Small Wars Journal

The Case for Disruption and Dialogue in Defense Reform

Sat, 09/01/2012 - 9:49am

Case studies abound of businesses that have seen their success turn into bloat, hubris, and ultimately decline.  It should be no surprise then that the most powerful and unparalleled military in history is having a hard time coming to grips with the coming budget cuts.   The resources at the disposal of the military are as massive as the coming cuts are comparatively paltry (despite protestations to the contrary), yet the real challenge is more one of rationalizing the organization’s allocation of resources. 

The military is saddled with more restraints and armed with fewer incentives and metrics than any private sector organization. At the same time, the massive, conservative bureaucracy of the Department of Defense (DoD), replete with its four separate services and countless other fiefdoms, is notoriously resistant to change.  Attempts to rationalize, streamline, and flatten the organization will be staunchly resisted, while general officer leaders are unprepared, if not unwilling, to break this phalanx.  This all means that reforms will have to come at the hands of disruptive actors within and outside DoD, rather than a unified, top-down campaign.  While it is much in vogue to deny that the rules of the business world apply to the military, the time is ripe for more dialogue between the two worlds to both inform and learn from this unique case.

The staunch resistance of entrenched, status quo interests in any organization makes reform efforts difficult.  Corporate leadership, business units, employee groups, and shareholders can all be impediments to bold change.  All can value the comfort of short-term stability over the risk that faces nearly every effort to reform.  These challenges are all the more daunting in declining powerhouse corporations that have long enjoyed an advantaged position. As Richard Rumelt warned, “Success leads to laxity and bloat, and these lead to decline.  Few organizations avoid this tragic arc."  When businesses sense the imperative for change, they have a number of quantitative and qualitative tools at hand to rationalize their decision-making: industry models, market research, payroll costs, revenue, sales, and other statistics.  They can turn to consultants, researchers, fresh views brought in from other companies, or even experts from other sectors in order to blaze a new trail forward.

America’s military has few of the tools laid out above to use in its reform campaign.  First, it has no true strategic competition to focus minds.  Surely, the insurgencies of the past decade have forced tactical innovation and strategic minds give lip service to the rising threat of China.  There is no “threat and constraint,” no competitive pressure of the sort that forces hard, rational decisions about resource allocation. In DoD, parochial interests continue to dominate at multiple levels:  competition for resources by fiefdoms within each service, the increasingly bruising inter-service budget battles, and the powerful purse-string control of Congress which often prioritizes industry and district concerns over fiscal and military effectiveness.

Second, the military lacks the metrics that guide most reform efforts.  Its workforce is almost entirely salaried, leaving little data for optimization.  It has no revenue or sales figures.  Its unique warfighting functions have few, if any analogues in the private sector for comparison.  And even when it comes to fighting the Nation’s battles, metrics are notoriously misreported, misunderstood, and misused.  Furthermore, defenders of the status quo use the unique nature of the military to scoff at anyone who would try to introduce management and reform lessons from the private sector – often with a haughty reference to the failures of Wall Street and Enron (as if the conduct of our recent wars has been enlightened).   

When you add these two points to a maddening third – the massive bureaucracy’s conservative organizational culture and legendary ability for self-defense – we are presented with what seems like an intractable challenge.

It would seem that changing this Leviathan could only be driven from the top, but prospects for that are dim.  Institutional leadership is split between civilian political appointees (nominally in charge but ephemeral in office), general officers (long-socialized products of the organizational culture needing change), and career bureaucrats (even longer-socialized).  But even these leaders lack control over the Congressional mandates that often drive the most inefficient acquisitions and personnel policies.  In the face of this entrenched, status quo leadership, top-level reformers can only succeed by the de facto flattening effect of empowering “disruptive” juniors. 

Junior and mid-grade officers have recently made a small buzz by discussing a set of ideas loosely labeled “disruptive thinking.”  This concept has been criticized roundly by guardians of the status quo, and even some reformers.  Supporters of the term have been labeled as “young Turks” – revolutionaries or rabble-rousers – and told that we must avoid scaring the organization if we want it to change.  Yet, by definition, a closed system that is resistant to needed change must be disrupted.  Thankfully, for all its conservative faults, the military is more forgiving of open discourse about reform than many corporations.  The idea is out.  Now it needs the purchase that can only come through a collaboration of visionary high-level leadership and bottom-up, disruptive reformers.

Lacking traditional drivers and avenues of reform, as described above, the only way to change an organization is for executives to partner with the lower and middle management to identify broken processes, bloated business units, dysfunctional institutions and paradigms, and ineffective allocation of resources.  This partnership is surely disruptive.  It partially cuts out the entrenched, status quo upper-middle management of the organization, in essence acknowledging that this conservative layer is constitutionally incapable of decisive change.  Yet, without such a disruptive move, executives will never hear the ground truths about their organization, nor the bold options for change that fresh minds, not yet fully conditioned by the pedestrian interests of one stovepipe, have to offer.

This dialogue, if it continues, is worth watching by managers and students of management.  The uniqueness of the case does not negate its usefulness to a broader audience.  Furthermore, a more efficient, effective defense is in all citizens’ interests.


drifter 1-2

Sat, 09/08/2012 - 7:09am


1-Spot-on article about a toxic culture that could benefit from the practices of flexibility and bottom-up solutions that we greatly benefit from here in Kunar Province. Looking at how we wage the war might shed some light on how we might want to "procure" for war.

2-Your description of the priortization by Congress of industry further echoes the prescient words of General Eisenhower regarding the military-industrial complex and its influence.

3-"Adapt or Die" -Billy Beane, GM, Oakland Athletics

With regards from the field,
Drifter 1-2


Wed, 11/14/2012 - 3:03pm

In reply to by Bill M.

I believe you are correct that we need to avoid refighting the last war, as has so often happened to militaries throughout history. And I believe that at many levels, we have made innovative changes due to disruptive thinkers; I won't argue as to the merits of all these changes. I also believe that senior leaders have made commendable changes regarding doctrine, policy, training, etc.

However, I read this article about the "corporate Army," which is focused primarily on big-A Acquisition (Budget, Material Development, and Capability Development/Requirements). It is here, amongst the DA-staff and others involved in this world, where there is an extreme hostility to disruptive thinking. As the author described, the role of Congress (don't forget the Executive branch) and DoD fiefdoms exist to protect programs, both successful or not. The nebulous budgetary process, which allows an office to move money from one program (needed/required/approved) to a pet project which was cleverly pitched by industry or suggested by an elected/appointed official, does not respond well to sunlight.

Many senior uniformed and civilian leaders, remain (willingly?) unaware of much of this. Professional government civilians and contractors, the long-term continuity, remain committed to filtering information to ensure those at the top receive a vision which complies with their interests. There are numerous examples of this, such as studies being withdrawn or cancelled because they did not support the professional's agenda or the active role that the DA-staff has taken in executing JCTDs, QRCs, and other material development projects without any identified capability gap or need.

If you think the UFC is entertaining, then you would really love watching the ongoing fights about which QRC efforts to terminate. Rice bowls abound.

While an advocate of intelligent change and constant experimentation with new technology, new organizations, doctrine, etc., I find the argument that the military is resistant to change to much over hyped. One only needs to review our history and find that we constantly adapt and innovate, and I think if a comparative analysis was conducting we do so more than any other government organization and more so than most large corporations.

Recently there has been frustration in some circles because the military hasn't adapted quick enough to deal with the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is undeniable, but what needs to be challenged is that some of adaptions being pushed by the so called Young Turks are questionable, and perhaps unnecessary. Do we change to support to ensure the military can more effectively pursue flawed policy objectives (our recent effort to remove regimes and then forcefully promote nation building), or do we really seek to learn and change our strategic approach, and then change the military to support that new approach?

If you the Defense Strategic Guidance that was published in January 2012 they are directing a number of changes for what the force should be able to do in 2020, and one of the lower priorities is large scale stability operations. Yet some of those arguing the most fiercely that the military can't change quick enough are the same ones that want to refight the last war.

We definitely need to change, but not to refight the last war. Unfortunately in our system change takes time for a lot of reasons covered in this article, so we need to look forward and project the strategic landscape we'll be operating in, and then force strategic change to adapt to it. I agree that short term changes to current tactical challenges should happen much quicker than they do now. That does mean flattening the organization and empowering lower level leaders to make decisions at their level. That shouldn't be hard to do, but unfortunately our prevailing culture of micromanagement is a strong system of opposition to that change. Eating the elephant one bite (or byte in our micromanaged information age military) at time, I recommend we focus first on empowerment at the lower levels so we can maximize the talent of our human capital.


Tue, 09/04/2012 - 10:53pm

Concur; great article, poignant comments.

Considering the incremental nature of real change, juxtaposed against the currents of influence networking, how do we "upgrade" the leadership (training & education) model to meet modern/future operational requirements? Or should the tail wag the dog by adding an element of benchmarked rabble-rousing in fitness reports?

Rodney Adams

Tue, 09/04/2012 - 4:11pm

As a "young Turk", lack of transparency seems to be a major obstacle in the way of any sort of Military Spring. Our firmly entrenched "one level up" relationship and mentoring boundary is not helping. Many successful firms (namely an influential consulting company) have senior to junior mentorship programs specifically to combat this sort of thing. Yeah, I mentioned the private sector. Now, let the naysayers rain down their myopic comments about bullets and state objectives not being the same as shareholder equity, therefore the cross-applications are useless wholesale. I'll be in my lane if anybody needs me.

Well said, Peter, and desperately needed.

Dave Maxwell is right, a tough slog indeed for those who attempt to reform from within, as some "disruptions" can be characterized by the bureaucracy as illegal/insubordination.

"Too many rules and mandates," is also a symptom of a burdening hierarchy.

The problem has been identified, now folks with courage are required to attempt solutions.

Ken White

Sat, 09/01/2012 - 11:26am

Agree with the article and with Dave Maxwell -- however, more than dialogue and disruption will be necessary. Our personnel systems breed the unhelpful behavioral characteristics and our training and education are constrained by enforced risk avoidance, false economies and political correctness. Much of that can be directly attributed to the Congress.

Thus, the Elephant in the ointment is Congress. Unless and until budgetary reform is allowed by them and they cease subtly pushing technology over people to provide jobs for their constituents, training cannot be improved and we will continue on the same path(s)...

They must also undo some of the damage they've caused by excessively prescriptive personnel policies and if that does not occur attempts to disrupt -- or even to have forthright dialogue -- will likely achieve little success.

The institutional leadership is at fault and complicit, no question -- but it is simply doing what it has been specifically trained and educated to do...

We have a major systemic problem and it is quite broad based. All, perhaps not even most, of the impactors are not uniformed.

Move Forward

Sat, 09/01/2012 - 11:25am

I seem to recall submitting a version of this article to you first (not my title BTW).

The article presented one joint materiel solution to solicit others for solving the land component's join access challenge in the face of A2/AD threats. Instead of allowing dialogue on the disruptive idea (as occurred at Carl's site), after a month of delays/silence I was told something along the lines of you didn't think you could convince your readers (historians and Middle East specialists?) of its viability.

If a disruptive idea couldn't get past you to reach other eyes, how would you propose that other junior leaders would have any better luck? Are the services not already filled with parochial branch/service ideas that are hard to circumvent? In the Army, for instance, is there not already an armor, infantry (light, armored, Stryker, airborne, air assault, Ranger), FA, aviation, air defense "mafia" that controls their own ideas for how to proceed in their branch? Isn't that future often grounded in past battles and perceived glories that often no longer are likely to apply to future warfare?

The Maneuver Center of Excellence and consolidation of Field Artillery and Air Defense efforts may be one example of how things could improve. But didn't we just close Joint Forces Command?

Dave Maxwell

Sat, 09/01/2012 - 9:55am

I truly do hope the Young Turks can be successful but they have to be ready for the long hard slog. It will be a marathon and not a sprint. (and while I am dishing out cliches: as Liddel Hart said, the only thing harder than getting a new idea into a military mind is getting an old one out.)