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Applying Natural System Metaphors to the Force Modernization Process

February 14, 2012

Given the many changes that will occur in technology within the next ten to fifteen years, attempting to anticipate the types of capabilities the Army will need for the Army Future Force might be a fool’s errand. However, a valid assumption can be made that these future capabilities will unfold as a modification of current capabilities. Rather than trying to predict the unpredictable, a better approach is to put into place the procedures that will allow current capabilities to evolve and rapidly adapt to future missions and conditions. The example the Army should follow is one that has been successful for over three billion years—nature.

Using examples from nature is not new to the military. In the 1960s and 1970s, Colonel John Boyd, U.S. Air Force, coupled lessons from tactical air-to-air experience in Korea with the recently developed principles of quantum physics and then applied the concepts of stimulus-response learning from biology. With this research, Boyd developed the circular Observe–Orient–Decide–Act (OODA) loop process with constant feedback. He sought to use tempo and rhythm, adjusting the rate at which one performs an OODA loop to manipulate the actions of an opponent, thus forcing that opponent into a reactive posture and preventing him from dictating the course of battle.1 Since then, the military, in particular the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), has pursued “biomimicry”—i.e., using inspiration from nature and its models, systems, processes and elements to solve human problems. Biomimicry has helped the military develop new capabilities, such as robotic “hummingbirds” and chemical sensors based on butterfly-wing design. These efforts are focused on applying lessons from nature at the tactical level. Significantly larger improvements could be realized by applying natural systems principles and metaphors at the operational and strategic levels and mimicking nature’s learning and adaptation processes.

The U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command’s Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC), which is responsible for the Army’s capability development strategy, has already implemented some practices and procedures that, even if not modeled after natural systems processes and principles, are at least in line with them. The Army family of concepts, operations doctrine and strategies published within the past three years clearly recognizes the need for the Army of the future to be able to make sense of complex environments, rapidly adapt, 2 take action and gather feedback about the effectiveness of those actions. These concepts of applied learning to rapidly adapt can also be found in the Army’s organizational structures. The use of modular designs provides the flexibility to tailor forces to the specific conditions they are expected to face. By designing all its forces to be full-spectrum capable and by adopting a compo-neutral approach—i.e., active (compo 1), National Guard (compo 2) and Reserve (compo 3) forces have the same capabilities and mix of forces—the Army is pursuing the development of forces and capabilities that are able to adapt to any situation. Similar themes can be found in the Army’s materiel development and acquisition process: affordable force modernization and rapid fielding initiatives. Applying additional natural system evolution and management principles (such as genetic variability, natural selection, evolutionary strategies and an adaptive management process) will allow the Army to produce capabilities that enable an operationally adaptable future ground force.

The current Army force modernization process can be broken into three distinct phases of activities: 1) operational environment and concept development, 2) capabilities integration and development and 3) force development (see table 1). During the first phase, ARCIC envisions the type of future environment and describes in its concepts how Army forces will operate in order to be successful. In the capabilities development and integration phase, it describes the capabilities these forces will require and how these capabilities will be integrated across warfighting functions, formations and units. During force development, these capabilities are “packaged” into the most effective systems. The goal of this entire process is to develop operationally adaptable forces that can succeed in the current and future operating environments.

Similarly, the goal of systems in nature is to develop adaptable species and ecosystems that can survive in current and future operational environments. There are three aspects of natural systems that allow species and ecosystems to adapt: 1) genetic variability, 2) natural selection and fitness landscape and 3) evolutionary strategies (again, see table 1). Each of the cells in table 1 lists the natural system-based activities currently being undertaken by the Army; additional activities, shown in bold font, posit recommendations the Army could accept to improve its ability to produce operationally adaptable forces.

This paper will provide a brief description of each of these natural system principles and how it can be applied to each phase of the Army’s force modernization process.

Over the past few years, the Army has begun a subtle but significant shift in its thinking regarding how it will fight in the future and how it must guide and manage the transformation of this vision. This shift reflects a similar one that is occurring across many other fields of human endeavor—a shift of the pendulum from the predominate use of reductive thinking in linear, sequential and mechanistic approaches—which have been the underlying paradigm of human endeavors since the mid-1700s—toward a more balanced focus that incorporates inductive thinking into a circular, iterative and organic approach.