Leaders around the world have begun to embrace being digital, and for good reason. It is changing the military, defense and intelligence organizations; and it is dramatically changing businesses, the economy and many, if not most aspects of our lives. It is the digitization that has substantively increased the criticality of cybersecurity, defense and intelligence. What is really meant when we talk about digitization?

The term digitization has been bantered about for a while now, and a uniformly accepted definition seems to be illusive. In general terms, digitization refers to the movement that converts physical elements into ones and zeros that are the essence of anything digital. The management consultants at PWC refer to digitization as a “mega trend,” and for good reason. Computers, the internet, cellphones and smartphones, tablets, connected cars, and all of the Internet of Things have and will continue to transform how we perform our duties. In fact, this phenomenon has reached a point where it is a requirement for and threat to our nation’s economy and national security.

Digitization is not a new issue for the military and intelligence communities. In fact, it can be traced back to the early to mid-90s! That drew out the concept of the digital battlefield, which became a hot topic for investigation and research. Since then, the concept was presented as well as discussed, and strategic questions were asked about the issues and opportunities digitization presented to our military and intelligence communities. The defense industry entered with their research, analysis and development of everything from theories and concepts to products and services. It would be nearly impossible to put a dollar figure on what has been spent pursuing this subject matter, much less project what will be spent if digital technologies continue to advance at an ever-increasing pace.

As the United States moves to rebuild and modernize the military and intelligence communities, an increased amount of efforts should be placed on reeducating, mentoring and supporting the digitization changes that are impacting our leaders. I found a statistic that suggests the average age of a colonel is 45. That would put their high school graduation around 1989-1991. During that same general time frame, CERN scientists (Tim Berners-Lee, Robert Cailliau and others) started an initiative that would create what we all know today as the World Wide Web.

As our current military and intelligence leaders retire, those that replace them will be much more familiar with the internet and technology in general. The increased familiarity will likely bring about dramatic changes in the way our military operates and officers think and strategize about conflict, defense and intelligence. Familiarization with technology promotes a level of comfort that is difficult to achieve with those that did not grow up with the internet. As new technologies are developed and introduced at an ever-increasing rate, increased change will undoubtedly occur.

Artificial intelligence, robotics, IoT sensor networks, and virtual and augmented reality are just a few of the areas of technology that will likely have a dramatic impact to our military and intelligence organizations in the next few years. We should also remember they all come with cybersecurity implications as well — which is both an issue and an opportunity. The U.S. has long led the world in technology development and utilization. In the coming decade, that leadership is likely to be continuously challenged. One area where the challenge might be the greatest is in military leadership strategy and thinking when it comes to the integration and use of emerging technologies.

Clearly, the U. S. Department of Defense (particularly the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA) is an innovative leader in the research and development of advanced technologies. Perhaps it is time to give a little more attention to all the critical areas of importance impacted by those breakthroughs in technology. Specifically, the men and women that serve. This is not a one-off type activity. The characteristics of technological advancement now make this a continuing effort. It also increases the level of importance of this continuous updating of technological general knowledge, skills and know-how!