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Army’s ‘Mad Scientist’ Initiative Looks at Future Differently

WASHINGTON, Aug. 9, 2016 — The commander of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, Gen. David G. Perkins, challenged military, industry and academic leaders attending the Mad Scientist Conference at Georgetown University here to think differently about the future.

The conference began Aug. 8 and ends today.

"There's a preoccupation with trying to predict the future," Perkins said. He challenged the attendees to describe the future -- not predict it.

"That sounds like a nuance, but actually it's a significant nuance," Perkins said. He added that "describe" requires having a well-rounded understanding of the environment. It means understanding the changing variables and not "hardwiring" a solution.

Future Strategic Security Environment

The task these "mad scientists" are asked to perform is describe the strategic security environment in 2050. The Mad Scientist initiative is co-sponsored by the chief of staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group, TRADOC, and the Georgetown University Center for Security Studies. It's an ongoing initiative of TRADOC's intelligence section and this is the second year that a group has met in Georgetown.

Speakers this week include Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, along with the director of the Australian War Research Center and representatives from universities across the country.

Perkins told the group that he's not looking for innovative ideas; what he wants is innovation -- turning critical thinking "into valued outcome."

The Army has no lack of innovative thinking, he said, but because of bureaucracy and an all-or-nothing mentality, it's often difficult to follow through with those ideas. In business, many companies with innovative ideas have gone bankrupt, the general said, because they couldn't bring those ideas to market.


One of the things that characterize innovative companies is a high rate of collaboration, Perkins said. That, he said, is what the conference is all about.

The military often has an "obsessive-compulsive nature to get everything digital," he said.

"What happens is we miss opportunities to shape the future. We get consumed with responding to the future," the general said.

A different way of approaching the future, he said, would be to ask the question, "What puts the U.S. Army at an advantage?"

Staying ‘Two Moves Ahead’

"We don't do as good a job thinking two moves ahead -- especially if we're successful," Perkins said about the military. He said success tends to "hardwire" a tactic or technique and make it permanent, but the enemy adapts.

For instance, Perkins said, the U.S. has the best targeting capabilities in the world. So enemies decide not to be a target. Therefore, he explained, the enemy today doesn’t wear uniforms or assemble in large formations -- they blend in with the population and go underground.

Any technical innovation is only temporary, Perkins said. The enemy will soon adapt.

"Technology has become the most transferrable of our capabilities," said Perkins, noting that years ago, to steal a trade secret required taking blueprints and reams of documents.

"Now all you need is a thumb drive," the general said.

As an armor officer, Perkins said he has long appreciated the protection afforded by the M1 Abrams tank and Bradley Fighting Vehicle. "I'm used to getting my protection from tons and tons of armor," he said.

Protection for Combat Vehicles

Advanced protection for combat vehicles is one of the capabilities that TRADOC leaders believe will be critical in 2050.

"The problem we're seeing now is, with the proliferation of [anti-tank guided missiles], chemical-energy munitions, shaped charges, etc., like that -- is that the cost curve as well as the physics is working against us," Perkins said. "It's much easier to develop new ways to penetrate the armor."

To change penetrating charges is relatively inexpensive compared to producing new armored vehicles, he said. The adversary can update much quicker and with much less expense.

The old paradigm of "more and more armor" may be outdated, he said.

"Better think of a different way to protect," he said.  What's needed are capabilities, rather than things, he said, and challenged the group to avoid some of the "traps" that discussions of the future often fall into.

The Mad Scientist Conference can be watched live Aug. 9 via streaming video here.
Distribution channels: Military