Military readiness as a holistic approach with Michael Lumpkin
Michael Lumpkin, a career naval officer and former U.S. Navy SEAL, has served in several senior government positions, including Assistant Secretary of Defense and Acting Under Secretary of Defense. Today, he is Vice President of Human Performance and Behavioral Health at Leidos. In this Q&A, Lumpkin shares his observations about new approaches to physical conditioning in the U.S. military and Department of Defense (DoD).
Is physical conditioning becoming a bigger challenge for the military?
Lumpkin: I think what is more important, as well as more challenging, is the overarching issue of military readiness. Physical conditioning is an important component of readiness and needs to be viewed as part of a bigger picture that includes the shrinking pool of potential military recruits and the growing need to prepare military personnel for rapid responses to global crises.
70 percent of the recruiting-age American population does not qualify for military service, with lack of the necessary physical health and basic fitness as a primary disqualifier. Consequently, the military has a much smaller pool of people to recruit from than in the past, making it necessary to retain Service members longer while keeping them physically and mentally prepared to perform sustained combat operations while they serve.
In addition, when the military is called on to act, it must respond more quickly than in the past. The military services had years to prepare for World War I and many months to deploy forces to the Pacific in response to the attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II. The military also used the draft in the past, resulting in a much larger recruiting base. Another key factor is today’s 24/7 globally networked information space, which has raised expectations to the point where the American public expects our military to respond to a crisis within a few days, or even hours. To meet today’s fast-paced global, multi-domain requirements, military personnel must be in a constant state of physical readiness.
Is the military taking the needed steps to meet these new demands?
Lumpkin: The military services and the entire DoD take fitness and readiness very seriously, and are always looking at ways to evolve their approaches to training and physical conditioning. A significant part of the challenge is that no single approach or program is going to address all aspects of readiness on its own. Achieving military readiness requires a holistic approach in program execution and acquisition. While it is clear that the military is taking steps to look holistically at readiness, most programs still operate in isolated silos. One could argue that this is because readiness needs vary widely by career field and by military occupational specialty; however, a shift in mindset and cultural changes are needed to facilitate implementation of highly tailored programs on a military service scale.
For example, the physical requirements for a Service member who drives a fork truck in a warehouse setting are quite different from the requirements for a special operator. Despite these differences, the military services have historically designed “one size fits all” readiness programs that try to serve both categories of personnel. While the military has made some progress in addressing physical readiness requirements by occupational specialty, it still needs to address readiness at the individual level because no two individuals are the same.
We can use machine learning and artificial intelligence to generate physical readiness data that can be used to design and tailor physical readiness training plans at the individual level to optimize each Service member’s performance for their specific job requirements. I am not talking about having this capability in the future—it exists today. The challenge to date has been the lack of accurate, complete data. DoD’s well-documented culture of data hoarding and the failure to collect discrete physical readiness data have hindered the implementation of game-changing programs.
You mentioned Special Operations units and the more extreme physical demands they face. What are some of the unique challenges there?
Lumpkin: Special operators and tactical intelligence personnel often operate in small groups or alone, supporting missions that involve being away from military facilities and facing security threats that prevent them from participating in traditional fitness programs. In addition, these missions require meeting extraordinarily demanding physical requirements. For example, they may be called on to fly somewhere on a moment’s notice, parachute into hostile territory, and rescue a hostage or attack a military target, potentially going without sleep for days at a time. It takes a very specialized physical training program to prepare special operators for those demands while also enabling them to maintain full-readiness between deployments.
Please keep in mind that that our Special Operations Forces are not the only military personnel who face unique challenges. Submariners deal with confined spaces, operate in extreme environmental conditions, and lack access to standard fitness equipment. These are just two examples of military groups with unique fitness challenges that need to be addressed.
How long will it take the military to revamp its physical training to address these wide-ranging requirements across the different mission demands?
Lumpkin: This transformation is not a single effort with a clearly defined beginning and end—it’s a continual, ongoing process. The military is continuously updating its missions, tactics, and techniques; these updates then drive changes in the jobs Service members perform and the required types of fitness and readiness. In addition to addressing the data collection and analysis issues previously mentioned, the military must factor these changes into the physical training requirements.
To create effective holistic physical training programs, it’s essential to establish data feedback loops that begin during training, continue during deployment and performance in the field, then flow back into training. This process enables military leaders and trainers to see what’s working and what isn’t and make training adjustments on the fly, if necessary, to improve fitness and readiness outcomes. It helps to have a dynamic culture adaptable to change; without that, there will be too much resistance to making the needed changes, leaving our military well prepared for the last war, not the next one.