The Department of Defense wants the U.S. military to innovate, and it is pushing a number of initiatives in pursuit of that goal. One, which made headlines recently due to an overhaul of its leadership, is the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx)—a Silicon Valley-based Pentagon office that seeks to further relationships between the military and the tech sector. The idea behind DIUx is that the U.S. military needs greater access to novel sources of new technology to maintain its qualitative military superiority in a world where advanced technologies quickly proliferate.
A recent op-ed in Defense One by a retired naval officer and former national security official demonstrates why this technological focus is misguided. Unfortunately, the author also falls victim himself to an important misconception about military innovation.
The piece in question, by Jeff Eggers of the New America Foundation, makes a number of important critiques about the current Pentagon approach to innovation. He writes:
Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s recent trips to Silicon Valley, Austin, and Cambridge reflect the Pentagon’s deliberate outreach to the technology sector and a clear priority on innovation. But technology is not the solution to the problem of innovation. Rather, innovation is a solution to the problem of technology. Its crux is agility in adjusting strategy and operations, which rests first in how an institution thinks, which is in turn a function of people and their development.
Too often innovation is conflated with new technology, new weapons, and other shiny objects. Technology is important, but it is rarely sufficient—and, in some cases, not even necessary for innovation to occur. For example, historians have pointed to the wars of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars that followed as a “military revolution.” However, the changes were more about scale, organization, and doctrine than technology. As British historian Michael Broers has noted, weapons technology at the time remained static and sometimes, due to necessity, regressed. Conversely, an overabundance of attention on technology can lead to missed opportunities for innovation—which is what some scholars argue occurred with regards to information technology following the Cold War.
While he is correct that technology is not synonymous with innovation, Eggers also fails to provide a definition for it. He suggests that tactical ingenuity the Colombian military had employed to rescue hostage held by rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was innovation because it succeeded where U.S. Special Forces using advanced technology had failed. But while tactical ingenuity is important—often meaning the difference between life and death—is that what it means to innovate?
The meaning of innovation is notoriously difficult to pin down. Scholars who study military innovation often fail to define it, define it problematically, or define it without differentiating from other changes. But the differentiation is important. It explains why something is innovative rather than simply the introduction of a new weapon or ingenuity demonstrated in the field.
The failure to differentiate between the new weapons or tactical ingenuity, on the one hand, and innovation, on the other, can lead to problematic policy advice. Eggers suggests that in seeking greater innovation, the U.S. military needs to focus on promoting smarter officers. Pointing to reports of a “brain drain” in the U.S. military and a “systematic bias” against promoting officers with a higher cognitive ability, he suggests embracing Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s Force of the Future proposals as a way to loosen up promotion requirements and allow for those more willing to “rock the boat” to rise to the top.
Reforming military promotion practices is a fine suggestion on its own, but it is unlikely to provide greater innovation. In their edited volume on military innovation in the interwar period, historians Williamson Murray and Allen R. Millett found little evidence that “visionaries” were the key to innovation. Instead, skill in bureaucratic politics is key. Innovation is about change to an organization, often involving technology, but more importantly dealing with structural changes to organizational hierarchies and the introduction of new doctrines. Having smarter officers is something worth pursuing on its own. However, unless they have an understanding of bureaucratic politics and organizational change, their vision will provide little innovation.