Reblog: Disruptive Technology and Reforming the Pentagon Establishment—Part I

Posted on July 9, 2012

 Small Wars Journal published a very interesting and provocative article of a series focused on reforming the Pentagon Establishment. Hard hitting and worth the read.

Disruptive Technology and Reforming the Pentagon Establishment—Part I


In 2006-2007 I was one of the first few officers within U.S. Central Command to initiate the comprehensive Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle program as we know it today—for all the Services. MRAPs rapidly became the largest land acquisition program in DoD history, comparing favorably in the history of American warfare to toolsets such as Higgins boats, F16s/F18s, A10s and LAVs in terms of breadth of use and overall importance.  Since thousands are alive today because of innovations like this, a few perspectives from an actual innovator of this and other technologies may help the Pentagon better understand technology in wartime.  On the battlefield, military officers have embraced change, rapid maneuver and chaos; now we must learn to extend these time-based theories to the support establishment.

My experience initiating MRAPs, along with many other important new devices of counter insurgency warfare, suggests that little has changed since Col. Burton wrote the words above.  From 2006 to 2010, I systematically and repeatedly advocated for something that was common in civilian businesses but lacking in the Department of Defense: application of maneuver warfare principles to the support establishment. We needed a disciplined, transparent, rapid technology initiation process. 

Through all of this, it became apparent that integrity was lacking in the military portion of the military-industrial complex.  Five internal audits from Sep 2007 to Jan 2011 form a significant portion of the intellectual foundation of the current reform movement—taken together they are a serious indictment.  The attempt to end GS-15 Franz Gayl’s career by removing his security clearance and spinning his performance as sub-standard, underscores that the Pentagon Establishment (Mr. Gates’ description) is still plagued with hubris and with an inability to get beyond the siloed technology high-priests and their hyper-complex, hyper-expensive toolset approach to warfare.  They are unable to overcome their “not invented here” mentality without extraordinary intervention.

This episode should come as no surprise.  It is only the latest installment in a long history of suppressing reformers who ask awkward questions that openly challenge and sometimes disrupt the status quo.  The stakes are high in these challenges.  The Department of Defense (DoD) studiously avoids celebrating reformers’ accomplishments because those accomplishments have too much potential to reflect negatively on the Pentagon Establishment’s mismanagement of taxpayer resources.  In the eyes of legacy thinkers seeking to maintain the status quo that gives them power, suppressing reformers is the easiest way to suppress reform.  Although Mr. Gayl was ultimately reinstated, the DoD would still rather shoot their thoroughbreds than find a track for them to run on. 

This is the first in a five-part series of articles on the Pentagon Establishment.  The purpose is to explain the Pentagon Establishment’s muscle-bound thinking and moral failure as it relates to support of the warfighter and to introduce macro-technology theory as a fundamental framework of all technological analysis.  This series will expose the unjust attempts to end GS-15 Franz Gayl’s career with obviously specious arguments.  This series will also focus on the obstructionist tendencies of permanent middle management in the Pentagon Establishment: their influence was suppressed under Mr. Gates but in no way defeated.  It will then provide an overview of macro-technology theory.  Fundamental frameworks in areas of thought like macroeconomics already help officers understand economic aspects of strategy; we now need something similar for technology writ large.

Part I: A Comparison of Reform Movements and a Recommendation for Change

Throughout Mr. Robert Gates’ time as Secretary of Defense, he excoriated the Pentagon Establishment and lauded the accomplishments of the reformers of the 1980s as an example to follow.  The most conspicuous reformer of that era was mentioned in many of Mr. Gates’ speeches: Col. John Boyd.

Those who study the reform movement of the 1970s-1980s know that Boyd’s work was part of a broader team that included Col. James Burton.  The critical difference was that, despite the institutional resistance to their efforts, the Secretaries of Defense (SECDEFs) of their era did not just support their recommended changes, they occasionally granted these reformers personal support.  Such support for reform was desperately needed in 2006-2010, when several officers and GS employees began advocating new capabilities and major DoD reforms in requirements definition and acquisition commands.  A change in approach to the war was warranted: the warfighters in Iraq needed COIN tactics comprehensively applied, they needed more troops, and they also needed toolsets actually designed for the type of fighting they were doing.  Although Mr. Gates spoke in support of reform during this period, several of these reformers were retired, sidelined, or otherwise silenced at the very same time. 

Mr. Gates has already cemented a place among the greatest wartime SECDEFs in U.S. history.  His leadership on MRAPs, drones, and the surge was incredible.  Yet, we should not overestimate the depth of the changes he made.  Sure, he replaced many senior leaders, he turned around the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he cancelled many over-priced systems that the Pentagon could not get right, even after multiple decades of development.  But even all that was insufficient for sustained, long-term change in the Pentagon Establishment.  His rhetoric against the Pentagon Establishment and his repeated calls for officers to follow the example of Col. John Boyd were insufficient to achieve the kind of reforms he advocated in his speeches – reforms that were dearly needed due to the unique stresses placed on the services in the two post-9/11 wars.  Mr. Gates did not reach the culminating point of victory at which large organizations attain deep and lasting change.

How Large Organizations Change

Changing a large organization takes a great deal of time, energy, and perhaps most importantly follow-through.  Dr. John Kotter of the Harvard Business School gives us eight steps for leading major change:

  1. Create urgency.
  2. Form a powerful coalition.
  3. Create a vision for change.
  4. Communicate that vision.
  5. Remove obstacles.
  6. Create short-term wins.
  7. Build on the change.
  8. Anchor the change in corporate culture. 

Mr. Gates did not have sufficient time, vision, or energy to remove enough obstacles to change in the Pentagon or to build on the change.  He certainly could not anchor the change in Pentagon culture.  Instead he – perhaps unwittingly – allowed the John Boyds of the time to be attacked and sidelined on his watch. 

Contrast his efforts for change with those of Generals Al Gray and Charles Krulak.  These Commandants of the Marine Corps ensured that maneuver warfare theory was imbued deeply in Marine Corps culture and it was applied at all levels of officer schools and non-commissioned officer schools.  General Gray hit all eight of these principles and Gen Krulak followed-up decisively to anchor those changes in USMC doctrine, at least with respect to rapid maneuver on the battlefield.  Comprehensive reform must be applied at all levels of the Pentagon, not just at the top layer.  Otherwise, the military-industrial-congressional complex will revert to old form, suppressing the truthtellers and allowing only occasional reform victories.

Suppress the Truthtellers

The reformers of the 1980s introduced many new toolsets that were proven to be highly useful on the traditionally conceived battlefields of state-on-state warfare.  For example, the Air Force is pleased with the capabilities of F-15s and F-16s.  They form a key portion of the “air supremacy” we have enjoyed since they were built.  Yet, the record shows that the Air Force establishment opposed many of the design features that made both aircraft superior.  If reformers had left them alone they would have produced another F-111 – a watered-down, multipurpose, compromise solution – and they never would have produced the F-16 or the A-10, as Boyd biographer Robert Coram and others have detailed. 

For his efforts, the Pentagon Establishment tried to court martial Col. Boyd several times between 1950 and 1970.  They tried to transfer fellow-reformer Col. Burton many times in the early 1980s.  Considering then-Colonel Billy Mitchell’s court martial in 1925 for stating that several air disasters were the “direct result of the incompetency, criminal negligence and almost treasonable administration of the national defense by the Navy and War Departments” and their “official stupidity.”  Other reformers met the same fate.  In the mid-1980’s, Col. Mike Wyly was unceremoniously fired, his mail was opened, and general officers were put over him to suppress the weird idea now known as maneuver warfare.  Col. David Hackworth was pursued by Big Army for independent thinking, forced to return from terminal leave, and made to account for his honesty (described in his book, About Face) in the 1970’s. 

This dynamic has continued to rear its head in the past decade of war.  When prominent dissenter Col. Paul Yingling was a battalion commander, his battalion was ordered to deploy without him.  That may have been the first case in military history wherein a battalion commander was not needed to lead his battalion in war.  General Petraeus later interceded and Col. Yingling deployed with his battalion after all.  All this fits the Pentagon tradition of suppressing truthtellers and the attempt to end the career of one of the reformers of our era, GS-15 Franz Gayl, Science Advisor to the Deputy Commandant for Plans, Policy, and Operations at Headquarters, Marine Corps – a story that will be related in full in this series.  These reformers have all fallen afoul of the conservative culture of the Pentagon Establishment which exists in direct opposition to the imperative for innovation to achieve combat success.

War Demands Change

Thousands are alive today not only because well-executed COIN tactics shortened the war in Iraq, but also because they were able to use toolsets tailored for counterinsurgency warfare.  In 2007, Gen Petraeus argued for more time in the war in Congressional testimony in no small measure on the basis of progress in Anbar Province—the result of COIN tactics already applied there.  Congress read “progress” as decreased casualties.  But in looking at the record (as made obvious by Adm Michael Mullen, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), new toolsets for COIN are inseparable from achievements in Anbar Province. 

Despite this fact, to my knowledge the Pentagon had no technology contingency plans for the tools we ended up using, nor did they figure out a way to quickly shift the money hoses until after it was obvious we had gotten bogged down in a long war.  Even then, as Mr. Gates has repeatedly stated, we still had to pressure them to stop focusing on their programs of record so that they could serve the warfighter.  Repeated, close observation of their conduct illustrated that the USMC portion of the Pentagon Establishment resisted some of the most important toolsets of counterinsurgency warfare with every bureaucratic trick in the book.  Mr. Gates’ wise insistence on MRAPs and ubiquitous drones follows the pattern outlined by Dr. Cohen in Supreme Command:  civilian supreme commanders sometimes must overrule the wishes of generals and admirals for their own good.

Maneuver warfare tactics, air supremacy, and other major “toolsets” of state-on-state warfare did not just happen by accident.  They were deliberately initiated by reformers over the opposition of the Pentagon Establishment.  Similarly, maneuver tactics in the COIN context (so-called “Forth Generation Warfare” is a penumbra of Boyd’s theory) and toolsets tailored for counterinsurgency warfare did not just happen.  Rather, a handful of reformers bet their careers and paid the price for having the temerity, in various ways, to force permanent personnel in DoD establishment organizations to support the warfighter.  This support was in dire need due to policy choices made at the strategic level.

Secretary Rumsfeld and General Franks approached the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan in such a manner, amplified by the broader political climate of the time, as to deploy the smallest possible force in Iraq and Afghanistan at any given time.  So when the size of the mission mushroomed, de facto caps on troop levels forced commanders to try to increase their capacity to influence the battlefield by leveraging toolsets to extend the force’s “reach.”  Comprehensive application of COIN tactics was the primary source of increased battlefield influence.  But the surge was not just characterized by tactics and troops: toolsets tailored for COIN began pouring into Iraq in 2007.  Tom Ricks reported a tenfold increase in drones (Unmanned Arial Systems, or “UAS”) in The Gamble, and MRAP industry capacity appeared immediately after large contracts began.  One of the largest MRAP manufacturers took only two months to get into production.  The pump was primed before Mr. Gates found out about MRAPs, UAVs, and other COIN toolsets.

For some of us who led these reform efforts, Mr. Gates’ lack of support of reformers of his tenure was a disappointment.  For example, if Mr. Gates is so pleased with MRAPs that he is going to make them a signature accomplishment of his tenure, and if he had to find out about them from a newspaper in May 2007—long after many MRAP requirements had emerged from CENTCOM—then perhaps he might have been interested at some point in finding the people who really initiated MRAPs.  He might have supported reformers in 2007-2011 in a manner similar to the way General George Marshall supported officers like then-Lieutenant Colonels Eisenhower or Arnold.  Perhaps he might have identified those who were blocking MRAPs, the very people in charge of new technology requirements when he found the Establishment “not on a wartime footing,” with an eye toward reducing their ability to influence requirements definition.  Mr. Gates’ speeches exhorting moral courage to students at the service academies, to majors at command and staff colleges, and to colonels at the war colleges were welcomed by those of us who responded to his call before he issued it.  But Mr. Gates severely undermined his own exhortation because he permitted those actually displaying moral courage during his tenure to be attacked and sidelined.  This is because Mr. Gates’ stated desire for change did not permeate the organization writ large.

In 2006, I spoke to MRAP advocates at Marine Corps Combat Development Command (MCCDC), Marine Corps Systems Command (MCSC), Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), and Tank and Automotive Command (TACOM).  Each of these organizations had to change their priorities in order to support the warfighters in Iraq and Afghanistan with simple COIN toolsets that worked well in counterinsurgency warfare, instead of merely continuing to publish minor changes to old doctrine and continuing to support requirements for toolsets that they had planned to buy before the war began.  In the face of the pressures that these changes created, the MRAP advocates whispered or glanced around furtively, concerned that their boss would hear them.  Others spoke less cautiously but were still handcuffed intellectually in the presence of the wheeled-vehicle decision-makers (GS-15s, GS-14s, and twilight tour Colonels hoping to stay and keep the same job as GS-15s after retirement).  Some had tried (prior to 2006) to get their command to support the warfighter.  Most seemed to think it was almost pointless to keep trying to do anything that might threaten DoD’s pet programs.

Perspectives on Technology and Operational Art

Boyd said “People, Ideas, Technology—in that order!” and he was correct.  Yet, in practice, people fight wars inseparably from their ideas and their toolsets.  General Rupertus wrote, in the Rifleman’s Creed, “[My rifle] and I are the saviors of my life….”  Martin Van Creveld wrote in his masterpiece, Technology and War, that, “War is completely permeated by technology and governed by it.” 

To say technology is important in war does not elevate it over human will, and it is certainly not an arbitrary endorsement of high-tech toolsets.  The primary question that matters is, “Do they help the warfighter accomplish the mission?”  As one of Murphy’s Laws of Combat states: if it’s stupid and it works, it isn’t stupid. 

Technology “outputs” are much more important than inputs: sometimes a stick is better for measuring something than a laser micrometer.  Sometimes a truck for a war right now is better than the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle or Future Combat Systems or F-22s for potential future wars.  It is the Pentagon Establishment that wants the hyper-complex toolsets that look good on paper and all too often perform poorly in practice. 

Some have suggested that MRAPs are “wrecking” us tactically, as if the presence of a tool renders the commander powerless to resist misusing it in combat.  In actuality, the challenge is with muscle-bound thinking.  If an MRAP is too heavy to fit a tactical situation, don’t blame the MRAP: just don’t use it.  If you can go cross-country, don’t use an MRAP.  If you must go cross-country, don’t use an MRAP.  But if the tactical situation prevents you from driving through agricultural fields and people’s backyards, if the tactical situation requires driving (on a road) in a minefield every day, day after day after day (it’s hard to win hearts and minds driving through backyards and crops), then just perhaps we might want to use a vehicle that is actually designed for driving in a minefield. 

Almost all combat commanders seem to have found it necessary to have their units driving in minefields, and they have chosen to use MRAPs in those minefields since they became available. When officers at the Marine component of Central Command (Headquarters, U.S. Marine Forces Central Command (MARCENT)) took steps to initiate MRAPs requirements for all troops throughout Iraq, we never intended for them to be a panacea for every conceivable tactical situation.  They have merely been a part of the counter-landmine continuum of toolsets.  Of course, they were intended to make a major difference against the number 1 source of casualties, which they did.

If body armor or a .50 caliber heavy machine gun does not fit a tactical situation, we would never reflexively blame either device for being too heavy—we would just use a plate carrier or a rifle.  If heavy body armor in open terrain in rain and mud does not work so well when the opposition has anti-armor technology with a range of 200 yards (Agincourt), then the commander should limit use of heavy armor to applications where armor is useful. The tactical leader needs flexibility.  Those who initiated MRAPs in 2006 never once advocated decreasing HMMWVs in-theater.  They have their place, too, just as heavy machine guns don’t invalidate the need for rifles, and bombers don’t invalidate the need for fighters.  Bigger is not always better, and smaller is not always better.

The Pentagon Establishment wants to take credit for OIF and OEF innovations, while suppressing recognition of Mr. Gayl’s and other current-day reformers’ achievements.  Yet, the fact remains that Mr. Gayl is one of the few people whose fingerprints are all over several of the most important new toolsets of counter insurgency warfare at a time when they were being severely resisted.  Some of these contributions will be listed in a subsequent article.

The suggestion that people in the Pentagon Establishment knew what they were doing with MRAPs and several other COIN technologies all along is simply bunk.  To the extent that the Pentagon Establishment has changed, it occurred only under severe pressure carefully orchestrated by Pentagon reformers.  A handful of general officers were willing to initiate or embrace new ideas and then the Secretary of Defense and Congress forced the Pentagon to support the warfighter.  It is the mission of people in places like MCCDC and TRADOC and Wright-Patterson to have foresight for technologies needed in war, and it is their job to change their technology plans when circumstances warrant it.  John Boyd would call this “maneuver.”  Yet, these organizations failed to do their job.  They resisted key, life-saving reforms.

On 22 June 2008 the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and another senior leader identified three reasons for an almost 90% decrease in casualties in Anbar Province: MRAPs, “Sons of Iraq”, and cameras that see “5 miles.”  Two of those are technologies resisted by the Pentagon Establishment, the equivalent of pipe wrenches for carpenters stuck doing plumbing on two of the three blocks in the “three-block war.”  Conversely, no senior officer wants to be known as the one who was in charge of a key portion of the Pentagon Establishment at the time it resisted, delayed, or spiked the MRAP requirement, or when the Pentagon Establishment tried (as hard as it could) to delay ubiquitous long-range camera orders.  Well, someone was in charge of Pentagon Establishment entities when Mr. Gates found the Pentagon not on a wartime footing, even though no one has been held accountable.  As Mr. Gates made clear, the Establishment lacked foresight.  It did not have a good handle on military technology for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Regarding recommendations for change in this first monograph, the Secretary of Defense in this administration and the next needs to carefully plan and execute a comprehensive, top-to-bottom reform of the Pentagon.  Reformers need to be engaged by senior leadership, brought inside the fold, and given increased responsibility – not isolated, sidelined, and attacked.  Those with proven foresight need to be consulted, even if that means Pentagon Establishment ricebowls get overturned. Technology fiefdoms need to be destroyed and a new commitment to integrity and excellence embraced.  Even with Mr. Gates cancelling many boondoggle programs, it is clear that we are not yet serious about eliminating the powerbase of the military industrial complex in the Pentagon.  We need to hire fewer permanent GS civilians (far from offering a cost savings, they often cost more), and we need to stop hiring them on the basis of their compliance with retired Desert Storm-era Establishment Orthodoxy.

Those who blocked MRAPs in 2005 need to be moved to a new line of work not involving innovation or foresight, just as the Marine Corps did with officers in the 1980s and 1990s who refused to accept maneuver warfare thinking. The plan for reform needs to follow Dr. Kotter’s eight-step process for effecting change in large organizations, and the “War Plan” for reform needs to follow the Gen Gray/Gen Krulak comprehensive model for implementing maneuver warfare in the Marine Corps in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

Overview of Remaining Articles: Parts II-V 

This has been the first in a series of articles designed to advocate for major reform in the Pentagon.  Part II will provide the first-ever insider perspective on who really initiated MRAP vehicles, highlighting key individuals and key events in the largest program of its kind since WWII, the largest land acquisition program in DoD history.  Some have stated that MRAPs were initiated by Congress.  Some in the Pentagon Establishment have claimed they made no mistakes in blocking MRAPs in 2005, as if there was no industry capacity in 2005 but somehow, magically, there was in 2007.  We shall see an important part of what really happened—and thus preserve the opportunity for technological foresight in future wars.  Today’s captains and majors may learn some of the human terrain of the Pentagon Establishment through this series of articles and know better what to do when they are assigned to billets in MCCDC or TRADOC. 

Part III will explain the Pentagon Establishment’s stated reasons for blocking MRAPs in 2005 and 2006, and debunk them—and then provide the real reasons.    

Part IV will provide a case study in forcing the Pentagon Establishment to apply maneuver doctrine to the support establishment value chain.  Then, a reverse-engineering of the tricks the Pentagon Establishment uses to maintain control over the levers of device initiation will be provided.  Officers who are aware of the cynical games played by middle managers in the Pentagon Establishment can better defeat them.  Finally, news reports suggest that justice for Mr. Franz Gayl came not from within DoD.  The first important source of justice came from the Judicial Branch (when a Federal Judge made an NCIS investigation untenable) and the second from the White House Office of Special Counsel.  Given the Marine Corps’ full court press against Mr. Gayl (right down to attempting to destroy a man’s career with entirely unproven accusations of use of a thumb drive), a public explanation of how Mr. Franz Gayl fits the Boyd/Hackworth mold is required.  Accordingly, it is important for young officers to understand what they are up against when exercising moral courage in the Pentagon: efforts for reform will likely fail and tours of duty will likely end without typical kinds of acknowledgements that are necessary in military culture for careers to continue. Young officers need to understand the paradox.  All officers will share their hardships and risks in combat.  At the same time, some officers in the supporting establishment will stop at nothing to make life a living hell for anyone who disagrees with them, or they will stand silently and watch the coats of the Pentagon Establishment while those attacks are made. That is why Congress and Executive Branch civilians need to teach the Pentagon to identify and embrace reformers, using the words that speak the most clearly to officers—withholding promotions.  Innovation does not have to be purely a function of a few handfuls of reformers demanding change after six years of war.

Part V will provide a completely new way of thinking about technology that has been emerging the past several decades in a variety of universities and corporations around the world.  This article will be a recapitulation of a briefing on technology frameworks presented to the 2010 Boyd Conference in Quantico, VA, and to a few senior thinkers in places like National Defense University.  The theory of technology provides a comprehensive approach to all technological analysis, an equivalent of macroeconomics.  If we can begin to understand the fundamental frameworks for all technological thought, then we can actually organize our thoughts about technology.  We can structure our approach to technology within the broader context of strategy, and thus be more likely to have insight, and less likely to fall off cliffs or bump into mountains on the technological landscape.

The commander often has intuition to perceive connections between things that other people do not see, and thus their judgment is to be relied upon.  But this intuition needs to be instructed—that’s why officers have to graduate from college and more senior officers get post-graduate degrees.  Fundamental frameworks increase the likelihood of correct judgment.  In practice, we have been attempting to “do” technology without a comprehensive framework of thought; without grounding in intrinsic principles.  In the Pentagon, technologies always occur as “tree,” never as “forest.”  This is like trying to “do” chemistry without its fundamental simplification, the periodic table of the elements.  Alternately, imagine trying to run the U.S. Treasury with only micro-economic principles: studying one economic entity at a time.  That is what it is like in technology today.  The Pentagon is only just another example of a large organization that frequently stumbles on issues of technology. 

An understanding of technology writ large can inform our doctrine, further define the role of J-8 Senior Technologist, and define the role of G-9 Assistant Chief of Staff for Technology and Innovation.  This will help us realize that we need a principle staff officer who is a trained technologist, reporting to the commanding general.  It will help us design job descriptions and developmental paths for these roles, instead of assigning officers to those roles because they are an after-thought reservist hanging around because of sanctuary (tenure), or because they are the unlucky active duty officer who, during a staff officer tour, did not get to lead G-3/Operations, G-4/Logistics, or G-5/Plans Directorates.  Macro-technology theory can also provide the means where civilian GS middle-management roles can be selected by something more substantial than the good-ol’-boys network. Finally, a more disciplined approach to technology makes bombast more difficult for the Pentagon Establishment to perpetrate (Pentagon Establishment GS-15s, GS-14s, and colonels excel at deliberate obfuscation when they want to protect a legacy weapons program).  Standardized frameworks (according to intrinsic principles) make innovation repeatable and more understandable to a broader number of people. 

The Pentagon Establishment can be a source of competitive advantage in wartime. When they stopped resisting MRAPs and UAS, people like Mr. Paul Mann (Assistant Deputy Director for Ground Systems in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics) were able to lead industry to support the war effort with aplomb.  The remaining four essays further articulate the problems in the Establishment, and they further describe how we can develop habits of foresight that will help lead us into the future.