The Future of Defense Task Force of the House Armed Services Committee recently released an ambitious roadmap to prepare the U.S. Department of Defense for the battlefield of the future. The task force’s recommendations will require a tectonic shift — inside a gigantic, risk-averse bureaucracy. As the director of CNA’s Organizations, Roles, and Missions program, I have led teams to support many DOD organizations as they transformed their operations, including the standup of the U.S. Space Force. This work has led us to three “must-dos” to achieve transformational change, three strategies that might make that tectonic shift possible.
1. Ground your vision. The Defense Department is unlikely to achieve alignment that will “better match national resources to next-generation threats” unless leaders can first define precisely what that looks like — functionally. Describing structural goals like “integrate two commands” or “stand up a fusion center” can lead to outcomes other than those envisioned. My team supported a number of DOD organizations faced with a congressional directive to cut 25% of their staff. With only a structural target, most of the organizations we observed tried to “peanut butter spread” the cuts, resulting in fewer people trying to do the same work, the same way, with less help. This did not meet the likely intent of Congress — efficiency — because the goal provided was a structural one, not a functional one. McKinsey & Company consultants have identified a lack of a clear goal as a key contributor to failed reorganizations.
We had to relearn that lesson with our plan for the Space Force. In 2018, Congress directed DOD to contract a federally funded research and development center to plan for a Department of the Space Force. CNA was selected for the project, and we began trying to design based on the National Defense Authorization Act’s meagre structural description of the Space Force, just 21 words! A couple of months later, we briefed our progress to then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan. Just 10 minutes into the brief, he stopped us. The former high school football player asked us what his “50 meter time needed to be.” He wanted specific, measurable descriptions of the required performance of the Space Force to drive the design. We had focused on the structure requested by Congress, without fully defining how it needed to function.
We started again by asking, “What are we building a Space Force to do?” This began with the two things a Department of the Space Force needed to achieve from a functional perspective: meet national security space objectives and operate effectively as a military department. From there we deconstructed both of those targets into more detailed, measurable outcomes, comparing DOD performance at the time with benchmarks the Space Force should meet. Grounding the vision is essential, but it’s hard work. It took our team of a dozen experts four months transform those 21 words into objectives and outcomes that defined what a successful Space Force needed to do.
Does the Future of Defense Task Force report help the DOD to ground their vision? Sometimes. For example, the task force aptly envisions the Departments of State and Defense sharing influence and leadership within a revised national security structure. It also acknowledges the need for further steps to figure out what this means and how it should be achieved. But their report also suggests an explicitly structural solution to problems of supply chain reliability: a National Supply Chain Intelligence Center.
2. Be bold — selectively. Even transformational change needs to be done in discrete and selective chunks. We have found it useful to target areas that seem most primed for change. Acquisitions was an area that fit that description when we were looking at where to truly modernize the DOD’s newest service to meet national security space objectives. Congressional and Pentagon leadership were already looking for alternatives to the traditional, rigid set of steps and approvals for acquisitions, ideas such as empowering decision-making at lower levels. Personnel was another area where Congress and the Armed Services were starting to experiment with new models for career progression and entry requirements. So our Space Force plan incorporated bold changes in acquisition and personnel management policies and processes. Indeed, these are both areas Space Force leaders are now exploring, which they hope will serve as a model for broader transformation inside the DOD.
It’s equally useful to know which aspects of an organization are rigidly resistant to change. As specified by Congress, our plan for the Space Force created a new military department, with its own civilian secretary and military chief. But as time went on, many members of Congress suggested that creating a whole new military department would add excessive bureaucracy. So instead, the U.S. Space Force was created as a new military service under an existing military department, the Air Force. (Just as the Marine Corps exists as a service under the Department of the Navy.) Where conditions are not ripe for bold transformations, compromise is the best path forward.
The report of the Future of Defense Task Force includes 14 separate recommendations — on topics as diverse as acquisition, funding, diplomatic agreements and partnerships, and public-private relationships. Each of these should be examined to determine where political leaders and national security institutions would be most amenable to dramatic change. This can help inform the order in which the recommendations should be tackled.
3. Make the transformational familiar. Big, sweeping changes are scary. People will worry there won’t be a place for them in the new organization or that it will be too hard to learn the new way. The task force acknowledges these headwinds, describing the “cultural resistance” to wider adoption of artificial intelligence in DOD systems and processes, for example.
The most effective transformation plans show people how they fit into the new structure and allay the fears of resistant groups by giving them some sort of comfort blanket. One method is to note precedents, where others have successfully traveled a similar path. In our Space Force design, we described somewhat unusual structures and approaches, such as making Space Force organizations tenants on bases owned by other military services to minimize headquarters overhead. But we also described where tenancy is already working today in defense agencies.
The Future of Defense Task Force report does take this approach at times. For example, it likens their proposed national campaign to win the artificial intelligence race to the familiar — if ambitious — Manhattan Project. Their recommendation for more seamless cooperation between the Departments of Defense and State could be made more familiar by drawing parallels with previous collaborations in disaster response.
Leaders also need to help all participants translate between familiar and transformed structures, for example by using old and new terms side-by-side. Essentially, they should provide a “decoder ring” to help people understand how to work with the transformed organization. The design of the Office of the Chief of Space Operations borrows more heavily from corporate models than from traditional military organizations. But each military function can be loosely mapped to the structure. So the new structure can easily integrate with other military organizations through a common functional language.
By grounding their vision, being selectively bold, and making the transformational familiar, DOD leadership has a starting point for successful transformation of the kind envisioned by the Future of Defense Task Force. None of these approaches is easy. But the larger and more bureaucratic the organization, the more essential it is remove roadblocks to change. Winning on the battlefield of the future will first require winning the battle to remake the Department of Defense.