Tag Archives: Technology

Naval Applications for Trello: The Organizing Tool

Naval Applications of Tech 

Written by Terence Bennett, Naval Applications of Tech discusses how emerging and disruptive technologies can be used to make the U.S. Navy more effective. It examines potential and evolving developments in the tech industry, communication platforms, computer software and hardware, mechanical systems, power generation, and other areas.

“The most damaging phrase in the language is ‘We’ve always done it this way!’” Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper in an interview in Information Week, March 9, 1987, p. 52

By Terence Bennett

Since the Budget Control Act took effect in 2013, senior leadership and news media have emphasized the issue of decreased military funding. The U.S. Navy is being stressed with longer deployments and shorter trello_iconmaintenance availabilities. This is affecting morale, material readiness, and retention. There is no easy solution to this political and economic problem, but Navy leaders can leverage new technology to make its Sailors and teams more effective while they are asked to ‘do more with less.’ One example of a new collaboration tool optimized for mobile use is Trello. New tools like Trello, combined with handheld technology, will help transform the effectiveness of the Navy team.

In April 2015, the Navy introduced the eSailor pilot program to issue tablet computers to new boot camp recruits at Great Lakes Recruit Training Center. This technology is intended to give Sailors greater access to training materials and email communication. Once this technology hits the fleet, it will greatly increase our Sailors’ operational effectiveness and overall well-being. For example, while conducting maintenance, Sailors will be able to quickly connect to manuals, research resources, and technical reach back support. Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Mike Stevens explained: “We’ll download all their training curricula. Everything that they currently get that’s in paper will be loaded electronically.” Leadership is already forging the tools to enable a more capable Sailor of the future. Today, leaders should take advantage of free software that can help their teams be more efficient.

Trello sample window.
Trello sample window. (Trello Blog)

Trello is an application that can help commanders and their teams better focus and prioritize the mission in front of them. Trello is a webpage-based project and task-management tool that contains lists laid out in ‘cards’ horizontally on the screen. It is much like the Note Card Organization System that many Commanding Officers turn to for organizing thoughts, functions, and follow-ups. Trello expands this effective note card system and allow users to share and embed ideas. It allows users to very quickly see all his/her priorities at once. The dashboard has as many cards as one needs. Individual cards contain items of any category or topic. The user is able to customize and setup cards however they prefer. Cards are a very flexible item that can contain any number of features including checklists, images, attachments, discussions, and deadlines.

While in port, the Commanding Officer of a destroyer might have a card of all short-term training cycle items, a card for current personnel issues, and cards for each department’s current objectives. The cards might be titled as Engineering, Weapons, Operations, Long Term Maintenance, personal items, and so on. When a leader shares a card with tasks and deadlines, it creates transparency and shared expectations between supervisors and subordinates. This allows everyone to understand the established priorities, be accountable, and update cards as tasks are met. Even better, Trello integrates with new communication tools like Slack so users do not need to jump back and forth to transcribe notes, attachments, or images. Everything syncs together into a time-saving tool that can make a ship’s team more productive by cutting down on the length of many daily meetings.

Divisional leadership might employ Trello to directly task Sailors and track their progress. Trello can easily be used to employ the Kanban system of management, which was developed by Toyota to maximize production while maintaining flexibility. It is best represented as post-Its on a whiteboard, with three columns on it: To Do, Doing, and Done. Post-Its would represent tasks (or cards) moved between the columns as they are completed. It is a very powerful method to instruct Sailors, while giving them room and autonomy. All the necessary resources can be attached to each card (notes, documents, images, and videos) to further empower junior Sailors.

While ships may not have tablets on them yet, almost every Sailor has a smartphone. Depending on a leader’s personal style and the dynamic nature of their team, many Sailors and Officers can start using Trello today. If they have a team that is constantly on the move and working on different projects, Trello can help share priorities, stay organized, on track, while reducing unnecessary back and forth. Although connectivity at sea would significantly hinder its capability, Trello is a great tool to track and maintain awareness of all a team’s requirements while in port. Trello Enterprise has developed two-factor authentication and file encryption at rest to give users an additional layer of security over standard SSL traffic encryption.

If you are skeptical, I challenge you to organize your day with it. You will find a clean, intuitive, and widely powerful platform. This author employs the Mozilla Trello Add-on to save and categorize tabs with just a click (like for this article). Trello is one example of a simple, yet powerful, tool Navy leaders can employ today.

LT Bennett is a former Surface Warfare Officer and current Intelligence Officer. The views express herein are solely those of the author and are presented in his personal capacity on his own initiative. They do not reflect the official positions of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or any other U.S. Government agency.
Featured Image: SINGAPORE (Aug. 2, 2009) Sailors man the rails aboard the aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73) while underway off the coast of Singapore. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Adam K. Thomas/Released)
 
[1] Joshua Stewart, Recruits to get tablet devices in spring pilot program, Navy Times (Feb. 11, 2015), available at: http://www.navytimes.com/story/military/tech/2015/02/11/navy-mcpon-tablet-esailor-ipad-bluejacket/23227655/.

[2] How we effectively use Trello for project management, WP Curve (January 21, 2015), available at: http://wpcurve.com/trello-for-project-management/

Naval Applications for Slack: The Collaboration Tool

Naval Applications of Tech

The following article is the first in CIMSEC’s newest column: Naval Applications of Tech. Written by Terence Bennett, Naval Applications of Tech will discuss how emerging and disruptive technologies can be used to make the U.S. Navy more effective. It will examine potential and evolving developments in the tech industry, communication platforms, computer software and hardware, mechanical systems, power generation, and other areas.

“The most damaging phrase in the language is ‘We’ve always done it this way!’” Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper in an interview in Information Week, March 9, 1987, p. 52

By Terence Bennett

The Navy has spent many years looking at how to bring the newest information technology to operating forces. A U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings article from 1998 criticized the Navy’s resistance to change and recommended setting up local slack-logo_large-1024x403area networks (LAN) using the built-in capabilities of Win95.[1] Technology has come a long way since then, but the use of floppy disks aboard this author’s ship in 2012 indicates that the Navy still has some progress to make. An application, Slack, may be just what the Navy needs.

Microsoft gave us Outlook and PowerPoint and the Navy has not questioned their dominance for 20 years. This author argues that traditional email services are no longer helping a ship’s crew effectively communicate. Leaders may be familiar with sitting in their stateroom or office to send and receive emails, but it is no longer an effective or efficient form of communication. Many organizations, the Navy included, have outgrown this tool for much of its internal communication, though they may not be aware of this. McKinsey, a consultancy, estimated that high-skill knowledge workers (including managers) spend 28 percent of the workweek managing email and 20 percent of the day looking for internal information or tracking down individuals who can help with a specific task (doesn’t that sound familiar…at least we have the 1MC.)[2]

Navy leadership takes pride in the autonomy and independence of a Commanding Officer at sea. But the autonomy of leadership is challenged by the business of meeting the bureaucratic operational and training standards of today’s navy. Leaders are so burdened by relentless requirements and tasks, they are forced to ‘fight the closest fire.’ This is not only a Navy problem. Many civilian companies struggle under the burden of hundreds of emails a day and the reactionary mindset such an environment creates. The McKinsey report finds, “when companies use social media internally, messages become content; a searchable record of knowledge can reduce, by as much as 35 percent, the time employees spend searching for company information.”[3] Slack, an application already available on the open market, facilitates this.

slack-desktop-integrations.0 (1)
Sample Slack window. Image: The Verge.

Slack is a communication tool set  designed by software engineers to streamline their own team’s communication. In that spirit, it is very deliberately built, intuitive to use, and efficiently designed. More relevant to any commander or unit leader looking to streamline their team’s communication, Slack works without the need for any installation or system integration. Users log in and build a team through the Slack website. That’s it.

Time magazine enthusiastically uses Slack in its office, stating:

“Venture-capital darlings Airbnb, BuzzFeed and Blue Bottle Coffee use it. So do Fortune 500 firms like Comcast and Walmart. Teams at NASA and the State Department are on Slack. (More than 2,000 people use Slack at Time Inc., which publishes this magazine and many others.) Not in a generation has a new tool been adopted more quickly by a wider variety of businesses or with such joy.”[4]

Email messages are often hard to follow, thus making tracing decision-making logic more difficult. Email can become especially cumbersome when checking in with teammates, getting updates, or when trying to get a quick ‘RGR.’ Slack is literally changing the way companies operate. It allows all communication to be controlled in one place, integrated cheaply and easily over commercial web browsers on existing architecture. Imagine if all of a ship’s internal email communication was immediately pre-categorized into channels that were searchable. Companies that have successfully integrated Slack now use traditional email only for external communication. As with chat software, organizations use big public channels, private groups, and one-on-one channels. Although many of the embedding features for mobile users and coders may not be useful for the Navy, there are exciting ways to integrate cloud storage, like Dropbox, in the future. The enterprise pricing options start at $8 per month and scale upward.

One big impetus for a shift to Slack is its mobile integration. With the Navy’s move towards the eSailors program and making ships wireless, leaders will have opportunities to stay mobile and work on the move. Putting a tablet in the hands of every Sailor will likely change some of our operations and maintenance procedures. Such connectivity will undoubtedly change the way we communicate and organize. Slack can be the first controlled step towards bringing the Navy into this new and empowering world. Leadership challenges in the Navy may become increasingly difficult under budget constraints and operational requirements, but the new Sailors enlisting in the Navy today have the technological skills to face those challenges. Leadership has an obligation to give them the tools and opportunities to do just that.

LT Bennett is a former Surface Warfare Officer and current Intelligence Officer. The views express herein are solely those of the author and are presented in his personal capacity on his own initiative. They do not reflect the official positions of the Department of Defense, or any other U.S. Government agency.

[1] Michael Junge, “Paperless Navy …Pshaw!, 124 Proceedings Magazine, Jul. 1998.

[2] Michael Chui, James Manyika, Jacques Bughin, Richard Dobbs, Charles Roxburgh, Hugo Sarrazin, Geoffrey Sands, and Magdalena Westergren; The Social Economy: Unlocking Value and Productivity Through Social Technologies, McKinsey Gloval Institute, July 2012.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Samuel Jacobs, “How E-mail killer Slack Will Change the Future of Work, Time Magazine, Oct. 29, 2015.

People Not Parts: Returning Ingenuity and Tenacity to our Officer Corps

By Ian Akisoglu

Since the end of the Second World War, the military dominance of the United States has rested on its relative technological superiority over its adversaries, what has been underwritten by its impressive economic strength and high-tech domestic industries. For the first time in seventy years, the United States military is forced to contemplate a long-term strategy without the implicit guarantee that it will enjoy decisive technological superiority as its most likely adversaries come closer and closer to achieving parity in both technological and economic strength. In order to remain viable in future conflicts, the American military will have to rethink its operational paradigm and learn to rely more heavily on the creativity and individual zeal of its leaders and less on its hard assets.

For much of its history, the American military has fought its major conflicts without the overwhelming technological and financial superiority that it has enjoyed since the end of the Second World War. I believe that this phenomenon can best be explained by the following paradigm: raised in an age where American military power was relatively lacking on the world stage, the American officer corps did not possess any of the bad habits or laziness of thought engendered in today’s officer corps. Looking down on the rest of the world’s militaries from a plateau of overwhelming superiority and relative security, we have become haughty and ignorant of our peers’ capabilities. Previously generations of American military officers were forced to contend with a world in which the United States Army and Navy were not the best – indeed, not even in the top ten at times.

This forced American military leaders to develop and utilize a currently unimaginable level of organizational, operational, and strategic creativity comparably unknown to the armed forces of today, where an over-reliance on financial superiority has led to an over-reliance on technological superiority, which has led to an over-reliance on established procedures and doctrine. In order for the armed forces of the United States of America to continue to enjoy success in the future, both on the battlefield and as a viable instrument of soft power, American military leaders must look to lessons from the past and re-learn how to plan and fight wars without the assumption that they will always enjoy superiority of force.

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A humorous quote from a European officer highlights the benefit of this, “One of the serious problems in planning against American doctrine is that the Americans do not read their manuals nor do they feel any obligations to follow their doctrine.” This emphasizes the extensive freedom of judgment American commanders previously enjoyed while executing missions in complex operational environments. From the author’s perspective as a contemporary unrestricted line officer in the U.S. Navy, this freedom of judgment is virtually non-existent nowadays. Instead, American military commanders are so hamstrung by strict adherence to the protocol and procedures that have been enshrined throughout their military upbringings that they are often afraid to rely on their own intuition, experience, and creativity. This risk aversion is not unjustified since the risk to reward ratio for officers willing to try new ideas has shifted so heavily to the risk side, that many deem the potential gains not worth imperiling their careers over. The main problem with this method of doing business is that operational arenas are not the static playing fields that we presuppose them to be in most exercise and operation briefs. They are constantly evolving, which requires adaptability and ingenuity instead of a flow-chart approach to missions.

Members of the U.S. Naval Academy Class of 2014 participate in the Oath of Office ceremony at Tecumseh Court. (U.S. Navy photo by David Tucker/Released)
Members of the U.S. Naval Academy Class of 2014 participate in the Oath of Office ceremony at Tecumseh Court. (U.S. Navy photo by David Tucker/Released)

This is not meant to be a rebuke of procedural compliance – far from it. Procedural compliance is important to ensure the safety and proper execution of our technical missions: safety and maintenance. However, it is important to also recognize its inherent limitations, and understand that it’s impossible to write “winning a war” into procedural compliance, since procedures only extend to the realm of what is known, and war often devolves into the area of the unknown. Simply put, officers should be proficient at procedural compliance and planned execution, but once the situation is no longer covered by procedures, strategic entrepreneurship and improvisation must take over seamlessly. If we consistently deny our Navy leadership the ability to improvise and test their creative problem solving abilities for fear of imperiling their careers, how and when can this creative solution seeking process be fostered?

The key question then is how do we recapture the ingenuity of the individual officer? I assert that it must start at the earliest possible point in the officer’s career – for creativity once lost is nearly impossible to rediscover. The Navy should develop programs that both encourage and train officers to think of creative solutions to problems early on in their careers. The best time to start this is at the O-2 and O-3 levels, directly after the completion of an officer’s initial warfare qualifications and first operational tour.

The importance of instilling and encouraging the idea of creative thought early on in the officer corps cannot be overstated. Senior officers that attend the Naval War College relatively late in their careers to explore ideas on war and its strategic theory have already come to depend on the rigidity of the Navy establishment for their paychecks and lifestyle, and thus are less willing to question the institution or its authority. The junior officer, relatively fresh and with fewer mental harangues, owes no such allegiance to the organization and does not see it through the same cynical lens, allowing them to see the flaws in our organization much more clearly than a dyed-in-the-wool career officer. These junior officers are still willing to question the military’s fatal deficiencies and flaws before becoming completely indoctrinated into the system.

One way to implement this would be to establish a school that officers attend with peers from their warfare areas concentrated around every major career milestone. The goal of such a school would be to gather high-flying officers into small groups where they would be posed complex operational problems. However, they would face them with handicaps and constraints put in place, making normal doctrine and pre-planned responses obsolete, and forcing them to develop creative solutions to real world problems. Officers would return to the course at every major career milestone, such as in between division officer tours, prior to starting their department head tours, prior to beginning their XO/CO fleet-up, and prior to achieving flag rank.

One of the most resonant lessons that has been gleaned from the attacks on the USS Stark, USS Samuel B. Roberts, and USS Cole is that in unexpected situations, conventional procedures often are inadequate, and improvisation dominates. Generations of American military officers have become complacent through the knowledge of their nation’s technological and financial superiority. It is time to train them to think and fight absent this implicit safety net once again. It is better to start learning these critical skills now, while remaining in control of the pace, than to be forced to learn them under fire in a future conflict.

Capt. Frank Olmo, deputy commander, Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC), introduces SMWDC and the new career opportunities it provides junior surface warfare officers (SWOs) during a brief aboard USS Bunker Hill (DDG 52). U.S. Navy photo).
Capt. Frank Olmo, deputy commander, Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC), introduces SMWDC and the new career opportunities it provides junior surface warfare officers (SWOs) during a brief aboard USS Bunker Hill (DDG 52). (U.S. Navy photo).

Secondly, while an understanding of mathematics and the sciences remain ever important in an increasingly technical and specialized military, officer programs must also recapture the emphasis on liberal arts education and creative thinking that has steadily dwindled in the twentieth and twenty-first century formation of modern military officers. At the United States Naval Academy it is a requirement that sixty-five percent of those graduates must complete degrees in the science, technology, engineering, or mathematics disciplines. Of students commissioning from ROTC programs around the country – which, combined with the Naval Academy, contribute roughly two thirds of new officer accessions the fleet each year – eighty-five percent of available scholarships are rewarded to those students who choose majors in the STEM fields. Those remaining fifteen percent who do express interest in studying disciplines outside of these fields, ignominiously referred to as “Tier 3” majors, find their options for earning scholarships and commissioning more limited.

Technical courses do an excellent job training officers to operate complex combat systems and nuclear reactors, where every aspect can be distilled to checklists and procedures, but do a poor job in training strategic and creative thought. Such critical thinking skills are ultimately where officers render the greatest value to the armed forces as leaders and warfighters, not technicians. At a minimum, a certain number of liberal arts courses in subjects such as philosophy, history, literature, and economics should be required for certain officer programs in just the same way that calculus, physics, and other mathematics and science courses are. An officer able to harness the problem-solving ability taught by an education in engineering with the propensity for creative though that comes from a study of the liberal arts would be the best equipped to execute all of the Navy’s missions.

Thirdly, the United States military must push decision-making back down the chain of command to the unit level. In our age of global real-time communication we have achieved the ability to control even the minutest detail from the highest level. We must resist the temptation to do so, for this robs on-scene commanders of the crucial experience that comes from tense, independent decision-making. Instead, we must once again become comfortable with giving commanders autonomy over their units and operations, giving direction only in broad strokes and leaving the details to the “man on the spot,” who is inevitably the subject matter expert on what is happening within and directly around his unit. In today’s fleet, the number of daily updates that a deployed warship is required to provide up the chain of command off-ship has become a full-time job on top of the full-time job of running the ship and executing its mission. No effective leader has two full-time jobs.

Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt on the steps of the Naval War College.
Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt on the steps of the Naval War College.

And all of this for what? It is absolutely ludicrous to imagine that a remote commander and their staff, often years detached from single-unit leadership, require or need all of the information now required to be tracked on a daily basis. The massive off-ship administrative burden that this places on the wardroom of an operational unit, simultaneously interfering with their ability to effectively do their job within the lifelines of the ship, significantly degrades morale and unit-level success. By fostering a culture in which officers are afraid of making even the smallest decisions themselves, we are handicapping the abilities of junior officers to develop leadership skills and to learn to take the initiative, resulting in the ones who adapt to this climate being cautious to a fault for the rest of their careers, and inducing those individuals who want more control and autonomy to seek opportunities elsewhere.

Finally, the United States military must consider drawing talent into its ranks from untraditional sources outside the military and recognize that its rigid and traditional career path that exclusively emphasizes hiring and promotion from within might have to change. This is not entirely without precedent – the Navy already does this for many of its staff corps officers who have demonstrated experience and proficiency in their civilian careers. There are many individuals with different backgrounds and specialties who hear the call to serve their country at different points in their life. A master software engineer at Google with ten years in the industry would be an incredible asset to the military’s cyber warfare communities, but at that point in his career he would likely be too old to enlist and would have his talents wasted as a newly-commissioned ensign while also being grossly under-compensated. Instead, why not bring this cyber star in as a Lieutenant Commander? This arrangement would offer significant benefits and opportunities to both the military and the individual.

If the United States wants to avoid catastrophe on the battlefield in the coming decades, it will need to come to terms with the fact that having more money and better technology will no longer be enough to win the next war against the next foe – who may very well enjoy parity in these domains, if not even superiority. Accepting this, rather than continuing to do the same thing while expecting a different result, is a required preliminary step.

Deputy Secretary of Defense presents a Master of Science diploma to Ken Thomas at the Naval Postgraduate School.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work presents a Master of Science diploma to Ken Thomas at the Naval Postgraduate School.

The United States military must fundamentally change the way it does business and drive its officer corps to rediscover skills that gave way to technology and money when they seemed to no longer be needed or valued. In order to do this, we must encourage creative thought in our officers starting at a very junior level – both by commissioning a greater portion of our officers with backgrounds in the liberal arts as well as technical majors, and by creating incubator programs at multiple levels of officer career tracks to cultivate and stimulate creative thought. The military must also learn to re-delegate greater amounts of control and authority to unit commanders while unit commanders must learn to do the same to their subordinates. This ensures that if subordinate commanders are fighting a conflict in which they are cut off from communication with headquarters or things are not going quite as they had expected them to, they aren’t paralyzed with indecision, experiencing what is in effect their first ever real experience with high-stakes decision making.

Finally, the United States must harness the huge pool of potential talent that exists in the form of civilians who want to serve but don’t fit into the current recruiting construct. By allowing experienced non-military personnel to enter the organization at mid and even upper-level officer positions, the military can harness a huge untapped reservoir of private sector talent. The same skills that our military forefathers used to achieve victory on the battlefield when outclassed in technology, money, manpower, and weapons – creativity, zeal, initiative, and guile – are needed once again. All that is lacking is the will and tenacity to bring them back.

Lieutenant Junior Grade Ian Akisoglu is a Surface Warfare Officer living in Norfolk, Virginia.  He graduated from American University with a Bachelor of Arts in economics and history and was subsequently commissioned through Officer Candidate School.  The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the U.S. Department of Defense or the Department of the Navy.  He can be reached at ian.akisoglu@gmail.com.

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Bibliography:

Kimbrough IV, James M. MAJ, USA. (2008). Examining U.S. Irregular Warfare Doctrine. 14.

United States Naval Academy. (2015). Academics – Majors and Courses.

Population Representation in the Military Services FY 2013 Report: Appendix B: Active Component Enlisted Accessions, Enlisted Force, Officer Accessions, and Officer Corps Tables.

United States Navy ROTC. (2015). Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps Scholarship Selection Criteria.

Long, Roger D. The Man On The Spot: Essays on British Empire History. (Ed.), Praeger, First Edition (Sep 26, 1995).

Avatar: Shock and Awe-fully Dumb

Written by Matthew Hipple for Movie Re-Fights Week

The blockbuster Avatar is not only remarkable for its stunning visuals and brow-beating politics, but for the colossal  incompetence of the corporate and military leadership of the Resource Development Administration (RDA). 

Sure, humanity may be counting on you for their survival. Sure, you have arrived on an alien planet armed with the ability to transmit your consciousness into proxy flesh suits hewn together with the most advanced science. But hey, why not just “YOLO” it and see what happens? What could go wrong? It’s not like you’re 4.5 light years from earth with limited resources!

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Tactical Failure: If It Looks Smart and Doesn’t Work – It’s Stupid

Having thoroughly pissed off the blue bees nest on Pandora, RDA command is ordering you to destroy a tiny, purple-glowing “Tree of Souls.” The critical node in a vast planet-wide biological neural net, it is located  in the middle of an area of heavy radar interference and the aerial equivalent of deadly shoal water.

That's it? It's the size of a town Christmas tree! How hard could it be?
That’s it? It’s the size of a small town Christmas tree! Why does this have to be complicated?

RDA commanders probably read the old classic “Starship Troopers” and had heard of Star Craft’s “Zerg” and Halo’s “Flood” from the History Channel. Biological hive minds always end in billions of dead terrans. The mission was probably too important not to staff to death.

What would be more perfect than assigning a massive, vulnerable transport ship carrying a comically lashed-together bomb of mining ordnance through this rock mine-field? Granted, the target is only the size of a Denny’s… OH! Let’s add a ground assault through dense jungle with little to no air support. Never pass up an excuse to party “Ellen Ripley” style in an exo-suit. The plan looked awesome on power point, as one can see from the many unnecessary parts: a militarized space barge and a ground assault. The words “decisive,” “domain,” and “disruptive” probably appeared multiple times.

Yeah... this feels good. I'll sacrifice all my mobility to protect this lumbering militarized space barge.
Yeah… this feels good. We’ll sacrifice all our mobility to protect this lumbering militarized space barge. We look TOTALLY cool right now.

However, RDA had JUST blown up the Home Tree – a facility the size of a small city – using nothing but a token force of deadly and agile VTOL gunships. Not only was Operation Soul Tree against a far smaller and more fragile target – but it would be in a physically and electronically denied environment.  Why suddenly trade mobile lethality for for static defense on a flying dump truck? Why risk losing your entire ground force in a superfluous assault through dense jungle?  Seriously, how could this NOT go wrong?

Aurgh! A total disaster we could have NEVER predicted!
Noooooo! A total disaster we could have NEVER predicted!

Now, had the RDA forces learned the lesson of their own experience – they would have executed a multi-axis raid on the “Soul Tree” using a primary assault by gunships and a feint by a faux “bomber.” The ground assault would have been completely scrubbed.

Maintaining a “feint” – preferably using gunships and a transport on rudimentary auto-pilot – would draw enemy forces away from the actual angle of attack. The windows of the aircraft used for the feint would have to be blacked out. Recon for Airborne Pandoran forces would quickly discover that the cockpits were empty, and realize the bomber is a feint.

Detaching the primary aerial assault force from the  bomber would have allowed pilots speed and flexibility denied to them in the original plan to guard a militarized transport. With Pandoran forces distracted by the potential bombardment by the transport ship, the main assault force would move through the floating boulders at top speed, devastating the Soul Tree with their ordnance before quickly retreating back to base.

I love the smell of victory in the morning.
I love the smell of victory in the morning.

With the ground component completely scrubbed, the RDA would retain a significant force to continue defense of their facilities. While these bases are heavily defended already, these are static defenses that require augmentation from mobile components. It would be wise to keep some of the aerial component in reserve as well, in the off chance that Operation Soul Tree failed and human forces would have to hold out until military re-supply from Earth.

Of course, unlike in Operation Guard the Slow and Useless Target, we get to win this time.

Strategic Failure: That Escalated Quickly

Sooo... now that I randomly burned down all your homes just so I can dig under your tree, we're cool - right?
Sooo… now that I randomly burned down all your homes just so I can dig under your tree, we’re cool – right?

But let’s take a step back here – why did the RDA get to the point where it believed it had to commit all its forces to a winner-take-all assault on this Soul Tree network node? Oh, that’s right, they chose to burn down some blue people’s entire capital city.

Granted, the tree is sitting on top of an unobtanium stockpile critical to humanity’s survival… but this is the same human civilization that is capable of creating avatar meat-puppets that can be operated remotely to any location anywhere on this alien planet. Certainly, we can learn the ancient art of lateral drilling?

We can bring genetically engineered soldier suits trillions of miles through space - but can only dig like Gold-rush era miners.
We can bring genetically engineered soldier suits trillions of miles through space – but can only dig  like Gold-rush era miners.

The vast mining infrastructure operated by the RDA, and the automated technology available to it, would allow humanity some options OTHER than blowing a native city into oblivion to access the resources. It’s the future, surely there are automated mining units that aren’t the size of office buildings, or tunnel-boring machines that could serve this mission.

And let’s be real here – the outfit sent to collect all these resources is the “Resource Development Administration.” Mining should be their specialty.

Force Planning: Phoning it in

The mining technology angle leads us to a more general problem with the technology employed by the RDA. Considering the military and commercial operational needs, the capabilities developed from the technology available seem oddly under developed.

The lack of orbital strike capabilities is notable. From cracking open a large hole for mining to cracking open a target – the RDA would have found great use for an orbital weapon of some sort. It’s not like the mission’s importance to earth didn’t warrant the resources. They certainly had the technology for it. You could destroy ANY  tree you really felt necessary – and you wouldn’t have to risk any military forces. Hell, the Pandorans wouldn’t even know it was you. They don’t know how satellites work.

You came this far, with ALL this technology... and couldn't bring a space cannon?
You came this far, with ALL this technology… and couldn’t bring a space cannon?

More concerning is the lack of a real military application of the avatar technology the movie is named after. Sure, the modified blue people are a nice touch. Hearts and minds is always the better path then a tough military campaign in someone else’s backyard.

However, why settle for tall skinny blue people? Why not create a legion of 10 foot tall super-Cena ? You could add extra arms, camouflage skin, or even millions of tiny spider-like hairs for extra grip! Perhaps lower cost methods could be employed to save human personnel and maximize combat effectiveness, like making the combat exo-suits neural net operated. Perhaps remote neural control could operate the gunships… or even gunship swarms controlled by a single consciousness. In the movie Surrogates, the DoD was fighting wars with legions of brain-controlled robots… and they weren’t even advanced enough to land a mining operation in another solar system.

You can biologically engineer a whole new life-form that can be remotely controlled anywhere on the planet... and all you can make is REALLY tall blue people?
Why don’t we try this with 2-3 more feet in height, 5x the muscle mass, and 2 more arms for faster magazine change-outs, multiple melee and ranged weapon use, and better climbing abilities. Maybe the skin can be a color that blends in better with the environment. Really, we can do better than super-tall blue hipsters.

Hell, if the RDA had the ability to hack into the neurological network of a surrogate body remotely – why wasn’t anyone trying to tap into this planetary neural net? Imagine the processing capacity of a planet-sized biological computer, or the influence one could have on inter-tribal planetary politics with neural-net access. At the very least, the intelligence gathering potential would be invaluable for a force operating in a potential adversary’s backyard.

Conclusion: Insanity or Laziness

Humanity is in a tight spot – an energy crisis along with dwindling terrain resources mean that unobtanium is humanity’s only way out. Unfortunately, the RDA decision makers on Pandora has decided to phone it in.

You ask me for strategy? I offer you something better - a myopic pursuit of frontal assaults. I offer you the obsessions of a man who has clearly never seen the movie "Zulu" or read a Kipling poem, and has only been fighting wildlife for at least a decade.
You ask me for strategy? I offer you something better – a myopic pursuit of frontal assaults and kinetic effects. I offer you the obsession of a man who has clearly never seen the movie “Zulu” or read a Kipling poem. I assure you, though my experience in military operations was once great, I have done nothing but slowly go mad from the isolation and fight wildlife for at least a decade.

Perhaps it’s the cabin fever spending so much time away from civilization. Perhaps it’s the simplicity of mission requirements that involve fighting either animal opponents or blue people armed with sticks. Maybe it’s even the lack of good reading material. Whatever the case, those who were clearly once capable corporate, technical, and military leaders had long ago started slacking off – thinking down predictable or silly stovepipes in their execution of the Pandora mission. It makes a good case for regular leadership rotation. It pays to ensure one’s leadership does not become stale… or even lose their minds from isolation.

Whoever humanity sends to re-take Pandora – and capture the traitor, Jake Sully – will be a bit more on the ball.

We'll be back, hippies.
We’ll be back, hippies.

Matthew Hipple is the President of CIMSEC and host of our Sea Control and Real Time Strategy podcasts. He is also an active duty Surface Warfare Officer, whose opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the Resource Development Administration.

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