Military Innovation Strategy: Winning a Total War by Relinquishing Total Control

No one starts a war—or, rather, no one in his senses ought to do so—without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it. The former is its political purpose; the latter its operational objective. This is the governing principle which will set its course, prescribe the scale of means and effort which is required, and make its influence felt throughout down to the smallest operational detail.
—Carl von Clausewitz, On War

On July 12, 1939, Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard met with his old friend Albert Einstein in Einstein’s vacation cabin in Long Island, New York. On the large, screened-in porch, Szilard expressed his concerns about Nazi Germany appearing to stockpile uranium to create a weapon of unfathomable destructive power and the American government’s inaction in this matter. In the July heat, Einstein, in a rumpled short-sleeved shirt and slippers, worked with Szilard to compose a letter to the president to warn him of the danger of lagging behind in the development of the nuclear bomb.[1]

Einstein’s letter was delivered to President Roosevelt on October 11, 1939. By September 1942, Colonel Leslie Groves took charge and set an ambitious schedule to produce an atomic bomb. This was the birth of the Manhattan Project where over 125,000 Americans, from groups of “exuberant high school students” to a “galaxy of luminaries,” worked day and night to build a weapon so powerful that it transformed the role of technology in war, or as Russell F. Weigley described in The American Way of War, “The atomic explosions…ended Clausewitz’s ‘the use of combats’ as a viable inclusive definition of strategy."[2]

Einstein’s letter, considered the beginning of the nuclear effort, permanently changed the political and scientific landscape of the world. Einstein’s life, as well as that of Szilard’s, was deeply marred by World War II; he embodied the knowledge of war through his experience and learned science through education. The combined knowledge gave him the ability to see the potential destruction power of this scientific phenomenon in the most vivid way in his mind. Without formal training as a military officer, he considered the form of the engineered weapon, its battlefield effect, its transportation method, and most importantly, the critical elements necessary to organize the entire nation to achieve a military technological objective.[3] His letter contains important lessons in translating a new technology for battlespace applications. He identified the following nationwide efforts critical in unifying the diverse talents within America, transforming a purely scientific phenomenon into a strategic weapon:

  1. America, given its policy as a shelter for war refugees and for creative and nonconforming minds, created a perfect environment for the scientists to gather enough stimuli for a scientific breakthrough. 

  2. Clear communication between scientists and the government about the intents, actions, and the resources needed clear through to all parties.

  3. A nationwide effort, both public and private, to clearly identify how scientists could contribute to the strategic goal. Persons and organizations might contribute different types of talent, funding, or necessary equipment.[4]

General Leslie Groves, military head of the Manhattan Project, with Professor Robert Oppenheimer.

Einstein planted the seed of a strategic vision that was then nurtured and harvested by the leadership of the Manhattan Project. Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and a team of highly influential scientists created one of the most important technologies the U.S. government has ever wielded. The team coalesced pieces made by individual scientists and engineers who were unaware of their specific role in the bigger picture, but guided to move as a whole by clear strategic intents.[5] The elegant, sophisticated technical solution resulted from the dedicated coordination and collaborative work between scientists, engineers, military strategists, and the Roosevelt administration. The global impact of the scientific discoveries and fundamental theories developed in this era was nearly unmatched, and positioned America as the undisputed promised land for the brightest minds in science for many years.

Close to three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the creativity, diversity, bold, and innovative thinking of these American mavericks have grown stronger than ever. They self-organize into powerful groups of “virtuous insurgents” with little financial or institutional support.[6] They are making localized changes where they can and are ready to contribute to a larger cause under the right leaders who can relay a decisive and intelligent objective. They are joining forces and standing up to the challenge—for the betterment of science, for the betterment of the nation, and for the betterment of human conditions.[7]

In the 21st century, where adversarial challenges come in all shapes and forms, America’s ability to generate power through harvesting the chaotic creativity of the entire nation is more important than ever.[8] Simply focusing military technology development either to react to short-term surprises within persistent disorder, or in support of a grand plan to counter long-term strategic technological challenges presented by contested norms is a luxury lost long ago. Violent extremist organizations will continue to harvest the fruits of globalization, multiply their influence, and frustrate the United States by weaponizing commercial technologies in unconventional manners.[9] Revisionist states will continue to strengthen their core technology base, push the boundaries on all fronts to lay an optimal battleground for themselves, and deliver a deadly strike at a moment most opportune to them.[10] A single gold-plated solution wielded from one point is no longer sufficient to deter modern enemies, who are rapidly transforming and frustrating America and its allies from every possible angle.

The National Defense Strategy calls for a flexible technology toolset, constrained only by scientific possibility, which enables the joint force to do what they are called to do.[11] The U.S. need technology pieces similar to LEGO blocks—pieces that generate shock and awe on their own and create exponentially more powerful effects when combined. The value of this library of technologies comes from the tactical flexibility they enable in the warfighters, and consequently the cumulative effects that they generate when combined. The combinatory physical, moral, and mental effects will—just as the nuclear weapon did—create a new battlefield where America’s adversaries are knocked off their strategic paths.

The task of creating a library of solutions that are interoperable across a wide range of environments, mission spaces, and the collective and individual capabilities of the warfighters is a monumental one; it cannot be accomplished without a holistic strategy. Seeking battlespace-appropriate, strategically aligned military innovation is much like trying to find a diamond in a river full of all types of gems. Without a clear mind and constant evaluation to guide the search, every gem looks attractive enough. A military innovation strategic framework generates an overall balance between uniqueness that enables flexibility, as well as consistency that enables interoperability.

In the coming weeks, The Strategy Bridge and I will publish one paper each week on a proposed military innovation strategy that aims to bring about battlespace-relevant technologies for today’s and tomorrow’s fights by relinquishing the leadership role to America’s warfighters. The first several papers in the series will focus on analyzing American resources and the structure to enable success, and the remaining will focus on theories to educate and guide thinking in the battlespace technology design process.

The Series

Technical Union

I will start by identifying the ecologies of innovations of America as well as those of her adversaries. The comparison will serve to highlight innovation characteristics and American strengths and weaknesses. I will then show that the foundation of unifying a democratic country presented in the Federalist Papers is also well suited as a foundation for a Technical Union—a nationwide movement that draws power from the chaotic innovative power of an entire country to create the best-suited technologies for modern warfighters.

Within the Technical Union, a certain set of people can be identified to have the fitting intellect and temperament to lead the population to success. I will show American warfighters—the men and women who are on the front line fighting their country—should be leaders of military innovation. I will propose a structure based on Boyd’s observe, orient, decide, act (OODA) loop to combine American creative chaos by enabling warfighters to lead the innovation process. Such structure will foster an environment where the warfighters’ leadership can be felt throughout the Technical Union while minimizing added burden on the warfighters themselves. 

Original OODA diagram originally drawn by John Boyd for his briefings. (Wikimedia)

Theory of Battlespace Technology

If this Technical Union were to be successfully established, then there would be an avalanche of technologies with various degrees of operational impact generated. In the third, fourth, and fifth papers of this series, I will present the theory of battlespace technology design in order to guide the creation and selection of technologies within the Technical Union. In the introductory paper of the theory of battlespace technology, I will present the basic science of war as it pertains to technology design. The science will serve as a basic model of the theory of battlespace technology, which will be used to align means in space and time.

Theory is irrelevant unless it can account for the reality of war, and I will discuss the role of technology in warfare and the future trend of technological tools in warfighting. Additionally, I will discuss four major complexities of war that technology design needs to reconcile before it can reach its full potential as a battlespace tool.

Passion, chance, and policy—these are the inseparable tendencies of the Clausewitzian Trinity that are the sources of complexity in the reality of war, and I will use Clausewitz’s Trinity to guide the understanding of the complexities associated with battlespace technology design. I will also discuss a technology design framework based on the Krav Maga common-objects-as-weapons framework in order to connect a large repertoire of technologies with the fundamentals of combat. 

To find a balance between the art and science of war to achieve what seems impossible in war, one needs to possess a certain military genius. With this in mind, I will discuss the manner in which technology can follow theory in the development of military genius, such that technology can support military intellect and courage in the battlespace. Technologies developed in this manner can serve as mentors to soldiers as they are developing their intuition, as well as accompany them to the battlespace. There, soldiers can exercise their military genius to capture the moment that creates the asymmetric advantage that can change the course of a battle.


The process of transformation is daunting, and anyone who is reasonably familiar with the military technology innovation space could understandably be paralyzed by the problems we face. All the while, America’s technology innovation efforts remain well intentioned, but perpetually stuck on the launchpad, waiting to make sufficient operational and strategic impact with well-designed  technological tools and ingenious warfighting methods.[12]

Instead of conjuring the illusion of peace or giving up the fight, there is a group of people whose patriotic fire never went out: the American warfighters. Despite constantly being knocked down by obstacles presented by external adversaries and hardship on the homefront, they persisted.[13,14] The importance of their fighting spirit might be best described by a quote by Sir Winston Churchill:

Sir Winston Churchill (Wikimedia)

Sir Winston Churchill (Wikimedia)

Silly people, and there were many, not only in enemy countries, might discount the force of the United States. Some said they were soft, others that they would never be united...They would be just a vague blur on the horizon to friend or foe. Now we should see the weakness of this numerous but remote, wealthy, and talkative people. But I had studied the American Civil War, fought out to the last desperate inch. American blood flowed in my veins. I thought of a remark which Edward Grey had made to me more than thirty years before—that the United States is “a gigantic boiler. Once the fire is lighted under it there is no limit to the power it can generate.” Being saturated and satiated with emotion and sensation, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful.[15]

In this series, I will show that placing the power of technology innovation in the hands of the men and women who fight on the front line—those who live and embody the art of warfare—is our nation’s last hope to regain technological dominance on the global stage. The American spirit—one that savors the fight for freedom and justice until the last desperate inch—will lead this nation out of the rat race of reaction through transformational innovations, so that the protected can sleep the sleep of the saved and thankful again.

Joanne C. Lo is the CEO and founder of Elysian Labs, a military-focused organization that provides warfighters with leading edge technologies for modern warfare. Prior to founding Elysian Labs, Joanne was a Member of the Technical Staff at Sandia National Labs and researcher at Google ATAP and Adobe Research. She has a PhD and MS in Electrical Engineering and a BS in Biomedical Engineering.

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Header Image: Leo Szilard with Albert Einstein writing letter to President Roosevelt, Re-enactment (Leo Szilard Papers. MSS 32. Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego Library)


[1] Cynthia Kelly, ed., Manhattan Project: The Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of Its Creators, Eyewitnesses, and Historians (New York City: Black Dog & Leventhal, 2009).

[2] Russell F. Weigley, The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977)

[3] Albert Einstein, Einstein-Szilard letter, Atomic Heritage Foundation,

[4] Ibid.

[4] Cynthia Kelly, ed., Manhattan Project: The Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of Its Creators, Eyewitnesses, and Historians (New York City: Black Dog & Leventhal, 2009).

[5] John Lewis Gaddis, On Grand Strategy (New York: Penguin Books Limited, 2018).

[6] John Madison, Federalist No. 10: “The Same Subject Continued: The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection” (New York Daily Advertiser, 1788).

[7] David Barno and Nora Bensahel, “The Pentagon’s Virtuous Insurgency,” War on the Rocks, October 18, 2016,

[8] Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, (accessed May 20, 2019)

[9] Scott, Kevin D., Joint Operating Environment 2035: The Joint Force in a Contested and Disordered World, (Joint Chiefs of Staff Washington United States, 2016).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Mattis, Jim. Summary of the 2018 national defense strategy of the United States of America. Department of Defense Washington United States, 2018.

[13] Lisa Smith Molinari, “Opinion: Surveys point to cause of military morale issues,” The Meat & Potatoes of Life, February 15, 2019,

[14] Phil Klay, “Two Decades of War Have Eroded the Morale of America’s Troops,” The Atlantic, May 18, 2018,

[15] The Churchill Project, “Sleep of the Saved and Thankful,” The Churchill Project Hillsdale College, September 11, 2015,