On the Distributed Control Framework of a Technical Union

August 12, 2019
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Thus the foundations of the new army were built upon one of Napoleon's wisest maxims, namely: "The whole art of war consists in a reasoned and extremely circumspect defensive, followed by rapid and audacious attack." Nothing was to be left to chance, all situations were to be considered and mentally prepared for. This demanded that the old unthinking obedience give way to independence of thought and action. The soldier was told that he should always do something, even if at the moment he did not know what to do. In my handling of soldiers I have invariably taught them—"When in doubt, hit out!" For inaction in a mobile age is the sin of sin.
—J.F.C. Fuller, Machine Warfare

An ideal Technical Union should generate a technology set that supports warfighting. Battlespace-friendly technology should match (or exceed) the operational tempo and support tactical action, operational art, and strategy in a seamless manner. The figure below illustrates the workings of a Technical Union, in which a clear military innovation strategy should be created to support the overall military strategy. Rapid, agile technical solutions and mid- and long-term technical research and development should be developed at the same operation tempo as the military objectives they support. Commercial solutions should develop freely but generally towards a realistic future environment in alignment with the government’s strategic view. Here, warfighters serve as representative for their local tactical problems, search for technical solutions from small military tech entities and commercial institutions, integrate these solutions into battlespace applications, evaluate the impact on mission effectiveness the technology brings, and champion the technology for further development or abandon it, as appropriate.

In this environment, where warfighters act as the final system integrator, war can be fought in a strategically aligned and tactically flexible manner. Within the battlespace, every technology deployed will eventually be countered by an adversary while changing the landscape of the battlespace as it was previously observed. Having a strategy coupled with a technical path creates progression in technology development, but having an unresponsive strategy (or one that responds to the wrong stimuli) is almost as useless as not having a strategy at all. To set a long-term technical vision and continuously verify it with real battlespace feedback is both fiscally responsible and the quickest way to achieve the ultimate goal; errors can be caught early before they manifest and multiply. Intimately involving the warfighters on the ground with the development of technology and the shaping of the technological innovation strategy is crucial to success. Out of this, a library of tools emerges along various development paths that the warfighters and planners can use to attack adversary critical vulnerabilities.

On the left, ideal military innovation environments and the multiplying effect of Lego block technology systems. On the right, current military innovation environment and the limitation of most of the current battlespace technology systems. (Author’s Work)

Unfortunately, the reality of the current military innovation environment is far from an ideal Technical Union. Unambiguous and thoughtful military innovation strategy that aligns means to an achievable end is absent; in its place are grandiose visions with at best an ill-conceived plan for execution, large research investments divorced from tactical needs and feedback, and reactive responses to catch up to adversary strategies.[1] Without a clear nation-wide strategy and civil-military alignment, the overall commercial technology space designs trend towards a false future environment—one where national security is not threatened by malignant entities, disseminated information can be trusted without critical thinking, and mental and physical tenacity are not needed due to extended periods of comfort.[2,3]

Technologies designed to be used in such a misconstrued environment do not easily transfer to military application. To make matters worse, the bureaucratic processes inherent in military acquisitions drive away the few technologists motivated to bring new technologies to the battlespace.[4-6] Warfighters—the people with the highest potential to find the innovative battlespace solutions—are generally left out of the technological innovation discussion.[7,8] Other than a few localized efforts, warfighters are not empowered to lead technology development with real tactical feedback, much less use new technology in an operational setting and influence future technology development with on-the-ground feedback.[9,10]

The result, given these problems, is a relatively small pool of technologies that leverage the commercial development life-cycle adequate to keep up with a fast operational tempo. With a few large military contractors acting as integrators of technical systems, combined with the acquisition process and its closed architecture, the number of available technologies is inherently limited. With few systems available, many of which are incompatible with environments on the ground and come with high learning curves, warfighters are left to make do with what they are given with limited flexibility.

The most critical task in establishing a Technical Union is the building of a framework enabling the warfighters to train, equip, and advise technologists who are directly responsible for designing battlespace-relevant technologies. The framework needs to facilitate the exchange of on-the-ground information with the operational support and strategy layer at a speed relevant to the military operational tempo. For many immediate tactical needs, the development cycle needs to be completed in days and weeks instead of months and years.

To harness the innovative fire stems from characteristic American liberty, while disciplining the chaos that ensues. I will template an organizational structure of the Technical Union based on a military command and control framework that finds its roots in the study of science and competition—the OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) pioneered by Air Force Colonel John Boyd.[11] The OODA loop was designed to guide command and control in a sizable chaotic environment by encouraging a highly decentralized chain of command. This mission-driven control mechanism encourages chaotic creativity at every level while strategically aligning local efforts by relying on representatives who understand the conditions and national objectives.[12] The local representatives can obtain on-the-ground feedback regarding the effectiveness of the strategy, thus making local operational level adjustments accordingly or inform the strategic layer to make adjustments if necessary.

Modified OODA loop for harvesting the mission aligned innovations from all the three communities. The size of the loops represents the size of the workforce. (Author’s Work, adapted from John Boyd)

The modified OODA loop contains a feedback system for a strategic layer (black), operational layer (purple), tactical layer (green), and a civilian layer (red). This tiered approach shows each group and their associated OODA loop for distributed control. Delineations between these groups are based on the value they bring to the overall strategic mission, but not by traditional variables such as geography, rank, or education backgrounds. Each group has its own OODA loop, creating its sub-strategy by aligning means to fit strategic ends. Each group’s operational tempo is matched to the operational tempo of the battlespace problems they are addressing, and they are synchronized with each other through information exchange. Individuals or organizations could and should drift from one group to another based on the input that they have and the output that they are able to provide to the overall mission.

In the following section, I will provide the details of the OODA loop for each group and provide a common language for discussing this model for a Technical Union.  

Composition: This layer is composed of strategists who determine the path to effectively utilize the nation’s resources in technology development to meet military strategic goals. Within the Technology Union, strategists should be individuals who are horizontal experts in fields across the studies of military strategy, operational art, and tactics, as well as multiple technical fields in order to have a grasp on how all the moving parts interact. Examples of people who fit this profile include Lt Col Jen Snow from SOFWERX, Toby Redshaw from Enterprise Innovation at Verizon, Dr. David Bray from People-Centered Internet, and Ben Zweibelsen from SOF Design and Innovation at Joint Special Operations University. Strategists are responsible for keeping an eye on long-term technical advancement, acting on closing short-term capability gaps, and adjusting their aspirations by anticipating adversaries’ actions and harvesting effects induced by the short-term technical actions.

Time-Horizon: Strategists should operate at all operational tempos, from fulfilling short-term necessities to directing long-term developments based on constantly changing variables.

Observe: The cycle will start with observation of the defense strategy and policy of which it is an extension.17 By understanding defined military strategy and policy, strategists can develop technical solutions that aid in achieving national objectives.

Orient: This includes, first and foremost, incremental and transformative innovations from the warfighters that will inspire and reveal capability gaps. These innovations will feed into and gather technical resources from classified military and public tech and research and development. The risk and impact will be evaluated based on strategic considerations, current and projected technical and nontechnical threats in the security environment, and the maturity of technology. Each path will be executed by one or a coalition of the three groups based on the resources needed. 

Decide: Identify the capabilities and gaps of major technical systems that span relevant technical fields to achieve strategic intents across all mission spaces. 

Act: The technical paths will be sent to the operational and tactical layers to be executed. The technical paths could be executed in a direct manner, such as through formal requests for information (RFIs) or directive requirements. The technical paths can also be executed in an indirect manner by influencing targeted efforts within the Technical Union such that the technical goals can be developed in a guided, but organic, manner.

Technical Governance

Composition: This group will be mostly composed of federally funded research and development centers (FFRDCs) such as Sandia National Laboratories and MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory and traditional defense contractors. These entities should have a significant level of manpower and military-specific technical and administrative expertise. They take on high-risk, high-reward projects or complex engineering programs that require extensive systems integration. These entities have enough stability to absorb the inevitable failures that come with bold experimentation and are likely to generate creative integration concepts in advanced engineering and basic sciences. 

Sandia National Labs and MIT Lincoln Lab Logos

Time Horizon: Governance looks across a longer term time horizon(around 3-5 years or up to 10 years with robust technical and global trend forecasting), working on complex projects that address problems that might arise in the mid- to long-term future.

Observe: Observe the military innovation strategy and the high-level technology objectives to achieve the technical solutions from the tactical layer, and the technical solutions from the hobbyist.  

Orient: The entities in this group will use the military innovation strategy to guide technology development. They will determine the enabling technological capabilities by drawing from the government research and development and commercial spaces, especially those pertinent to a robust system—such as IT network capability, complex algorithmic models, mass data storage and processing capabilities, and security. They will also draw inspirations from hackathons and hobbyist communities.[13,14]

Decide: The entities in this layer will decide how to build large technical systems that maximize the cumulative effects of all relevant technology pieces to support national strategic intent.  

Act: Explore tech and basic science solutions with a sufficient understanding of the battlespace environment and applicability. Inform broader community about the capability of the tech. 

Agile Technology Forces

Composition: Agile Technology Entities include small to medium sized military-focused companies or branches of larger companies that can move quickly. These entities have structures and procedures that focus on providing immediate technical solutions and innovations in an agile manner. Once a solution is identified, each focuses its energy on bringing that solution to the field in a reliable manner as quickly as possible. Fielding technologies from this group as quickly and reliably as possible will enable the overall community to identify and close immediate capability gaps efficiently while sun-setting outdated technologies. This group’s expertise is prototyping and designing field-ready solutions quickly and transforming commercial-off-the-shelf solutions to military-off-the-shelf solutions in a secure and reliable manner. This group is likely to generate creative combinatory use of technology on a tactical level.

This group is largely lacking in the current environment, which forces the Technical Governance entities to adopt a tempo for which their structures are not set up and limits the number of innovations from the Civilian Layer to be matched with the appropriate operational problem sets. Organizations such as SOFWERX and AFWERX are spearheading in supporting smaller entities to operate in the military space, but their efforts need to be greatly expanded in order to support an agile technology forces that can produce holistic change.

Time Horizons: Rapid acquisition; from concept to fielding within 1-3 years. 

Observe: Each entity will maintain a strong integration between technologists and warfighters in the technology design process to provide reliable technical solutions inspired by battlefield “hacks” and ensure technical solutions can be fielded with operational impact on the user level.

Orient: Analyze risk and impact based on warfighter innovations, public and military research and development from universities, federally funded research and development centers, large defense contractors, commercial tech, and maker/hobbyist ideas that are currently mature or will be mature in the short term. 

Decide: Determine best technical path to create field-ready devices. Feed long-range tech exploration needs to research institutes. Feed specific problems to hobbyist community for inspiration and incorporate solutions if appropriate. 

Act: Test technical solutions in the field, or conduct operational tests. Provide tactical input to technical governance and strategic layers. 

Citizens

Composition: Maker/hobbyist and commercial tech communities such as local maker spaces, maker fairs, or hacking conferences. This group is motivated by localized interest (either self or a local subgroup) instead of military objectives. By setting clear expectations and well-defined goals, this group can be used to maximize chaos and learning opportunities. They are experts in generating creative and unconventional techniques, as well as discovering weaknesses in current solutions. The probability of this group creating a solution that can easily be translated into battlefield-applicable solution is low, but the overall probability of discovering an inspiring and relevant solution is high.

Time Horizons: Weeks to months as determined by the agency that provides the problem.

Observe: The community will be given defined problems with clear parameters of success. Means of motivation to solve the problems will be adjusted to the community being addressed.

Orient: Any resources the hobbyists can gather. 

Decide: Any way to combine resources to devise a solution. 

Act: Makers’ solutions will be fed back to the agency that provided the problem. In the format of hackathons that are made famous by large Silicon Valley companies, the participants of the hackathons are usually employees of the company or external experts with a deep understanding of the problem faced by the company.[15,16] In hackathons that target battlespace problems, where participants might be civilians who do not possess a deep understanding of the operational problems and do not have any obligation to continue nurturing the solution after the event, additional effort must be taken to harvest and integrate the hackathon results into the rest of the Technical Union for further development. Solutions should be tracked for their ability to be integrated in order to improve problem-setting to increase the hit rate in the future.

Conclusion

The general framework of a Technical Union is not delineated by geography or well-defined function groups. It is determined by communities connected virtually, with subcultures and organizations that can take on any organic shape or form. This is a union where the government can no longer rely on variables that could previously be assumed to be stable, such as organizational governance structure, unified communication methods, traditional bureaucratic processes, and longevity of the suborganization. By enabling warfighters to control localized innovation efforts in a distributed manner, the creativity power generated will be unmatched and at speeds unrivaled.


Joanne C. Lo is the CEO and founder of Elysian Labs, a military-focused organization that provides warfighters with leading edge technologies for modern warfare. Prior to founding Elysian Labs, Joanne was a Member of the Technical Staff at Sandia National Labs and researcher at Google ATAP and Adobe Research. She has a PhD and MS in Electrical Engineering and a BS in Biomedical Engineering.


This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.

Notes:

[1] Mcleary, P. The Pentagon’s Third Offset May Be Dead, But No One Knows What Comes Next. Foreign Policy. 2018.

[2] Birnbaum, E. Microsoft Employees Protest US Army Contract. The Hill. 2020; Fang, L. Google Hedges on Promise to End Controversial Involvement in Military Drone Contract . The Intercept. 2019.

[3] Fang, L. Google Hedges on Promise to End Controversial Involvement in Military Drone Contract . The Intercept. 2019.

[4] Suits, D. Acquisition Reform Requires Culture Shift, Officials Say. Army News Service 2019.

[5] Soloway, S. Will the Empire Strike Back? OTA and the Future of Acquisition. Defense News 2018.

[6] Greeff, T. The Pentagon Can’t Develop Technology Quickly Enough to Thwart Enemies. Here’s One Way to Help. 2018.

[7] Long , J. Disruptive Innovation Wins Wars. Here’s How the Army Can Get Better At It. . Modern War Institute. 2019.

[8] Gerstein, D. The Military’s Search for Innovation. The RAND blog 2018.

[9] Wallace, M. The U.S. Air Force Learned to Code—and Saved the Pentagon Millions. Fast Company. 2018.

[10] MCAGCC, M. Fabrication Laboratory (FABLAB), Twentynine Palms, California.

[11] Osinga, F. P. B. Science, Strategy and War; Routledge, 2006. 230

[12] Lind, W. Maneuver Warfare Handbook ; Routledge , 1985.

[13] Outreach, D. DARPA Launches Social Media Platform to Accelerate R&D https://www.darpa.mil/news-events/2019-03-19.

[14] SOFWERX. ThunderDrone Rapid Prototyping Event: Warfighter Council. 2017.

[15] Weinberger, M. “There are only two rules” — Facebook explains how “hackathons,” one of its oldest traditions, is also one of its most important.

[16] Spaulding, E., Caimi, G. Hackathons Aren’t Just for Coders.



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