eventual policy influence. 

Should the military be concerned with taxpayer dollars, or is that the job of our civilian leadership?  Constitutionally, Congress sets our budgets, but too often our civilian leaders defer to the military. This can be for a multitude of reasons, the first of which may be a misunderstanding of actual military need due to lack of military experience.

In my limited experience in the military thus far, I have met only one military leader who I truly believe would be fiscally faithful to civilian leadership. The problem is that most see the information advantage they have as a springboard for their own career. Conversely, I have met dozens of younger officers who see rampant waste and are willing to speak up about it. Unfortunately, perhaps by military design, these younger officers do not have the ear of our legislators.

Some may argue that it’s not the military’s job to think about the taxpayer. Maybe it wasn’t 10 years ago. But today, as we wade through the recession, witness the financial crisis in the euro-zone and fight new forms of terrorism, we must have honesty and transparency in our requests for funding. 

As President Eisenhower described,
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.
Having a strong military contributes to a strong nation.  Yet, there is a difference between spending that creates a lean, efficient combat effective force, and one that is wasteful. Our needless $125,000 flight may not seem like much when stacked against a $650 billion defense budget, but these actions repeated over and over add up quickly. 

We must have people we can trust and who tell the truth, absent their own career goals or pride, in top military positions. It is a culture change that should be demanded at all levels of the military to create an atmosphere that remembers who it is we work for.  Not for ourselves, nor our careers, but for the American people and their interests.

Solutions apart from pouring more into the coffers of defense must be considered and encouraged. Innovation, creativity and technology have a real place in solving war, poverty and other world problems.

For instance, Flying scarfs aims to help end the insurgency in Afghanistan by empowering local artisans through economics and education -- all at no cost to the government.   Another organization, OnwardGeneration, was created to highlight the need for a broader worldview and to help create organizations in America and abroad that solve social problems with entrepreneurial pursuits. 

Ventures like these prove that America has the same formula for greatness as it did when the framers of the Declaration of Independence gathered to make their break with antiquated government systems.

Combining best practices of business, social and military entrepreneurs will facilitate lasting change in war-torn, terrorist-laden regions. Leveraging local, economically focused empowerment, in concert with military action, will bring lasting results and long-term stability to these unstable regions.  It will also be a more effective use of government funds. 

America will remain the centerpiece of this new and adapting world if we are not afraid to adapt our philosophy with it.  The interconnectedness of our world requires that we understand how our actions ripple through other nations, their governments and non-state sponsored groups.

In order to keep America great, new ideas must keep flowing. They are the lifeblood of all things American. From the decision to declare Independence in 1776 to 3M’s 15% rule, outside the box, disruptive thinkers have and will continue to keep America at the pinnacle of economic, political and military dominance.  It is readily evident that what truly makes America great are people who are not afraid to think.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

System Disruptions and Resilient Networks

Normally, the only thing that gets me worked up is sitting in traffic.  But sometimes it gets so bad, it becomes comical.

Last fall, a man threatening suicide closed off one of the more heavily traveled highways in San Diego.  As it was just as rush hour began, this caused cascading gridlock throughout the region.  Normally, my ten mile commute from work takes 20 minutes.  This time it took 90. 

There are four major highways that lead into downtown San Diego.  With one being closed, the other three were forced to handle the overload.  They couldn’t.  A five by five mile area of San Diego roads, including interstates, feeders and normal streets, were a virtual parking lot.

Coincidentally, I had been reading a book by John Robb entitled “Brave New War.”  Its premise is that warfare is now in a new state of existence, called Open Source Warfare.  Instead of hitting an enemy’s armed center of gravity, terrorist networks focus on disrupting vital, centralized systems.  By focusing on specific nodes in power grids, energy transport and transportation, small attacks can wreak disproportionate havoc. 

For instance, the 9/11 attacks cost the attackers at most $500,000.  They caused over $80 billion in immediate economic damage.  This is a return on investment of nearly 160,000 to 1.  A $2,000 attack in Iraq in 2004 on oil infrastructure caused that country to lose $500 million in revenue – an ROI of 250,000. 

While I sat in traffic, I couldn’t help but contemplate this asymmetric disruptive power.  One man was able to bring a city of millions to a grinding halt, all because he had a political grievance over medical marijuana.  Indeed, as soon as I returned home and picked up the book again, Robb mentioned the specific instance of traffic disruptions.

Homer Simpson, Esq
We live in a society that is so highly efficient and centralized, even the smallest disruption can have wide reaching effects.  Much of Southern California experienced a massive system wide blackout in September 2011 because one transmission station in Arizona had a hiccup.  In 2003, the Northeast was plunged into darkness because of disruptions at a single Ohio power node. This may be good for getting neighbors to actually come out and talk to each other, but little else. 

The most effective first responders during the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina were non-government sponsored entities like Wal-Mart.  They were not shackled by bureaucracy, but instead had decentralized networks able to rapidly adapt to a fundamentally changed environment. 

Our national infrastructure is a large reason why the United States has been so successful over the last century.  But it is incredibly vulnerable to massive, easily executed disruption.  What we need is more resilience and local adaptation.

Sustainability is one of those buzz words that has been touted by the environmental movement for decades.  But it goes well beyond being eco-friendly.  Sustainability goes hand in hand with a robust, resilient infrastructure. 

Imagine if we had an open-source electrical network.  Instead of naturally occurring monopolists setting inefficient prices and being the sole source provider of energy, we create an open, plug and play electrical grid.  We encourage individual households to generate their own power through geothermal, solar or wind.  And while this would hardly suffice to take care of all our energy needs, the grid would be much less susceptible to large outages if a strategically significant location failed.

This would be analogous to the type of data storage system employed by firms like Google and Yahoo!  There are no vital, strategic nodes, but instead, cells of data are located throughout the world in a well-connected, horizontal way.  If one, or even several, fail, the system remains fully operable.

Our security apparatus is built, and reacts to disruptions, based on how it as a centralized system would seek to cause chaos.  This is a recipe for failure.

We heavily secure nuclear facilities and the big ticket infrastructure.  But the attacks of 9/11 were successful because the attackers completely bypassed the US military in attacking our country.  They rendered our multi-million dollar air defense fighters irrelevant. 

Spend a few thousand dollars to cut oil pipelines, destroy main power transmission centers or strategically cut off transportation networks, and you’ve done as much damage as a highly coordinated, high cost attack would.  And bureaucrats would still sit around wondering how their hundred billion dollar planning apparatus failed.

The solution to this is not a centralized, uncreative Department of Homeland Security, but rather a system that renders Open Source Warfare irrelevant.  It creates an open infrastructure of its own, able to absorb unforeseen events, of both the natural and man made kind. 

Most of all, this requires a radical new way of approaching our society.  It is becoming apparent that the centralized, nation state model of the past century is increasingly antiquated.  Much as Wikipedia has allowed knowledge to be more broadly accessible at very little cost, so too must our infrastructure development allow small, local innovations to take hold.  This will create a resilient network of citizenship in its own right, while also lessening the ability of wily adversaries to cheaply disrupt our society at low cost. John Robb has done extensive work on this with his Resilient Communities Project. 

It constantly amazes me how close our society sits on the precipice of disaster, yet very few recognize the possibility.  Sometimes it takes a traffic jam to show a clear road ahead.  

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Female Afghan Entrepreneurs and Their Fighter Pilot Angel Investors

By the time Wasil arrives at the Bagram Air Base bazaar, he has already had a taxing day. The commute to the outskirts of the American installation takes over an hour, and the security screening process another hour. He then opens his shop to sell his wares to curious servicemembers. In his off time from being an entrepreneur in a wartorn country, he studies economics at a local Kabul university.

Cross Cultural Solutions
It was in selling his goods that he happened across three young American Air Force officers. Capt Jonathan Hudgins and Capt Ryan Bodenheimer are F-15 Eagle drivers, and Capt Joshua Carroll the intelligence officer from their squadron. They arrived at Bagram in September of 2011 to complete a six month deployment with the 335th Fighter Squadron out of North Carolina.

In the course of conversation one day, the four hit it off. The language barrier was a challenge at first, with some phrases being lost in translation, but soon, they were talking of everything from politics to education. Eventually they started discussing the most pressing question on Wasil’s mind: The Future of Afghanistan.

After a few visits with Wasil, it became apparent to these three innovative officers that an American withdrawal from Afghanistan would have catastrophic consequences for many that had come to depend upon foreign and American aid. They knew it was their obligation to find a creative solution to foster entrepreneurship outside of normal military or government channels.

Wasil’s mother runs a local non-profit organization devoted to employing widowed Afghan women who make handmade artisan scarves. Jon and Josh asked Wasil if his mother would want to partner with them to create an international cooperative so as to sell the scarves in the United States. The offer was enthusiastically accepted.

This model of supporting third-world entrepreneurs was most famously formulated by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Muhamed Yunus using the Grameen Bank. Instead of microlending, however, Josh, Ryan and Jon wanted to create an international marketplace for the women’s goods.

After months of filling out IRS, import and customs paperwork, Flying Scarfs began to take shape. It is still in the nascent stages, but has already imported scores of scarves to the US.

More than just fostering entrepreneurship in a society very different than ours, Flying Scarves aims to support one of the most oppressed groups in Afghanistan: women. Even with the end of formal Taliban rule, women in Afghan society are subject to antiquated and unjust judicial proceedings. The worth of most women comes from the social standing of the husbands. Widowed women are thus even more socially outcast. Flying Scarves is an avenue for them to continue to contribute to their local societies.

The three social entrepreneurs have learned from firsthand experience that by specifically targeting female entrepreneurs, and putting money directly in their pockets, the money is most effectively spent. The money they earn goes primarily to their children in the form of education and community projects. It is a small, but necessary, step in helping to close the severe gap in gender equality.

By relying on the already established talents of local Afghans, Flying Scarfs has mitigated the need for costly and bureaucratic government-run training programs. This model empowers oppressed women to seek self-employment as a means of creating lasting economic opportunity.

Furthermore, local development is more efficient than siphoning funds through the US budget – very little, if any, of which actually goes directly to the wages of female Afghans. The average American making $40,000 pays $1694 a year in taxes for the military operations in Afghanistan. Jon and Josh, from their observations, see most of this money getting lost in the foreign aid shuffle, rather than into the hands of the Afghans who need it most. Flying Scarfs is intended to deliver those resources directly into their pockets.

Flying Scarfs currently employs over 300 local Afghan women. The $30 spent on a scarf, equivalent to a week’s worth of wages, is rewarding productive impulses and supporting the development of an above board economy. It directly infuses much needed capital to the Afghan people, especially when a corrupt government disruption system struggles to allocate funds to the right places.

Winning Hearts and Minds
Apart from Flying Scarfs, Josh and Ryan are working to create a more broad-based organization called “Onward Generation” devoted to finding entrepreneurial solutions within the military. With their first venture a success, it will be interesting to see what other ideas they develop.

Wasil still studies economics and sells daily at the Bagram bazaar while helping his mother export handmade scarves abroad. He summed up the strategy of Flying Scarfs best by saying “there is no reason to join the insurgency because I have a job.” These three officers, by thinking outside normal paradigms, are trying to ensure this becomes a reality for more Afghans one scarf at a time.

Please visit the Flying Scarfs website to learn more about their venture.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Navy and a Sanctioned Class Divide

Thanksgiving Day 2009 was the most professionally embarrassed I have ever been as a naval officer.  At the time, my squadron was deployed aboard the USS Nimitz in support of combat operations in Afghanistan.

The day itself was remarkable for other, better, reasons.  In the early afternoon, my section of Super Hornets had rushed up to a troops-in-contact situation in the far northeast corner of Afghanistan.  A SEAL Team was being attacked by a group of insurgents, and we employed against the enemy mortar position.  We arrived back on board ship to find General David Petraeus making the rounds and shaking hands.

Following our debrief, my crew and I happily, if a bit wearily, made our way down to the officer's wardroom for our Thanksgiving meal.  Stuffing, turkey, everything.  It was about 30 minutes until the wardroom was to close, and there was barely anybody in it.

I needed some time to decompress following the meal, so I wondered up to the hangar deck to get some fresh air and be alone.  When I arrived, I saw a snaking line of hundreds of sailors weaving through the cavernous space.  I saw a few of my squadron's sailors, and asked them what was going on.  They told me it was the line to get their Thanksgiving meal.  There were rumors that despite the hundreds of people still waiting, because it was closing time, they were going to cut off serving the meal.  "Mission First, People Always."  Right.

I was stunned.  Twenty year old kids, ten thousand miles from home, pulling twelve hour shifts for weeks straight to turn wrenches so we could fly, and it seemed likely they wouldn't even get a Thanksgiving meal.  Meanwhile, the officer's wardroom was still empty.

Without telling them why, I told the seven sailors I recognized to follow me.  I led them down the ladderwells to the empty officers wardroom, and told them to fill a bunch of to-go plates with food.  They eagerly did.

While they did so, I tried to find the Supply Commander who ran the officers mess, and see if he would be willing to open up the wardroom to help alleviate the crush of enlisted folks that were about to miss Thanksgiving.  He told me he wasn't allowed to do that.  I stormed off, and told my sailors to fill their plates as full as they possibly could before leading them back upstairs.

Our Nimitz officer corps utterly failed our sailors that day.  Yet, on a smaller scale, we fail them everyday aboard embarked ships.

The Navy is one of the only places left in America where a clear, enforced and openly accepted class structure still exists.  If you are an enlisted sailor, you cannot walk in the blue tiled "officer's country" unless on offical business -- an even then you'd do best to avoid it.

On board a carrier, sailors line up for every meal and make their way through long cafeteria style lines to get chow.  Officers head to the wardroom, and are served meals while enlisted sailors in snazzy outfits act as our waitstaff.  Behind us, in cabinets covered in glass, tens of thousands of dollars worth of Tiffany's silver used to serve VIP's glistens.  Mood lighting and jazz plays during Sunday brunch.  It embarrassed me the first time I had an E-3 clear my plate, and it still embarrasses me.  

The thing that always impressed me most about the few days I spent in the field with Marines was that their officers nearly always let their subordinates eat before they did.  And then they ate amidst their Marines.

It is high time the Navy ended the archaic practice of segregating the officer corps from their enlisted subordinates during shipboard meals.   It is an antiquated practice rooted in tradition that is no longer relevant for an information age, socially collaborative society.  A truly Disruptive Carrier Commanding Officer would take this step of his own volition and see the transformative and unifying effects a less hierarchical meal structure would have.

Similarly, a Disruptive Division Officer would forgo the wardroom and make a commitment to spending time each day breaking bread with his charges.  This is something I never had the foresight to undertake.

One of the reasons tech company's provide meals for their employees is to foster free flowing, unscripted conversation between people that wouldn't normally interact.   Every employee, from the company janitor to the CEO, has access to the same space.  It gets the conversants thinking about ideas within the company they hadn't considered.  It also brings lower level employees in more informal contact with their superiors. Ideas are generated.  Conversations are developed.  And innovations are born. 

As our military enters an age where innovative thought and creativity will be the hallmark of successful strategy, we must embrace the conditions that make such things possible.

Deliberate Design Matters
Jonah Lehrer, in Imagine, describes the success of Pixar:  "[They] realized that its creativity emerged from its culture of collaboration, its ability to get talented people from diverse backgrounds to work together." Later, he quotes Brad Bird, the director of The Incredibles as saying, "Steve [Jobs] realized that when people run into each other, when they make eye contact, things happen.  So he made it impossible for you not to run into the rest of the company."

Furthermore, on a ship, the mess decks are classic "third places:" Interactive environments that are neither home (berthings) nor the office (workcenters).   Sociologist Ray Oldenberg notes:
These shared areas have played an outsize role in the history of new ideas, from the coffeehouses of eighteenth-century England where citizens gathered to discuss chemistry and radical politics, to the Left Bank bars of modernist Paris frequented by Picasso and Gertrude Stein.  The virtue of these third places is that they bring together a diversity of talent, allowing people to freely interact.
Leadership, in many ways, is simply about being present.  It's about usefully interacting with your subordinates.  It is taking an interest in their complaints and taking action on their valid suggestions for improvement.  Good order and discipline can be maintained while still informally engaging during unscripted social gatherings.  

Our most successful and recognized Naval organizations already encourage a more horizontal communication chain, and blurred lines between officer and enlisted.  Both the Blue Angels and Naval Special Warfare units require close bonds between leaders and led, and as such there are very few distinctions in social standing.  Let's emulate the best of our services, and help foster more collaboration.

Traditions are valuable, as long as they don't persist merely because they are traditions.  New realities require adaptation.  We have a highly disciplined and educated military.  There is no need to still engage in a class-cleaving system that replicates the most foul excesses of the nineteenth century gilded age.   End opulent differences in officer and enlisted embarked meals.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Agape: No Greater Love

Memorial Day is for those who have gone before us.  I've been fortunate this year to have lost no friends in active service -- although there were a few close calls.  Many others have.  I wrote this two years ago after the loss of a fellow aviator.


Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
– John 15:13 (KJV)

There are very few instances in life where a person is truly presented with the philosopher’s favorite hypothetical: when faced with preserving your own life or those of others, whom do you choose?

For some though, in a matter of moments, this sophistic exercise becomes reality.

Returning home from a mission, mere miles away from the aircraft carrier, an engine indicates an oil problem. The aircrew executes their procedures and shuts the engine down, leaving them with one engine remaining. However, rather than the now static propeller feathering into the wind, minimizing drag and allowing for a much practiced single-engine approach, the prop inexplicably and unexpectedly locks in place. Instead of eight aerodynamic blades cleanly slicing through the air, the locked position becomes the airborne equivalent of a circular brick wall pushing full against the airstream.

The plane yaws uncontrollably into the failed starboard engine, and only through the herculean effort of the pilot-in-command, putting his whole strength against the opposite rudder pedal, is controlled flight precariously maintained. Momentarily. The aircraft cannot maintain its altitude. It is only a matter of time before it impacts the water. A choice must be made.

Before every flight, the pilot-in-command of a naval aircraft signs his name on a slip of paper kept within the aircraft maintenance log. It is the last of three signatures required before a plane is taken airborne. The first two are from the maintainers certifying that the plane is safe for flight. The last transfers responsibility for the aircraft to the pilot, meaning he is now accountable for the machine and aircrew within its confines. A mere formality on most days, especially when done in haste and hundreds of times previously, it nonetheless is something not soon forgotten.

We live in a society where occasionally those we are meant to admire abridge their obligations to accountability. Candidates for office falsely claiming membership in the combat ranks, elected officials blaming past leaders for events occurring on their watch, business tycoons refusing to acknowledge their complicity in financial collapse or environmental disaster. Such nonsense has no place in a stricken aircraft.

The pilot-in-command that day (March 31, 2010) was LT Steven “Abrek” Zilberman, a veteran Naval Aviator on his second combat cruise in as many years. His parents emigrated from Ukraine when he was in sixth grade, in part to escape the bigotry they feared he would face as a Jewish conscript in the Russian military. Much to their surprise, he chose to enlist in the US Navy, eventually winning his commission and Wings of Gold. As is the tradition in this brotherhood, Abrek was his bequeathed callsign, in reference to the first space monkey sent into space by the Russians prior to Yuri Garagin. Ironically, and probably unknown to the American aviators at the time, it also means “valiant man” in Russian.

At some point, he made the decision to stay in the cockpit, fighting with all his strength to keep the aircraft relatively stable so his three fellow crewmates could bail out. This meant almost certain death – when it came time for him to bail out, the autopilot would be unable to account for the drag-induced uncontrollable yaw, and his only hope for survival would be an incredibly risky ditch into the sea. For a few days, he was listed as missing. The search came up empty handed. For his gallantry, Abrek was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross alongside the folded flag given to his wife at the funeral.

To paraphrase Sebastian Junger, author of WAR, warriors know they may face death. When they pledge their oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic, they face that fact. This conscious, voluntary effort is their greatest act of courage, already accomplished. All subsequent acts in the line of duty stem from this. Some, however, are more conspicuous than others.

Perhaps the reason we humans view such heroes so reverently is that they did not intend to seek out recognition. They do not wake up in the morning hoping to die, save others and get glory. Instead, Fate, Providence, luck, whatever you want to call it, is the initiating force behind many acts of courage. That split second decision to take action, sometimes a reaction honed from years of subtle practice and thoughts, is where the individual takes the yolk from fate and forcibly alters the outcome. Yet inimical to this heroism is the tragedy associated with any sacrifice. It is a cost not readily borne, but on occasion selflessly accepted.

The paradox of the horrors of war and the character of the men and women who fight them is stunning. Within the depravity, death and destruction of combat exists the characteristics of awe-inspiring traits most humans struggle to emulate in more peaceful moments. These acts, demonstrated both consciously and unconsciously, are often removed from the greater political stratagems and goals of the fought-for country, and instead are directed towards preserving others. On the fields of Shiloh, men braving volleys of bullets to drag a wounded compatriot to safety. Amidst the Sands of Iwo Jima, Marines storming heavily fortified machine gun nests to ensure their buddies in subsequent waves would be safer. In the prisons of Hanoi, aviators forming a self-contained society dedicated to resisting the propaganda, torture and special favors of their captors – while being isolated and beaten for years on end as their countrymen ignored their plight.

In the face of the greatest hardships, we find the hardiest souls and amidst the arrows of stinging hatred, the greatest love. Again, Junger: “The willingness to die for another person is a form of love that even religions fail to inspire…What the Army sociologists slowly came to understand was that courage was love. In war, neither could exist without the other and that in a sense they were just different ways of saying the same thing.”

Today, while remembering the heroic tragedy that surrounded this sacrifice, there is the legacy that remains alongside the countless others that are spread throughout our military traditions. The reminder is in more than the places of honor we bury our military dead – it is around us every day. The strangers and friends descended from ancestors saved through selfless sacrifice generations ago. The men and women still fighting abroad against those who would do our country harm. But most significantly, the very society and country we find ourselves blessed to be counted citizen among.

The likes of Abrek and his fallen brethren gave their lives for their immediate friends and compatriots, but their collective acts are the reason for the joy we feel on a warm summer afternoon, surrounded by majestic hills, dedicated friends and the freedom to live our lives as we see fit. “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.”

Our future, full of hope and possibility, is the lasting gift we Americans continue to receive from those destined never to see it.

Happy Memorial Day, and God Bless.