Forget Technology. The Real Military Edge Comes From Promoting Smart People

U.S. Airmen conduct post-flight inspections on an HH-60G Pave Hawk during exercise Voijek Valour at Hullavington Airfield, England, March 4, 2016.

U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Emerson Nuñez

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U.S. Airmen conduct post-flight inspections on an HH-60G Pave Hawk during exercise Voijek Valour at Hullavington Airfield, England, March 4, 2016.

A military culture that values people – and their intellectual development — will drive the innovation needed to win our wars.

Let us not conflate military innovation with technology, as if that were the problem. Those who claim the United States lost its recent wars do not blame deficient technology.

The accelerating pace of change will make military innovation increasingly decisive in the 21st century, and Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s recent trips to Silicon Valley, Austin, and Cambridge reflect the Pentagon’s deliberate outreach to the technology sector and a clear priority on innovation. But technology is not the solution to the problem of innovation. Rather, innovation is a solution to the problem of technology. Its crux is agility in adjusting strategy and operations, which rests first in how an institution thinks, which is in turn a function of people and their development. 

In 2007, as director for hostages at the National Security Council, I met with the families of three American contractors captured by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). It was a difficult meeting. High-end U.S. special forces and technology had been devoted to the case, yet the meeting marked four years of these families waiting for loved ones.

A year later, I was relieved to learn that the three Americans had been rescued without a shot, along with Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and 11 other hostages. The recovery was executed by Colombian forces, who tricked the FARC into hand-delivering the hostages by hacking their communication system and impersonating their officers. The linchpin of success was devious ingenuity, not technology.

That the Colombians succeeded by outthinking the enemy, after U.S. efforts had fallen short, raised the question, however anecdotal, about whether the U.S. military might be doing something wrong.

At issue is the military’s career model, which prioritizes operational field experience over intellectual development. In the 1980s, officer promotion systems were standardized around “joint” requirements, resulting in harried, box-checking, one-size-fits-all career paths that don’t foster new ways of thinking. The Pentagon’s Joint Staff, for example, has top-shelf officers ostensibly tasked with shaping plans and strategy. However, their incentive is only to “punch the ticket” – they get no credit for rocking the boat with new ideas. Similarly, military culture views education with skepticism. Students rarely fail military-run academic programs, and their scholastic record matters not at all to the rest of their career.

Several veterans have published concerns along these lines, such as The Atlantic’sCan the U.S. Military Halt its Brain Drain?” by Dave Barno and Nora Bensahel, who profiled two bright and promising young officers who left the service. Critics of such arguments protest that “the plural of anecdote is not data.” Fair enough, but there is data.

Last summer, Army Col. Everett Spain published a summary of his Harvard doctoral thesis, which warned of his service’s “systemic bias” against cognitive ability, defined as conceptual reasoning skill as measured by GPA or SAT scores. Based on a study that was controlled for ethnicity, gender, branch specialty, time deployed and motivation, his research demonstrated that officers with higher cognitive ability are statistically less likely to be promoted early or to achieve battalion command.

It is unclear why promotion boards seem to penalize officers with higher cognitive ability, particularly when cognitive metrics are not communicated to the board. One plausible explanation is that such officers pursue more schooling and therefore have fewer tactical-experience reports in their record. Another is that such officers’ propensity for questioning is perceived as disobedience by more senior officers.

Fortunately, there are Pentagon proposals that would begin to address such problems: the third tranche of Defense Secretary Carter’s “Force of the Future” initiative, now awaiting his approval. These reforms would adjust the current “up or out” promotion system by loosening quotas on officer year-groups, which would give officers more latitude to pursue “broadening” tours, such as increased civilian school opportunities. It would also give more opportunity to “technical” (non-frontline) officers, improving diversity. Officers inclined toward the study of military strategy should not be relegated to a curtailed second-class career, as they are today.

Some leaders in the Pentagon are reticent to make such reforms. Their hesitancy is partly structural; senior officers can’t be expected to condemn the system that promoted them. Another difficulty is seeing the problem the reforms are meant to solve. As Col. Spain told me, “reformers suffer from a lack of counterfactuals.” By pitting our exquisite military against third-world militants, and not accounting for that experience, we look past the problem.

If nothing else, the world’s rapidly changing landscape is causing military leaders to prioritize adaptability, creating some appetite for reform. But adaptability should first mean courage, creativity and integrity in how we think about strategy, well before we pursue an even more exquisite, higher-tech military. And that requires a shift in culture alongside aggressive personnel reform. While life-and-death demands will always require discipline in the trenches, the military’s hierarchy should be loosened to capture more bottom-up insight and empower people to challenge assumptions.

This lesson, applied today by Silicon Valley, has always been true of war: de-centralized decision-making promotes adaptability in a complex and dynamic environment. Secretary Carter is right to tap in to Silicon Valley’s renowned culture of innovation, but there is much for the Pentagon to do even before it starts borrowing people and technology from Silicon Valley. Indeed, the best way for the Pentagon to entice innovative talent will be to reform its culture and promotion model and do more to value and develop the talent that it already has.

I recently asked senior managers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a mere three miles from the Pentagon, how they sustain their legendary high-innovation culture. They pointed me to their human resources director, who explained that the magic comes from their management of personnel. Cutting-edge technology has always benefited America’s defense, but a military culture that values people – and their intellectual development — will drive the innovation needed to win our wars.

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