The New Testament of Strategic Innovation: Three Paths to the Promised Land

Earlier this year, The Strategy Bridge asked university and professional military education students to participate in our first annual writing contest by sending us their thoughts on strategy.

Now, we are pleased to present one of the essays selected for honorable mention, from J. Wellington Brown of the U.S. Air Command and Staff College.

Technology and military organizations exist in a paradoxical relationship. The relentless march of science creates pressure on strategists and their organizations to adopt novel technology and adapt their doctrine. This pressure can derive from technological innovation by one’s own scientists as well as the fear of what a potential enemy is developing on its side. Yet, as political scientist Stephen Rosen points out, organizations, and especially military organizations, have difficulty changing because “they are designed not to change.”[1] A bureaucracy is organized to perform established tasks with uniformity and regularity. This inherent attribute presents the strategic innovator with a dilemma; a military organization must innovate to survive, but it resists innovation by its very nature. This problem is exacerbated by the reality that the direction and timing of optimal innovation is often ambiguous in the moment and only clear in hindsight.

What is the forward-thinking strategist to do? There are three strategies innovators have often used to spur reluctant military organizations to adopt technology-based innovations. I term these strategies:

  • New Wine in Old Wineskins, which places innovative technology in existing strategic paradigms;
  • Fire and Brimstone, which emphasizes organizational threats; and
  • Hail Mary, which seeks to mobilize external intervention.

Each strategy has been used, to varying effect, by strategic innovators to coax reluctant military organizations to adapt to technological change. This essay will proceed by explaining each strategy, illustrate how it has been used in history, and conclude with an assessment of when each strategy is most likely to be effective.

New Wine in Old Wineskins         

The first strategy innovators use to overcome the conservative resistance of military organizations is to situate new technologies in old paradigms. Barry Posen, in his landmark work on doctrinal innovation in the military, affirms this phenomenon when he writes, “ technology will normally be assimilated to an old doctrine rather than stimulate change to a new one.”[2] In this strategy, the innovator downplays the revolutionary nature of new technology to reduce the threat to stakeholders in the status quo. The conservative organization is more willing to accept the modern technology because the strategic innovator has situated it within existing doctrinal or strategic paradigms. I dub this strategy New Wine in Old Wineskins because, as in the Biblical metaphor, it contains an inherent contradiction. Just as the new wine will eventually swell and burst the old wineskin, it’s likely the disruptive technology will eventually undermine outdated operating concepts. While technological innovation may be initially accepted by a conservative organization based on its fit with existing doctrine, reform-minded innovators can leverage this technology to drive doctrinal or strategic change. History is replete with examples of this strategy.

Just as the new wine will eventually swell and burst the old wineskin, it likely the disruptive technology will eventually undermine outdated operating concepts.

An early example of the New Wine strategy was among the advocates of airpower. Although Giulio Douhet is known for his airpower chauvinism, he was initially more muted in his support for strategic bombing. In the 1921 version of The Command of the Air, Douhet, while calling for an independent air force, conceded a need for auxiliary aviation, which is what he called “aviation in support of land and sea forces.” By the time of his 1928 monograph Probable Aspects of Future War, he had begun to declare that auxiliary aviation is “practically useless and superfluous.”[3] This change of heart came notably after his elevation to the head of aviation by Mussolini in 1922. Douhet acknowledged his previous duplicity in the preface to the 1927 edition of The Command of the Air:

Benito Mussolini reviewing the Macchis C.202 of the IX Fighter Group.

Benito Mussolini reviewing the Macchis C.202 of the IX Fighter Group.

At that time, in order to accomplish anything practical and useful for my country, I had to be careful not to oppose too strongly certain notions firmly held in high places. Therefore, I was forced to emasculate my thought, confining myself to indispensable fundamentals and wait for more favorable circumstances before presenting my ideas in full.[4]

To allow the maturation of the technology of airpower, Douhet had to mask its paradigm-shifting potential. The employment of this bait-and-switch strategy was not confined to Italian air power advocates.

The New Wine in Old Wineskins strategy can also be seen in Brigadier General Billy Mitchell, the American airpower prophet. Although he likely shared some of the more grandiose ambitions for the airplane espoused by Douhet, Mitchell initially limited his articulation of the implications of airpower to avoid alienating his U.S. Army superiors. In his seminal 1925 polemic Winged Defense, Mitchell emphasized the utility of air power for coastal defense. He also explicitly acknowledged the importance of land power, stating, “Of course everything begins and ends on the ground. A person cannot permanently live out on the sea nor can a person live up in the air, so that any decision in war is based on what takes place ultimately on the ground.”[5] While initially sparing the U.S. Army, Mitchell directs most of his ire at the U.S. Navy, and particularly the battleship, which he saw as increasingly obsolescent. Mitchell’s arguments for airpower are notable in that he did not argue for the all-sufficiency of airpower, as Douhet eventually did. It was also not accidental that his famous tests of airpower occurred against ships, the Virginia, New Jersey, and Ostfriesland, and not against tanks, another emerging and potential competitor for transformation. Although Mitchell’s criticism would expand against the U.S. Army leadership, ending in his court-martial in 1925, he initially sought evolutionary acceptance instead of revolutionary overthrow.

A final example of the New Wine strategy is the strategic debate in the early 1950s over the role of atomic weapons. When presented with the enormous destructive power of atomic weapons, early leaders of the U.S. Air Force initially nested the atomic bomb within an old operational paradigm, a paradigm military historian Edward Kaplan calls “early air atomic strategy.”[6] This strategy was simply an extrapolation of the industrial bombing strategy the U.S. Army Air Corps had employed in World War II. Enshrined in war plans such as OFFTACKLE and SHAKEDOWN, nuclear weapons would be used against the vital industrial centers of the Soviet Union to attrite their war-making capability and retard their western advance until U.S. ground forces could be reintroduced onto the continent.[7] Grounded in the pre-war theories of Douhet, Mitchell, and the Air Corps Tactical School, and seemingly validated by the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, U.S. Air Force leaders viewed nuclear weapons as simply a bigger bomb with which to conduct a battle-tested strategy more efficiently. The early U.S. Air Force atomic strategy would eventually be obviated by the “fantastic compression of time” wrought by thermonuclear weapons and ballistic missiles as the goal of nuclear war would shift from victory to stability.[8] This example is a departure from the previous New Wine strategies, in that it seems to lack an internal maverick innovator intentionally maneuvering within the service to gain acceptance for the new technology. In this case, according to historian Campbell Craig’s account, the strategic innovator was President Eisenhower who, foreseeing the conceptual dead end of nuclear war fighting, exploited the U.S. Air Force’s predilection for massive bombardment to make nuclear war un-fightable.[9] In this way, “atomic weapons first enabled airpower and the Air Force, and then enslaved them.”[10] Like the burst wineskins of which Jesus spoke, the U.S. Air Force’s industrial bombing strategy was superseded by the war-ending new wine of nuclear weapons.

Fire and Brimstone

A second common strategy innovators have employed to goad reluctant military organizations into accepting technological innovations is to emphasize the existential nature of a looming threat to the organization. I term this strategy Fire and Brimstone because, like a traveling evangelist at a big-tent revival, the strategic innovator plays up the dire consequences of a failure to repent. To achieve this conversion, the innovator must manipulate the two primary incentives for a bureaucracy: certainty and autonomy. Posen argues, based on organizational theory, that military bureaucracies are purposive organizations operating with irrational people in uncertain environments. To accomplish their purpose, organizations apply standard operating procedures to maximize certainty and strive for autonomy to maximize control.[11] The prophet of innovation must overcome the organization’s preference for certainty, and the lever for doing this is to presage a loss of autonomy. This apocalyptic revelation is most potent in the form of a threat to national survival. In this context of organizational eschatology, the strategist can act as a herald of innovation preparing the way for a technological messiah.

The prophet of innovation must overcome the organization’s preference for certainty, and the lever for doing this is to presage a loss of autonomy.

The Fire and Brimstone strategy is often employed after a military defeat. This was evident in 18th century France when Jean Baptiste Vacquette de Gribeauval transformed artillery technology and organization in the French Army. This dramatic reform was only achievable because resistance to innovation had been weakened by French defeats in the Seven Years’ War and widespread feeling that France was losing its superiority over Prussia and Great Britain.[12] Historian William McNeill writes:

“The will to do something drastic clearly depended also on the widespread sense among Frenchman that something was wrong with the way their government in general and the army and navy in particular had been managed. When the vision of the possible thus united with a widely diffused dissatisfaction with existing arrangements, the kind of breakthrough that Gribeauval’s reform constituted became possible.”[13]

Gribeauval thus held up field artillery as the savior of French military prowess as “artillerymen with their cold-blooded mathematics” and preached a new gospel of rationality in war. These reforms, when combined with the levee en masse and Napoleon’s military genius, produced the most fearsome military force of the 19th century and spurred military innovation across Europe.

Canon de Gribeauval, re-enactment.

Canon de Gribeauval, re-enactment.

Ironically, in the action-reaction paradox of military strategy, the success of Gribeauval’s innovations laid the basis for an application of the Fire and Brimstone strategy in Prussia. The defeat of the Prussian army by Napoleon at Jena forced Kaiser Frederick Wilhelm III to turn to Gerhard Johann David von Scharnhorst, the leader of a precocious group of military reformers, to effect a radical change. Scharnhorst sought to move the Prussians in a technocratic direction and incorporate innovations in intelligence, command and control, and cartography. He was opposed by aristocratic elements in the Prussian officer corps who strove to preserve a romantic notion of war based on bravery and nobility. McNeill notes the “very unexpectedness and completeness of the military collapse in 1806 opened the way for energetic reform of society and government as well as the army.”[14] Fear of the French army, as well as the liberal contagion of popular revolt, lead the Prussian monarchy to support Scharnhorst’s meritocratic and organizational reforms in a mood of desperation. The creation of the General Staff thus enabled the Prussians to mobilize, while still controlling, its population and match the French popular army in 1813. Napoleonic Armageddon, and the fear of his second coming, allowed an apostolic Scharnhorst to advance a catechism of organizational innovation.

Hail Mary

The final strategy innovators employ to promote change in recalcitrant military organizations is the Hail Mary. It involves the innovators’ appeal to a higher authority by allying with and provoking external intervention by civilian actors to force internal change. In this way, the strategic innovator adopts the role of a military maverick that Posen says can help overcome the civilian’s lack of technical expertise. Armed with a sufficient source of military knowledge, Posen argues, civilian interveners can push back against the military’s preferred doctrinal stagnation.[15] The holy alliance between a maverick insider and far-sighted civilian officials can overcome bureaucratic inertia. Intervention by British civilian officials in Royal Air Force doctrine and acquisition strategy in the interwar period represents one such example of angelic intercession.

While the original sin of military organizations is to resist technological innovation, salvation can be found in strategic innovators.

The construction of the British air defense system was one of the most remarkable innovations of the 20th century and was the decisive factor in winning the Battle of Britain and keeping Great Britain in the war against Germany. That this defensive system of radars, passive ground observers, and fighter aircraft was built in a bomber-dominated Royal Air Force steeped in offensive doctrine is even more remarkable. After the terror bombings of World War I and under the direction of Air Chief Hugh Trenchard, the Royal Air Force was infatuated with the doctrine of offensive strategic bombing and directed the lion’s share of service expenditures toward bomber aircraft. Beginning in 1937, though, British aircraft production shifted toward fighters, despite Royal Air Force efforts to “suppress every single possible mission for aircraft other than strategic bombing.”[16]

The best explanation for this contradiction of the dominant organizational preference is civilian intervention. Posen argues:

Government officials and some ‘insurgents’ within the air force began working together in 1934 to reverse the maxim that the bomber would always get through. Overcoming great resistance from the chiefs of the RAF, this coalition designed, funded, and built the major elements of the air defense system that was to serve Britain so well in 1940…The earlier developments in air defense, as well as the final push for fighter production, were the result of civilian intervention into the doctrine of the RAF.[17]

The chief of the Royal Air Force Fighter Command, Air Marshal Hugh Dowding, went over the head of his reluctant bomber bosses in the Royal Air Force to partner with Sir Thomas Inskip, the Minister for Co-ordination of Defence, and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Together they secured sufficient funding for Hurricane and Spitfire fighters, which would prove so essential in the Battle of Britain. Thus, the Hail Mary strategy by a fighter heretic thwarted both the Royal Air Force’s bomber orthodoxy and the greater threat from Hitler’s Luftwaffe.


While the original sin of military organizations is to resist technological innovation, salvation can be found in strategic innovators. The effectiveness of the strategies military innovators can deploy is highly dependent on context. The New Wine in Old Wineskins strategy is most effective during times of peace and diffuse external threat. This allows the evolutionary nature of the strategy to play out without threatening the state and military organization. Both Douhet and Mitchell were writing in the interwar period, and Eisenhower’s manipulation of the U.S. Air Force’s early air atomic strategy occurred during a period of clear U.S. nuclear superiority. The Fire and Brimstone strategy on the other hand is most effective when threats are most acute. Military defeat could provide the optimal conditions for this strategy as in the examples of Gribeauval’s France and Scharnhorst’s Prussia, but could also occur in the context of a perceived hegemonic transition as embodied in the U.S.-China relationship today. Like the football play or the divine supplication after which it is named, the Hail Mary strategy is an act of desperation. This is because, in a military organization, circumventing the chain of command can be hazardous to the career of the would-be innovator. This was certainly true for Billy Mitchell, whose end-run of the U.S. Army, in appealing directly to Congress and the American public, ended in his court martial. Because this strategy is so fraught with peril, it is best used when all other avenues have been tried. For Dowding and other Royal Air Force air defense advocates, the intransigence of the Royal Air Force’s bomber high priesthood and the looming evil of the Third Reich made necessary their plea for intervention from above. In seeking to resolve the paradox between organizational inertia and technological pressure, nothing is predestined, but is open to the free will of the strategic innovator.

J. Wellington Brown is a PhD student in Political Science at Duke University studying Security, Peace, and Conflict. He is an U.S. Air Force intelligence officer and has graduate degrees from the Naval Postgraduate School, the USAF Air Command and Staff College, the USAF School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. Opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Air University, the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other US government agency.

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Header image: Boeing B-29 Superfortress, scaled model by Konley Kelley.


[1] Stephen Peter Rosen, Winning the Next War: Innovation and the Modern Military (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), 2.

[2] Barry R. Posen, The Sources of Military Doctrine: France, Britain, and Germany Between the World Wars (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), 55.

[3] Giulio Douhet, The Command of the Air, trans. Dino Ferrari (1942; new imprint, Washington, DC: Office of Air Force History, 1983), 194.

[4] Ibid, xi-xii.

[5] William Mitchell, Winged Defense: The Development and Possibilities of Modern Air Power--Economic and Military (1925: new imprint, Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2009), 18.

[6] Edward Kaplan, To Kill Nations: American Strategy in the Air-Atomic Age and the Rise of Mutually Assured Destruction, 2.

[7] Ibid, 20-21.

[8] Ibid, 79.

[9] Campbell Craig, To Save a Village, 69.

[10] Kaplan, 3.

[11] Posen, 42-45.

[12] William Hardy McNeill, The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 164.

[13] Ibid, 174

[14] Ibid, 216.

[15] Posen, 57, 227.

[16] Ibid, 168.

[17] Ibid, 142-143