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LEVERAGING SOLDIERS FOR INNOVATION: WHY WE NEED AN ARMY PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT CELL

(As featured in The Modern War Institute, in collaboration with Jim Perkins and Spencer MacDonald)


There is a disconnect between Pentagon assertions that the US Army’s greatest resource is “our people” and the Army’s current modernization strategy, which does not emphasize empowering that talent. This misalignment encourages acquiring cutting-edge weapons systems while retaining digital infrastructure that lags decades behind those of most Fortune 500 companies, effectively suffocating the creative intelligence of our force. Becoming a multi-domain capable Army by 2028 will require a fundamental shift in Army culture to leverage soldier-driven innovation.


The Army can facilitate this culture by creating an Army Product Development Cell (APDC) with a mission to build applications that fill Army capability gaps and facilitate human-centered design with the defense industrial base. The APDC would be the first Army cross-functional team with core competencies in product management, software development, and data science. Such a team would catalyze innovation across the force by demonstrating commitment to bottom-up, tactical-level solutions—empowering soldiers to work smarter, not harder.


While digital transformations are hard, success is most likely when personnel are allowed to address technical and cultural challenges at the lowest level. To address this challenge, in 2017 the Air Force created Kessel Run, allowing airmen to develop software with applications ranging from combat capabilities to enterprise-level solutions. Kessel Run projects have created enormous value for the Air Force, with some—such as a flight-planning application for fuelers—paying for themselves just days after being launched with their enhanced efficiency.


The Army can create similar value by launching the APDC in partnership with the Army Artificial Intelligence Task Force and the Army Applications Laboratory. This would upgrade the Army’s digital infrastructure while empowering soldiers as modernization partners, pivoting from working “in the business” to “on the business.” The Army already has the technical talent needed to achieve this goal; now, it must empower that talent to solve problems at all levels of the force. This approach is ideal for addressing the Army’s big-data problem—one that’s worsening every day.


Data is the New Ammunition


The purpose of a military in garrison is to create and sustain unit readiness—a loosely defined term. To that end, many daily workflows for junior-level Army leaders involve manually importing data from one system into another system or transcribing it for reports. Despite having responsibilities that often far exceed their civilian peers—like maintaining fleets of equipment worth tens of millions of dollars—these junior leaders must use systems to plan, record, and analyze data that are isolated and often decades behind civilian-sector equivalents. The consequence of relying on these antiquated systems is failure to reach critical readiness levels, something former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley alluded to when he described problems associated with reporting readiness to Congress.


When the Army acquisition executive, Dr. Bruce Jette, and Gen. Milley prepared to brief civilian leaders on the Army readiness shortfall, they discovered systemic data-management issues. Army data is housed in hundreds of disparate systems and is difficult to integrate cohesively. Program Executive Office Enterprise Information Systems has approached the solution in a top-down, hierarchical manner and integrated the siloed Army data into a “leader dashboard.” Unfortunately, this effort has addressed just half of the problem; dashboards are only as good as the data entered.


The Army needs a data ecosystem that enables easy data acquisition and usage.  In order for senior leaders of a data-driven organization to have access to reliable, trusted, and timely data, the focus of product design needs to be at the bottom of the organization, where the majority of users exist. The majority of Army software systems are not designed with modern product-design practices, and the end result is poor data quality for the wider organization. The APDC would provide enormous value by applying a bottom-up, soldier-driven approach to supporting the Army’s modernization priorities and improving the enterprise systems used daily by soldiers.


Connecting Users to Engineers


This unique value proposition is driven by the need for high-quality data from every echelon. The Army’s six modernization priorities all rely upon the layering of complex technological systems on top of pre-existing Army job specialties and organizations. For example, the Army’s Long-Range Precision Fires cross-functional team and the Army AI Task Force are developing an AI-assisted intelligence support tool for multi-domain targeting. However, examples from both the Army and the Air Force show that great care must be taken to create a service-specific organization (e.g., Kessel Run) that closes the loop between technology innovation and the low-level users of the technology.


To start, it’s vital to understand how broken the Army’s existing systems are. The quintessential example is of an unclassified system that requires a week of training, certificates, and user agreements before a soldier can even get an account. Next, soldiers can only access the system from a government computer, and even then, the system is usually slow. Because of such poor performance, the digital system runs in parallel to paper record keeping; so, on rare instances when it is used, the data is far from real-time and often erroneous.

The Army is investing in multiple predictive maintenance projects for Army ground combat vehicles and rotary-wing aircraft. But these projects require contractors to manually download maintenance data from data loggers installed on the vehicles, and then upload this data to the cloud for processing and analysis. During field exercises or combat operations, junior soldiers in the vehicles need to be trained to ensure data loggers are turned on to prevent critical data loss. Soldiers also need to be trained to download and upload data from data loggers in a tactical environment. Even if someone has mapped the user experience, the focus is at the top—the predictive models—rather than the bottom, where users input data.


By contrast, the Air Force is attacking critical data loss in operational environments by tightly integrating Kessel Run teams with maintenance crews of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The F-35 is the most expensive defense acquisition project in the history of the Department of Defense. However, due to issues with the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), F-35 maintenance crews had to use basic spreadsheets and handwritten notes to capture important maintenance data. Kessel Run is working hand in hand with ALIS producer Lockheed Martin using human-centered design and lean product development to mitigate the risk of these ad hoc approaches. A key point of emphasis is that Kessel Run and Lockheed are supportive partners. Kessel Run provides the user research and product development support to help Lockheed make changes to its source code.


Unity of Command and Organizational Incentives for Army Innovation


The Army currently has technical talent in its ranks, from officers serving in the operations-research and systems analysis (ORSA) functional area to Army Cyber Command personnel and the Army component of the Defense Digital Service. However, the Army’s bottom-up innovation efforts suffer from a lack of unity of command and organizational incentives.


For example, Army ORSAs are frequently misused by commanders that lack an appreciation for the military applications of data science, spending time building readiness slides instead of predictive models. Army Cyber Command personnel are primarily trained for critical cyber missions and often lack the time to leverage their coding skills for wider innovation efforts. The Army component of the Defense Digital Service has critical skills but often focuses on joint projects given its DoD-wide organization. All of this points to the need for service-specific organizations that build the sustainable talent needed for organizational momentum. Addressing this need requires the Army to incentivize time spent solving service problems through rewards like permanent billeting and career advancement.


The APDC would close this gap for the Army by acting as a center of excellence for human-centered design and product development. The APDC would facilitate the innovations of existing Army communities like the ORSA functional area by scaling creative processes and products throughout the entire force, ensuring that innovative practices aren’t siloed in one particular unit.  APDC personnel would work with technologists both in and out of uniform to enable real-time iterative feedback from operational units during product development. Although the Army acquisitions community provides some feedback loops for developers, the APDC would minimize time and space between soldiers and technologists in a way that existing models cannot replicate. Finally, the APDC could maintain elite personnel standards by following the 75th Ranger Regiment’s model of constantly revalidating its performance and its assigned personnel.


This approach will allow the Army to “deliver performance at the speed of relevance,” as the National Defense Strategy puts it. Kessel Run has validated that this user-based approach best meets the need for innovative products in the Air Force. For example, besides the aforementioned aerial tanker planning tool and ALIS design modernization, Kessel Run has delivered efficiencies by automating previously manual processes and data entry across the Air Force. Kessel Run’s success has even spawned a multitude of new software units in the Air Force, which a recent article in Air Force Magazine described.


Think Big: The APDC as a Pilot Program for Army Technologists


The APDC would be focused on developing technologies, improving performance, and generating capabilities. While Army Futures Command has already experimented with related efforts such as sending coders to the field to improve tactical command operations, this team would formalize and expand these efforts.  The APDC would mimic Kessel Run’s military-civilian split of personnel, and would contain product managers, product designers, software engineers, security engineers, data scientists, and DevOps personnel.


For the uniformed soldiers on the team, the initial training glidepath could be a six-month internship with Kessel Run. A strong partnership with Kessel Run is key to the success of the APDC, as the Air Force program has established a model for servicemember innovation and can share valuable lessons with the emerging APDC team. At the end of the initial training, APDC personnel would be awarded a basic digital proficiency additional skill identifier (ASI). After this initial training period personnel would move to the APDC and spend twelve to eighteen months working on Army-specific problems.


Initial manning for an APDC pilot could be constituted from existing Army Futures Command personnel and others who would be assigned in a temporary-duty status for a six-week sprint to validate the concept. The initial team should be a minimum of four people—a product manager, product designer, software engineer, and data scientist. The top priority for this initial sprint should be problem selection. The APDC must start with a clearly broken product or process, a coherent vision of what could fix it, and a clear agreement between the APDC and stakeholder regarding possible solutions and implementation.


Reserve elements like the 75th Innovation Command can support this initiative by activating personnel for individual projects. These tours would consolidate Army Reserve drill requirements into sprints, optimizing return on investment for the reservists’ time and leveraging their unique civilian-sector technical expertise. These sprints can be complemented by integrating local university students from programs like Hacking 4 Defense as junior developers on the project, providing the military with access to coders and providing students with portfolio experience.


This approach would focus on the development of working technology and software that can be scaled across the force. The goal is to create an innovation ecosystem where soldiers can leverage and upgrade software as needed to enhance mission value. The Army already does this with shared drives for circulating written products; the APDC would expand this with an emphasis on working tools that provide immediate value to the force. Security concerns will be important, but could be mitigated by utilizing standard DevSecOps practices implemented across DoD.


Creating Value for the Army, Today


Despite our multi-billion-dollar weapons programs, our Information-Age military is largely fighting with Industrial-Age tools. To win the fights of the next century, Defense Department experts are calling for us to adapt our culture and make computer science and software core competencies.


Software development is a critical component of a modernization strategy and the APDC would complement existing Army modernization programs by expanding the number of skilled personnel available for these innovation efforts. The efficiencies gained with this approach would allow the Army to better leverage existing manpower, potentially mitigating recruitment shortcomings and overcoming existing talent deficits. If the APDC concept is successful, it would set conditions for follow-on operations that greatly increase the ability of soldiers to understand and contribute to modernization in a complex technological environment.

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