2010/10/31

Military innovation

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... a fighter [...] must be free to propose improvements [in tactics] or he will get himself killed.
Commander Randy "Duke" Cunningham, USN

The omission? It was "fighter pilot" in the original quote.

I quoted this because I've heard all-too often a specific opinion, to paraphrase it: 'We'll do it as we always did, as is taught on the F├╝hrungsakademie (war college)'.

Excuses like "we did it always like this" are infamous obstacles to innovation. Innovation has several systemic disadvantages against whatever is already established.

The systemic disadvantages include
* the innovator is usually not at the top of the hierarchy and his success embarrasses superiors
* technological lock-in
* change has obvious risks, whereas conservativeness has hidden risks.

The latter fits to what happened in France during May 1940: The Germans had risked much and were lucky enough to have had a good enough operational innovation, they succeeded. The risks were immense and there was much opposition to Guderian and Manstein before the success. Blitzkrieg was not established doctrine before May 1940. It was a risky experiment. Its proponents were driven by the need to prove that they were right.

France on the other hand had been conservative, not risked much if anything - except its very existence, of course. The risk of keeping an old doctrine was gigantic, but it wasn't as obvious as were the risks of adopting an unproven doctrine.

Innovations can obviously fail as well. They actually did so quite often.

Both conservativeness and innovation have risks, but the risk of failing with an innovation is more obvious than the risk of becoming obsolete with already proven recipes.

My point is that it's important to be neutral and to not underestimate the risk of conservative behaviour. Attitudes like the paraphrased one are dangerous.

It is fashionable to criticize the Soviet armed forces for [~inability to innovate], and certainly there is ample tactical evidence to support this contention. But before considering whether the Western superiority implicit in the criticism is justified, one should remember this true scenario:

* A Russian four-star admiral disparaged the value of the aircraft carrier;
* within twelve months, a Russian two-star admiral publicly challenged his commander in chief;
* and the four-star retracted, while the two-star was promoted, as was another junior  two-star who equally publicly questioned the judgment of his newly promoted superior.
    When did we last see a British or American four-star officer's military judgment being publicly questioned by his subordinates, let alone see these subordinates subsequently being promoted?


    It's acceptable to be against risky innovations if the present situation (imbalance of power) is favourable and no possible opponent is innovative.

    It's not acceptable to dismiss innovation if the present situation is disadvantageous or a possible opponent is innovative.

    Finally, it's a stupid choice to be conservative and dismiss innovation if alternatively the innovation would affect a non-critical part of your overall (alliance's) power. Such a situation is lucky enough for effectively neutralizing most of the risk of innovation, at least on an experimental level. 
    NATO, for example, could easily have one corps' strength of experimental forces and have the best of both worlds; innovation and no real risk.


    Sven Ortmann

    P.S.: I mean military innovation, not the attachment of ever more electronic gadgets to troops and vehicles.
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    2 comments:

    1. In war, truth is the first casualty. I think that has something to do with the tremendous degree that the official line is followed in public. The US military always tries to make it look like they're doing everything right, and public disagreement or criticism within the officer corps throws that image into question. It's tantamount to admitting weakness, and that's bad psychological warfare(domestic political considerations).

      Of course you're completely right about this being dangerous, and it's yet another reason why these pointless small wars are so damaging.

      Innovation is going to be absolutely essential if a major war between near-peer combatants breaks out again, because it will play out vastly differently from what anyone expects. An organization that can innovate quickly might be able to overcome initial technological disadvantages and turn the tables on an enemy with more rigid and heirarchically-driven doctrine.

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    2. a soviet (or american) corporal can boss around a field marshall, if he has the political backing.
      Generals bow to armed forces sub comitees, if the sc supports carriers, the generals who do move up and those that dont move out.

      Inovate or die

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