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DEF 2015 – the People and the Ideas are the Magic

Tuesday, November 10th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

“We’re starting an insurgency of critical thinkers” – Darya Pilram, Red Team Instructor

Last weekend was my first Defense Entrepreneurs Forum conference, DEF 2015 . I came away extremely impressed by the diverse talents and intellectual firepower of the participants and their dedication to being positive change agents. Entrepreneurs mixed with active duty military personnel, senior leaders with juniors, Silicon Valley with Beltway, veterans with academics, journalists and authors; despite such obvious differences of perspective, discussion commenced not just with great civility but a sense of fraternity and esprit de corps. “Like a reunion” was how most attendees of DEF 2015 described it.

The conference received special support from The Atlantic Council, The University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and their Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and Bunker Labs.  Additionally, there was strong representation at DEF 2015 by the U.S. Naval Institute in the persons of USNI CEO VADM (ret) Pete Daly and LCDR BJ Armstrong, editor of the Institute’s 21st Century book series (Armstrong was kind enough to slip me some copies of Naval Strategy and Naval Tactics, edited by Thomas Cutler and Captain Wayne Hughes, Jr. respectively). DEF 2015 was held at the Booth School’s Gleacher Center and the itinerary can be viewed here:

1st Day Agenda

2nd Day Agenda

3rd Day Agenda

#DEF2015 twitter feed

The advantage of the DEF 2015 conference program was the array of interesting speakers and workshops available (more than are listed online) running different lengths of time; the downside was that at some point, you had to miss something cool to do something great. I invested the largest chunk of time in attending the excellent three-part Design Thinking workshop run by Major (ret) John Silk as this had the most added-value relevance to my job, but I would have liked to have also heard the Bitcoin case study, the DARPA talk and the DEF Consultancy by VADM Daly and Josh Marcuse of DoD. Fortunately, many talks were recorded and will be on the DEF site and YouTube once they are edited.

A few highlights from DEF 2015:

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August Cole of the Atlantic Council and co-author of Ghost Fleet gave the closest thing to a keynote speech with his talk Ghost Fleet and the Art of Future War. Cole delved into the utility of artists and science fiction writers in futurist theorizing about armed conflict (one such writer is ZP’s own managing editor, Charles Cameron whose contribution to Cole’s futurism project was War in Heaven) including ” urban warfare in mega-cities”.

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A textbook example of the high quality of F2F interaction at DEF 2015: A debate over the technical, tactical and strategic capacities of drones in non-permissive environments broke out during lunch between VADM Pete Daly (gesturing) and NDU researcher Joshua Steinman (far left) that drew in the rest of the table as well as August Cole and several passers-by.

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Richard Walsh of the U.S. Navy’s CNO Innovation cell advised everyone to “rock the boat” in a way that epitomized Boyd’s maxim of “Doing something” instead of “Being somebody”. Walsh explained his experience in terms of “grit” where people rise to an idea, a philosophy that resonated strongly with the audience.

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William McNulty of Team Rubicon gave one of the most inspiring and moving of all the DEF 2015 talks regarding American veterans who have stepped up to forge one of the world’s most effective, first responder, humanitarian NGOs. I saw McNulty speak about Team Rubicon number of years ago at Boyd & Beyond and it was stunning to hear how the organization has since grown in its reach and capacity to make the world a better place.

It is important also to emphasize that great value of the informal networking times built into DEF 2015 both during the conference and at the evening socials, respectively at 25 Degrees and Moe’s Cantina (both located in the Chicago Loop). I made new friends and met old ones I have known from the strategy-sphere, Twitter and Facebook F2F for the first time. Stimulating convos were had with BJ Armstrong, Nate Finney, Joe Byerly, Josh Steinman, Mikhail Grinberg, Rich Walsh, August Cole, Nick Kesler, “Micah of West Point and “Emily of Loyola”.

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Finally, thanks needs to be given to the DEF leadership team for making DEF 2015 an outstanding success, including but not limited to Ben Kohlmann, J. P. Mintz, Mikhail Grinberg, Jen Walsh and Joe “the Leaderboard” Byerly. See you all next year!

Ben Kohlmann.jpg Mintz.jpg Embedded image permalink Jennifer Walsh Joe Byerly


DEF 2015

Friday, October 23rd, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

The Defense Entrepreneur’s Forum is one of the major national conferences dedicated to exploring innovative ideas and cultural change in defense, military leadership and national security and it is being held in Chicago on November 6-8th. It is an outstanding opportunity to meet both emerging and senior military leaders, defense intellectuals, policy wonks, national security and business gurus and experts from diverse professional fields.

1st Day Agenda

2nd Day Agenda

3rd Day Agenda

Register here!

Previously, I’ve had to miss DEF due to schedule conflicts but this year I am able to attend and will cover DEF 2015 here at ZP ( I believe Lexington Green will do the same over at Chicago Boyz). I look forward to meeting some of the thoughtful folks I know mainly as internet entities on Small Wars Journal, War on the Rocks, the Bridge, the Warlord Loop, Twitter and Facebook. Perhaps I will see some of you there as well!

A few samples of past DEF talks:

BJ Armstrong ” The Nuclear Option”

Karen Courington ” From Start-up to Mark-up”

Joe Byerly “DEF2.0 Story”

New Book: Relentless Strike by Sean Naylor

Thursday, September 24th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command by Sean Naylor

I just received a courtesy review copy of Relentless Strike from John at St. Martin’s Press

Increasingly viewed as a “must read” book in the defense community, Relentless Strike is also extremely controversial among its target audience because Naylor’s dissection of the rise of JSOC reveals operational details, TTP and names to a degree that many current and former “operators” view as too granular while others welcome the confirmation and credit of JSOC triumphs that would normally be shrouded in secrecy. David Axe of War is Boring opines that Naylor, an award winning journalist and author, “ …may know more about commandos than any other reporter on the planet” while Jack Murphy of SOFREP has a full interview of Sean Naylor here.

Flipping open to a page at random, I find discussion of a special operator attacked in Lebanon while under unofficial cover during circumstances that remain classified. Foiling an attempt to kidnap him, despite suffering a gunshot wound, the operator covered his tracks, eluded further detection and crossed several international borders before receiving medical care. This gives you some indication of the kind of book that is Relentless Strike.

Full review when I finish reading, but I suspect many readers of ZP will pick up a copy on their own.

Mad Dog Mattis – Blogger

Friday, March 6th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

General James N. “Mad Dog ” Mattis, USMC (ret.), the semi-legendary, no-nonsense, fighting general of our recent wars, beloved by his Marines, has accepted a Distinguished Visiting Fellowship at the highly regarded Hoover Institution, where he has been writing an online column. A fancy way of saying that General Mattis has become a blogger.

In fact, he’s quite good at it.

His most recent post can be found here:

Using Military Force Against ISIS

….Following more than a decade of fighting for poorly articulated political goals, the Congress needs to restore clarity to our policy if we are to gain the American people’s confidence and enlist the assistance of potential allies, while sending a chilling note that we mean business to our enemies. With enemy influence expanding rapidly, patience or half-measures cannot replace a coherent strategy for taking measured steps, aligned with allies, to counter the mutating Islamist threat in the Middle East. The AUMF that Congress passes should be constructed as one building block in a coherent, integrated strategy for dealing with a region erupting in crises. Thus the AUMF needs to serve an enabling role for defeating this enemy, and not a restrictive function. Congress’ voice in the AUMF must not reassure our adversary in advance about what we will not do:

  1. We do not enter wars to withdraw; when we must fight, we fight to win. We should not set arbitrary deadlines which would only reveal that our hearts are not really in the game and would unintentionally embolden our enemies with the recognizable goal of outlasting us.
  2. We should not establish geographic limits in a fight against a franchising, trans-national terrorist group and its associates.  Our AUMF must be fit for the purpose of defeating this specific enemy (a non-state entity) and whoever stands with them, but not be hidebound by the rules for how we fought previous wars against nation states.  We must adapt to our time and the threat and not try to fight as we did in the past using rules no longer effective or applicable.
  3. The AUMF should put the enemy on notice that we will deploy all our military capabilities, as well as our diplomatic and economic tools.  If employing our ground forces will help build the international coalition against ISIS, will hasten the enemy’s defeat, will help to suffocate ISIS’ recruiting through humiliating them on the battlefield, or negatively impact their fundraising cachet, then our Commander-in-Chief should have that option immediately available to achieve our war aims.  When fighting a barbaric enemy who strikes fear into the hearts of many, especially those living in close proximity to this foe, we must not reassure that enemy in advance that it will not face the fiercest, most skillful and ethical combat force in the world. 

While I am not enthused about the idea of a large ground deployment back to Iraq – mainly because our national leadership has no idea on how to assemble a constructive political end that a decisive military victory would buy them, nor a willingness to entertain realistic, stabilizing outcomes (like Kurdish statehood) that would mean changing longstanding US policies – I’m very much in tune with Mattis that any warfare should be waged without a set of needless, self-hobbling, anti-strategic restraints. Note what he writes here:

The AUMF must also make clear that prisoners taken from forces declared hostile will be held until hostilities cease. There is no earthly reason for the Congress to acquiesce to funding a war in which we do not hold prisoners until the fight is over, as is our legitimate right under international law. The AUMF should make clear that the same standards that applied to prisoners in Lincoln’s or FDR’s day will be imposed today. This will ensure that we have a sustainable detainee policy instead of the self-inflicted legal quandary we face today, with released detainees returning to the battlefield to fight us.

“Catch and release” by the Bush and Obama administrations – and the latter tightening ROE in Afghanistan into the gray, blurry zone between military force and law enforcement, was self-defeating and probably is responsible for a sizable number of American casualties.

Mattis writes with admirable clarity and focus. More importantly, his military reputation lends invaluable credence toward educating the public and civilian officials about the nature of strategy and the uses and (more importantly) limitations of military force. Hopefully he will gain an even larger platform in time, but for readers at ZP, here are previous posts by the “Mad Dog” :

A New American Grand Strategy

“The Enemy Is Not Waiting”  

The Worsening Situation in the Middle East–and America’s Role   

Pruning the U.S. Military: We Will Do Less But Must Not Do It Less Well

In Praise of Don Vandergriff for the “Next Yoda” at ONA

Saturday, January 17th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Don Vandergriff

Friend of ZP blog and expert on adaptive leadership training Don Vandergriff has thrown his hat into the ring to replace the much admired, should not have been retired, Andrew Marshall,  the long time (appointed originally by Richard Nixon) head of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, affectionately known in DC circles as “Yoda”. Given the military’s badly broken personnel system and dire problem with “toxic leaders” and Vandergriff’s adamant philosophical emphasis upon ethical integrity, strategic thinking and honest intellectual inquiry, he would be a breath of fresh air and catalyst for change.

James Fallows of the Atlantic Monthly gave Don a ringing endorsement:

Want to signal a change? My candidate, until someone has a better idea, is Donald Vandergriff, who has in fact applied for the job.

Vandergriff spent 24 years on active duty an enlisted member of the Marine Corps and an Army officer. When he retired ten years ago as a major, a relatively junior rank, he exemplified the tensions between an independent-thinking, irrepressible, let’s-rock-the-boat reformer and the “don’t make waves” normal promotion machine.

Because of his writings and advocacy, near the end of his active-duty tenure Vandergriff was described as “the most influential major in the U.S. Army.” I did an Atlantic-online discussion with him and Robert Coram, author of a popular biography of the late Air Force colonel John Boyd, a dozen years ago. He has written many well-received books about working fundamental change in the training and promotion of officers, including The Path to Victory; Spirit, Blood, and Treasure; and Raising the Bar. If you want an illustration of someone willing to take (and suffer) career risks in the cause of telling unpleasant but important organizational truths, he would be your man.

Yes he would.

Fabius Maximus blog weighs in as well:

….Donald Vandergriff (one of the authors on the FM website) has identified a powerful point of leverage to change our massive and dysfunctional military apparatus:  its personnel system, the process by which the Army recruits, trains, and promotes its officers. Change this and the effects ripple outward through the entire organization over time as the nature and behavior of its leaders evolve. The Army has begun the long slow evolution of its personnel policies, responding to the ideas of Vandergriff and others.

This success puts Vandergriff on the cutting edge of America’s sword. He, and others like him, are crafting a solution of the third kind (about people) to defeat our foes at 4GW.  We can win at 4GW. We must learn to do so, or the 21st century will be a harsh time for America.

There are many strategic and operational issues that the U.S. military and NatSec community would prefer to ignore because they do not play to our areas of strength where the United States enjoys overwhelming dominance relative to the rest of the world. Well, these problem areas will only grow in scope and importance because they are the points where our adversaries see hope of gaining leverage and comparative advantage over us. I am almost tempted to say “Duh” here because enemies hitting your weak points instead of running headlong into our strong points and being killed en mass is strategy 101, but strategy is less popular in some quarters these days than it should be. Don Vandergriff is the sort of man to highlight deficiencies so they can be remediated and, eventually, become new strengths.

Don Vandergriff….strongest recommendation.

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