Small Wars Journal

Innovation in the Military

Sun, 02/10/2019 - 11:38am

Innovation in the Military


Barry Scott, Naluahi Kaahaaina and Christopher Stock


For the U.S. military to maintain a competitive advantage with modern technology, it must organize with the principles of purpose, teaming, and speed.


Innovation in the military is not a new concept, but it is being reinvigorated in the modern context. Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel signed the “Defense Innovation Initiative” in 2014,[i] which former Secretary Ash Carter put into overdrive during his tenure[ii] and the effort continued under former Secretary Mattis.[iii] Despite a legacy of innovative achievements, however, innovation in the military is not a foregone conclusion. This paper introduces leaders to central concepts of innovation and offers options to increase the likelihood for innovation to produce tangible results in the military.


Four concepts about innovation in the military are introduced in this paper. The first is called the Military Innovation Framework. It is used to determine what kind of innovation is desired, and why. The second tool is called the Military Innovation Engine, which describes who needs to participate for innovation to catch fire. The third concept is the Military Innovation Pathway. It is one way—not the only way—to let innovation happen organically in the military unit. Finally, the fourth concept describes special considerations needed for disruptive innovation to survive in the military environment.


Military Innovation Framework


In his epic On War, Carl von Clausewitz established, “the first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish…the kind of war on which they are embarking.”[iv] The same is true for innovation in the military. A leader—military or civilian—of an organization that intends to innovate should first ask: what kind of innovation is desired?


Everyone can be an innovator, but not all kinds of innovation are created equal.


Historians and social scientists have been studying innovation theory since at least the 1940s, when Joseph Schumpeter introduced the concept of “creative destruction” in relation to technological innovations.[v] Much of the literature ever since has focused on non-military matters. Beginning in the 1990s, however, researchers earnestly began to construct a theory for military innovation. Great efforts were made to distinguish peacetime versus wartime innovation and technological versus organizational change.[vi] Finally in 2004, a concept emerged that attempted to bind these ideas into a single, unified Military Innovation Framework.


Retired Navy Captain Terry Pierce, after combining ideas from several other innovation theorists, finally proposed a framework that could be applied to military innovation.[vii] The framework described innovation in four categories: incremental, modular, radical, and architectural. All four categories represent a kind of innovation, but with different approaches and different consequences stemming from each quadrant.




Figure 1. Military Innovation Framework


Incremental innovation is when the existing hardware or software components remain the same, or change slightly, and the knowledge about the system interface remains true. The life cycle replacement of a weapon system, for example, falls into this category. Incremental innovation is important because it accounts for the overwhelming majority of improvements made in the military. Especially in a bureaucracy, which is good for sustaining large organizations over time, incremental innovation is what most employees in traditional combat development and acquisition roles are asked to achieve: to make existing things better.


Modular innovation occurs when the technology is overturned, but the system remains intact. Converting from an analog (i.e., manual) to a digital (i.e., automated) interface for ship’s navigation or muster reports, for example, would fall into this quadrant. Modular innovation introduces new technology to accomplish the same old task. It happens less frequently than incremental innovation but is generally accomplished by the same force of people in the military’s research and development enterprise.


Radical innovation exists when both the component and the system interface are overturned. The aircraft carrier, tank, airplane, or submarine are all examples of when new technology is combined in new ways to produce a thing that had not existed before. Radical innovations are rare. The barriers to entry for radical innovation are usually high, such as time and cost, but the major research and development institutions in the military and the defense industrial base are capable—and have proven—the ability to achieve radical innovations. What is notable to understand about this category, however, is that existing paradigms about warfare are not changed. In other words, carriers were made to support battleships, tanks to reinforce cavalry, and airplanes as forward observers. The bureaucracy views radical innovation as the pinnacle of technological achievement so there is not insurmountable institutional resistance for such concepts. The seed for new a pattern in warfare is planted within a radical innovation, but only the next kind of innovation can reveal such a dramatic change.


Before moving onto the final category, it is worth noting that all three kinds of innovation introduced thus far—incremental, modular, and radical—are all considered sustaining innovations.[viii] In other words, they are evolutionary steps and might also be considered small, medium, and large, respectively, in terms of the degree of progress. In the military, sustaining innovations reinforce the existing ways of war.


Architectural innovation happens when the existing technology is reinforced, but the system linkages are rewired—when existing things are used in new ways. In military parlance, one might also call it doctrinal innovation. The combination of carriers, planes, and radio communications, for example, or of tanks, planes, and radios in a coordinated fashion represent architectural innovations. Quite often an architectural innovation comes on the heels of multiple modular or radical advancements that make it possible to connect new dots. Architectural innovations can be sustaining, and most are, but in a few exceptional cases a new classification emerges: disruptive innovation.[ix]


The Payoff: Competitive Advantage from Disruptive Innovation


Disruptive architectural innovations change the existing way of war, and in the time before the enemy adapts, it presents a distinct competitive advantage. The simplest way to recognize a disruptive architectural innovation is when a new brand of warfare appears for the first time. In other words, the first aircraft carriers represented a sustaining innovation, but the onset of carrier warfare was disruptive. The carrier was envisioned as a reconnaissance extension for the battleship, but carrier warfare, or the combination of carriers, planes, and radios, introduced a truly advantageous way of fighting at sea. Disruptive architectural innovations are revolutionary. They deconstruct previous paradigms and leap from one way of using force to another. The technology itself is not revolutionary, but rather the way we employ the technology in new ways to achieve an unforeseen consequence is disruptive.


Disruptive architectural innovations are advantageous for the military that can harness it first, but only temporarily. The competitive advantage exists until the other side adapts to using the same or better technique. And then what was previously disruptive becomes the new norm and future advancements trend along the sustaining line. Carrier warfare was at first disruptive, but today is building upon sustaining innovations. Another architectural innovation will eventually disrupt carrier warfare.


Since advantage is temporary, speed is the most important weapon that leaders can employ.


The disruptive nature of architectural innovation is hard for the military bureaucracy to accept. In fact, the military service or nation-state that first achieves a radical innovation often struggles to see or adopt the architectural implications. The English invented the tank and the French engineered the best armor designs, but it was the Russians who designed a strategic doctrine for Deep Battle and the Germans were the first to employ Blitzkrieg to astonishing tactical effect.[x] A change in doctrine is hard because it requires people to alter beliefs, budgets, and perhaps their own existence in the organizational design. It is for this reason why some military organizations decide to segregate their disruptive thinkers into separate skunkworks entities keeping the functions of sustaining innovation separate from disruptive innovation. Not because one is not more important than the other, but they do require different talents and a separate focus.


The usefulness of the Military Innovation Framework, or one like it, is for leaders to calibrate their organization to the kind of innovation being sought. Once that is understood, the next step is thinking about whom to organize, which is reflected in the Military Innovation Engine.


Military Innovation Engine


The Military Innovation Engine describes the three key ingredients for all types of innovation to occur in the military. They include the operator, technologist, and resource agent. All three nodes are required for success and closing the distance between the three is of paramount importance. The operator is the warfighter of any rank or designation; officer or enlisted from all services. It is the person closest to the problem and knows the context of the challenge that needs to be solved. The technologist is a catchphrase for the person(s) who can introduce possible science and technology solutions through education, experience, and often by accessing a wider professional network. This person might be a scientist, engineer, developer, researcher, professor, entrepreneur, hacker, or any other such descriptor. The resourcing agent is the one who can facilitate the mechanics of innovation with certain authorities, policies, or funding. These include acquisition executives, program executive officers, program managers, analysts, contracting officers, acquisition strategy mangers, and legal advisors, to name a few.




Figure 2. Military Innovation Engine


Historically, from program offices to laboratories or industry, the technologist and resource agent share brief exchanges with each other and spend little time—if any—with the end-user. Too many layers stand between the three parties of innovation. The goal should be to close the distance and increase the interaction. A technical feature that is critical to the operator might be overlooked by the engineer unless there is consistent dialogue. The software industry, by contrast, has revamped itself in the past fifteen years by empowering the “DevOps” trend, which places the software developer within the operations team for fast, iterative design work.[xi] In the case of the Military Innovation Engine, the operator knows the problem, the technologist knows possible solutions, and the resource agent brings access to vehicles for execution.


The Innovation Engine is critical, but it comes with a cost for the military leader: dedication of manpower. The cost can be managed by eliminating redundant positions, looking for overlapping areas of interest or responsibility, reallocating empty billets, issuing part-time assignments, or tapping into a person’s passions and talents. It is best to dedicate focused effort, but even a collateral duty can yield valuable results. 


The Engine is applicable for all types of innovation discussed—sustaining or disruptive—but the same team will not be able to do both at the same time. Two different teams are required, but there is a way they can work together, and it happens with the Military Innovation Pathway.


Military Innovation Pathway


The Military Innovation Pathway is a roadmap for the Innovation Engine to get from problem to solution given the constraints of today’s military organizational structure. The Pathway can be described in three phases: experimentation, adaptation, and acquisition. These terms should not be taken as discrete barriers, but rather as ideas that span a sophisticated back-and-forth lifecycle.


Experimentation is about anticipating change and exploring new ideas and technologies that could gain advantage ahead of the competition. It is based on divergent thinking to fully discover the extent of the boundaries for a given problem-solution set. Professors Charles O’Reilly and Michael Tushman label this phase “exploration.”[xii] It should begin with operator insights. Asking the right questions to understand the problem from the user’s perspective is key to the popular innovation methods such as Design Thinking, Agile Scrum, or Lean Start-up, which are employed in this phase.[xiii] The experimentation phase is meant to be iterative where many concepts are explored rapidly and failure is not only accepted but encouraged. It is here where ideas begin the journey toward becoming disruptive architectural innovations.




Figure 3. Military Innovation Pathway


Experimentation is not, however, random or based on free play. It is a discipline to document the questions and record the data to report results and learn. The operator-technologist interface is the primary relationship, but the resource agent(s) should be identified as a coming member of the team. Other activities might include thinking of new operating concepts, conducting net assessments, and participating in wargames or simulations. After the experimentation phase, the team should have a deep understanding of the problem and a broad set of concepts for potential solutions. The data from experimentation informs the viability of potential options, which makes it possible to invest rationally rather than speculating on uncertain ideas.


Adaptation represents a conceptual crossroads. The emphasis is on convergence of ideas to reveal the targeted form and function of a potential new capability or process. It is about structuring the concept in a way that it can be adopted by the military organization. Plans, including cost, schedule, and intended performance along with a proof of concept, should be delivered in this phase. All three nodes of the Innovation Engine—operator, technologist, and resource agent—work together and prototypes become practical instead of conceptual and experimentation happens in-the-field instead of in-the-lab. The goal of the adaptation phase is to recommend a solution to the original problem for the acquisition phase to commence.


Acquisition represents the military’s traditional roles of acquisition, procurement, Program Objective Memorandum planning, and fielding of new capabilities. These are “mature [organizations] where continual improvement and cost reduction are often the keys to success,” or what O’Reilly and Tushman might call “exploitation.”[xiv] The resourcing agent leads the effort to completion and the operator and technologist shift to being advisors. The team remains intact so as not to lose the shared understanding that binds the solution to the problem. What is fundamentally different about the stages of the Pathway is that failure is encouraged during experimentation, but failure is discouraged during acquisition—and for good reason. At this final stage, a capability is about to be delivered to the warfighter and there should be high reliability on safety assurance and performance. Also, experimentation permits failure because the costs are lower in that early stage, whereas during acquisition the program costs are much higher and being set for a longer period.


The Military Innovation Pathway does not attempt to change things mandated by law, such as in the Federal Acquisition Regulations. Instead, it introduces the experimentation and adaptation phases to prevent ideas from stalling and accelerate the transition to acquisition. These two early stages ensure a shared perspective among the three parties responsible for innovation and provides a safe place to learn from low-cost failures. The challenge for military leaders is performing the dissimilar tasks of exploration and exploitation within the same organization. O’Reilly and Tushman suggest the answer is in “ambidextrous leadership,” which in a military context is the ability to organize a unit to exploit existing capabilities and explore new styles of warfare simultaneously.[xv]


Disruptive Innovation Theory


The final concept focuses exclusively on how disruptive innovation can be achieved in the military. In his book, Warfighting and Disruptive Technologies: Disguising Innovation, Pierce introduced a concept called “disruptive innovation theory.”[xvi] It describes how senior military leaders manage disruptive versus sustaining innovations. How this feat is accomplished in the military bureaucracy is not necessarily the same as in other ecosystems, such as private technology firms. The theory proposes four key variables: top cover, small teams, promotion pathways, and disguise.


The first ingredient is credible top cover. There must be a leader with enough seniority and longevity to empower subordinates, scuttle internal resistance, and shelter from external attacks. The leader must be viewed credibly in the eyes of his or her superiors and peers to be given enough runway for the Innovation Pathway to iterate several times. Often the innovators in the military are viewed as outsiders. For disruptive innovations to take root, it is important that the senior champion is someone that the bureaucracy does not view with suspicion.


The second factor is sharing the innovation process among several small, multi-disciplinary teams. Having multiple teams prevents groupthink and competition can be a powerful motivator. Including people from diverse backgrounds to mix different perspectives and areas of expertise is critical to thinking about new ways to use existing things. The unencumbered minds are generally the most capable ones to deconstruct existing paradigms.


The third component for long-term success of a disruptive innovation is ensuring the promotion of junior personnel who are the creators and early adopters of a new way of war. Without ensuring a path for the junior members of a movement to become the senior leader mentioned above, the movement will die when the initial layer of top cover is removed. The movement towards robotics and autonomous systems—be it with unmanned aerial, ground, or surface vehicles—demonstrates this conundrum in the military today. The highest-ranking leaders in the military will have always achieved their status through experience with the old way and might be inclined to promote juniors coming from the same legacy. It is imperative that the talent management system promotes those officers demonstrating potential for future ways of war.  


Finally, the fourth and most crucial play is to disguise disruptive innovation as sustaining innovation. Even with the first three ingredients in the mix, the military bureaucracy, which is a well-intentioned apparatus, is weighty enough to squash what threatens it. It should be no surprise that carriers were at first an extension of the battleship. The disguise, whether it was intentional or not, kept the new technology from being sidelined. As Pierced described it, “once the character of the new warfighting way is conceptualized, the politics of effecting disruptive change are eased by using a dissimulation strategy for presenting it to the organization as a sustaining innovation.”[xvii] It is partly for this reason why the U.S. special operations forces are sometimes viewed as the military’s leaders in disruptive innovation, because disguise is inherent in their approach to warfare.




This paper introduced four concepts for civilian and military leaders to pursue innovation. The Military Innovation Framework is a tool to describe the different kinds of innovation: incremental, modular, radical, and architectural (or doctrinal). All four types can generate sustaining innovations, otherwise known as evolutionary change, but only the architectural type can result in a disruptive—revolutionary—innovation. It is important for the military leader to know which kind of innovation is desired to calibrate the organization for the appropriate mindset that will be required.


The Military Innovation Engine introduces the operator to the technologist and resource agent. The concept is simple, but too often ignored. Closing the distance between the three members and maintaining their personal relationship from beginning to end is critical. Otherwise, technical solutions become misguided and watered-down and momentum for the effort is lost.


The Military Innovation Pathway is one way for would-be innovators to make progress. The terms experimentation and adaptation are meant to inspire a process from divergent to convergent thought and it ends with the acquisition mechanisms that are already familiar to the military. The major distinction is that failure is encouraged during experimentation, whereas there is little tolerance of failure during acquisition.


Disruptive Innovation Theory explains how senior leaders manage disruptive versus sustaining innovations when the goal truly is revolutionary change. The four key components are: credible senior leader top cover, small team participation, junior personnel promotion pathways, and disguising disruptive innovations as sustaining ones.


Overall, innovation is about change. Innovation in the military is about staying ahead of the pace of change in comparison to an opposing force. In 1921, the father of modern airpower Italian General Giulio Douhet proposed the notion that, “Victory smiles upon those who anticipate the changes in the character of war, not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after the changes occur.”[xviii] The four tools presented in this paper are aimed at those military leaders seeking to accelerate innovation for American warfighters and their allies.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy, or the Department of Energy.


End Notes


[i] Chuck Hagel, “The Defense Innovation Initiative,” memorandum, November 15, 2014,

[ii] Ash Carter, Remarks on “The Path to an Innovative Future for Defense,” speech at Center for Strategic and International Studies Third Offset Strategy Conference, October 28, 2016,

[iii] James Mattis, “A New American Grand Strategy,” Hoover Institution, February 26, 2015,

[iv] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 88.

[v] Rebecca Henderson and Kim Clark, “Architectural Innovation: The Reconfiguration of Existing Product Technologies and the Failure of Established Firms,” Administrative Sciences Quarterly 35 (1990): 11.

[vi] Stephen Peter Rosen, Winning the Next War: Innovation and the Modern Military (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991). Other notables include Barry Posen, Owen Cote, Elizabeth Kier, and Williamson Murray.

[vii] Terry Pierce, Warfighting and Disruptive Technologies: Disguising Innovation (London: Frank Cass, 2004). Significant contribution is also due to Henderson and Clark, “Architectural Innovation,” and Clayton Christenson, The Innovator’s Dilemma (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1997).

[viii] Pierce, Warfighting and Disruptive Technologies, 25.

[ix] Ibid., 25.

[x] This statement is not meant to equate Blitzkrieg with Deep Battle. The former being more tactically focused on a single strike and the latter being more of a holistic offensive and defensive strategy, but both having to do with the advantage of maneuver gained from mechanized units.

[xi] Amazon Web Services Inc., An Amazon Company, last modified March 19, 2017,

[xii] Charles O’Reilly III and Michael Tushman, Lead and Disrupt: How to Solve the Innovator’s Dilemma (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016), 14.

[xiii] Rikke Dam and Teo Yu Siang, “What is Design Thinking and Why is it So Popular?” Interaction Design Foundation, March 5, 2017,

[xiv] O’Reilly and Tushman, Lead and Disrupt, 14.

[xv] Ibid., 10.

[xvi] Pierce, Warfighting and Disruptive Technologies, 50.

[xvii] Pierce, Warfighting and Disruptive Technologies, 50.

[xviii] Giulio Douhet, The Command of the Air, trans. Dino Ferrari (New York: Coward-McCann, 1942; reprinted Washington, DC: Office of Air Force History, 1983), 30.

About the Author(s)

Christopher Stock is a technical program manager in the U.S. Navy.

Naluahi Kaahaaina is an engineer and technologist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Barry Scott is a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy.