What goes up must come down. This is not only a principle of physics, but by now also a core principle of military establishments: buzzwords and new concepts emerge regularly, but they tend to fall from grace as quickly as they rise. Such was, for instance, the fate of “reversibility,” the “Revolution in Military Affairs,” and “Network Centric Warfare.” However, one buzzword seems to have survived for a while now: innovation. As I have written elsewhere, the enthusiasm for innovation is omnipresent with both political and military leaders, and there is a tendency to disguise every initiative with “innovation branding.” The title of a recent hearing in the United States Congress, “Supercharging the Innovation Base,” aptly captures the nearly zealous understanding that innovation is good, and more innovation is always better.
Based on my research on military innovation, it is clear that a “pro-innovation bias” exists within military organizations today, perhaps most visibly in the United States. But this pro-innovation bias actually prevents us from critically assessing what innovation actually entails—that is, assuming and handling risk. This is especially true of technological innovation, illustrated most recently by the cancellation of the current solicitation for the US Army’s Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle.
The Pro-Innovation Bias
Scholarly studies on military innovation most often deal with innovation in terms of success and failure based on definitions about the scale, scope, and magnitude of innovation. As such, designations like “major innovation,” “disruptive innovation,” and “significant increase” have been used to distinguish between failed and successful innovation. Essentially, there is agreement that successful innovation brings about major, or even revolutionary, changes. Big equals good.
Outside academia, in practice and in policy, innovation is also undisputedly attached with notions of advancement or growth. As professor Ron Adner asserts, innovation is a problem for everyone because it is held up as the solution for everything. This explains the stream of innovation initiatives flowing from all corners of the US military. It is for instance expressed in the US Army Innovation Strategy and the US National Defense Strategy and it is excessively illustrated by the reorganization of the US Army Reserve 75th Training Command into the 75th Innovation Command.
The salient—and perhaps most obvious—fact embedded in all innovation initiatives, policies, strategies, and studies is that innovation is inherently attached with positive meaning and airy notions of progress. The result is a pro-innovation bias, whereby innovation is consistently regarded as a good thing, because innovations are profitable, are constructive, or simply solve a specific problem. As Andrew Van de Ven and Marshall Poole noted in their seminal Minnesota Innovation Research Program, new ideas that are not perceived to be useful are rarely called innovations; instead, they are mistakes.
But if we look past this value-laden current conception of innovation and set the definitions about scope and impact aside, we can learn something: in its basic meaning, an innovation is simply something that is new while innovating is simply the act of renewing. A technological innovation is therefore essentially a technology that is new to a given organization. As such, not all technologies are innovations and the technology in question does not have to be a new invention as long as it is a novelty to an organization. Further, the term does not imply anything about the magnitude of the innovation—how disruptive the technology is to the implementing organization’s current practices—or how “high-tech” it is.
The crucial conceptual issue with the pro-innovation bias is that the “usefulness” of an innovative idea, practice or technology can only rightly be determined after the entire innovation process is completed. This is an easy objection, but it points to the fact that the pro-innovation bias neglects that innovation is essentially about taking and managing risk.
Innovation Is Not Inherently Good
From the vantage point presented above, it follows that we should treat technological innovations as being neutral and not inherently “good.” In his comprehensive comparative study of unmanned aerial vehicle integration in three US armed services, Thomas Ehrhard proposes that new weapons systems must be treated as novelties that might be just as harmful as useful for the military organization. In a similar manner, Chris Demchak has argued that the impact of complex military technology is a double-edged sword: while its introduction may increase organizational effectiveness, advanced technology also unintentionally increases organizational complexity. Further, in a macro-historical study of weapons evolution, Bernard and Fawn Brodie argue that the military often has good grounds for opposing technological change, because the issues and stakes involved in adopting premature technologies are so high. These assertions all speak to the fundamental imperative of innovation, namely that of assuming risk. When the military embarks on innovation, by for instance acquiring a new technology, they assume a risk in order to achieve a return.
Traditionally, analysts and scholars have criticized military organizations’ inability or reluctance to undertake innovation. Militaries tend to prefer marginal improvements and have a general reluctance to disturb the status quo. This is only natural because military organizations require their “business model” to be stable and predictable. But this very premise is also the fundamental paradox of military innovation, because the very purpose of innovation is to disturb the status quo.
As such, scholars, analysts, policymakers, and practitioners ought to be aware of the pro-innovation bias. When it comes to adopting new technology, military organizations should remain rational—if not skeptical—of the technology’s promised benefits compared to the difficulties and risks that come with introducing it into service. Likewise, the study of technological innovation must regard new technology as being a neutral construct in order to objectively assess the challenges, benefits, and implications involved in the innovation process. New military technologies and concepts are necessarily risky. In the military domain, where the question is of life and death, risks are simply higher than in the civilian domain, and innovations should therefore always be regarded with a healthy amount of skepticism.
To be clear, innovation is not inherently bad or unhealthy, and this is not to say that that military organizations should not think in terms of innovation. But viewed in light of the above, it should be clear that risk is a central feature of innovation, and an understanding of that fact is critical for studies about military innovation and policies aimed at fostering it. Innovation is essentially about assuming a risk in order to achieve a return. This results in a catch-22 because the Pentagon’s fear of risk is stifling innovation.
The Case of the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle
If we look at official proclamations and statements about innovation and technology development, we see that officials often emphasize risk willingness as a necessary precursor for “successful” innovation. But it remains an open question whether this represents a true and committed acceptance of risk or merely a case of official rhetoric oozing from the institutional pro-innovation bias.
The search for a replacement for the M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle offers a case in point of how the actual essence of innovation can be lost in a narrative driven by risk willingness as a rhetorical device rather than a practical approach. Allow me to explain.
In January, the US Army decided to cancel the current solicitation (not the entire program) of the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle (OMFV). This is third attempt to replace the Bradley—a process that has been ongoing for about twenty years. In an op-ed, Bruce Jette, the US Army assistant secretary for acquisitions, logistics, and technology, and Gen. John Murray, commanding general of Army Futures Command, argue that the Army canceled the solicitation because it was unwilling to accept a vehicle that was only “good enough.” This is a good and reassuring argument. However, they proceed to contend that the entire approach to and reasoning behind the OMFV program has been about taking and accepting risk. The cancellation is thereby almost presented as a success story in accordance with the script of every innovation document: It proves the US Army took risks, which proves they were being innovative. The fact that risk is used to soften the fall is misleading because there is a difference between taking risks and mishandling them in acquisition.
Invoking risk willingness therefore appears to be a nice way to wrap yet another setback in the Bradley-replacement saga. Two previous attempts to field a new vehicle—the Future Combat Systems Manned Ground Vehicles and the Ground Combat Vehicle—had already been cancelled during this quest, leaving the impression of a defective organizational approach, to put it directly. The OMFV process, then, can be seen as yet another expression that the acquisition and technological innovation processes within the US military have not yet lived up to official proclamations about (aspired) changes in these areas. The cancellation of the solicitation is then not an example of the US Army “learning quickly,” but rather about learning finally. THE OMFV process, as well as its predecessors, seem to have fallen prey to the traditional and innovation-inhibiting habit of putting too many and too contradictory requirements into one vehicle. For instance, the OMFV was meant to be lightweight, small and fast, while having heavy protection and capacity to carry a large number of troops. Lessons learned from the Bradley’s operational history in the highly contrasting environments from the Gulf War to the Iraq War (should) show that it is impossible to fit everything into one vehicle. Balancing, for instance, mobility and protection is a dire dilemma that nevertheless requires tough decisions about vehicle “identity” and purpose. The question is if this is not simply an expression, as Chris Brose has testified, that the Department of Defense still, and too often, treats requirements as a “one-way street” where the Pentagon tasks industry to build exactly what it wants and where “over-requirementization” is the name of the game. (A related question that demands attention is why the vehicle needs to have the unmanned ability at all—whether it its truly beneficial or simply superfluous while maximizing expense and complexity.)
The solicitation was shut down before it went too far and became too expensive. This, as noted by others, at least lives up to Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy’s edict to “fail early and fail cheap.” In this way, the cancellation of the solicitation is not a demonstration of risk willingness; rather it is about risk reduction. Real risk willingness could, for instance, mean embracing a process where DoD better describes to the industry what problems they are facing, trusting the industry to present solutions, expanding the use of prototyping before setting requirements or teaming special operations forces with military graduate students to form a prototyping laboratory. The ideas are plentiful.
Fortunately, trust in industry is just now being tested. A few weeks after canceling the solicitation, the US Army chose to “restart” the OMFV program, launching a so-called “market survey” asking the industry for comments, ideas, feedback, and recommendations. This truly seems like a significantly different approach, because the request to industry will simply consist of a list of the Army’s general desires and an outline of vehicle characteristics, and not present strict requirements and a fixed timeline. Only time will tell whether this new approach will be more successful than previous attempts to replace the Bradley.
Toward an Honest Assessment of Risk
The pro-innovation bias found in current defense discourse inhibits us all—from policymakers to scholars to practitioners—from critically assessing the very essence of innovation, namely that of risk. While official rhetoric surrounding innovation does highlight risk as a central feature, this often has not really translated into practice. “Supercharging innovation” comes with great risk, but that is also what political and military leaders say they want. At least on the surface.
We would do well to remember that when military organizations innovate, they assume a risk in order to receive a return. This is an uncomfortable truth because it carries with it an endless list of difficulties such as ensuring the appropriate use of tax dollars, safeguarding organizational stability, balancing critical versus future operational demand, and so on. Recognizing this is not equal to saying no to innovation. As the Defense Innovation Board also calls attention to, a culture of experimentation and risk tolerance are necessary preconditions for innovation.
Embracing calculated risk taking is what’s most important. In order to qualify the conversation, military innovators as well as innovation scholars should begin to engage intimately with the risk assessment and management literature. Research shows that the way we comprehend and describe risk strongly influences the way risk is analyzed, which in turn has implications for risk management and decision making. Exploring risk further can move our infatuation with innovation into a more rational direction. Being aware of the pro-innovation bias should allow us to become more skeptical about fuzzy notions of innovation as being the great panacea and to objectively assess the possible gains in relation to the risk involved. This first and foremost entails keeping a realistic focus on anticipated, possible, and desirable outcome of the innovation. Innovation is only good insofar as it achieves the results we seek without creating unanticipated havoc. By emphasizing the risk component of the equation, we can position ourselves to move away from a fixation on innovation itself and refocus on the actual outcome of innovation.
Laura H. Schousboe is a PhD Fellow at the University of Southern Denmark and the Royal Danish Defence College in Copenhagen.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Sgt. Brandon Hubbard, US Army