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Voices from the Disruptors: Profiles in Leading Military Innovation

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Voices from the Disruptors: Profiles in Leading Military Innovation

Nick Brunetti-Lihach

“If adapting to wartime conditions is extraordinarily difficult, those involved in peacetime innovation confront almost insoluble problems.”[1]

Leaders of military innovation possess intangible qualities to face the unknown. Military organizations seek leaders who can intuitively develop new concepts and integrate technology. Since the rare innovative genius gifted with a “touch of divine fire” cannot be manufactured, an adaptive leader must arrange talent, process, and organization to produce effective change.[2] History has shown successful military innovation requires leaders with vision, temperament, and conviction. A vision establishes an objective, even temperament builds a cohesive team, and conviction lends passion and patience to that end.

Qualities of successful leaders in military innovation are difficult to measure objectively. First, a successful leader must possess a clear vision to communicate a picture of the future. Second, a leader evinces the temperament to build a team of talented individuals in an environment of collaboration and experimentation. Even temperament provides the means to protect the team, build consensus within the institution, and secure support from superiors. Third, a leader must have the conviction to change the status quo and convince the institution of the value of a disruptive innovation.

Military victory is no longer a one-dimensional test in raw strength of arms. Marshal Foch’s pronouncement that “the laurels of victory hang on the enemy’s bayonets” is poignant romantic symbolism, but hardly an innovative strategy to integrate doctrine, organization, and materiel.[3] Before the first shot is fired, military victory is influenced by myriad factors. As General McCaffrey remarked following the U.S. victory over Iraqi forces in the first Gulf War, the war “didn’t take 100 hours to win, it took 15 years.”[4]

Military revolutions permanently alter the character of war. For example, the French and Industrial Revolutions forever changed the conduct of war through national political mobilization, railroads, steamships and the telegraph.[5] External factors such as national security threats and political/social factors also influence warfare and the appetite for innovation. Historian Scott Stephenson has developed a useful model of military transformation which categorizes threats, military culture, and politics as key external factors influencing the concepts, technological, and logistical resources comprising military innovation.[6] Stephenson’s model is not prescriptive but offers a solid point of departure to explore additional factors that drive change. These internal factors include inter-service competition, institutional bureaucracy, and the more intangible aspects of leadership (figure 1).[7]


Figure 1. Leadership at the Center of Military Innovation.

Despite internal and external influences, leadership is the keystone of military innovation. External factors apply pressure, but it is up to leaders to focus the men and materiel at their disposal. A shrewd leader cultivates talent through a culture of learning, sets conditions for experimentation and risk-taking, and protects the mavericks who challenge the status quo.[8] These military leaders are not easily encountered.

An innovative genius comes along once in a generation. The air defense network developed in Britain on the eve of the Second World War was the product of a visionary with a talent for bringing the right people together toward an objective he tirelessly pursued. Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, commander of the Royal Air Force (RAF) Fighter Command, was the rare leader who implemented the innovation he conceived. Dowding foresaw the complex air defense system required to defend Britain from the German Luftwaffe, then developed and implemented a system of people and technology in time for the Battle of Britain.

Dowding did not work alone but created the conditions for success. He established the Tizard Committee in 1935, which comprised of a small group of experts. Its small size ensured a remove from the political battles in London.[9] This enabled the Committee to think through the problem of air defense holistically, with open-minds prodded by Dowding for new ideas.[10]

Dowding was the bridge between operational developments and innovation. The Tizard Committee flourished under his leadership. Radar was developed and employed, and a network of radar and radio relays were built to disseminate information to command centers. Dowding was an unorthodox thinker who simply possessed an innovate mind ahead of his time.[11] Dowding’s accomplishment, bolstered by the Tizard Committee, was all the more remarkable given the preeminence of airpower doctrine and conventional wisdom among the British military aviation establishment.[12] Dowding possessed the vision, temperament, and conviction to accomplish his goals, resulting in a system that saved Britain from German air power.

Dowding’s prescient air defense system stands in contrast to RAF Bomber Command. Bomber Command had ample resources but lacked visionary leadership to further technological requirements for effective strategic bombing. Its leaders stifled innovation, even during the early years of the Second World War.[13] While Bomber Command possessed a vision of air power, this vision was flawed, and its leadership lacked the intellectual honesty to test and report the validity of its air power doctrine.[14]

The process of military innovation is hindered without “a credible threat.”[15] A clear threat creates a sense of urgency within an organization, focusing leaders and resources. A threat coupled with inter-service rivalry provides additional ingredients for change. During the interwar period, the U.S. Marine Corps was in the midst of an institutional fight for survival. It responded by creating new concepts, doctrine and tactics.[16]

A young Marine officer pioneered the contours of Marine Corps amphibious operations. Lieutenant Colonel Earl “Pete” Ellis foresaw the need for amphibious doctrine in anticipation of a future Pacific campaign against Japan. Ellis, an intelligence officer with a gift to communicate effectively in writing, first wrote a thesis on the seizure of amphibious bases as a young Captain at the Naval War College in 1913. Later, Ellis organized and led exercises simulating amphibious attacks across coral reefs against defended bases.

Ellis was supported by senior Marine officers and provided the time and resources to focus his efforts. Marine Corps Commandant Lieutenant General John A. Lejeune recognized the talent of then Major “Pete” Ellis, and protected him, despite his struggles with alcohol. Ellis’ work resulted in the development of a coherent doctrine to address the challenge of amphibious operations. In 1920, Ellis completed the Marine Corps’ contribution to War Plan Orange, known as Operation Plan 712 – Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia.[17] The relevance of Ellis’ vision was validated as the Marine Corps carried forward his concepts in 1934 with the publication of the Tentative Manual for Landing Operations.[18]

A clear external threat coupled with rapid technological change presents challenge and opportunity. During the First World War, the industrial revolution, mass politics, nationalism, and aviation produced Revolutions in Military Affairs. However, the “problem for those engaged in attempting to solve the conundrums raised by modern weaponry was that they faced a kaleidoscope of choices.”[19] These problems were addressed over many bloody years along the western front among all belligerents, perhaps most aggressively by the Germans.

A leader’s tolerance for criticism opens the door to change. German Quartermaster General Erich Ludendorff demonstrated a temperament to listen to critiques and share the ideas of junior officers during the First World War. Ludendorff encouraged an exchange of ideas among combat veterans during the war. Ludendorff realized doctrine had become stale. In 1915, a young Captain named Willy Rohr became a pioneer of Stormtrooper tactics. Rohr experimented with new equipment in different configurations, and as a result, Stormtrooper units were given more weapons at lower tactical levels, such as grenades and mortars. Upon learning of Rohr’s innovations, Ludendorff directed Rohr and his soldiers to train the rest of the army in their tactics.[20] Ludendorff lacked the precise vision for success, but his temperament and conviction helped enable and motivate transformation of German infantry tactics.

Leading military innovation also offers cautionary tales. In Great Britain during and after World War One, JFC Fuller and Basil Liddell Hart advocated passionately for armor warfare. Each were acknowledged visionaries and highly regarded for their intellect. Yet the methods they employed to advocate for change included verbal and written attacks upon senior generals, and the officer corps as a whole. Their vitriol was not well accepted and detracted from their ideas.[21] Fuller’s hubris even caused him to decline command of an experimental armor unit. In time, poor temperament and inability to compromise cost both men influence among British Army leadership.[22] Thus Fuller and Hart’s temperament hindered their goals and exacerbated differences.[23]

Poor temperament also plagued a renowned American aviator. U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF) aviator Billy Mitchell could not get out of his own way. Mitchell was a pioneer of air power during World War I and through much of the interwar period. Like Fuller and Hart, Mitchell possessed remarkable vision and the courage of his convictions. However, his passion boiled over to attacks against senior military officers and other services.[24] As a strong advocate for the decisive role of aircraft in future wars, Mitchell predicted the impact of aircraft in naval engagements. In 1921, Mitchell orchestrated the first public demonstration of an aircraft sinking a battleship.[25] However, Mitchell continued to challenge the traditional branches of the military in public forums and could not restrain himself from personal attacks against senior officers, to the point that he was court-martialed. While Mitchell possessed vision and conviction to express his ideas, his temperament tainted his influence.

A void of leadership also has consequences for military innovation. During World War Two, the USAAF missed opportunities to develop a long-range escort fighter due to muddled leadership lacking the vision and conviction to address a known problem. The Eighth Air Force requested extended range fighters in October 1942, but no action was taken until June 1943. Meanwhile, V and VIII Fighter Commands independently developed belly tanks. Even after the issue caught the attention of General Arnold, the belly tanks took 11 months to field. This demonstrates the consequences of absentee leadership and a bureaucracy unable to meet the needs of field commanders.[26]

Innovation without leadership will stagnate until a threat compels action. In 1996, Marine Captain Wayne Sinclair highlighted the military’s vulnerability to land mines in The Marine Corps Gazette. Sinclair explained how the vulnerability could be mitigated with mine-resistant vehicles.[27] He reviewed historical attempts to counter mines and noted South Africa’s success with V-shaped hulls. A decade later, Sinclair was unfortunately proven correct in Iraq and Afghanistan. While Sinclair possessed the vision and conviction to communicate his concept, his idea was not championed until the threat became severe. As General Dunford remarked at National Defense University in 2017, “there is no substitute for leadership that recognizes the implications of new ideas, new technologies, and new approaches.”[28]

“Military organizations must continue to adapt, because the enemy is adapting as well.”[29]

There is natural friction between innovation-minded thinkers and those who seek to guard the status quo. Innovators are described as “young Turks” by like-minded senior leadership, or derided as “insurgents” by the bureaucracy who view themselves as caretakers of the institution. Young Turks are energetic, full of ideas, and impatient to implement change. The right kind of leader may have mentored a Mitchell, Hart, or Fuller, supporting their vision and conviction, while tempering their enthusiasm.

Given the inability to anticipate an innovative genius, there is merit to pressing for institutional change to face emerging problems. After all, “a position of authority does not confer the ability to lead.”[30] A leader of innovation has the power and influence to incubate new ideas within small groups to create solutions and connect with top leadership.[31] Small groups of people, ideally with direct access to decision makers, have historically had success innovating.[32] This requires leaders willing to risk failure, tolerate criticism, and fight for their vision.

“The bureaucratization of innovation – particularly in the current framework of the US military – guarantees its death.”[33]

Historian Williamson Murray has compared the current period to the decades before the First World War, when external factors created significant technological change among sophisticated opponents.”[34] Given that bleak assessment, military leaders have a duty to ensure conditions for successful innovation thrive. The military has favored expansion of bureaucratic organizations to drive innovation. Unless stewarded under competent leaders, these organizations will fail.[35] Creative, fast-paced innovation runs counter to the nature of the bureaucracy, which favors stability and incremental change, driven by consensus.[36] Bureaucracies often bypass the warfighter and stifle innovation.[37] The ability of a leader to tame the bureaucracy is a rare feat. In recent military history, the ability of General Abrams to impose his will upon the Army’s development communities to focus on the “Big Five” is perhaps the most recent example.[38]

Technological advantage has been a key to U.S. military dominance for decades. Yet today’s military is “choking on old technology.”[39] The rate of change of technology has made current systems obsolete upon fielding. As a result, the military possesses a “baroque arsenal” of expensive, outdated platforms that tie down force structure.[40] However, military success is not determined by technology acquisition. A force capable of adapting to the pressures of war faster than the enemy is just as important as technological dominance. Military advantage is fundamentally about the culture, organization and human material that leverages technology.[41] As one observer pointed out, technological advances alone count for little if military preparedness is low. In 1940, French tanks were superior to those of the Germans, but their doctrine, organization and tactical skills were lacking. Hence, “basic soldiering skills will always be the cornerstone of military power.”[42] This is important to remember as senior leaders have become enamored with commercial solutions.

Effective leadership is a critical requirement for successful innovation. Leaders must possess the right vision, temperament and conviction for successful change. These skills must be developed through talent management and education and protected from internal and external forces. The recently National Defense Strategy has made a “compelling case for innovation.”[43] More importantly, there is a compelling case to ensure civilian and military leadership carefully select leaders of innovation who possess the right attributes, and capacity for strategic thinking. As historian Brian McAllister Linn noted, skilled operational commanders win campaigns, but these qualities may not translate to conceiving a future force.[44]

End Notes

[1] Williamson Murray, America and the Future of War (Stanford: Hoover Institution, 2017), 59.

[2] Williamson Murray, “Armored Warfare,” in Military Innovation in the Interwar Period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 25.

[3] Michael Howard, “Men against Fire: The Doctrine of the Offensive in 1914,” in Makers of Modern Strategy, ed. Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), 514.

[4] Robert H. Scales, “Certain Victory: The U.S. Army in the Gulf War,” in H300 Book of Readings (Fort Leavenworth, KS: USACGSC, December, 2017), 291.

[5] Williamson Murray and MacGregor Knox, “Thinking about revolutions in warfare,” in The Dynamics in Military Revolution: 1300-2050, ed. MacGregor Knox and Williamson Murray (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 13.

[6] Scott Stephenson, “Clouds and Arrows: Visualizing the Dynamics of Transformation,” in Military Review (Leavenworth, KS: March-April 2006), 95-99.

[7] Christopher R. Gabel, “Innovative Thinking in the Interwar Army, 1920-40,” in H200 Book of Readings, (Fort Leavenworth, KS: USACGSC, November, 2017), 33.

[8] Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., “US Must Overcome Hubris and Prepare for Surprise: Experts.” Breaking Defense. February 21, 2018. (accessed March 14, 2018).

[9] Colin S. Gray, The Future of Strategy (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2015), 55.

[10] Alan Beyerchen, “From Radio to Radar,” ed., Williamson Murray and Alan Millet, Military Innovation in the Interwar Period (Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, 1996), 279.

[11] Alan Beyerchen, “From Radio to Radar,” Murray/Millet, Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, 1996, 281-5.

[12] Beyerchen, “From Radio to Radar,” 278.

[13] James S. Corum, “The Myth of Air Control: Reassessing the History,” in Aerospace Power Journal (Winter 2000), 62-63.

[14] Williamson Murray, ed., “Innovation Past and Future,” in Military Innovation in the Interwar Period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 320.

[15] Scott Stephenson, The Revolution in Military Affairs: 12 Observations on an out of fashion idea, Military Review, May-June 2010, 44.

[16] Victor H. Krulak, First to Fight (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1984), 73.

[17] Ibid, 77.

[18] Ibid, 82.

[19] Murray, America and the Future of War, 57.

[20] Timothy T. Lupfer, “The Elastic Defense-in-Depth,” in H100 Book of Readings (Leavenworth, KS: USACGSC, July 2017), 362-3.

[21] Williamson Murray, “Armored Warfare,” 12.

[22] Williamson Murray, “Armored Warfare,” 24-25.

[23] Barry Watts and Williamson Murray, “Military Innovation in Peacetime,” in Military Innovation in the Interwar Period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 405.

[24] Williamson Murray, “Strategic Bombing,” in Military Innovation in the Interwar Period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 123.

[25] Watts and Murray, “Military Innovation in Peacetime,” 391.

[26] William R. Emerson, “Operation POINTBLANK: A Tale of Bombers and Fighters,” in H200 Book of Readings (Leavenworth, KS: USACGSC, December, 2017), 423.

[27] Wayne A. Sinclair, “Answering the Landmine,” The Marine Corps Gazette 80, no. 7 (July 1996), (accessed March 18, 2018).

[28] Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., “Gen. Dunford's Remarks at the National Defense University Graduation” (lecture, National Defense University, Fort McNair, Washington, DC), (accessed March 18, 2018).

[29] Murray, America and the Future of War, 128.

[30] Reed Bonadonna, “Adaptive Leadership and the Warfighter,” 4 January 2018, in The Strategy Bridge,


[32] Evan Thomas, “Engineers of Victory by Paul Kennedy, about WWII’s Innovators.” The Washington Post. February 1, 2013. (accessed March 10, 2018).

[33] Williamson Murray, “Innovation: Past and Future,” in Military Innovation in the Interwar Period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 326.

[34] Murray, America and the Future of War, 173.

[35] Murray, America and the Future of War, 130.

[36] Murray, Knox, Alvin Bernstein, The Making of Strategy: Rulers, States, and War (Cambridge, 1992), pp. 615-6.

[37] Jacquelyn Schneider and Nina Kollars, “Cyber Beyond Third Offset: A Call for Warfighter-led Innovation.” War on The Rocks. January 5, 2017. (accessed March 23, 2018).

[38] Scales, “Certain Victory: The US Army in the Gulf War,” 281.

[39] Leon Blanken, Jason Lepore, Stephen Rodriguez, “America’s Military is Choking on Old Technology.” Foreign Policy. January 29, 2018. (accessed January 30, 2018).

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Franz-Stefan Gady, “What the Gulf War Teaches About the Future of War.” The Diplomat. March 2, 2018. (accessed March 4, 2018).

[44] Brian McAllister Linn, “The U.S. Armed Forces’ View of War,” Daedalus (140, no. 3 2011), 49.

Categories: military innovation

About the Author(s)

Major Nicola "Nick" Brunetti-Lihach is a Marine Corps Officer currently attending the U.S. Army Command and General Staff Officer Course in Leavenworth, Kansas. Major Brunetti-Lihach has served tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan.