The 2018 National Defense Strategy pivoted the U.S. military toward great power competition. Following that, the fiscal year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act included a "list of detailed and specific questions regarding the roles, missions, and requirements of the military services." This has brought on a reexamination of service componency and — for some — a bit of an identity crisis. The blogosphere has been active with service members from the Marine Corps, Navy Reserve, Air Force and others, questioning the mission and purpose of their organizations in the context of the NDS.

Organizations are not that different from organisms in that they will fight, first and foremost, for survival. But we should also note that survival is difficult without relevance — just ask Kodak. What is most important is not what an organization wants its identity to be, but what its customers want it to be. The same is true for the military. It’s probably no coincidence that the Navy’s Program Objective Memorandum (POM) narrative describes "The Navy the Nation Needs," and not "The Navy the Navy Wants."

Our experience redesigning military organizations for shifts in missions, responsibilities and resources has offered us insights into how the services can move past these crises of identity. One way to approach the issue of service identity is to start with an understanding of a service’s existing niches. This understanding can be developed by asking these questions:

  • What are the service’s most valuable functions? The Oxford English Dictionary defines "valuable" as "of great use or benefit" — the roles, missions, and activities that are worth taxpayer dollars, as viewed by those the military serves.
  • Can or does any other service do these things? What other services provide these functions, and how broad is the overlap?

This helps to describe a service’s "value propositions," the first step toward resolving the identity crisis. The value propositions of a service sit in the upper right quadrant of the chart below.

We can then ask, "Of those propositions, which is most important?" This goes beyond value — "importance" means "carrying with it great or serious consequences." These consequences can be examined within the context of national strategy or even national survival.  A complete mismatch between a service’s value proposition and national strategy will certainly be cause for concern — and potentially an identity reset. But since each of the services supports a number of missions, it is more likely that matching value proposition to importance can help a service to focus its identity on the subset that is most valuable, important and unique to the nation today. Therein will lie its relevance.

So what is to become of those functions that are valuable and unique but not as important to national strategy today? It is important to distinguish between those functions that have lost their importance permanently and those that might be needed again as history repeats itself — or at least rhymes. Antisubmarine warfare declined in importance after the fall of the Soviet Union before roaring back with great power competition. Organizations must make a further distinction between those functions that — if lost — could be reconstituted either easily or only with great difficulty. Leaders should retain in some limited capacity those functions that are hard to reconstitute, prepared to bring them back online if they become important again in the future. The organizations that thrive are those that recognize the only permanent state of affairs is change.