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Long Read Wavell Writes Essays

Innovation – Back to the Future?

Innovation is the solving of specific problems through evolutionary and revolutionary methods.1

Introduction

I recently went on holiday to Belgium, and had the opportunity to visit some of the Ypres battlefields as well as the new visitor centre at Waterloo.  While my children played hide and seek in the preserved British trenches at Sanctuary Wood, I was struck by their placement on a reverse slope, using ground in very much the same way as Wellington in 1815; and by the trench design, which brought back memories of my first trench-digging exercise at RMAS.  Having rejoined the Army only months before, and with the clarion calls of innovation and transformation still ringing in my ears, it was a salutary reminder of the continuity and universality inherent in the conduct of war.

Now, I am not suggesting, like the prophet, that, ‘there is no new thing under the sun’2 –   the intervening centuries since the Allied victory in front of Mont St Jean have brought military evolution, and even revolution.  Improvements to our military capability will continue to be underpinned by investment in technology and innovative thinking in its application.  However, the fundamentals have not changed; the Clausewitzian duel must still be played out by individual soldiers, teams and formations coming to grips with the enemy and destroying their will to fight.

That requires significant resource if the enemy is committed and capable; my perception is that we expect new technology to be the panacea to make up for an increasing resource deficit.  For instance, the Defence Innovation Initiative3 seems to be entirely technology-based, and other Western militaries seem to be heading in a similar direction, the US Third Offset Strategy being one example4.  Despite much fanfare about Learning From Experience, we also seem to discount a historical perspective in our race to the new.

As I shall argue, I believe this approach to be flawed.  The remainder of this essay consists of four sections.  In the first three, I discuss key barriers which prevent the Army, and Defence more generally, from being a truly innovative organisation. In the final section I put forward some areas that could benefit from a genuinely innovative approach, before some concluding thoughts.

What’s the problem?

My first contention is that we misunderstand and misapply the term ‘innovation’.  If we look at the definition quoted at the start of this essay, the key phrase is the ‘solving of specific problems’.  We are very creative at thinking of the ‘evolutionary and revolutionary methods’ – what, in some areas, could be labelled an obsession with novelty – but often these proposals are not designed to solve a specific military problem, or else are generic to the point of vacuity.

Why does this matter?  Firstly, innovation carries costs, and innovation investment decisions have to be based against some objective value criteria.  The pursuit of generic ‘new stuff’ prevents effective prioritisation, which is essential when our resources are so constrained.  It also means that decisions, once taken, can be revisited time and again, as there is no clear underlying logic to the decision making process.

Secondly, it prevents rational redesign of our structures and doctrine.  In my experience outside the military, organisational change is based on a blueprint that starts from a detailed consideration of the market in which the organisation operates – in Army terms, the Enemy and Ground paragraphs that were covered at the start of the old estimate.  If the only deductions we get from our analysis are that we will be operating in a cluttered and congested battlespace, probably near the coast and probably in a city, while facing a wide range of threats, it’s not going to take us very far.  When we last prepared for warfighting against a peer enemy, we spent an immense amount of time and effort trying to understand his equipment, doctrine and likely courses of action, as well as knowing the ground we would fight on in great detail.

Now before I am accused of wanting to recreate the Cold War Army, I would also suggest that the later years on TELIC and HERRICK saw the creation of an army designed for COIN operations, so I am not implying any philosophical change here.  However, as senior officers and politicians begin to speak about Russia as a potential enemy – very much a ‘specific problem’ – this ought to provide an opportunity to innovate, as we attempt to design a force which can compete against specific enemy capabilities.  Whether we can innovate successfully is another matter; it may be the case that old problems need old solutions.

It should also be noted that force design and structure need not depend on ‘new technology’.  We have become used, since the end of the cold war, to defeating threats with technology.  We may be approaching an era when this is not possible, and the proliferation of technology means our adversary has the same level as us, or at least sufficient to neutralise our technological advantages.  In that situation, we may find that the size of our force is equally as important as its technological development, and the ability to operate offline – in so-called reversionary mode – may become a battle-winning skill.

As history routinely shows us, this notional enemy may well be the wrong one, and the threats we plan for may not be the ones we end up fighting against; but at least it provides us with a fixed point of reference against which we can design, prioritise and measure.  If we prepare for the most difficult activity – always benchmarked as high intensity warfighting – we can reconfigure as required for easier tasks.

Coherence

That fixed point of reference is also important in ensuring that we innovate coherently.  Defence is a highly complex system of systems, so changes to one part have consequences (often hidden until it is too late) elsewhere. This in itself acts as a restraint on innovation, as the freedom to enact change to optimise locally may have adverse effects and lead to global sub-optimisation.  The Support Solutions Envelope, used by projects when designing support systems for new equipment, is an example of this – an innovative support solution might be the cheapest and most effective option for a given project, but its impact on the wider support network when deployed may more than offset the reduced cost.

More broadly, the innovations we introduce must help us solve our ‘specific problem’, so they must be coherent with each other and with the existing capability we possess.  This limits the available innovation space because our start point is generally fixed.  Returning to my business analogy, a company that sees a sufficient change in its current market, or possibly one looking to expand into a new market, can start from scratch – build a new factory, launch a new product or whatever the company strategy might dictate, borrowing against the future benefit if the business case is strong enough.  Defence is not resourced – and public finances are extremely limiting in this regard – to be able to invest in a complete solution for each problem, so there must always be a degree of compromise and suitable fitting of the new with the old.

One final issue that I would label as a coherence problem is that of incoherent management.  I have been struck by some of the changes in the way that Defence operates – especially the relationships and structures between and within AHQ and DE&S – since rejoining.  Being a child of Smart Acquisition I am, frankly, amazed that in some capability areas we not only separate ‘procurement’ from ‘in-service support’ in terms of project teams and accountability, but even different phases of the procurement from each other.  Whither (wither!) the Integrated Project Team?  For example, across a range of platforms – MIV, Warrior, PMVP, MRV(P), Ajax – that all might contribute to an overall ‘mounted infantry’ capability, there seems to be no guiding voice to ensure that decisions are made coherently and the available budget is spent to deliver the most benefit.

A Culture of Innovation

Failures are an intrinsic element of innovation and organisations that successfully innovate recognise the failures involved in innovation as learning experiences, putting value on failing early, before significant resources are committed5.

I do not challenge the statement above, but set against this description, does the Army really have an innovative culture?  I suggest not.  In most cases the measure of an individual is successful delivery, usually of a relatively short, bounded activity or piece of work – a mission, or even a campaign objective – against which an ‘innovation fail’ does not play well in career terms.

Deal and Kennedy’s culture model illustrates this further:

Figure 1: Deal and Kennedy’s model of organisational culture6

Most, if not all, Army staff spend their formative years at regimental duty or in operational headquarters.  The risk may be high or low, depending on whether activities take place in barracks or on operations, but in any case they get fast feedback and learn what success looks like in a culture that sits on the left of the model.

When we begin to talk about innovation, whether that be technological or organizational, the effect takes time to come to fruition – the feedback is much slower, and individuals need to operate on the right hand side.  Often, in Defence, we innovate in high risk areas, such as long term, high value equipment programmes; or in force design that may lead to irrevocable losses of capability.  This sort of activity sits in the ‘Bet the Company’ box, and hence there is value in ‘failing early’ – stop the bet before it’s too late.  But, from a military, quick-feedback perspective, that just looks like failure.  Added to that, the lack of feedback, together with the ‘be seen to do something’ nature of the reporting and promotion system, means that we re-innovate before the original change has had a chance to be successful.  So, we don’t stop bad innovation, and often undermine good.

The MoD’s CADMID cycle is supposed to reinforce this idea of failing early, using decision gates at the Concept and Assessment phases to stop unsuitable projects before significant resources are spent.  However, I know from personal experience of scenarios where concept work has ‘failed early’, only for senior officers to continue trying to progress the associated project to avoid ‘failure’.  Organisationally, failure is seen as a challenge to be overcome, which is a difficult culture in which to generate effective innovation.

There is another cultural issue, unrelated but important in this context: military innovation often requires the engagement of industry.  This relationship must be more than contractual – innovation is a creative process, and the predefined limits of contract arrangements are rarely effective for this.  Unfortunately, my experience is that the relationship with industry, despite many years of promoting partnership and integration, remains highly transactional in many areas.

Opportunities for Innovation

Having set out some of the barriers to innovation, I want to look briefly at two areas where innovation ought to be pursued.  These are not intended to be cures for the problems I have discussed, but hopefully they each answer a specific problem and are coherent with the future force as we currently envisage it.  The answer to the culture issue is beyond my scope!  Rather than representing incremental improvements, both of these innovation areas could contribute to the next military revolution.  I have purposely omitted any sort of network/communication related technology as it is entirely possible, in a peer to peer conflict, that much of that sort of capability may be degraded or entirely neutralised by our opponent.

Fuel

Although mechanisation is certainly one change that revolutionised the conduct of war, it brought with it a challenge that has faced every army since the early 20th Century – that of providing enough fuel for its vehicles. Strategic deployment and tactical manoeuvre both rely on adequate fuel supply, and despite incremental improvements in the fuel efficiency of the internal combustion engine, the ability to replenish fuel will limit a commander’s freedom of action.  Therefore, one technological innovation that would have enormous military potential, and should be a focus of research activity, is the development of alternative fuel sources.  This would increase the deployability of any expeditionary force, and could, in the future, entirely remove the military problem of fuel resupply.

Artificial Intelligence

The second area of technology that offers truly innovative possibilities is that of AI.  Many commentators have discussed its application, its strengths and weaknesses.  There is one point I would make, which is that this alone, I think, might have the potential to alter that fundamental character of war that I discussed at the beginning.  If we are able to use a robot as a proxy, perhaps as an avatar in the physical battlespace replicating a soldier ‘fighting’ in a virtual environment, or even have autonomous electronic entities operating without human input – where, then, is Clausewitz’s clash of wills?

Conclusion

My underlying thesis in this essay has been that the Army is at risk of overstating the importance and effectiveness of innovation, and at the same time assuming that novel technology and language somehow represents a break from the historical nature and understanding of war.  Although nascent technologies such as AI and automation may, in the long term, lead to a step change in the conduct of war, the Army that we design today will fight, if it has to, a war that would be entirely recognisable to our WW1 and WW2 forebears.  Some of the attention that we currently give to innovation may, perhaps, be better spent on ensuring that the lessons they learnt at such cost are not forgotten.

Andy commissioned into the RLC in 1998, and served in Germany, Bosnia, Northern Ireland, the Falkland Islands and Iraq in various transport and port operations roles.  Also served in the DLO on the staff at the time of its merger with the DPA to form DE&S.  Left in the Army in late 2007, and subsequently held a number of project and programme management jobs in the public and private sectors.  He rejoined the colours in 2017, returning to DE&S in an FTRS appointment.

Footnotes

  1. Concepts Branch, ‘Innovation’: Agile Warrior Report 2015/2016,  pp28-29
  2. Ecclesiastes 1:9
  3. See, for example, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/innovation-initiative-to-bring-future-tech-and-ideas-to-the-armed-forces (Accessed 23 Apr 18).
  4. In fairness, there are some non-technology innovations – the Army’s efforts to introduce flexible working, for instance.
  5. Concepts Branch, op cit. 
  6. Taken from http://www.open.edu/openlearn/money-business/leadership-management/management-perspective-and-practice/content-section-3.5.1 (Accessed 25 Apr 18).

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