Veteran defense reporter—turned blogger and think tanker—Thomas Ricks began a new series at his blog for Foreign Policy on how militaries innovate. Ricks is apparently deep in study on the subject and will be posting about some of the insights he has gleaned. His first insight is important both because of its implications for the Pentagon’s current innovation project, and for its political wrangling over the size of the defense budget.
In a nutshell: Do not confuse innovation with investment… Often, in fact, innovation occurs when a military stops buying things and instead starts thinking things. The best example of this may be the aircraft carrier. The British dived in and built about ten. The Americans and Japanese, by contrast, spent much of the interwar period thinking about how they would use carriers, and then began building them. The British though the aircraft carrier would provide scouts for battleships. The Americans and Japanese, through intense tabletop exercises, realized that the carrier was not the eyes of the fleet, but instead was replacing the battleship as the striking arms of the fleet.
He is correct, and also warns that sustained or increased spending can lock in organizational preferences on weapons and doctrines instead of exploring new ways of doing things.
These are both important insights, but the relationship between spending and innovation is slightly more complex than Ricks allows. Harvard political scientist Stephen Rosen, in his classic work on military innovation, Winning the Next War: Innovation and the Modern Military, found no direct relationship between resource levels and successful innovation. However, his case studies did suggest that resource scarcity help in the process of inspiring innovation. “Aircraft carrier, fleets of helicopters, and ICBM forces were not cheap,” Rosen writes, “But initiating an innovation and bringing it to the point where it provides a strategically useful option has been accomplished when money was tight” (emphasis in original).
Rosen does suggest increased investment is appropriate as an innovation matures and need arises, but resource scarcity—while not sufficient by itself—can act as a spur for innovation. Moreover, keeping investments low also aids the innovation process in other ways. As discussed here, innovation requires experimentation and failure. Keeping investments low during the innovation process prevents large amount of resources from being wasted.
As the Department of Defense pursues its “offset strategy,” it should take these insights to heart. Money itself will not produce innovation, and can lock in the organizational preferences the military already holds. Resource scarcity, on the other hand, can spur innovation by leading military organizations to reevaluate current practices. Keeping investments low until an innovation matures or need arises, meanwhile, can limit financial waste as the military experiments.