AFLR Commander’s WIT #40: The Struggle “Intellectual Capitalism, Interoperability Nightmares and Standardization”

—–Original Message—–
From: Bedke, Curtis M MajGen USAF AFMC AFRL/CC
Sent: Sunday, July 20, 2008 6:08 PM
Subject: AFRL Commander’s WIT #40: The Struggle—Intellectual Capitalism, Interoperability Nightmares and Standardization

Men and Women of the Air Force Research Laboratory-

There is a Philosophical Struggle raging on right now in the Air Force, that stands not only to dramatically influence our future direction but to literally determine whether we will survive as an institution able to perform our mission.  […].  It affects not only our Air Force, but all of the military.  What is it?

“Always Never the Same” – both an album by the rock band Kansas, 1998 and an album by country music singer George Strait, 1999.  No, they’re not ever the same.  Right here is where you think I’m going to give a coy or humorous answer.  But no – I’m dead serious on this one.  The battle is between what I will call “Intellectual Capitalism” and “Standardization.”

By the way…there need not be this battle.  Or rather…there should always be a simmering feud, an ever-shifting, ever-probing discussion about when to standardize and when not to standardize.  Because this is-or should be-an issue of subtleties, of constant questioning, of quiet, earnest debate.

But currently there is, in my mind, a tidal wave of standardization that threatens to stifle the creativity of our people and the ability to experiment, to try new ideas, to fail greatly, and most importantly to send many people down many paths, allow them to try the same thing in different ways, and then eventually to decide which path was most successful and follow it.

I call it “Intellectual Capitalism,” because it works the same way that economic capitalism does:  by allowing many to attempt, we accept that most will fail but that they can then follow the successful ones to the next decision point-and try again.  It isn’t as efficient as picking a single direction at the start…but it has been proven by history to be by far the most effective.  A corporation may believe it is more “efficient” by trying only one product line, or one manufacturing technique, or one marketing pitch; but it will be more “effective” if it tries several and then drops those less income-producing for those that bring value to them…and most importantly, it is most successful if it does this over and over and over again.

The CENTCOM “Interoperability Nightmare”

I heard a story at USPACOM (U.S. Pacific Command) last week, where I was attending and speaking at the PACOM Operational Science & Technology Conference.  The story was told by their J6 (Communications System Director) about the “Interoperability Nightmare” in USCENTCOM (U.S. Central Command).  He noted there are 4000 systems and applications in the CENTCOM AOR, all sucking up bandwidth; over 1000 of those were C2 (Command & Control) systems.  He then described the “interoperability nightmare” due to each service and organization bringing its own C2 into the theater.  “It’s a tragedy!” he exclaimed, as he called for more standardization to the situation.

He’s both right and wrong, of course.

He’s right in that we can now sit and look at this and say “You know, some of these probably work great and some of them are likely disasters.”  By this point, we ought to be able to clean this mess up and get everyone in synch with each other.  And I expect someone will do just that:  They’ll probably try to figure out what all they have, what each of them supposedly does, then study and decide which systems are most useful and practical, and eventually pick a couple and say “Gang, these are the ones we’re all going to convert over to.”  And guess what? Odds are they’ll do a pretty good job at it, and the end result will be cleaner and more efficient, and in those cases where people had one of the other systems, they’ll eventually be pretty happy with the chosen, more effective and hopefully more efficient system.  It’s called “progress!”

He may be wrong in an interesting way.  Sure, it would have been nice if we already knew the answer, and everyone already had the one single “best of breed” system.  But the simple fact is, this was a “pick-up game,” in an area where the technology is advancing incredibly rapidly and the needs we encountered had frankly never been encountered before. So before we call it a “tragedy,” we should ask ourselves what the alternative was.  If we already knew what the best system was, and hadn’t gotten around to buying it, then shame on us.  But if we really had no clue, then by calling it a “tragedy” we imply we should have simply “done without” and waited for someone, somewhere to come up with a study and an acquisition program and eventually had our C2 shipped to us by airlift or ship.  Any guesses as to how many months or years that would have taken?  (We’d probably be in the fourth protest and recomplete by now….)  I don’t think deploying into CENTCOM without Comms would be a good idea in anyone’s book.  So the fact is, we each did what we had to do; we deployed with what we had, and then using electronic duct tape and www.D-40 we set about getting most of them to talk with each other.

“Let’s Straighten It Out” – soul song by Latimore, 1974

Furthermore, those that will now go in and “straighten this out” will probably not figure out ahead of time which is the “one best system.” If the implication is that we should have already known the answer, then I’d say we don’t even need to see what’s over there.  We can make this an academic exercise, pick the system we would have picked if we’d done this in advance, and just buy it.  Me, my money is on the likelihood that they will go in and see what they have, what’s actually working and what’s not, and then-having had the benefit of the “intellectual capitalism” to weed out the weak-they will pick a system (or more likely, a combination of systems) that really is more efficient and effective.

And then, the process will start anew.

Note a VERY IMPORTANT POINT:  While I am advocating “Intellectual Capitalism,” I am also more than willing to embrace “Standardization” – but only when we know it’s the right time and we have the benefit of what we learned.

Here’s a HILARIOUS BUT APPALLING POINT:  After explaining why it was so important that we all have exactly the same equipment and C2 systems, he then went on to say this is so important because we are fighting an extremely resourceful and adaptive enemy-one which uses all manner of cell phones, internet web sites and blogs, and even multiple ways of building and detonating IEDs…all different, all so very difficult to combat because he doesn’t have that one single way of doing things.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  No, that’s not right.  Sadly, I did know.

So, the problem is this:  All around us, I see moves to standardize everything in sight, whether it needs it or not.  And that is dangerous because it leads to Stagnation.

The current trend is:  “Standardization whenever Possible.”

I believe the proper approach is:  “Intellectual Capitalism whenever Possible; Standardization whenever Necessary or Overwhelmingly Advantageous.”

“Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea” – song from the musical Pacific Overtures, music by Steven Sondheim and libretto by John Weidman, 1976

And there ARE times when Standardization IS INDEED either Necessary or Overwhelmingly Advantageous.  A perfect example is our recent Nuclear Weapons Policies and Procedures.  For almost 50 years, from the mid-1940s through around the mid-1990s, the Strategic Air Command created and demanded a system of strict standardization of nuclear operations (SAC furled its flag 1 June 1992, when it was combined with Tactical Air Command to form Air Combat Command.)  Now, people used to smirk and make snide remarks about SAC…its people were unthinking automatons, lacking the ability to create or feel emotion.  All rot, of course; in fact, my experience was quite the opposite.  But when it came to nukes, there was no compromise.  You couldn’t afford a mistake, and so we had Standardization of Procedures and Discipline of Process drilled into our heads.

And the Nation slept soundly-at least, regarding our control over our nukes.

Here are some great categories when Standardization is Necessary:
(1)     Nuclear Surety, Safety, and Security
(2)     Inspection and Grading Criteria
(3)     Public Funds Accountability
(4)     Rewards and Punishments
(5)     The Law

Here are some great examples when Standardization is Overwhelmingly Advantageous:
(1)     Flying an Airplane or Operating a Complex Machine
(2)     Interfaces and Open Architectures
(3)     Engineering and Manufacturing Standards (ISO, for example)
(4)     Teaching a Skill or Procedure
(5)     Interchangeable Parts

Here are some examples when Standardization is really not good:
(1)     Songwriting
(2)     Aircraft or Automobile design
(3)     Architecture design
(4)     Coffee Shops
(5)     People

A few of us met with the Acting Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen McNabb, here on Saturday.  One of the briefing items was the Nuclear Operations way ahead.  The briefer had a great quote I think you’ll like, perfect for the nuclear situation we’re facing:

“Heroics and Expertise cannot sustain an Air Force with broken processes.”

I really like that.  It sums up the case for standardization of necessary things.  But I’ll also suggest this:

“Efficiency of Process cannot sustain an Air Force with stifled creativity and innovation.”

“When you’re through it’s up to you to try it again” – Do It (Til You’re Satisfied) by B.T. Express, 1974

We need both.  We need to be serious about both.

It starts here at the Air Force Research Laboratory.


Major General, USAF
AFRL Commander

[mc4wp-form id="2814"]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.