Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Warnings for the U.S. military about innovation and the information age: The Pentagon looks like a minicomputer firm

Best Defense is in summer re-runs. This item originally ran on January 7, 2014. Here I want to focus on Michael Horowitz‘s warnings for the U.S. military in his book The Diffusion of Military Power. They include these: "The information age may portend a much greater level of risk for U.S. conventional military superiority than ...

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Best Defense is in summer re-runs. This item originally ran on January 7, 2014.

Here I want to focus on Michael Horowitz's warnings for the U.S. military in his book The Diffusion of Military Power. They include these:

"The information age may portend a much greater level of risk for U.S. conventional military superiority than some previous authors have envisioned." Don't get too comfortable just because you enjoy current dominance. Horowitz cites the example of Digital Equipment Corporation, which was a power in minicomputers, but failed to understand the emergence of the personal computer market. It had the resources, but lacked the imagination, and so failed to deal with changes in the environment -- I would say a bit like our national security leaders in September 2001. A great danger, especially for mature organizations such as the U.S. military, is investing in "incremental improvements to the last great thing, rather than the next great thing." So don't confuse innovations that enhance your current way of doing business with innovations that may require a new way of doing business -- but may also produce much greater gains. The great changes of the information age have not yet really hit any military. "Information technology has generally been employed in a sustaining rather than a disruptive fashion. It has not yet led to large-scale organizational changes or major shifts in thinking about the situations in which force deployments are possible."

Best Defense is in summer re-runs. This item originally ran on January 7, 2014.

Here I want to focus on Michael Horowitz‘s warnings for the U.S. military in his book The Diffusion of Military Power. They include these:

  • "The information age may portend a much greater level of risk for U.S. conventional military superiority than some previous authors have envisioned."
  • Don’t get too comfortable just because you enjoy current dominance. Horowitz cites the example of Digital Equipment Corporation, which was a power in minicomputers, but failed to understand the emergence of the personal computer market. It had the resources, but lacked the imagination, and so failed to deal with changes in the environment — I would say a bit like our national security leaders in September 2001.
  • A great danger, especially for mature organizations such as the U.S. military, is investing in "incremental improvements to the last great thing, rather than the next great thing." So don’t confuse innovations that enhance your current way of doing business with innovations that may require a new way of doing business — but may also produce much greater gains.
  • The great changes of the information age have not yet really hit any military. "Information technology has generally been employed in a sustaining rather than a disruptive fashion. It has not yet led to large-scale organizational changes or major shifts in thinking about the situations in which force deployments are possible."

This is one of the books that not just teaches you, but makes you think on almost every page. My head hurt when I read this — and I mean that in a good way.

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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