Learning to Ride Tsunamis

By Captain Terry Pierce, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Keeping Up With Technology

Driven by the private sector, the IMR is recasting power in a new military reality: cyberspace. 2 Unfortunately, the “slow pace of fast change” processes we have successfully used for propelling game-changing innovations into the natural domains are not sufficient. 3 The private sector continues to flood the market with advanced technologies at market speed. Thus, the Sea Services must reexamine their innovation processes and risk portfolios.

The IMR fundamentally alters the way the Sea Services prepare, innovate, and conduct war. 4 Like the two previous military revolutions, the IMR is a massive earthquake—hitting with a devastating jolt and creating uncontrollable, unpredictable, and unforeseeable effects; consider the impact of World War I and nuclear weapons. 5 The Sea Services reacted well to the past two military revolutions by achieving several disruptive warfighting innovations. However, these disruptive innovations, such as Naval Air and the Fleet Marine Force, took several years to develop after the earthquake hit. 6

Unlike the previous two military revolutions, the IMR hit as a great undersea earthquake, the powerful jolts creating a series of massive tsunamis. But the private sector, not the military, drives the radical technologies and disruptive opportunities powering these destructive waves. The speed at which these technology waves hit the shore is primarily governed by a theory popular in the private sector: Moore’s Law, which predicts that the overall  processing power for a microprocessor will double every 18 months.

These massive commercial technology waves raise two key questions: First, are the Sea Services poised to take the necessary risk to leverage private-sector technologies to champion new ways of warfighting? Second, what is the right balance between risk and innovation to achieve our desired effects? To answer these questions, we will use an innovation model that encompasses all types of military innovation, including technology products and doctrinal processes, and we will discuss how managing innovations creates either sustaining or disruptive effects. 7

A Unified Innovation Model

The innovation model consists of two parts: an interacting core and an effects surface structure. The core is an embedded internal structure whose elements consist of components and linkages that define the theory’s different styles of innovation. The surface structure consists of sustaining and disruptive effects. The core’s four styles of innovations are managed differently, and whether or not these four styles achieve sustaining or disruptive surface effects is also managed differently. All product and process innovations originate from the innovation core. The theory posits that successful warfighting innovations emerging from the core require two types of knowledge: component and architectural linkage.

The core’s component-linkage approach categorizes innovations according to changes in architectural linkages among components, and changes in the components themselves. Components are the distinct physical building blocks of the innovation that perform a well-defined function, and the architecture of a product defines how linked components work together. In one dimension, the core’s components are reinforced or overturned. In a second dimension, the core’s linkages between components are either changed or unchanged (see Figure 1).

Innovations can be viewed as a set of integrated components (old and new technologies) linked by a systems architecture (military doctrine, for example). Depending on the degree of changes among components and linkages, innovations can be sorted into four styles. Incremental innovation merely refines and extends the dominant design, such as an upgrade to a weapon system. Modular innovation changes a core design without changing internal linkages, which would occur if one shifted from an analog to a digital steering system. Radical innovation occurs when a new dominant design is linked in a totally new structure; for example, the electric railgun is a radical innovation. Architectural innovation changes the ways components are linked together while leaving core design concepts (and thus the basic knowledge underlying the components) untouched.

A recent product example of architectural innovation is the Navy’s hybrid electric drive in destroyers that marries electric motors to the main reduction gear to drive the ship at low speeds. 8 The hybrid motor promises to save thousands of barrels of fuel over the course of a ship’s deployment. A process example of architectural innovation is the Marine Corps’ doctrinal shift from attrition to maneuver warfare. The two most important innovations emerging from the core in the IMR are both radical and architectural. They are managed very differently, and each has a much different impact on warfighting.

Lasting Effects

The space between the core and surface is where innovation champions manage and mature innovations by experimentation as they move toward the surface. Mature innovations arising from the core can be framed on the surface in terms of warfighting performance: sustaining and disruptive (see Figure 2).

A sustaining innovation results in improved performance along a traditional warfighting trajectory. Most Sea Services innovations are sustaining in nature. Arguably, about 90 percent of our senior leaders’ time and effort, as well as the service allocation for funding innovation, should go toward championing sustaining innovations. This is because these innovation effects improve warfighting performance in a core competency and thus should be the majority of innovation efforts.

A disruptive innovation is defined as an improved performance along a nontraditional warfighting trajectory. It involves a change in one of the primary combat arms of the Sea Services in the way it fights, or alternatively, the creation of a new combat arm. I believe that 10 percent of a senior leader’s time and resources should be focused on championing disruptive innovations because these innovation effects rarely happen. The 90/10 split on striking the right innovation risk balance is derived from the surface area of the model that is roughly 90 percent sustaining and 10 percent disruptive (see Figure 2).

This innovation framework contains three key tenets: First, sustaining innovations are managed differently than disruptive innovations from the core to the surface of the model. Second, radical technologies are always sustaining innovations when they first reach maturity. Third, all four types of innovation emerging from the core are sustaining in nature, with one exception: Architectural innovations can be either disruptive or sustaining. A product example of a sustaining architectural innovation is continuous-aim gunfire, which improved the Navy’s hit rate by 3,000 percent. It was achieved by fitting naval guns with elevating gears, which made adjustment easier, and adding a telescopic sight. A doctrine example of disruptive architectural innovation is the Marine Corps’ maneuver warfare doctrine, which linked components—infantry planes, mobile troop carriers, and artillery—in a novel way. Disruptive innovations are rare architectural changes achieved by creating new doctrine that links old and new (radical) technologies in novel ways, a process that sometimes requires a new organization for executing the new core competency in some new dimension of warfare. 9

The Sea Services have a tremendous track record in encouraging radical technologies. These are the most important sustaining innovations managed by senior leaders because the first nation to employ a breakthrough radical technology in combat—such as the atomic weapon, stealth fighters, or precision-guided weapons—can achieve an enormous military advantage. 10 Normally, radical innovations are pushed by senior officers who use a disciplined innovation approach in a stable environment that aligns with the Sea Services’ broader mission.

Sustaining technological improvements are well-managed and are usually requirement-based technology advances. The champion, who determines the pace of sustaining technological progress, efficiently manages them using well-established R&D metrics. The Sea Services are organized to achieve sustaining innovations, and little or no changes are required. They must continue to support radical technologies, as commercial technologies are not a panacea for our own special missions.

Senior leaders who are talented at leading evolutionary changes may fail to achieve disruptive innovations if they use the same decisions for managing sustaining innovations. These leaders fail not because they lack foresight or management savvy, but because they advocate disruptive innovations like sustaining improvements. One who recognizes that a new innovation is disruptive in character must create the conditions for creating the new architectural knowledge necessary to champion the innovation. Put simply, the champion must switch to a new mode of learning in which new linkages between components can be developed. To accomplish this, the innovation champion creates and manages small innovation groups that could generate the new linkages defining a new systems architecture.

The IMR has swept away the usefulness of our deliberate approaches to radical technologies and disruptive innovations. The private sector’s ability to rapidly hit the market with game-changing technologies has reached a tipping point. Although the Sea Services have a rich portfolio of radical core technologies in development, the market has flooded our model’s core with devastating tsunamis of radical technologies. Many of them are in the cyber domain and are disruptive opportunities that are not military requirements.

The impact of these radical technologies hitting the market is best understood through a littoral metaphor: tsunami waves of commercial technologies rushing toward the sea coast, crashing uncontrollably onto the commercial market’s long sandy beaches, depositing commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) seashells. The sheer force of these advanced technologies rushing ashore can flood the market beaches and disrupt many of our current requirement-based radical technologies. Currently, our method of discovering these radical innovations is technology foraging: beachcombing along the market’s long sweeps of sand looking for shells after the technology waves hit. Unfortunately, our enemies have equal access to these market beaches, and if our technology foraging is slow and haphazard and the discoveries are not aligned to the right innovation champion, these opportunities are squandered. We may discover only decrepit sun-bleached shells, their technologies old and perhaps already discarded by enemy beach scavengers. 11

Taking the Beach and the Waves

We must make our technology foraging more effective. This means the Sea Services need a permanent presence on the market beaches near Silicon Valley, where numerous cutting-edge enterprises generate the tsunamis. McKinsey Quarterly reports that “32 of the 50 private start-ups with valuations at or exceeding $1 billion are based there.” 12 Establishing a permanent presence in Silicon Valley would give us the opportunity to go to sea and learn how to ride these devastating tsunamis and gain insight into the disruptive opportunities arriving as COTS products. Riding these waves would provide us with the opportunity to conduct spiraled research with these market-shaping enterprises, and perhaps help shape and reinterpret the COTS product for immediate use by the Sea Services.

One early breakthrough for beachcombing Silicon Valley’s technology-rich market beaches is the Department of Defense’s newly formed Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx), which recently opened near Moffett Field, a joint civil-military airport in between Mountain View and Sunnyvale, California. DIUx, designed to be a visible and accessible point of presence for the DOD, communicates the most challenging national security problems to innovators and entrepreneurs in the Silicon Valley. DIUx will survey the Silicon Valley landscape, combing the market beaches for technological opportunities and ways to leverage commercial technologies and practices, bridging the gulf between the DOD’s technology developments and the commercial sector.

One important function of DIUx is a kind of Lewis and Clark westward expedition blazing a path to Silicon Valley for the Sea Services. Following DIUx’s trail, the Sea Services must immediately exploit the gains made by DIUx by establishing the Moffett Center of Innovation (MCoI). MCoI would be a disruptive innovation group located near the DIUx, and would leverage the partnerships established by DIUx in its mission to act as hub for increased collaboration with Silicon Valley. An experimental goal of the MCoI would be to learn what disruptive opportunities the private sector is creating in the absence of government requirements. Keith Uebele, Intel Corporation’s senior strategist, stated:

The entire federal government looks like Europe in the Middle Ages before the advent of guilds: Everyone is off doing their own thing and there isn’t an effective way to work with the market. And this is very unfortunate because even if the USG [U.S. government] was well coordinated and had an efficient procurement system, USG volumes would only be a small percentage of the overall USG market. And the majority of Intel’s business is outside the United States. 13

The goal is not to duplicate the effort of DIUx, but rather to establish a presence to augment the DIUx beachcombing effort by venturing out into the ocean, learning how to ride these technological tsunamis. A key goal of MCoI riding the waves of the large market-shaping companies would be to conduct spiraled research with the emerging technologies and experiment with these disruptive opportunities before they hit the market. MCoI’s goal would be to strategically shape the shelf for the Sea Services for emerging commercial products brought to market by leading commercial companies.

The MCoI would be the experimental “x” in DIUx. Experimentation would provide MCoI with the opportunity to test novel linkages among old, new, and emerging technologies, ultimately leading toward a new architectural design that spawns disruptive warfighting innovation. The MCoI should be a critical component of the Secretary of Navy’s Innovation Task Force, an effort to create and maintain an innovative work force and provide paths to the fleet for emerging technology capabilities. 14 As the MCoI champion, Secretary Ray Mabus would play many key roles as the Sea Services innovate in the cyber domain, one of which would be to facilitate new research legislation that would enable the MCoI to ride the technology waves at near-market speed. Right now, every time the Sea Services try to stand up to ride a commercial tsunami from early research to a COTs product, our current acquisition processes knock us off the wave, which keeps moving at market speed without us.

The MCoI’s focus would be discovering commercial disruptive opportunities still in development and riding the innovation wave toward the market while conducting spiraled research with the commercial developer. In managing these disruptive opportunities, the MCoI would serve as scouts informing the Sea Services of future disruptive opportunities and experimenting and translating these capabilities into requirements.

MCoI would also focus on exploring other innovative approaches like the Army’s On Point, a unique nonprofit investing in young, small, growth-orientated companies developing technologies of interest to the U.S. Army. MCoI should also explore starting a pilot program with the nonprofit start-up backer In-Q-Tel.

Because the IMR is occurring in a new warfighting domain, a new breed of naval officer called “MCoI Pathfinders” is required to support our senior leaders championing disruptive innovations. This special group of officers must have both warfighting and entrepreneur backgrounds to serve as “matchmakers” for connecting commercial research with Sea Service innovation.

In William Moffett’s day, the Sea Services had to learn how to fly aircraft in the new domain of air. Today, we have to learn to ride the commercial sector’s cyber tsunamis. Besides beachcombing along the commercial-market beaches looking with one eye for technology seashells deposited by the last tsunami and with the other eye looking for the next tsunami to hit and crush us, we must move out into the littorals and create the right skills for riding these devastatingly disruptive waves. Of all the military services capable of taking this calculated risk and riding these commercial waves, it is the Sea Services that have the courage and boldness to take necessary risks and motivate and recruit the new breed of innovation warriors. The Sea Services must take advantage of the DIUx effort and these cyber waves of disruptive opportunities, outpacing our potential opponents and championing a disruptive warfighting innovation in the cyber domain. Learning to ride tsunamis is the kind of innovative risk taking that our nation expects of its Sea Services.

1. MacGregor Knox and Williamson Murray, The Dynamics of Military Revolution: 1300–2050 (Boston: Cambridge Press, 2001), 6.

2. See Lt Gen Ervin Rokke, USAF (Ret.), COL Thomas Drohan, USAF; CAPT Terry Pierce, USN (Ret.), “Combined Effects Power,” Joint Forces Quarterly , vol. 73, no. 2 (April 2014), http://ndupress.ndu.edu/Media/News/NewsArticleView/tabid/7849/Article/57... .

3. Bhaskar Chakravorti, The Slow Pace of Fast Change: Bringing Innovations to Market in a Connected World (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2003).

4. Knox and Murray, The Dynamics of Military Revolution , 176.

5. Ibid., 5, 13, 17.

6. Ibid., 5.

7. The unified innovation model is a further development of the disruptive military innovation theory in Terry Pierce’s Warfighting and Disruptive Technologies: Disguising Innovation (London: Routledge, 2004) 14–32.

8. Sam LaGrone, USNI News, Daily Update for 25 September 2015, email.

9. See Richard O. Hundley, Past Revolutions Future Transformations (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1999), xiii.

10. Ibid., xiv.

11. The author credits MAJ Tony Tingle, USA, and Lt Col Greg Bennett, USAF, with helping to develop the littoral metaphor.

12. Alex Kazaks, Eric Kutcher, and Michael Uhl, “How should you tap into Silicon Valley?” McKinsey Quarterly , September 2015, www.mckinsey.com/insights/business_technology/how_should_you_tap_into_si... .

13. Correspondence with author.

14. ADM James Stavridis, USN (Ret.), “Incoming: Advice for the Innovators,” SIGNAL Magazine, 1 March 2015, www.afcea.org/content/?q=incoming-advice-innovators .

Dr. Pierce served as a naval officer for 28 years, retiring in 2005 as a captain from the Naval Postgraduate School as associate dean. He commanded the USS Whidbey Island (LSD-41) and was Chief of Staff, Amphibious Forces 7th Fleet. He is currently serving as the director of the U.S Department of Homeland Security Center of Innovation at the U.S. Air Force Academy for the DHS Science and Technology director.


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