Hacking For Defense
by U.S. Army Brandon OConnor
United States Military Academy at West Point
October 5, 2019
For two weeks it was pedal to the metal. Given a problem on day one, 35 cadets divided into seven teams ... were given 10 days to network with industry experts, fully define the problem they’d been assigned and develop a viable solution.
The course, called Hacking for Defense, was taught at the U.S. Military Academy for the first time from July 29 through Friday. Hacking for Defense is a graduate-level course currently taught at 22 universities throughout the country. During the course, students learn problem-solving skills ... while working to find solutions for Department of Defense problems.
The West Point course includes seven teams, each including four West Point cadets and one ROTC cadet. The goal was to build teams with cadets from various different academic fields and leverage their differing backgrounds to solve real-world problems.
U.S. Army Capt. Alex Pytlar works with United States Military Academy (West Point) cadets during the Hacking for Defense course. Hacking for Defense is a graduate level course currently taught at 22 universities throughout the country. During the course, students learn problem solving skills while working to find solutions to Department of Defense problems. (U.S. Army photo by Brandon OConnor)
“It is really focused on, how do I get young men and women who are our future experts in business and technology and other places and engineering, and leverage them to work on problem sets for the Army?” Col. Todd Woodruff, an instructor in the Behavioral Sciences and Leadership department which sponsors the course, said. “How do I get these problems in front of universities so they can leverage some of their talent and treasure on behalf of the nation?”
Typically, Hacking for Defense is taught as a semester-long course lasting 10 weeks. At West Point, they compressed the entire process into a 10-day summer course.
While the drop from 10 weeks to 10 days seems extreme, Woodruff said the actual amount of time students are working on their problems is about the same. Whereas in the 10-week course they only meet for a few hours each week, in the West Point program the students are working all day with no other coursework taking place at the same time.
At the beginning, each group was assigned a problem and had to build contacts with experts in the field and sponsors who are experiencing the problem to identify the root causes and begin building viable solutions.
“Our group just went right into it and just dove in headfirst,” Class of 2022 Cadet Isaac Ford said. “It takes a lot of networking. We didn’t have any connections right off the bat starting this. We were told one person and then one person turns into two more and then those two turns into four. It’s just a matter of pressing. You can’t be timid. Especially with 10 days. We’re trying to aggressively pursue knowledge.”
Ford and his team are working on a problem related to the proficiency of military linguists. As they worked to lock down the actual problem and began building solutions they talked to linguists from throughout the military to learn more about how information flows and also spoke with Soldiers from the 341st Military Intelligence Battalion.
A separate group worked on a problem related to the efficiency of treating wounded Soldiers in combat. The problem revolved around the “Golden Hour” Soldiers have to treat and evacuate the wounded. They talked to current Army doctors, medical commanders who are in charge of placing and managing assets as well as an Army medical historian to learn more about how the process has evolved over time.
“Throughout Afghanistan and Iraq, we had pretty much air superiority,” Class of 2021 Cadet Orlando Sullivan said. “You could just fly a Blackhawk almost anywhere and be able to medevac that personnel. That’s just not feasible if you were to go against a near-peer adversary like China or Russia.”
The course is designed after a program at Stanford University and is based on the Lean Startup Model where ideas are quickly created and then tossed out if they are found to not be viable. The goal is to take a broad problem, research it to find the actual root causes and then work to build solutions to the problem that will permanently fix it.
“It’s helped me as a leader,” Cadet Melvin Bonilla, from Princeton’s Army ROTC program, said. “When I come across a problem perhaps each time I’m going after this problem I’m only treating the symptoms. I have to find the root cause of it to fix it permanently.”
At the end of the course, each team presented its solution. The original sponsor of the problem then has the ability to see if it can be implemented.
If it requires a product to be made they could potentially hand it off to Army Futures Command, a schoolhouse within the Department of Defense or a cadet team for a capstone project.
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