The Human Element: The Army’s Competitive Advantage in the Age of Innovation
Innovation has become a buzzword almost to the point of cliché inside the U.S. Army. One need only to scan a few of the articles on this website to find a range of opinions, even contradictory ones, about innovation. The arguments include how defense innovation is falling short, how to fix it, how innovation is not actually the problem, how the U.S. military should innovate like insurgents, and how best to lead innovation.
What these arguments are missing, however, is the role of leadership in innovation — the human element that is essential to meet the challenges of future warfare. This type of battlefield will likely require dispersed formations led by junior leaders in austere environments. These leaders will be forced, by the necessities of combat, to solve the tactical challenges of drone warfare, automated sensors, AI, and more. Their innovations, enabled by mission command and the mental flexibility to innovate, will be decisive in any modern conflict.
The U.S. Military Academy at West Point is leading the way in developing this kind of creative, entrepreneurial, and adaptive officer. Through its academic program, led by world-class faculty with a focus on projects-based learning, West Point seeks to create exactly the type of officer who can drive technological, organizational, and doctrinal innovation at both the tactical and strategic level. It is these kinds of leaders — curious, creative, open to risk, and willing to challenge assumptions — who will succeed in contemporary warfare.
The Army’s Innovation Challenge
Clearly, there is a strong sense in the Army and the Department of Defense that change is not only necessary but long overdue. While “innovation” may have become a catch-all for that intuition across the Department of Defense, the challenges facing the U.S. military indicate this feeling is correct. An increasingly bellicose China, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the rising importance of emerging technologies in military operations highlight a rapidly evolving competitive environment. However, recruiting issues, difficult economic conditions, and the persistent threat posed by non-state actors make change exceedingly difficult. It is no wonder that “innovation” has become the magic bullet to solve seemingly intractable problems and tensions. The need to adapt in the face of change is a recurring theme in military history, and innovation is a broad enough term to capture this necessity.
Yet what is innovation, and how does it happen in an organization, especially in one as large and somewhat calcified as the military? Is it simply the acquisition and incorporation of emerging technology? Is it about new strategy and doctrine? Or is innovation more about organizational change, so that innovation is encouraged, accepted, and becomes an integral part of military culture?
Innovation is not merely technological change or shifts in organizational culture. It is both and more. Innovation is about inventing, incubating, and implementing the necessary changes in the conduct of warfare so the Army can fight and win the nation’s wars. It is a process by which new tactics, technology, and organizations are invented, elevated to a level of status, accepted, and then implemented top-down across the force. Only then can systematic and meaningful innovation take place.
The Human Element
However, this definition is missing the most critical element of the Army’s innovation process: leadership. The “Army People Strategy” confirms that getting innovation right, before any successful technological adaptation or doctrinal invention, first requires having innovative leaders. In other words, military innovation like war, is a human endeavor and, similarly, success requires a particular type of officer. Adam Grant in Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, notes that solving “Complex problems … call on us to stay mentally flexible. In the face of any number of unknown and evolving threats, humility, doubt, and curiosity are vital to discovery. Bold, persistent experimentation might be our best tool for rethinking.” The traits that Grant portrays — modesty, imagination, a willingness to experiment, acceptance of mitigated risks, and critical thinking skills — describe well the officers needed to power the Army’s innovation efforts.
For this reason, the U.S. Military Academy’s academic program strives to create an environment where these attributes are encouraged and from which innovative officers emerge. It does so by remaining committed, despite trends in higher education in the opposite direction, to a cadet’s broad liberal arts education. Covering a myriad of academic fields — ranging from science, technology, engineering, and math, to the social sciences and the humanities — the core curriculum at the Military Academy is designed to create officers who, beyond any specific knowledge in a subject, can think critically, communicate successfully, and problem-solve in any setting. As David Epstein argues in Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, “… that is what a rapidly changing, wicked world demands — conceptual reasoning skills that can connect new ideas and work across contexts.”
Complementing this core curriculum, and equally important to developing an innovative mindset amongst future officers, is a cadet’s academic major. In a seminal study entitled Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, Williamson Murray notes that “one of the important components in successful innovation in the interwar period had to do with the ability of officers to use their imaginations in examining potential innovations.” For this reason, cadets, in their major, are allowed to study a subject of their choice and pursue independent scholarly endeavors. This allows each cadet to spot issues, experiment, and craft creative solutions. More importantly, this stimulates their natural curiosity and the intellectual imagination necessary for innovation.
Stewarding the academic program is a world-class military and civilian faculty. The faculty are subject-matter experts with real-world experience who educate the cadets in small classroom settings, many times through project-based learning. These faculty are often returning from assignments where they have seen firsthand the challenges facing the Army, and they will return to their formations better equipped from having taught and led the type of interdisciplinary, innovative thinking that is equally beneficial to cadets and to the broader Army. For example, ongoing testing of new capabilities in high-energy lasers, conducted jointly by cadets, faculty, and external partners, is not done with a myopic focus on only technical issues. Instead, the breadth of the academic program results in an ongoing legal, ethical, and historic analysis coupled with serious thought on how best to implement this technology into the operating force.
West Point’s robust curriculum and dedicated faculty, working together, foster a dynamic environment that results in innovative officers. Each graduate, equipped with the appropriate intellectual foundation, will have the attributes necessary to develop the technological, organizational, and doctrinal innovations necessitated by today’s threats. These officers, more than any other component of the innovation ecosystem, are critical to helping the U.S. Army successfully navigate the complexities and uncertainties of the contemporary battlefield.
Above all else, developing innovative officers is of paramount importance. We do not know when the next conflict will come. However, we know that innovation, driven by the thinking officer, is critical to fighting and winning the nation’s future wars. With the mental flexibility gained by their education at West Point, graduates will be able to contribute to the changes that the Army needs to face the evolving battlefield. Alone on an island or in a remote forest with their platoon or company, these officers should be comfortable in the ambiguity and uncertainty of modern combat, ready to find the solutions to unforeseen problems.
This is why the U.S. Military Academy is fully committed to providing the education necessary to developing innovative leaders. As the historian John Keegan wrote, “what battles have in common is human” and this is perhaps the greatest advantage of the U.S. Army — its people. The human element of the U.S. Army will remain its most essential strength, and it is the promotion of innovative thinking at places like West Point that will enable officers to succeed on the battlefields of tomorrow.
Shane R. Reeves is a brigadier general in the U.S. Army currently serving as the dean of the academic board at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, NY. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or U.S. government.
Adam T. Barsuhn is a major in the U.S. Army currently serving as the executive officer to the dean of the academic board at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, NY. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or U.S. government.