COVID-19 is calling our bluff on years of negligence and mounting technical debt. We have long known that we failed to build modern and adaptive digital infrastructure. However, until large parts of the defense enterprise were forced to work from home, we accepted more man-hours as a strategy to mitigate the effects of that failure. The cost is no longer just frustration at antiquated systems and administrative nonsense, but an inability to meet our mission of protecting the American people.

As COVID-19’s consequences mount, leaders are turning to the military for assistance. National Guard members are deployed in at least thirty-two states, and the Trump administration has now federalized the Guard in New York, California, and Washington—three of the hardest-hit states. The hospital ships USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort are being deployed to aid urban medical response. If the Centers for Disease Control’s estimates are correct and COVID-19 moves toward its templated peak around the end of April, the military’s role in the response will almost certainly grow in the weeks ahead. The problem is, we are already struggling to meet internal needs for personnel accountability and tests, which will affect the military contribution to large-scale national response efforts.

In the coming weeks, the US military’s support for our civilian partners is likely to be delayed by a mix of needlessly complex bureaucracy and arcane infrastructure. This is unacceptable because we saw this coming and failed to act, for years. Consider that a January 2000 National Intelligence Estimate warned “epidemiologists generally agree that it is not a question of whether, but when, the next killer [influenza] pandemic will occur.” Or that we have records of warnings about the dire state of our digital systems going back to a 1987 Report of the Task Force on Military Software by the Defense Science Board. Now, as America faces pandemic and recession, defense leaders are scrambling to return to pre–COVID-19 standards, which were themselves unacceptable.

A large part of this failure comes from our negligence in building modern digital capacity before the crisis, meaning that we are trying to make up for lost ground in the midst of such a major challenge. Technologists and leaders from the Army’s innovation community have acknowledged this shortfall. Our systems were insufficient before this pandemic. Solutions will be required quickly in order to leverage the speed and precision needed for a nationwide yet decentralized effort to protect our communities. But simply returning to the status quo will be a failure. Our negligence created this fragility, and COVID-19 is making us accountable—but it also represents an opportunity.

Accordingly, I ask defense leaders to take ownership of our failures and use the COVID-19 virus as a developmental crucible out of which can emerge a force better equipped for the challenges of the twenty-first century. Specifically, please consider the following:

#1 – Address overclassification and information-sharing challenges.

The military’s tendency to overclassify information is not new. Our tendency to segment and stovepipe information was a key finding in the 9/11 Commission. Wargames and planning exercises have highlighted the need for mitigation plans in the event that defense workers cannot access classified facilities. Unfortunately, as David Berteau, who served as assistant defense secretary for logistics and materiel readiness in the Obama administration, admits, “We have not taken those lessons from the simulations seriously enough that we’ve done the preparation necessary to execute it.” The consequence of combining our overuse of classified networks with Pentagon guidance to work from home has been preventable chaos and unnecessary levels of strategic risk.

While some work must of course remain classified, there are countless opportunities for investing time and resources into unclassified development work that can be later migrated to classified networks. This approach has been central to software-development efforts like Kessel Run, where public-facing teams develop tools that can be migrated to closed networks. Perhaps it is time to expand this concept and challenge longstanding practices so that we can best leverage remote work.

Fixing this problem does not just help in the context of the current COVID-19 crisis. It also empowers our talent by providing unprecedented layers of workforce flexibility and autonomy. That does not justify rushing to failure or being careless; we must still make our decisions while balancing speed and security. But, perhaps it is worth considering that many of our “secure” systems have been breached by near-peer rivals, so even when work is done in these compartmentalized platforms we cannot be certain of its security. Accordingly, it may be worth asking hard questions about what work absolutely must be done in a classified environment versus a more flexible manner.

This same secrecy culture must be breached for a second reason: we are failing to onboard talent at the scope and speed needed for digital transformation. For too long we hid behind the curtain of “operational risk” to avoid engaging with the public sector. That façade of a risk-mitigation justification has incurred irreversible opportunity cost. Now, as we scramble to build out digital tools at scale, we find ourselves with pandemic-driven hiring restrictions that will only compound these issues. We need to let the American people know who we are, how they can help, and what we can achieve together. The millennial generation is mission driven—let’s give them a voice and hand in the future of our nation’s defense.

#2 – Demand operational excellence from our business practices.

While the 2018 National Defense Strategy stated that we need to modernize defense business practices and internal processes, reform efforts have been bogged down in a culture of mediocrity around organizational efficiency. We cannot accept half measures like simply turning to digital PDFs for the litany of paperwork the military processes daily where modern software is required, in part because these pseudo-digital processes still have too many people in the loop. The power of replacing human-driven processes with algorithms—to reduce errors and boost efficiency—has long been understood by the civilian sector, evident in the financial markets where 80 percent of daily trading is run by algorithms. Yet, consider that even basic hiring actions within the Pentagon require a hydra of approval offices and digital signatures. This bureaucratic bloat has come under stress as the COVID-19 outbreak has intensified, so let us rebuild these systems to prioritize creating warfighter value and eliminating waste.

The costs of our organizational malaise are not limited to force-generation challenges. Our troops around the world must hope that our supply chains can withstand a level of global disruption that is creating a wave of chaos in the private sector. Digital transformation directly affects supply-chain resiliency through improved tracking and management of critical supplies. The Army’s struggle to sustain the force are compounded by antiquated methods for maintaining it. While Raytheon has just released information about the company’s pilot effort applying predictive maintenance for the M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle, the private sector has been using this technology for over twenty years. We cannot accept putting servicemembers at risk because we were half-hearted about digital transformation and were unwilling to invest at scale.

If we own this challenge, we must begin by identifying and eliminating processes that are simply throwing servicemember bodies at the problem. Instead of redundant efforts and disconnected offices that exist to stamp papers, we must deconstruct workflows to find underlying constraints and inefficiencies, allowing us to discover opportunities for optimization where we can insert scalable algorithms. As we save time, and simplify operations, we can focus more our of military’s energy and attention on challenges that require human decision making.

This can kickstart a positive chain reaction of process automation, which can be conducted at home on unclassified networks, and migrated elsewhere if required. Over a year ago I highlighted McKinsey research suggesting that “30% of the activities in 60% of all occupations could be automated” and “5% of occupations could be fully automated by currently demonstrated technologies.” In the year since, our failure to address this challenge amounts to gross negligence. We have long had the private-sector tools needed to manage this effort and enable decentralized collaboration. We should have already solved these problems. We cannot afford to wait any longer.

#3 – Finally take digital upskilling seriously.

We have spoken for years about the need to invest in building a digitally literate and technically skilled workforce. At present, most investment and effort has been at the policy level, with outcomes like the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act or Defense Innovation Board recommendations. These, however, are aligned against challenges that require congressional engagement, multi-year pipelines, and institutional partnerships.

Outside of these long-term projects exist a universe of low-hanging fruit projects, which require basic training in areas like Microsoft Excel, introductory-level python coding, and management practices like scrum. Many coding schools, university programs, and nonprofits have online and remote-compatible training programs. The work-from-home requirements of the COVID-19 response give the Pentagon a unicorn-level opportunity to make progress toward our digital modernization goals. What are we waiting for?

Further, we can use the needs outlined in suggestion #2 and the unclassified approach discussed in #1 to ensure training is oriented on tangible outcomes and existing workstreams. If we align remote training against real-world challenges, we can focus on immediate return on investment. Not only would this decrease waste in the Pentagon, but automating these workflows would decrease the number of people on our networks, freeing more bandwidth and man-hours for crisis response challenges.

#4 – Invest, at scale, in our civilian-military relationship-building efforts.

While the US military can support America’s COVID-19 response, it must do so in coordination with nontraditional partners and experts, including many across the private sector. No single department or agency can address the complex challenges of mitigating the pandemic’s impact. Further, many of the networks now critical to the US military’s capacity to respond are also ones with whom we have not developed widespread connective tissue, like medical suppliers or city governments. The Pentagon will need personnel capable of collaborating with nontraditional partners in real time to find innovative solutions to emerging  challenges—pandemics or otherwise—like entrepreneurs-in-residence.

Characterizations of the Pentagon’s civilian-military relationship shortcomings have ranged from “branding” challenges to national security threats. Until COVID-19 the consequence of cultural disconnection was abstract, often focused on an inability to access advanced digital technology. Now that military units are responsible for playing an active role in crisis response, at scale and at home, the consequence is human lives.

If we use this crisis to disrupt the cultural walls that separate us from potential partners by prioritizing greater connective tissue with the general public, we can enhance COVID-19 response and move our community in a collaborative direction The first step is finding opportunities to support the frontline medical workers in this fight. This requires an emphasis on humble collaboration, open-source sharing, and contributing to the existing work of others. We must avoid the “nonprofit problem”—whereby working independently stifles the power of collective collaboration in a way similar to game theory’s stag hunt.

Our lack of preparation, in the form of adaptive digital networks and robust connective tissue with civilian partners ceded the initiative to the enemy we currently face and we will pay for that in the months to come. We must stop giving up ground by investing in these capabilities and use the time ahead to both combat a pandemic and address longstanding shortfalls.


James “Jay” Long is a captain in the Army Reserve, a National Security Innovation Network Startup Innovation Fellow, and an experienced national-security innovator based in New York City. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.


Image credit: Staff Sgt. Garrett L. Dipuma, US Army National Guard