2013/12/25

Champions for change

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by Roger Thompson, POGO

(Summary: He makes a case that the USN should at least get a few modern non-nuclear submarines and move its attention away from nuclear power safety and engineering towards tactical expertise.)

The recommendations from this article are very much self-evident in my opinion and thus not really interesting. What's interesting is the behaviour of this navy as a bureaucracy (agent) with its own mind, inertia, perception of its environment and lock-ins. It's an interesting case study.
There was no hot conflict challenging its course, and peacetime exercises may embarrass it again and again semi-publicly*, but it kept a steady course.

This kind of steadiness is of great utility when the bureaucracy is actually right and resisting some stupid fashion devised by think tanks, lobbyists and a few panicked officers. It's on the other hand a capital problem if the bureaucracy insists on something wrong, as for example sticking with horse cavalry as battle forces post-1850's.**

The civilian leadership (if there's any) usually has difficulties enforcing a new path without champions for it in the officer corps. The odds of civilian masters getting military theory right where the top brass got it wrong are moderate anyway.
So the typical change usually depends on champions for change among the insiders (which fits to the common theories about innovations and change in organisations). These champions need a patron to protect them against the more conservative top brass - typically an elder, high ranking officer who may not be a fervent supporter in regard to the substance, but has confidence in the talent of the hit protégé. Politicians are rarely such patrons, and it rarely seems to be for the better if they are.
Some military bureaucracies - including the U.S.armed forces if I'm not mistaken - largely took away the ability of senior officers to promote protégées in an attempt to push for meritocracy over coterie. 

Maybe this went too far, and some kind of (reliable) official channel for senior officers to push the career of talented junior officers is highly advisable for promoting innovation and averting obsolescence in a bureaucracy.

S O

*: This article made the rounds years ago, and while patchy, at least some of its points are valid.
**: I know there were some anecdotes of success, but the cost efficiency was simply disastrous and war-losing many times.
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