"...do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic..."

"For the good of the Air Force, for the good of the armed services and for the good of our country, I urge you to reject convention and careerism..."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Maxwell AFB, April 21, 2008

"You will need to challenge conventional wisdom and call things like you see them to subordinates and superiors alike."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, United States Air Force Academy, March 4, 2011

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Imagine a Vampire Squid in Camo

Interesting piece today in the New York Times opinion sections. Greg Smith has pulled chocks from Goldman Sachs after twelve years. He has decided the firm's culture has lost its way. He calls it toxic and destructive. His article reminds me of things I read and learned while working on my master's thesis. He says the culture has lost its integrity, and leadership role models peddling nonsense to its clients in order to make a profit at their expense. He projects that this role modeling will take the firm down a worse road in ten years, and he doesn't want to be a part of it anymore. He says a few individuals in leadership lost the culture on their watch.
How did we get here? The firm changed the way it thought about leadership. Leadership used to be about ideas, setting an example and doing the right thing. Today, if you make enough money for the firm (and are not currently an ax murderer) you will be promoted into a position of influence.
I agree with Greg, an organization cannot survive if it loses sight of the interests of its clients, and replaces that interest with self interest and careerist ambition. If leadership loses its integrity and has no concern for doing what is right (accountability), and thinks ideas and principles are quaint "beliefs" that get in the way of the immediate goal, then a culture will become short sighted, and populated with inferiors who will ruin an organization like a swarm of locusts eating the hard work of superiors before them. There is a lesson to be learned here for all organizations, including those of us in the service.


  1. It's like you are in my head. Sadly, the lesson seems oblivious to a great number of leaders today. Still trying to fight the good fight.

    -Sgt Snuffy

  2. Glad to hear it. Take pride in doing right, there often isn't any other reward. But given a retirement, or rank, I'll take pride every time.

    The nation might ask us to fly a one way mission to defend our nation, and I suspect they ask us to do the same in our day to day careers. Fighting the good fight for the nation, in a careerist organization that has lost its way, is typically a one way mission.

    Or as General Fogleman put it, service before self. Keep it up, and remember it's not a real sacrifice if you're not scared. The nation employs us to fight, not to be comfortable.

  3. I was impressed with Smith's Op-Ed contribution. Since culture is near and dear to your heart, here's my .02. I think that military culture is certainly vulnerable to the kind of negative drift that Smith claims is rampant in G.S. I think it is interesting that CEO's like Jack Welsh (G.E.), Lou Gerstner (IBM), Paul O'Neil (Alcoa), and Alan Mulaly (Ford) all talk about the importance of contributing a healthy culture to the organization. All of these men were brought in as "outsiders" to repair organizations which were on the verge of failing (Mulaly on Ford: "this company has been going out of business for 40 years, they just didn't know it.")

    Unfortunately, by law the CC's of the military have to come up through the ranks: a process which weeds out disloyalty to the status quo. Now, I am not claiming the military and corporations are equivalent institutions, but it is interesting to me that the remedial mechanism of "the outsider" which is available to corporate America is a procedural impossibility in America's military. "Outsiders on the inside" are few and far between. (There's probably a reason why the best ex-mil strategic thinker's I've read/met lately all retired as E-7s or O-5s.)

    On to another issue...have you read AU's "Technology Horizons" report (or for that matter the "Blue Horizons" briefs)? I know we disagree on the role of drones (I may not be seeing the picture the way you are), but I was really surprised by the reports insistence on the use of Autonymouse drones (i.e., those which can perform all of the PID functions and authorization functions autonymousely). This seems like AU sophistry to me since I can not imagine the CFACC saying he's comfortable for drones to perform such autonymouse lethal ops except in the case of the most unrestricted combat contexts. Considering it is high-intensity, rather than low-, which has become the "niche" form of warfare; Big Blue's interest in autonomy seems unfounded.


  4. JR, great point about the role of the outsider. I'd like to see our IG process replaced with an outside mechanism. Then we might be able to leverage a failed but existing military system to correct some of the more egregious cultural issues. Maybe.

    I share your skepticism for autonomy with respect to fires, although I do think unmanned platforms are definitely the way forward. Autonomous ISR systems with reach back analysts would be good, but I agree the human can't be taken out of the loop if ordnance is to be expended. The one exception would be for air to air RPA in the initial days of an air campaign where "if it flies it dies" is the rule - and even after with proper IFF equipment on friendly aircraft. I think we could have an autonomous armed CAP cloud, but for fires on the ground we need a human in the loop.

    Above all, with this technology increase and ground operations, we need moral and intelligent people at the controls. I think that is where were are failing today. I heard an F-15C flag officer bring up the moral dimension in opposition to RPA back before Buzz was fired. I didn't like his message on the whole, but he was right on the point that detached killing where the operator has no skin in the game doesn't help with moral and professional life/death decisions.

    We need the technology for our defense, but we really need to focus on the quality of our operators who control it.

    1. The Air to Air vs. Air to Ground issue is interesting. There is a natural discriminator in the former case. Technology is the only thing that can get a human into the air. Since technology put you in the air, it seems a little more legit that technology should be able to shoot you down -- manned or unmanned. It feels wrong to apply that kind of arithmetic to the ground. People cannot help but be on the ground. It is our natural domain, we were here first. It seems wrong for a piece of tech to pick and choose who can live and die in a domain that is so fundamentally organic.

      "[W]ith this technology increase and ground operations, we need moral and intelligent people at the controls." Now here's the common ground between us again. I simply wonder whether the moral engine, which is the human brain, can be adequately informed via virtual sensors to be "at the controls." My fear is not the tech. I would far rather send a machine to do my job (I'm fundamentally as lazy as my cave-man ancestors...laziness, as much as necessity, is the mother of invention). Are we convinced that we understand the sensory phenomena enough to really say it can all be reduced down to bit-streams and accurately conveyed to a brain far away. B.S.

      Like I said before, I "get" what unmanned tech can do a LOT more than most other blue suiters. I am convinced it is a better instrument of killing than is any manned asset. You could also say it is a better recon platform. The issue I have is that war is not strictly about either killing or recon. War is about convincing someone that they're defeated. That is a very intimate human experience. Ever been beaten in a fight? Ever beat someone up? There's a powerful inflective moment at the end of the contest where you can see that the relationship has fundamentally changed. It is the whole point of the contest, (much the same as "the point of running the first 20 miles of the marathon is to run the last 6") it is a very human moment. It is where meme's die. It is spiritual and psycho-social. That's something I think could loose its value in machine warfare.

      BTW, if this all seems like left field, it is because I think a lot of folks in the military could not really define what war, victory, defeat, and power are except in the most vulgar terms of simply death and life. There's a lot more to it than that.

      "[W]e really need to focus on the quality of our operators who control it." John Boyd: "People, ideas, technology, in that order." Agreed. You know my email. Give me a shout. I'm interested in pinging some other ideas off of you.