Editorial: Cebrowski and Transformation

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Retired U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Arthur Cebrowski, the brilliant military theorist who died Nov. 12 at the age of 63, was regarded as an out-of-the-box thinker. In fact, Adm. Cebrowski is one of the rare few to which that hackneyed expression actually applies.

It was his ability to look at problems in innovative ways that prompted U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to pick the decorated combat veteran-turned ivory-tower intellectual to run the Pentagon’s newly created Office of Force Transformation in October 2001. The purpose of that office was to nurture ideas with the potential to change the way war is waged, and Adm. Cebrowski — who broke convention with his arguments that individual military platform capabilities matter less than how these systems operate in concert — was the obvious choice as its first director.

The Office of Force Transformation is not about pushing the state of the art in military technology — the Pentagon has other organizations for that. It is more about developing new and innovative ways to use existing technology.

The TacSat effort, conceived and hatched by Adm. Cebrowski during his tenure as the Pentagon’s transformation czar, is a perfect example. TacSat is a series of small, experimental satellites designed to put incremental yet substantial new capabilities into the hands of commanders in the field.

The TacSat concept is grounded in satellite affordability, availability and accessibility, and therein lies its revolutionary potential. It is the reason why TacSat, and the Pentagon’s broader Operationally Responsive Space program, are viewed in many circles, particularly on Capitol Hill, as a bright beacon in U.S. military space.

TacSat and the operational program that by all rights should follow — also promises to create a robust new market for small, low-cost satellite platforms and rockets to launch them. Who knows what military, scientific and commercial applications will present themselves once space activity at long last becomes economical?

One would think the U.S. Air Force would be doing everything it could to support TacSat and related efforts, but there is evidence to the contrary. Perhaps sensing a threat to its way of doing business, the service wants to evict Space Exploration Technologies — whose Falcon 1 small rocket today is the United States’ best hope for low-cost access to space — from a launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., in which the company has invested some $7 million.

There are even indications that the Office of Force Transformation itself is under siege by the military services and other Pentagon agencies that view it as an interloper and a competitor for increasingly scarce funds. Such reactions are to be expected of an organization whose very purpose is to challenge the status quo.

Unfortunately, Adm. Cebrowski did not live to see TacSat get a chance to live up to its promise. It would be beyond unfortunate if the Office of Force Transformation, without which there would be no such effort, were to be washed away in a wave of bureaucratic rivalry and indifference.