DoD’s Secret Weapon: Generation Z

By Futures and Concepts Center Public AffairsMay 12, 2021

JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. – U.S. Army Mad Scientist Initiative hosted a webinar on 6 May, 2021 with a panel of "Young Minds on Competition and Conflict,” as part of the Mad Scientist’s webinar series, “Are We Doing Enough, Fast Enough?” The Mad Scientist effort promotes generational diversity in how we think about the operational environment and the future. Panelists engaged questions about competition and conflict, leadership, talent management, and broader national security. Panelists: Jessica Budlong, Founder and Executive Director, Nuclear Fusion Project; Major Amos Fox, Executive Officer, 3rd Squadron, 4th Security Force Assistance Brigade; Captain Lauren Hansen-Armendariz, Deputy Chief of Innovation, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault); Evanna Hu, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Atlantic Council, CEO and Partner, Omelas; Major Michael Kanaan, Director of Operations, Department of the Air Force / MIT Artificial Intelligence Accelerator, and Jimmy Zhang, Policy Analyst for Emerging Threats, Office of Counterterrorism and Threat Prevention Policy, Department of Homeland Security.

How do we win in future conflicts? Start with the people. “Don’t take out the only carrots in a sad salad,” said Kanaan. There is already a significant talent base in the U.S. military and its capabilities shouldn’t be dismissed or diminished. There is a great opportunity to upskill this part of the force. Zhang points out a strength our pacing threats lack is language skills. We have a demographic population that can speak every language. Pacing threats cannot do that.” High performing Gen Z leaders and employees weigh the feeling of being listened to and having an impact above many other traditional incentives. Budlong suggests, “Understand the motivation of people. Get voices heard, thoughts published, younger professionals to be heard, and at some point will learn the skills and affect change.”

“We need bottom-up and lateral collaboration,” Hansen explained. One way is for the U.S. Army to harness and rapidly scale innovations from Soldiers at the tactical level, facilitating the timely mission engineering and prototyping of new capabilities across the force to stay ahead of our adversaries. The panelists cautioned that the U.S. military needs to start planning based on suboptimal performance and conditions, as well as develop “off ramps” outside of achieving “total victory” which is not usually a realistic outcome in modern warfare. “The landscape is changing and while we’re suiting up to play one game, others are suiting up to play another,” Kanaan said in response to the National Security environment. He maintains that being able to “quickly pivot” to new, constantly evolving problem-sets will be essential to U.S. national security in the future. Hansen agreed, stating that, “Reimagining what readiness means will be important, given that while we may not know the exact challenge, we do know we will need to be capable of making quick changes at a tactical level.”

Panelists aimed to impress that information operations will be a key element in every future challenge the Army will face. As such, Information Operations needs to be viewed in conjunction with all other domains, rather than as a separate or secondary sphere. Fox underscored that information operations appear to be blurring the line between war and peace, but in reality, overlap has always existed between the two states. Hu elaborated on this point, noting that the Grey Zone is increasing, pushing more “Black and White” states of conflict to the fringes. The panelists stressed that cross-industry and inter-agency collaboration is essential in order to sponsor creative solutions for both defensive and offensive challenges. “Just because you want your adversary to fight you in a certain way, doesn't mean they will. They will fight the way that protects against decisive blow. They will try to offset your advantages,” said Fox.

Technology blurs the line between the military’s old-school industrial-age components and its cutting-edge information technology, AI and robotics. Similarly, the U.S. Army struggles between current and future readiness. Hansen noted, “Current readiness fits in a rating period, future readiness does not.” We have to be ready to fight tonight and tomorrow. This gets more complicated with a likely stagnant and potentially constricting defense budget meaning the Department of Defense will have to make significant trade-offs. Namely, the DoD cannot continue to be the most powerful conventional force in the world but also heavily invested in capable and disruptive technologies – AI/ML, 5G, quantum, hypersonics, space, and cyber. A choice in budgetary priorities is being made today by people who will not face those decisions 10 years from now. Zhang says, “The DoD should be investing in defense dominant technology vice offense dominant. There are more ways to counter emerging technologies to promote stability.” As Kannan puts it, we are not risk averse right now but rather “risk blind.” He emphasized that the budget allocation will continue to reflect the priorities of the DoD and will increasingly involve tradeoffs in investment and capabilities. Despite funding restrictions, the United States should remain confident in its talent base and ability to adapt to new challenges.

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