Disrupt or Be Disrupted

By Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Tlapa, U.S. Marine Corps

Though highly disruptive events, frequently referred to as Black Swans, are difficult to predict, analyzing them is instructive. 3 Napoleon’s campaigns and the German conquest of France in 1940 provide excellent examples how military organizations can innovate their way to battlefield success.

From Frederick to Napoleon

By the late 1700s, European armies had achieved a high degree of symmetry in emulating the system of training and employment perfected by Frederick the Great. Nations favored a highly drilled standing army supported by a logistics system of forts and magazines. The 1757 Battle of Leuthen stands as Frederick’s quintessential victory, where he won despite being outnumbered two-to-one. 4 Soon thereafter, nearly every monarchy in Europe studied and copied Frederick’s system to the smallest details. Europe’s methods of warfare had normalized and were stable by the start of the French Revolution. As the Revolution grew, the monarchies and armies of Europe saw no need to change their military systems. France was the exception.

The Revolution’s social upheaval imposed significant changes on the French military system. Some changes were pragmatic and necessary while others stemmed from the ideals (and chaos) of the Revolution. Merit and initiative determined promotion rather than wealth or social standing, providing a way to access previously untapped potential leadership. Organizational changes swept the army, with mass conscription under levée-en-masse and the use of ordre mixte to amalgamate regulars and conscripts. 5 None of these changes alone provided enough force to puncture the equilibrium of the military environment. As the war to contain Revolutionary France wore on, however, these innovations combined to form disruptive innovation unseen in 18th-century warfare.

Social and organizational reforms in Revolutionary France were born of its necessity to defend against the monarchists that surrounded it. Although reforms within the French military had begun well before Napoleon took charge, he skillfully employed the French Army in a way that took advantage of the social and organizational innovations of the Revolution to puncture Frederick’s established military equilibrium. 6 Even though Europe could see French military reform, monarchies eschewed these developments in favor of the time-tested methods of Frederick the Great. 7 Staggering defeats of benchmark, Frederick-styled armies at Ulm (1805), Austerlitz (1805), and Jena-Auerstadt (1806) caused military practitioners and theorists to reexamine accepted methods and principles of war. They began to study Napoleon and his Grand Armée for military reasons. Military reform took root across Europe and even in Prussia, home of Frederick the Great. 8

Retroactive examination of Napoleon’s stunning victories clearly shows the path to a punctured equilibrium through disruption of the military system, and yet those in the equilibrium were either unable or unwilling to see it coming. Cognitive biases abounded in the military and political circles of Europe, effectively depriving them of the ability to recognize and adapt to changes in their own countries to prevent a future defeat and collapse. Innovation requires an acknowledgment of these biases an appreciation that developments could puncture the present equilibrium. German military operations at the onset of World War II provide an excellent example of an organization that follows this pattern.

Rohr to Guderian

Germany’s stunning defeat of France in 1940 upended conventional thought on the strength of the defense—the military equilibrium established at the end of World War I. This success contrasted starkly with German plans and outcomes during the first few months of war in 1914.Under the Schlieffen Plan, Germany would make a wide arcing envelopment of French forces through neutral Belgium to roll through Paris and trap the flower of the French Army. To accomplish this feat, German tactical manuals emphasized the importance of the attack and use of the bayonet. 9 As a result, stalemate ensued as troops dug in and began an ugly fight across no-man’s-land from trenches supported by machine guns, artillery, and barbed wire. From this dire circumstance, battlefield innovation began to emerge.

In 1915, a small frontline detachment under the command of Captain Willy Martin Ernst Rohr started to examine the problem the German Imperial Army faced in trench warfare. 10 The traditional organization of infantry combat, the rifle company, was incapable of attacking and winning. By shifting the emphasis of training to smaller organizations led by junior and noncommissioned officers (NCOs), these groups were able to operate with a shared understanding while being physically separated. These changes to organization and social dynamics resulted in well-led small units with high morale known as the Stosstrupp or storm troop. 11 The fostering of innovation occurred under the extremes of combat. Commanders allowed their subordinates to innovate because the frustration at being unable to obtain a victory opened their minds to the new and unique problem. As Rohr’s methods showed promise, his seniors showcased his unit and their techniques, tested them in limited attacks, and then institutionalized them across the army. 12

Ultimately, massed storm-troop attacks of the 1918 peace offensives showed phenomenal tactical success but the Germans failed to exploit them to obtain strategic victory. The rate of innovation, experimentation, and implemented change across an entire organization, however, remains an impressive feat today.

Intellectual curiosity remained a trait in the tiny 100,000-man German Army after World War I. Led by General Hans von Seeckt, the army’s postwar headquarters—the Truppenamt—carefully studied the conduct of the war and the changes in methods of combat. 13 This small group championed intellectual honesty in seeking to improve the German Army of the future. Theoretical development such as then Major Heinz Guderian’s Achtung-Panzer! showed the intellectual creative activity that abounded in a constrained legal and fiscal environment. Guderian used the results of the postwar studies and conceptually applied decentralized storm-troop techniques to mechanized, armored, and airborne forces, providing a comprehensive solution to the problem of 1914. 14

Seeckt’s small and motivated staff, in clandestine study and debate, conceived the concepts of armored formations supported by motorized reconnaissance, infantry, artillery, and engineers, as well as attack aviation. Experimentation in the form of maneuvers abounded during the interwar years. 15

Meanwhile, France took a very different approach in examining the Great War. Centralized control and faith in firepower rather than maneuver became the basis for the French military doctrine known as methodical battle. 16 The French focused on incremental technological improvements of artillery and fortification (the Maginot Line serving as a poignant example). They sought improvements on the methods of the last war rather than thinking forward to the next one.

German Army studies and discussions ultimately formed the basis of what became known as Blitzkrieg that was used to stunning effect against France in 1940—puncturing the equilibrium established during the World War I.

Implications for the Innovator

The Napoleonic transformation and the Blitzkrieg demonstrate how clarity of thought, a willingness to adapt, freedom to experiment, and a method of transmission can create a culture ripe for disruptive innovation. Seeckt’s Truppenamt officers easily could have dismissed their defeat as merely political and gone back to the drill and inspections of barracks soldiering. Instead, they sought to investigate the war and its changes in character in an attempt to first understand and then to solve the problem. The Germans benefited from an organizational culture of intellectual curiosity imbued after their defeat at the hands of Napoleon at Jena-Auerstadt. The desire and expectation to question, understand, and solve problems are powerful drivers for organizational success.

Dealing with the “traditionalists” in a well-established organization is a challenge for innovators. Innovation itself is disruptive because it often makes the previously established structure, relationships, and procedures of an organization irrelevant. 17 This is an even bigger problem for successful organizations that tend toward an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude. Orthodoxy always confronts innovation. 18 An organization must allow its people to question accepted method, structure, and doctrine. It must have tolerance for the “heretic” like Guderian and allow him to offer alternative ideas. Lack of this tolerance (and in some instances protection) kills intellectual curiosity and the ability to innovate.

As understanding of the problem emerged from Seeckt’s postwar studies, ideas both good and bad germinated. The army tested these ideas in the classroom, field exercises, and war. Experimentation must be allowed to continually refine the ideas raised through intellectual curiosity. Rohr’s seniors permitted (and encouraged) him to look for ways to break the stalemate of trench warfare. Some experiments were done in the context of training, prototyping ideas to then test under fire in limited attacks and raids. After each test, the Germans gathered results and refined their concept. Continued experiments and subsequent post mortem operational reports strengthened this feedback loop to produce a successful operating concept—the employment of decentralized, well-trained, NCO-led squads infiltrating enemy lines to disrupt and defeat their opponent’s defense. During the interwar years, this operating concept, combined with the Truppenamt study, established the basis for further experiments and exercises (even without the actual equipment) to refine the new operating concept of Blitzkrieg.

An important distinction with experiments is the need for the organization to accept that some experiments will render conventional methods obsolete. Likewise, some experiments will be complete failures. The organization must be willing to learn from both results.

Just because an organization successfully develops a comparative advantage through innovation does not ensure implementation across the entire force. “Centers for Lessons Learned” catalog vast troves of information, but the sheer volume often drowns the innovation capable of disruption. Top leadership must take an interest in innovation and provide channels for these ideas to come to the front. Successful experiments need to be repeated. Continual repetition becomes training and, in turn, training institutionalizes the innovation. German Chief of Staff General Erich Ludendorff observed Captain Rohr’s methods and promptly dictated storm-troop training for the entire army. 19 The U.S. military has benefited from similar command emphasis on doctrinal revision, particularly during the 1980s, with the study of Soviet deep-battle theory and how to defeat it.

Facing the larger Warsaw Pact force, U.S. military leaders sought an operating concept to defeat the Soviets through quality rather than quantity. This doctrine became a version of the U.S. way of war epitomized by the Air-Land Battle (ALB) concept of the 1980s. ALB posed an intelligence-driven style of war using rapid maneuver and precision fires from a position of advantage to defeat the enemy. 20 A clash along the inter-German border never happened, but the doctrine and equipment designed to fight within it remained.

Victories in Desert Storm and the outset of Iraqi Freedom drew their lineage from this style of warfare and established the current status quo (or equilibrium) for preeminent warfare. Given the dominance of the U.S military today, the study of the disruption during the Napoleonic Wars becomes particularly instructive. Frederick the Great dominated the battlefield and was emulated by nations across Europe, but most hung to his style of warfare too long in the face of disruptive forces.

The Office of the Secretary of Defense puts tremendous emphasis on innovation and the exploitation of emerging technologies in particular. The United States has enjoyed a technological edge for most of the wars it has waged, and we should continue to strive to maintain that edge. The past clearly shows, however, that social, political, economic, and conceptual changes, when combined with the right technology used in the right way, lead to a punctured equilibrium with enormous competitive advantages for those leading change. If the U.S. military fails to allow for clarity of thought in analysis, willingness to adapt, freedom to experiment, and a method to implement the findings, it will be unlikely to recognize and capitalize on the forces that will culminate to puncture the current U.S.-dominated military equilibrium. Instead, the security of the United States demands that our military forge a culture that fosters disruptive innovation. The United States must be the one that pops the balloon, rather than the one that relies on it.

1. Connie Gersick, “Revolutionary Change Theories: A Multilevel Exploration of the Punctuated Equilibrium Paradigm,” Academy of Management Review, vol. 16, no. 1 (1991), 10–36.

2. Ibid., 11.

3. Nassim N. Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, 2nd ed. (New York: Random House, 2010), 164, 190–200.

4. Christopher Duffy, Frederick the Great: A Military Life (London: Routledge, 1985), 146 –153.

5. David G. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (New York: Macmillan, 1966), 133–201.

6. Ibid., 142–43.

7. Charles E. White, The Enlightened Soldier: Scharnhorst and the Miltiärrische Gesellschaft in Berlin, 1801–1805 (Westport, CN: Praeger, 1989), 31–41, 148–164.

8. Ibid., 57–58.

9. Bruce I. Gudmundsson, Stormtroop Tactics: Innovation in the German Army, 1914–1918 (Westport, CN: Praeger, 1989), 7–8, 21–22.

10. Timothy Lupfer, Dynamics of Doctrine: The Changes in German Tactical Doctrine During the First World War, Leavenworth Paper No. 4 (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute, July 1981), 27–28.

11. Gudmundsson, Stormtroop Tactics, 49–51.

12. Ibid., 79–85.

13. Trevor N. Dupuy, A Genius for War: The German Army and General Staff, 1807–1945 (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1977), 211–15.

14. Heinz Guderian, Achtung-Panzer! (London: Arms and Armour, 1992), 178–199.

15. Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett, “Armored Warfare: The British, French, and German Experiences,” in Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett et al., Military Innovation in the Interwar Period (New York: Cambridge, 1996), 39–43.

16. Robert A. Doughty, The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine 1919–1939 (Hamden, CT: Archon, 1985), 91, 94–95, 105.

17. Gersick, “Revolutionary Change Theories,” 13–16.

18. Clayton M. Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma. 2nd ed. (New York: Harper, 2000), 33–34.

19. Lupfer, Dynamics of Doctrine, 28–29.

20. Operations FM 100-5 (Washington, DC: U.S. Army, 1982).

Lieutenant Colonel Tlapa is an infantry officer on the faculty of Marine Corps University. He has taught at the Expeditionary Warfare School and Command and Staff College.


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