‘National security ecosystem’ should embrace agility in workforce, Navy undersecretary says

Navy Undersecretary Thomas Modly believes the key to implementing the new national defense strategy, not to mention prevailing in any future conflicts, is agility.

“In a word, I believe the National Defense Strategy calls for a Navy and Marine Corps team in which agility is the defining characteristic,” Modly said at a Feb. 23 AFCEA lunch. “It is a term which describes the overall organizational quality that has determined and will determine who and what survives in any increasingly complex, competitive, rapidly changing and unpredictable environment. This is the environment we face today, so I think we will ultimately be judged on how well we transition our forces and our supporting organizations … to a future in which agility is the defining characteristic.”

He backed up that idea with some interesting evidence: Word count. He counted the number of times certain words appeared in the national defense strategy document, presenting a kind of analog word cloud, the data behind the visualization. Modly noted that the words “agile” or “agility” were only mentioned six times, far fewer than “lethality,” which appeared 15 times; “competition” or “competitor,” which appeared 37 times; or “defend” and “defense,” which appeared 44 times.

But while that would appear to refute his assertion about the importance of agility, Modly, undeterred, dug a little deeper. He found four mentions of “interoperability;” eight references each to “information sharing,” “adaptability” and “innovation;” five uses of “speed” or “velocity;” and six instances of “collaboration” or “cooperation.” Each of these, he argued, is one of the many individual qualities of agility.

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“While I don’t think these 45 citations were intended to correlate my own personal definition of agility, I do believe that their existence in the document reinforces the point that these are qualities we should embrace in order to effectively execute this strategy itself,” Modly said.

Related to the Navy specifically, Modly said that efforts to build the numbers of the fleet up to “355-plus” were only the beginning of required efforts. The fleet needs to improve lethality, he said, as well as improving the fleet’s capabilities to contain, restrain, confuse and overwhelm enemies.

“We must advantage agility when we think about and build our future force structure. We need more aircraft and vehicles, but that equipment must provide flexibility, adaptability, faster development cycles, reduced maintenance requirements, greater lethality and an industrial strategy that maintains a modern, flexible and sustainable industrial base over time,” Modly said. “A larger force is necessary, of course, but a larger, more agile force will be the key determinant of the success of this new maritime strategy.”

But that kind of a fleet would require a new kind of workforce to operate it, to build it, to support it. Modly referred to this workforce as the “national security ecosystem,” bringing together military service members, civilian defense employees and defense contractors under the same umbrella. And this workforce, he said, has yet to be built.

“The people who will be the future [of the national security ecosystem] are either very early in their careers, or not even old enough to drive, or vote, or even buy a beer today,” Modly said. “Nonetheless, each of us has a profound ability to impact the quality and fitness of that future force by identifying today those young people who embody these agile qualities.”

Modly quoted John Paul Jones, the American Revolutionary War naval commander who said “men mean more than guns in the rating of a ship.” This quote, Modly said, is even more relevant to the modern military than it was 200 years ago, because the crucial agility of systems, weapons, sensors and networks would mean little without an agile workforce to build and operate them.

And that, Modly said, necessitates a rethinking of the way that workforce is structured, the way it interacts, and the way it retains.

“I think that we need to encourage people to come in and out of the service over the course of their careers,” he said. “I know that’s very antithetical to the way people think at the Defense Department. They’re all about ‘recruit, train and retain’ as many people as possible. I’m not sure that retaining in the service is necessarily the right direction. I think we need to retain them in this ecosystem … but maybe not necessarily the same department. Maybe they come to work for [industry] for a little while, and have a better appreciation for the customer, and then come back to us, and we have a better appreciation for [industry].”