Best Defense

‘The End of Big’: Evidence that the trends apply to our big armed forces as well

If you are looking for books on how institutions and organizations respond societal and technological shifts, I think Nicco Mele’s book The End of Big provides a good overview for how these trends are shaping 21st Century organizations.

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By Capt. Drew Shepler, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest contributor

If you are looking for books on how institutions and organizations respond societal and technological shifts, I think Nicco Mele’s book The End of Big provides a good overview for how these trends are shaping 21st Century organizations.

Mele makes an argument for how the digital revolution has upended social, government, and educational institutions, but it also provides a framework for how modern institutions are responding to this changing environment. In the portion of his narrative on effects on the security environment, Mele discusses how changes in production and the average person’s access to military equipment and capabilities that were previously unobtainable (drones, communication equipment, and anything that can be made by a 3D printer) are slowly shifting the center of gravity in military power from government institutions to unaffiliated organizations and people.

What does this mean for military structure? I think it means that the military will have to continue to adapt to changes in the security sector. I think some of these changes should look a lot like the networked infantry unit that Peter Lucier described, but on a much larger scale. The networked squad of OPFOR that Lucier described required a flattened organizational structure and the ability of members to rapidly mobilize and flex capabilities. The tactics of the OPFOR could only be accomplished by highly trained individuals or small groups, supported by real-time networked information; that could maneuver as necessary based on a clear understanding of the vision and intent of the operation.

Adapting the military on a larger scale to this type of organizational operating capacity first means a hard look at the military’s current rank structure and promotion system. Moving towards a system that allows for generalist planners and administrators that can offer clear and concise vision, strategy, and operational guidance to small inter-connected units of well-trained specialists would be a decent start. As WO1 William John Holden pointed out, hackers cannot be mass produced. The time, energy, and resources that go towards turning every member of the armed forces into a potential administrator cannot be easily reconciled with the same time, energy, and resources that it takes to create true specialization at a technically demanding occupational specialty. Additionally, a less hierarchal approach to operations would be more attractive to potential recruits. The current generation and those that come after will be accustomed to living in a flat society where one has access to anyone, regardless of rank or position. A rigid command structure that offers inflexible promotion and specialization opportunities will become less and less appealing to members of digital generations.

For the specialties or duties that require a degree of technical or tactical specialization that is not economically or politically feasible to maintain in the government, the networked military would also be heavily augmented by non-state actors that could quickly mobilize for specific objectives or missions. This would offer the ability to rapidly mobilize and flex capabilities that cannot be provided by the military. The increasing reliance on unaffiliated organizations is not a new concept but if the military is to succeed in an environment where state institutions are no longer the sole source of military power then it will have to increasingly rely on individuals and organizations that can operate outside of state political boundaries. Am I implying that the military should work with terrorist groups or transnational criminal organizations? Absolutely not; but planners should acknowledge that as the power of centralized state institutions declines, options that incorporate actors outside of the traditional Joint, Interagency, Intergovernmental, and Multinational framework should increasingly be incorporated.

I agree that the world today is most likely no more complex than it was during the time of unprecedented changes in society, technology, and government that occurred during the Enlightenment and later during the Industrial Revolution. As history continues to demonstrate, however, the organizations and institutions that can understand and adapt to massive change will ultimately thrive. Mele’s book offers a glimpse of how today’s organizations and institutions can at least understand the changes occurring in an interconnected world. For the military, this may mean a re-examination of current assumptions about structure and continuing to acknowledge that the center of gravity may be shifting away from traditional sources of military power.

CPT Drew Shepler is an active duty U.S. Army. officer. He has deployed twice to Afghanistan and twice on non-operational missions in South and Southeast Asia. The statements reflected in this article are completely his own and do not reflect those of his unit, the Army, or the United States Department of Defense.

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Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1

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