Approximate Reading Time: 19 minutes
Editor’s Note: This is Part 4 of a 4-part series interview between IBM and the Joint Special Operations University’s (JSOU) SOF Design and Innovation Program Director, Ben Zweibelson (Contractor, METIS). Ben spoke with IBM event coordinators for the upcoming SPADE conference to be held in May 2019 in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. SPADE is IBM’s invite-only, signature event for defense and intelligence. This year’s theme is “Designing for the Future of Defense and Security” and will address defense design, innovation, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and the defense incorporation of radical technology within dynamic, complex conflict considerations. Ben Zweibelson, a prolific writer and speaker on Military Defense Design, was invited as a speaker, design group facilitator and panel moderator. Leading up to his presentation at IBM SPADE, this four-part interview is available explaining many of the complex challenges in design theory, practice, and education across the international defense community.
…Defense design must address this, and get military organizations comfortable with being uncomfortable…and being mindful of that essential thing.
#4 Future Operating Concepts and Defense Design
John Sarubbi: You did touch on the German army and NATO a little bit. Is there anything unique with regards to NATO that is something you want to highlight?
Ben Zweibelson: Well, most defense organizations right now, to include NATO, are looking out for what they call “future operating concepts or FOC.”
Future operating concepts are projected out 15 to 20 years in the future, so most of them are really looking at 2030 to 2040. Usually they term this “FOC 2030” or “FOC 2035” and so-on. Services do this, as do various subcomponents and different organizations that tend to have an entire life-cycle of personnel, materials, or resourcing that forces them to really think about whether the way they do things currently is suitable or appropriate if the system is dramatically different in 15-20 years. For example, think about education and how those of us that identify as “Generation X” are now forming the majority of mid to upper management across militaries and industry.
Generation X experienced the rise of the Internet Age and the dawn of social media, but most of us were well into secondary schooling or even into the work force before we saw much of that. If you know what “please be kind and rewind is,” you know what I mean. But who are the millennials and do they learn differently? I like to take the date 2006, which was when the very first “smart phone” came out, and say that every person born since about 2004 has lived their entire life with smart phone technology available to them, although many may not have the circumstances to gain access to it.
This generation will be at least 20 years old by 2025, or right around the age for entering military service. By 2030, the period many militaries target for their FOC milestone, virtually all new recruits for enlistments and officer positions will be of people that only know a hyper-connected, technologically advanced way of life (to varying degrees, of course). Now, the big question – should militaries in 2030 teach in the same way that we have taught PME for decades to an entirely different population that learns and engages socially and constructs information in profoundly different ways?
Yet right now in 2019, how much change is really occurring in how PME is done across NATO and within services? I would offer that the resistance to different ways of learning has more to do with organizational resistance and perhaps an inability to move with the times and accept novel practices than any argument that millennials might still learn exactly the same as Gen X or other generations. So just using that education example, we still are predisposed to do as Karl Weick argued on how we socially construct reality and distort history. We “imagine the past so that we remember how the future is supposed to go,” and defense design is about recognizing and disrupting this when we go about writing up our future operating concepts.
These future operating concepts are done at the strategic level as well as operational or service specific or, and NATO’s case, it’s a conglomeration of multiple different nations that are providing their military for holistic defense effort. And so, the future operating concepts are really unique because they’re dealing with the future. They’re dealing with something where just some of the things we see today remain as patterns, they will exist in 2030. But some things of course will not, and none of it is clear at all when one attempts to peer into the future and make sense of it. For design thinking, a FOC is really a reflection of that organization’s way of thinking, their sense-making and their own organizational preferences on engaging with a complex reality then it is about any actual future.
So a lot of things that we see today in terms of the security environment such as, is Russia going to be a potential adversary or challenge in 2030 for NATO? Probably. More than likely. Possibly. But there are always the ‘black swan events’ lurking that could dramatically reframe the system in ways we are unwilling or not yet ready to imagine. Will NATO require a lot of its core missions and organizational functions that it already expresses today of what it does in 2030? Probably. However, there are things are going to be emerging.
Emergence is really important in design, especially for defense design applications, because it is that which does not yet exist but it is going to change the legacy system and it is important to appreciate that, as emergence occurs, there are those who innovate, those who bring about emergent systems and they are the ones that are gaining advantage.
Aside from innovators, there are adapters or non-adapters. So, the adapters are the ones that respond to this change, within an emergent system. So how does one tell the difference? Are we adapting, innovating, or perhaps being non-adaptors?
Normally it’s because you feel pain. Whether conceptually or physically, the system that changes because of the innovators who have made that game-changing advancement, and now everyone else has to react and are receiving pain in some way. We must therefore adapt. Now, pain is a metaphor but it relates to whatever the organization values and needs. If you are a business and some innovation by a competitor suddenly removes a chunk of your market share, you will experience financial pain.
If you are a high jumper in the 1960s and you are really good at doing the ‘straddle jump’, but then this innovative jumper named Fosbury comes along and ushers in a completely new way of high jumping called the ‘Fosbury Flop’ that eventually propels athletes higher than anyone doing an earlier technique, you experience the pain of defeat coupled with the pain of needing to learn an entirely new jumping technique if you wish to remain in the elite level of competition.
In defense design applications, a rival or adversary becoming the innovator results in losses for that military organization, whether painfully real and tangible in the forms of lives and resources, or abstractly in terms of losing the narrative, the momentum, or the will of a population within a conflict. At least when adaptors realize they are receiving pain due to an innovation emerging in a surprising or unexpected way as all innovation does, the adaptors realize and, well, adapt. The non-adaptors are different, because they make a choice not to adapt…sometimes because of values, institutionalisms, part of their belief system or the ritualization of certain practices that become impossible to discard or soften. Non-adaptors are eliminated, whether in commercial sectors, in politics, or in war.
So the military future operating concepts are really important here because, if NATO or a military organization, projects out to 2030 or 2040 and is unable to imagine, if they are unable to consider a range of future emergent states where perhaps one is what the organization excels at today in 2019, but they need to think beyond that. Everyone has a particular desired future state that is the future space where if they change nothing and just continue to improve and gain efficiency at what they do today, it is relatively smooth sailing between now and the future.
This is a futures trap that many fall into, and defense design is oriented towards disrupting. I like to call it the “rainbows and unicorns” future operating form, where the organization can sprinkle technology upon their current 2019 form and essentially reinforce what they like to do, and that becomes what they want to do tomorrow and the day after that. Why is this? It is because we’re really good at them and we’re going to be good at them in 2030. However, some of those things actually may be disadvantageous to us in 2030. But they’re really important to our military identity. This becomes a tension and again refers back to emergent complex systems as well as an institutional resistance to change, risk, experimentation, innovation, and disruption of the current organizational form and function.
And so, what can we do to temper that over the next 15 or 20 years and in future operating concepts to reconsider some of these things having to change? And so how would we do that?
For defense organizations, it’s really challenging because some of these things become ritualized. Some of these things become part of the cultural fabric, the identity, of various services, the United States Marine Corps being a great example, of how they identify and how they identify with amphibious assaults, and the maritime reconnaissance, if you will, for the Navy.
Marines of course conduct activities on the ground that are similar to the Army but still distinct, often within a very small footprint, and able to project to remote locations rapidly and in ways the much larger Army cannot without relying extensively on other services. And so, some of those things, they’re going to be very valid in 2030. In 2030, the Marines will likely retain many of their current 2019 capabilities.
But some things aren’t going to be valid and can the Marine Corps envision future states, if you will, for operating concept that are dramatically different and require a radical change between now and then? For example, I like to refer to a Marine Special Operations senior leader and a defense design effort he did with the Marine Special Operations strategists recently where they were looking out to 2030 and what the future of the Marines Special Operations Forces or SOF might be.
Essentially, the group of male commandos huddled around that design table first set off envisioning exceptional military technological advancements that would enhance their commandos to a level where they were quite superhuman, or hyper-enabled might have been the term. That Marine leader then disrupted them by asking, “What if in 2030 the Marine SOF provide for the United States and its allies the very best female commando teams in the world? That the Marines become the leading authority on recruiting, equipping, training and employing entirely female commando teams that can think and act differently than how current all-male commandos operate.”
You can imagine the shock around that room as a group of all male commandos struggled with something completely different and likely in tension with many of their existing beliefs, values, and cognitive structures. These same sorts of futures can be disruptive when one asks a paratroop infantry organization to consider a future where vertical insertion (airborne activities) are irrelevant, or for a logistics organization to consider the technological extremes of 3-D printing, artificial intelligence and entirely novel ways of providing logistics outside of and beyond all current practices.
With the Air Force, how far along the chain of custody for lethal action will they permit the human to occupy, and autonomous or artificial intelligence to exist and function? In cyber, can the talent necessary for defense advantages in cyberspace warrant the inclusion of previously undesirable members of a military organization? People that do not meet the personality requirements, physical requirements, criminal record requirements, or other stipulations that previously had removed those people from any consideration?
Alternative futures’ is a critical aspect of defense design thinking because when a defense organization projects out 10-20 years, the last thing they need to do is reinforce set practices and cast convenient illusions that move them along in terribly wasteful and dangerous paths that nonetheless feel comforting as they march along to an unexpected doom.
Getting organizations to consider radical and disruptive futures is tough. Particularly because they want “proof”, some historical precedent or example that they can then apply analytics to. Remember, all innovation is about “that which has never-before-been-seen, meaning it is so new, they probably don’t have words for it, and no one has any history on it. Early innovation is impossible to distinguish from quackery and nonsense too, so that makes the task of being on the lookout for innovation even more depressing and dangerous. Thus, it becomes a strategic defense design challenge. NATO has this challenge both within each individual nation’s defense system but also collectively, holistically on how NATO, as a multi-partnered force, is going to work against adversaries that are looking against Europe, the greater industrialized West, and so forth.
Again, on emergence and futures, there are great examples of the role of the human being in the human and machine integrated relationships or human machine teams. Right now, we have drones, but what about when you have a majority of your combat vehicles that don’t involve human beings, at least not directly or operating them? That’s a significant future challenge. 3-D printers and how they are planning and changing the entire supply chain, the manufacturing chain and the civilian side of global economic structures and transportation of goods.
Now, all of that is potentially going to change quite radically. And how will that impact them? And how will that impact resources? When we looked artificial intelligence again in cyberspace and some of the challenges there, you know, the issues with bots and spamming and influencing human behavior based upon social media patterns.
And is that an act of war? And if so, what is an appropriate reaction? And what are technological developments that could dwarf the impact of nuclear weapons? There is a great scene in the sci-fi movie, “Ready Player One” where a man in the game world loses all of his “loot” or virtual achievements and treasure when he gets defeated inside of the game. The man rips off his goggles and gloves, and then attempts to run out his office high-rise window to commit suicide in the actual world. This is where the notion of “violence” begins to blur in future defense considerations; can actions in cyberspace take nonlinear paths to express as violence within a physical domain?
In another scene from that movie, the players are inside the virtual reality game and they encounter a super bomb weapon that, if used would wipe out all of the player progress and “loot” of every player in the game, including the person wielding that weapon. In that movie, if players are so attached to their virtual selves and accomplishments that people trying to kill themselves due to losing virtual artifacts is a regular thing, imagine the impact of this bomb.
Would a virtual bomb inside of a video game ever rival actual nuclear weapons? Not right now, but if societies become so integrated into virtual worlds in the future, can it? Look at the chaos that occurs when just certain regions of the country lose Twitter or Facebook for a few hours. Nuclear weapons are a high bar to set for exceeding, but any future operating concept that does not look past them at what is emerging and more devastating in unprecedented and never-before-seen ways is potentially just projecting 2019 upon the future and expecting it to remain constant.
In the next 20 years, will we see new technology, whether it’s micro technology, gene manipulation, virus development, cyber, virtual reality or any other type of things where it’s able to do things that nuclear weapons couldn’t do or can’t do? There are also futures where societies reject technology and usher in a retrograde or counter-technology effort, such as radical eco-terrorism movements that are currently undercurrent but could suddenly surge in influence and popularity.
And it’s even more dangerous and more violent. So how does NATO deal with those emergent qualities that are unavoidably in certain future paths? ‘Multiple futures’ is about expanding how the organization thinks about their thinking, and designers cannot proceed to eliminate futures in order to converge towards a more useful single one. Instead, drawing from scenario planning, multiple simultaneous and quite dissimilar futures ought to be developed, maintained, and experimented within for design innovation and prototyping.
I know we are short on time, but I wanted to close with a few comments on the design education developments ongoing between JSOU, IBM, and NATO this summer. The JSOU design program has previously given quite a bit of basic and advanced design education across Europe, including at various War Colleges and to European partners. I have been quite fortunate to be part of the design program and able to participate in these exciting events as well as help shape the curriculum and assist in developing a series of distinct design movements within nations. Last year, IBM reached out to us and inquired about ‘defense design’ and found the intersection between military organizations, industrial technology, complex conflict environments, and the emergent novel demands of multi-domain security challenges as a very interesting topic to explore. They asked me to come do a keynote lecture at last year’s SPADE conference where I had the fantastic opportunity to share the stage with IBM’s Head of Design, Phil Gilbert. The NATO audience really enjoyed what we offered them, and I think that was part of what helped drive some JSOU and IBM discussions since then.
Additionally, over the past few years, NATO has become increasingly interested in defense design. At first, JSOU provided design executive sessions with senior NATO-ACT leadership up in Virginia on the US side of the NATO enterprise, as well as some design facilitation with NATO-ACT staff. In the past year, NATO Schools, which is headquartered in Germany, began partnering with JSOU in design education, getting select personnel educated in how JSOU provides design education and assimilating it into a NATO structure for the NATO School to implement. This summer in July, NATO School will be providing two iterations of their new NATO Design and Innovation Basic course, using the JSOU existing model and drawing from our faculty as well as some IBM design facilitation and collaboration.
IBM is in an interesting position here, in that the strength of the company clearly is in advanced and emergent technology as well as the essential human aspect of how and why those technologies shape our emerging reality. Simultaneously, military organizations are struggling with very new concepts such as military ethics and technological advancements on the battlefield, human-machine hybrid teaming, cyberspace and warfare, artificial intelligence and the impact upon defense activities, and so on.
These topics are exotic, and unprecedented…we cannot draw much from the past because our interpretations of what is new is quite unlike what we are used to despite our overarching desire to recycle previously successful ways of doing defense. IBM has a series of “cloud garages” located across Europe and of course globally, but for those European cloud garages, they have the potential to become defense incubation centers for NATO forces that want and need design education as well as a safe environment to experiment with novel, disruptive and highly innovative concepts…to bring to that defense organization that which is needed but does not yet exist, to design with destructive innovation in ways that can transform a security organization into the future form with future function needed for the next conflict or security requirement. I would expect that in the years to come, it might be a great development for a hybrid design teaming of security designers, industrial designers, and futurists to work with NATO organizations on a wide range of security topics. These activities could occur at unit locations, at the NATO School, or in IBM Cloud Garages perhaps. A design environment coupled with a multidisciplinary team of designers and the ability to marginalize favored tools in order to experiment with novel ways of approaching complex security issues would be a sight to see.
#5 “Defense Design “Resonates with More Countries”
John Sarubbi: Is there anything you want to add on the work you are doing with IBM in regard to enterprise and military design?
Ben Zweibelson: My JSOU leadership are of course that point of contact. JSOU and IBM are exploring some sort of collaborative partnership in which military design or defense design and IBM enterprise design thinking work in tandem, particularly in NATO, to assist in organizations with some of the blended security and technological challenges that are out there. Innovation, change management, machine learning, human-machine teamings, artificial intelligence, SOF peculiar activities within cyberspace, multi-domain and multi-disciplinary approaches to complex warfare…these are all outstanding topics and represent quite wicked problem sets.
So, enterprise design thinking, is becoming a defense enterprise design – defense thinking. I don’t know what we are calling it. So what I mentioned to (Phil Gilbert), and I’ll tell (Leonard) again – I’ve told them a few times – I think IBM will get more acceptance if we use the term defense design or some combination.
Instead of military, because when you see military, you’re going to resonate with the Germans and several others, the Canadians, the Australians, and the Brits. But when you say “military”, you start turning off some of the nations that have a lot of national caveats, which there are a lot of in NATO, and I served in NATO in Afghanistan for a year and it was quite an interesting experience. Each nation has a list of national caveats that will determine what they can or cannot do in various combat and mission support roles as part of the coalition.
And there are a lot of peculiar nuances where – for the Scandinavian countries, for Spain, for Italy and for several others. Some partners are not comfortable with overt military terms, and this is perfectly sensible.
Thus, you have to kind of take a softer approach and say “defense” in my opinion. You see security, and something that can scale all the way down to local law enforcement, and all the way up to international strategic alliances. So universally, if you’re looking at NATO as a homogenous group, the term “defense design” may actually have a little bit more staying power, if you will.
John Sarubbi: That’s a good point. Thanks for sharing that, Ben. Hey, listen, I appreciate your time. I know you have to run.
Ben Zweibelson: Take care, John. Good talking with you.
John Sarubbi: Thanks, Ben. Talk to you later.
Ben Zweibelson is a retired US Army Infantry officer. He is currently a doctoral student at Lancaster University and Program Director of the Joint Special Operations University, under the United States Special Operations Command.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the United States Government. IBM is working with JSOU in an informal association focused on educational development, collaborative research, and possible joint efforts for specific SOCOM educational requirements. Ben Zweibelson is a Metis LLC. contractor for JSOU.