Best Defense

Essay contest (8): Ain’t no silver bullet out there. We already are innovating, and most of these contest essays are bullshit.

Keep doing what we’re doing! Emulate our own success.



By John Byron
Best Defense essay contest entrant

Tom: What are the first steps the U.S. military should take to move from the late Industrial Age to the early Information Age?

My answer: Keep doing what we’re doing! Emulate our own success.

The Navy and Air Force, which are capital and technology intensive, are forced by the very nature of their environments to test, probe, and tease out the most innovative platforms, sensors, weapons, and connectivity they can. And the harsh nature of the worlds they operate in — war and peace — demands that these inventions come with effective doctrine and training, and that their best application be incorporated into tactics, operational art, and military strategy.

Examples abound of fantastic Navy and Air Force technology success:

  • The new class of aircraft carrier, to be entirely designed in cyberspace
  • Railgun
  • Tomahawk and the Mk 48 ADCAP torpedo
  • Stealth technology and aircraft
  • The modern attack submarine
  • OHIO-class submarines and the OHIO Replacement
  • The ZUMWALT-class destroyer
  • Submarine sonars
  • Surface ship radars
  • The entire suite of shipboard communications
  • Sensors, weapons, propulsion, and flight controls in all modern aircraft
  • Space and space-launch technology and exploitation
  • Cyber warfare
  • Electronic warfare

The latest warships and aircraft are scary smart and the overhead stuff is unbelievable: Star Wars transformed to reality. Indeed, the only factor holding back total transformation to latest-design, latest-technology materiel is the cost of force structure and the accompanying budgetary impossibility of replacing it all at once. But every year on every front, these two Services transform themselves and re-innovate their mission capability with the finest tools and the most advanced expressions of the modern age — information technology, materials science, manufacturing techniques, training simulation and stimulation, testing and evaluation, and a total-quality approach to the whole endeavor.

Could even more be done? Sure:

  • Reaching outside the DOD contractor box and into the rest of the commercial sphere for partners would be useful
  • Certainly the acquisition process needs continued pressure and improvement
  • The parochial interests of the various tribes in the Services could be better constrained and put in train with the overall mission
  • Research and development might get more funding, especially budget categories 6.1, 6.2, and 6.3 — basic, applied, and R&D
  • And the quality/quantity trade-offs now so skewed towards “best available” need constant challenge — Augustine’s Law still applies

And don’t ignore the wetware. Every service could do better in identifying and promoting officers with promise of superior capabilities in the design of innovative systems and the management of the complex programs that bring these potentialities to the field. Leaders like these were critical to the very existence of these powerful war machines:

  • Rickover (nuclear submarines)
  • Red Raborn and Levering Smith (submarine ballistic missiles)
  • Wayne Meyer (AEGIS)
  • Bill Perry (stealth)
  • Tom Moorman (space launch)

And critical too were the service revolutions put in motion by the likes of these innovators, creators of their services’ cultural accommodation for change and forward progress:

  • Bud Zumwalt as CNO
  • Shy Meyer as COS Army (alas, 33 years ago)
  • Tony McPeak as COS Air Force

So a primary field of search in the pursuit of innovation should be in the realm of leadership and not just technology. Given the bucks, the interest, and a Service climate of cultural openness to new answers, innovation will follow. As it has in the Navy and the Air Force.

Still, we have a problem. Though resources are unbounded compared to adversaries we’re fighting and we go forward with some of the finest equipment and systems ever invented, the U. S. Army has been trapped in two losing wars for fifteen years, its vaunted military wonderfulness unable to prevail against small bands of ill-equipped irregulars. The question: Is our utter failure result of inferior Army technology and a failure of that Service to innovate? Or is it a more fundamental failure of the Army itself to study its inability to do the job and take on the reform needed to bring it back to full service to its mission and our nation?

I say the latter.

You want to win wars? You want to prevail against the enemy? You want to reverse the shabbiness of the past fifteen years? Then fix the U. S. Army, reform it, transform it, remedy its culture and its leadership.

Innovation and technology are not the problem. It’s the Army itself. And there ain’t no silver bullet to fix that.

John Byron served in five submarines and a cruiser in his 37 years’ continuous active duty in the Navy, retiring as a captain. He lives in Cocoa Beach, Florida.

Image credit: Flickr

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

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