Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Michael Horowitz’s fine study of how and why military innovations are adopted

Over Christmas break I finally read Michael Horowitz‘s The Diffusion of Military Power, a terrific study of why some nations are able to innovate militarily, or imitate the innovations of others, while others are not. Among his findings: Quick technological change is hard, but sweeping organizational change is far harder. The thesis of the book ...

629476_140103_rickshorowitz1.jpg
629476_140103_rickshorowitz1.jpg

Over Christmas break I finally read Michael Horowitz's The Diffusion of Military Power, a terrific study of why some nations are able to innovate militarily, or imitate the innovations of others, while others are not.

Among his findings:

Quick technological change is hard, but sweeping organizational change is far harder. The thesis of the book is that "adoption capacity, the combination of financial intensity and organizational capital possessed by a state, influences the way states respond to major military innovations." Horowitz shows that is not just a theory but a brilliant diagnostic tool. You won't think the same way about Chinese aircraft carriers after reading this book.   Hence, "innovations requiring disruptive organizational transformations but relatively reasonable financial investments, like blitzkrieg ... will spread haltingly." One danger is for a nation to be the incubator of change, but to fail to really adopt it. As you might expect, he cites the Royal Navy's failure with aircraft carriers. Aside from the Taranto raid of 1940, "the British never really utilized carrier forces for independent strike operations or centered their naval forces on carriers." Carrier warfare is especially interesting because it such an extreme example of high financial costs and major organizational change. Many more countries have gotten out of the carrier business than are in it now, even though it is clear that sea control requires control of air over the sea.   The younger a terrorist organization is, the more likely it is to adopt the tactic of suicide bombings. This variable appears more important than whether or not an organization is religious in orientation -- though the odds are highest when an organization is both young and religiously motivated.

Over Christmas break I finally read Michael Horowitz‘s The Diffusion of Military Power, a terrific study of why some nations are able to innovate militarily, or imitate the innovations of others, while others are not.

Among his findings:

  • Quick technological change is hard, but sweeping organizational change is far harder. The thesis of the book is that “adoption capacity, the combination of financial intensity and organizational capital possessed by a state, influences the way states respond to major military innovations.” Horowitz shows that is not just a theory but a brilliant diagnostic tool. You won’t think the same way about Chinese aircraft carriers after reading this book.  
  • Hence, “innovations requiring disruptive organizational transformations but relatively reasonable financial investments, like blitzkrieg … will spread haltingly.”
  • One danger is for a nation to be the incubator of change, but to fail to really adopt it. As you might expect, he cites the Royal Navy’s failure with aircraft carriers. Aside from the Taranto raid of 1940, “the British never really utilized carrier forces for independent strike operations or centered their naval forces on carriers.”
  • Carrier warfare is especially interesting because it such an extreme example of high financial costs and major organizational change. Many more countries have gotten out of the carrier business than are in it now, even though it is clear that sea control requires control of air over the sea.  
  • The younger a terrorist organization is, the more likely it is to adopt the tactic of suicide bombings. This variable appears more important than whether or not an organization is religious in orientation — though the odds are highest when an organization is both young and religiously motivated.

More to come focusing on the warnings this fine book offers to today’s U.S. military. 

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 ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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