Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

A great book revisited: Rosen’s ‘Winning the Next War,’ about military innovation

Some 20 years ago I read 'Winning the Next War,' by Stephen Peter Rosen. I liked it then. But recently I had cause to begin re-reading it, and this time I am flat-out loving it.


Some 20 years ago I read Winning the Next War, by Stephen Peter Rosen. I liked it then. But recently I had cause to begin re-reading it, and this time I am flat-out loving it.

What’s different now? Part of it is that I know more now about the military now, and so have better reason to appreciate his research and insights. Again and again, he is spot on.

The book’s central finding is counterintuitive: Innovation works better in peacetime than during war. Rosen finds that in war, it is difficult to determine the success of a change in an organization or even in a technology or how it is employed. Also, he notes, successful innovation takes years to think through and implement, and “time is short during war.” (Present wars excepted.)

He stresses that good innovation begins with intense exercises of the imagination and rigorous understanding of the security environment. One interwar U.S. Navy game posited that both we and the enemy had far more aircraft carriers than either then had — but which they did possess by the time World War II came to town. By contrast, the Royal Navy didn’t so such simulations, and locked itself into present realities. That’s one reason British naval aviation did so poorly in World War II. “The relevant question is not what capabilities the enemy has today, but what weapons he is likely to have five or ten yeas from now,” Rosen writes.

Odd memory: I had to buy a new copy of the book because I gave my old one to Tommy R. Franks some 20-odd years ago. After reading the book the first time, I was down at the Army’s Ft. Monroe doing some interviews. A colonel heard me talking about the book and suggested I go talk to “Little General Franks.” That was Tommy R. Franks, then a brigadier, supposedly studying innovation in the Army. He was called that to distinguish him from “Big General Franks,” the TRADOC commander. That Tommy R. seemed so uniformed that, out of sympathy, this Tom R. sent him my copy. Never heard back from him about that.

Second true story: I was reading the book over my chicken Caesar salad in Akron, Ohio, and two guys sitting down the bar from me saw it. “You one of them NRA types, huh?” one said.

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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 Twitter: @tomricks1