Small Wars Journal

Military Innovation and the Tower of Babel

Tue, 06/04/2019 - 6:35pm

Military Innovation and the Tower of Babel

Franklin C. Annis

There is an etiological myth in the Judaeo-Christian tradition about the Tower of Babel. With all the tribes of the Earth unified with a single language, they set out with a goal to build a tower so grand it could reach God in the heavens. Fearful of their ability to construct such a tower with a unifying language, God changed the languages of the various tribes. With no common tongue, the tribes were no longer able to build such a tower and scattered around the world.  

Several months ago, I began researching how the military uses the term “innovation” only to find while we are using common words, we are not using a shared language. Not only does the various Department of Defense branches use the term “innovation” differently, the different definitions utilized in other allied nations and in civilian industry only adds further confusion in the use of this term. Just as modern warfare increasingly demands the use of more precision weapons, we must be equally dedicated to using precision in language to ensure a common understanding of intent and purpose. Until we develop a shared concept and definition of the term “innovation,” and associated changes within the military, our efforts will fail like the attempts to build the Tower of Babel.

In this paper, I will propose the definitions of the key terms “innovation,” “creativity,” “technology,” and “military revolution.” While I don’t claim that these definitions are the “definitive” answer, I hope they would begin the conversation to seeking conclusive definitions within the military community. I will also propose a concept of a Military Change Spectrum to further help identify the correct term to be used for any specific change occurring within the military. While I acknowledge that these concepts will remain largely subjective, the Military Change Spectrum might serve to limit the degree of subjectivity when examining a specific incident and bring us closer to having a common tongue.

Defining Terms

Innovation. The term “innovation” is derived from the Latin innovatus meaning “to renew, restore.”[i] It is to be stressed that it is to “renew” and not “introduce something new.” It is a term that stresses a paradigm shift in thinking. In the military context, innovation is displayed as a shifting of the doctrine or the organization’s structure. Additionally, innovation does not occur on an individual level. While an individual service member could be said to be “innovative” in suggesting a new technology or method, the organization (or some portion thereof) would have to adapt to display innovation. While often not stated, the process of innovation within the military requires consensus building and organizational underwriting that often presents challenges within the military culture.

In the military context, it is sometime stated that the change in technology or method must be “new” and an advantage over adversaries to be considered an innovation. If new technology or methods have been demonstrated in other militaries, adapting that proven technology or method is often considered to be “technological dispersion” or “adaptation” over innovation.[ii] The goal of innovation would be to ensure some form of technological or methodological advantage over potential rival militaries not simply matching technologies and methods.

Creativity. American service members are well known for their ability to find creative solutions to problems. The idiom “Yankee ingenuity” was spread around the globe in the wake of WWII describing the American spirit of employing self-reliance and available materials to find creative solutions to problems. With the term “innovation” requiring a change in doctrine or force structure, there is a need for a term to capture all the clever solutions to localized problems that occur below the level of institutional change.

While there are a lot of terms to define this self-reliant ingenuity, the term creativity will be used to mirror the language of the newly established center of excellence within the Marine Corps University. The “Brute” Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity was established to “cultivat[e] creativity in the profession of arms.”[iii] Creativity being defined as the ability to produce a product or solution that is both “novel and useful.”[iv] Creativity is forming a new idea or product that is useful. The reason why “useful” is included in this definition is that any proposed solution that isn’t functional has no relevance. Creativity isn’t just thinking of something original but thinking of something unique that works. 

Technology. A common term that will come up in a discussion about innovation is “technology.” In this context, technology could be defined as “Machinery and equipment developed from the application of scientific knowledge.”[v] While technology might function as a catalyst for innovation, we must be careful to not confuse these two terms. Not all new technologies introduced into the military will result in innovation as some technological adaptations will remain at the level of creativity.

Military Revolution

Military Revolutions occur when changes in military doctrine or technology shift so dramatically that it requires changes in a country’s governmental system. The primary example of a Military Revolution occurred in the mid-16th & 17th century when the introduction of firearms significantly changed military doctrine and increased the need of professional armies and grand fortifications. The advent of nuclear weapon systems during the Cold War with the U.S.S.R. might be argued as a Military Revolution for the U.S. Military. The threat of Nuclear war provided motivation for significant levels of military investment and diplomatic changes by the U.S. Government. Within the military, the Army Air Corps was converted to a separate branch, the U.S. Air Force, and tasked with maintaining a Strategic Air Command.[vi] Considerable investments in Nuclear capabilities was also invested into the Navy with the Army developing artillery-deliverable Nuclear weapons. The desire to build and maintain military technological superiority created what we now know as the “military-industrial complex.” Alliances and heavy investment in defense industries created a situation in which these industries could influence governmental defense policy. 


When we examine changes within the military, it is useful to view these changes on a spectrum that ranges between creativity to military revolution. As with any subjective terms, it is often difficult to define exactly where the separation between the terms should be placed. For example, if a rifleman finds a new way to lubricate his rifle for better performance and he shares this information with his rifle squad, is this enough to say this is low-level innovation?  Considering the amount of organizational support required might help in determining where the new idea or technology fits on this spectrum. Creativity at the lowest level places all the burden on the individual service member. Innovation will require at least a minimal institutional investment. A Military revolution might be recognized when support required to sustain the change is more than what is possible from organic military resources and requires changes in a country’s government.

The Gatling gun is a good example of examining where a technology falls upon the Military Change Spectrum and how its location can shift through time. The Gatling Gun was a multi-barreled, hand-cranked rotary weapon system said to be a forerunner of the modern machine gun. This weapon system was first used in the American Civil War by Union forces during the siege of Petersburg, VA, in 1864-1865. Twelve Gatling Guns where privately purchased by Union commanders.[vii] Given the weapon system looked similar to an artillery piece, it was treated as such. It was perceived that the Gatling gun would operate like a cannon firing grape-shot but instead of firing all the shot at one time, it would do so in series.[viii] Given the Gatling gun was used like a traditional artillery piece, no changes in doctrine where made due to its unique ability, and the Army did not invest in this technology during the war, we can applaud the commanders for their “creativity” in giving their artillery additional artillery pieces but we will not call it “innovation.” The U.S. Military eventually invested in this technology and it was famously available to but not used by Colonel George Armstrong Custer during the American Indian Wars. This avoidance of use may demonstrate the lack of understanding on how a high rate of fire weapon system could be best used on the battlefield. On July 1, 1898, three Gatling guns fired 18,000 rounds over 8 ½ minutes suppressing Spanish forces during the Battle of San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War.[ix] This use demonstrates the paradigm shift to the use of this high rate of fire system to how we would utilize  a modern machine gun. This displays how a new technology can shift from being considered “creative” to being “innovative” on the battlefield. Like many technologies, the shift from creative utilization of the Gatling gun to something that was truly innovative took multiple decades for the true advantages to be recognized and the prevailing paradigm to be shifted.


I would hope that we will take the time to come to a consensus on the foundational definitions of the terms surrounding military change. While there is no need to adapt the definitions I provided, there is a distinct demand to create a shared language. The longer it takes us to realize the need for a shared language the longer it will take us to “build the tower.” We must ensure that we are using these terms correctly and with a shared understanding. Only after we come to a common understanding of the language of military change will we be able to take on the important task of enabling it in our forces. While we surely want to have the dialog about supporting and enabling innovation in our ranks, without first establishing a common understanding of terms, we might find we are having 100 different discussions instead of the united conversation we need.  


Air Force Historical Research Agency, ‘The Birth of the United States Air Force’, (2008), (Accessed: 30 APR 2019).

Beghetto, R. A., ‘Does Assessment Kill Student Creativity?’ The Education Forum (Spring 2005), (Accessed: 30 April 2019).

Emmott, N. W. ‘The Devil's Watering Pot’ United States Naval Institute Proceedings, (September 1972).

Korba, R., “The Dilemma of Defense Innovation and Adaptation”, Small Wars Journal (2016),, (Accessed: 30 April 2019).

Marine Corps University, ‘Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity’ (N.D.) para. 3., (Accessed: 30 April 2019).

Modern War Institute, ‘Harvard University's Professor Stephen Rosen on Military Innovation and Power Projection’, (2017), (Accessed: 30 April 2019).

Online Etymology Dictionary, ‘Innovate’, (2019), (Accessed: 30 April 2019).

Oxford English Dictionary, ‘Technology’ (2019),, (Accessed 30 April 2019).

Parker, J. H., The Gatlings at Santiago, (Middlesex, UK: Echo Library, Reprint 2006). (Accessed: 30 April 2019).

Pritchard Jr., R. A., ‘Civil War Weapons and Equipment’ (Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2003).

End Notes

[i] Online Etymology Dictionary, ‘Innovate’, (2019), (Accessed: 30 April 2019).

[ii] Modern War Institute, ‘Harvard University's Professor Stephen Rosen on Military Innovation and Power Projection’, (2017), (Accessed: 30 April 2019).

[iii] Marine Corps University, ‘Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity’ (N.D.) para. 3., (Accessed: 30 April 2019)

[iv] R. A. Beghetto, ‘Does Assessment Kill Student Creativity?’ The Education Forum (Spring 2005), p. 255. (Accessed: 30 April 2019).

[v] Oxford English Dictionary, ‘Technology’ (2019), para. 2., (Accessed 30 April 2019)

[vi] Air Force Historical Research Agency, ‘The Birth of the United States Air Force’, (2008), (Accessed: 30 APR 2019).

[vii] R. A. Pritchard Jr. ‘Civil War Weapons and Equipment’ (Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2003).

[viii] N. W. Emmott, ‘The Devil's Watering Pot’ United States Naval Institute Proceedings, (September 1972), p. 70.

[ix] J. H. Parker, The Gatlings at Santiago, (Middlesex, UK: Echo Library, Reprint 2006).


About the Author(s)

Franklin C. Annis holds a Doctorate in Education (EdD) from Northcentral University. He created the “Evolving Warfighter” YouTube channel to share his research on Military Self-Development. Dr. Annis is a veteran of Operational Iraqi Freedom.

The views presented in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Defense or its components.