Tag Archives: Defense

Bonfire of the Inanities

This article is a part of The Hunt for Strategic September, a week of analysis on the relevance of strategic guidance to today’s maritime strategy(ies).

Sometimes you are forced by calendars and cycles to pop out a strategic document, or refresh a slightly stale loaf of intellectual effort.

Other times you can find yourself at a natural inflection point where it not only makes sense to re-evaluate your strategic requirements, but it is a necessity. Now is one of those times.

The bold-faced items which are screaming for attention are rather simple, but only on paper. They are actually exceptionally complex systems on their own, but they are shaping both our present and our immediate future.

1. The Long War is Over; Long Live the Long War. The American people, their elected representatives, and their nation’s allies have made it clear that after a dozen years of mostly low-intensity war, they want to trend back towards the mean. Nice thought, but the enemy gets a vote and we probably won’t be able to let the Olympics and World Cup be the place where nations, religions, and ideologies work out their differences.

That being said, the odds of over a hundred thousand American soldiers on the ground in some quasi-developing nation any time soon is small. Nation building in general will not be fashionable again for a generation. What we will need on very short notice with global reach is to find bad guys, break their stuff, and kill their people. We need to be ready to do that on our own – and have that robust capability for the foreseeable future and beyond. Long SOCOM, short NATO.

2. The Western Welfare State is Well Beyond its Design Limit.

web-dutch-king-getty“It is an undeniable reality that in today’s network and information society people are both more assertive and more independent than in the past. This, combined with the need to reduce the budget deficit, means that the classical welfare state is slowly but surely evolving into a participation society. … Achieving a ‘prudent level of public debt’ … is and will remain crucial. … If the debt grows and the interest rate rises, these payments will put more and more pressure on our economic growth, on the affordability of public services and on people’s incomes. … Unless we do something the budget deficit will remain too high. The shift towards a participation society is especially visible in our systems of social security and long-term care. In these areas in particular, the classical post-war welfare state produced schemes that are unsustainable in their present form and which no longer meet people’s expectations.”
– Willem-Alexander, King of The Netherlands, speech from the Throne, 17 September 2013.

Our traditional European allies and Japan are either creaking under the weight of unsustainable budget obligations, national debt, are too small, or have decreased military spending to the point of irrelevancy outside of auxiliary status as part of a larger nation or coalition action. Some combine all of the balance above; the United States is batting .500.

Until the Western economic model morphs in to what comes next and debt loads return to sustainable levels – at least a generation to fix – the last 100 years’ assumptions about the ability of nations at general peace to have armies sustainable in the field for any length of time are no longer valid.

3. Demographics, Resources, & Striving to Catch Up. In line with the changing reality of #2, populations in Europe and East Asia will begin to collapse along the Russian model in the coming decades. Folded in are the asymmetric demographics of ethnic/religions minorities within the European nations and Russia. When non-assimilated ethnic/religions minorities have roughly twice as many children as the legacy/host ethic/religions culture, history shows this leads to conflict. History belongs to those who show up, and numbers matter. One cannot expect to rely on “Cooperative Strategies” and “Global Fleets” when those nations that should be aligned with you cannot effectively deploy and have their largest security concerns internal to their borders.

In places such as Egypt, Yemen, and sub-Saharan Africa, population growth will continue to strip away per-capita improvements that should result from economic growth. Those nations, especially in a global information environment, will not be able to supply their people a sufficient standard of living, much less give them an opportunity to get close to the lifestyle they see every day via media.

As a result, migration challenges that we see on Europe’s Mediterranean coastline, eastern Siberia, and Western Australia will continue and expand to other areas. The target nations will have enough difficulty taking care of the hangover from the Welfare State and already existing unassimilated and growing minority populations to ignore this challenge. To add stress to the global system, they will soon become even more restrictive toward economic- and even conflict-driven migration.

To meet these three global drivers, what our nation needs in 2014 is a blank-paper, baseline review of the fundamentals; an existential strategic assessment of what our nation needs, what it wants, and what is aspires to be. It then needs to see what kind of military it can afford to meet somewhere on the line from need-want-aspire. What risks are worth taking? What requirements are non-negotiable?

Will we get such a strategic level review that we need from The Strategic Choices Management Review (SCMR)? Hard to say.

What direction and guidance will or did come from the political level to drive that strategic review? We simply don’t know. There is another 3-legged stool that I would offer for any such review that can guide those pondering once the political guidance is received, or any follow-on studies or policy documents are finished.

1. Know your place. This is at the strategic level. Most people are more comfortable slipping in to what they know best, the tactical or operational. Back away, think in broad strokes. If you have C2, C4ISR, or pictures of some Joint/Combined vignette in your document, you’re doing it wrong.

2. Embrace uncertainty. We have no idea what will be the greatest threat to our nation at the strategic level. We can have short lists. We can have most likely and most dangerous, but we cannot give anyone 51% certainty that we know where the next punch is coming. As a matter of fact, if someone in the room says they can tell you – assume they are wrong until other information backs them up. Uncertainty requires flexibility both intellectually and materially. Keep that at the top of your notepad. In an uncertain world, excessive speciality always leads to extinction.

3. Advertise your ignorance. It is OK to say, we have no idea. It is OK to say it is anyone’s guess. What needs to be done is to assess and mitigate risk. Be brutal with your assumptions and even if you are comfortable, have an answer if one of them is wrong. If your answer requires pixie dust, you’re doing it wrong.

When thinking about strategy, the maritime wedge has two reference points most think of; there is “The Maritime Strategy” from 1986, and the 2007 “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower.” Both were products of their time, and in 2013, as templates, both should be thrown aside. Like I said, blank paper.

6a01053596fb28970c0120a58d82f5970bWho should be writing our next national defense strategy? If we built our team as usual, we will get simply a conventional wisdom, jargon-filled, programmatic-defending, and buzzword-filled work that will be quoted a lot, read less, and almost never fully understood.

If we looked around the table (virtual or actual) at the first meeting of those who will have a major say in the document and half the people are over 50, we are not starting right. If at least 20% of the people are not under 30, we are not starting right. If more than half were STEM graduates at the undergrad level, we are not starting right. If the majority were known as team players and “company men,” then we are not doing it right.

Odds are however, that the group writing our strategy will be mostly over 50, spent most of the last decade and a half within commuting distance of The Pentagon, are from technical backgrounds, and are recidivist staff weenies of one kind or another. They also will be given way too much time to complete their study.

spock-vs-evil-spockWhat I am interested in is if there will be a “Minority Report” of any kind. The group’s evil twin Skippy – their other-universe Spock sporting a goatee and looking askance at all that seems slightly off. Will there be a COA-A and a COA-B for public debate?

I don’t think so, but we should. This is how I would do it.

What if we formed a fast and loose second group to offer their view of what our strategy should be? One where 75% were under 50? 50% under 35? Get a grumpy, terminal 06 with a liberal arts PhD to round up a gaggle of iconoclasts. You know the types; those who gave the middle finger to their community-fill and pursued a resident PhD program or quirky fellowship. The ones who caused their bosses to get “the call” late one afternoon because one of their officers decided to write something for publication with a message way off the reservation. The historian. The fiction writer. One of the sociologists who was on a human terrain team in AFG.

a-teamKeep the group relatively small compared to the “official” group. Most important, have it work outside FL, CA, WA, HI, VA, and MD. Better yet, ship them off to an ICBM command silo in South Dakota. Give them a little “The Shining” vibe to their deliberations.

Give them a charter such that “Point 1” is that under no circumstances will they contact anyone in the official group. “Point 2” should be that within 3 hours of their first meeting, they have to select their Chairman. The person who formed the group not only cannot be the Chairman, he cannot be involved in any of the deliberations as a member either. Yes, no one will appoint the Chair, the members will vote on him. They will also set their own rules of order. They have 2 hours to do that.

As South Dakota has terrible per diem and people have other lives to live, another advantage would be that they would be motivated to get their work done quickly and in a digestible format.

Their report will not be chopped by anyone, and all members must sign the final document. Each member, if they wish, will be allowed a 1-page 10-pt font opportunity to outline any additions to or deletions from the report they would prefer. Consider it a Minority Report nested inside a Minority Report.

As their report would most likely be completed before we see the official report, it would be embargoed and in possession of the Chair until the day the official report is made public record. Heck, the way things are going, we probably still have time until the SCMR report comes out.

Their broader charter is not to pick the most outlandish or radical strategy, or to be avant-garde for the sake of being avant-garde – but to offer what they see as the best strategy.

If their results are close to the official report, then all the better – we may be close to where we need to be. If not, well even better – creative friction!

Would such a process potentially undermine the official strategic document? Perhaps, but so what? The purpose is to promote debate about the direction we need to take as a nation – not predict the future. It only becomes a negative if we let it. As no one knows the future, what harm would there be to an addendum to the strategic document titled, “An Alternative View?”

None. What good will it do? Tremendous good in encouraging a broad range of thinking about what our nation is, what it should be, how we should go about pursuing that aspiration, and how we should man, train, and equip its armed forces to support that pursuit.

Well, that is the theory, and we are talking about something soaked in DC … so … yea.

Hagel’s Sequestration Speech: A Warning, Not a Plan

There is no other hand...
There is no other hand…

Before his appointment as U.S. Secretary of Defense, concerns existed that Chuck Hagel was a proponent of the massive cuts envisioned for the DoD as part of Sequestration. With his Statement on Strategic Choices and Management Review (SCMR) (31/07/13), the Secretary has made it very clear that he is no bedfellow of austerity.

Followers of security policy have already drawn out two possible paths from the Secretary’s words. However, the real thrust of the speech was that these were not options, as he sums up in his closing:

The inescapable conclusion is that letting sequester-level cuts persist would be a huge strategic miscalculation that would not be in our country’s best interests…


It is the responsibility of our nation’s leaders to work together to replace the mindless and irresponsible policy of sequestration.  It is unworthy of the service and sacrifice of our nation’s men and women in uniform and their families.  And even as we confront tough fiscal realities, our decisions must always be worthy of the sacrifices we ask America’s sons and daughters to make for our country.”

At multiple points within his piece, the Secretary reiterates that Sequestration cuts are not only damaging, but roughly impossible:

The review showed that the “in-between” budget scenario we evaluated would “bend” our defense strategy in important ways, and sequester-level cuts would “break” some parts of the strategy, no matter how the cuts were made.  Under sequester-level cuts, our military options and flexibility will be severely constrained…


Unlike the private sector, the federal government, and the Defense Department in particular – simply does not have the option of quickly shutting down excess facilities, eliminating entire organizations and operations, or shutting massive numbers of employees – at least not in a responsible, moral, and legal way…


In closing, one of the most striking conclusions of the Strategic Choices and Management Review is that if DoD combines all the reductions I’ve described, including significant cuts to the military’s size and capability – the savings fall well short of meeting sequester-level cuts, particularly during the first five years of these steep, decade-long reductions.”

That is to say, even if we break the back of our armed forces, we still fall short of the required austerity. The original intent of Sequestration, as an “impossible scenario,” is unfortunately coming to pass – not in possibility but in functionality.

The reality is that the real portion from which the cuts must come is the compensation that consumes “roughly half of the DoD budget,” but even then…

The efficiencies in compensation reforms identified in the review – even the most aggressive changes – still leave DoD some $350 billion to $400 billion short of the $500 billion in cuts required by sequestration over the next ten years.  The review had to take a hard look at changes to our force structure and modernization plans.”

The most worrisome reality check laid down by the Secretary is that if Sequestration is not rescinded for DoD, the reforms suggested will require the agreement of a recalcitrant Congress that was more than willing to execute Sequestration, but unwilling to bear the political consequences of the actions they’ve forced. Most likely, that scenario will only lead us deeper down the strategically damaging rabbit-hole:

These shortfalls will be even larger if Congress is unwilling to enact changes to compensation or adopt other management reforms and infrastructure cuts we’ve proposed in our Fiscal Year 2014 budget.  Opposition to these proposals must be engaged and overcome, or we will be forced to take even more draconian steps in the future.”

The Secretary has not, through the SCMR’s response to Sequestration, put down a viable plan for the future. He has set down a warning of what is to come. Let us hope that warning is heeded.

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy.  The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity.  They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

Constructive Disruption: The Defense Entrepreneurs Forum

DEFOne year ago today, an oft repeated, maligned and admired phrase kicked off a broad dialogue, bringing together a growing, widespread, and once-disparate community of defense innovators. Put simply, the idea of Disruptive Thinking was a call to question the status quo, to leverage existing innovative civilian institutions and to find crossover applications for use by the military. In the year since, however, a necessary question has been asked many times: What is Disruptive Thinking, really, and how do you put it into action? How do we link creative, emerging military leaders with the senior decision makers that can actually put their ideas to use?

We believe a compelling answer is the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum. Rank has no monopoly on innovative solutions, and DEF2013 will be the engine to match warfighters “in the arena” with senior mentors hungry for ideas generated by creative, emerging leaders. This three day event, to be held at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business over Columbus Day Weekend 2013, will be a significant departure from conventional military conferences.

The Forum

DEF2013 is not associated with any traditional Defense entities, but instead produced of, by, and for emerging military leaders. The only agenda is creating practical solutions to enable more flexibility for senior commanders, and to impart a sense of involvement and empowerment to warfighters brimming with valuable tactical and strategic contributions. It leverages the power of diverse, short presentations with the creative ideation of hack-a-thon weekend events. These aspects are designed to tackle those issues most pressing to the current generation of military leaders and veterans.

There are two main elements to the weekend: The first consists of 20-30 minute talks by emerging military leaders, both officer and enlisted, with robust audience engagement. The Saturday morning session will feature a variety of topics presented by a diverse crowd of Disruptive Thinkers. Sunday’s morning session will showcase military entrepreneurs – both veteran and currently serving servicemembers – as they explore the connection between building an actual business and serving one’s country.

The meat of DEF2013, however, is in the hack-a-thon like afternoons. Ideas, generated pre-conference by actual attendees, will be discussed at length, and solutions proposed in a collaborative, freeform way. To support these breakouts, professors from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business will give two roundtables on marketing and sales, as well as be placed as mentors within the ideation groups. At the end of the weekend, each of the self-assembled teams will have come up with a comprehensive, relevant solution to whatever military problem they set out to tackle.

Integral to this is the engagement of senior leaders. Coming up with good ideas by emerging leaders is one thing – but guiding them through institutional inertia to reality, and providing mentorship to ensure they are implemented, is something uniquely suited to tested leadership. We are recruiting current and recently retired senior mentors to come on board to hear out, and perhaps champion, the ideas generated from the deckplates. Such great minds as LTG (ret) James Dubik and LTG Frederick “Ben” Hodges have already joined up, and we’re working to bring two to three more flag officers from each service.

Finally, Monday morning will culminate with a venture capital-like panel of local, Chicago-based entrepreneurs and Flag Officers. They will judge the best idea, solution and presentation, and in return for identifying the best solutions, engage on behalf of the winning team to get their project implemented.

The Reason

Why do we believe this is needed? What value does this add to the already ongoing discussion?
More than ever, recent battle-tested leaders, both emerging and senior, have had to adapt under incredibly challenging and unforeseen circumstances. Capturing their agile minds and putting them to use in solving current fiscal and strategic problems is necessary for the continued progression of our services. Without a doubt, the current century will become more complex as technology evolves, unforeseen threats emerge, and fiscal constraints set in. More importantly, we need to create a dialogue that elevates the professionalism and creative capabilities of our services as a whole.

Those of us writing today believe the next step in the evolution of Disruptive Thinking is not just through increased online interaction or relying upon status quo bureaucratic processes. Rather, it will be accomplished by bringing the most agile and innovative minds from across the military together in one place for a lively exchange of ideas and solutions. This is the heart of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum.

The Spark

While the original article on Disruptive Thinking was focused on leveraging education, we recognize that warfighting must always come first in any conversation about innovation and the military. This is inimically tied to the fact that people, not tech, are our greatest assets.

Immediately after the publication of the aforementioned article, members of what are now the DEF Board observed incredibly informative and coherent arguments related to military strategy and innovation over social media. Through many conversations via Twitter and Facebook, it became apparent that disparate networks of individuals, spanning all ranks and services, were effectively fleshing out the most pressing issues of the day in non-traditional ways.

It also became apparent that innovators have inherent ways of finding each other. As their distributed networks grow, cross-cultural (and cross-rank) engagement increases. Though they never meet, some even become close friends. There is a unique power in informal networks created by personal interactions, even if they begin in cyberspace.

Yet something was missing in this process. That element was the intangible benefit of seeing your intellectual sparring partner face to face. The discussions on Twitter, Facebook and various national security forums for emerging military leaders needed to come out of the virtual world and into the physical one.

While discussing this power of networking and the need for an in-person forum to build the relationships required to effect change, the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum was born.
Soon after inception, our personal networks pointed us towards the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, where they not only found a world class institution, but a strong veterans group. Leveraging the military experience and entrepreneurial education of recent veterans who are still engaged in national defense dialogue was a perfect fit.

Subsequently, the Executive Board was recruited and, quite inadvertently, spanned the armed services. Many were asked to join based on their disruptive writings – others because they were known practitioners of innovation. All are focused on creating a compelling experience that will unite, excite and build relational networks that will span careers.

The Call

And so, on Columbus Day weekend 2013, Saturday October 12th through Monday October 14th, we encourage the brightest and most creative emerging and senior military leaders to descend upon the Windy City. While there, we will discuss ways to push forward innovative and disruptive ideas, while doing so alongside senior mentors willing to consider our proposals.

We’ve lined up a great cast of speakers and professors to push this event forward. What we still need is you – your intellectual capital and your time – to engage with fellow innovators. We need both senior and emerging leaders to participate.

DEF2013 will be more than a conference to mingle and hand out business cards; it will be a unique opportunity to interact and connect with fellow military and veteran entrepreneurs to push your ideas forward. Sign up today at DEF2013.com, follow us on Facebook, and become a part of putting Disruptive Thinking into action.

Sequestration: America’s Great Harbor

For the Athenians, the Great Harbor of Syracuse was anything but.  A monument to the Athenian tactic of bottle-necking of the “world’s” most powerful navy, the battle at the Great Harbor symbolizes the cost of trading mobility for convenience.  Today, the five carriers lined up in Norfolk like dominoes are reminiscent of that inflexibility, serving as a greater metaphor for constraints the fiscal crisis may impose on the U.S. Navy worldwide.

A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed after the enemy has finished exterminating your entire naval task force and running you to ground in a quarry where you are executed or sold off as spoils of war." -General Patton
“A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed after the enemy has finished exterminating your entire naval task force and running you to ground in a quarry where you are executed or sold off as spoils of war.”
– General Patton, sort of

During the siege of Syracuse, the Athenian expedition anchored its naval task force inside the protected Great Harbor of Syracuse.  Maintaining such a large force in a single place and at anchor decreased the costs of manning and command and control (C2).  The single entrance of the harbor and its copious defenses against wind and wave also simplified the fleet’s maintenance and logistics.  The convenience came at heavy cost.  The fleet’s great numerical advantage was lessened by lack of mobility.  Infrequent patrols allowed the Athenians to deploy navigational hazards and blockade runners.  Syracuse’s superficially low-cost, reactive approach lost to the proactivity of the enemy.  The harbor’s single entrance turned into a nightmare scenario as the massive fleet was locked into the harbor by a chain of ships strung across the entrance.  The fleet of the mightiest naval power in the world died in a Sicilian quarry without a single ship remaining.

One stone? Don't worry, we're way past two birds.
One stone? Don’t worry, we’re way past two birds.

America’s Great Harbor is not in a foreign land, but up Thimble Shoals Channel and through the gap in the Hampton Roads beltway.  Five carriers, the world’s most powerful collection of conventional naval power in one location, sit idle at harbor, one beside the other.  The United States maintains a massive naval center of gravity, within a single chokepoint that could be plugged at a moment’s notice in prelude to further enemy action.  The concentration not only lends itself to easy containment, but simplifies the potential for espionage and terrorism.  The fiscal noose tightening around the Navy’s neck is creating a prime target that goes against every lesson we’ve learned from Pearl Harbor to Yemen.

America’s Great Harbor is a vicarious manifestation of a more terrifying fleet-wide atrophy.  Sequestration will force the navy into a fiscal Great Harbor.  A 55% decrease in Middle Eastern operational flights, a 100% cut in South American deployments, a 100% cut in non-BMD Mediterranean deployments, cutting all exercises, cutting all non-deployed operations unassociated with pre-deployment workups, as well as a slew of major cuts to training – these further compound the losses from the Navy’s previous evisceration of the training regime.  Despite a growing trend of worries about fleet maintenance, a half year of aircraft maintenance and 23 ship availabilities will be cancelled.  The snowballing impact on already suffering training and maintenance will further exacerbate that diminishing return on size and quality created by the fiscal Great Harbor.  Nations like China and Iran continue to make great strides in countering a force that will recede in reach, proficiency, and awareness.  The mighty U.S. Navy is forced to sit at anchor while the forces arrayed against her build a wall across the harbor mouth.

What directionless security assistance program? All I see is dancing kids!
What directionless security assistance program? All I see is dancing kids!

Military leadership has done a poor to terrible job advocating the true cost of defense cuts.  A series of actions by the brass has undermined their credibility and covered up the problem.  The blinders-on advocation for teetering problems like LCS and the F-35 have undermined the trust that military leadership either needs or can handle money for project development.  The Navy personnel cuts were pushed for hard by leadership, and when the Navy grossly overshot its target, the alarms were much quieter than the advocation; the ensuing problems were left unadvertised.  In general, military-wide leadership uses public affairs not to inform, but as a method to keep too positive a spin in a misguided attempt to keep the public faith.   That public faith has removed vital necessary support in a time when the military is rife with problems that absolutely require funding.  The PAO white-wash helps under-achieving programs and leadership get passed over by the critical eye.  Where Athenian leaders were frank with their supporters at home, stubbornness and inappropriate positivity have undercut military leadership’s ability break loose from the fiscal harbor.

China's sequestration mostly involves disposing of excess DF-21D's into carrier-shaped holes in the desert.
China’s sequestration mostly involves disposing of excess DF-21D’s into carrier-shaped holes in the desert.

Those who dismiss the hazard of sequestration are wrong in the extreme.  When I was an NROTC midshipman, I remember a map on the wall of the supply building: a 1988 chart of all US Navy bases around the world.  Today’s relative paucity of reach leads some to believe that surviving one scaling back shows inoculation against another.  However, the law of diminishing returns has a dangerous inverse.  Each progressive cut becomes ever more damaging.  The U.S. Navy and sequestration apologists must realize what dangerous waters the Navy is being forced to anchor in.  The question is, how long can the navy safely stay in the Great Harbor before her enemies get the best of her?

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy.  The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity.  They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy, although he wishes they did.