The Army, Special Operations community, and other DoD elements have turned to classic anthropological and ethnographic data collection and analysis techniques to map the “human terrain” of the operating environments in Iraq and Afghanistan. This approach, introduced to the Iraq theater by Army Brigadier General H.R. McMaster in 2005-2006 and later championed by General David Petraeus, is credited with having substantially underwritten the suppression of the insurgency in Iraq.
Like most great ideas, this strategy is kind of obvious if you think about it. After all, how can you defeat an insurgency unless you undermine its base of support?And how can you undermine that base unless you first understand (and exploit) the needs and motivations of the indigenous population? It’s all about knowing the operational landscape in detail before acting.
So, why doesn’t DoD acquire technologies the same way?
Ethnographic techniques are an increasingly important part of the R&D portfolio for leading companies like Proctor and Gamble (for more on this see Peter Sims’ book Little Bets). Embedding researchers with members of their target markets enables first-hand observation and eliminates the sorting, sifting, and filtering that robs secondary sources of valuable content – the context-dependent idiosyncrasies where the real innovations are hidden.
With very few exceptions – the Army’s Asymmetric Warfare Ground being one – DoD segregates acquisition from warfighting. The connection, such as it is, that exists between technologists and warfighters is tenuously maintained by combat developers who have responsibility for synthesizing complex operational realities into simple prescriptive requirements that do not – cannot – capture the flashes of insight required for real technology breakthroughs.
The kind of rapid technology innovation demanded by the current threat environment requires an intimate understanding of the problem domain – an understanding that transcends abstracted functional requirements documents. The first step towards fixing DoD acquisition is to lose the middle man and put the geeks on the ground. I am not talking about sticking a couple of scientists in a Division or Brigade TOC mind you. I am talking about making a real investment to deploy technologists into the field so that they can experience first hand the opportunities and challenges of the contemporary battlespace.