Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Revising our armed forces (1): A new series of lessons about military innovation

I’ve been reading tons of books about military innovation, from before the Industrial Era to the present. I’ve decided to start capturing those lessons in a series I am calling “Revising our armed forces.” This is the first installment.

HMS_Argus_(1917)
HMS_Argus_(1917)

I’ve been reading tons of books about military innovation, from before the Industrial Era to the present. I’ve decided to start capturing those lessons in a series I am calling “Revising our armed forces.” This is the first installment.

Rule 1: It is not all about the money.

In a nutshell: Do not confuse innovation with investment. Spending does not help military reform, and may in face impede it. Often, in fact, innovation occurs when a military stops buying things and instead starts thinking things. The best example of this may be the aircraft carrier. The British dived in and built about ten. The Americans and Japanese, by contrast, spent much of the interwar period thinking about how they would use carriers, and then began building them. The British thought the aircraft carrier would provide scouts for battleships. The Americans and Japanese, through intense tabletop exercises, realized that the carrier was not the eyes of the fleet, but instead was replacing the battleship as the striking arm of the fleet.

I’ve been reading tons of books about military innovation, from before the Industrial Era to the present. I’ve decided to start capturing those lessons in a series I am calling “Revising our armed forces.” This is the first installment.

Rule 1: It is not all about the money.

In a nutshell: Do not confuse innovation with investment. Spending does not help military reform, and may in face impede it. Often, in fact, innovation occurs when a military stops buying things and instead starts thinking things. The best example of this may be the aircraft carrier. The British dived in and built about ten. The Americans and Japanese, by contrast, spent much of the interwar period thinking about how they would use carriers, and then began building them. The British thought the aircraft carrier would provide scouts for battleships. The Americans and Japanese, through intense tabletop exercises, realized that the carrier was not the eyes of the fleet, but instead was replacing the battleship as the striking arm of the fleet.

One cautionary aspect here is that spending may lock a military into current weaponry, when stopping and studying may lead to new approaches. My worry is that in our current legal-but-corrupt system of campaign finance, there is no one who wants to make this argument in Congress. Defense contractors profit from making the same old planes and ships, not from experimenting with new ones, and certainly not by doing nothing while the military steps back and thinks.

As Max Boot states in his magisterial study, War Made New, “Sheer size or wealth was not a good predictor of military outcomes.” For example, the king who sent the Spanish Armada against England had revenues about ten times those of Queen Elizabeth.

Photo 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 ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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