For the military, the Internet of Things isn't about 'things'

Ret. Gen Cartwright at CSIS

Cartwright says the IoT is all about culture, not technical issues.

With the coming boom of smart refrigerators and smart thermostats set to take over contemporary life, the military has sought to ride the coattails of this commercial craze known as the Internet of Things, which could increase efficiency on multiple levels. Despite reports indicating that the military has lagged behind in IoT adoption, the integration of myriad device and platforms doesn’t hinge on technical issues, but rather on culture.

That’s what retired Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, Harold Brown Chair in Defense Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said during a speech at CSIS institution this week. 

Putting the IoT discussion into context of military parlance and thinking, Cartwright, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said much of the conversation is focused on offset strategies, which “were a response where incremental improvement was no longer sufficient to keep ahead of threats that we were tasked to address.”  One of the first things on the list of the current offset strategy is man-machine partnering. This is not a thing, he said, but rather a cultural and organizational issue, which is far more difficult than implementing “things.” 

In its most simple form, the discussion about man-machine integration comes down to the transition from how many men it takes to run a machine to how many machines a man can control. “The ability to move from the number of men per machine to the number of machines per man is the ultimate objective here in a command and control construct that allows that to occur,” Cartwright said. “It’s very little about a thing – it is not a technical invention waiting to be determined. It is the organizational construct around which the department has decided to organize itself and move forward.”

An example can be found in a precision munitions game with aircraft. In that case, the issue was, at first, how many passes per target were needed to eliminate the target and then how many targets can be eliminated per pass, Cartwright said. “How many machines per man can you actually start to integrate into your objective to get to scale, to get to cost equations and cost points that can actually do what we need to do?” he said.

The word “partnering” as it applies to humans and machines is probably the most important cultural word in this activity. Cartwright equated this cultural change with the grieving or mourning process. “First there’s denial. Second you compete with the activity and in its most mature stages, you finally learn to partner with it.”

Cartwright continued by saying that the common language that will bind humans and machines together is currently missing. “Where is the common language that allows us to partner with all of these self-aware, self-learning entities out there, whether they be the light bulb in your house or an F-35?” he said, adding that the challenge for DOD will be who controls this language. “Do we go by service line so we organize by domain, do we go by mission lines so we organize for various activities? Yet to be determined,” he said, adding that will probably be some of both.   

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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