Friendly Fire: The Risks and Rewards of Red Teaming


Micah Zenko, Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy (Basic Books, 2015)

Despite all the fascination with new technologies and religious extremism, there is little new in war. So often, great ideas have origins that can be seen in ancient history, going back further than Herodotus or Thucydides. This sparkling book on red teaming is another example.

In the 13th century, the Roman Catholic hierarchy established a position for what came to be known as advocatus diaboli or devil’s advocate to prosecute the opposing argument when saints were nominated. That position served to discover and raise issues with the claimed attributes and miracles of nominees. Many military organizations today have formal devil’s advocates called red teams to pinpoint flaws in their secret plans. These red teams identify potential gaps in new strategies and test new weapons systems through simulation.

In his second book, Micah Zenko outlines the benefits of institutionalizing the practice of red teaming. He offers numerous anecdotes drawn from military, intelligence, and commercial business practice, and he describes best practices for creating and employing this technique. Military organizations are often accused of promoting compliance over independent thinking. No doubt, the appeal of red teams and “tiger teams” of experts in defense circles reflects the limitations of military bureaucracies in which institutional blind spots, unchallenged assumptions, ossified patterns, and fixed habits of mind can block rigorous thinking and creative problem solving.

The author’s wide-ranging research leverages insights and experiences from some of the foremost military educational programs devoted to critical thinking and red teaming, such as the U.S. Army Foreign Military Studies Program at Fort Leavenworth and the British equivalent at Shrivenham. Zenko also incorporates insights from other government agencies and the competitive business world. The intelligence community makes great use of alternative analysis in its estimates.

Zenko captures many forms of this technique, including corporate red teams that challenge major investment decisions, military red teams that dig into potential campaign plans, and red cells that play as the opposition in wargames. He also includes the kinds of cybersecurity vulnerability tests that government agencies perform on their networks or those that computer software companies run on their products before release. The so-called best practices Zenko has synthesized include: a) the boss must buy into the utility of red teaming; b) teams should be positioned outside and stay objective; c) red team members should be fearless skeptics with finesse; d) teams should employ a broad bag of tricks and alternative techniques to produce divergent thinking; e) teams should be open to hearing bad news but even readier to act upon it; f) decision-makers should red team enough, but not overdo it. Not everything needs to be red teamed.

To this I would add the importance of understanding the deeply rooted culture of the organization being supported. Moreover, the importance of command culture needs to be drawn out more; it cannot be overestimated. In working for nearly 30 years with the U.S. Marine Corps, I observed an institution with a very strong organizational culture that more often than not does not tolerate much “outside the box” thinking, much less dedicated red teaming. There are a few characters and mavericks in the Corps, but as a whole the opportunity for divergent expression is limited. Zenko is right about getting buy-in from the top. Former Commandant Gen. Jim Amos faced persistent resistance when trying to implement red teaming inside the Corps. Gen. Amos, in my opinion, was trying to balance the benefits of a strong sense of identity inside the Corps against groupthink. Perhaps if red teaming had been more in vogue during the last 15 years, the Marines might have re-examined earlier their expensive $3-billion investment in the now-canceled Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. With a good red team, the efforts of junior Marines in Iraq in 2005 to urgently acquire Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAPs) vehicles might have succeeded far faster.

Zenko’s vignettes from military operations in Afghanistan, internal CIA deliberations, homeland security assessments inside the United States, and private sector examples all serve to amplify the utility of these best practices. There are many techniques to enhance the odds of making better decisions and avoiding “bad calls” built around internal biases. As Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner have shown in Superforecasting, the art of decision-making about the future lies at the heart of leadership.

If I have one concern about the thrust of this book, it is the moral hazard or unintended consequences of training a small cadre of officers as red teamers. By creating a special educational program to prepare a selected staff of specialists to serve as devil’s advocate, are we diverting critical thinking skills away from the pool of future commanders, planners, and operational artists? In the context of the Marine Corps, why is training roughly 20 Marines in the whole Corps as critical thinkers more important than training the larger number of future commanding officers and planners (roughly 400) who attend the Marine Corps’ formal schools each year to be open-minded and critical decision makers? Are we creating operators who will think, “I don’t need to think hard about options because my red team guys will do that for me”? Will there always be a good and trusted red teamer around to force a commander to step back and rethink a decision, or should we focus instead on better leaders and decision skills? I think we need the latter more than a flurry of activity bundled under the mantra of red teaming.

Overall, this is an excellent book for members of the national security community, even if you think you are familiar with the concept of red teaming. Additionally, I enthusiastically recommend it for the business community, as relevant techniques like red teaming and wargames are increasingly being used in the commercial world. In fact, there are few business or government officials who could not derive some insights from the wide breadth of examples Zenko exploits so effectively. His ideas about the future of red teaming, including a formal assessment of U.S. government lessons and experiences, should be followed up on. Ultimately, in the business of strategy, as Winston Churchill said many years ago, one has to take the enemy into consideration. The techniques, best practices, and advice Red Team offers allow tomorrow’s leaders to do just that.


Frank Hoffman is a Contributing Editor at War on the Rocks, and employed at the National Defense University. These comments are his own and do not reflect the policy or positions of DOD.