Best Defense

Studies of military innovation: Tom’s interim roundup of the story so far

For those of you late to the game, here is what I have been using as material for this blog’s series on innovation.

151212-N-OF476-030 
PACIFIC OCEAN (Dec 12, 2015) An MV-22 Osprey assigned to Marine Medium Tilt Squadron (VMM) 166 (Reinforced) launches from amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4) in support of a long-range raid exercise. The Boxer Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) is underway off the coast of Southern California completing a certification exercise (CERTEX). CERTEX is the final evaluation of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (13th MEU) and Boxer ARG prior to deployment and is intended to certify their readiness to conduct integrated missions across the full spectrum of military operations. (U. S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Eric C. Burgett/Released)
151212-N-OF476-030 PACIFIC OCEAN (Dec 12, 2015) An MV-22 Osprey assigned to Marine Medium Tilt Squadron (VMM) 166 (Reinforced) launches from amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4) in support of a long-range raid exercise. The Boxer Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) is underway off the coast of Southern California completing a certification exercise (CERTEX). CERTEX is the final evaluation of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (13th MEU) and Boxer ARG prior to deployment and is intended to certify their readiness to conduct integrated missions across the full spectrum of military operations. (U. S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Eric C. Burgett/Released)

For those of you late to the game, here is what I have been using as material for this blog’s series on innovation:

The basic studies on military innovation

Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution: Military innovation and the rise of the West, 1500-1800.

Key point is that success goes not to those who develop new technologies, but to those who figure out how to use them—like putting cannons aboard ships.

William McNeill’s The Pursuit of Power makes a similar point about figuring out how to organize the small infantry unit so as to get an effective rate of fire out of the slow-loading musket.

Williamson Murray and Allan Millett, eds., Military Innovation in the Interwar Period.

One of the most innovative periods in recent military history was the 1920s and 1930s, when budgets were tightest. Financial constraints can held identify priorities. Key points: Again and again, the lesson is what really matters in innovation is an adaptive organization. The editors conclude the way to get that is through rigor in professional military education, which I believe we do not have today.

Stephen Peter Rosen, Winning the Next War.

Says the best time for military innovation is peacetime, not during a war. Also found that the beginning point of military innovation is acts of the imagination. Makes point that military innovation is not about money or technology.

Here are my summaries of the Rosen book: parts one, two, three, and four.

Also, protect the people in the organization who are tasked with implementing innovation.

Michael Horowitz, The Diffusion of Military Innovation.

Agrees that organizational change is the key to successful innovation. Thesis: “adoption capacity, the combination of financial intensity and organizational capital possessed by a state, influences the way states respond to major military innovations.”

Militaries often are willing to spend money if they can avoid disruptive organizational change — even if such change is necessary.

Here is my summary.

More specific studies of innovation

Christopher R. Gabel, Seek, Strike, and Destroy: U.S. Army Tank Destroyer Doctrine in World War II.

Study of why an innovation failed: Poor understanding of the environment it was meant to address, and so poor exercises to figure out how to use it.

Here is my summary.

James Corum, The Roots of Blitzkrieg.

In 1940, the French and British had more tanks, more higher quality tanks, and more artillery pieces than the Germans had. Yet the Germans sliced through France. How? Doctrine and training. In the 1930s they had no money, so they thought, and learned how to use the radio and internal combustion engine to move and fight at a pace the French generals could not imagine.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Team of Teams. How Special Operators radically changed their approach to warfare over the last 10 years. Decided that a hierarchy was too slow to respond to a network, so became a network.

Here is my summary.

Here is a reading list on military innovation in the interwar period.

Everett Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations

Looks at why some innovations succeed while others, equally promising, fail. Not about military. Key point is that innovation is a cultural act, and when you change a culture you play with fire.

Alfred Sloan, My Life at General Motors

Argues that a robust headquarters is necessary for understanding the competitive environment and responding to it. Says this is why GM overtook Ford.

Max Boot makes a similar point in his book, War Made New.

Boot also argues that a nation’s size and wealth are not good predictors of military outcomes.

He contends that the less certain the security environment, the more you need adaptive leaders. These tend to be people who are able to think critically.

Military cultural issues

Robert Komer, Bureaucracy Does Its Thing.

Persuasive thesis: In the Vietnam War, the military bureaucracy did not what it needed to do, but what it knew how to do.

Carl Builder, The Masks of War.

(Not to be confused with a similarly titled work by John Keegan.)

About the only good study of the cultures of the Army, Navy and Air Force. He didn’t cover the Marines in this book, so I tried to capture their culture in my book, Making the Corps.

Alfred D. Chandler Jr., Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the History of the American Industrial Enterprise.

Interested me because U.S. military officers for a generation or two have focussed on the operational level of war, while neglecting strategy. He says this is a huge mistake.

Finally, in my “to read” box:

Williamson Murray, Military Adaptation in War.

Dennis Showalter, Railroads and Rifles: Soldiers, Technology, and the Unification of Germany.

Bernard Brodie, Sea Power in the Machine Age.

Paul Koistinen, Beating Plowshares Into Swords: The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1606-1865.

Philip Bobbbit, The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History.

Your suggestions?

Photo credit: Eric C. Burgett/U.S. Navy

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. @tomricks1

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