Best Defense

Revising our armed forces (3): OK, if it isn’t about money or technology, what is the real key to military innovation?

If innovation isn’t about money or technology, what is it about?



I’ll make this easy:

Rule 3: If innovation isn’t about money or technology, what is it about? Almost always, the key to successful military innovation is about adapting the organization

Why is this so? Because the machine will have kinks, but if the institution is honest and does the testing and development it should do, these will be worked out before the innovation is fielded. (Things like the Navy’s lousy torpedo early in World War II reflect a lack of integrity in testing; platforms like the V-22 Osprey may represent an irrational commitment by an institution.)

Nor is the problem usually that of the wrong people, though on occasion it is. (A good example of a people problem was U.S. submarine commanders early in World War II, who were too old and cautious, and also hampered by those bad torpedoes. It is almost always better in wartime to go with younger and more energetic commanders, and to move the wise men to training commands.)

Not all innovations are good, of course. And not all good innovations are successfully adapted. But when good innovations go bad, it tends to be because the institution hasn’t adjusted it organization adequately. Effective innovations can mature only when the institution works to support them.

“Winning generally requires having modern tactics and a modern organizational structure,” Max Boot concludes in his fine book War Made New. Looking at several instances where smaller, less wealthy nations prevailed, he adds, “the winning wide had developed an effective bureaucracy, with appropriate funding, staffing, and leadership, to managed its armed forces. The defeated side, by contrast, lacked an effective command structure and remained wedded to outdated military doctrines.”

Boot’s bottom line: “Having an efficient bureaucracy is the key determinant of whether a country manages to take advantage of a military revolution.”

For your laminated wallet card: Not money, not technology, but a good organization — that is the key.

Image credit: U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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