Navy aviators from Lt. Ben Kohlmann’s squadron flaunt a US flag over Afghanistan.
The insurgency is coming home. As the military winds down its post-9/11 deployments overseas, a generation of young officers used to urgent wartime innovation are starting to spend more time in the bureaucratic routine of stateside bases, and they don’t like it. They are also increasingly willing to challenge their elders, and, as digital natives, they’re used to going online to bypass clogged formal channels and get the information that they need from peers: Witness the rise of sites like Company Command, now officially adopted by the Army, or Small Wars Journal, where junior officers shared new ideas on how to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq often faster than official institutions could adapt. So now, as that innovation generation turns its sights on the post-war world, one young Navy lieutenant, home from flying Super Hornets over Afghanistan, is launching a network to connect up-and-coming officers with private-sector entrepreneurs.
“On the battlefield, we allow a lot of latitude,” said Lt. Benjamin Kohlmann, now an instructor pilot at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station, near San Diego. “A lot of our junior officers are given authority to be innovative tactically [in the war zone]. It’s back in garrison that staff officers take over.”
Kohlmann’s already created a controversy with an essay he published on Small Wars Journal just last Thursday, “The Military Needs More Disruptive Thinkers,” in which he slams the military’s professional development system as too insular, too rote, too one-size fits all, and praises private-sector entrepreneurship as a better model. The item generated a storm of comments pro and con. The website’s editor, Marine pilot Peter Munson, said in a follow-on piece that Kohlmann had “struck a chord like no other essay published recently in the Small Wars Journal.”
Kohlmann normally keeps a lower profile, working through his blog and a group he founded, “Disruptive Thinkers,” that brings together young officers like himself and interested civilians – lawyers, civilians, businesspeople – to discuss everything from energy security to the two-party system. “Right now we have about 30-40 people attending per month” – 10-15 of them military officers – “[and] about 110 on the listserv,” he told Breaking Defense. “Most of them are under 35.”
Kohlmann’s latest initiative is to connect military officers based in San Diego to local entrepreneurs, one-on-one. The idea is what Kohlmann calls “mutual mentorship.” The military has much to learn from the business world, he said, but equally, “a guy who’s been with the Navy SEALs, in combat, going house to house and having to come up with innovative [tactical] solutions, may have something to teach” entrepreneurs in return. He hopes to launch the program this summer in cooperation with a local business group.
Already, the person-to-person relationships between young business people and young officers are one of the most popular features of the “Disruptive Thinkers” group, Kohlmann said. “The guys from my squadron who have come, they really enjoy it, [and] they especially like the networking side, because all too often we tend to make friends only with people in the military,” he said. Conversely, for the private-sector participants, “a lot of them have no idea how to break into the defense market because it’s so saturated by established players; this gives them an idea of how military people think.” A discussion with a junior officer via Disruptive Thinkers isn’t going to land anyone a billion-dollar contract – and Kohlmann hastens to say his group has no official connection to the military and that its members speak only for themselves – but such contacts can clue in entrepreneurs to smaller opportunities that the big defense contractors may not be nimble enough to seize.
Kohlmann’s ambitions run deeper than just networking, however, to addressing the fundamental gap between the one percent of Americans who serve in uniform and the 99 percent who don’t. “The civil-military divide is growing,” he said. “Even though Americans in general are very supportive of what we’re doing, they don’t understand what we’re doing in a lot of cases… It doesn’t seem like we’re doing enough to interact with them.” With Disruptive Thinkers, Kohlmann has taken it on himself to close that gap a little, one person at a time.