What does our military need its officers to be?

A while ago, I noted that the coming “higher education bubble” could have detrimental consequences to the quality and cost-effectiveness of officer accessions programs, primarily ROTC. In short, this is due to continually rising costs of higher education (relative to incomes and inflation) coupled with a declining amount of actual learning and development that goes on at colleges around the country.

Are we recruiting and accessing Eisenhowers?
or more Jeffrey Sinclairs?

I noted that DoD will need to truly come to grips with what kind of people we need to join our officer corps, and how to find those people–I believe that the days of a college diploma being a simple proxy for those characteristics are waning, if not gone.  I’m going to take some stabs in the dark based on my experience:

  • Strong moral character. The heart of the military’s existence is the ability to apply force, or threat of force, to accomplish the political (and economic) aims of the United States.  Military officers command units that wield the power to kill and destroy. This is a powerful responsibility with no small potential for abuse.  Accordingly, we need officers that are implicitly trustworthy.  They must be honest, do the right thing all the time, able to reason through the ethics of difficult and ambiguous situations, and make sound moral decisions.
  • Physically fit / athletic. Physical fitness is on the decline in the US–on average.  Thankfully, fitness is far more quantifiable than other characteristics on this list, and all the services already try to measure it (though with varying degrees of success).
  • Courage: physical, emotional, moral. Military service is going to place young men and women into positions where they will be scared, nervous, uncomfortable. They cannot crumble under this fear. Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyways.
  • Grit.  Grit is somewhat related to courage, but before I saw this TED talk, I would have called it persistence or stick-to-it-ivness.
  • Ability to communicate effectively.  Military operations are by definition collaborative affairs (there is no such thing as An Army of One). Officers need to be able to understand those around them, and similarly be understood.  This applies in both written and oral forms, and increasingly, electronic forms as well.  They must have a sense for whom to communicate with and when, and also know when to shut up. Finally, officers ought to be able to learn a foreign language (though I know this is a losing battle.)
  • Ability to solve problems in general.  Officers need to be able to handle structured, poorly structured, and unstructured problems, analyzing them to understand root causes and likely solutions.  They need to be prepared to do this in the urgent short term (i.e. during a raging battle) or over the long term (i.e. planning training over a 6- to 12-month horizon)
  • Interpersonal awareness.  I don’t know the exact right word for this, but it is similar to communication.  This is an ability to understand the motivations and moods of others, and to predict the impact of their own actions and behavior on those around them.  Indeed, officers need the ability to design and select their own behaviors to elicit the desired responses in others.
  • Humility.  Or confidence without arrogance.  Nobody wants to follow Narcissus.  The arrogant may be successful over the short term, but will always degrade the force over the long term.
  • Intellectual curiosity.  This is hand-in-glove with humility; it is both the understanding that they won’t ever know everything and the motivation to continually try to learn more.  It is a willingness to experiment and fail in order to find better ways of doing things.
  • Technical competence. In fields where the officer needs to enter in a specific technical role–engineer, computer network administration, lawyers, doctors, etc.–they have to be good at their jobs.  This does not apply to combat (infantry, armor, etc.) roles where the military will teach them all they need to know.
  • Conscientiousness.  In short, prospective officers need to give a crap.

Notice that I didn’t say leadership.  The concept of leadership as a whole is complex and poorly understood, and I think these qualities, generally speaking, add up to an individual who we want defending our nation.

What’s going on inside that helmet?

This list begets a whole host of questions:

  • Which characteristics can be developed? Which ones must be selected at accessions?
  • How do you measure these things? What things do a college degree represent?
  • Where are the untapped pools of people who are already like this? Can you find these qualities outside of college degree holders–among entrepreneurs, civic organizations, sports/athletic organizations, firefighters, etc.?
  • Since this list represents an ideal–kind of a Superman (or Captain America!) if you will–which characteristics can you accept weakness in? How much can excellence in one balance out deficiencies in others? Can you code certain people to certain positions in the military based on their overall profile?

Food for thought.

Amazon applies for an exemption to FAA “regulations” to develop Amazon Prime Air

Last December, Amazon generated an ocean of buzz when they debuted their quadrotor-based package delivery concept. At the time, many of my colleagues thought it was little more than a publicity stunt. My hope was that they were serious, and that with pressure from one of the big boys the FAA might actually move forward on sUAS policy.

Well, it looks like the big boys are in the ring. In this letter, Amazon makes a case for their own exemption, which basically sums up the argument against the FAA’s current set of policies. My favorite bits:

  • “Current FAA rules allow hobbyists and manufacturers of model aircraft wide latitude in flying their sUAS outdoors. Because Amazon is a commercial enterprise we have been limited to conducting R&D flights indoors or in other countries. Of course, Amazon would prefer to keep the focus, jobs, and investment of this important research and development initiative in the United States … In order to allow outdoor R&D testing for Prime Air in the United States, we are submitting this petition for exemption pursuant to Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.”
  • “Further, granting this request will do nothing more than allow Amazon to do what thousands of hobbyists and manufacturers of model aircraft do every day, and we will abide by much stronger safety measures than currently required for these groups by FAA policies and regulations. In this petition for exemption, we seek to engage in essentially the same type of sUAS operation that the FAA would permit us to currently – but for the fact that Amazon is not a hobbyist or manufacturer of a model aircraft.”
  • “We will effectively operate our own private model airplane field, but with additional safeguards that go far beyond those that FAA has long‐held provide a sufficient level of safety for public model airplane fields…”

Good luck, guys.

Switching to Linux Saved Munich City Tens of Millions

It took ten years, but they made it happen.  Nice work, Munich.

Here are the finer points, summarized from an article on OMG! Ubuntu!

  • Munich examined the cost of upgrading the city government’s computers from Windows XP to the next version in 2003, and decided the open-source was a better choice.
  • It started slowly, with a transition to Debian in 2006 for a few servers and workstations, as well as transitioning Windows users to OpenOffice and other open-source alternatives.
  • Through the transition, they discovered that a custom flavor of Ubuntu was going to serve their needs best (they call it “LiMux”).
  • This was not a free transition, as in ‘free beer’.  It cost them significant monies to hire outside help to consult and make the transition, as well as internal training.  However: €34 million (to upgrade Windows and MS Office) – €23 million (to switch to Ubuntu) = €11 million in estimated savings (as of right now). (That’s nearly $15 million US).
  • The savings will continue to grow considering a) the cost of future upgrades is likely to be even less, as Linux is part of the system now, and b) using all-Linux machines should drastically increase security against malware, hacking attempts, etc.
LiMux–the Munich distro

It seems natural and right for governments to adopt open-source software, for many reasons.  At the surface, there would be significant cost savings over proprietary competitors, of course.  But at a deeper philosphical level, there are two reasons this makes sense: open-source software is a public good, which is in the government’s domain and interest to support and fund.  Second, we want government to be largely transparent; we want (need!) legislation and administration to be open-source themselves.

Teacher Selection Becoming More Stringent?

A great piece from Amanda Ripley published in the middle of last month talks about how some places are raising the bar for prospective teachers–making it more difficult to get into to teaching programs and more difficult to make it through.  The result is, those who make it through are more motivated, dedicated, and competent than the average bear.  Moreover, it sends a signal to the entire education system that teaching is a hard profession only suited to the best of the best.

I don’t agree with all of Ripley’s tenets (I talked about this in my review of her book), but this is one that I am all in for.  Who are the very best fighters in the military? They are the SEALs, Special Forces, Delta Force, and all of their ilk. And why are they so good? Because not just anyone can join.  The individuals that volunteer to go through the selection are already some of the most motivated and competent in the service–and usually less than 5% of them end up making all the way through.

Why should we expect any different from our educators? Take a look, it’s well worth the read.