Best Defense

Essay contest (21st and last): For the user, innovation is needed, expensive, & tricky

Ten thoughts on emerging technology and innovation.



By Tom Mcilwaine
Best Defense essay contest entrant

As the signals NCO in my cavalry squadron can attest, I know very little about technology, regarding it as a form of black magic which I am perfectly willing to take advantage of, but do not wholly trust. I know it either works (or doesn’t), I admire it, I use it to my advantage where I can, but trying to understand it, is, sadly, beyond my mental capacities. But I do know a little bit about history, and quite a lot about how militaries have tried to adapt to changing technologies in the past. So with that in mind, here are my top ten thoughts on emerging technology and innovation.

1. It won’t do what the manufacturer promised you it would. This is not a new phenomenon. Just as the earliest firearms didn’t do what their gunsmiths said they would be able to, and as early armored vehicles fail to live up to expectations. This is perhaps even truer today than it was in the past, as any user of watches made by a fruit company or glasses made by a search engine will confirm.

2. It will cost more than the manufacturer said it would. If it is new, unproven, and cutting edge, it will be expensive. Think all the money you have, and then some more. And then some more. One of the main reasons why the British stopped experimenting with armored vehicles in the early 1930s was that they simply couldn’t afford to keep doing it. (They also didn’t work — a point ignored by most writers on the subject.) Modern technology is even more expensive.

3. It will arrive later than the manufacturer said it would. Delays are a fact of life, especially when you are dealing with new technology. Even Darth Vader struggles to deliver major projects on time.

4. He who adopts last wins. There are a lot of people out there (particularly of the older generation) who thought that Betamax was the answer. See also minidiscs, laserdiscs, and hovercraft. And MySpace. They were wrong. Better to let everyone else do the learning, and then just take advantage of their hard won knowledge. It will be cheaper too, as anyone who bought a first generation DVD player can tell you.

5. You will develop a doctrine based on the incredible new capabilities that you possess. Having invested almost all of your money on a set of capabilities that may or may not come to fruition, you will then need to work out how to use it. You will declare that you have created a revolution in military affairs and will design a doctrine to seize the advantages that this gives you. That doctrine will not be subjected to intellectually rigorous assessment, will make vast leaps of logic, and will be widely praised.

6. It won’t work. See Fuller’s idea of tanks as “fleets of ships on land” or Admiral Cebrowski’s ideas of “network centric warfare.” It won’t work either because the capability isn’t as great as you first thought, or because it isn’t as revolutionary as you first thought, or because it would require the nature of war to change.

7. You will end up using it to support the infantryman. Because in the end, everything on land or in the air is done to support the infantryman.

8. By the time you finally bring it into service it will have been overtaken by something available off the shelf from a commercial supplier. Sorry, but that is a fact of life.

9. You will never quite be able to use all of the new capabilities that it does bring. Because we are human, and aren’t able to process the level of information required to make it work under the pressure of combat. Or because quite often a revolutionary new capability requires us to change how we do things in totality — mission command and an all informed net being contradictions in terms as anyone who has seen a battle group commander under pressure can confirm. Or a combination of the two.

10. Did I mention that it would be eye wateringly expensive? I mean really expensive. Like National Health Service expensive. But probably not as efficient.

The bottom line is that the principles and nature of war are fixed and unchanging — they represent a platonic truth. The changing circumstances of society (technology, values, and so on) are not able to alter this fact. The force which best understands this will be the force which is best able to adapt to changing technologies and circumstances, by virtue of retaining a healthy degree of skepticism towards the claims that are made for new technologies and by subjecting new ideas and doctrines to intellectually rigorous scrutiny. Evolution, not revolution, will win the day. Be very skeptical of the big idea.

Tom Mcilwaine is a British Army Major currently serving on Op Inherent Resolve. A graduate of the U.S. Army Staff College and School of Advanced Military Studies, he has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. All views are his own, except the good ones.

Photo credit: Michael Neel/Flickr/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 @tomricks1

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