The Royal Navy failure was one of imagination, so cutting the size of the U.S. military might not force innovation

The Royal Navy failure was one of imagination, so cutting the size of the U.S. military might not force innovation

By Michael Horowitz
Best Defense guest columnist

I read your recent Washington Post column on the adaptability of U.S. forces with great interest, since building a force that is adaptable for the future, rather than just prepared for one particular future, is essential for U.S. forces to remain the best in the world over the next generation. Your key argument is that a smaller U.S. military would be more adaptable and innovative.

But will resource constraints lead to more innovation? For smaller to lead to "smarter," the Department of Defense will have to respond to budgetary pressure by allocating more resources to innovative experimentation — both in terms of operational concepts and technology, among other things.

The problem is that established powers like the United States often face pressure to do the opposite — to double down in favor of status quo platforms and planning, because those are what people know. As I argue in my book on military innovation, new technologies and operational concepts, lacking built-in constituencies and powerful institutional support, can often end up as the first on the chopping block, rather than as a focal point for the future. Wrestling with this challenge will be critical in the years ahead.

Turning to history and thinking about U.S. forces during the inter-war period, it is not clear that the small size of the U.S. Navy, relative to the British Navy, is what drove adaptability on the American side. The U.S. Navy was actually quite sizable, in a relative sense, after WWI. Until it collapsed, the Washington Naval Treaty locked in relative naval tonnage equivalence for the United States and Great Britain, with the other powers required to lag behind. Yet the U.S. Navy was committed to experimentation and lacked the sclerotic commitment to the battleship that the British generally demonstrated. Supported by the leadership of Admiral Sims and others at the Naval War College, and Admiral Moffet at the Bureau of Aeronautics, the U.S. Navy learned how to exploit the advantages of the aircraft carrier through real world experiments and tabletop exercises. More generally, U.S. forces in the inter-war period demonstrated a significant capacity to innovate, not only with carriers, but in other areas as well (amphibious warfare concepts, for example). Essentially, it is not clear that resource constraints primarily drove that innovation by U.S. forces.

Along with innovation by U.S. forces in the inter-war period came planning — even planning for a particular adversary. The post-World War I U.S. military created a series of "Color Plans" to plan for potential future wars. Included among these was "Plan Orange," which sketched out plans for a war against Japan (see the Edward Miller book on the topic or the relevant section in Ronald Spector’s excellent book on the Pacific theater of WWII). Yet rather than constraining U.S. forces into a box that undermined their performance during the war, historians and scholars of military innovation tend to consider this planning a success. After the war, Admiral Chester Nimitz said, "The war with Japan had been enacted in the game rooms at the War College by so many people and in so many different ways that nothing that happened during the war was a surprise — absolutely nothing except the kamikaze tactics toward the end of the war. We had not visualized these."

On the British side, from the perspective of my research, the key factor that drove the British understanding of the aircraft carrier prior to World War II was not necessarily size, per se. Instead, in some ways, the British were victims of their own past success (a crucial lesson for the U.S. military today). With a track record of naval dominance and powerful institutional interests that funneled most thinking about new technology towards how they could support the battleship, the British experienced a failure of imagination. It was a combination of their high organizational age due to past success (which expanded the number of veto points that could block innovative change), and their narrow critical task focus (viewing success as delivering steel on target through gunnery), that meant the Brits had low "adoption capacity." This made it extremely difficult for them to adopt carrier warfare in the inter-war period and early years of World War II. Size certainly mattered — but the British Navy’s struggles with the aircraft carrier were due to more than size.

Michael Horowitz is an associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. He is spending the 2013 year as an international affairs fellow, funded by the Council on Foreign Relations, working for the deputy assistant secretary of defense for force development in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. government or Department of Defense.