Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Essay contest (10): Counterintuitively, Info Age warfare will be all about people

War in the Information Age will be decided by human capital.

31st MEU Recon Marines Rappel for Practice
31st MEU Recon Marines Rappel for Practice

 

By Lt. Brendan Dorsey, U.S. Army
Best Defense essay contest entrant

War in the Information Age will be decided by human capital.

 

By Lt. Brendan Dorsey, U.S. Army
Best Defense essay contest entrant

War in the Information Age will be decided by human capital.

This may seem counterintuitive given the seemingly unlimited potential for computerization, automation, and networking in defense technology. But the fact remains that war in all its forms is a human activity and inherently chaotic. The tools of war, no matter how advanced, are still subject to the capabilities and limitations of their users. Efficient management of human capital is therefore the fundamental issue, and must prioritize recruiting, training, and retaining the highest quality military personnel at every level.

Military personnel from the individual rifleman to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff are the end users of defense technology. War in the information age will see the use of increasingly complex systems at the individual level. Furthermore, the rise of hybrid warfare blurs the lines between combat and support roles. These conditions will require each individual service member to be skilled in the fundamentals of combat (marksmanship, maneuver, and battlefield communication) as well as the operation of technically demanding hardware. This necessitates service members who are physically fit, intelligent, and above all, driven to master the many skills of their profession. These service members must also be well trained, with the majority of training focused solely on core skills, namely marksmanship and operations at the company level and below. Supplemental training should be designed to expand on core skills with instruction on enabling systems. These more complicated systems (e.g. vehicles, communication, and signaling systems, medical devices, etc.) need repeated training to be useful, but should not receive priority over the fundamentals.

The human challenges will increase geometrically up the chain of command. As assets are integrated into combined arms, self-sustaining, joint task forces, the complexities of each element will synergize to create units that demand the utmost from leaders at the battalion level and above. These senior leaders should earn their position primarily due to demonstrated ability to orchestrate subordinates with widely varying capabilities to achieve a unified vision. Junior leaders from both the noncommissioned and commissioned officer corps with the potential to perform highly at senior levels of command should be identified and trained for senior leadership positions early in their careers. Furthermore, these high performers ought to be incentivized to continue to serve in the military in order to ensure that senior leadership positions are filled by the best personnel. Those whose talents lie elsewhere must also be given an opportunity to progress in their careers and contribute according to their best aptitudes. These service members should be formed into a professional corps of staff officers and NCOs, with promotion requirements that are tied to effectiveness and not time in command positions. This change to leader progression, along with the extended time in positions it would allow, would improve the performance of both commanders and staffs at all levels.

Reforming the current military culture to empower subordinate leaders is fundamental both to training the best service members and to developing high quality senior leaders. Enormous resources are devoted to procedures, like frequent mandatory online safety training, that centralize authority but distribute responsibility.

Administrative programs of this type demand disproportionate resources and must be replaced by command philosophies that empower junior leaders and support training on key skills. Operational requirements for continuous updates from subordinate units, especially for data that has no impact on mission or resourcing for the higher headquarters, must go. No matter how sophisticated our battle tracking systems are, we will never be able to achieve perfect intelligence on ourselves or our adversaries. We must teach service members at all levels that this is acceptable, and even desirable once we learn how to thrive in chaos. Subordinate leaders at all levels must be supported to act with flexibility and initiative in all aspects of military operations, including administration and training.

Optimizing human capital means mastering the fundamentals of war. As much as it is tempting to rush to the capabilities of new technology, we must remember that the bottom line in war is human. Regardless of the technology we have, our troops must be able to use it expertly, our senior leaders must be able to orchestrate it effectively, and we must be comfortable operating with ambiguity. If we set these conditions, we will be able to meet any challenge even without technological dominance.  If we can combine them with a modest technological edge, American military preeminence for the foreseeable future is virtually guaranteed.

Brendan Dorsey graduated from Georgetown University in 2012 with a BA in classics. He is currently a 1LT and Stryker Rifle Company Executive Officer in the U.S. Army. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Defense

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. Twitter: @tomricks1

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