When it comes to creating new battlefield concepts and capabilities, buying cutting-edge machines is not enough.

In times of war, front-line practitioners are agents of innovation and change if only through necessity.1 Because there is no way to fully anticipate what a dynamic and evolving adversary will do in a conflict, the fog of war requires adaptation, from tinkering with weapons systems to writing entirely new TTPs (tactics, techniques and procedures). This task often falls to soldiers working at the tip of the spear. 

But what of the warfighter in peacetime? In the absence of definitive actions from adversaries or an active battlefield upon which to adapt, military innovation seems to become a mostly top-down process. Peacetime innovation involves placing bets on the kinds of technology, training and force structures that will be needed for a world that has yet to emerge. As such, the implicit assumption is that experienced warfighters will take a back seat in the shaping of the future force.2

The contemporary spate of innovation projects falling under the auspices of the US Defense Innovation Initiative (DII) seems to support this conclusion. The US Department of Defense (DOD) currently places its primary emphasis on technological acquisition in partnership with private industry: two of the DII’s most well-known projects are the Defense Innovation Board (DIB) – staffed by geniuses such as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson – and Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx), whose mandate is to cultivate ties and curate contracts with Silicon Valley. Whereas scientists and engineers are seen as contributing directly to peacetime innovation, veteran practitioners are cast as neutral actors at best. At worst, they are perceived as a source of conceptual drag on a system attempting to get from today’s military to tomorrow’s.

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Nina Kollars studies innovation processes in complex environments. She was the 2016 Army Capabilities Integration Center Distinguished Lecturer, and is currently Assistant Professor of Government at Franklin & Marshall College. She is also a research fellow to the Donovan Group (SOCOM), a non-resident fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point Military Academy, and a co-director of Cigars, Scotch & Strategy.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

April–May 2017

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