COVID-19 is calling our bluff on years of negligence and mounting technical debt. We have long known that we failed to build modern and adaptive digital infrastructure. However, until large parts of the defense enterprise were forced to work from home, we accepted more man-hours as a strategy to mitigate the effects of that failure. The cost is no longer just frustration at antiquated systems and administrative nonsense, but an inability to meet our mission of protecting the American people.
As COVID-19’s consequences mount, leaders are turning to the military for assistance. National Guard members are deployed in at least thirty-two states, and the Trump administration has now federalized the Guard in New York, California, and Washington—three of the hardest-hit states. The hospital ships USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort are being deployed to aid urban medical response. If the Centers for Disease Control’s estimates are correct and COVID-19 moves toward its templated peak around the end of April, the military’s role in the response will almost certainly grow in the weeks ahead. The problem is, we are already struggling to meet internal needs for personnel accountability and tests, which will affect the military contribution to large-scale national response efforts.
In the coming weeks, the US military’s support for our civilian partners is likely to be delayed by a mix of needlessly complex bureaucracy and arcane infrastructure. This is unacceptable because we saw this coming and failed to act, for years. Consider that a January 2000 National Intelligence Estimate warned “epidemiologists generally agree that it is not a question of whether, but when, the next killer [influenza] pandemic will occur.” Or that we have records of warnings about the dire state of our digital systems going back to a 1987 Report of the Task Force on Military Software by the Defense Science Board. Now, as America faces pandemic and recession, defense leaders are scrambling to return to pre–COVID-19 standards, which were themselves unacceptable.
A large part of this failure comes from our negligence in building modern digital capacity before the crisis, meaning that we are trying to make up for lost ground in the midst of such a major challenge. Technologists and leaders from the Army’s innovation community have acknowledged this shortfall. Our systems were insufficient before this pandemic. Solutions will be required quickly in order to leverage the speed and precision needed for a nationwide yet decentralized effort to protect our communities. But simply returning to the status quo will be a failure. Our negligence created this fragility, and COVID-19 is making us accountable—but it also represents an opportunity.
Accordingly, I ask defense leaders to take ownership of our failures and use the COVID-19 virus as a developmental crucible out of which can emerge a force better equipped for the challenges of the twenty-first century. Specifically, please consider the following:
#1 – Address overclassification and information-sharing challenges.
The military’s tendency to overclassify information is not new. Our tendency to segment and stovepipe information was a key finding in the 9/11 Commission. Wargames and planning exercises have highlighted the need for mitigation plans in the event that defense workers cannot access classified facilities. Unfortunately, as David Berteau, who served as assistant defense secretary for logistics and materiel readiness in the Obama administration, admits, “We have not taken those lessons from the simulations seriously enough that we’ve done the preparation necessary to execute it.” The consequence of combining our overuse of classified networks with Pentagon guidance to work from home has been preventable chaos and unnecessary levels of strategic risk.
While some work must of course remain classified, there are countless opportunities for investing time and resources into unclassified development work that can be later migrated to classified networks. This approach has been central to software-development efforts like Kessel Run, where public-facing teams develop tools that can be migrated to closed networks. Perhaps it is time to expand this concept and challenge longstanding practices so that we can best leverage remote work.
Fixing this problem does not just help in the context of the current COVID-19 crisis. It also empowers our talent by providing unprecedented layers of workforce flexibility and autonomy. That does not justify rushing to failure or being careless; we must still make our decisions while balancing speed and security. But, perhaps it is worth considering that many of our “secure” systems have been breached by near-peer rivals, so even when work is done in these compartmentalized platforms we cannot be certain of its security. Accordingly, it may be worth asking hard questions about what work absolutely must be done in a classified environment versus a more flexible manner.
This same secrecy culture must be breached for a second reason: we are failing to onboard talent at the scope and speed needed for digital transformation. For too long we hid behind the curtain of “operational risk” to avoid engaging with the public sector. That façade of a risk-mitigation justification has incurred irreversible opportunity cost. Now, as we scramble to build out digital tools at scale, we find ourselves with pandemic-driven hiring restrictions that will only compound these issues. We need to let the American people know who we are, how they can help, and what we can achieve together. The millennial generation is mission driven—let’s give them a voice and hand in the future of our nation’s defense.
#2 – Demand operational excellence from our business practices.
While the 2018 National Defense Strategy stated that we need to modernize defense business practices and internal processes, reform efforts have been bogged down in a culture of mediocrity around organizational efficiency. We cannot accept half measures like simply turning to digital PDFs for the litany of paperwork the military processes daily where modern software is required, in part because these pseudo-digital processes still have too many people in the loop. The power of replacing human-driven processes with algorithms—to reduce errors and boost efficiency—has long been understood by the civilian sector, evident in the financial markets where 80 percent of daily trading is run by algorithms. Yet, consider that even basic hiring actions within the Pentagon require a hydra of approval offices and digital signatures. This bureaucratic bloat has come under stress as the COVID-19 outbreak has intensified, so let us rebuild these systems to prioritize creating warfighter value and eliminating waste.
The costs of our organizational malaise are not limited to force-generation challenges. Our troops around the world must hope that our supply chains can withstand a level of global disruption that is creating a wave of chaos in the private sector. Digital transformation directly affects supply-chain resiliency through improved tracking and management of critical supplies. The Army’s struggle to sustain the force are compounded by antiquated methods for maintaining it. While Raytheon has just released information about the company’s pilot effort applying predictive maintenance for the M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle, the private sector has been using this technology for over twenty years. We cannot accept putting servicemembers at risk because we were half-hearted about digital transformation and were unwilling to invest at scale.
If we own this challenge, we must begin by identifying and eliminating processes that are simply throwing servicemember bodies at the problem. Instead of redundant efforts and disconnected offices that exist to stamp papers, we must deconstruct workflows to find underlying constraints and inefficiencies, allowing us to discover opportunities for optimization where we can insert scalable algorithms. As we save time, and simplify operations, we can focus more our of military’s energy and attention on challenges that require human decision making.
This can kickstart a positive chain reaction of process automation, which can be conducted at home on unclassified networks, and migrated elsewhere if required. Over a year ago I highlighted McKinsey research suggesting that “30% of the activities in 60% of all occupations could be automated” and “5% of occupations could be fully automated by currently demonstrated technologies.” In the year since, our failure to address this challenge amounts to gross negligence. We have long had the private-sector tools needed to manage this effort and enable decentralized collaboration. We should have already solved these problems. We cannot afford to wait any longer.
#3 – Finally take digital upskilling seriously.
We have spoken for years about the need to invest in building a digitally literate and technically skilled workforce. At present, most investment and effort has been at the policy level, with outcomes like the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act or Defense Innovation Board recommendations. These, however, are aligned against challenges that require congressional engagement, multi-year pipelines, and institutional partnerships.
Outside of these long-term projects exist a universe of low-hanging fruit projects, which require basic training in areas like Microsoft Excel, introductory-level python coding, and management practices like scrum. Many coding schools, university programs, and nonprofits have online and remote-compatible training programs. The work-from-home requirements of the COVID-19 response give the Pentagon a unicorn-level opportunity to make progress toward our digital modernization goals. What are we waiting for?
Further, we can use the needs outlined in suggestion #2 and the unclassified approach discussed in #1 to ensure training is oriented on tangible outcomes and existing workstreams. If we align remote training against real-world challenges, we can focus on immediate return on investment. Not only would this decrease waste in the Pentagon, but automating these workflows would decrease the number of people on our networks, freeing more bandwidth and man-hours for crisis response challenges.
#4 – Invest, at scale, in our civilian-military relationship-building efforts.
While the US military can support America’s COVID-19 response, it must do so in coordination with nontraditional partners and experts, including many across the private sector. No single department or agency can address the complex challenges of mitigating the pandemic’s impact. Further, many of the networks now critical to the US military’s capacity to respond are also ones with whom we have not developed widespread connective tissue, like medical suppliers or city governments. The Pentagon will need personnel capable of collaborating with nontraditional partners in real time to find innovative solutions to emerging challenges—pandemics or otherwise—like entrepreneurs-in-residence.
Characterizations of the Pentagon’s civilian-military relationship shortcomings have ranged from “branding” challenges to national security threats. Until COVID-19 the consequence of cultural disconnection was abstract, often focused on an inability to access advanced digital technology. Now that military units are responsible for playing an active role in crisis response, at scale and at home, the consequence is human lives.
If we use this crisis to disrupt the cultural walls that separate us from potential partners by prioritizing greater connective tissue with the general public, we can enhance COVID-19 response and move our community in a collaborative direction The first step is finding opportunities to support the frontline medical workers in this fight. This requires an emphasis on humble collaboration, open-source sharing, and contributing to the existing work of others. We must avoid the “nonprofit problem”—whereby working independently stifles the power of collective collaboration in a way similar to game theory’s stag hunt.
Our lack of preparation, in the form of adaptive digital networks and robust connective tissue with civilian partners ceded the initiative to the enemy we currently face and we will pay for that in the months to come. We must stop giving up ground by investing in these capabilities and use the time ahead to both combat a pandemic and address longstanding shortfalls.
James “Jay” Long is a captain in the Army Reserve, a National Security Innovation Network Startup Innovation Fellow, and an experienced national-security innovator based in New York City. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Staff Sgt. Garrett L. Dipuma, US Army National Guard
The photo for this article is VERY telling. The U.S. Military TRAINED for this back in 2011 in something called "CONOP 8888" against Zombies (no kidding….there is a Challenge Coin made for this exercise).
What does the article photo show—soldiers donning medical gowns, gloves, and masks. No, COVID-19 should be treated as Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical (NBC) Warfare with full gas masks, MOPP gear, duct taping, and Decontamination. Would that be too scary for the public to accept, having soldiers walking around in gas masks with filters and seeing through plastic eyelets? But that is what COVID-19 is…a Biological pathogen….NBC without the "shooting warfare" part. That is probably what Italy is requesting from the US Military…soldiers in MOPP suits all geared up for NBC Warfare without firing a shot.
Instead, the photo shows the DoD is no better protected than your average medical doctor or nurse. Treat COVID-19 like tear gas or Anthrax and the soldier knows what to do and how scary that is. Instead, the DoD is also taxing the gown, mask, and glove suppliers when they should be taxing the DoD's gas mask, canister filter, MOPP suit, and duct tape suppliers that make the US Military so special. No need for M4s and pistols here, but the way the DoD responded to this crisis is manpower with the same gear as Medical. That is what is the flaw with this photo…no Decontamination showers, no tarps, no Booties, no Bleach baths, no washdowns, and no duct tape and tapers. No hand wand sprayers, no Litmus test paper, no sensors, no Fox Recon vehicles, no tanker trailers carrying liquid Bleach (or detergent), no air filter generator/scrubbers, and no overpressure compartments and tents.
If the doctors wore US Military MOPP suits, gas masks, and activated Charcoal filters, Camelbak straws, and cooling vests, they would be so happy and could operate all day!
I think the US Military needs to "Gear Up" some more and wear NBC MOPP suits, especially in Italy…and bring those blue Decon tarps and Bleach too.
Correct, we need to start by soldiers in full MOPP executing care assistance to front line field hospitals. Troops have the equipment and training. Let’s use the gear to take strain off of equipment shortage. People are already scared, so I don’t see the concern.
More here on CONOP 8888:
That was almost literally nine years ago. So why wasn't the US Military prepared for COVID-19? Discuss.
Nine years is a long time for military memory. It’s a sad reality, but we constantly forget even recent history and force ourselves to unnecessarily reinvent the wheel.
Additionally, while CONOP 8888 offers useful ideas, how many current planners are familiar enough with it to draw real-world lessons from it? This was a period in which zombies were en vogue and multiple training scenarios, big and small, were developed around them. This definitely helped obtain buy-in from many of the participating troops, but I wonder: Did the silliness of the subject discourage theorists from taking these exercises seriously?
As far as the military not being prepared, an argument could be made that the military was never really able to recover from the Clinton-era drawdown, let alone sequestration.
I find that even Hollywood's portrayal of a virus outbreak to be a more "Realistic and proper" response to a pandemic than the real US Military. Hollywood may not be real, but they do have actors dressed up in HAZMAT suits complete with airhoses, thick gloves, gas masks, full helmet face shields, Booties, duct tape, and overpressure chambers and tents.
I don't know if the US government Administration is taking this pandemic seriously or not, but in this article's photo, you do have the Booties and the gowns and gloves, but no facial protection, air hose masks, eye protection, HAZMAT suits, and definitely no CDC BioHazard Level 3-4 protection. If Hollywood could portray it right as a film, why can't the US Military?
See what I mean by the photos below…
2016 Pandemic movie:
1995 Outbreak movie:
These are the U.S. Military CBRN suits for the proper CDC BioHazard Level 3-4 COVID-19 response. Sure, they might look scary to the general public, but given the circumstances, especially in Italy, I think that these are needed.
They're not disposable suits per se, but washdown Decontamination CBRN in shower suits. And yes, they can be folded and disposed of, but Coronavirus isn't a caustic chemical and can be washed off and killed with Bleach and disinfectant.
Note the airhose attachments and overpressure, or full coverup from head to toe to eyes, ears, mouth, and even belly button :-).
One shouldn't put more strain on the Medical gear suppliers to supply the U.S. Military too, when the DoD has their own specialized CBRN suits and gear for BioHazard containment. Washington DC might be treating this as CDC Levels 1-2 when it seems to be Levels 3-4. I mean the DoD is fully prepared, but the order to wear CBRN hasn't materialized or passed down.
Yes, it's strange that the military hasn't launched into full operations mode. Note that CONPLAN_8888 is fictional/notional. https://www.stratcom.mil/Portals/8/Documents/FOIA/CONPLAN_8888-11.pdf?ver=2016-10-17-114016-887
Everything for the F-35…sorry, but that has been the #1 priority for years.
The issue is balance and operational necessity is the key. Tracking coffee orders for point of sale transactions or utilizing algorithms for prediction models or an automated manufacturing process is not the same as moving an entire maneuver unit that may run into contact or even environmental considerations. METTTC don’t care about your fancy computerized technological wonders. Consider the disconnect between the TOC Fobbits wondering why their screen doesn’t have little dots moving compared to the Squad Leader or Platoon Leader solving unforeseen problems the ground. Consider the simulation versus the reality. Commanders need actionable intelligence and accurate reports but consider how that looks when their units hit a bump in the plan or how some leaders overreact because their digital systems are not working to paint the operating picture they want or enabling the operational needs on the ground. Digital systems should always be a tandem support system for analog systems that empower the decentralized leadership decision making process; not the other way around. Yes we should lean forward but we should have a “Murphy's Law” analog backup that we are trained and ready to utilize along with the digital tools and systems. And they must be developed in synchronicity. Consider the following: If a fully automated system breaks down or over reliance on digital systems occurs during operations than maintaining the system or getting the system back up becomes the priority and potentially a show stopper. And since the leadership turnover and organizational turnover of PCS/ETS and promotion creates a constant tension between fresh unit members and a loss of tacit knowledge and unit METL competency fully automating and failing to hone basic system management or basic readiness requirements will lead to decreased operational ability not increased. Case in point who maintains the automated systems and how do they deal with the forward deployed aspects of using and maintaining those systems let alone what happens in combat.
What we are seeing as a result of COVID is really a combination of mandated priorities by commanders who are mostly being asked to be good at everything with no room for failure and the learning curve while also being expected to make the little icons turn green. But I guarantee you that priorities are shifting and the reality of current events will lead us to be less dependent on automated processes and more dependent on technologies that enable the decentralization of training and operations. And leaders of every level or going to have to get out of their comfort zones and put in more work to travel to location and observe and lead training and operations with small closed networks tied into the larger operational systems. From an OPSEC/strategic perspective the more automation you have the vulnerable you are to Cyber and EW attacks. So mitigation of those threats play a much higher role as opposed to companies and corporations that are not concerned with national security or war fighting. We as the American Military will have to consider utilization differently than civilians and privately owned companies. Not to say we don’t need to get ahead of the power curve with automated systems and technology but remember it’s all just one solid EMP blast from being just extra stuff to carry.
I keep asking the same question and no one has answered it. Why isn’t anyone wearing their M40 or M50 mask? This is getting ridiculous.
I’m wearing an M-50 mask. And I’m retired. But I’m also disabled and highly vulnerable to this virus. A major surgical procedure in the past caused a lung to be partially compromised, so catching a lung disease wouldn’t be good. The military absolutely should be using their mask. They offer considerably better protection than any disposable N95 mask ever will. We need to be saving every mask we can for healthcare professionals until this pandemic is completely over. The idea that we’re going to scare the public is ridiculous. ITS NOT A SECRET…THERE’S A PANDEMIC GOING ON. The public is fully aware of this, so they’re NOT going to be scared. Give people a bit more credit than acting as if though they’re all infants. It’s no secret that there’s a major shortage of N95 mask out there. And every study as proven time and time again that wearing anything LESS than an N95 respirator (disposable or not) is nearly to being completely ineffective at protecting the wearer from catching this disease. Wearing a cloth mask will, however, prevent you from spreading it to others. But there’s a major issue with that. Only half the population has even bothered to go that far. So while my cloth mask may protect you, what’s protecting me from catching Coronavirus? It’s certainly NOT those walking around without any mask at all. Nor would it be that cloth mask. And it’s certainly NOT my N95 respirator because those aren’t even available. So for me, it’s down to my military grade Avon M50 gas mask. Thus, if I happen to scare someone, well, so be it. I’ll gladly explain to them that we’re in the midsts of a major pandemic with approximately 80,000 dead in the United States so far. So when I weigh the option of someone’s 3 seconds of fright versus suffering through a major illness that could kill me, well…BOO!!!!, they’re going to get themselves a bit of fright, as if they’ve never seen a gas mask before. I’m just not willing to risk my life on a presumption that all those people walking around WITHOUT ANY MASK AT ALL don’t have the COVID-19 virus. That’s because it’s still being spread about. And if it’s not being spread by people with the mask, then it MUST BE getting spread by those who’re walking around without any type of mask whatsoever.
So meanwhile, I’ll continue to wear my own personal gas mask. And I’ll continue to remain protected from Covid-19.