Gen. Chiarelli on new IT: Handle with care

The second day of the Army Science Conference in Orlando, Fla., started off with a spirited defense of research and development and the importance of streamlined fielding of new technology from Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army's vice chief of staff.

Chiarelli also talked about defending the Army's Future Combat Systems program, which is often mentioned as a target for budget cuts by Congress and the incoming Obama administration.

Chiarelli framed his keynote talk in terms of how the ideas in Clayton Christensen's book 'The Innovator's Dilemma' apply to the military, particularly the institutional tendency to 'squash disruptive innovation before it is ever given a chance to become a reality,' Chiarelli said.

As an example from Army history, he talked about two young majors who tried to promote the tank as a technology that deserved more attention and investment only to be silenced by superiors who said the idea was contrary to Army doctrine.

The two young officers ' George Patton and Dwight Eisenhower ' made the argument at the time of World War I when the Army still celebrated the horse as central to the role of the cavalry, and so the potential of the tank wasn't pursued until many years later.

Today's Army needs to guard against that tendency to defend the horse rather than see the potential of new ideas, Chiarelli said. 'Today, we have countless technologies and ideas at the formative stage that, with time and development, could fundamentally change how we do business,' he added.

The Army needs to recognize the danger that it could unknowingly relegate promising technologies to oblivion without giving them time to prove themselves, he said.

An audience member asked Chiarelli how to reconcile a focus on innovation with the Army's embrace of Six Sigma. Chiarelli said he had never considered how the process improvement methodology, with its emphasis on proven results, might run headlong into the desire to explore new ideas.

'I think Six Sigma is making a great contribution to our Army in certain areas, in operating at lower cost,' he said. 'But if Lean Six Sigma is used to get in the way of you and what you do, I need to take a good hard look at that.'

Chiarelli also said the budgetary mechanism for officially recognizing a technology development program with a Program Objective Memorandum takes too long when it comes to delivering needed technologies to warfighters in Iraq and Afghanistan. Every valuable new technology he has seen fielded has come from people working around the process rather than through it, he said.

For example, the Command Post of the Future system was a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency initiative that went directly from the labs to the field because the soldiers found it useful, Chiarelli said. 'That eventually was made a program of record,' he added. 'The only problem is all the innovation we were seeing stopped once it became a program of record.'

Another DARPA project ' the Tactical Ground Reporting System ' came to Iraq as an experiment. Soldiers there revised and improved it. TIGR is a Web-based application that shows junior officers maps of the locations where they will be operating in combination with historical information about what's happened there. It also lets them share information about conditions on the ground.

'Every single brigade in Iraq is using it, and that one is still not a program of record,' Chiarelli said. 'But it has made an unbelievable impact on how we fight and, I believe, forever changed our Army.'

That sort of highly relevant data, combined with the ability to collaborate, has the potential to fundamentally change the organization of the Army, he said.

Meanwhile, FCS stands out as one big, official Army technology development program that seems likely to face funding cuts at a time when bank and automaker bailouts are putting pressures on an already overloaded federal budget. FCS is the Army's plan to produce a system of systems for network-centric warfare, with an emphasis on the use of mobile wireless networks.

Chiarelli said he has heard the same rumors that everyone else has that the budgetary ax might fall on FCS. And he said it is no mystery why it would become a target. 'It's a huge program, and it's an expensive program,' he said. 'We, too, will be going through a complete review of FCS to make sure it's going in a direction we can defend.'

FCS is a suite of systems that are designed to work together, and developers have broken out individual components of FCS as they become ready for deployment, allowing more people to see and work with the technology.

Thomas Killion, the Army's deputy assistant secretary for research and technology, agreed that FCS has become a target partly because it's an umbrella for so many technology development programs. The Army might ultimately have to scale back and decide how many of those programs it can afford 'while keeping the best of FCS,' he added.

On the other hand, part of the goal is to integrate many technologies around a common foundation. 'I would want to keep as much of that system-of-systems concept intact as possible in order to reap the benefit,' Killion said.

About the Author

David F. Carr is a special contributor to Defense Systems.

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