Best Defense

Essay contest (14): We need to develop organizations that embrace innovation

The growing concern about cyberspace as a domain of warfare in the Information Age presents many challenges for the U.S. defense and security communities.



By Capt. Iain J. Cruickshank, US Army
Best Defense essay contest entrant

“What is the single most important thing the U.S. military should do to adjust to the emerging realities of the Information Age?”

The growing concern about cyberspace as a domain of warfare in the Information Age presents many challenges for the U.S. defense and security communities. Questions include, but are not limited to: What constitutes an attack in cyberspace? How do we distinguish between cyber weapons and standard, civilian-use software? How can we use cyberspace to support both strategic national objectives and tactical military ones?

As we grapple with these questions and begin to learn fundamental truths regarding cyberspace, one of the key points is that dominance in cyberspace comes from out-innovating adversaries. Innovation is a destructive, messy process that almost inevitably faces resistance by large, established, bureaucratic organizations; it questions assumptions and investigates the underlying processes in a problem or domain. For the military, innovation means embracing different organizational norms, structures, and policies that can attract and empower the innovators who will help us win in cyberspace.

As we learn more about the fundamental nature of the cyberspace domain, two points stand out.

First, since it is less constrained by the physical laws governing nature than any other war fighting domain (i.e. air, space, land, sea), its largest constraint is the speed of human thought; cyberspace develops at an unprecedented rate. An exploitation tool, organizational policy, or military formation that works today might be useless tomorrow.

Second, no one is certain what form cyber warfare will take in the future. The cyber domain today is analogous to the air domain in the 1930s: While it will have a decisive role in coming wars, it is still rapidly evolving. Air warfare didn’t reach full maturity until the 1940s and50s with strategic air campaigns and a dedicated air force. We did not fully appreciate the innovations to come when evaluating air warfare in the pre-World War II era. Therefore, since the cyberspace domain is rapidly evolving, and we do not know what it will become in the future, it is vital to embrace an organizational culture that centers on innovation.

The military must create formations able to keep pace with the rapid evolution of the Information Age and shape the cyber domain in ways favorable to U.S. security interests. In order to do this, the military must promote innovation and make itself open to new organizational structures. The military’s hierarchical structures, rank, and commanders with staffs were sculpted by decades of maneuver warfare in the physical domains; they are not ideal for the fundamentally different demands of cyber warfare. The current force can adapt to fight in the cyber domain, however it must be open to thoughtful, systematic, and possibly radical change, such as a separate branch of service dedicated to cyberspace.

Along with adapting military structures and norms to embrace innovation and speed, we must recruit and empower different kinds of warriors for the cyberspace domain. Many articles acknowledge the reality that a different type of person, and perhaps different recruiting and retention parameters will be necessary. The defense community must create different systems and policies to groom these types of cyber security practitioners to form innovative war fighting formations. Suggestions such as relaxing basic military standards for physical fitness or offering higher pay may help, but don’t address the greatest challenge. Current regulations stifle innovation by forces already in the current structure, for instance, by not allowing penetration testing on Department of Defense networks. A new ethos needs to be fostered that underwrites the kind of failure that is inherent in the process of innovation. War is still a quintessentially human activity in the cyberspace domain, which means the defense community must be innovative in its search for, and retention of, the right kind of people to fight the war in cyberspace and empower them to work to their potential.

Innovation is key to sustained dominance for the U.S. military in the Information age. Keeping our edge in cyber space will require taking a hard look at the organizations, systems, and policies underpinning military formations and supporting and retaining personnel, but our forces have always done the challenging work of adapting to advances in warfare. As we shape the cyber force of the future we must remember why the military exists: to fight and win the nation’s wars. We should not be supporting innovation for innovation’s sake, but rather because innovation is how we will win the these wars, in and through cyberspace.

Captain Iain Cruickshank is a USMA Graduate, class of 2010, a Rotary ambassadorial scholar, and currently serving as the commander for D Company, 781st Military Intelligence Battalion. The views expressed in this article do not officially represent the views of the U.S. Army, the U.S. military, or the U.S. government, and are the views of the author only.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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