Thursday, April 12, 2012

General Board 2.0: Leveraging Disruptive Thinkers

Last week, Small Wars Journal published an essay by one of the authors of this blog.  It set off a firestorm of debate within the military and elsewhere. We've privately received many messages of support and offers to contribute to this blog.  Robert Kozloski, the author of the below contribution, is one of them.  

Mr. Kozloski is an Efficiency Analyst with the Department of the Navy.  He argues for the creation of a new Board of Innovative Officers to tackle our most challenging national security problems. 

If you are interested in contributing to this discussion, please do so. 

Given the fiscal realities facing the US military services and the rise of a new near-peer competitor, a great deal of attention has been given recently to reviving the culture of naval innovation. LT Ben Kohlmann has added a new aspect to the discourse by creating a fervor within the military blogging community with his writings on the need for disruptive thinkers in the military

The naval services have a rich history of innovative thinking. In the interwar period of 1920-1940 the General Board was formed to find innovative solutions to the problem of the day: given the restrictions placed on the US navy by international treaties, how could the navy best prepare for conflict with Japan? The General Board was successful and developed both innovative thinkers and effective solutions to operational problems.

Similarly, the Marine Corps faced new operational problems at the end of the Korean War.  Primarily, this challenge was in operating effectively on the new “atomic battlefield”. To identify solutions to these emerging problems, the Marine Corps created Marine Corps Test Unit-1. MCTU-1 successfully created many new operational concepts that were widely used in the Vietnam War and many are still in use today throughout the special operations community.

Not a Bad Start...
LT Kohlmann raises the issue of supplementing standard professional military education with the nation’s best graduate education programs, particularly MBA programs. While the US education system is often criticized and even considered a national security concern, our secondary schools remain the best in the world and the military must fully leverage this national asset. 

While the US military may not be willing to effectively use this critical asset, others are not so hesitant. In the year 2000, the Chinese People's Liberation Army had more students in America's graduate schools than the U.S. military.

Kohlmann is not the only one in government supporting this line of thinking.  In 2003, the Federal Bureau of Investigations established the Special Advisor Program to engage graduate students at the top ten MBA programs in the country.  This program continues to expand and the results have been used to effectively solve difficult organizational and operational problems within the FBI.

Given the growing problems with maintaining our current naval capacity and the emerging threats facing the military for the foreseeable future, the US Navy should reinstate the General Board and consider the following: 

The new General Board should be attached to the Naval Warfare Development Command in Norfolk, VA. NWDC is ideally suited because of its mission to develop new concepts for the navy and its proximity to the full spectrum of naval assets in the Hampton Roads area including: surface, subsurface, aviation, special warfare, cyber, intelligence and expeditionary operations.  This would put the group in close contact with the operational forces and would facilitate testing and experimenting. The General Board could also leverage support from US Fleet Forces Command, joint organizations and academic facilities in Hampton Roads.

To staff the new Board, a diverse set of 20-40 Officers at the 0-4/5 level should be selected to participate in this program as part of the normal PME process. However, rather than using an ineffective bureaucratic process for selection, the NWDC Commander should be given the opportunity to select the officers for the Board as well as the academic programs students attend.

The top civilian institutions as well as the Naval War College and Naval Post Graduate School should be included in the educational mix.  The selection criteria should be based on what operational problems the group will be attempting to solve during their tour on the Board.  Selectees should meet with the NWDC Commander prior to attending school to help shape academic activities while attending school to best prepare them for their follow-on work.

While this new concept may seem somewhat duplicative of other efforts currently in place, such as the CNO’s Strategic Study Group (SSG) at the Naval War College, the new General Board would focus on more near term issues.  Ideally, the efforts of the SSG, as well as inputs from other existing advisory panels, would feed into the problem set of the General Board.

The members of the General Board should be given full latitude and support to interact with other components of the naval research community as well as the operational forces. To the maximum extent possible, it should leverage various crowd sourcing and idea generation tools to harness the “wisdom of crowds” in the problem solving process.

Many senior leaders have recently said that the military has lost its ability to think because it has outsourced that responsibility to contracting firms and consultants.  While the effectiveness of this approach is questionable at best, it is certainly expensive - as are most solutions to the problems they solve. Given the fiscal realities facing the nation, the military will need to rely more on its internal thinking capacity. Reestablishing the General Board concept would not only develop and harness the great minds in uniform, it also offers a more affordable solution to the current expensive ways of doing business.


  1. Its a long road to move more of the 'thinking' roles that SETA contractors perform back into the DoD but a worthy and necessary goal. We need more men and women in uniform that can tackle tough technical problems with critical thinking and creativity I my opinion. To facilitate that I'd propose a technical/engineering track, similar to the MBA effort, to get officers to they best engineering schools in the country as well.

  2. "Many senior leaders have recently said that the military has lost its ability to think because it has outsourced that responsibility to contracting firms and consultants." What a load of crock. I think what the generals and admirals fail to understand is that the military "has not lost the ability to think," but rather is unwilling to think for itself for the fear of retribution from the higher-ups. But that is only a part of the problem.

    The problem lies with the military being forced to obey asinine marching orders from the civilian overseers. Fouled-up marching orders which the military as an institution knows viscerally will yield less than desirable consequences. Take the non-sensical Operation Iraqi Freedom for instance. General Shinseki warned presciently that “something in the order of several hundred thousand soldiers” would be required to sustain the occupation of Iraq. The minute he uttered these words at the Senate Armed Services Committee, Wolfwowitz and Rumsfeld both pounced on and pilloried the general.

    As for the CNO's SSG, to the extent that it will be effective,--and to some measure, it will no doubt be effective--it will help to remedy operational and fiscal woes, but not strategic woes. And the reason why I say this is because strategic considerations lie within the purview of our civilian commander-in-chief and his civilian advisers and policy-makers. To the extent that the military must consider strategic ramifications, we should really leave them to regional Combatant Commanders and NOT the service chiefs.

    1. A “load of crock” indeed!

      Although I have no idea what your argument has to do with fostering a culture of innovation in the Naval Services, I’ll address your some of your comments.

      May I suggest to you the latest version of the Naval War College Review. Dr. Mac Owens(COL, USMC Ret) has an excellent article on Civil-Military relations in which he addresses the Shinseki “urban legend” that you raise:

      “It should also be noted that the most frequently cited example of prescience on the part of the uniformed military—General Eric Shinseki’s February 2003 statement before Congress suggesting that “several hundred thousand” troops might be necessary in postwar Iraq—was no such thing. As John Garofano has
      observed, “no extensive analysis has surfaced as supporting Shinseki’s figures,which were dragged out of him by Senator Carl Levin only after repeated questioning.”

      Garofano notes that in fact the figures were based on a “straight-line extrapolation from very different environments.”32 That is, the Army’s Center of Military History based a figure of 470,000 troops for Iraq on the service’s experiences in Bosnia and Kosovo, where the primary mission had been peacekeeping.
      This effort to estimate necessary troop strength was inept—critics called it naive,unrealistic, and “like a war college exercise” rather than serious planning.33

      Finally, to the extent that Shinseki was correct, he was correct for the wrong reasons. His focus was on humanitarian concerns rather than on the critical society-building work that the U.S. military had to implement in Iraq.34 Garofano concludes that the oft-made charge against Rumsfeld—that he punished Shinseki
      for “being right”—is not supported by the evidence. War planning “comes down, as it did in Vietnam, to analysis, getting it right, and providing clear alternatives that address or confront policy goals.”35 This the uniformed military in general
      and Shinseki in particular failed to do.” P.77

      There is plenty of blame to go around for Iraq and Afghanistan.

      Let’s not forget the statements of LtGen Greg Newbold, USMC, ““Flaws in our civilians is one thing: the failure of the Pentagon’s military leaders is quite another. Those are the men who know the hard consequences of war but, with few exceptions, acted timidly when their voices urgently needed to be heard. When they knew the plan was flawed, saw intelligence distorted to justify a rationale for war, or witnessed arrogant micromanagement that at times crippled the military’s effectiveness; many leaders who wore the uniform chose inaction. A few of the most senior officers actually supported the logic for war.”

      The Joint Staff, Service Chiefs and MILDEPs are ideally suited for strategic planning, resourcing and programming. Leave the COCOMs to focus on operational issues.

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