Last week retired Army Col. Douglas MacGregor had a fascinating article in Defense One calling for major changes in how his former branch of the U.S. Armed Forces is organized. Col. MacGregor, who was squadron operations officer in the Battle of 73 Easting during Operation Desert Storm — “the last great tank battle of the 20th century” — has been an advocate of military transformation for two decades. In his latest piece he argues,
Today’s Army is on a dangerous path to humiliating defeat if—and quite likely, when—it takes on Russian, Chinese, or even second-tier nation-state forces equipped with modern military technology from Russia or China. Animated by visions of light troops mounted on wheels or falling out of airplanes, it is building a force for uncontested, permissive environments against weak peoples without armies, air forces, air defenses, or navies.
MacGregor claims that the Army’s current emphasis on “light” armor vehicles is misguided, the product of the asymmetric conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan from the past decade and a half — rather than a vision of the potential state-on-state conflicts that might take place in the future. He argues that the Army should instead adopt the German-made “Puma” as its armored platform, which the Congressional Budget Office identified as the best ground combat vehicle the service could procure at a reasonable cost to American taxpayers.
Even more important than the suggested platform, MacGregor argues, are the organizational changes the Army needs to make, particularly following the reductions in manpower that have taken place as the post-September 11 wars in the Middle East have wound down:
Unconstrained thinking is vital to this process. No Fortune 500 firm would reduce its workforce by one-third without carefully reorganizing the corporation with one eye on the current market and the other on future business. Yet the Army’s senior leaders are doing the opposite. They are telling Congress the U.S. Army cannot change, that a force structure with its roots in World War II is inviolate, and that only more money can improve Army readiness and capability.
Why? Why is the industrial-age Army structure the only answer to the nation’s warfighting needs? Why must the service’s organization for combat and its human-capital strategy remain stuck in the Cold War?
And he is right. The question is how to get the Army to start thinking differently. MacGregor suggests Congress mandate a reexamination of force structure. But literature from the business world suggests top-down innovation is better at improving on current practices, while the type of revolutionary changes he prescribes tend to emerge from the bottom up. It is the same reason why imposing the Puma on the service might not work as Col. MacGregor desires. When armies in Europe and the United States first began to think about how to use armored vehicles following World War I, the tendency was to integrate them into existing organizational structures rather than create new organizations to exploit the new technology. In the U.S. Army during the interwar period, this led to an emphasis on light, fast tanks that could fit with existing concepts for the infantry and cavalry.
Theories of military innovation are relatively underdeveloped. However, there are some principles from the military innovation literature and from the business world that might suggest a way forward for the Army. In the business world Clayton Christensen has found that established, successful organizations do not pursue revolutionary change for the exact reasons they are successful. Pursuing revolutionary change would upend current practices and force the business to accept a smaller market share while the new innovation matures. Innovative organizations therefore tend to be new entrants into the market or subsidiaries of established firms.
In many ways, the Army is in a good position to pursue the type of innovations Col. MacGregor rightly wants his former service to pursue. It has already accepted a smaller share of the defense budget, garnering only 23 percent of the Obama administration’s fiscal year 2016 budget request—compared to 30 percent for the Navy and 28 percent for the Air Force. Competition for funding provides a useful incentive for innovation. But it is not enough. Moreover, a military service cannot simply create a subsidiary that would compete on its own for budget share, thus providing it similar incentives. Instead, competition between the services for missions — as well as budget share — should provide the impetus for new thinking. Unfortunately, the military’s emphasis on “jointness” since the passage of Goldwater-Nichols provides incentives for the services to cooperate to maintain the status quo instead of allowing healthy competition to push new ideas.
There is evidence from the interwar period and early Cold War to suggest that bottom-up innovations as a result of competition are more likely to occur than innovation imposed from the top down. The Marine Corps was nearly integrated into the Army because many people did not see the need for an additional infantry, particularly one smaller than the New York police department. Instead, innovative thinkers developed the Marines’ amphibious doctrine that won the Corps acclaim during World War II and semi-autonomy afterward. In the 1950s the Navy fought the Air Force for a share of a constrained defense budget — developing the Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile to fit with the Eisenhower administration’s emphasis on nuclear weapons.
Competition is often messy, but it can lead to creative thinking. Col. MacGregor is correct that such thinking is currently lacking in the Army. He suggests a way forward that is both innovative and plausible. The next step is to provide his former service with the right incentives.