Best Defense

Revising our armed forces (13): The less certain the security environment, the more you should hedge your investment bets

Best Defense is in summer reruns. Here is an item that originally ran on May 20, 2016.

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Best Defense is in summer reruns. Here is an item that originally ran on May 20, 2016.

That headline amounts to Rule 13 of innovation.

It means that if technology is changing quickly, or if the security environment is shifting, or if today’s allies threaten to become tomorrow’s foes, the more you should keep your options open.

The key here is prototyping. Have design teams work on new platforms. Even build a few and experiment with how to use them. But don’t put all your eggs in one basket, because the right investment choice today may be the wrong one a year from now.

A great example discussed by Rosen in his Winning the Next War is the early ICBM, which was not promising when compared to cruise missiles or bombers. It was too inaccurate to be of much use. But the development of the light, powerful hydrogen bomb made the ICBM far more useful. As Rosen states, “Once the new design parameters had been laid down, the ICBM became on obvious choice, since its speed made it essentially invulnerable to the defenses of the time, unlike the manned bomber and the subsonic cruise missile.”

A possible future example: I would not be surprised if one day fairly soon, satellites become able to locate submarines. Marinate on that one for awhile.

Also, I think the security environment should be defined very broadly. For example, improvements in the European roadnet in the 18th century made it possible for the French to create a new military unit, “the division.” Each of these was organized to move a variety of units — infantry, cavalry, artillery, and supplies — in a column that would be able to fight upon arrival at the front. The notion was that two or three of these divisions could advance in coordination on parallel roads. That had not been possible before.

And an example from the business world: The development of refrigerated shipping transformed the markets and eating habits of Americans. So it made a huge and quite sudden difference to cattle ranchers in Texas, fishermen in Maine, and banana farmers in Honduras.

Image credit: 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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