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VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — The military relies too much on technology, and soldiers need to practice more "with the radios turned off," a key general said.
"We must be able to operate when systems go down," Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, head of Joint Forces Command, told a luncheon audience Thursday at a joint war-fighting conference. "It is much more important for officers to get comfortable operating with uncertainty rather than to keep grasping for more certainty."
Mattis recalled when, as a young officer training during the Cold War in Germany, radios were turned off so that units could operate without directly relying on headquarters for intelligence or direction.
"What are we creating today with our command-and-control systems?" Mattis asked. "I don't think we have turned off our radios in the last eight years. What kind of systems are we creating where we depend on this connection to headquarters? While we want the most robust communications, we also want to make sure we can operate with none of it."
Leaders also need to plan on that possible loss of communications, he said.
"Mission-type orders rather than bandwidth are the key to the future," he said. "We need officers who can operate off a commander's intent, understand what the boss several levels above wants, and carry them out to suffocate the enemy's hopes."
Mattis called on industry to help.
"If what you're doing is going to enable the human interface, then you're on the right track," he said. "If not, you don't want things that take geniuses on the battlefield to operate. We need to create systems and organizations and equipment that don't need a master's degree in math.
"We've got to integrate air, land and sea but equally so cyber and space," Mattis declared, "and I do not want a single point of failure."
Mattis, often a blunt speaker who has had his fair share of run-ins with the media over the years, repeatedly called on the military "to define the narrative."
The military needs officers "who are able to win the battle of the narrative, to be there first with the truth. The true high ground today is not just the truth but the perceptions of the global audience."
The military needs to back up the government's position, he said.
"Military officers must stand up and bring confidence. Explain it in military and ethical terms to a world audience. Ultimately," he said, "we're going to defeat these enemies with better ideas."
Soldiers are often able to put ideas into terms easily translated through the media, he said.
"A lance corporal in Iraq is sometimes able to better explain our Iraq policy than all the generals can," he said.
Mattis was the final speaker at the three-day conference, sponsored by AFCEA and the U.S. Naval Institute, and left to a standing ovation.