The U.S. Military Needs More Mad Scientists

A Pentagon with bold ideas is better for American security.

No matter who wins the White House this year, America will begin rethinking its armed forces in earnest. The debate will most certainly cover what the Pentagon buys, when it buys it, and what it does with it. But thinking about the future also ought to embrace a robust effort that includes force experimentation and prototyping of next-generation systems.

Days of Future Past

Remember when the future was all the rage? With the end of the Cold War, revolutionizing military affairs and transforming the armed forces became hot topics.

All that intellectual ferment halted in 2006, as a bloody insurgency raged across Iraq and the mission in Afghanistan bogged down. Consumed by the wars we already had, there was little brain space left for pondering tomorrow’s war.

Jettisoned as well were the major commitments the military had made to dedicate forces for experimenting with new operational concepts and future capabilities. In 1994, under the Army’s Force XXI initiative, the Fourth Infantry Division at Fort Hood, Texas was designated as the test bed for field experimentation. That mission ended abruptly after 9/11, and the division shifted its focus to real combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the mid-1990s, the Marine Corps initiated a series of big, high-profile experiments called Sea Dragon. The last major field trial was Urban Warrior (1999).

Marine Corps experiments drew from units of Marines stationed or training at Quantico, Virginia, where the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory is headquartered. As the war expanded, the forces available for big experiments dwindled.

As the wars dragged on and the operational tempo of worldwide deployment quickened, the Navy and Air Force also became too stressed to be able to dedicate resources to playing with the future. The age of Big Think was over.

In 2008, then Defense Secretary Robert Gates delivered a tearless eulogy in Colorado Springs. “I have noticed too much of a tendency towards what might be called Next-War-itis — the propensity of much of the defense establishment to be in favor of what might be needed in a future conflict,” he lectured. In other words: Forget it.

The future’s plummeting priority resulted from more than the distraction of war. For the last seven years, President Obama has put the squeeze on defense. The armed forces’ capacity and capabilities to meet all their mission has steadily declined. The Pentagon is struggling to put forces in the field, let alone find enough stuff left over to play Star Wars.

Experimentation and prototyping in the armed forces today is more than just talk—but just barely. (See, for example, a summary of recent Army initiatives.) Most of the effort is in the virtual environment or at the small-ball level. There is little bending of metal and muddying of boots in the field.

Resources are a problem. “Today, it is hard to get money for experimentation without being attached to a program of record,” laments House Armed Services Committee Chair Mac Thornberry. “And programs of record tend to be sacrosanct, even when they do not make sense.”

There is frustration in the force. “We’ve got to push things out there faster,” says Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, commanding general of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command. “We’ve got to be willing to take them out there, get them out to the fleet, experiment with them… play with them, prototype them, break them, work with it, and if it fails it fails.”

Brave New World 2.0

A compelling case can be made to get back into the futures business.

Arguably, thinking through the future has worked in the past. Some of the greatest peacetime advances in transforming how U.S. military forces prepare for the next fight came from field experimentation. The Army has a long legacy of using prototyping, field trials and experimental units. The Marine Corps used similar practices to develop amphibious warfare. The Navy did likewise to pioneer carrier operations and naval aviation.

There is also a convincing argument that it is right to prepare for the future even as we still fight the last war.

The brutal truth is that war is the best teacher. The experimentation running up to World War II was a great benefit to the services, but the real learning, adaption and innovation came on the job. Today, America remains a nation at war, and the best laboratory results come in learning lessons from what’s happening at the sharp end.