Accelerating technological breakthroughs by competitors and adversaries point to an increasingly unpredictable future. In the next conflict, it is likely the U.S. Army might not possess the vast technological overmatch that has allowed it to wage certain types of warfare.
In view of this, countless experts are rushing to predict what the future battlefield will look like, only to arrive at the conclusion that it will be multidomain, interlinked, saturated with throngs of data and fast-changing. The sheer number of variables will test command and decision structures in ways yet to be defined.
However, much to the chagrin of future rivals, this kind of environment may prove favorable to U.S. soldiers, for they possess intangible aptitudes derived from a warrior culture. These aptitudes cannot be gained or replicated through sheer technological acumen. This culture, inculcated at the start of service and highlighted often throughout soldiers’ careers, reflects what the Army values most.
In this escalating era of near-peer conflict, Army culture must shift to future-proof its most lethal asset: the American soldier.
Half the Solution
Initial efforts to change the culture are underway. In response to the rapid rate of technological advancements by competitors, the Army has focused a significant amount of its efforts on improving modernization; that is to say, the ability to expedite the design, purchase and fielding of new equipment and technologies. The goal is to reduce the time it takes to get new technologies to soldiers. This effort is an important step in the right direction, but it is only half the solution.
To take advantage of any increase in the rate of modernization, the Army must also adopt a culture that provides soldiers with tools and incentives to quickly learn and apply these new technologies. To achieve this, the Army will require a more agile, risk-tolerant and technologically savvy force, one that is comfortable with deploying immature technologies on a contested battlefield and the uncertainties contained therein.
The Army has a low tolerance for risk. The organization is mainly focused on adherence to standardized procedures, where individuals who are best able to follow them receive more favorable evaluations and are more likely to get promoted. This is not to disparage the current culture. This is part of the design.
To wield the full force of an army, it must be able to communicate and react in a predictive manner while maintaining synchronization among its parts. Standardized procedures enable this by providing the instruments of battle with a music sheet to follow.
Unfortunately, as the Army accelerates its modernization efforts, any attempt to mitigate risk through predictability will increasingly come at the expense of innovation and flexibility. Such an approach is in contrast to the Army’s priority to effortlessly incorporate cutting-edge technologies.
The future battlefield demands nimble, on-the-fly and ad hoc improvisation to quickly exploit short-lived technological advantages as they arise. A culture focused on predictability through doctrinal reenactment will always fall short of these requirements.
In September 2017, the Army’s Office of Business Transformation released the Army Innovation Strategy. The strategy was meant to serve as a blueprint that “creates the culture, structures, and systems that will unleash the creativity of the entire force.” Unfortunately, this document’s impact has been notional, with no evident systematic or structural changes to the broader Army culture.
Notwithstanding, units throughout DoD have continued to pursue their own innovation initiatives, such as the Army’s XVIII Airborne Corps’ Dragon’s Lair program and the Air Force’s software partnership with Productable Inc.
These laudable programs seek to promote a culture of innovation by tapping into ideas generated at the user level, providing a platform for entrepreneurs and illustrating the value of innovation at any rank. They serve as great examples of what is possible, but are limited in funding and ability to influence the entire force.
To mobilize the Army and conclusively emplace a culture that promotes and rewards innovation, the Army must appoint a leading organization that is responsible for seeding, nurturing and showcasing the desired culture.
This could be achieved by following the organizational structure of the Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) program, which is managed by a single office but has representatives at every installation. This approach would provide a far-reaching, interconnected and unambiguous framework, necessary to solve the unforeseen hurdles likely to arise in the shift toward innovation.
This is in line with Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville’s assessment of requirements to create a culture of innovation. “Increasing the frequency and speed of innovation will require a structured, systematic, top- and bottom-driven approach to promoting entrepreneurship and innovation across the entire force,” McConville wrote in the foreword to the Army Innovation Strategy: 2017–2021, when he was vice chief of staff. The foreword was co-signed by Thomas Kelly, then senior official performing the duties of undersecretary of the Army.
One of the most influential things the Army can do to hasten a cultural shift is to make it part of the evaluation system.
Currently, Army evaluations use rank-specific attributes to assess the promotion potential of soldiers. By adding innovation as one of these key attributes, soldiers will recognize that developing this attribute is now part of the promotion criteria and therefore, important. A similar approach was utilized when the Army began implementing the SHARP program.
Evaluations should contain descriptions of any actions taken to support the shift toward a culture of innovation. These actions may include submitting new ideas to improve processes or taking introductory courses on emergent technologies. At more senior levels, the actions could focus on efforts to advance an organizational climate that encourages risk tolerance and facilitates the capturing, analysis and dissemination of ideas, such as those contained within monthly magazines and quarterly journals.
Once the evaluation system is modified and an organization has been provided with funds and authority to guide the shift toward an innovation-focused culture, the last step would be to kick-start the process by communicating small successes across the force. Utilizing official channels, Army leaders must encourage innovation by continually updating and communicating the most critical areas in need of innovation.
This would demonstrate buy-in from the highest levels, ensure that innovation efforts are aligned with updated strategic requirements and maximize the talent pool by engaging every available soldier.
Also, to stimulate interest in the process and publicize the immediate benefits of the cultural shift, when new ideas are proven to not only enhance, but also to result in a significant reduction to, operational costs, the person or team responsible for the initiative should receive compensation proportional to the projected savings. This will provide added incentive for soldiers to pursue additional training on emergent technologies, which will help create novel ideas.
Munition of the Future
Competitors and adversaries continue to make significant advancements in technology, blunting the technological edge the Army has maintained over the past few conflicts. In response to this, the Army is increasing the speed of modernization to field new technologies to soldiers as quickly as possible. However, this is only part of the solution.
The ability to decode and apply emerging technologies in novel ways will be the most prized and versatile munition of the future. To equip soldiers with the tools to achieve this, the Army must embrace a culture that promotes innovation, risk-tolerance and diversified learning. This will only be possible through creation of an organization with enough funds and authority to enact this historical effort.
In the future, soldiers will need to do more than cut through the fog of war. They will need to succeed in an environment that refuses to be defined, created by the advent of future technologies on the battlefield.
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Maj. Carlos De Castro Pretelt, U.S. Army retired, is transitioning to civilian life in Washington, D.C. Before retiring from the Army this spring, he served as operations section chief, U.S. Office of Defense Coordination, U.S. Embassy, Mexico City. He holds a master’s degree in management from the University of Phoenix and a master’s degree in international policy and practice from George Washington University, Washington, D.C.