Small Wars Journal

Disruptive Thinkers: More Thoughts on Disruption and National Security

Fri, 04/13/2012 - 6:33am

The Military Needs More Disruptive Thinkers,” by Benjamin Kohlmann was itself an example of the provocative and original thinking that the author calls for in the world of national security policy.  The article reminded me of what is surely fast becoming the quote for our times when Sir Ernest Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics, once said to his staff: “Gentleman, we have run out of money.  It is time to start thinking.”

In a world of long-term austerity, rapid technological change, declining importance of Westphalian concepts and later generation warfare that almost ceases to have any resemblance to traditional notions of war we can no longer afford to be prisoners to doctrinal precepts and organizational notions that are more applicable to the 1950s.  The futility of large, inflexible military bureaucracies, procuring large, complex, over-engineered systems from the few large, inflexible remaining general contractors in a rapidly changing world seems evident.  This system, which Anthony Cordesman has described as a “poisoned chalice” has long been broken and is no longer fully relevant to the emerging world of the “rise of the rest” and the proliferation of military technology.  We need not only a revolution in military affairs; we need a revolution in military organization, design and procurement.  We need to replace the military industrial complex with a military innovation complex, although the word “complex” is probably less than satisfactory to describe the dynamic that is most appropriate for the times. This emerging system would require far expanded notion of jointness: visions of security that extend beyond the battlefield integrating concepts from economic development, flexible manufacturing, commerce and social systems into the mix.

Something that I wrote an article critiquing one branch of the military, the Navy, and its fixation on large ships, seems relevant to this discussion.  In that article appearing in the May 18, 2011 issue of Jane’s Defence Weekly I said:

What is the most effective way to achieve the missions of the US Navy: sea control, sea denial, power projection or protection of open commerce? In an age of networks, small wars, unmanned systems and diffusion of military technology, the best solutions are unlikely to be found in highly expensive, complex, centralised systems requiring massive manpower. Answers are likely to be found in ways that distribute firepower to lower-cost platforms for more widespread and rapid deployments on more numerous, but less visible, lower-signature vehicles. Solutions are likely to stress reliability over theoretical elegance, quality achieved through quantity and simplicity over complexity while utilizing the emerging capabilities of robotics and unmanned systems.

One real world example that illustrates this point can be found in a small New Hampshire company, Juliet Marine.  Interestingly, Juliet describes itself , not as a defense contractor but as “a maritime technology think tank that is developing innovative solutions for naval and commercial applications.”  This is the type of approach for which Lt. Kohlmann exhorts.  Juliet claims that it can develop systems in one third the time and at one third the cost than achieved through usual military procurement procedures.  Juliet has developed “Ghost” which they claim to be the world’s first supercavitating ship.  Reportedly Ghost achieves very high speed through hull friction that is 1/900th of conventional surface ships.  The craft is claimed to have combined the features of an attack helicopter and a stealth fighter, but on water.  The vessel was designed to control the littorals and would be applicable to missions from patrolling for pirates, keeping bodies such as the Straits of Hormuz open from swarm attacks to also supplying offshore oil rigs.  As yet untested, the Ghost and the organizational system that produced it merit a lot of attention and, if verified, emulation.  Most interesting of all, Juliet developed the Ghost on its own nickel, without any government funding.  

As promising as all of this may be, disruptive thinking at operational and doctrinal levels has to be preceded by disruptive thinking at the level of grand strategy.  Warmed over or updated versions of worldviews borrowed from the end of World War II or the Cold War will not suffice.  The last attempt, “the Long War,” was a tepid stew not worthy of being served. We face a period of human history that will be unprecedented.  How do we intend to use all of our strengths – economic, technological, social as well as military – to lead the world?  The brayings from Washington are not promising.  The supposed deficit hawks who are keen on revolutionizing the safety net and social contract want to give a free pass to the military complex not merely wanting more of the same, but rather increased amounts of the same.  Waste is waste, no matter where found.  Wasting money on outmoded concepts in the name of defense actually saps the national strength on which our power ultimately rests.  Then too, there may be ways that the military can help solve national security problems through unconventional means.  Two possible examples.  The US Navy leads the world in small nuclear power generator technology and is developing some very promising technology to convert all too plentiful algae into fuel.  Unleashing such technologies on the domestic economy to lessen reliance of the world on hydrocarbons from a very unstable Middle East could do wonders for national security.  The coffers in the west are bare.  The time has come to start thinking.



This has been an on-going topic for several years now on SWJ…

When the Chairman of the JCS gets on Sunday TV news shows and admits that in the Cyber Domain, the United States is only average… only manages PAR in the domain, this is the Military version of the harshest criticism one will ever hear of an Administration from the JCS. Do any SWJ readers imagine that the Cyber Domain is not the absolute KEY to successfully controlling all the areas of conflict SWJ covers?? Of course it is.

So where are the articles expressing concern for the US militaries admission? Or the half-baked response from the Administration?

What does the Cyber Domain have to do with 'disruptive thinkers', one might possibly ask. In our present technological era, WHERE exactly do readers imagine 'disruptive thinkers' who're likely to be flagged as "Super Empowered Individuals" by domestic Law Enforcement, GO TO STAY OUT OF PRISON?

The term, "disruptive thinkers", like "SEI's", or etc. should ITSELF explain why the US military has a hard time FINDING these types of individuals who're willing to aid the Republic in a constructive manner. As I've been posting here and elsewhere for many, many years… if the US Military establishment fails to PROTECT these types of individuals from domestic Law Enforcement, America's home grown "disruptive thinkers" will either wind up in the criminal underground, prison, or expatriate.

This is why the DoD is having such a difficult time accomplishing it's goals in the Cyber Realm, and elsewhere… because it has patently FAILED to protect 'disruptive thinkers' who've acted on good faith and gotten abused, harassed, and/or hounded out of the Country for their trouble. Do SWJ readers imagine that such individuals, once burned, will not be twice shy? Do readers not imagine that POTENTIAL 'disruptive thinkers' within the military establishment, observing how others whom they KNOW to have provided productive, constructive labor on behalf of the US Military and Republic, have been treated, are eager or likely to risk their OWN careers and necks based on assurances or promises they've SEEN betrayed? No way.

Mr. Wise, when YOU have tried to live abroad, and found yourself under ariel surveillance daily in a giant foreign metropolis that has a cultural aversion to low altitude air traffic, by agents of your OWN government who could easily just CALL YOU ON THE TELEPHONE… then you will truly understand why in modern America specifically, and within the Military generally, there is little or no benefit to be had by allowing oneself to be flagged as a disruptive thinker, or a developer of disruptive technologies. (Then there's the IRS harassment and audits. The intimidation of ones family, friends, and sweethearts. The petty and predictable bullying by poorly informed Federal Agents and bureaucrats. and etc.)

As someone who's written about this subject, you surely have associates within the DoD who'll speak candidly to you off the record. Ask them how their BEST identified 'disruptive thinkers' are treated, and you will have your answer. Wilber Wright was wiser than Orville… Wilber got medals, and gold, and honors. Orville got a junior officer named Selfridge. lol.


Alexander Scott Crawford

Madhu (not verified)

Tue, 01/13/2015 - 10:30am

Sometimes I think it's impossible to have disruptive thinkers inside the National Security "Borg," that person would never be hired because he or she would upset too many apple carts, question the very career and money-making basis of most things that are viewed as "vital national security interests."

I really liked what the original disruptive thinkers were trying to do but using MBAs as infallible examples did amuse me. All the years I've worked in medicine, I've never had an MBA type just observe us, see what we do, attempt a little daily work. It's all meetings and memos from up high....

The other problem is that the "Borg" is so tightly controlled that it turns off certain types of personalities. Someone that wants to think for him or herself won't even want to be around the people that are attracted to that work.


Except there really are those that would like to serve, and do, and it is about serving. What a racket, though, in general. The pressures for group think on Russia within DC must be overwhelming, I've never seen such cowardice.


Mon, 04/16/2012 - 10:13am

In the 2010/11 PRT rotation in RC East (Afghanistan) spending authority for CERP was increased at the 06 (PRT/BSO) level to multiple iterations of $500,000 per packet.

One rotation later my 03 (civil affairs/USAR) stoppped by Camp Atterbury, Indiana to check on the prepping inbound PRTs. He broke the news to them that the CERP spending was to be cut to $5,000 per unit per month, and then only with 07 approval. The were dumfounded, asking him how they were supposed to "do their jobs".

We need to take the money out of COIN. Creating a regulation (MAAWS-A) isn't enough.

A quote from my PRT CDR (USN 06): 'We've GOT to spend the money! It's been appropriated!'

GEN Mattis killed EBO, so now we spend money. Great.

Ask a PRT/BSO dude from a couple rotations ago and current ones about their MOE's; if you are not met with a blank stare they will, at most, give you radically different measures of effectiveness.

How in the world can we progress towards steady-state politics if we change the metrics from one rotation to the next?

Commence slings and arrows.



Fri, 04/13/2012 - 3:31pm

Good article and makes some really good points. Our vast technology lead on the rest of the world is shrinking quickly and we don't have anything to replace it. But I still say the Golden Goose was and still is NASA, that was our ultimate comepetitive advatnge against the rest of the world. So what happened to NASA.....they had their budget cut! That was/is suicidal.