Last year the U.S. military ran one of the largest stress tests of its sealift fleets, and according to a recent report, the news wasn’t good. The sealift fleet is in urgent need of recapitalization. It isn’t just the material items that are facing such a crisis, as another recent report highlighted how China has invested heavily in artificial intelligence (AI) for military applications, and could even leapfrog U.S. efforts.

The digital readiness crisis is also one that the Department of Defense (DoD) is taking very seriously, and to that end it released a new paper that studies exactly how significant of an issue this has become. It called on DoD leaders to take immediate actions to augment and leverage its existing digital talent in the services or risk falling behind near peer competitors in critical technical competitions.

The paper outlined that preserving and maintaining military advantage depends completely on the DoD’s ability to adopt and leverage technology faster than our nation’s adversaries, and that a workforce postured for rapid technology adoption will be critical to such efforts.

However, as it stands there is not a consensus on how to achieve this particular objective, especially when the longer-term goal must also share the stage with the imperative need to restore current military forces to a high degree of readiness following decades of conflict around the globe – notably in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Defense Innovation Board Recommendations

The call for a workforce that can take advantage of rapid technology adoption isn’t new. Three years ago the Defense Innovation Board (DIB) recommended a renewed focus on career pipelines to recruit, train, develop and retain individuals with the expertise to help the DoD with this digital transformation. However, since that time the DoD has taken only modest steps – including growing its cyber workforce – to create any formal pathways for service members with those technological skills.

To facilitate this more technologically capable workforce requires more technical skills including modern software development, cyber, physical systems, data science and AI/machine learning.

However, it is important to note that the slow pace of change has not been for a lack of trying – as personnel reform is both complex and complicated, while also involving layers of law, regulation, policy and culture. The DIB actually praised the existing efforts, but highlighted that much more needs to be done.

Moreover, the suggestions from 2017 focused not on solving the long term issues, but instead on immediate, short-term actions as a way to better utilize and retain active duty service members with those digital innovation skills.

The Workforce Now report also recommended a “highly limited, temporary, and specific use of waivers for a small percentage of the workforce to ensure two things: first, key innovation and technology initiatives are fully staffed, and second, that the most service members with the greatest potential are retained.”

Addressing the Talent Problem

While the private sector continues to face a workforce crisis, DIB noted that the DoD faces a digital readiness crisis, and with each passing day the gap with the private sector grows bigger. The DoD has yet to determine the right metrics to begin assessing digital readiness or even understand the gaps in its digital workforce.

Many digital innovation skill sets also do not match with existing career tracks, and as a result, service members can be left either unidentified or ignored in the DoD’s talent management system. As such, service members, both enlisted and officer, need to follow a more defined career path, which could include moving through a series of key assignments. More importantly, defined career paths can be important as these can prepare service members for higher levels of responsibility.

However, not every service member is on track to become a general officer, flag officer or command senior enlisted leader, and alternate pathways are needed that allow for other specializations – especially for the digitally-savvy and innovation-minded service members – as the DoD will need people who can move between operational and digital innovation roles. In addition, select numbers of talented, creative service members should also be placed straight into digital innovation roles when possible.

Immediate Fixes Now

The Workforce Now study called upon the DoD to address immediate fixes, and included multiple recommendations, beginning with the need to identify and prioritize digital innovation offices, including for the Deputy Secretary of Defense to designate the offices with OSD, such as the Joint AI Center and Defense Innovation Unit; and for the Secretaries of the Military Departments to designate service-specific priority digital innovation offices including AFWERX or NavalX.

In addition, each service should create a Digital Innovation Talent Management (DITM) program to leverage and retain service members. The program should be overseen by Service Personnel Chiefs and managed by their designated senior officials to keep the most talented digital innovators.

The services also need to create permanent pathways to develop, use and promote service members with their skills and provide those aforementioned alternative pathways.

The Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel & Readiness should convene the Military Occupational Classification Joint Service Working Group (MOCJSWG) to take up for consideration the range of specialties needed to achieve digital readiness, and to accelerate formal pathways.

The DIB paper noted that the first two recommendations are temporary fixes, but that immediate actions are needed to better use and retain priority skills in the service. The Workforce Now study concluded that the DoD cannot afford to slow consideration of formal pathways to develop, use and retain digital/innovation talent.

Simply put, “more needs to be done and it needs to move faster.”

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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.