The JAPCC Conference 2019

Conference Proceedings

Theme 3 | Human Factors and Military Culture

‘Technology is the easy part. Human factors are the really difficult part.’

In discussions, one key belief was that MDO is not a concept that can await future development.

– Adversaries are using MDO against NATO right now and several examples on or near NATO’s eastern borders where discussed.

If MDO has indeed been around for a while, then why is NATO finding it so hard to deal with or (perhaps) even recognize? This may all come back to effects. If the effect required is to create multiple simultaneous dilemmas for an adversary (and the draft definition presented earlier suggests that it is) then, at the point where NATO finds that it is presented with multiple simultaneous dilemmas, it may be worth considering that MDO is being used against NATO.

The recommendation derived from this is that NATO must consider how to counter the use of MDO by an adversary.

As described earlier in this paper, space and cyberspace used to be seen as enablers rather than domains in their own right. The Air University Press definition of MDO command and control (C2) was used to unpack the problem and to describe it as the ‘military expression of the internet of things’.

The conference discussed how, from a naval standpoint, particularly within a carrier air battle group, MDO is sometimes characterized as already being conducted by and within the maritime component (rather than across components). Perhaps there are lessons to be learned here. Whilst it may contradict the whole ethos of MDO to believe that it could reside entirely within one component, a carrier air battle group may provide a suitable microcosm in which to study MDO further and identify lessons that can be applied across all components and domains.

Early conference discussions led to two interesting hypotheses about MDO:

  • that MDO was about systems and not platforms and
  • that culture change was needed for MDO to really come to fruition (see the discussion on culture and culture change later in this paper).

Two notes of caution were also raised. In NATO’s search for the faster decision-making mechanisms needed to enable MDO, it should beware of dispensing with wisdom for the sake of speed. Faster decision-making is not necessarily better decision-making. Particularly for NATO’s civilian leaders at the political level, what is needed is increased ‘decision space’. It might be that greater decision space could be enabled by the considered use of MDO. In this vision, increased decision space allows for wisdom to propagate through the kill chain, so that wise military decisions are taken rather than simply rapid ones. Moreover, decision speed in a MDO construct could quickly outpace the ability to affix attribution; a concern exceedingly relevant in the cyber domain. ‘Decision space’ will be vital to ensure the origin and severity of activities within complex cross-domain operations.

Another excellent question that exposed one of the dilemmas of MDO was that of mission command and the downwards delegation of decision-making. The example of GPS jamming and spoofing by Russian warships in the Eastern Mediterranean – where decision-making on their use was delegated to ship captain level – illustrated an area where a potential adversary may be more comfortable than NATO with delegating operational decision-making so that it can have strategic effect. This real-world example was about how a potential adversary might create multiple simultaneous dilemmas for NATO – by enabling the delegation of decision-making through mission command. It was not clear that NATO had the organizational mindset to either match this or to act in similarly innovative ways.

Monkey First

A question from the conference floor likened NATO’s journey towards MDO to a problem given to Google’s Moon Shot Division:

They must teach a monkey to recite Shakespeare while balancing on a 20 foot pole. Being engineers, they set to work designing the pole. They spent many hours and consumed much of the funding designing and building a beautiful pole, only to realize that they had no idea how to get a monkey to recite Shakespeare.

This anecdote reminds us that our natural tendency is to attack a problem beginning with the aspects we understand or are comfortable with and frequently results in our ignoring the ‘long pole in the tent,’ or that portion of the problem which is the most difficult or perhaps even unsolvable given the resources available. By neglecting to accurately assess the problem and address the ‘monkey first,’ time, productivity, and resources may be squandered. In the opinion of one attendee, the monkey for MDO is a fully networked Air Operations Centre for NATO that operates around the clock with full connectivity. If NATO cannot solve the technical connectivity piece for the Air domain, then we cannot hope to expand it to network all domains.

Culture and the Need for Culture-Change

Another theme to emerge from the Conference was that of culture and a perceived need for there to be cultural change if MDO is to become a reality. A bit like MDO, ‘culture’ is a word that, when someone uses it, it’s automatically assumed that everyone else knows what he or she is talking about. In other words, it is very rarely defined but instead becomes modified by adding words to it so that it becomes ‘military culture’ or ‘NATO culture’.

These are interesting constructs, but we may struggle to find proof that they actually exist in any homogeneous form. For example, whose military does ‘military culture’ refer to? Is it the US military? Or the French military? Or perhaps the Turkish? Are they the same? And is ‘NATO culture’ the same thing in Brussels as it is in Norfolk, Virginia? Is it the same as ‘organizational culture’?

This is not an attempt to dismiss the importance of culture, merely a plea for the need to define the term very carefully. Bower’s 1966 definition of an organizational culture as ‘the way we do things round here’2 is still relevant today and will have a ring of truth to it for anyone who has operated ‘cross-culturally’. Charles Handy (1976) takes us a step further when he describes an organizational culture as the ‘deep-set beliefs about the way work should be organized, the way authority should be exercised’3. However, anyone who has ever changed squadrons on the same frontline airbase (i.e. gone from flying with x sqn to flying with y sqn) will soon tell you that there also seem to be sub-cultures, even within the same military on the same base. Perhaps these types of sub-cultures have something to do with the stories we tell about ourselves, the patches and badges that we wear and the myths and legends that we create?

Mansoor and Murray, in their 2019 book ‘The Culture of Military Organizations’, give a broad definition of organizational culture as ‘the assumptions, ideas, norms and beliefs expressed or reflected in symbols, rituals, myths and practices that shape how an organization functions and adapts to external stimuli and that give meaning to its members’.4

However – and of particular note here –the authors discuss the military culture of each component (Army, Navy, Marines or Air Force) within the military of one particular nation (the USA, Great Britain, Japan etc.). For a military organization made up of components drawn from 29 nations, instead of discussing military culture, it may be more useful to consider cultural interoperability. Winslow and Everts (2001)5 do exactly that in their analysis of the IFOR mission in the former Yugoslavia in the late 1990s:

‘However, in our opinion, it is not only system interoperability but operational and particularly cultural interoperability – the shared way by which NATO armies “do business” – which is a factor contributing to mission success.’

So what stops us doing MDO now? At its most basic, it is a human problem and one that arises out of our willingness to let technology solve problems for us. And yet cultural interoperability is part of the NATO DNA – and this strength was observed (by Winslow and Everts, for example) as long ago as 2001 and (had it been looked for) probably for much longer. Far from being intractable, NATO staffs and command structures tackle the ‘monkey first’ problem every day. One of the ways that they do this is by working together as a team.

NATO’s strengths lie in the very diversity of its members and, whilst ‘cultural factors’ may continue to infuriate and exasperate us, they may also form one of NATO’s critical capabilities. At the very least, they form a toolset for handling complexity, and breakthroughs happen when we get into these uncomfortable spaces.

One recommendation that resulted from this discussion of culture and/or cultural interoperability is that NATO – perhaps through the agency of the JAPCC – may want to examine and define its existing culture (more likely ‘cultures’) in the 21st Century before it can set about trying to adapt or change it/them. It is difficult to get to a known destination if you’re not sure of your actual starting point. The JAPCC is ideally placed to do this – it is small enough for observations to be made easily and it contains a robust (if non-homogeneous) mix of nationalities

The JAPCC conference 2019 was sponsored by