war on the rocks

Five Costs of Military Innovation

February 18, 2016

Over the past year, the U.S. Department of Defense has engaged in an effort to reinvigorate the aging and exhausted U.S. military by reassessing and reforming its strategic and tactical priorities. These reforms are far-reaching in nature, ranging from the strategic pivot to Asia, to personnel reforms aimed at creating a more adaptive “force of the future,” to investments in new, high-tech war-fighting platforms. A key piece in this suite of changes, and the most significant from an operational standpoint, is DoD’s “third offset strategy” — an initiative aimed in part at countering new anti-access area-denial (A2AD) capabilities with a range of new technologies. And as the recent FY2017 budget rollout has illustrated, this reform effort is starting to take shape.

The announcement of the third offset strategy has attracted much attention from within the defense policy community, and has been heralded by many as necessary for the United States to maintain its technological edge. And these efforts will no doubt result in significant benefits for the U.S. military. But this emphasis on innovation is not without its risks, many of which might be overlooked, underestimated, or even ignored in the excitement of a new defense initiative. Indeed, the tendency to equate technological innovation with positive change — perhaps the result of publicized successes in the private sector — often misses the myriad costs and challenges that accompany major overhauls of the kind announced by DoD.

A number of recent articles in WOTR’s Beyond Offset series have turned to U.S. history to highlight some of the costs that accompanied previous offset strategies, and the challenges that might flow from today’s efforts. In addition to revisiting these specific experiences, it may also be beneficial to take a step back to map the landscape more broadly. This article aims to infuse the conversation about military innovation with a realistic sense of the potential pitfalls to this endeavor, so these challenges can be better understood, anticipated, and corrected as the United States develops its future force. Here we identify five major costs to innovation that are important to acknowledge:

1. Effectiveness

Too often overlooked in conversations about innovation, both in the military and elsewhere, is the natural, predictable, and sometimes crippling tradeoff between innovation and effectiveness. In the business literature on innovation, this is often referred to as the explore-exploit dilemma. Put simply, organizations which are good at “exploring” (i.e. innovating), tend to make significant sacrifices in “exploitation” (i.e. everyday production and efficiency). In other words, the very things that make an organization good at innovating — nonhierarchical structures, hands-off management techniques, nontraditional professional development and rewards, etc. — can be liabilities when it comes to consistent execution. The holy grail is thus to balance exploration and exploitation, a feat which only a handful of businesses can claim to have achieved.

In the military, this challenge is doubly problematic. First, in a world of constrained resources, innovation and change in one area can often undermine the military’s ability to deliver on other mission sets. It should therefore come as little surprise that investments in the third offset may weaken our ability to successfully carry out other missions, and this trade-off should explicitly be part of the discussion. For example, after a decade of investing in counterinsurgency and unconventional warfare capabilities, the third offset may very well mean that these new skills are left to atrophy as resources move elsewhere.

Second, the explore-exploit tradeoff has costs that are far more consequential in the military than in the private sector. For the private sector, the success and failure of innovation is measured in dollars. For the military, success and failure is measured in battlefield effectiveness and, sometimes, lives. Thus, while investing in new technologies may leave Google or Amazon strapped for cash, the costs of shifting investment priorities in the defense community are on a different scale entirely. We therefore need to acknowledge and understand where innovation will make us stronger and where it will make us weaker, so we can avoid sending our troops into situations where they are ill-equipped for the task at hand.

2. Vulnerability

Innovations are, by definition, new. This is precisely what makes them so exciting and effective — especially in the military context where surprise can lead to significant battlefield gains.

But for all of the new capabilities that come with innovative technologies and doctrines, we often forget the vulnerabilities that accompany new technologies. Take the Internet, for example. It enables us to undertake crippling cyberattacks against our adversaries, but it also exposes the United States to significant risk.

Similarly, while the push towards unmanned weaponry and greater automation in the defense sector provides the U.S. military with unparalleled intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), and strike capabilities at low risk to U.S. lives, the increased reliance on satellites required by these platforms creates a new — and often underappreciated — set of challenges. As Jacquelyn Schneider notes, the United States’ increasing reliance on cyber capabilities creates a “capability-vulnerability paradox.” While U.S. investments in cyber-technologies might allow the military to conduct strikes further away from the battlefield and with greater effectiveness, the increased dependence on satellite relay nodes, intelligence infrastructure, and GPS communication create new opportunities for attack.

In short, new capabilities create new vulnerabilities, and we should not be too sanguine about the risks attached to the high-tech advances envisaged by the third offset. This is especially so in a world where interoperability challenges, jamming, cyberattacks, and counter-stealth technologies are a persistent and growing threat.

3. Financial

As a purely practical matter, the financial costs of innovation should not be lost on the architects of these reforms. After all, there is a reason why many start-ups fail — innovation can be capital- and time-intensive, and there is no guarantee that the product will ultimately prove viable when it makes it to the market. For every successful innovation there are many ideas, prototypes, and alternatives that never make it off of the cutting room floor. And even when they do, long time horizons means that costs can add up.

Those in the defense R&D and procurement communities know this fact all too well. Indeed, the cost overruns associated with developing new military technologies have become par for the course in most major U.S. military acquisitions of recent years, as the lack of truly competitive bidding and tendency toward over-commitment have exploded acquisitions costs. But in addition to the standard reasons for the overruns that often accompany defense acquisitions, the technologies of the third offset will likely involve advanced, proprietary, and even covert technologies, all of which can result in a big price tag and offer little guarantee of long-term utility.

As Stephen Rodriguez highlighted here at War on the Rocks, the last attempt at technological offset came with some incredibly expensive budgetary causalities, and there is no reason to think this time will be any different. To be fair, some leaders at DoD are well aware of the financial costs of the third offset, and many will be mitigated by savings accrued from other, more successful innovations. Nevertheless, we should not be naïve about the material costs that this initiative will require.

4. Culture of Hierarchy

There are many reasons we should expect the military to resist major innovation. As James Q. Wilson and Barry Posen have pointed out elsewhere: Organizations are created to minimize uncertainty, change inherently introduces uncertainty, and thus we should not be surprised when organizations resist change. Some of this resistance is unnecessary, and hamstrings the military when it attempts to introduce valuable new technologies. However, it is important to remember that, perhaps more than any other organization in the world, the military relies on a culture of order, discipline, and hierarchy — formalized in the military chain of command — in order to perform its duties well. And so while innovation may be critical in some areas of the military, the benefits of decentralized, independent thinking must always be weighed against the risks of degrading the military hierarchy — a difficult balance to strike for even the most modern militaries.

Of course, challenging hierarchy is not always bad, and innovation on the battlefield can also save lives. Nevertheless, we should not overestimate the value of innovation at the expense of overlooking the critical importance of hierarchy and structure to U.S. military effectiveness.

5. Strategic-Tactical

Perhaps the most understood risk of the innovations that will come with the defense reforms of recent months is the risk of “putting the technology cart before the strategy horse,” as Jon Czarnekcki so pithily put it. Indeed, the contributors at War on the Rocks have led the way in assessing how technological innovation absent complementary strategic, doctrinal, and organizational change is both useless and potentially counterproductive to political and national security ends. Technology can enable significant war-fighting gains, but rarely does it induce revolutionary change alone. Military officials are well aware of this, but their civilian bosses often need reminding that investments in technology must accompany investments in training and exercises.

None of these warnings are meant to say that the military should avoid attempts at reform and innovation. Indeed, it is precisely because the U.S. military has found ways to innovate that it has become the most formidable military in the world. The reforms that will be undertaken by the defense community in the coming years will undoubtedly lead to important and significant gains for the U.S. military. But to ignore the risks associated with such an enterprise is analytically lazy and practically dangerous. Instead, by acknowledging, understanding, and anticipating the risks of innovation, the United States will be better placed to counteract these challenges, and better able meet future threats.


Lena Andrews is a PhD candidate in Political Science and a member of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Techonology. Prior to MIT, Lena was a senior program specialist at the United States Institute of Peace.

Julia Macdonald is a research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a PhD candidate in Political Science at the George Washington University.


Photo credit: Sgt. 1st Class Clydell Kitchen, U.S. Army

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