“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.