Most people assume military innovation and transformation are two sides of the same coin, and in many respects they are. Many also believe military innovation and transformation are good, never bothering to “look under the hood” and ask the hard questions about the integration, testing, and validation needed to assure a positive outcome and bring about genuine improvement in operational capability
Two recent articles address the virtues and pitfalls of redesigning a military force, albeit from different perspectives. These articles deserve a closer look given ongoing innovations and transformations across the military services. The poster child for both revolutions is the United States Marine Corps, which is well down the road of redesigning and restructuring itself for what it perceives, correctly or not, are the challenges of the twenty-first century. Pursuing the unwise strategy of “divest to invest,” the Marines have shed approximately 50 percent of the combined arms capabilities needed to fight and win today to acquire new weapons and technology for specific future threats. These new capabilities are at least six to eight years away from being fielded in sufficient quantities to be operationally relevant. The Marine Corps is foolishly gambling that potential enemies will ignore the window of opportunity these misguided actions present them.
The first article, “Dangerous Changes: When Military Innovation Harms Combat Effectiveness,” is authored by Kendrick Kuo. One of Kuo’s most important cautions is “The notion that innovative and better military performance go hand in hand is thus intuitive. It is also wrong.” True innovation is the result of a well-developed and tested operating concept that can be vetted through a robust combat development process to determine integrated requirements necessary to effectively implement the concept. The enablers include doctrine, force structure and organizations, training and education, equipment, and facilities and support. A good example of failed innovation is the flawed Pentomic Army Divisions developed between 1957 and 1963 to counter the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield. Conversely, an example where innovation succeeded was the Army’s Air-Land Battle concept that was developed to counter the Warsaw Pact’s plan to overrun NATO defenses in Europe in the 1980s and was later validated during Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait and Iraq.
A valuable second observation by Kuo is
“harmful innovation is more likely to occur when military services … make desperate gambles on new capabilities to meet over ambitious goals while cannibalizing older capabilities. The military services treat innovations as a silver bullet and endorses destroying traditional capabilities before innovation advances can justify their beliefs about the new one’s effectiveness.”
“Harmful innovation” is exemplified by Marine Corps Force Design 2030. The Corps has mortgaged its current and future capabilities as a global force-in-readiness and combined arms team valued by combatant commanders for the allure of long-range precision weapons and associated technology that are experimental and may not perform as expected.
A final reflection by Kuo is during combat, “…the military service is likely to discover that it has overspecialized in the new capability to its own detriment. To improve performance, the service may try to downgrade the centrality of the new capability and restore traditional capabilities that remain surprisingly relevant and necessary.” This conclusion highlights the unacceptable risks associated with “divest to invest.” In the case of the Marine Corps, traditional capabilities for global response have been lost today because the equipment, personnel, and logistics required have been drastically reduced or totally discarded.
The second article, “Transforming the Marine Corps for an Uncertain Future” by General Charles Wilhelm, USMC (Ret), compares and contrasts two different approaches for transforming the Marine Corps. One approach resulted in a more relevant and capable service with a global focus. The other approach will result in a less relevant and less capable service with a narrow geographical focus.
The first transformation began in the late 1980s. The Marine Corps commandant began to refocus the service on its traditional core competency as the “first to fight” with a new emphasis on the doctrine of maneuver warfare and the intellectual development of Marines. In Wilhelm’s words, “Marines would outfight and outthink their adversaries.” The Marine Corps was better configured to support the combatant commanders, as specified in the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986. Marines were made more capable of supporting and participating in joint and special operations.
The next two commandants built on and solidified these principles and established a systems-based approach to identify and develop future capabilities: the Marine Corps Combat Development Process. The process allowed Marines to remain ready, relevant, and capable of responding to constantly shifting threats and national security priorities. Concepts led the way to the identification, prioritization, and integration of doctrine, force structure, equipment, training and education, and facilities and support. Current capabilities were maintained until new capabilities were developed, tested, and fielded.
The second transformation begun in 2020 rejected the systems-based approach in favor of one based on intuition and hope. The range and depth of capabilities needed to fight and win today are being eliminated or significantly degraded to acquire future, experimental capabilities, creating a window of opportunity for our adversaries. Marine forces are being optimized for one task, against one enemy, in one specific location. According to Wilhelm, the Marine Corps is being transformed into a “less tactically and operationally capable and less strategically relevant force than the one that emerged from the previous transformation.”
Both articles raise concerns about military innovation and transformation that should alarm the new Congress. Congressional oversight is needed, to include hearings where witnesses for and against ongoing transformations are asked hard, thoughtful questions about whether the services, especially the Marine Corps, are transforming in a manner that supports current and future U.S. national security objectives. The Congress cannot assume every prospective military innovation and transformation is necessarily good for the national defense simply because it offers seductive budgetary solutions and illusions of future “silver bullet” technologies. To paraphrase former President Ronald Reagan, our elected representatives can trust but they must verify.
Brigadier General Jerry McAbee (USMC, Ret) is a career artillery officer who served thirty-six years on active duty.
Brigadier General Mike Hayes (USMC, Ret.) is a career artillery officer who served thirty-three years on active duty.