Will the U.S. Military Continue to Win the Innovation Contest?
By Steven Metz, May 8, 2015
|Army researchers evaluate a prototype undersuit designed to reduce injuries and fatigue, |
developed for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Aberdeen Proving Ground,
Today none of America’s adversaries is close to matching the U.S. military’s capabilities, but U.S. defense leaders, both uniformed and civilian, worry that others are using advances in force-multiplying technologies to catch up. Should these opponents ever come to believe they’ve forged ahead in this race for cutting-edge capabilities, they might be tempted to resort to armed aggression, unleashing a war that would otherwise have been deterred. After all, strategic superiority is not simply a matter of who has the most troops and weapons, who spends the most on defense and who has today’s most advanced technologies. It is also about who wins the ongoing contest of military innovation to possess tomorrow’s winning ideas.
A few decades ago the United States was the undisputed master of this contest. Flush with money, the Department of Defense could chase after a range of new concepts and technologies without worrying that they might lead to dead ends. Efficiency was not a consideration. Now shrinking defense budgets make failure harder to bear: Innovation must be efficient. As Ernest Rutherford, winner of the Nobel Prize in Nuclear Physics, once said, “Gentlemen, we have run out of money. It is time to start thinking.” The stakes of the military innovation contest have increased at the same time that the playing field has leveled.
Over the past century, American military innovation has followed a distinct pattern, with new strategic challenges often serving as inspiration for new thinking. In the 1970s, for instance, growing Soviet military power in Europe led the U.S. Army and Air Force to create a bold new warfighting doctrine called AirLand Battle to trump Moscow’s numerical superiority with operational speed and synchronization. With the end of the Cold War, America’s strategy challenge became to minimize U.S. casualties during military operations so as to sustain public support for the use of force. This led to what became known as the “revolution in military affairs” based on long-range strikes, increased precision strikes and rapid, integrated operations intended to collapse an enemy’s will to resist. When faced with the strategic challenge of insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military quickly developed innovative new methods of counterinsurgency, both the “population-centric” form with a large American military presence and then a “light footprint” method relying on drone strikes and Special Operations Forces.
Now new strategic challenges demand innovation. Primary among them are what are called anti-access/area-denial methods to prevent the U.S. military from striking targets or inserting forces into a region (think China or Iran); and “hybrid” combinations of advanced conventional weapons, irregular warfare, political action, terrorism and crime as used by Russia and some nonstate organizations like Hezbollah. Potential adversaries continue to pursue innovation at full speed.
But while the military innovation contest continues, it is becoming more complex. Past innovation largely came from within the U.S. military. New concepts and methods took shape in military staff and war colleges, battle labs and other centers of intellectual activity with analytical support from research institutes such as the RAND Corporation and Center for Naval Analysis. Today this may not be enough. The combination of the military’s tight budgets and expansive global responsibilities limits the resources it can devote to innovation. Belt-tightening has also led to risk aversion: None of the services want to waste money on a dead-end idea, so they have become more cautious. War games, exercises and major studies are smaller and scarcer. At an individual level, a shrinking military force makes both senior and rising leaders more risk averse.
So far the Pentagon’s response to the obstacles it faces in the innovation contest is to say that it must simply be smarter. While being smarter is always a good idea, it may not be enough. What the U.S. faces today may not be simply a temporary bump in the road in the innovation race, but a historic sea change.
Most importantly, the military may need to increasingly look outside of itself for innovation, relying heavily on the private sector, particularly businesses specifically designed to generate innovation and creativity and to cultivate and reward risk-taking. Put differently, while the private sector and think tanks have long supported military innovation, they now may have to take the lead.
There is some movement in this direction. The Pentagon is pursuing what it calls a “third offset strategy” to retain American superiority, recognizing that much of the technology to drive this will come from the private sector. As Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work put it, “We must really capture the commercial sector and we’re trying to work our way through this right now.”
But this is only the first tentative step in the transition from government-driven innovation to private-sector-driven innovation. If the privatization of security itself continues, transnational corporations operating in fragile states may be forced to become the new security innovators, particularly in stabilization operations and counterterrorism. The next great security innovation may be born in corporate “skunk works” shops, rather than in a military staff college or battle lab. Unbound by the strict hierarchy and risk aversion of the military, commercial security innovation might also make use of cutting-edge techniques to create and test ideas. One possible approach could include crowdsourcing, particularly through the transnational community of online gamers. Rather than depicting mythical civilizations or alien invasions to defeat, new games based largely or wholly on real-world information could enlist this community to find ways to stabilize post-conflict zones and other dangerous places.
Around the world, major changes are underway in the security environment, none more important than the expansion of security actors beyond formal national militaries. Many types of organizations beyond traditional armies and navies now play a role. This new era of public-private partnership in military innovation, drawing on organizations and personnel optimized for creativity, will both offer immense opportunities and pose immense challenges for the next generation of American military leaders. It remains to be seen whether they will capitalize on the opportunities or be overwhelmed by the challenges.
Steven Metz is director of research at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute and the author of “Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.” His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons, appears every Friday. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_metz. All ideas in this essay are strictly his own and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Army or U.S. Army War College.