Power Diffusion, Decay, and Military Control - A Cause for Concern?

Power Diffusion, Decay, and Military Control - A Cause for Concern?
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Many in the national security community recognize that the nature of power is changing. How this change will affect the structure of the US military is unknown but most in the Pentagon assume the current approach to organizational control will remain status quo for the foreseeable future. To them, doing things in future in the same ways we have always done them will suffice. The way that power is shifting in other parts of society suggests the military command structure must adapt to remain effective in the information age. Making sweeping changes will be difficult but failing to do anything will be disastrous.

In The Future of Power, Dr. Joseph Nye argues that power is shifting in two directions: it is changing nature and diffusing. He asserts that transitions of power between states are familiar historical events but the concept of diffusing power is more novel. Nye predicts that States will become much less central to people’s lives and with a click of a mouse, individuals will be able to live by multiple voluntary contracts and change communities. According to Nye, “The problem for all states in today's global information age -- democratic or authoritarian -- is that more things are happening outside the control of even the most powerful governments.”

Dr. Moises Niam has a slightly different take on the changing nature of power.  In The End of Power, Niam argues that the influence of traditional institutions in society is actually decaying.  Large power centers such as governments, religious organizations such as the Roman Catholic Church, and major corporations do not have the same degree of control as they once did. Power is simply being lost by them. According to Niam, “From boardrooms and combat zones to cyberspace, battles for power are as intense as ever, but they are yielding diminishing returns. Their fierceness masks the increasingly evanescent nature of power itself. Understanding how power is losing its value — and facing up to the hard challenges this poses — is the key to making sense of one of the most important trends reshaping the world in the twenty-first century.” Whether power is being transferred or destroyed there can be little doubt it is changing.

Even within the US military, futurists recognize that the changing bases of power will present a variety of challenges. A recently released study by the US Marine Corps notes, “Globalization changes individual expectations, empowerment, identity and values.  Round-the-clock access to information, coupled with the rapid spread of information and misinformation, has sparked an awakening of individual expectations… With the explosion of information, choices that are more global may lead to fracturing of national identity of younger generations.” This could very well mean artillery and jets will mean less; mastering diffuse information will decide more in the future.

Yet with all of the discussion on the changing nature of power, few examine the effect this change will have internally to the US military. Before examining it specifically, we must briefly consider the ongoing changes in American society, which ultimately provides the talent pool and cultural norms for our military services.

Consistent with Niam’s observation, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting the traditional sources of power and control in American society may be waning. Established laws are often ignored or not enforced, the authority of police is being challenged, and even in American sports the control of referees and other officials is under attack, as the recent incident in Texas demonstrates

At the same time, social media empowers individuals and groups. Popular applications such as Yelp, Rate My Professor, and Glassdoor each provide individuals a means to address positive or negative experiences or attack the reputation of an organization or individual.  Military-focused blogs are becoming more influential and can actually provide enough public pressure so as to sway the decisions of policy makers.  Military blogs provide an unprecedented means for rank and file members of the military to reach a broad audience, often bypassing layers of command.

Several recent events in the military may be a harbinger that the dominance shifts evident in society are appearing in the military ranks.  One has been in the US Marine Corps. Traditionally, the Marines takes great pride in their rigid discipline and adherence to formal authority and service norms. For Marines, the Commandant has always been viewed as a god-like entity, above reproach. Enlisted Marines memorize (or create) volumes of trivia on past commandants and routinely exaggerate characteristics they share with their predecessors. Given this background, it was interesting to observe that Marines from all ranks took to social media to voice their displeasure with General Jim Amos from 2010 to 2014, attacking his character and questioning his policies.

Similarly this past week, a staff non-commissioned officer used Facebook to voice his opposition to the political leader of the Department of the Navy; an occurrence which surprised several long –time defense experts.

Certainly these anecdotes do not suggest a breakdown of military discipline within the ranks nor mean a cause for alarm, but one should be concerned, or at least curious, about how long the US military will be immune to the changing nature of power that is occurring throughout the rest of American society.  Three areas of interest for US policy makers and American citizens are highlighted here. They include rigid management, spreading networking and constrained recruiting and retention.

The obsolete, tiered command structure, the system designed to exercise military power and control, worked once but now it is increasingly out of date.  In general, such scholars as Dr. Eliot Cohen and Dr. Francis Fukuyama have argued that military organizations have failed to evolve over the past half-century. Specifically, Cohen compares our current organizational structure to that General Motors in the 1950s. He notes that many successful corporations have adapted from a hierarchical model by stripping out layers of middle management and reducing or eliminating the distinction between management and labor (officer and enlisted in military parlance). For his part, Fukuyama points out that while organizations are originally created around efficient internal information flow, military organizations have not changed commensurately with advances in information technology.

For example, General Stanley McChrystal asserts in his new book Team of Teams, that the “Limiting Factor” in our war against al Qaida was our own management of operations. He saw first-hand the cumbersome layers of bureaucracy, siloed information sharing and over-centralized decision making, even within his own Special Operations community. In the midst of operations, he had to invest in information sharing tools and attempt to flatten the organization on the fly. Ultimately he created a successful structure, yet it appears that his reforms have not spread across the rest of the military. It seems that much of today’s command structure is designed to support an outdated personnel system, instead of the opposite being true.

Across the globe, the power of informal networks is expanding because of the low cost of information technology and the ease of connectivity.  Although most service members have access to personal communications tools, the services are exploring options giving them even greater access to mobile technology. Eventually, wearable technology will be fully integrated into every aspect of a service member’s daily routine. This ability to communicate freely outside the physical chain of command will also challenge conventional authority.

One pilot program underway in the US Navy provides Sailors with computer tablets.  This is a great way to provide information and enable collaboration but it will also allow virtual networks to form, and just as we have seen the power of such networks grow in society, they may evolve to a point where they challenge traditional organizational control in military organizations. These will undermine the assumption that superiors have better information about people or events. Further, if interactions between service members increasingly take place in a virtual environment, will the current hierarchical, rank-based structure work?  Could virtual reputation and status challenge conventional sources of influence?  In the future, all service members will be operating in a highly networked environment and it’s difficult to believe today’s rigid command and control structure will survive it.

In such an environment it will be difficult to recruit young women and men who are empowered by society and instead place them in an industrial-age environment designed to strip them of all control. If the military organizational structure remains rigid while the rest of society continues to evolve towards a design focused on coordination and collaboration, recruiting and retaining the best talent our nation has to offer will become even more difficult than it is today.  A century ago when the current personnel system was created the differences between civilian and military culture were not as significant as they are today.

Further, we are already seeing dissatisfaction among junior officers with our outdated personnel system, in part due to the industrial age model in place today. Even the traditional incentive of a command position no longer holds the same allure as it once did.  One informal survey conducted by a group of junior naval officers indicates that many of them have no aspiration to command, a position once considered the pinnacle of a military career and the ultimate symbol of power and control within a military organization. If this trend continues military leadership will continue to suffer.

Much has been made recently about DoD’s Force of the Future. All indications are that many of its proposed changes will greatly improve the current personnel systems for DoD civilians and military personnel.  Considering how late these changes are taking place in the Obama Administration, it is unlikely they will be far reaching enough to prepare the services for the challenges of the next decade and beyond. The key tenet of the Force of the Future must be to provide the services with as much flexibility as possible to change to meet the needs of the services rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach that has been the practice for past several decades. Uniformity and standardization in large organizations are anathema to adaptability, and considering the uncertainty of the future battlespace, this ability is critical.

How power and control are wielded within each service is different because of mission demands. In order to respond effectively to power changes in society and adapt to a complex and uncertain future, a decentralized approach, enabled by trust, is the key to success. There can be little doubt that the information age is changing the power dynamics in American society. What happens when this change takes hold in the US military is yet be determined; failing to do anything about it could cripple America’s ability to defend itself.

 Robert Kozloski is a senior program analyst for the Department of the Navy.  The views expressed here are his alone.  

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