Innovation in the crucible of war

Recently I wrote about the importance of innovation. That got me thinking about one of my favorite topics: technology innovation in the military.

Now, fostering innovation isn’t a primary, or even ancillary, goal in most military organizations. In fact, a deep respect for tradition is core to the military culture. Militaries adopt technology only because they have to: If beating up the other guy with clubs were still effective, the world wouldn’t have moved on to gunpowder.

So it’s fascinating to see how quickly technical innovations can reshape even an organization that doesn’t explicitly hold innovation as a goal. In a previous column, I’ve mentioned the outstanding book “Intelligence in War,” by John Keegan, which focuses on how communications technologies can provide the competitive edge to combatants who are smart enough to use it. I’ve also mentioned Alexander the Great’s effective use of the sarissa (new technology) and the phalanx (new organizational structure).

The point there is that new technology often also forces new organizational structures — and adopting one without the other doesn’t work.

Those of you who share my obsession will be pleased to hear there’s another great book out: “War Made New” by Max Boot, which focuses on how technology has changed the military (and of course, history) from the late 13th century through the present. In doing so, he poses several intriguing hypotheses. For example, he makes the point that European military superiority in the 19th and 20th centuries is largely a result of the ongoing battles between nations and city-states from the 14th through the 18th centuries, which served as a crucible for technology innovation.

By perfecting their technical skills against one another, the Europeans advanced far ahead of the rest of the world — kind of like the way many of the best comedians come from Canada (but I digress). More broadly, another of Boot’s hypotheses is that there are (or were) four significant “revolutions” in military technology: the gunpowder revolution, the industrial revolution (which he breaks into two, running through the late 20th century), and the information revolution, which is underway now. Of these, he believes the information revolution is the most significant — in fact, he makes the provocative contention that the information is more significant than the advent of nuclear weapons.

Even granted that he’s using a somewhat dated definition of “information technologies” (wireless Internet access and e-mail), he makes some interesting and credible predictions. For example, he posits that new technologies are likely to empower small states and substate groups at the expense of large nation-states, a prediction reminiscent of Neal Stephenson’s early-90s science fiction novel “Snow Crash”. And his analysis of the future of robotics and unmanned weaponry (including satellite-to-satellite warfare) is worth the price of the book by itself.

The real takeaway in all this? Innovative technology has a way of reshaping the organizations of people who use it — and that’s true even in organizations that don’t explicitly set out with innovation as a goal.

Johnson is president and senior founding partner at Nemertes Research

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