On Military Innovation, the More Things Change, the More Things Stay the Same
Christian Brose, The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare (Hachette Books, 2020)
Although I served in the Pentagon more than a half century ago, I can remember some events from my eight years there from the beginning of President John F. Kennedy’s administration to the end of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s that have not lost their relevance with the passage of time.
A book of that time, The Uncertain Trumpet, by former Army Chief of Staff Maxwell D. Taylor, challenged the then-dominant strategy of massive retaliation with nuclear weapons. The reliance on massive retaliation to cope with all military challenges, Taylor argued, offered “our leadership only two choices, the initiation of general nuclear war or compromise and retreat.” While he continued to support a strong nuclear deterrent, he wanted usable combat power, which he called “flexible response.”
Taylor’s arguments influenced the new Kennedy administration, and he was recalled to duty as a presidential adviser. Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense, promoted Taylor’s views, saying that the doctrine of massive retaliation could have the unintended effect of deterring ourselves when force was needed to undergird U.S. foreign policy narratives. Dean Acheson told Kennedy that an over-reliance on nuclear weapons for the defense of Europe was dangerous. The result was a revolution in military affairs, which focused principally upon the Army and an array of new army weapons and concepts.
The Army was expanded from 11 divisions to 16 fully combat-ready ones, for a total troop level of one million. Kennedy went on television to announce a request for an additional $3 billion in the defense budget and the authority to call up 150,000 reservists.
As the Army’s procurement secretary at the time, I was intensely involved in carrying out the new approach, including the development of a new rifle for soldiers.
I was reminded of much of this while reading The Kill Chain, by Christian Brose, who is perhaps best known as having served as Sen. John McCain’s staff director on the Senate Armed Services Committee. He argues that even though the United States spends more on national defense than the next eight countries combined, it could lose a war against China. This, he contends, is because China has developed ways to counteract America’s expensive legacy weapons and platforms, from jets to carriers. Why does this happen? Brose points to a “military-industrial-congressional complex” that has vested interests in the status quo and has made it nearly impossible for new entrants to break through with new ideas and systems. What is needed, he says, is a revolution in military affairs where we buy large numbers of intelligent machines commanded by a small number of military personnel, instead of the current array of a small number of incredibly expensive weapons commanded by a large number of individuals and organizations.
In my day, the development of a new Army rifle illustrated many of the problems that Brose highlights in his book. The new rifle, the M-14, was better than the M-1 (the standard used in World War II), but it was essentially a product improvement — an evolution, not a revolution. It was reasonably accurate and capable of automatic fire but difficult to control in the fully automatic mode. It had been developed by Army Ordnance at the Springfield Armory, a historic part of the Army arsenal system that traces its origins to George Washington’s time.
Meanwhile, a gun designer named Eugene Stoner came up with a different kind of rifle called the AR-15 that was being produced in small quantities by the Armalite Corporation. The rifle stock was made of plastic, not wood, and its parts could be stamped out inexpensively, not hand machined as with previous rifles. It fired a smaller bullet than the M-14, which meant a soldier could carry many more rounds of ammunition. The smaller bullet also enabled the soldier to control the weapon in fully automatic, unlike the M-14. The Army looked at the rifle but rejected it for a number of reasons. Gen. Curtis LeMay, the Air Force chief of staff and a gun enthusiast, also looked at it, asked the Air Force to test it, and then adopted it as the standard rifle for airmen on guard duty or other assignments.
Army Ordnance continued to object to the gun. It said it had been inadequately developed, and instead undertook to “militarize” it into what became the M-16 rifle. An army inspector general’s report said that the Army’s tests of the AR-15 had been blatantly rigged, and a congressional investigation concluded that the gun had been sabotaged by Army Ordnance. Over time, the problems that arose from “militarizing” the highly successful AR-15 were overcome and the M-16 became the Army’s standard rifle.
How does one make sense of such mismanagement by nominally well-intentioned people? The AR-15 simply didn’t look like a rifle should look. It had been designed by an outsider, not by Springfield Armory. It had been championed by the Air Force, hardly a mark in its favor for the Army. Its early proponents were civilian analysts who pushed the Army to adopt it. The M-14’s manufacturer, a company called Harrington and Richardson, offered itself as a second source to make the gun in West Virginia, where Kennedy had successfully campaigned, and sent an imposing congressional delegation to my office to argue their case, accompanied by its lawyer of later Watergate fame, Chuck Colson. In short, the M-14 affair had many of the elements of Brose’s critique of today.
The military services are conservative organizations, slow to change and reluctant to give up traditional ways and weapons. When Japan was defeated in the Pacific, the signalmen on our carrier were told to resume signaling with flags even though radio had been employed through the war. The Army took generations to give up the mule for the truck.
Against this background, the Army moved surprisingly swiftly to adopt the widespread use of helicopters that began to take place after Gen. Taylor’s book, and formed new tactics around its air assault forces. A roles-and-missions conflict arose when Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay protested directly to McNamara that the Army was trying to form a new air force by proposing to arm its Huey helicopter with a machine gun. I told McNamara that I couldn’t make sense of this. The Huey carried an army squad. So did the Army’s M-113 personnel carrier, which was armed with a machine gun. Apparently, it was okay to have a gun if it maintained contact with the ground, I told McNamara, but not if it went into the air. McNamara agreed and the guns were installed. About this time, the Army wanted to acquire a fixed-wing airplane called the Mohawk with fancy equipment such as infrared sensors. I opposed it because it was beyond the Army’s assigned role.
A shift from legacy weapons to intelligent machines is a profound transformation of the sort that has led to unsettling rivalries in the past. In World War I, the airplane made its first widespread combat appearance, and it was evident that it had important implications for the future of warfare. Billy Mitchell, an Army Signal Corps officer, was a pioneer in air combat, specializing in bombing enemy targets. After the war he argued for a separate air force, a position opposed by the Army and the Navy. He became so vitriolic that an Army court martial convicted him of insubordination. In time, his prophecies about strategic bombing and the eclipse of the battleship by the airplane were fulfilled.
Another example of how a bold new technology can unsettle the military services emerged from the invention of ballistic missiles by Nazi Germany in World War II. Military leaders saw the great potential of the new technology and struggled to control its development. The Army said it should be in charge because missiles operated under the laws of ballistics and the Army Ordnance Command was the “pope” of that field. The Air Force disagreed, arguing that the laws of aerodynamics applied, and that it had the last word on that subject. The Navy had both an ordnance branch and an aeronautical branch, each of which laid claim to the missile. In an effort to placate the claimants, the Navy decided that if the missile had a wing on it, as some of the early ones did, the Bureau of Aeronautics should develop it. If no wing was attached, it belonged to the Bureau of Ordnance. The impracticalities of this arrangement were soon evident, and the two bureaus were merged into the Bureau of Naval Weapons.
While the Navy was able to settle its jurisdictional claims, the controversy between the Army and the Air Force continued. The Army had an extensive and long-established arsenal system. Before the emergence of the defense industry at the end of World War II, the arsenals were the primary repositories of knowledge about military science and the places where the arts of weaponry were kept alive. The Army assigned missile development to Redstone Arsenal under the command of an aggressive and capable ordnance officer, Maj. Gen. Bruce Medaris. Redstone’s resources were greatly strengthened with the arrival in the United States in 1945 of some of the leading German rocket pioneers, including the most famous of them all, Werner von Braun. He and more than 500 specialists had fled south from Peenemunde, where the V-2 missile had been developed, and surrendered to U.S. forces.
The Air Force did not become an independent service until 1948. Lacking arsenals, it turned to industry for its missile development. A quasi-public organization, the Aerospace Corporation, was formed under Air Force direction for systems engineering purposes. Another aggressive and capable officer, Gen. Bernard Schriever, one of the heroes of Brose’s book, exercised overall responsibility for missile development. The bitterness of the rivalry between the Army and the Air Force became apparent to the public when Gen. Schriever paid a visit to Redstone Arsenal and Gen. Medaris refused to let him in!
Service rivalry, I believe, is a good thing, but it must be contained within reasonable bounds. I like the idea that each service puts its best foot forward and claims that its weapons or tactics are the preferred way to defeat an emerging threat. I would not want to see a situation in which a service reacted passively to a challenge, withdrawing from a contest so another service could carry the day. It wouldn’t breed the aggressiveness that one wants to see in a commander who says, “I can take that hill,” or another who says, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” Brose seems to have a similar approach.
Brose is critical of McNamara’s adoption of long-range, five-year planning, believing that it locks in existing technology and is a barrier to needed change. He misinterprets this: The purpose of the longer planning cycle was to aggregate all of the costs of a weapon that were related to its adoption, so that its true costs over a five-year period were evident at the time it was adopted. Planning of this kind has continued, and it would be needed if the revolutionary changes Brose advocates come to pass.
The military departments buy everything from mayonnaise to missiles, and the procurement process needs to take account of these differences. We made a number of changes to improve the system during the McNamara era which have continued to the present day. First, we formed the Defense Supply Agency (now called the Defense Logistics Agency) and assigned to it the myriad of common-use items such as butchers’ smocks and garbage cans that each service had procured on its own. We shifted where we could from cost-reimbursement to fixed-price contracts to increase contractor accountability. We employed incentive contracts to reward success and penalize failure. We found a way to use multi-year contracts rather than annual contracts without impinging on congressional budget restrictions, producing substantial reductions in cost. We invented something called “two-step advertising,” where clearly unqualified bidders were eliminated in step one, with the award going to the low bidder among those who remained. Finally, we won approval from President Kennedy to form the Logistics Management Institute that brought experts from industry and academia to serve in the Pentagon for limited periods to challenge the bureaucracy and stimulate new thinking.
Military procurement should be both rational and flexible. Where a military item is the same as or similar to a commercial item, it should be purchased under competitive procedures without government micro-management. When there is no commercial counterpart and the requirement is complex and urgently needed, the government and industry need to work cooperatively under necessary “arms-length” safeguards. Sometimes it is better for the government to adopt a “hands-off” posture, as was done with Lockheed’s famous “skunkworks” that produced the U-2 spy plane.
I wonder sometimes where the effort to invent new weapons to wage war will end. Brose writes that “quantum sensors are being designed to detect the faintest disturbances in gravitational and magnetic fields that objects create as they move through the environment.” He adds that “Similarly, the U.S. military is working on genetically engineering ocean plants so that they can detect objects moving through the water by the chemicals, radiation or other previously invisible signatures these objects emit.”
Weaponizing nature is a threshold we should be reluctant to cross. The Greek gods sent bolts of lightning and conjured tempests to work their will on humans. Our gods of war should be reticent. Brose’s book reminds us that the essence of modern warfare should be defensive — to prevent adversaries from projecting their power in ways that harm America and its allies. That simple clarity of mission is what makes this book so valuable. America faces major challenges from China. These challenges cannot be met without bold and creative thinking on defense policy.
Paul R. Ignatius is a former assistant secretary of the Army (1961-64); undersecretary of the Army (1964); assistant secretary of defense for installations and logistics (1964-67); and secretary of the Navy (1967-69).