Small Wars Journal

Innovation: And Other Things That Brief Well

Innovation: And Other Things That Brief Well by Captain Joshua Waddell, Marine Corps Gazette

I am now thoroughly convinced there is something deeply wrong with the part of the Marine Corps occupying the I-95 corridor leading to the Pentagon. What has become painfully apparent to me is the drastic difference between the mindset of the Operating Forces and the Supporting Establishment. While I grant that, in the case of the former, the prospects of being shot, blown up, or otherwise extinguished tend to be wonderful motivators to constantly improve and perform, the Marine Corps Supporting Establishment is filled with senior officers whose backgrounds include extensive experience in combat within the Operating Forces. Why then is there such a divide between the organizational energy and innovative agility of our Marines and the depressive stagnation found within the Supporting Establishment?

I believe I know a big part of the answer: self-delusion.

Let us first begin with the fundamental underpinnings of this delusion: our measures of performance and effectiveness in recent wars. It is time that we, as professional military officers, accept the fact that we lost the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Objective analysis of the U.S. military’s effectiveness in these wars can only conclude that we were unable to translate tactical victory into operational and strategic success. As military professionals, it is not sufficient to offload the responsibility for these failures, at least in their entirety, to decision makers in Washington or in perceived lack of support from other governmental agencies. We must divorce ourselves from the notion that criticism of our performance is an indictment or devaluation of the sacrifices our Marines made on the battlefield. Like many of you, I lost Marines in the “Long War” as well. It has taken several years of personal struggle to arrive at the conclusions I am writing now. What makes this necessary, however, is that if you accept the objective, yet repulsive, fact that our Marines died on the losing side of our most recent wars, you cannot then accept that the status quo of the Marine Corps, and the larger defense establishment, is in an acceptable state of affairs. This is further compounded by future forecasts of conflicts with adversaries that are beginning to look like more like peers despite the self-aggrandizing “near-peer” label we assign them. We allow ourselves to look at our impressive defense budget and expensive systems and throw around hyperbole about the United States having the greatest military in the world. How, then, have we been bested by malnourished and undereducated men with antiquated and improvised weaponry whilst spending trillions of dollars in national treasure and costing the lives of thousands of servicemen and hundreds of thousands of civilians? Judging military capability by the metric of defense expenditures is a false equivalency. All that matters are raw, quantifiable capabilities and measures of effectiveness. For example: a multi-billion dollar aircraft carrier that can be bested by a few million dollars in the form of a swarming missile barrage or a small unmanned aircraft system (UAS) capable of rendering its flight deck unusable does not retain its dollar value in real terms. Neither does the M1A1 tank, which is defeated by $20 worth of household items and scrap metal rendered into an explosively-formed projectile. The Joint Improvised Threat Defeat Organization has a library full of examples like these, and that is without touching the weaponized return on investment in terms of industrial output and capability development currently being employed by our conventional adversaries.

More to the point, I am proposing a moratorium on our senior leaders using the word “innovation” in response to these challenges…

Read on.