- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Sebastian J. Bae
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted
Modern Day Marine, an annual military exposition, was marketed as a glimpse into the future of the Marine Corps. Hosted by Marine Corps Systems Command, the service’s procurement division, the expo was a dazzling display of the business of war — rows of matte black rifles, tables teeming with tactical gear, and an array of unmanned vehicles of every shape and size (popularly known as drones). The entire affair felt like a science fair combined with a marketing event; each company peddling a “solution” to the numerous challenges of an increasingly complex battlefield.
The abundance of vendors and high-speed gadgets gave the sense that the Marine Corps, and the military as a whole, was on the cusp of embracing a technological revolution. The Bell V-247, a foldable unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) resembling the tiltrotor Osprey, promised unparalleled operational flexibility — whether providing missiles or persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin’s Squad Mission Support System promised to lighten the load of the infantryman, counter mines, provide indirect fires, and deliver medical evacuation. And in the information age, Huckworthy, a technology consulting firm, promised the ability to create a secure, mobile communications network in any environment. The promises were endless — often hyperbolic and overly optimistic.
The military’s propensity towards techno-centric solutions and its willingness to purchase high-ticket items are no way novel. In a way, it perfectly characterizes the American philosophy of warfare reflected in the military’s reliance on sophisticated weapons platforms and precision munitions. Yet, throughout Modern Day Marine, I found myself asking: Is the military prepared to couple high-end technology with equally skilled warfighters?
The short answer is a resounding “no.”
With the Global War on Terror, the warfighter ideal has widened from the narrow Captain America prototype towards a more techno-centric breed, which includes cyber specialists and UAV pilots. Although the time-tested utility of the infantry will never truly disappear, the rising prominence of techno-warfighters like UAV operators is indisputable — as demonstrated daily in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, and Syria. Similarly, the importance of cyber warfare, a term both controversial and popular, has jumped to the forefront of policy and strategic priorities. Many experts expect computer viruses to replace tanks as geopolitical weapons, as cyber specialists become the instrument of choice. None of this is surprising in a political environment where “boots on the ground” equates to political suicide or the threat of World War III. Think Syria or Crimea.
However, the evolving character of modern warfare has not been coupled with a corresponding transformation in personnel policy, training, or recruitment. For instance, the Air Force continually struggles to meet the ever-increasing demand for UAV pilots, especially as the aerial campaign in Syria and Iraq intensify. The grueling hours and lack of prestige associated with UAV assignments has made recruiting UAV pilots difficult. Consequently, on September 5, 2016, the New York Times reported the controversial employment of private contractors as UAV pilots — which reflects a wider trend of contracting out high-skill jobs to the private sector.
The fact is that the military is struggling to keep up with the rapid advances in technology and its consequences on the battlefield. Military education, particularly in emerging technologies, remains stagnant and less than rigorous. Furthermore, the reservoir of technical skills in fields like computer science and engineering remains low within the uniformed services. Yet, as technology assumes more intricate roles and grows more lethal, the warfighter’s decision-making abilities and technical skills will become invaluable. Unfortunately, the military is still recruiting and training for a war where flesh will challenge metal, narrowly focusing on physicality and acquiring new systems — while neglecting to build the necessary skill sets and personnel required for a more cerebral type of warfare.
Therefore, it is unsurprising that poor talent recruitment and retention is endemic throughout the military, particularly within U.S. Cyber Command and the other service cyber branches. For years, countless pundits and military experts have disparaged the military’s talent management – repeatedly stressing its inability to coordinate, nurture, or retain talent.
In response to this growing choir of complaints, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s “Force of the Future” is aimed at improving the Pentagon’s ability “to recruit, develop, and retain the most talented men and women America has to offer.”
Naturally, Force of the Future has become the latest buzzword within the halls of the Pentagon. Overall, the initiatives of the Force of the Future are both ambitious in their scope as they are lacking in their depth and detail. Yet, despite its flaws, the Force of the Future is a step in the right direction. The rigid military personnel system urgently needs reform such as private sector fellowships and flexible career paths. Likewise, the military needs to reinvigorate military education, particularly in emerging technology, and attract more recruits from the STEM fields. DIUX, the Department of Defense’s innovation unit, displays fledging promise in bridging the gap between Silicon Valley and the Potomac Puzzle Palace.
Admittedly, there is no simple answer to the military’s struggles in embracing the technological revolution and building the military of tomorrow. Alex McCoy, another Best Defense columnist and former Marine, has argued for a separate and distinct Cyber Corps, imitating the birth of the Air Force. Yet, the impulse to establish a new service or command with every new problem is an ineffective strategy as reflected in the persistence of air wings in almost every service or the lackluster success of U.S. AFRICOM. In all likelihood, the technological revolution will come in piecemeal fashion as an entrenched mentality and bureaucracy is beaten into submission. Even with all its good intentions, Force of the Future faces numerous critics and distractors in Congress and within the Puzzle Palace.
The path forward is undoubtedly filled with perils and unknowns, but the only certainty is that change is coming. And however the military gets there, the warfighter of the future will increasingly resemble a techno-warfighter and shed their resemblance to their beach breaching brothers of yore.
Prepare for the revenge of the nerds.
Sebastian Bae, who once was a Marine, is a frequent contributor to The Best Defense. He is a key member of the blog’s Council of the Former Enlisted.
Photo credit: U.S. Department of Defense