Ask three chefs to make the dish they consider to be the most impressive and you’ll face a variety of results. One chef might opt for the beauty through simplicity approach — showcasing the natural elegance of a perfectly sourced piece of fish. The second might prefer to focus on precision — emphasizing the specific coordinates of each measure of sauce, dice of vegetable, and cut of flesh on a plate. Of course, the third might take the bigger is better approach — a strategy best represented by the soufflé.
Yes, the well-prepared soufflé is an impressive dish: an elegant dish, a classic dish — a somewhat ostentatious dish — but an impressive one nonetheless. On the other hand, a poorly prepared soufflé is largely inedible. Whereas the other dishes might glide through mediocrity or respectability unhindered, the soufflé is a boom-or-bust culinary endeavor. The Army Vision has the potential to be that soufflé: leaders must ensure the underlying mindset gives it the best opportunity to survive without collapsing.
In the course of thirteen pages, the Army lays out how the world’s most powerful land force must look one decade from now. This already difficult task is complicated by the fact that those ambitious (or crazy) enough to take on a document of this scope find themselves in an international environment where threats span the gamut of non-state actors to world superpowers, with a healthy dose of the latest Department of Defense buzzword, “hybrid,” thrown into the mix. To respond to these oftentimes still nebulous threats, the Army advocates for eight characteristics of a force for the future.
Innovation is the most alluring of these characteristics to policymakers and the public alike. However, it could also prove to be the vision’s undoing should the conditions on the ground change.
“As it applies to technology and materiel solutions, increased innovation should drive the development of new tools and technologies, enabling the Army to obtain capabilities ahead of competitors and adversaries.”
“As it applies to doctrine, training, and organizations, increased innovation will address the use of disruptive, asymmetric tools that are already decreasing the value of U.S. conventional weapons and equipment.”
-The Army Vision
The foundation for the challenge facing the Army and innovation exists when threats and the knowledge and technologies required to counter these threats outpace budgets and doctrine. It is only compounded in scope when threats are of a diverse nature.
The practice that currently ensures the precariousness of the Army’s position is that of centralization. In terms of innovation, this centralization is most easily viewed in light of acquisitions programs (see the graphic below: Augustine’s Law XVI). However, as innovation can come not only in the form of technologies but also ideas, critical solutions must look beyond acquisition reform.
Law Number XVI:
In the Year 2054, the entire defense budget will purchase just one aircraft. The aircraft will have to be shared by the Air Force and Navy, 3.5 days each per week except for leap year, when it will be made available to the Marines for the extra day.
Taking into account the fact that Augustine’s Laws should in no way be viewed with the same level of rigor as the Theory of Relativity, it is nonetheless still possible to see a trendline leading to the rule existing today. This centralization succinctly described by the law could spell disaster if even a simple majority of the threats on the horizon come to fruition. So how can the U.S. Army effectively innovate in this environment and best ensure the security of the nation?
As it prepares to confront these future challenges, the Army should consider the minimax approach. This decision-making process lies in contrast to other game theories by seeking to minimize potential losses in a worst-case scenario rather than maximize the potential benefit in a best-case scenario. The theory was pioneered in 1928 by John von Neumann for zero-sum games, but its viability encompasses a far greater variety of scenarios. It shies away from the all-in soufflé approach, or at the very least acts as a hedge against some of its downsides in coordination with prudent leadership.
Contrary to its face value, the minimax approach is not simply a frail option for the world’s premiere land force. Yes, a minimax strategy would most likely lie in contrast to others like the offset that seek to disrupt the state of play, but that does not mean that innovation cannot occur under it. In order to leverage the minimax approach and continue to drive innovation, policymakers and strategists must consider:
- Decentralizing the decision-making process
- Leveraging the commercial sector for innovation
- Carefully considering the role of proactivity
The non-state threats that have faced the United States in recent years do not follow the same hierarchical rules of major state powers. Rather, many of them more closely follow a structure similar to networks. Additionally, the war in Ukraine and other regional conflicts throughout the years has shown that this networked approach can extend beyond non-state actors.
Pushing intelligence to smaller units, an effort that should be pursued irrespective of decentralization, ensures that those with the most direct on-the-ground experience are also best informed of the larger picture.
Countering threats such as the ones faced in Eastern Europe requires as hybrid of an approach as the threat being faced, as Mark Galeotti recently discussed in War on the Rocks. In terms of the practical command implications of this strategy, one must look at decentralization, or ‘scalability’ as referred to in The Army Vision. Pushing intelligence to smaller units, an effort that should be pursued irrespective of decentralization, ensures that those with the most direct on-the-ground experience are also best informed of the larger picture. Combined with greater levels of autonomy, information merged with the decision-making support can help the Army better respond to threats where and when they arise.
This approach can also help minimize one-off, small engagements — an increasingly common attribute of conflict around the globe that will only continue with urbanization trends and asymmetric threats (for a more complete thesis on the notion, I recommend David Kilcullen’s Out of the Mountains). By ensuring C2 authority remains at the lowest possible level for these engagements, an intimate knowledge of the community as well as an awareness for its natural pulse can be more completely factored into tactics and strategy alongside available intelligence.
The Commercial Sector
Technology has and will continue to play a leading role in the definition, capabilities, and responses to threats. When considering technology, the minimax approach does not seek to develop “omnipotent” technologies but rather support the development of specialized materiel through smaller, decentralized increments. Less financially-significant grants given to emerging firms and technologies can go much further in innovating than the binding of one major contract to an established contender.
DARPA’s Squad X Core Technologies (SXCT) program is just one example of how this model might look in practice. Through a number of smaller contracts, the agency hopes to develop a series of technologies with the underlying goal of improving the situational awareness of infantry squads. Programs like these not only ensure adaptability but can also ‘bend the cost curve’ by allowing updates and replacements to occur on a piecemeal basis dependent upon innovations and requirements.
For this to occur, the military should lean on the commercial sector, particularly as it comes to following significant trends. There may never be a missile whose development is spurred through the private sector, but as capabilities like cyber make their way to the forefront of strategic importance, the military should recognize that it will not always be the leader in defining technological priorities for warfighters.
The underlying theme of this acquisitions strategy is that it is not enough to reform acquisitions practices — one must fundamentally shift the focus and philosophy of acquisitions in order to ensure viability. Yes, the strategy might not work for all forms of acquisitions. Major U.S. acquisitions programs oftentimes lead the way in capabilities amongst similar foreign programs (although modularity in these programs might be the equivalent quality). However, under the minimax approach it is not the ‘oftentimes,’ but the seldom times in which these programs fail. A failed program that drains the coffers in times of great threats (particularly where tried and true programs exist) only serves to maximize the chance that failure will be total and utter.
The Army Vision states that it should “[streamline] current institutional processes to proactively support innovation and modernization.” Proactivity has never been the strength of the U.S. military — sometimes with good reason. The role of caution is oftentimes at odds with the concept of proactivity, particularly as it relates to kinetic operations. For that reason, the concept of proactivity must be used in an exceedingly cautious manner when the word of the day is ‘uncertainty.’
Rather than attempting to corner all geopolitical or technological trends before they reach the limelight, the Army should look at the major shifts in societies and the human race as a whole.
Rather than attempting to corner all geopolitical or technological trends before they reach the limelight, the Army should look at the major shifts in societies and the human race as a whole. It should respond to those trends quickly and with an open mind. Rather than attempting to force a predetermined route, the philosophy should seek to better adapt to the direction that natural forces are taking the world. This means examining new and unexpected viewpoints, including those of academics, civilians, and creative individuals. To use an exceedingly civilian concept, sometimes it’s just best to go with the flow.
The Minimax vs. the Soufflé
Now is the age of the buzzword. Buzzwords — tiny, neatly wrapped packages of the massive and unexplainable — are a testament towards our caution in prioritizing one threat over another and our fear of missing out on what could occur. In that way, The Army Vision is in and of itself a buzzword too. Ensuring its success requires a fundamental shift in the underlying philosophy of threats and risk, particularly if one relies on the innovation that frequently gives the U.S. an edge.
Buzzwords…are a testament towards our caution in prioritizing one threat over another and our fear of missing out on what could occur.
This is where the concept of minimax and the model of decentralization shine. By seeking to minimize the downside rather than maximize the upside, the U.S. can more effectively counter threats of a diverse nature, particularly when those threats are largely uncertain. Rather than the status quo of leading the way and the capability to respond to anything within a moment’s notice, it requires knowing when and where to engage, but more importantly, when and where to not engage. It requires the acceptance that there is a limit to what one force can accomplish. This model does not seek to diminish the strength or role that the Army has played over the course of the century, but it does intend to secure both for the next.
Adin Dobkin is a national security and defense technology analyst. He is currently serving in the legislative branch and is an Adjunct Fellow of the American Security Project. Adin is also the Communications Director for the Military Writers Guild. The views represented in this article are his alone and do not represent the views of his employers, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. The author tweets at @AdinDobkin.
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