Transcom Commander: Visionaries Power American Progress
The commander of U.S. Transportation Command said it will take people with imagination to solve the problems of our age, but then asked, “Are we identifying and empowering those folks?”
Air Force Gen. Darren W. McDew spoke at an Air Force Association breakfast on Capitol Hill Nov. 15 and used his time to talk about the dreamers who really power innovation.
McDew paraphrased a quote from Brooks Atkinson that speaks about the United States being built by people who took risks and ends with the line “Dreamers who were not afraid of action.”
“These are the attributes that will be required as we move forward in this nation and into the future, and we have to remember we must empower [these people],” the general said. “Many of the great inventions throughout history had naysayers who didn't believe the impossible could ever be possible.”
He read out some critiques of inventions that are pivotal today, including a classic one for the Air Force: "An interesting scientific toy, but they are of no military value." The quote was referring to the airplane.
“These were experts in their fields who spent more time debating why something wouldn't work than trying to figure out how it could -- or even better, how it might actually change the world if it did,” McDew said. “Innovation is more than coming up with a few new ideas. It's actually the willingness to implement them. People like Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers; they made the unimaginable a reality, despite all the people that were trying to hold them back.
Fear Kills Innovation
“The naysayers throughout history were those who were afraid to take risks, afraid of failure,” he continued. “I believe, ultimately, they had lost their ability to dream.”
McDew floated a pet theory on this. He noted that sociologists posit that people go through value programming by the time they are 11 or 12 years old. Value programming is a result of upbringing, education and experiences. “Well, I've added a corollary to that theory, and that is that, in adult life, there's a similar value programming,” he said. “As you grow in your career, you're programmed by your training, your leaders, your successes, and more importantly, by your challenges.
“Your value programming makes you think through a particular lens and you'll always think through that lens, whether it still applies or not, because it's your lens,” the general continued. “If you'll allow yourself, you'll actually become shackled by your preconceived notions and biases. You won't even realize it, because it's your value programming. It's your lens. It's how you view the world.”
McDew said that in the military there are Cold Warriors, such as himself; Desert Stormers, who were raised on the Gen. Colin Powell Doctrine; and post-9/11 troops.
Today’s military blends those three generations and the lenses they use to look at the world around them, he said. “My concern now is how current events are shaping today's senior leaders,” the general said. “This morning, our United States Air Force will announce a new brigadier general list. Who are they? Who are they going to be as leaders, and where are they going to take the force? And how are we shaping their lens?”
The changing character of war, and the way the United States military responds to it will define the challenges of the future. “The most significant changes are the result of emerging technology,” he said.
Changing Nature of Conflict
But there is more including volatile geopolitics and shifting demographics. “These are not only changing societies and the way we fight, they're also changing why, where, wars are fought,” the general said. “In fact, they're changing who is fighting those wars.”
Conflict increasingly transcends geographic boundaries – the transnational and transregional threats that military leaders speak about. “I remind my [Gulf Cooperation Council] colleagues that we don't have geo-fences up around their [area of responsibility],” McDew said. “Oh, if it were that simple that a fight can be contained in the geo-fence called [U.S. Central Command].”
The United States has to be prepared to fight a technologically advanced adversary that has larger forces, and that will mean a contested environment.
He noted that the U.S. has enjoyed air dominance since World War II. “But those tactics, techniques and procedures that made us successful back then will not do the trick going forward,” he said.
Specifically, McDew said, when he speaks of a contested environment, he does not necessarily mean a kinetic one. “Before, in my life, I thought that I was okay until I met somebody's threat ring,” he said. “You're in a contested environment right now, sitting right here.”
He said that on June 22, 2017, 20 American vessels operating in the Black Sea reported their GPS-based navigation systems were malfunctioning. “It was displaying their position 25 miles away from where they were,” the general said. “It said they were on land, at an airport. Now, not the ideal spot for a container ship, for those of you that don't know container ships.”
The system had been spoofed, McDew said. “What happens when the actions of an adversary shake our confidence in our digital tools? Can we trust our systems? Once you lose the veracity of your systems, how do you get it back?” he said. “An adversary today doesn't have to stop us. All they have to do is slow us down. We'll stop us after that, because we will check and double-check our accuracy.”
Winning Without Bombs, Bullets
The adversary will have already won without one bomb or one bullet. “That is the reality of our time, and it doesn't matter if you have the most lethal military in the world if you can't get it to where it needs to go,” he said.
“Our adversaries, and other illicit actors, are going to place cyber as the biggest threat to our decisive logistics advantage, and it is decisive right now, even though we haven't treated it as one for a long time,” the general said. “We can't afford to assume that that dominance will go unchallenged, because it is being, in fact, challenged every day.”
Cyber defense must be integral to everything the military does. “We've got to move forward in solidarity to address this existential threat,” he said. “It has to be a society issue, and what we have to do is get past the lens of the naysayers.”
The general said the United States must establish cyber norms and standards, just as previous generations embraced preventive measures for public health. “They don't just protect the individual. They protect everybody,” McDew said. “These social conversations have got to happen, and we have to come up with those quickly. We've got to take this digital technology and age more seriously.”
“Cyber hygiene [and] cyber security must be part of who we are, and we need to classically condition another generation of people,” he said. “I recently visited Estonia. They teach coding in elementary school. Why do they teach coding in elementary school? They have a large neighbor to their east who taught them a very valuable lesson one time.”
The U.S. must learn that lesson without the downside of massive failure, the general said. “The challenge of our time will not be solved by the templates of the past, even if it would be comfortable to think it could,” McDew said. “The Cold Warriors, the Desert Shield and Storm-ers, they did what they needed to do to thrive at the time. But that was their time, and this is our time.
“Is what we're doing today, good enough for tomorrow?” he asked. “The light bulb, the airplane, even U.S. Transcom, who had its own doubters back in the day, were made a reality because people had the courage to act, the audacity to fail, and the intellectual curiosity to discover the truth.”
The questions people need to ask is how is value programming affecting the process? “Are you empowering a joint force generation through the challenges of time, in a different way?” he said. “Someone in our joint force today is going to be the pioneer who will push through the face of this challenge. Someone in our force is going to be the thinker who resolved the greatest issues of our time.
“Most importantly, someone in our force is the dreamer, that dreamer who will make the unimaginable a reality,” he continued. “Who are we investing our time in? The person who can imagine the light bulb, the person who says it will never work, or the person who's just satisfied with designing a better oil lamp?”
(Follow Jim Garamone on Twitter: @GaramoneDODNews)