Developing Digital Fluency: Preparing Army for Future Challenges
Without changing our patterns of thought, we will not be able to solve the problems we created with our current pattern of thought. Albert Einstein.
The Australian Army is working to embrace a digital culture, but slow action is compromising future combat performance. Decisions made now will be realised on a vastly different future battlefield. To compete, Army must cognitively commit to gaining the technological edge by developing digital fluency in everyday decisions. Digital fluency is the objective of a culture that promotes the benefits of technology, and empowers professional soldiers with a desire to learn and adapt them. The commitment includes recognising deficiencies with technology, yet transcending them to pursue excellence on the battlefield. Developing our digital fluency is imperative to fight and win in an increasingly complex world.
So what does the future look like? Imagine a junior leader halted behind a tank on a future battlefield. She dons a virtual reality headset and intuitively uses her fingers to manipulate multiple sensors. She turns her head and sees the landscape augmented by visual markings, like control measures—markings that show friendly force locations and other information. She is now network-enabled, with close air support on-hand with the movement of an iris or authority to engage a high priority target delivered with a squeeze of her weapon hand-grip.
This isn’t the battlefield of tomorrow, or even next year. But it is coming. Army must evolve the thinking of every professional soldier to comprehend this form of conflict.
Emerging technologies are not just a blip on the radar. Our potential adversaries are harnessing big data, quantum computing, autonomous systems, artificial intelligence and even teleportation. The battlespace of the future will see a professional soldier with intuitive responses producing effects which currently require a multi-staged, slow targeting cycle to be created. Technology will force our soldiers to upskill or accept their own obsolescence.
Short-term pain, long term gain
Using technology is an organisational culture, not a personal capacity. For too long Army has rested technology in the lap of the Royal Australian Signals Corps or civilian “I.T.” support. Yet technology is everyone’s responsibility and opportunity. Taking ownership of technology at a tactical and operational level is a foundation for building digital fluency.
Army personnel must see beyond the shortfalls of technology to gain digital fluency. Yesterday, our battle management system—a digital backbone for military operations—didn’t always work flawlessly, so was often shelved. Today, our new system may face similar challenges. However, reduced performance attributed to imperfect technology must be accepted. This reduced performance, or digitally-induced ‘hump’, is the less-than-ideal performance of technology not fully adapted to our needs and must be surpassed. Army will not learn how to cope, and what to acquire next, if we don’t embrace what we’ve got.
Adopting technology has a short-term pain, but a long term gain. The J-Curve below demonstrates that when a technology is adopted, there is a reduction in performance. However, familiarity with technology can turn this around. Initially, the speed to bring artillery to bear on an adversary was slowed when the Royal Australian Artillery Corps implemented their digital targeting system. Despite training, the maps and system were foreign to gunners—not yet intuitive. However time passed, and this system has become an invaluable aid to rapid employment of field artillery after familiarity progressed.
Developing digital fluency is a cultural hurdle that must be overcome. It is not only about procuring and deploying the tools of technology, but the desire to use them. A culture that seeks digitally fluency never regresses to notepad and pen, nor prefers voice transmissions over data. This culture acknowledges that a new approach may be more difficult, with new equipment, but transcends this challenge.
Digital fluency accepts the risk of malfunction and insecurity, but only in the short term. To overcome these deficiencies, users must become proficient and then contribute to a feedback loop to improve technologies. These deficiencies must be supported by a redundancy, like the US Navy’s continued teaching of sextants and celestial navigation. Redundancy methods supplement new technology, not compliment it.
The Army can create professional soldiers that hold a desire to master technology, and do things smarter. These soldiers are self-starters that develop themselves to master techniques demanding technology proficiency. Our workforce is now largely Generation Y, they’ve mastered computers and iPads, and they can master drones and military tablets.
The future battlefield will be unlike anything being imagined now. Technology is evolving quicker than ever before. It is no longer enough to make good decisions about what equipment to procure to meet contemporary needs. Future equipment must be selected to support soldiers to develop digitally fluency.
Digital fluency is an essential competency for all Army activities. The Army’s ability to fight and win will be determined by sophisticated yet intuitive technologies in the hands of every professional soldier. Investment and cultural evolution must be committed to now so that we are prepared. We are compelled, so that our future soldier can place their virtual reality headset on and know what to do with it.
The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.
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