Contemporary American Military Innovation

Contemporary American Military Innovation: The Challenge of Fighting Today's War While Preparing to Win the Next War

Carlton G. Haelig

“Inevitably, senior leaders, even the most effective, build a picture of what they think future war will look like and then confront combat realities that differ substantially from their assumptions.”

-- Williamson Murray


The United States military continues to focus on planning and innovating to fight and win the next major war. The military, however, has been engaged in near constant low-intensity conflicts (LICs) for the better part of twenty years. Their minimal experience with major contemporary warfare is grounded in theory and assumptions. Operational preoccupation with LICs has undermined their ability to test and evaluate many of the major innovations being developed for use in a major war against realistic limitations. This challenge is further compounded by the rapid pace of technological advancement and the growing uncertainty surrounding what a major near-peer conflict would look like.

Military officials and civilian decision-makers must understand the challenges inherent to innovating for the contemporary security environment and innovate accordingly. A failure to acknowledge the uncertainty of a future near-peer conflict may result in misguided innovations and a flawed confidence in existing innovations whose effectiveness has only been proven in LIC environments. It would be a mistake to develop hyper-specific innovations based upon a specific vision of what future warfare will look like. The best course of action is to develop rapidly adaptable innovations based upon timely reassessments of the changing security environment.

For nearly two decades the United States has been engaged in near constant asymmetric counterinsurgency (COIN) and counterterrorism (CT) operations. The continued operational preoccupation of the United States military in these low-intensity conflicts (LICs), however, has had little observable impact on the pace or direction of American military innovation. Despite the current operational focus toward ongoing COIN and CT operations, the United States’ major military planning and innovation programs continue to focus on fighting and winning a major conventional war against a near-peer adversary.[1]

It is imperative to question whether innovating for the next war while fighting the current war dooms the United States to failure. The conflict environment that the United States has experienced since 2001 does not offer the operational conditions needed to sufficiently measure the effectiveness of innovations developed for major near-peer warfare. This makes assessing their effectiveness in the intended conflict environment difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish. Beyond the inherent difficulties caused by the divergent conflict environments is the inability of defense planners to accurately predict what the next major near-peer war would look like.[2] The operational superiority created by the information-rich, net-centric driven warfare that defines contemporary military innovations could be significantly reduced in the opening exchanges of a near-peer confrontation. Such hypotheticals, however, have not—and cannot—be evaluated in the current operational environment.

Despite the apparent dangers of this current trend, major military innovations continue to be developed for fighting major conventional wars. Of the $183.9 billion requested for Defense Department acquisition programs in FY2017, $72.7 billion is directed at major defense acquisition programs (MDAPs).[3] These programs disproportionately represent the big-ticket, technology-driven innovations and adaptations that are intended to fight and win the next major war.[4] While many of these recent innovations have been utilized in combat situations with great success, they have not been exposed to the combat environment they are ultimately designed to operate within.[5]

The current situation presents a dilemma for military planners and analysts that is two-fold. On the one hand, major innovations in military doctrine and technology are being developed for application to a conflict environment entirely unlike the one in which they are currently being deployed—complicating the ability to effectively test and evaluate them against the objectives and limitations of their intended applications. On the other hand, the rapidity with which technology continually changes the perception of what a future war would look like complicates the ability of defense planners to conceive what innovations are needed or even what a future conflict would look like.Thus it is possible that the United States is preparing for the wrong war.

This paper seeks to understand the impact of long-term operational preoccupation with LICs on America’s capacity to fight and win the major near-peer wars for which it continues to plan, develop, and implement new military innovations. For all the time and money spent on research, development, and implementation of new strategies and technologies, is there any certainty that these innovations will be effective in the conflict environments for which they are intended? And is the conception of the future conflict they are being developed for correct, or is it possible that future conflict in a major war between near-peer adversaries would look much different than defense planners predict?

The analysis begins with a brief overview of the relevant literature on military innovation to explore the field’s definitional constructs, to discuss the differences between military innovations in peacetime and wartime, and to assert the role of technology in the analysis of military innovation. The second section expands upon this theoretical overview to assess the contemporary period of American military innovation—particularly given the lack of opportunities available for the effective real-world evaluation of most modern military innovations. Finally, it will conclude by identifying relevant policy implications and offering recommendations intended to overcome the challenges posed by fighting one war while innovating for a the next war. 

Theoretical Approaches to Military Innovation

Definitional Challenges and the Typologies of Military Innovation

The literature on military innovation is represented by four main schools of thought that dominate the academic discourse on the subject. Barry Posen’s The Sources of Military Doctrine analyzes military innovation by way of civil-military affairs using structural realism’s balance of power theory as well as organizational theory. He finds that innovations are a top-down phenomenon largely driven by civilian leadership.[6] Stephen Rosen, in Winning the Next War, offers a bottom-up framework for understanding military innovation based on intraservice competition and uses organizational theory to show that higher levels of competition within service branches engenders innovation.[7] Another school of thought builds upon Rosen’s analysis to say that interservice competition has fewer institutional barriers to competition than that of intraservice competition because the equitable level of influence held by the individual service branches allows for unencumbered competition.[8] Finally, Elizabeth Kier approaches innovation from a cultural perspective, arguing that cultural variables are the factors most influential to military innovation.[9]

Explicitly subscribing to any one of these theoretical frameworks is not conducive to an effective analysis of contemporary military doctrinal and technological innovation. The modern defense industry is so diffuse—and inclusive of multiple organizational structures between the private and public sectors—that one is likely to observe examples of innovation processes which would strongly support any of the prevailing theoretical frameworks. A complete analysis of contemporary military innovation, therefore, requires that they be applied piecemeal to the various vectors of innovation present in modern military innovation.

Scholars debate the scope of inclusion, the relative weight of various causal factors, and the perspective from which analysis of military innovations should be conducted.[10] This paper, however, is concerned with two important aspects of military innovation theory that require further discussion. (1) The type of innovation: what impact does the time in which an innovation occurs have on its development and potential for success? (2) The role of technology: is technological innovation itself a military innovation or simply a driver of subsequent doctrinal and organizational innovations?

Stephen Rosen’s Winning the Next War defines military innovations in general as “major innovations” that fundamentally alter the operational concepts of a specific combat arm or change the relation of that combat arm to another combat arm.[11] This definition, though widely accepted, is often critiqued for being too narrow and not inclusive of the full scope of innovations able to affect change on military doctrine and capabilities.[12] Rosen’s work does, however, provide a useful typology of military innovations that delineates innovations based on their occurrence during peacetime, wartime, or alternatively as being technological in nature.[13] The peacetime and wartime typologies will frame the subsequent analysis of contemporary American military innovation.

Peacetime innovation involves the top-down influence of senior military officers who affect innovation through intellectual and organizational change on a largely ideological basis in response to their changing perception of the international security environment and with little direct input from civilian leadership. Peacetime innovation is a slow process that requires the infusion of new methods and pathways for the education and advancement of the officer corps in order to be adopted by the organization.[14] In contrast, wartime innovations face shorter time horizons which speed up the pace of innovation and can be evaluated in their intended operational applications in order to gauge their success in the respective conflict environment, allowing for rapid assessment and adaptation. Furthermore, the chain of command is invigorated with higher rates of officer turnover due to combat losses, creating the organizational turnover needed to accept and incorporate new innovations into operational use.[15] The challenge that will be discussed below is accurately placing the contemporary American defense posture into one of the above typologies. This is essential to analyzing contemporary American military innovation in the proper context.

The Role of Technology in Modern Military Innovation

Modern technology’s rapid developmental pace, and the sector’s growing relationship with the defense establishment, requires the full inclusion of technological innovations into the analysis of military innovations.[16] Historians Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millet (writing in 1996) argued—even then—that technology’s increasingly close relationship with society, and its rapid evolutionary pace, would have a much greater impact on military innovations in the 21st century than during the 20th century.[17] Technology, now more than ever, therefore, should be considered an endogenous factor in military innovation that drives rather than requires doctrinal innovation.

Unlike Rosen, I consider technological innovation to be an essential component of military innovation rather than an exogenous variable that requires a respective doctrinal innovation to be utilized effectively and thereby considered a military innovation. Capt. Bradd Hayes (USN) addressed this issue in a paper commissioned by the Office of Net Assessment (OSD/ONA) in 1994. He argued that Rosen’s analysis of the doctrinal aspect of innovation is essential to understanding the concept, but the thorough inclusion of the technological aspects of innovations is also necessary—calling technology and doctrine “inextricably connected.”[18] Capt. Hayes’s case-study based analysis concluded that “no one theory of innovation proved dominant.”[19] The closest one can come to reality is by applying all of the relevant theories in combination rather than any one of them individually.[20] Including technology as a legitimate aspect of military innovation is representative of its integral role in modern defense planning and a necessary factor for discussing the contemporary period of military innovation this paper seeks to analyze.

There remains an inherent challenge to effective technological innovation given the uncertainty of the conflict environment being developed for. While Rosen is critical of the direct relationship between technology and military innovations, he does offer relevant insight into the difficulties technological innovations face. Because of the information gap that exists between what a state thinks it knows about its adversaries’ developing technologies and the reality of those developments, it is “impossible to identify the single best route to innovation” for confronting an adversary’s own emerging capabilities and innovations.[21] There exists, now more than ever, a significant, and potentially very costly, uncertainty regarding what specific capabilities our adversaries would utilize in a major conventional near-peer conflict.

Perhaps even more pessimistically, scholars drawing on chaos theory and complex systems analysis have shown that information overload produced by sensor-rich, net-centric warfare may overwhelm not only individuals at the operational level, but also the doctrines and strategic decisions-making systems meant to employ the information flow.[22] This means that even if technological innovations and the respective doctrinal innovations meant to harness them are in fact being developed for the right conflict environment, their application may have a negative net-impact due to the possibility of overwhelming the individual or system-level implementation of the information they provide. There is, however, no reliable way to test for these possible shortcomings given the current operational commitments of the United States’ armed forces.

Contextualizing and Evaluating Contemporary American Military Innovation

The conflict environment that has prevailed for the last sixteen years of American military engagement challenges the application of the wartime, peacetime, and technological innovation typology to the analysis of contemporary American military innovation. As previously discussed, technological innovations should not be considered separate phenomena and are “inextricably linked” to the processes of military innovation. The analytical task, therefore, begins with determining whether contemporary technological and doctrinal innovations are occurring in a period of peacetime or wartime. An analysis of the effectiveness of contemporary military innovations aimed at fighting and winning the next major near-peer confrontation begs the question of applicability. That is, are these innovations being developed for the right war, not just the next war in its predicted form?

Identifying the Innovation Typology of post-9/11 Military Innovation Processes

Does the contemporary operational environment in which the United States has been engaged for sixteen years represent a period of peacetime or wartime innovation? To recall, peacetime innovations generally occur independent of intelligence assessments regarding adversarial capabilities and are made possible by respected senior officers that create new operational tasks and educational pathways for junior officers to affect long-term change and innovation based on their changing perceptions of the international security environment.[23] These innovations are a long process that occur over time as those junior officers rise within the service ranks to assume leadership positions.[24] Peacetime innovations face the natural drawback of not being able to be tested or proven in their respective operational environments, while outdated and ineffective weapons systems and officers often persist in their current roles.[25] Wartime innovations overcome some of the limitations of peacetime innovation given their ability to be tested immediately in their intended applications, while their implementation is usually sped up and invigorated by higher rates of officer turnover.[26] The difficulties inherent to wartime innovations, however, lay in the development of appropriate measures of effectiveness that can accurately gauge the success of new innovations. Planners cannot know the level of success experienced by an innovation if they do not understand the strategic goal it is being used in pursuit of.[27]

It is difficult to classify the contemporary period of military innovation as occurring during wartime, despite the Defense Department and much of the political leadership of the United States believing the country to be involved in one war or another since October 2001.[28] Taking Rosen’s criteria that describe periods of wartime innovation we can assess that the United States has not experienced the conditions that would be sufficient to classify contemporary military innovations as being considered wartime in nature. Military casualty rates have been minimal relative to previous American conflicts. Between October 7th, 2001 and December 22nd, 2014 only 1,752 officers were killed while participating in operations Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, and New Dawn from both combat and non-combat related circumstances.[29] Low levels of officer turnover rate have not led to the invigorating effects described by Rosen, whereby new innovations are incorporated into combat by newly promoted officers in wartime. Innovation at the doctrinal and technological level appears to remain the slower, senior leadership driven innovative process one would expect in a period of peacetime innovation.[30]

Contemporary military innovations have not benefitted from the ability to be tested in their intended combat application. First generation UAVs (both armed and unarmed) might have been developed ad-hoc for use in LICs, but their newer, net-centric warfare driven descendants are meant to quarterback the digital battlefield alongside manned counterparts such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and ground-based C2 nodes. Using these weapons systems to provide C4ISR and strike capabilities in a LIC setting may have a significant, if not definitive, impact on the current battlefield—but that is not their intended application. These systems, and others like them, have not been tested in the operational environments that would offer a true test of their capabilities. The U.S. Army’s “lessons learned” system implemented in 2006 is an excellent example of a contemporary wartime program that has allowed the organization to learn and innovate with relative success based on experiences in LIC.[31] These lessons, however, apply only to implementation and adaptation of contemporary innovations in LIC settings—not the wars that most contemporary major military innovations are intended for. It would be an analytic and strategic mistake to apply the insights drawn from lessons learned initiatives born of the recent LIC settings to the evaluation and adaptation of military innovations meant to operate in a next-generation near-peer conflict.

Despite the disproportionate grip held on the national budget by the Defense Department, the contemporary period of United States military engagement does not reflect a posture that would be expected from a period of true wartime innovation. Does that mean that the United States is operating within a period of peacetime military innovation? Indeed, the current posture of the United States’ armed forces seems in many ways to be more typical of a period of peacetime innovation. The long-term technical and doctrinal development projects that dominate defense spending and planning commitments appear to reflect the changing perceptions of the security environment held by senior officials.[32] The elevation of Cyber Command to a full combatant command, and the Army’s incentive program for service members who choose cyber related fields, supports the assessment that the military is currently committed to a long-term process of organizational and operational adaptation specifically focused on technology based operations and their kinetic outgrowths.[33] Similarly, the Air Force has implemented an incentive program for pilots who switch from manned to unmanned platforms as well as having created two new career fields related to drone operations.[34]

These examples represent the creation of new educational and promotional pathways for junior officers to foster the growth of specific innovations—ones that are both technological and doctrinal in nature. The Pentagon’s nascent third offset strategy—which remains in question—“combines technology, operational concepts, and organizational constructs -- different ways of organizing our forces [sic], to maintain our ability to project combat power into any area at the time and place of our own choosing.”[35] The array of innovations that make up the third offset represent a long-term commitment to radical technological and operational developments that would in many ways change the fundamental character of the armed forces and the wars in which they are utilized.

Contemporary military innovations, like those that make up the third offset, have been heavily informed by defense planners’ assessments of the likely character of the next major war. Intelligence has obviously played a major role in informing the conceptualization of a possible future war, but because of the inherent complications of incomplete information, deception, and rapid technological development, intelligence cannot be the primary driving factor in contemporary military innovation. Deputy Secretary Robert Work, the Pentagon’s former lead on third offset strategy development, has stated that intelligence certainly frames the pursuit of new innovations, but the driving factors remain the United States’ changing perception of the international security environment.[36] In 2012, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter created the Strategic Capabilities Office with the purpose of countering Russian and Chinese driven changes in the international security environment by ushering into use military innovations “for use in ways the world has never seen, or countered.”[37]

The Defense Department has demonstrated a clear commitment to long-term military innovation projects aimed at fighting and winning a future war and has concurrently undergone the organizational and institutional changes requisite of typical periods of peacetime innovation. It is impossible, however, to disregard to military’s involvement in a high-tempo operational environment that has allowed for the consistent implementation, testing, and evaluation of contemporary military innovations—despite the disparity between current operational environments and those that defense planners are ultimately preparing for. For this reason, it would be analytically inappropriate to categorize the current period of American military innovation as either definitively one of wartime or peacetime.

Assessing the Effectiveness of post-9/11 Military Innovations

Defining the current period of military innovation as somewhere between peacetime and wartime complicates the task of measuring the expected effectiveness of contemporary innovations. To overcome this challenge, this section will borrow from both typologies and expand upon the discussion of their application to the contemporary period of military innovation. This section will analyze the impact of new technological and doctrinal innovations being introduced, tested, and evaluated in operational environments vastly different from their intended application.[38] Is it possible to develop and implement appropriate strategic measures of effectiveness? How can one judge an innovation’s perceived effectiveness without testing them and what implications does this have?

Introducing new military innovations intended to fight and win the next major conventional war for testing and evaluation in an operational environment defined by LIC is detrimental to their overall assessment. The utilization of next-generation weapon systems and new strategic doctrines has proven extremely successful on the LIC battlefields that American forces currently find themselves. And appropriate strategic measures of effectiveness have been developed to assess these new doctrines and technologies as they are applied to the current operational environment.[39] Unfortunately, these conditions have not, however, allowed for contemporary innovations to be tested against the objectives and limitations of their intended application.

It is impossible to apply appropriate strategic measures of effectiveness to the evaluation of contemporary innovations meant to fight and win a near-peer conventional war when they are being utilized in LIC environments. Measures of effectiveness begin with identifying the new strategic goals an innovation is meant to achieve in the context of their intended conflict environment.[40] Traditionally, these are developed and applied during periods of wartime innovation. In the case of the operational environment in which the United States is currently occupied, it is impossible to apply appropriate measures of effectiveness because the environments available for testing and evaluation are unable to provide the operational limitations or strategic objectives necessary to replicate the intended application of most contemporary innovations in a near-peer confrontation.

Take for instance the effectiveness measurement of UAV platforms intended to either passively fulfill a C4ISR responsibility or to engage hostile ground targets in an active strike role. A plausible measure of effectiveness would be based on the systems’ ability to collect and disseminate actionable, valuable intelligence or to accurately engage and eliminate the selected ground targets without being discovered or destroyed themselves. If this measurement of strategic effectiveness was applied to the current operational environment, the evaluation would be unequivocally positive. Without question those systems could achieve those strategic objectives in a LIC environment. Such an evaluation, however, is not transferable to the conflict environment that would prevail in a major conventional war with a near-peer adversary—the limitations and objectives of such a conflict would be strikingly different from those of our current LIC engagements.

Current LIC adversaries do not have robust anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) weaponry, the ability to spoof electronic signals, or the capability to manipulate targeting systems to overcome GPS or laser targeted PGMs. In the environment these innovations are intended to operate within, however, the adversaries would certainly deploy such countermeasures. Evaluating the strategic effectiveness of contemporary innovations in an entirely different conflict environment, therefore, cannot produce reliable assessments with respect to their effectiveness in near-peer conflicts.

A counter-argument against these implications would be that despite the obvious differences in combat environments between LICs and a near-peer conventional conflict, the general utilization and measures of effectiveness of contemporary military innovations would remain the same across the conflict spectrum. That is, regardless of the nature of a conflict, drones will still be used for C4ISR and acute offensive operations, net-centric communications will still be used to link those on the battlefield into the wealth of information being provided from an array of integrated platforms, and precision guided munitions (PGMs) and their delivery platforms will still conduct their missions in relatively the same manner. This sort of institutional arrogance, however, is dangerous.

Historian Williamson Murray blames the Royal Air Force and U.S Army Air Corps’ failed interwar doctrinal and operational innovations on similar factors—they based their measures of effectiveness on previous experiences, rather than basing them upon the likely character of a future conflict.[41] Military organizations that develop innovations based on generic or open ended operational requirements reflect a dangerous analytical ambiguity that is unlikely to produce successful innovations.[42] Evaluating military innovations based on generic strategic measures of effectiveness without accounting for the disparity between their current operational application and their intended future application is ineffective and could have dangerous implications.

Despite the unique pitfalls of the contemporary period of military innovation, the inherent inability to predict the character of the next war looms large. The contemporary period of military innovation has occurred concurrently with a prolonged period of rapid technological advancement. The risks posed by an inability to effectively test military innovations in their intended applications are compunded when they occur during a period of great technological advancement.[43] It is nearly impossible to understand how the various technological and doctrinal innovations would impact the way that a future war is fought. Unfortunately, “the full impact and implications of technological, doctrinal, and tactical changes can never be clear in peacetime until war actually begins.”[44] The uncertainty of what the next war would look like is compounded by the inability to develop and implement relevant strategic measures of effectiveness for the evaluation of contemporary innovations.

Predicting the Future: Is it Possible to Prepare for the Right Next War?

Accurately predicting the character of a major confrontation with a near-peer adversary may prove to be the most difficult aspect of overcoming the challenges of effective military innovation in the contemporary period. The United States defense and political establishment says it is committed to fighting and winning the next major near-peer conventional conflict. The 2014 Defense Quadrennial Review states in part that, “If deterrence fails at any given time, U.S. forces will be capable of defeating a regional adversary in a large-scale multi-phased campaign, and denying the objectives of – or imposing unacceptable costs on – a second aggressor in another region.”[45] The United States armed forces certainly possess the manpower and material capable to sustain a two-front major conflict, but does it possess the knowledge necessary to predict what that conflict would look like? The 2014 review notes that “[innovations are] paramount given the increasingly complex warfighting environment we expect to encounter.”[46] But can those complexities be fully predicted, understood, and appropriately planned for?

Military planning for the next major near-peer conventional conflict is predicated on the prevailing doctrine of maneuver based combined-arms warfare. “Modern system force employment,” as it was put forth by Stephen Biddle’s definitive study, emphasizes the coordinated use of cover, concealment, and maneuver at the tactical level, and the use of combined-arms, depth, and differential concentration at the higher level of operational strategy.[47] It is within this strategic framework that technological and doctrinal innovations are being developed and deployed. Future wars, however, are likely to challenge the application of modern system force employment. Reliance on technologies and strategic doctrines predicated on this theory of force utilization risks the serious potential for significant early setbacks, requiring rapid and widespread adaptations in the opening exchanges of a potential future war.

There are very few existing test-cases with which to assess the potential character of a future war based on operational experience rather than academic and theoretical speculation. One recent show of next-generation military force, however, illustrates many of the likely hallmarks of a future near-peer conflict. The Ukrainian Civil War has seen the use of multiple contemporary Russian military innovations against U.S. equipment and operational doctrines with great success. Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander U.S. Army Europe, has stated on the record that American forces training Ukrainian military units have been exposed to an array of Russian next-generation warfare capabilities.[48] Most notably, Russia has demonstrated a willingness and ability to electronically target and manipulate American drones being used to assist Ukrainian government forces in eastern Ukraine.[49] Russian forces have also successfully disabled the communication, GPS, and radar systems of U.S.-backed government forces in ways that foreshadow the intended approach likely to be taken by the Russians in a potential major conventional conflict with the American military.[50]

A future war would challenge the U.S. military’s reliance on C4ISR capabilities by putting them up against an adversary capable of fielding its own comparable next-generation capabilities while actively attempting to deny our own systems. Modern military innovations predicated in development on—and evaluated against—being used in un-denied conflict environments where communications, sensors, and targeting platforms operate unobstructed and as designed, are very likely to face a strikingly different set of constraints if deployed in a future near-peer war.

Final Thoughts on the Challenges of Contemporary American Military Innovation

History has shown that it is extremely difficult to predict the character of the next war and that it is even more difficult to innovate accordingly. In 1993, Andrew Marshall, long time director of OSD/ONA, compared the emerging period of technological and doctrinal military innovation in the early 1990s to that of the interwar period.[51] Barry Watts and Williamson Murray believe that if that predication is true, then the impressive use of—and continued reliance upon—PGMs, information warfare, and satellite-based sensor networks during the Persian Gulf War is akin to the British Army’s first large scale use of combined arms warfare in the First World War Battle of Cambrai.[52]

The critical caveat to the Cambrai analogy that is essential to this paper’s conclusions is that the operational experience and relative success of the British Cambrai offensive provided only a partial understanding of how future combined-arms warfare would play out two decades later during the Nazi blitzkrieg operations. Rather than reassessing the lessons learned from the Cambrai offensive given the changing international security environment of the interwar period, allied military planners utilized “abstract generalizations” to develop and evaluate their military innovations intended for future combined-arms warfare.

Allied innovations in combined-arms warfare were not tested against the operational objectives and limitations of the future war they were intended to be utilized in. The result was the overwhelming victory of the Nazi forces over ill-prepared Allied forces in the invasion of Western Europe. Allied planners developed technological and doctrinal innovations based on the lessons of the First World War and intended to apply them to the uncertain environment of the next major war without accounting for the rapid technological and doctrinal evolutions of the interwar period. The result was nearly catastrophic.

Policy Guidance on Winning the Next War

Michael Howard predicted that when facing the necessity to innovate technologically and doctrinally in preparing to fight and win a hypothetical future war, “we will get it wrong.” The correct policy initiative, given the numerous uncertainties, is to “build a tool box with a lot of tools.”[53] Rosen’s belief that successful peacetime innovation occurs when senior officers affect innovation based upon their perception of the changing international security environment rather than intelligence assessments regarding adversarial capabilities carries substantial significance for future innovation.[54]

Technological and doctrinal innovation is occurring too rapidly for intelligence to stay accurately abreast of enemy capabilities and doctrinal evolutions. The best indicator of the likely character of a future war remains predicated on the frequent reassessment of the international security environment and emerging technological capabilities. Rather than trying to develop new innovations that we believe are a panacea to the challenges of winning the next major war as we believe it will be fought, military and civilian leadership officials ought to seek to maintain a robust set of tools that can be rapidly adapted to meet the unforeseen requirements of a future near-peer conflict.

Andrew Marshall asked Watts and Murray what lessons could be learned and applied from previous periods of concurrent rapid technological and doctrinal innovation to the emergence of what was once termed the “Revolution in Military Affairs.” The conclusions they offered remain true today.

The first major conclusion is that there is a necessity to revise interpretations of the future character of warfare as technology and the international security environment evolves. An objective analysis and re-evaluation of innovations given the difference between the circumstances of their original testing and evaluation and their intended application is paramount as well. And finally, there must be a general acceptance of the role of chance in the success or failure of military innovation.[55] Military innovation is nonlinear and previous success or a commanding lead in innovation over an adversary in previous confrontations does not guarantee that those technological or doctrinal advantages will carry over into the future conflict being planned for.


Successfully innovating militarily to fight and win the next major war is difficult. The inherent ambiguities of what a future war may look like—and the inability to test emerging innovations against their intended applications—presents significant challenges. The fact that the United States is in the midst of a period existing somewhere between peacetime and wartime further complicates the process. Innovations are being developed over longer periods of time based upon defense planners’ perception of what a future near-pear conventional war would look like. These perceptions, unfortunately, are likely to be misguided and not entirely accurate because of the inherent inability to truly perceive what a future war would look like. The prolonged operational focus of American military forces on LICs has allowed for emerging innovations to be evaluated in combat. These evaluations, however, are not being conducted against the set of objectives and limitations the innovations are meant to be applied to.

These difficulties have not doomed the United States to failure in its pursuit of overwhelming superiority and the capability to win a future war against a near-peer adversary. Instead, military planners have overseen many important innovations like next generation C4ISR platforms and information driven weapon system that can always be adapted in combat to overcome the realities of a future conflict. Ideally, the American armed forces should be positioned to effectively respond in any way necessary to potential near-peer conflicts. This means developing the requisite technological and doctrinal foundations to rapidly spin up tailor-made adaptations for application to a full spectrum of potential contingencies. History has shown that predictions about the future character of war are often inaccurate. The United States should not invest itself too heavily in the belief that existing systems will be superior in a potential conflict without the need for significant adaptation. Leaders go to war with the resources they have—but ideally those resources will be readily adaptable to the individual conflict’s requirements.

The views expressed within this paper are solely those of the author and are not representative of the author’s relationship the University of Pennsylvania Law School or any other affiliates. All information contained herein is based entirely on unclassified, publicly available information.

End Notes

[1] See, Stephen Biddle, Military Power (Princeton University Press, 2010). Chapter 1. This is not a phenomenon unique to the United States. Biddle maintains that because the force structure of the United States, and most major and regional powers, is based on units intended to wage conventional warfare with near-peer opponents, the focus of defense planners and analysts inevitably continues to center on major wars regardless of the current preoccupation with low-intensity conflicts.

[2] Technological advances make it hard to stay abreast of emerging military capabilities. Much like nuclear war, large-scale planning for a future war that is dominated by technology rather than conventional weaponry remains largely speculative.

[3] “FY 2017 Program Acquisition Cost by Weapon System” (U.S. Department of Defense, February 2016),

[4]“Major Defense Acquisition Programs (MDAPs) and  Major Automated Information System (MAIS) List,” U.S. Department of Defense, April 1, 2017,; The document cited in Note 4 states that “the combined capabilities and performance of United States (U.S.) weapon systems are unmatched throughout the world, ensuring that U.S. military forces have the advantage over any adversary.” (emphasis added)

[5] Networked C4ISR capabilities have given American and allied forces the ability to see the battlefield like never before, but these capabilities and the platforms that support them have been operating in un-denied areas of operation. They have not been tested against A2AD systems that would severely hinder their effectiveness.

[6] Barry R Posen, The Sources of Military Doctrine (Cornell University Press, 1984).

[7] Stephen Peter Rosen, Winning the Next War (Cornell University Press, 1994).

[8] Owen Cote, “The Politics of Innovative Military Doctrine: The U.S. Navy and Fleet Ballistic Missiles” (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Department of Political Science, 1996).

[9] Elizabeth Kier, Imagining War (Princeton University Press, 1997).

[10] See, Theo Farrell and Terry Terriff, The Sources of Military Change (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002).

[11] Stephen Peter Rosen, Winning the Next War. Page 7.

[12] Terry C Pierce, Warfighting and Disruptive Technologies (Frank Cass, 2004). Page 13.

[13] Ibid., page 8.

[14] Ibid., pages 18-21, 57.

[15] Ibid., page 23.

[16] See, Terry Moon Cronk, “Carter: DoD, Private-Sector Tech Innovation Keep U.S. Ahead,” U.S. Department of Defense, March 3, 2016,; Terry Moon Cronk, “Pentagon, DIUx Officials Discuss DoD, Industry Innovation,” U.S. Department of Defense, August 5, 2015,

[17] Alan R Millet and Williamson Murray, Military Innovation in the Interwar Period (Cambridge University Press, 1996). Page 1.

[18] Bradd Hayes and Douglas Smith, “The Politics of Naval Innovation,” An Occasional Paper of The Center for Naval Warfare Studies (U.S. Naval War College, Strategic Research Department, 1994). Pages 3-4.

[19] Ibid., page 87.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Stephen Peter Rosen, Winning the Next War. Page 243.

[22] Chris Demchak, “Complexity and Theory of Networked Militaries,” in The Sources of Military Change, ed. Theo Farrell and Terry Terriff (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002).

[23] Stephen Peter Rosen, Winning the Next War. Page 57-59.

[24] Ibid., page 105.

[25] Ibid., page 109.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., page 110-111.

[28] This prevailing sense of being involved in an ongoing war is perhaps best illustrated by the declaration made by President Obama, an individual who made his best effort to tamper public perception of the United States as a nation at war. “Our nation has been at war with terrorists since al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 Americans on 9/11.” And again in the same speech: “Finally, if Congress believes, as I do, that we are at war with ISIL, it should go ahead and vote to authorize the continued use of military force against these terrorists.”

Barack Obama, “Address to the Nation by the President,” The Barack Obama White House Archives, December 6, 2015,

[29] Nese F. DeBruyne and Anne Leland, “American War and Military Operations Casualties: Lists and Statistics” (Congressional Research Service, April 26, 2017),

[30] There have been instances of bottom-up adaptation originating at the tactical level. These adaptions, however, have not affected major military innovation and planning with respect to a potential confrontation with near-peer adversaries.

[31] Robert T. Foley, Stuart Griffin, and Helen McCartney, “Transformation in Contact: Learning the Lessons of Modern War,” International Affairs 87, no. 2 (2011): 253–70.

[32] “Major Defense Acquisition Programs (MDAPs) and Major Automated Information System (MAIS) List,” U.S. Department of Defense, April 1, 2017,

[33] See, Sean D. Carberry, “NDAA Elevates Cyber Command – FCW,” FCW, November 30, 2016,; “Assignment, Special Duty Pays OKd for Cyber Soldiers,” Army Times, April 21, 2015,

[34] Chaitra M. Hardison, Michael G. Mattock, and Maria C. Lytell, “Incentive Pay for Remotely Piloted Aircraft Career Fields,” Project Air Force (RAND, 2012),

[35] Bob Work, “Remarks by Deputy Secretary Work on Third Offset Strategy,” U.S. Department of Defense, April 28, 2016,

[36] Ibid.

[37] Cheryl Pellerin, “Deputy Secretary: Third Offset Strategy Bolsters America’s Military Deterrence,” U.S. Department of Defense, October 31, 2016,

[38] This is based on Rosen’s wartime innovation typology which discusses the benefits of applied testing and evaluation. We cannot assess the impact of officer turnover and its invigorating effects because that has already been ruled out as a variable in the contemporary period of innovation.

[39] Interestingly, contrary to Rosen’s theory, adaptation of contemporary innovations to LIC applications has been driven by way of a bottom-up process whereby learning and assessment originates and disseminates from the tactical-level of operations. See, Chad C Serena, A Revolution in Military Adaptation (Georgetown University Press, 2011).

[40] Rosen, Winning the Next War. Page 110-111.

[41] Citing the “bomber will always get through” mentality, Murray alludes to defense planners’ inaccurate perception of the impact of adversarial air defense capabilities.

[42] Williamson Murray, “Thinking About Innovation,” Naval War College Review 54, no. 2 (2001): 119–29.

[43] “Army Transformation, A View from the U.S. Army War College” (Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, July 2001), Page 8.

[44] Ibid., page 6.

[45] “2014 Quadrennial Defense Review” (U.S. Department of Defense, March 2014), Page VI.

[46] Ibid., page VII.

[47] Stephen Biddle, Military Power. Page 3.

[48] Joe Gould, “Electronic Warfare: What US Army Can Learn From Ukraine,” Defense News, August 2, 2015,

[49] “Exclusive: U.S. Drones Hacked by Russia in Ukraine,” Reuters, December 21, 2016,

[50] Joe Gould, “Electronic Warfare: What US Army Can Learn From Ukraine,” Defense News, August 2, 2015.

[51] Andrew Marshall, “Some Thoughts on Military Revolutions” (U.S. Department of Defense, Office of Net Assessment (OSD/NA), 1993).

[52] Barry Watts and Williamson Murray, “Military Innovation in Peacetime,” in Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, ed. Williamson Murray and Allan Millett (Cambridge University Press, 1996). Pages 377-378.

[53] Michael J. McMahon, “Adaptive Transformation Model: A Branch to the Army Transformation Campaign Plan,” in Army Transformation: A View from the U.S. Army War College, ed. Williamson Murray (Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2001). Pages 217-218.

[54] Rosen, Winning the Next War. Page 127.

[55] Barry Watts and Williamson Murray, “Military Innovation in Peacetime,” in Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, ed. Williamson Murray and Allan Millett (Cambridge University Press, 1996). Pages 406-415.


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