Kristofer Seibt is an active-duty United States Army Officer and a graduate student at Columbia University. Divergent Options content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: Assessing United States Military Modernization Priorities
Date Originally Written: December 13, 2020.
Date Originally Published: January 25, 2021.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The author is an active-duty U.S. Army officer. The author is critical of the tendency to equate modernization with costly technology or equipment investments, and the related tendency to conflate operational and structural readiness.
Summary: Modernizing the military by optimizing access to, and employment of, readily available digital capabilities such as cell phones and personal computers offers a surer prospect for a ready and modern military when called upon in future years. Persistent ambivalence towards basic digital tools and processes across the Department of Defense presents vulnerabilities and opportunity costs for both operational and structural readiness.
Text: The U.S. Armed Forces and the wider public have long appreciated cutting edge technology and powerful equipment as the cornerstone of a modern and ready military. As the national security strategy and subordinate defense, military, and service strategies shift to address the still undefined Great Power Competition, and long wars in the Middle East ostensibly wind down, modernizing the military for future conflict is a widely discussed topic. Despite an inevitable reduction in military spending at some point in the near future, alongside the already unparalleled levels of military appropriation, a strong narrative has re-emerged that portrays new or upgraded capabilities as a common and unquestionable pillar of operational and structural readiness.
As a function of readiness, America’s military technology obsession ignores the more pressing need to modernize basic and often neglected components of daily military operations in garrison, on mission, and at war. Outmoded systems, tools, and processes in military organizations and on military installations are one readiness issue that can be solved today with if they had a similar level of investment and top-level coordination traditionally afforded to more costly programs. Investing in modernizing the military by overhauling daily operations today, at a wide scale, offers a surer prospect for a ready and modern military when called upon in future years, regardless of the unknowable capability requirements future warfare will demand and the uncertain results of technology or capability development.
The elephant in the room, so to speak, is the Department of Defense’s mixed feelings towards digital tools and processes. Besides obvious and widely known inefficiencies encountered in all facets of daily military life, at all levels, these mixed feelings contribute to security vulnerabilities and operational constraints on a similar scale. Consider daily communication, often via cell phone and email. Today, most Military Members are asked to conduct official business on personally procured devices that are connected by personally funded data plans on domestic telecommunications networks.
Official business conducted at the speed that daily operations in the military supposedly require, out of a perception of necessity and expedience, often occurs through a mixture of unsecure text message, unsecure messaging app, and personal teleconferencing software ungoverned by any DoD or Military Department policy or procedure. Military workflows on digital devices rely on inefficient methods and limited collaboration through outdated tools on semi-closed government networks requiring a wired connection and a government-issued workstation. The compounding constraints generated by limited access to networks, phones, computers, and the attendant inefficiencies of their supported workflows necessitate a parallel or “shadow” system of getting things done i.e. the use of personal electronic devices.
While the DoD certainly issues computers and phones to select Military Members in many organizations, especially executive staffs and headquarters, government-procured devices on government-funded plans/infrastructure remain the privilege of a relative few, ostensibly due to security and cost. Company Commanders in the U.S. Army (responsible for 100-150 Military Members), for example, are no longer authorized government cell phones in most organizations. For those lucky enough to have a government-issued computer, before the COVID19 pandemic, obtaining permission to enable their personal hardware’s wireless capabilities or conduct official business remotely via Virtual Private Network had become increasingly difficult.
In contrast to peacetime and garrison environments, in combat or combat-simulation training environments Military Members are asked to ignore their personally owned or even government-provided unclassified digital tools in favor of radios or classified, internally networked computers with proprietary software. That leaders in tactical training environments with government cell phones may sneak away from the constraints of the exercise to coordinate with less friction than that offered by their assigned tactical equipment, as the author has routinely witnessed, underscores the artificiality of the mindset erected around (and the unrealized opportunity afforded by) digital technology.
Digital communication technologies such as cell phones, computers, and internet-enabled software were once at the cutting edge, just as unmanned systems are now, and artificial intelligence will be. Much like a period of degraded operational readiness experienced when militaries field, train, and integrate new capabilities, military organizations have generally failed to adapt their own systems, processes, or cultures to optimize the capabilities offered by modern communication technologies.
Talk of modernization need not entail investment into the development of groundbreaking new technologies or equipment. An overabundance of concern for security and disproportionate concern for cost have likely prevented, to this point, the wide-scale distribution of government-procured devices to the lowest level of the military. These concerns have also likely prevented the U.S. Armed Forces from enabling widespread access to official communication on personal devices. While prioritizing military modernization is challenging, and costly systems often come out on top, there is goodness in investments that enable military organizations to optimize their efficiency, their effectiveness, and their agility through existing or easily procured digital technologies.
Systems, processes, and culture are intangible, but modernization evokes an image of tangible or materiel outcomes. The assessment above can link the intangible to the tangible when mapped back onto concepts of operational and structural readiness. For example, imagine deploying a platoon on a disaster relief mission or a brigade to a Pacific island as part of a deterrence mission related to Great Power Competition. In this scenario, the Military Members in these deployed units have everything they need to communicate, plan, and execute their mission on their personal government-issued phones which can be used securely on a host nation cell network. Cameras, mapping software, and communications capabilities already on these government devices are widely embedded in the daily operations of each unit allowing the units to get on the first available plane and start operating.
The tangible benefits of a digitally adept military therefore also bridge to structural readiness, whereby the force can absorb reductions in size and become systemically, procedurally, and culturally ready to employ new capabilities that demand organizations operate flexibly and at high speeds. If modernization investments today imagine a future with networked artificial intelligence, ubiquitous unmanned systems, and convergent data — ostensibly secure and enmeshed deeply enough to be leveraged effectively — that same imagination can be applied to a future where this same security and optimization is applied to a suite of government-issued, personal digital hardware and internet-enabled software.
 For one example of analysis touching on modernization within the context of the defense budget, see Blume, S., & Parrish, M. (2020, July 9). Investing in Great-Power Competition. Center for a New American Security. https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/investing-in-great-power-competition
 For definitions, their relationship, and their conflation with modernization, see Betts, R. K. (1995). Military Readiness: Concepts, Choices, Consequences (pp. 40-41, 134-136). Brookings Institution Press.
 Barno, D., & Bensahel, N. (2020, September 29). Falling into the Adaptation Gap. War on the Rocks. https://warontherocks.com/2020/09/falling-into-the-adaptation-gap
 Kroger, J. (2020, August 20). Office Life at the Pentagon Is Disconcertingly Retrograde. Wired. https://www.wired.com/story/opinion-office-life-at-the-pentagon-is-disconcertingly-retrograde
 Ibid.; the author briefly recounts some of the cultural impediments to efficiency at the Pentagon, specifically, and their subsequent impact on leveraging technology.
 See Betts, Military Readiness, for an expanded discussion of the trade-off in near-term operational readiness alluded to here.
 For a broader advocation for bridging structural readiness, modernization imperatives, and current forces, see Brands, H., & Montgomery, E. B. (2020). One War is Not Enough: Strategy and Force Planning for Great-Power Competition. Texas National Security Review, 3(2). https://doi.org/10.26153/tsw/8865