Restoring Discretion: The Reason for the US Army's New Air Reconnaissance Unit

Forrest Christian Managing, Reviews - Articles Leave a Comment

The New York Times reports Sunday that the US Army has created its own aerial surveillance unit because they weren’t able to get the service levels they wanted out of the unmanned Predator operations run by the US Air Force. It’s happening because the new unmanned systems have changed where the discretion for the reconn should lie.

From NYT:

In contrast to Predators, which are assigned by the top headquarters for missions all across Iraq, Task Force Odin is on call for commanders at the level of brigade and below, an effort by the Army to be responsive to the needs of smaller combat units in direct contact with adversaries — and a clear sign of rivaling concepts with the Air Force.

The article cites sources saying that Defense Secretary Gates wanted to make sure that both top-down and bottom-up (from the field) needs were being met.

The Air Force should probably be careful. An F-117A stealth fighter planes costs $42.6M [Fortune] and the B-2 Spirit stealth bombers run over $1B each [AerospaceWeb]. Predators are less than $4.5M per [BusinessWeek]. Which makes this about discretion.

If something costs $1B, directing it somewhere that puts it at risk might be outside the discretion of a local commander. When it costs $4.5M, the risk of loss is thoroughly within the normal discretion of the local commander.

What has happened is a massive shift in the cost of reconn. With simplified methods, whether by the Predator or the Army’s less-techno heavy setup, there’s no reason why headquarters needs to control things.

This holds true in industry. Back when computers cost $10M and were “leased” from IBM, anyone who wanted to run a program needed to run through a series of approvals because the machine time cost so much. With the advent of personal computers, many of the same operations could be done for much less on a small machine. Not everything, but many things. The level for the discretion to “run up some numbers” for example, had shifted radically downward.

The problem was that the Management Information Systems (MIS) department needed to control the flow of operations to protect its own powers. They didn’t understand that the discretion for computing had level-shifted.

Level shifts are problematical. Julian Fairfield talks about the problems associated with shifting up the level of work for a particular function (e.g., Quality) because it forces all other functions to also level shift upwards. He ignores the problem of level shifting downward, but that’s exactly what technology does.

At first, the costs of air power were within the realm of local commanders of particular rank. Soon, with the advent of the massively expensive jet fighters, the costs of losing a single plane were so high that control over the discretion to deploy them in combat went up the ladder.

For the most part, shifting downward is the result of a disruptive technology or simply changing the game down. An improvised explosive device and the suicide bomber are simple, level-shifting technologies that put the discretion much lower. In fact, most terrorist techniques are about shifting the level of discretion downwards. The threat becomes diffuse because so many people can order an attack.

The US Air Force is at a crossroads. They will have to adapt, just as MIS adapted. Their power will change. The change was inevitable with the fall of the Soviet Union, as the strategic nature of the Air Force changed.

You know, just thinking about it here, the rise of Open Source Software was a level-shift downward for operating systems (e.g., the endless Linux variants, WINE) and platforms (e.g., Apache). Software firms are still trying to cope with the shift and can’t quite figure out what to do about it.

Watch for the level shift. Watch for the chance to shift the work down to a lower level of discretion. It makes your workforce more efficient because decisions can be made at the front-line, with less communications lag.

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