More than an Offset: Defense Innovation from the Inside

November 26, 2014

Then he almost fell flat on his face on the floor,

When I picked up the chalk and drew one letter more!

A letter he had never dreamed of before!

And I said “You can stop, if you want, with the Z,

“Because most people stop with the Z,

“But not me!”

— Theodore Seuss Geisel, On Beyond Zebra


On November 15th, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel issued a memo that established “The Defense Innovation Initiative.” The program is intended to determine new ways to sustain and advance American military superiority in the twenty-first century. The Secretary and Deputy Secretary Bob Work have determined that our dominance in some key areas is slipping and a new initiative is needed to maintain the military upper hand we have come to expect.

There has been foreshadowing of the announcement in the defense media and from think tanks. It has come in terms of the newest and most powerful of today’s Beltway catchphrases: The Offset Strategy. We have been educated on the history of the First Offset provided by nuclear weapons, and the Second Offset which was the result of precision-guided munitions. We have been shown the exciting possibilities of robotics and unmanned systems, as well as commercial technology’s role in speeding future development. Secretary Hagel’s memo tells us that we need a research and development program that looks far into the future to develop the breakthrough technologies that will be central to America’s future military dominance.

There has also been some good discussion of the downsides to the historical analogy used by the offset idea. The technological determinism embedded in the concept has been questioned. There are also some conceptual issues with equating procurement policy to military strategy. But there’s more to the Defense Innovation Initiative than this one concept.

Secretary Hagel’s memo includes four other areas that demand just as much attention, alongside the development of what has come to be known as offset. He calls for new ways of thinking about leadership development, best business practices, and ways to improve the efficiency of our staff organizations. He calls for the exploration of new operational concepts and the increased use of war-gaming in order to test these ideas and develop them further. These are the areas that will need development not only for the near-peer pacing threats, but also for the unexpected and asymmetric challenges that are sure to present themselves.

These four areas haven’t, and likely won’t, receive as much attention because they don’t have a powerful constituency in Washington, D.C. It shouldn’t surprise us that think tanks and defense media have grasped onto the research and development, the technological element of the innovation initiative. The manufacture of and sustainment contracts for new military hardware have long been the focus of beltway discussion.

But there is an important constituency for the development of leadership, increasing efficiency, exploring new operational ideas, and war-gaming the future. This important, but sometimes less powerful constituency mostly resides outside Washington. They are the men and women in uniform at the field grade and below. These professionals will be leading our military into the future, using the ideas and the hardware this new initiative develops, and in some cases are already ahead of the Secretary and his team.

For a number of years now, there has been a movement developing to look for innovative solutions to our modern defense challenges. This movement has been dominated by junior officers or the ranks sometimes called the company grade and field grade. Following in the wake of military innovators and reformers past like William Sims and John Boyd, they have begun to organize. A group of young naval officers started a think tank called the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) to study maritime issues of the past, present, and future. Another group of company and field grade officers came together almost two years ago to form the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum (DEF). They have put together an active online community using social media and held national and local conferences with members of all the armed services alongside up and comers in the defense industry and the academy.

Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Guardsmen have also taken to the internet and proliferated a genre of blogs that study philosophies of leadership, new operating concepts, and critique and develop ideas. They have been joined by junior civilian analysts, industry representatives, and entrepreneurs. These join more established arenas for the exchange of ideas like the now decade old Small Wars Journal and the century-old U.S. Naval Institute. There has been some interest from the wider national security community, like the West Virginia University’s Center for Smart Defense, and CSIS’s Joint Service Innovation Discussion.

As the American national security community faces the austere budget environment of the coming years, we often hear the quote commonly attributed to Winston Churchill and appropriate to today’s challenges, “Gentlemen, we have run out of money, now we have to think.” However, the fact that we have latched on to this quote is disturbing, primarily because it raises the question: “What exactly have we been doing for the past several decades?”

Military affairs and the conduct of war are a thinking man’s profession. Brute force, attrition strategies, and technology are, and will always be, a central part of the military profession. Another unfortunate part of our military tradition has been a conservatism that permeates the ranks, discouraging innovation and “coloring outside the lines.” Like it or not, the military is a hierarchical organization where decision-making power commonly lies far higher than the person with the idea. Senior leaders who focus on “what worked for me” and peer groups who discourage members from straying outside the pack keep a leash on truly innovative solutions.

If we are to “start thinking,” leadership has to “start listening.” The truth is that there are those outside the Beltway, men and women in uniform, from the junior ranks of industry, and the academy who have already started their own defense innovation initiatives. Do we have the leaders today who will be able to overcome the natural conservatism of their military culture and encourage new ideas from someone other than defense conglomerates or think tanks?

The memo issued by Secretary of Defense Hagel is an important step in the right direction. The Secretary and his team have done great work in identifying an important list of areas for improvement. What comes next will determine its true value. Do we stop with the Z? Do we remain focused on technology and research and development that will provide the next round of expensive high technology solutions? Do we stay focused on the offset?

Or do we look on beyond offset in order to truly examine the wider need for military innovation and reform?


BJ Armstrong is a naval officer and PhD Candidate with the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London. His second book, 21st Century Sims: Innovation, Education and Leadership for the Modern Era, will be released in February. The opinions expressed here are his own and are presented in his personal capacity.