Small Wars Journal

innovation

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.

Constructive Disruption: The Defense Entrepreneur's Forum

One year ago today, an oft repeated, maligned and admired phrase kicked off a broad dialogue, bringing together a growing, widespread, and once-disparate community of defense innovators.  Put simply, the idea of Disruptive Thinking was a call to question the status quo, to leverage existing innovative civilian institutions and to find crossover applications for use by the military.  In the year since, however, a necessary question has been asked many times:  What is Disruptive Thinking, really, and how do you put it into action?  How do we link creative, emerging military leaders with the senior decision makers that can actually put their ideas to use?

We believe a compelling answer is the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum.  Rank has no monopoly on innovative solutions, and DEF2013 will be the engine to match warfighters “in the arena” with senior mentors hungry for ideas generated by creative, emerging leaders.  This three day event, to be held at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business over Columbus Day Weekend 2013, will be a significant departure from conventional military conferences.

The Forum

DEF2013 is not associated with any traditional Defense entities, but instead produced of, by, and for emerging military leaders.  The only agenda is creating practical solutions to enable more flexibility for senior commanders, and to impart a sense of involvement and empowerment to warfighters brimming with valuable tactical and strategic contributions. It leverages the power of diverse, short presentations with the creative ideation of hack-a-thon weekend events.  These aspects are designed to tackle those issues most pressing to the current generation of military leaders and veterans. 

There are two main elements to the weekend:  The first consists of 20-30 minute talks by emerging military leaders, both officer and enlisted, with robust audience engagement.  The Saturday morning session will feature a variety of topics presented by a diverse crowd of Disruptive Thinkers.   Sunday’s morning session will showcase military entrepreneurs – both veteran and currently serving servicemembers – as they explore the connection between building an actual business and serving one’s country.

The meat of DEF2013, however, is in the hack-a-thon like afternoons.  Ideas, generated pre-conference by actual attendees, will be discussed at length, and solutions proposed in a collaborative, freeform way.  To support these breakouts, professors from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business will give two roundtables on marketing and sales, as well as be placed as mentors within the ideation groups.  At the end of the weekend, each of the self-assembled teams will have come up with a comprehensive, relevant solution to whatever military problem they set out to tackle.

Integral to this is the engagement of senior leaders.  Coming up with good ideas by emerging leaders is one thing – but guiding them through institutional inertia to reality, and providing mentorship to ensure they are implemented, is something uniquely suited to tested leadership.  We are recruiting current and recently retired senior mentors to come on board to hear out, and perhaps champion, the ideas generated from the deckplates.  Such great minds as LTG (ret) James Dubik and LTG Frederick “Ben” Hodges have already joined up, and we’re working to bring two to three more flag officers from each service. 

Finally, Monday morning will culminate with a venture capital-like panel of local, Chicago-based entrepreneurs and Flag Officers.  They will judge the best idea, solution and presentation, and in return for identifying the best solutions, engage on behalf of the winning team to get their project implemented.

The Reason

Why do we believe this is needed?  What value does this add to the already ongoing discussion?

More than ever, recent battle-tested leaders, both emerging and senior, have had to adapt under incredibly challenging and unforeseen circumstances.  Capturing their agile minds and putting them to use in solving current fiscal and strategic problems is necessary for the continued progression of our services.  Without a doubt, the current century will become more complex as technology evolves, unforeseen threats emerge, and fiscal constraints set in.  More importantly, we need to create a dialogue that elevates the professionalism and creative capabilities of our services as a whole.

Those of us writing today believe the next step in the evolution of Disruptive Thinking is not just through increased online interaction or relying upon status quo bureaucratic processes.  Rather, it will be accomplished by bringing the most agile and innovative minds from across the military together in one place for a lively exchange of ideas and solutions.  This is the heart of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum.

The Spark

While the original article on Disruptive Thinking was focused on leveraging education, we recognize that warfighting must always come first in any conversation about innovation and the military.  This is inimically tied to the fact that people, not tech, are our greatest assets

Immediately after the publication of the aforementioned article, members of what are now the DEF Board observed incredibly informative and coherent arguments related to military strategy and innovation over social media. Through many conversations via Twitter and Facebook, it became apparent that disparate networks of individuals, spanning all ranks and services, were effectively fleshing out the most pressing issues of the day in non-traditional ways. 

It also became apparent that innovators have inherent ways of finding each other.  As their distributed networks grow, cross-cultural (and cross-rank) engagement increases.   Though they never meet, some even become close friends.  There is a unique power in informal networks created by personal interactions, even if they begin in cyberspace. 

Yet something was missing in this process.  That element was the intangible benefit of seeing your intellectual sparring partner face to face.  The discussions on Twitter, Facebook and various national security forums for emerging military leaders needed to come out of the virtual world and into the physical one.

While discussing this power of networking and the need for an in-person forum to build the relationships required to effect change, the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum was born. 

Soon after inception, our personal networks pointed us towards the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, where they not only found a world class institution, but a strong veterans group.  Leveraging the military experience and entrepreneurial education of recent veterans who are still engaged in national defense dialogue was a perfect fit.

Subsequently, the Executive Board was recruited and, quite inadvertently, spanned the armed services.  Many were asked to join based on their disruptive writings – others because they were known practitioners of innovation. All are focused on creating a compelling experience that will unite, excite and build relational networks that will span careers.

The Call

And so, on Columbus Day weekend 2013, Saturday October 12th through Monday October 14th, we encourage the brightest and most creative emerging and senior military leaders to descend upon the Windy City.  While there, we will discuss ways to push forward innovative and disruptive ideas, while doing so alongside senior mentors willing to consider our proposals. 

We’ve lined up a great cast of speakers and professors to push this event forward.  What we still need is you – your intellectual capital and your time – to engage with fellow innovators.  We need both senior and emerging leaders to participate.

DEF2013 will be more than a conference to mingle and hand out business cards; it will be a unique opportunity to interact and connect with fellow military and veteran entrepreneurs to push your ideas forward.  Sign up today at DEF2013.com, follow us on Facebook  and Twitter, and become a part of putting Disruptive Thinking into action.

An Agent for Change in the Navy

SWJ contributor Robert Kozloski writes at the USNI blog about Admiral Zumwalt and his role as a change agent. A few excerpts are pasted below, but please go to the original post to see it all. See also his post on Zumwalt and the Mod Squad at the "Navy Center for Innovation Weblog." Try to navigate a little bit around their innovative weblog.

"To address the ongoing “people” issues, Zumwalt formed several retention study groups consisting of junior officers and/or enlisted Sailors from various communities to address issues affecting Sailors and their families in the fleet. These groups reported directly to the CNO (and frequently the SECNAV). From his previous experience on the OPNAV staff, Zumwalt understood that ideas from these groups would get diluted if they went through the normal staffing process."

 

A 1993 Be bold, be quick, and be specific in setting an agenda for change