In a recent article for the academic journal Security Studies, Professor Nina Kollars of Franklin & Marshall College attempted to explain how military innovation occurs during wartime. Using efforts to deal with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq as a case study, she argues that innovation in wartime emerges from a dialectical process between learning organizations and what she calls “bureaucratic stasis organizations.”
According to Kollars, bureaucratic stasis organizations, such as high level military commands and permanent Pentagon agencies, are more interested in preserving long-term acquisition programs—maintaining the status quo in which they have invested. They tend to ignore the immediate needs of learning organizations—here specifically, field units—when previously unforeseen threats emerge. In the case of the IED threat, this disconnect required the creation of ad hoc agencies that could bypass those organizations geared toward maintaining the status quo, to rapidly develop and acquire capabilities to deal with the newly recognized danger. The Pentagon created nearly 20 such agencies between 2002 and 2010. Now the Department of Defense has decided to make one of them a permanent, status quo-oriented agency.
In late June the Pentagon renamed the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), one of the most well known of the ad hoc agencies formed last decade, the Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Organization (JIDA). According to a report by Marcus Weisgerber of Defense One, the new organization will be under the authority of Frank Kendall, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics. Weisgerber quotes Kendall as telling the 1,000 people who comprise JIDA, “You’re not going away anytime soon.”
There are at least two problems with creating a permanent agency to counter improvised threats such as those encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade-plus. First, if the goal is to find new ways to counter improvised threats, the transition from JIEDDO to JIDA will be entirely counterproductive. As Kollars argues, the reason why ad hoc agencies such as JIEDDO were successful in developing new equipment and tactics to counter an emerging threat is that they could act as a conduit between field units focused on an immediate problem while status quo bureaucracies focused on the long term. JIDA, as a permanent agency, will be incorporated into the Pentagon’s planning system—with its three-year budget cycles and five-year planning periods. To have any semblance of success in this system it will have to maintain the same focus as the bureaucratic stasis organizations: long-term development and acquisition, rather than responding to emerging problems.
Second, and perhaps more important, JIDA will insure that the “improvised” threat is now a permanent one. As Weisgerber notes in his report,
JIDA still tracks the latest twists on cobbled-together explosives and works quickly to find ways to stop them. But the Pentagon has also been using the organization to stop new weapons and tactics, like the tunnel bombs employed by Islamic State militants to attack Iraqi Security Forces and civilians.
These are certainly real threats during some types of military operations. But creating a permanent agency in response to that threat ensures a constituency is now dependent on the existence of that threat. If the threat becomes less prominent—or even disappears entirely—in subsequent years, will those whose livelihood depends on the threat’s existence pack up their bags, congratulate themselves on a job well done, and ride off into the sunset? Moreover, because JIDA is a joint agency, it has stakeholders from all the military services. There is therefore little incentive to for anyone to acknowledge when improvised threats have lost their salience.
The most likely outcome of JIDA’s existence is that it becomes just another centralized agency in the Pentagon’s bureaucracy. It will receive little love from the military services because it does not fit with any of their preexisting missions or cultures. But it will continue to exist because it will serve as a source of funding and jobs. Most importantly though, it will become a organization that seeks to preserve its own long-term interests rather than serve the purpose for which it was originally intended.