Much is written about the digital battlefield by senior military and government executives and industry chief technology officers. However, we may learn just as much from watching our kids. As the mother of teenagers, I'm constantly reminded that I am “old school” and slow. While I summarily reject that notion, I admit that kids do exhibit a good deal of tech wisdom. They're not bound by “terms and conditions” or the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR). They think creatively and learn while they play. Anything can be accomplished or discovered with a few clicks. If only the approach to equipping warfighters with advanced technology was that simple.
Let’s consider a few lessons that kids can teach us:
- 1. Modularity is key. Like most kids, my boys spent several years utterly obsessed with Legos. We had bins full of them. Not just little colorful cubes, but wheels, wings, wizards, and more. Initially, we bought the boxed sets (Star Wars, Harry Potter, and police stations) and followed the 23 pages of instructions to build them. But eventually, parts broke off or became disassembled, so my kids used creativity to plug and play. All the parts, even if from different sets, could be pieced together to create new configurations.
- Likewise, the most effective defense system solutions are modular, open architecture-based, compatible, and tailorable. The military's sensor-to-shooter hardware and software need the ability to connect with each other and be delivered on any platform or vehicle—manned or unmanned. Often, more stuff isn't actually needed; it's just thinking differently about how to connect things. Maybe there's no need to buy a brand new Lego set; it's just needing to apply what's already there in new and creative ways.
- 2. Collaboration is distributed, yet highly networked. When I was a kid in the Atari era, if you wanted to play video games, you had to invite friends over and crowd around the TV with joysticks wired to a console. In today’s digital age, options are limitless—kids play games online on a variety of platforms (Xbox, laptops, iPhones), and they connect with players around the world. They communicate via multiple means simultaneously: headsets, chat, text, and apps. Once your teen takes a high school computer science class, even parental attempts at controlling their Wi-Fi access can’t stop their nighttime online gaming habits (so I’ve heard).
- While there will always be a Department of Defense (DOD) need for central command centers, the battles of the future will be fought and won “at the edge.” Command and control must be conducted through a variety of communication channels and networks that must be interoperable across the services and the nation's allies, so the key players and warfighters can collaborate to win. There must be resiliency and redundancy built in, or at least a way to get around adversaries’ attempts to disrupt networks.
- 3. Speed and experimentation are imperative. Let’s face it—most kids have very little patience and very little money. But they always want the latest and greatest version of whatever game or electronic device is on the market. If they can’t afford the new model, they download features that make their current device incrementally better. For a few bucks, they make in-game purchases like gems or weapons to gain an advantage. They sign up for free trials of Spotify or Netflix and try things out to see if they like them before they buy. They basically take an agile approach to life.
- It's important to think of all defense system development in the same way as agile software development. It's critical to find ways to shorten the build-test-deploy cycle, increase experimentation and prototyping, and incrementally improve existing systems. The defense industry is investing in technologies and solutions that it is hoped will make warfighters more effective. But operational users need to be testers and give feedback to improve the capabilities and move to production faster.
My kids are now in high school and college, and both intend to pursue careers in the engineering and computer science fields. I am inspired every day by their curiosity and creativity. Let’s learn from them and harness their generation’s good ideas for the nation’s future advantage.