Monday, May 14, 2012

Disruptive Thinking and How the iPad Changed Close Air Support in Afghanistan

In the essay below, Capt. Michael Christman describes how an innovative junior officer took matters into his own hands, and in defiance of a reluctant bureaucracy, created an efficient and comprehensive solution using off the shelf, modern technology.  It has helped transform tactical employment, and saved lives on the battlefield.  He explores why the project was ultimately successful, and how others can emulate it.   In many ways, it is an answer to the questions posed a few days ago by 1LT Atwell.

Dropping a bomb from 25,000 feet (or hovering just above the treetops) with an acceptable error of mere meters, only 500 feet away from friendly positions, is a challenge.  However, Close Air Support (CAS) is one of the finest examples of joint operational teamwork in the military.  It requires a high degree of coordination between airborne and ground based assets, many of whom have never met, and are from different services -- even different countries.  

Integral to this coordination are the use of Gridded Reference Graphics (GRG's) that airborne fixed wing and helicopter aircraft use when identifying friendly and enemy positions (see sketch below).  In the past, they were simply printed products, hard to keep organized, within a cockpit undergoing heavy G's and dynamic maneuvers. New products have changed the calculus.


Most Marine Corps aviators who have served in Afghanistan in a close air support role are familiar with the over 1,000 maps that make up the Helmand Valley.  These maps are made using high resolution imagery with every building identified by a unique number.  Such products enable aircrew to quickly correlate friendly and enemy locations, more effectively providing accurate and timely aviation fires for ground based units. This, in turn, saves the lives of young Americans and their allies. 

Paper or Plastic, Sir?
Until recently, aircrew carried all 1000 map sheets individually.  To find the right one required sorting through 30 lbs of paper to find the appropriate gridded reference graphic for a specific operational area.  In fact, there are so many maps, they won’t all physically fit inside the cockpit -- an operational liability if you are told to provide support in an unanticipated area.  Additionally, finding the right map could take several minutes -- precious time during a fire fight.

In order to solve this problem, an enterprising AH-1W Cobra attack helicopter pilot, Captain Jim “Hottie” Carlson, developed an application to electronically digitize and stitch these map sheets together so that a pilot could view them on an iPad.  With the iPad’s embedded GPS, the Cobra now has a portable moving map, something that the early 1990’s era helicopter lacks.  A single tablet also contains every conceivable map in an incredibly light and easily accessible touchscreen.  Updates to the local geography and existing products are made with a simple download. 

Of his own initiative and without official Marine Corps support, Captain Carlson provided his aging aircraft with a navigational system as advanced any available in the civilian world.  This leap in capability cost less than $1000 per aircraft.  Remarkably, an entire Marine Corps Cobra squadron can now be outfitted with iPads for less than the cost of fuel for one day of combat operations in Afghanistan.

While the technical details of the “Combat iPad” are best left for another discussion, the interesting story lies in exploring the key factors that allowed Captain Carlson, along with several other individuals, to overcome the bureaucratic hurdles they faced in bringing this program to operators.

First and foremost, Captain Carlson was the right person in the right place at the right time.  As one of the senior pilots on the deployment, Captain Carlson had the tactical expertise and credibility to both understand the problem and navigate the bureaucratic morass of the Marine Corps.  Integral to this was a technical background (a computer science major) that allowed him to view the problem from a different perspective and create a unique solution.  

Second, Captain Carlson had the support of key players both in the squadron and at the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW).  LtCol William “Hoss” Bufkin, a Cobra pilot who served on the Wing staff, was in the perfect position to help work through the bureaucratic red tape needed to bring these tablets to the battlefield.  LtCol Bufkin had previously served as an evaluation pilot with the AH-1Z upgrade program and was no stranger to the aviation procurement process.  With his experience, he was able to work through or around many of the top level challenges of procuring iPads and getting approval for their use in flight.  LtCol Bufkin knew that the bureaucracy would tell him “no” when it came to asking for this new technology, but had the will to effectively fight the system in order to get this critical piece of equipment to the fleet.

Not Just for Tourists...
Third, Captain Carlson had the entrepreneurial spirit and work ethic needed to solve this problem.   It is interesting to note that many (but not all) of those Marines involved in the original iPad solution, and those who have continued to improve on the program, had experience as civilians before joining the Marine Corps.  Did their experiences before entering military service help them in solving this unique problem?   It seems so. 

Indeed, because they began their professional careers in places where innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit were valued, these change agents were already comfortable working in environments where unique approaches to problem solving existed.  This is not to say that those who have worked in the civilian world are more likely to be Disruptive Thinkers than those without civilian experience.  Colonel John Boyd, inventor of the OODA loop and one of the most influential military thinkers of the 20th Century, began his military career by enlisting in the Army at age 17.  However, those professionally raised in the current military culture too often write off potential solutions because they do not fit into preconceived notions of acceptable doctrine.

The Marine Corps is going to need more of these combat innovators as we enter the next 10-15 years of fiscal austerity.  As is often quoted, “we’re out of money, its time to think”.  As Marines, especially at the Staff NCO and company grade officer level, we need to do better at taking responsibility for our own organization.

So how do we promote an entrepreneurial, problem solving spirit?  How do we do this in a large organization like the Marine Corps?

The following are some ideas of how Disruptive Thinkers can be more effective:
  1. Be a Disruptive Doer, not just a Disruptive Thinker.  Good ideas are a starting point, but actions speak louder than words.  Captain Carlson put in hundreds of hours of his own time, in addition to flying combat missions, in order to get the Combat iPad up and running.  If he and LtCol Bufkin had simply talked about their solution and hadn’t put in the work, we would still be sifting through 30 lbs of paper maps. 

  2. Be ready for a bureaucratic knife fight.  It often takes a strong personality who is willing to get his nose bloodied to alter the bureaucratic inertia of large organizations.  Choose your battles wisely and have your proverbial “stuff in one sock”.  You may only get one chance to convince someone that you have a better way.  Make it count.  Nixon summed it up best when he spoke about Admiral Rickover, the father of the modern nuclear Navy:
    "I don't mean to suggest ... that he is a man who is without controversy. He speaks his mind. Sometimes he has rivals who disagree with him; sometimes they are right, and he is the first to admit that sometimes he might be wrong. But the greatness of the American military service… is symbolized in this ceremony today, because this man, who is controversial, this man, who comes up with unorthodox ideas, did not become submerged by the bureaucracy, because once genius is submerged by bureaucracy, a nation is doomed to mediocrity."
  3. Don’t forget that the Marine Corps is a warfighting institution, not a think tank.  The Marine Corps isn’t an organization like Google that requires constant innovation out of its employees.  The Marine Corps is more like McDonalds.  The latter needs employees to uphold a standard, so that customers can get the same hamburger in both New York and Tokyo.  With the Marine Corps, you can expect that any given battalion will perform just as well as any other.  To provide this, both McDonalds and the Marine Corps have had to develop and enforce a single standard throughout their organizations.  While this process may seem at times anathema to innovation or Disruptive Thinking, it is, at its core, what makes us good.

  4. Sometimes you can do more good outside of the military.  There is a great tradition of American citizens leaving military service and going on and changing the world.  FBI director Robert Mueller and FedEx founder Fred Smith both earned Purple Hearts as Marine infantry officers in Vietnam.  While the Marine Corps is a great organization, there are other great organizations out there.  America, not just the military, needs innovative leaders.
Along with being more effective junior innovators, we need help from senior leaders.  We do a very poor job at leveraging our best minds and our most talented young leaders.  The Marine Corps leadership can change this in several different ways.

First, bring “centralized command, decentralized control” back to the Marine Corps.  Innovation is often a bottom up process, where those closest to the fight have the best solutions.  Giving subordinate commanders flexibility to make these decisions will allow the most creative junior leaders to develop innovative solutions to existing problems.

As General Patton said, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”  Avoiding micro-management is risky for the commander, and managing that risk is a difficult task, but giving someone “enough rope to hang himself” does two important things.  First, it provides a learning environment for that junior leader, and second, it helps to separate the mediocre from the exceptional.  Anyone can follow orders, but the best will excel in the absence of direction.

Finally, strive to keep the most innovative officers and enlisted leaders in the Marine Corps by offering them ownership in the organization -- embrace their creative solutions whenever possible.

Every organization from Apple to FedEx to the CIA deals with losing talent.  However, the military has a unique problem in that it is an “agricultural” organization, meaning that it can’t hire mid level leaders like other organizations.  Majors and colonels must be “grown” from the ground up.  If you want effective Colonels and Generals, you need to keep effective Lieutenants and Captains. As Colonel Paul Yingling (USA) said,  “It is unreasonable to expect that an officer who spends 25 years conforming to institutional expectations will emerge as an innovator in his late forties. “

The post-Iraq/Afghanistan Marine Corps will present unique challenges and opportunities for the next generation of our service.  Fewer resources and an undefined mission will pose challenges that most Marines have yet to experience.  However, this also offers an opportunity for innovative Disruptive Thinkers and Doers to reshape the Marine Corps into the organization that will fight our nation’s future enemies, whoever they may be.  Hopefully they stick around.


  1. “Centralized Command, Decentralized Control” is a theme which should be emphasized more across the armed forces. Among the submarine force, we face the same challenges, but we struggle with the juxtaposition of innovation and consistency. Ironically, we train our best and brightest to work on the nuclear plant, where they are most limited in the new ideas which they can contribute. I also question if there is risk from characters like Brooks Hatlen from Shawshank Redemption – who have become defined by the institution and unable to survive without it. Hence, innovation must be trained and grown, but in a manner that supports being able to make a McDonald’s hamburger the same anywhere around the world.

  2. thankx for sharing the good info.. like reading it. keep on sharing the interesting stuff like this.

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  3. Great Post. It just begs the question why it takes a knife fight to innovate, be more cost effective, and provide a more leathal capability. Very frustrating that we have both some leadership and a system that really holds back the potential of military officers.