A Longshoreman's Guide to Military Innovation

The secret to being innovative is to innovate. Make it routine.

Military innovation is all the rage in U.S. Navy circles these days, and indeed throughout the Pentagon. It has to be, in an age when U.S. expeditionary forces square off against newly ambitious, newly capable antagonists on those antagonists’ turf. How can U.S. Navy chieftains speed up the search for newfangled weaponry, methods and tactics? My advice: to be innovative, innovate. Make it routine. Make the experimental mindset part of everyday naval life.

If innovation comes to constitute Navy culture, seafarers will innovate of their own accord—and, in all likelihood, produce better results than the latest centralized initiative handed down from on high. For insight into how to encode creativity in U.S. Navy culture, where better to turn than classic works of political philosophy? And to be sure, in the canon you’ll find an odd couple from classical Greece and Depression-era California who can help.

Why the Navy’s sudden mania for innovation? Simple: because America’s post–Cold War holiday from history has drawn to an abrupt close. In those halcyon years, basking in the triumphal afterglow of victory over the Soviet Union, officialdom cherished the conceit that U.S. naval supremacy had repealed basic military functions—functions such as fighting peer navies for command of the commons, namely the seas and skies, which are beyond the jurisdiction of any coastal state.

Bizarre though it may sound—and let us vow never to repeat the post–Cold War leadership’s blunder—it seemed to make sense to let preparations for fleet-on-fleet battle lapse back then. Few could contest U.S. maritime mastery during the 1990s. Starved of funding, the remnants of the Soviet Navy were sinking, rusting at their moorings or making the final sad journey to the ship-breaker. With its archfoe consigned to the boneyard and an oceangoing Chinese navy little more than a gleam in its founder’s eye, there was no one left to fight. Why prepare for the last war? Why gird for a high-seas duel against a nonexistent enemy?

Except that the post–Cold War years were a mere interlude in power politics, not an end of history. Faced with unpleasant developments—in particular, the return of China and Russia to the sea—Navy leaders have accepted that the happy time when U.S. fighting ships rode the waves with abandon is now over. American arms can accomplish little without an offshore safe haven. They can’t even reach important combat theaters, let alone project power ashore, unless they subdue local defenders. The Chinas and Russias of the world have taken note of U.S. forces’ dependence on the commons, strewing “anti-access” defenses along Eurasian shorelines. As a result, U.S. commanders can no longer take entry into Eurasia’s peripheral seas for granted. They must devise countermeasures to pierce anti-access defenses.

Indeed, there are no final victories in strategic competition. Advantages in hardware, tactics and organization must be preserved and expanded for the U.S. military to stay ahead in this never-ending cycle of martial one-upmanship. Ergo, innovation.

As the strategist Mr. Spock might counsel, military advantages are the most perishable of all. Now, all is not bleak. In recent years, initiatives have debuted that bear arcane titles like “third offset strategy,” “competitive strategies,” “CNO Rapid Innovation Cell” and “distributed lethality.” The Pentagon, for example, recently disclosed the existence of a “Strategic Capabilities Office” (SCO), a body made up of Big Bang Theory types devoted to finding creative, low-cost ways to mix and match existing weapons and platforms—bolstering U.S. forces’ dexterity and lethality. Repurposing the U.S. Navy’s SM-6 surface-to-air missiles to strike enemy surface vessels ranks among the SCO’s worthy endeavors. Indeed, that one came not a moment too soon.