The Perils of the Pivot

July 1, 2013
By Lt. Ben Kohlmann, USN

As the Global War on Terrorism winds down in the minds of American military strategists, the rush to put this chapter of our history behind us without further reflection is palpable. Yet, by turning our focus to more easily understood conflicts, we risk missing the very real lessons of the past 10 years that likely will remain relevant in the coming decades.;

Having awoken from the nightmare of uncertainty and confusion that defined the unconventional wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our nation’s strategic planners have retreated reflexively to the intellectually comfortable contemplation of where our forces excel. “Give us defined, similar-looking adversaries, and we will crush anyone who dares challenge us,” they offer. “Let’s assume the future retains the same framework as before, iterate from our existing dominant structure, and we will remain pre-eminent.”

This mindset very well may reflect a counter to “the most dangerous course of action,” but it completely ignores “the most likely course of action” in world affairs. The two are related only very infrequently, and a focus on one to the complete exclusion of the other can have catastrophic consequences. It also is a perfect demonstration of how disruptive innovation can upend incumbents, a concept first introduced by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen in the late 1990s.

In his book “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” Christensen theorizes how large, successful firms can fail by “doing everything right.” He goes on to describe further how past successes and incredible capabilities can “actually become obstacles in the face of changing markets and technologies.”

While not a perfect analogy—few ever are—it seems the current state of the U.S. military is much like one of Christensen’s large firms with processes that have found success in the past. The idea is, if we iterate only to create a “sustaining” level of technological development better than our adversary’s, then we will continue our pre-eminence.

Air-sea battle is one construct straight out of the 20th century. Despite some uncertainty as to its specific meaning, it conjures images of massed formations of costly materiel facing off against each other, in this case, throughout the far reaches of the Pacific Ocean. While the challenges of the electromagnetic spectrum, the role of satellites and proliferation of stealth make the problem different than those that were faced by NATO forces near the Fulda Gap, the concept of warfare this envisions is, at its heart, the very thing of which “decisive battle” armchair strategists secretly dream.

Yet our adversaries know their advantages lie in the asymmetric areas where we are far from dominant. Political ambiguity, amorphous insurgencies, economic uncertainty and capabilities such as cyber are only now just coming to the fore. These disruptive capabilities seem quaint and too insignificant to pursue counters to, right up until the moment they become insurmountable. It makes rational sense to focus on easily quantifiable and recognizable threats while ignoring the subtle groundswell of a changing order.

Christensen goes on to say “discovering markets for emerging technologies inherently involves failures, and most individual decision makers find it very difficult to risk backing a project that might fail because the market is not there.” Replace “technology” with “military strategy,” and a very accurate picture of a conservative, risk-adverse U.S. Defense Department emerges with alarming clarity.

Little short-term risk, professional or otherwise, exists for policy makers in continuing onward with the status quo of focusing our efforts on the Pacific and outfitting our forces with iterative programs that cost billions of dollars. Indigenous defense firms are happy; congressmen get to keep jobs in their districts; and a generation of military officers raised on a healthy dose of traditional military history—never mind the past 10 years—can remain within a comfortable cognitive cocoon. When this occurs, actions such as closing the Navy’s Irregular Warfare Office make rational sense.

But, it may be completely wrong. Upheaval in Syria, drug-based warfare in Mexico and an evolving Africa all are more likely threats that too closely parallel the conflicts of Iraq and Afghanistan. Figuring out ways to counter these threats takes experimentation and occasional failed programs. Woe to the risk-tolerant strategist who pushes for training and equipment suited for the types of conflicts our world currently is beset with, especially if the solutions exclude high-end, politically valuable systems such as the Joint Strike Fighter and the Littoral Combat Ship.

Unchecked, the focus on traditional approaches to warfare could end up rendering our forces like Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s turkey: increasingly comfortable, fattening and content right until the moment the butcher came to put it in the supermarket. By discarding the lessons of the past decade, and not building on the existing asymmetric skill sets we have come to possess, the U.S. military may render itself unprepared for a conflict that looks eerily like those that defined the first decade of the 2000s.

Lt. Ben Kohlmann, USN, is an F/A-18 instructor pilot serving in the Innovation and Concepts Department at the Naval Warfare Development Command, part of the Chief of Naval Operations’ Rapid Innovation Cell. He is the founder of Disruptive Thinkers, an organization devoted to bringing innovative military personnel together with civilian entrepreneurs. The views expressed in this column are his own and not necessarily those of the U.S. Navy or of SIGNAL Magazine. We welcome your comments on this column below.


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