I first met Major General Buford “Buff” Blount, USA (Ret.) in the Fall of 2003 upon his return from Iraq after successfully commanding the 3d Infantry Division (3ID) on its historic march from Kuwait to Baghdad. In what would become the most audacious movement of mechanized infantry in the history of warfare, General Blount led 10,000 vehicles and 23,000 soldiers 750 km in 21-days. The operation culminated in the famous “Thunder Run,” which saw a contingent of 1,000 mechanized infantry from the 3ID stage a raid from the Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) into the heart of the city. Within three days of its arrival on the outskirts of Baghdad, the 3ID had defeated organized Iraqi military resistance and occupied the city.
During this same period, I was standing up a special military reconnaissance unit to find, fix, and locate high value targets in Iraq. Our mission was to employ the full spectrum of emerging Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities and related technologies to characterize networks of terrorists and insurgents and find people who did not want to be found. We were a small, highly trained, and extremely well funded group of experts with a broad charter: look outside of the Department of Defense (DoD) for non-traditional technologies that can be rapidly customized, integrated, and deployed to solve the most difficult intelligence problems.
With the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the dismantling of the Iraqi military, the complexion of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) quickly changed from a conventional military conflict to something else entirely – a counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency campaign fought against a combination of Saddam loyalists, foreign fighters, and anti-American extremists using a hodgepodge of weapons and tactics. In the Pentagon, every action on the part of this new enemy demanded an opposite and often disproportionate reaction from those charged with training and equipping U.S. forces. Following a conventional force planning model, the military leadership invoked legacy processes for developing and fielding technology countermeasures to the emerging threats on the unconventional battlefields in Iraq. DoD would invest heavily in a solution to a specific threat, but by the time the solution was fielded, the enemy would already have moved on to another tactic. The enemy was operating inside of our acquisition loop.
Following the redeployment of 3ID from Iraq in 2003, General Blount was hand picked by the Army Chief of Staff to assume responsibility as acting Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army, Operations (G-3). In this role, he was charged with overseeing the transition of the Army at the corporate level to rapidly address the increasingly dynamic capability needs of Army forces in Iraq. Under General Blount’s leadership, the Army Improvised Explosive Device (IED) Task Force – the forerunner to the Joint IED Defeat Organization – and the Army Rapid Equipping Force were created to resource rapid technology innovations in support of on-going military operations. In this role, he also chaired the Army’s resource planning committee that had responsibility to allocate funds for wartime technology initiatives – the Army Strategic Planning Board (ASPB). I first got to know General Blount in his capacity as the chair of the ASPB.
As the operational roles and responsibilities of my unit continued to expand, it became increasingly common for me to brief new technology initiatives and associated funding requirements to General Blount and the ASPB. But my organization was not the only one seeking resources from the ASPB. Generally speaking, new technology initiatives seeking funding were divided into two camps: those leveraging Commercial and Government Off The Shelf (COTS / GOTS) solutions and those involving dedicated Research and Development (R&D). In the case of the former, DoD could quickly take advantage of readily available solutions that were often not optimized for the desired applications. In the case of the latter, significant time and money were required to develop purpose-built solutions that may or may not continue to be relevant as operational conditions on the ground evolved.
The problem wasn’t that DoD didn’t want the right tool for the right job – fast, the problem was that the defense industry wasn’t optimized to provide the types of highly flexible, scalable, and cost effective solutions demanded by DoD for the type of fight being waged in Iraq. On the one hand, the full-service goliaths – Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, etc. – had business models that were based on proprietary everything and the economics of small unit quantity solutions were not attractive. On the other hand, the small mom and pop outfits with the innovative technologies did not offer the desired reliability and scalability required to successfully implement new technologies in real world operational environments. Speaking from my own personal experience, there were no industry alternatives that combined the benefits of the large systems integrators with the speed and innovation of the small, boutique defense companies.
General Blount retired from military service in January 1, 2005, and I resigned my position as Director of the Army Technical Operations Support Activity about a year later. I crossed paths with General Blount in the summer of 2006 while working on a consulting project at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Given our shared experiences in the world of DoD rapid acquisition, I was curious what, if any, lessons learned General Blount had derived from his experiences leading the ASPB. We compiled the following list:
- Less R&D and better system design; leverage the best of what’s out there in innovative ways rather than create something fundamentally new
- The right solutions for today’s war are open source and emphasize interoperability and mission flexibility
- Don’t try to solve a non-technical problem with technology; more often than not the solution is applying the capabilities you’ve already got in smarter ways
- The defense industry must offer turn-key solutions; don’t throw new technologies over the transom and expect soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines to know what to do with them
With these principles in mind, we resolved to create a new type of defense contractor, Mav6, that combines the innovation and agility of the commercial technology industry with the full-service capabilities and reliability of the large systems integrators. Edges are the new front lines of war. And all the people who fight on these fronts are edgefighters. General Blount and I committed to positioning Mav6 as a focal point for connecting edgefighters, national security people, technology people, and policy people, to design, source, fund, and deliver the very best innovations that America and the world have to offer to our edgefighters. Our goal was and continues to be to create the premier defense design company by harnessing the power of multi-disciplinary design thinking to rapidly deliver systems of capabilities – and not just new widgets – to edgefighters when and where they are needed most.