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.