Innovation Can Be Messy

By Lieutenant Colonel F.G. Hoffman, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve

The threat and the geopolitical environment are not the only elements to change. Many prominent defense analysts call for a wholesale change in strategy and tactics, based on a purportedly emerging revolution in military affairs (RMA). Professional defense literature is awash with discussions about the dramatic and discontinuous changes being brought about by this RMA. Some even argue that the fundamental nature of war has changed, and that strategic historians and theorists from Thucydides to Clausewitz now are irrelevant.

We might be in the midst of an RMA. Many new technical capabilities are being developed and introduced at a dizzying pace. The implications of these new systems, their potential, and their vulnerabilities are not yet known. Yet technology has played only a small part in most earlier RMAs. Conceptual, doctrinal, and organizational changes are the more prevalent components of a successful RMA. The organizational dimension of warfare, in particular, has many implications in both wartime and peacetime innovation. It is possible that many Cold War structures and platforms, such as armored divisions and aircraft carriers—even manned aircraft—may be outmoded. However, we need to approach such claims with some skepticism and a healthy respect for history. 2 The current environment calls for an atmosphere and a culture conducive to creativity, innovation, and experimentation.

Given the broad potential for new capabilities brought about by a putative RMA, it is appropriate to gauge the present trend toward centralized management of the armed forces by assessing the military's capacity to innovate within such an environment. The potential for centralized bureaucracies like the Joint Staff to evolve and operate in this new environment successfully is indeed debatable. 3

Sources of Innovation

There are two schools of thought about military innovation. The first school points to a body of history and organizational theory, suggesting that innovation ultimately comes from the services themselves as a result of the competition for roles and missions—and ultimately, resources. The other school favors increased primacy to joint agencies, and believes that the individual services are not capable of revolutionary change because they are blinded by parochialism. 4 Indeed, many of the technologies of the RMA involve information and integrative capabilities that cross service lines and require a more holistic perspective to warfighting and force development. Pessimists about adaptation in the U.S. military note the services view warfare through their own "masks" and genuflect before "altars" that blind them to new opportunities. 5

Accepting this school of thought, however, requires one to ignore or overlook the last century of service innovation. Each of the services possess a legacy of innovation. Many major organizational, doctrinal, and system initiatives have been generated by the services, including aircraft carriers, amphibious warfare, close air support techniques, ballistic missiles, and the use of helicopters. All of these innovations were developed without centralized management from the Department of Defense or external influence from a general staff. Such innovations have traditionally come from within the services, and from the bottom up. This is consistent with the business literature on innovation and change, which indicates that top-down innovation forced on complex organizations ultimately fails. It is also consistent with fundamental American institutions, both political and economic, which stress pluralism, competition, and "creative destruction." It is inherently messy, but such a system produces more adaptability and greater resilience over the long haul. 6

In addition to being ahistorical, critics of the "military as a static bureaucracy" school have to ignore another large body of both military and economic history that stresses the importance of competition. Competition among the services, properly managed, leads to more innovative approaches. In addition to galvanizing ideas, competition generates effective programs and operations over static missions or a definitive allotment of roles. Few critics suggest that we need fewer magazines or newspapers, or that a bicameral Congress is grossly inefficient. 7 Yet when it comes to military strictures, a strange taste for centralization comes to the fore.

Instead, today's reformists stress the need to "harmonize" the cultures and attitudes of the services and their personnel, supplanting their current orientations with a "joint culture." The establishment of such a culture may do more for "groupthink" and less for innovation than imagined. Professor Eliot Cohen of the Johns Hopkins University has commented on the desirability of retaining strong services with viable, dynamic institutions and cultures. "Soldiers, sailors, and airmen inhabit very different worlds," he notes, "and have very different cultures. This differentiation of service cultures is inevitable, bred by the physical environments in which soldiers, sailors, and airmen operate. It is also highly desirable." 8 In spite of such advice, most congressional leaders continue to press for the "joint solution" when it comes to innovation.

Military Innovation

It might behoove advocates of reform to study patterns of past military innovation. Research scholarship offers three major considerations about ways to proceed with innovation and the RMA. 9 Without due consideration of these elements, success at adapting the U.S. military to a new RMA within today's joint framework will probably be elusive.

The first requirement for innovation is a long-range vision focused on a realistic grasp of how the future will affect the characteristics of warfare. Such visions are not definitive prophecies about a given new gadget. Instead, they are the result of serious intellectual effort and a strong commitment to an ever-evolving concept of future war. It is not necessary for such visions to be specific or complete—in fact, they are never complete.

These visions are not static concepts carved in stone. Their assumptions must be questioned constantly and respond to new aspects in the strategic environment. What breeds success is not the vision itself, but the intellectual effort and institutional commitment to develop and work at a vision.

The second requirement or pattern in innovation is a set of institutional processes for exploring, testing, and systematically refining the stated conception of future warfare. This implication reinforces a number of current efforts by each of the services, such as the Marine Corps' Warfighting Laboratory and the Navy's Fleet Battle Experiments, to jump-start the laborious acquisition process with forward-leaning change agents. Recently published research finds that such empirical processes for exploring, testing, and refining concepts are "literally a sine qua non of successful military innovation in peacetime." 10

The final element of successful innovation involves bureaucratic acceptance and institutionalization of change. This institutionalization involves changes to doctrine, organizational structures, and the personnel systems of each service. Eventually, visions must be accepted by senior military leaders who must lend support, provide funding, and generate new career paths for attracting and rewarding the best minds. Such an atmosphere is the breeding ground for substantive innovation and a solid defense against intellectual orthodoxy and institutional rigidity.

Based on a recommendation from the Commission on Roles and Missions, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John M. Shalikashvili issued a strategic vision for future warfighting. The purpose of this document is to harmonize the separate service visions that are routinely issued in response to changes in the strategic environment." In his last formal speech before retiring, at the National Press Club on 24 September 1997, the outgoing Chairman reiterated his belief that in a future "increasingly dominated by rapid technological change, turbulent political conditions, and the pressing need to fight more effectively and efficiently," a joint vision is the way to go. 12

The history of the 1920s and 1930s would suggest otherwise. The services excelled at creative solutions under far more constricting fiscal limits and they generated numerous innovations (carrier aviation, amphibious warfare, at-sea logistics, close air support, and strategic bombing) during the interwar period. This, too, was an era characterized by technological change and political upheaval.

A year ago, the Chairman released his own vision that explicitly states that it is a "template" to "channel" the collective efforts of our armed forces. 13 The utility of such a template at this time—given the present state of the RMA—is challengeable, and channeling ideas and resources at this stage could prove disastrous. The content of Joint Vision 2010 leans toward a techno-centric orientation for the future battlefield. It also calls for authoritative "top-down" doctrine to drive force development and military programs. Of even greater concern, Joint Vision 2010 embraces centralized command and control, based on new information technologies. Critics of the document note that it is overly dependent on technology, and that its applicability is oriented on the top end of the conflict spectrum. It offers little in the way of vision about future Bosnias and Somalias—the more probable form of future conflict for the U.S. military.

The development of a joint vision as a common integrating framework should be applauded, but not as a narrowly construed report card for program approval. Despite being touted as a long-range vision, Joint Vision 2010 actually is expected to have near-term effect on the way the Chairman shapes his recommendations for the defense budget. 14 The Chairman's vision meets the first requirement for institutional innovation, despite its apparent overemphasis on the technological side of the warfighting equation. Of greater long-term concern is the degree to which the Joint Staff is willing to challenge its assumptions or adapt them in response to changes in the environment.

The second requirement for innovation is establishing institutional processes for exploring, testing, and systematically refining the stated conception of future warfare. The Joint Staff is looking at Advanced Concept Technology Demonstrations (ACTDs) as part of the implementation program to support the Chairman's Joint Vision 2010 . The problem here is that many ACTDs are demonstrations for new technologies and gadgets, not true experiments.

The final element of successful innovation involves bureaucratic acceptance and institutionalization of change. Here, jointness faces an uphill fight because the services oversee most of the personnel and the force development machinery. It is within the services that visions must be accepted and incorporated. Generating new career paths for innovators is extremely hard to do from outside the services, and even harder for officers who do not have warfighting credibility in the operating forces of the armed forces.

Innovation thrives in an atmosphere that seriously studies war and the lessons of history, and strives to assess the requirements of future war realistically. The historical record is rather clear. Attempts to institutionalize innovation—to control or rigidly manage what is inherently a nonlinear human activity—will fail. Instead of rigid templates, we need a culture conducive to learning, rather than permitting centralized joint management structures that attempt to prove preconceived notions.'5 What we do not need to do is create new joint bureaucratic structures and procedures to manage efficiently what is essentially a creative process. 16 There are strong tendencies in the joint arena that could crystallize the thinking of the Joint Staff on the RMA. Such rigid thinking would limit, rather than free, innovative ideas. Fortunately, General Shalikashvili understood this. "Our organizational climate," he noted, "must reward critical thinking, foster the competition of ideas, and reduce structural or cultural barriers to innovation." 17 But no one yet has figured out how to create such a climate within the joint arena.

Joint Organizations and Adaptability

There is a consensus that the success of U.S. national security efforts over the next few decades is predicated on developing an innovative and adaptive military. Creating such a force for the 21st century suggests a need—or at least a willingness—to question Cold War organizational reforms of the 1980s.

It is entirely feasible in this uncertain landscape that Goldwater-Nichols is not an appropriate organizational framework for the 21st century. It was written when threats were stable and a monolithic opponent provided a focus for national security programs. Today, such a stable strategic consensus and planning focus are lacking, and are sorely missed. A centralized approach may be woefully inappropriate. Some defense observers, including earlier advocates of joint reform, believe that the corresponding centralization of advice may be counterproductive in this new age.

We should strive for a strategically adaptive military. We may need to readjust our defense organization to introduce and sustain tolerance and experimentation rather than channel it with a narrow template. Because jointness breeds a certain common viewpoint on defense matters, the Defense Reorganization Act as currently understood may be inappropriate for this era.

Ideally, Joint Vision 2010 will become a useful mechanism to integrate the functional capabilities of the services. We do not need the individual services to view the RMA as a chance to graft new technologies onto outmoded operational concepts or platforms. Nor do we need to use "jointness" as a theology that suppresses debate about the composition of the "military after next." Muffling competition increases the chances for stagnation.

There are elements within the Joint Staff that understand this dilemma. Lieutenant General David McCloud, U.S. Air Force, the J-8 (Force Structure, Resources, and Assessment), notes that this is not the time to be dogmatic. "This is a time of change; it's a time of experimentation," he noted. "It's a time not to be rigid, but very flexible in our thinking." 18 The implementation of Joint Vision 2010 must be allowed to evolve through experimentation and encourage organizational learning across the services. If General McCloud's attitude prevails, Joint Vision 2010 may prove to be the most critical piece of the RMA. But if it becomes a static fixation, or if the Joint Staff arbitrarily attempts to impose unproven concepts and structural changes by fiat, its potential will weaken.


The goals of Goldwater-Nichols were clear cut. Congress believed that the U.S. leadership deserved and needed better strategic advice; that civilian authority could be improved; that clearer lines of authority would generate more effective military operations; and that a joint perspective on roles, missions, and budget allocations would create a more efficient military. There is little in the way of compelling evidence to conclude that Congress attained all these goals in the last decade. Furthermore, the predicted future security environment suggests that it will only worsen our national defense problem deeper into the next century.

The quest for efficiency in the defense budget has not been satisfied. Many defense programs are not affordable, and some have no post-Cold War purpose. Instead of change, there is growing bureaucratic bloat in Washington and in the plethora of joint institutions—activated to satisfy the cravings of the commanders-in-chief—that are maintained at the expense of operating forces.

Once again, however, it is important to avoid looking to the past to determine if structural reforms generated in response to the Cold War are working. What is more important to examine is what structure best suits the emerging strategic environment. With thanks to Goldwater-Nichols, the current Joint Staff was reconstructed, during the waning days of the Cold War against a singular threat of massive scale. But the current operational demand is for creativity and diversity in military capability. Rather than allowing us to diversify, Goldwater-Nichols and the political orthodoxy surrounding it make an imperative out of harmonizing the services rather than celebrating competition or versatility.

Instead of creating an atmosphere in which innovation will flourish, we have a joint vision that could institutionalize a narrow, rigid, and ultimately sterile approach to defense planning and force structure. "Herein lies a danger as we proceed along the path toward greater jointness," noted Lieutenant General Bernard E. Trainor, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired), the former director of National Security Studies at Harvard University. "If for its sake conformity is achieved at the expense of uniqueness," he added, "we could end up with a military that is inflexible, uncreative, and most importantly, predictable." 19


The United States has vast military capabilities, but is perilously close to failure at the organizational dimension of strategy. There are numerous dimensions to strategy—social, political, technological, and geographic. In a period of uncertainty and dramatic change, none is more important than the organizational element. 20 War and the complementary activities of preparing for war are institutional tests of the gravest sort.

A critical component of the organizational dimension of strategy is the architecture of the U.S. defense establishment. Goldwater-Nichols altered this by sharply adjusting responsibilities and authorities from what was a functional approach to the Chairman and the warfighting commanders-in-chief. This change has had numerous benefits, but one consequence of such major changes in institutional architectures is a potential increase in rigidity. History is replete with institutional failures from such rigidity and the orthodoxy it generates. These shortfalls have contributed to major misfortunes in military operations, usually preceded by periods of interwar stagnation when more dramatic changes were required. Indeed, these orthodoxies are the "ghost in the machine" of Goldwater-Nichols. 21 Unfortunately, we will not recognize these ghosts or our inherent rigidity until some future conflict erupts.

1 See the series of articles commemorating the passage of this legislation in Joint Force Quarterly (fall 1996), pp. 9-66. Only Senator Sam Nunn offered a futuristic assessment about the nature of defense organization, in "Future Trends in Defense Organization," pp. 63-66.

2 Colin Gray, "The Changing Nature of War?" Naval War College Review (spring 1996), pp. 7-21.

3 This section builds on arguments presented in earlier efforts. See F. G. Hoffman, "Jointness and Institutional Stewardship," Marine Corps Gazette (December 1995), pp. 59-63.

4 For an example of someone who follows this school of thought, see Joseph C. Collins, "To Manage a Revolution: Dilemmas of Defense Planning for the Long-Term Future," National Security Studies Quarterly (summer 1996), pp. 1932. What is disconcerting about this article is not its content, but that the author is a senior aide to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

5 Carl Builder, The Masks of War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989).

6 Stephen P. Rosen, "Service Redundancy: Waste or Hidden Capability?" Joint Force Quarterly (summer 1993), pp. 36-39.

7 Eliot A. Cohen, "What to Do About National Defense," Commentary (November 1994).

8 Ibid., p. 29. See also Harvey Sapolksy, "Saving America Through Interservice Competition," unpublished, 1994. Dr. Sapolsky, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, provided these comments to the staff of the Commission on Roles and Missions of the Armed Forces in 1994.

9 See Barry Watts and Williamson Murray, "Military Innovation in Peacetime," pp. 369-415. in Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett, eds., Military Innovation in the Interwar Period (Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 1996).

10 Ibid., p. 410.

11 Directions for Defense: The Report of the Commission on Roles and Missions of the Armed Forces (Washington, D.C., May 1995), p. 2.

12 Success Can Breed Forgetfulness," The Washington Post (28 September 1997), p. C4.

13 Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Vision 2010 (Washington, D.C., 1996).

14 Robert Holzer, "JCS Forms Strategy for Future Warfare," Defense News (22 July 1996), p. 4. Robert Holzer, "Shali Pushes Future Force Strategy," Defense News (29 August 1996), p. 4. An example of service concerns can be found in Beth Jannery, "Joint Staff's Vision 2010 Effort Criticized by Navy/Marine Corps," Inside the Navy (5 June 1996), p. 1.

15 James S. Corum, The Roots of Blizkrieg: Hans Von Seeckt and German Military Reform (Lawrence, KS: Kansas State Press, 1992), p. xvi. Andrew J. Bacevich, "Military Culture and Institutional Change," December 1994, mimeograph; and Williamson Murray, "Thinking About RMAs," Joint Force Quarterly (fall 1996), p. 11.

16 As suggested in Robert Holzer, "U.S. General Pushes Elite Experimental Joint Force," Defense News (2 June 1997), p. 1.

17Joint Vision 2010, p. 33.

18 Quoted in Jane's Defence Weekly (10 September 1997), p. 64.

19 Bernard E. Trainor, "Jointness, Service Culture, and the Gulf War," Joint Force Quarterly (winter 1993/94), p. 74.

20 Eliot A. Cohen and John Gooch, Military Misfortunes, The Anatomy of Failure in War (New York: Free Press, 1990), p. 231.

21Ibid., p. 243.

Colonel Hoffman is the national security affairs specialist at the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Quantico. He is the author of Decisive Force: The New American Way of War (Praeger, 1996), and is working on a book on Goldwater-Nichols.



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