John Nagl on the Future of Military Innovation

Within military circles, talk of innovation, adaptive institutions, and creative thinking is an almost daily occurrence.  But because these phrases can quickly become meaningless, it is important to be precise. In my interview with John Nagl, he does just that. He begins with his experience developing the Military Training Teams concept, which illustrates both the possibilities and pitfalls of military innovation. Nagl, ever the academic, then directs the broader conversation about innovation by distinguishing between different types.

Nagl is careful to point out that the military does innovate. In fact, he argues, “the U.S. military is the best in the world at figuring out new ways of directing and applying force.” But while the military is excellent at adapting technology to the battlefield, it often struggles with human capital and low-tech innovations, such as talent management, cultural competencies, education, training, and strategy. Nagl hopes that the next generation of military innovators will focus on these kinds of human-centric innovations, lest the military be caught unprepared for another decade of war.

John Nagl’s military career oscillated between academic institutions and operational posts. Perhaps this unconventional path allowed him to see what others in the post-Vietnam era largely ignored: that the army must be an adaptive institution, capable of operating along the entire spectrum of conflict, not just the part it likes.  Nagl turned his Oxford thesis into a book, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, which laid the theoretical foundations for a counterinsurgency strategy. He then returned to the operational army to implement his ideas in Iraq. The army resisted. 

To fight the military’s institutional inertia, John and his fellow innovators adopted unconventional tactics, documented by Fred Kaplan in his book, The Insurgents.  These men tried to blend into the very culture they wished to change, all the while working to mold the military into a more adaptive institution.

A key part of Nagl’s strategy was an advisory capacity that would be used to build the Iraqi army.  In the first years of the Iraq war, there was no unified, well-resourced capability for training Iraq’s military. Instead, the effort was “ad hoc,” at best.  To correct this, Nagl wrote the bluntly titled Institutionalizing Adaptation: It’s Time for a Permanent Army Advisor Corps, which laid out a plan for training Military Training Teams (MTTs) and fielding them in Iraq.

The creation of MTTs seems to suggest that military innovation is doing just fine. Perhaps it took too long, but the military did adapt. The MTTs were created, the model was even transferred to Afghanistan, and training host nation forces is now seen as an important task.

But Nagl is quick to warn against this interpretation.  In talking about military innovations, he distinguishes between two kinds: high and low-end.  High-end innovation is generally technologically based, is associated with Russel Weigley’s American “way of war,” and results in more effective ways of destroying the enemy.  Low-end innovation tends to be associated with the allocation of human capital, institutional knowledge, strategy, and operational approaches.  It is often relatively inexpensive, but takes time to acquire and implement.   While the military is very good at innovating at the high end, Nagl claims that it really struggles to do so at the low end. MTTs are a rare exception of low end innovation, and it took years, and perhaps some careers, to make it so.

While the military’s initial resistance to COIN strategy in general, and MTTs in particular, was “one really big mistake,” Nagl thinks it has largely been corrected. The military is now “the best counterinsurgency force around”—so much so that that Nagl now worries that some conventional capabilities, like combined arms maneuvers, have atrophied. So does this mean that the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum should focus on high-end innovation? Nagl says, with characteristic frankness, “absolutely not.”

The military is like a poorly aligned car. It has a tendency to veer to the right (the high end of the spectrum of conflict). So even though Nagl acknowledges that military is currently a bit far to the left (the low end), he believes that the military will naturally bring itself right (focusing on things like combined arms operations, new weaponry, joint strike fighters, etc.). But someone needs to be constantly pulling the car left to keep it from over-correcting. Focusing on low end innovation, Nagl argues, is where the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, and other such initiatives, can deliver. While high end innovation has many constituents (DARPA, the military-industrial complex, congressional districts that benefit from jobs), low end innovation has no natural constituency; it is not sexy, will not help a congressman get re-elected, and is often a long-slow grind. Yet human-centric innovation is absolutely essential to the military’s survival.

Some might argue that if the military is really good at high-end innovation, and it also happens to like it better, why not just let it remain safely within its comfort zone? Forget COIN, bring back the Powell Doctrine, and let technology lead the way.  The problem with just letting the military do what it’s good at, Nagl reminds us, is that the enemy ultimately gets to choose the fight. And enemies tend to look for chinks in armor. Military innovation should focus on the armor’s weaknesses, and this, Nagl argues, is still at the low end.

Fortunately, the low end is also the cheap end. Tim Kane shows us that there is an abundance of low hanging fruit—the military could get more out of its workforce if only it would better align existing talent with existing jobs. This is basic stuff, requiring little more than a working knowledge of Excel and some common sense.

As the wars and budgets wind down, Nagl worries that the military is going toss out much of its hard-earned unconventional capabilities, just like it did after Vietnam. It is certainly tempting to think that if the military doesn’t have unconventional capabilities, then it wont deploy to unconventional conflicts. But Nagl warns that it’s probably not true because the military does not pick its wars: some mix of Congress, the President, and the enemy does that.

Given the future’s uncertainty, the military must innovate at both high and low end. While the military and it’s deep-pocketed private sector friends, will continue to develop high end capabilities, it falls to young, relatively underfinanced junior leaders, both in an out of uniform, to keep innovating at the low end of the spectrum.

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Although US & UK military HR systems are markedly different, a common theme is that both seem resistant to change and often act as a break to innovation. This could be because changes to HR systems have considerable downstream effects which are difficult to predict, but more likely because both systems are 'closed loop' systems with like selecting like for promotion.

It is difficult to change this system as I suspect there is often a marked institutional reluctance to change; change would imply a fault with a system that has developed and selected the incumbent hierarchy.

While innovation occurs in a number of ways and through a number of mechanisms, the catalyst often appears to be the threat of failure, often existential and leading to both internal and external pressure to change. In limited conflict with limited commitment there will limited impetus to change, and change that there is will be sufficient, but not necessarily fundamental or lasting.

I find it hard to believe that Nagl created the urban legend that our COIN doctrine is innovative. It is the same ole approach the West has used fot decades. In fact it can be argued that we blindly embraced this old doctrinal approach and failed to innovate. The greatest sin is perpetuating the myth we got it right. The arrogant commets about the Powell Doctrine were uniformed a d completely missed the point about clear objectives. Kisinger when recently asked about what the U.S. should do about Syria said he could not offer advice without a clear U.S. policy objective, while I suspect those who blindly embrace our COIN doctrine would simply recommend plowing in and employing tactics to win hearts and minds even without a clear policy and enambling objective. Still I always find something that I agree with John on, and in this case he makes a good argument on the reluctance of the military to change our way of thinking about plans, strategy and talent management. Lot cost innovations that would have a major and immediate impact, but not costing much is unfortunately the the problem.

I think this comment risks falling into the tired COIN v. conventional argument that sheds more heat than light.

COIN (and conventional combined arms) are best seen as skill sets that re employed at the operational and tactical level. There is good and bad COIN and good and bad combined arms. All COIN is not created equal. Both COIN and conventional combined arms can suffer from lack of strategic goals and both are capable of being focused. Conventional doctrines certainly hold no lock on clear objectives.

To have a useful military it should be able to operate in multiple environments. Just as a Navy that could only do blue water ops and was bad at littoral combat is not desirable, ground forces that do not retain some capacity for rigorous unconventional conflict are problematic.

I know in an era of tightening budgets the COIN v. conventional conflict looms large, but I find it to be a distracting debate.

Proposed foundational ideas for innovative/adaptive thinking re: low-end conflict:

1. Begin by accepting, as fact, that the goals and objectives of the general population are not similar to but, indeed, are often diametrically opposed to your own goals and objectives. (This often being, in fact, the reason for the current conflict.)

2. Based on this understanding, then acknowledge that you -- quite logically -- cannot expect to "win over" the population by offering them (or, more often than not, by shoving down their throat) something that they do not desire and something that they are, in fact, diametrically opposed to.

3. Now determine whether you will proceed with this low-end conflict or, should you have no choice but to proceed, how you might go about doing so.

4. This, given the fact that your basic job is to convince -- and/or to compel -- the population to, for example: (a) abandon the way of life and way of governance that has served them for decades or even centuries and (b) cause them to adopt, in the place of these, your alien way of life and your alien way of governance.

5. Now, with these foundational concepts in place -- and with one's "head screwed on properly" so-to-speak -- adapt/innovate away as to the allocation of human capital, institutional knowlege, strategy, operational approaches, etc.

6. But, again, do this innovative/adaptive thinking from the perspective that what you are offering/requiring IS NOT something that is similar to or compatible with the wants, needs and desires of the general population.

(To do otherwise -- on many occasions -- is to ignor reality and to, thereby, aggressively court failure/disaster.)

Point 1 infuses your whole logic, but I am not ready to accept it is the ubiquitous fact you allege to to be.

Are we to believe that the Afghan population outside some Pashtun areas desired to be rued the way the Taliban ruled? Not that we haven't screwed it up, but a good strategy of reconnecting communities with traditional leaders and restoring governance in a fashion reminiscent of the pre-Soviet days does not seem to me to be antithetical to the interest of many Afghans and the way they would prefer to live their lives.

Allowing traditional tribal leaders in the Sunni areas of Iraq to regain their influence and governance from the twisted brutality of the Baathist regime does not seem to be incompatible with how many Iraqis would like to live, and seems to be at the heart of the Anbar Awakening.

Operations among the Hmong in VN seemed to square pretty well with how the population wanted to live their lives.

There is so much to be said and debated about how outside powers try and often mess up in unconventional operations, but to assume from the outset a fundamental disharmony is not historically defensible.

U.S. strategy continues to be heavily weighted in favor of kinetic operations, even in COIN. In addition to clearly defining objectives, a failure to develop tailored strategies that recognize the roots of violence that are unique to each conflict is itself a root cause of strategy failure. Not to mention the failure of policy makers to recognize that the natural end of rebellion, insurgency, and terrorism is often political participation. As a result, any strategy that fails to see a future where some of the former insurgents participate in the normative political discourse of the state will be doomed to perpetuate a key root of violence that motivates the 'enemy'.

I think the "root cause" of violence is an often over played card by academics and others frustrated with war who think there is a better way (there is, don't get involved). It is certainly an excellent approach to preventing internal wars by the affected nation (not us), but once the fighting has starting the often numerous root causes will multiply, and there is no cure or solution that "we" can bring to address the ancient hatreds between different religious groups, or other groups seeking power at the expense of others, or numerous other rubs people are willing to kill each other over. Rodney King's appeal "can't we all just get alone?" is simply a plea that will fall upon the deaf who wonder why we're involved in the first place, but of course will play us to their advantage and we will play them to ours. Round and round we go, and politicians on both sides that will produce metrics to show that they're winning, but eventually people will tire of the bull and then and only then will we do as you suggest and actually talk to the insurgents. Wholeheartedly agree that almost all insurgencies end with political talks that lead to political settlements, and resistance to occupations end when either the occupier leaves or defeats/suppresses the resistance. The foreign occupier can't effectively address the underlying cause of conflict when he is the cause unless he leaves, but sometimes the occupier will try by building schools, roads, and opening hospitals, and attempt to convince those occupied that their life is better (in a material sense it is, but that clearly isn't the issue), but in the end the result will be the same.