Tom Ricks—the defense journalist, think tank maven, and blogger—has a characteristically short post, on his Foreign Policy magazine blog, Best Defense. Despite its brevity, the post makes a very important point that is often overlooked in the current discussion on military innovation: “Getting rid of the old,” as Ricks writes in the subtitle to his post, “is harder than embracing the new.”
As discussed here last week, one of the problems with analysis of military innovation is that definitions of “innovation” often lack precision. However, several scholars have proposed a definition that equates military innovation to Schumpetarian “creative destruction.” It is, as Harvey Sapolsky, Benjamin Friedman, and Brendan Green put it in their edited volume on post-Cold War military innovation, “Innovation is therefore not simply the adoption of new technology. It is the forceful abandonment of the old.”
This destructive element of innovation is important and often overlooked, which has important implications for the current innovation effort underway at the Department of Defense. Much of the ongoing discussion on innovation has centered on new technologies, such as robotics and artificial intelligence. But technology is insufficient for innovation. Moreover, as James Q. Wilson has written, bureaucracies, including military organizations, are generally happy to take on new technology that is additive. It is when that technology threatens existing organizational practices and structures that bureaucracies resist it. Because innovation necessarily threatens these practices and structures, bureaucracies do not readily innovate. Instead, new technologies—and the resources that they require—are often incorporated in line with existing organizational prerogatives (or rejected when they cannot be).
Based on similar insights, Ricks asks a couple important questions: “What should we get rid of, or at least stop making more of? My answer, grasshopper knows, is the current aircraft carrier of the Big Fat Target class. But what do you think is the horse cavalry of today — or of 2026?” The latter reference is to the persistent use of horses in the U.S. military despite the advent of automatic weapons, mechanization and motorization, and airplanes. As Edward L. Katzenbach wrote in his classic 1958 article on the endurance of horse cavalry in the twentieth century:
The military history of the past half century is studded with institutions which have managed to dodge the challenge of the obvious… The most curious of all was the Horse Cavalry, which maintained a capacity for survival that borders on the miraculous. The war horse survived a series of challenges each of which was quite as great as those which today’s weapon systems present to today’s traditional concepts… It continued to live out an expensive and decorous existence with splendor and some spirit straight into an age which thought it a memory…
Pentagon officials obviously want the U.S. military to innovate. So Ricks’ question needs to be turned to them: What will you get rid of or stop making more of? Additionally, how will you get rid of a capability or structure that a military organization feels great affection for—as was the case for the horse cavalry long after it became obsolete? Will you be able to force the military services to abandon their favorite platforms, as Ricks suggests should be done with the aircraft carrier—the U.S. Navy’s prized possession? If not, what incentives will you provide the organization to voluntarily destroy capabilities to make room for new ones?
In other words, how will Pentagon officials feed innovation’s appetite for destruction?