Center for Strategic Communication

Jonathan Jeckell, a plans and operations officer at the Army Sustainment Command at Rock Arsenal, is one of my favorite Twitter interluctors. You see, Jonathan and I both love talking about robots. Giant robots, small robots, any robots. We often talk about robotics and future military doctrine, and I prevailed upon him to write a guest post laying out his ideas about robotic military roles and doctrine. This is some serious thought about the future of military operations, not HAL and the pod bay doors. As always, Jeckell’s opinion is his own.

Differentiating between different forms of
innovation and implementing them accordingly can greatly enhance military
innovation.  Clayton Christensen’s theory
of disruptive innovation elucidated in The
Innovator’s Dilemma
is a particularly useful and important model for
innovation.  This model breaks innovation
down into two types, sustaining and disruptive. The difference between them is
more about the purpose of the technology (which can include processes, not just
physical products) and its relationship with the other components of the system
(including the user) than the nature of the technology itself.

A Brief Primer on The
Innovator’s Dilemma

Sustaining innovation encompasses most new
technologies, and almost all improvements in existing technologies.  Some forms of discontinuous innovation are
mistaken for disruptive innovations, such as new technological S-curves,
radical technological breakthroughs, or other types of architectural changes.[i]
Sustaining innovations are not necessarily evolutionary or incremental.  They are far more common and can have
consequences no less profound than disruptive innovations.  For example, the introduction of
continuous-aim naval gunfire improved accuracy by 3,000 percent, but was a
sustaining innovation.[ii]
Well-run organizations are very good at exploiting sustaining innovation
because the improvements fit with existing metrics valued by the organization.

Despite the connotations of the term, disruptive
innovations do not necessarily constitute revolutionary change, or use cutting
edge technology.  They usually perform
worse in the near term and are typically cheaper, simpler, more convenient, or
have features that appeal to niche users.[iii]
Well-run organizations usually miss disruptive innovations because they do not
fit with established performance metrics or the organization’s resources, processes
and values.  Disruptive innovations
frequently require creating a new organization or exploitation by an
organization that values its attributes, which is why it is often associated
with entrepreneurs.  While disruptive
innovations often fall short of the performance of existing technology on
established metrics in the near term, they often open up opportunities for new
classes of users over-served by the performance of the existing technology.  Also, first movers in this form of innovation
often gain advantages over rivals because they gain insight and experience
(much of it tacit) with the new linkages. 
Sustaining innovations are much easier to mimic or steal since their
value is readily recognized and easily plug into competing established
organizations.  Established organizations
have an advantage with sustaining innovations over smaller new entrants because
they are motivated and able to apply resources to the innovation to win.

 Applying the model to military innovation: Armored Warfare

This model can help explain the relative
success in different organizations incorporating new technology and other forms
of military innovation.  The same
technology can fall into either category depending on how and where it is
implemented, which can have dramatic consequences for its success.  For example, the French Army incorporated
tanks within their existing organizational structure as a sustaining
innovation, which led to it merely serving as an infantry support vehicle.  Infantry was the dominant branch, and thus dominated
the values of the army as a whole.  This
determined the performance metrics valued in the platform, and determined how
the tank was designed and used.  Hence
French tank doctrine was a linear progression of their experience with tanks in
World War I.  Because French tanks were
added into an existing organization, they were evenly distributed across the
Army as just another tool to do their traditional tasks.  They were expected to cross the kill zone
between trench networks and breach enemy defenses or fight from relatively
static positions in support of WWI style trench warfare.  As such, French tanks such as the Char B were
slow (since they did not need to outpace the infantry they supported) with heavy
frontal armor and a large, heavier cannon than turret technology could support
at the time emplaced in the hull.[iv]  Lacking a mechanism to traverse the gun, the
whole tank had to pivot to aim.  French
tanks were not designed to shoot moving targets, nor were they designed to
fight and maneuver at the same time.

Conversely, the German Army developed mobile
warfare doctrine (colloquially referred to as Blitzkreig) by focusing on the relationship between the tank and
other elements of their army in new ways to create a combined arms team.[v]  The new organization was free to develop its
own processes and values to exploit attributes of the tank ignored by the
French.  While French tanks were superior
in armor and firepower, German tanks had better mobility (including both speed
and range), communications, and fire control, allowing them to actually run
rings around French tanks and hit them in vulnerable locations or bypass them
altogether and attack their logistics and leaders.  German doctrine used tanks in a completely
different way for a completely different purpose, concentrating them to provide
overwhelming force at a decisive point to achieve massive local superiority to
overcome their technical shortcomings.

Applying the model to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

The disruptive innovation model also provides
important insights into many other forms of military innovation, and demonstrates
how Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (aka Remotely Piloted Vehicles, colloquially
referred to as drones) can fall into either category of innovation depending
how and where it is implemented, and how that choice can have dramatic

Despite professional literature as far back as
the 1970s highlighting possibilities facilitated by unmanned platforms, the U.S.
Air Force has resisted deploying unmanned aircraft in roles other than target
drones and decoys.[vi]  Sure, they famously deployed MQ-1 Predator
and MQ-9 Reapers, but because it was driven by external demand and competition
against enormous institutional opposition. 
The Air Force is still trying to figure out how incorporate drones into
their institution, particularly regarding the career paths of their pilots, who
usually bitterly resist leaving manned aircraft status.  Drone programs currently being implemented in
the U.S. Air Force compete against their key resources and do not fit well with
the processes and values of the organization, causing the entire organization
to resist and undermine their success. 
It is also fixating the organization on the technical performance of the
component rather than novel ways to use it or its relationship with other
systems.  Most Air Force drones are
similar in size to manned aircraft, and it’s no accident they continually
compare their performance directly against manned aircraft with a similar role.[vii]  They have failed to exploit the advantages of
freeing an aircraft from human limitations. 
Instead, head-to-head competition with manned platforms has led their
advocates to counter-attack and make improvements on their platforms to keep
pace.  This is why the Air Force is
spinning the RQ-4 Global Hawk program as a fiasco.  Despite new possibilities and attributes, it
is still being compared directly to the U-2 on the same performance metrics.[viii]
 Meanwhile the Navy is much more
enthusiastically pursuing nearly the identical platform for their MQ-4C Triton Broad
Area Maritime Surveillance System and value it for very different reasons.[ix] 

A series on Time’s
“Battleland” exemplifies the weird, contorted logic many in the US Air Force
are using to compare drones to manned platforms along conventional metrics
favoring (surprise) manned aircraft[x]
(using very faulty analysis, as pointed out by James Hasik on his blog[xi]).
 In contrast to the Global Hawk, external
demand and threat of competition from other services and agencies keep the Air
Force plugging along with the Reaper and Predator, much as it did with the A-10
Thunderbolt II (aka Warthog).[xii] 

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates rejected
repeated bids by the US Air Force to become the lead service for drones (and
failing that, they continually painted small drones as a dire safety hazard).
This allowed the U.S. Army, Special Operations Command, and Marine Corps, the
former constrained in the type of aircraft it could operate by the Key West and
subsequent agreements[xiii],
to pursue drones in a disruptive manner. 
Soldiers and Marines in remote outposts enthusiastically embrace the
RQ-11 Raven, RQ-7 Shadow, and MQ-1C Gray Eagle UAVs because they provide them with
aerial surveillance and reconnaissance almost on demand, in contrast with the
availability of alternatives, such as a manned fighter or helicopter.  Moreover, these units are vastly over-served
by performance of these alternatives, which are designed for much more
demanding tasks.  Army and Marine Corps
units are highly motivated to use and improve their UAVs, regardless of growing
pains or technical shortcomings.  Disruptive
innovation theory predicts, however, that placing the MQ-1C Gray Eagle in Army
Combat Aviation Brigades could result in the same type of institutional
pushback endemic in programs in the Air Force. Army and Marine Corps units have
asymmetric motivations to move upward to include capabilities provided by UAVs than
the Air Force or Combat Aviation Brigades have to move downward to compete with


This model can be applied to many other ways
with military technology and doctrine. The
Innovator’s Dilemma
offers methods to recognize disruptive technologies and
handle them successfully.  The main
lesson of this model is the danger of focusing on a technology or method in
isolation, although the ability to develop new technologies and identify the
best way to use it in a broader context are equally important.  The US development of precision guided
munitions allegedly began without a concept that could exploit the technology,
while the Soviets developed doctrines based on a reconnaissance/strike complex,
but could not develop the technology to realize it.[xv]
Uncritically inserting a new technology into an existing organization, even if
it superficially seems to fit its existing capabilities, can be as bad as not
having it.

[i] Christensen, Clayton M. The Innovator’s
Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book That Will Change the Way You Do Business
Harper Business, NY 1997, pg xviii

[ii] Morison, Elting E., Men,
Machines and Modern Times
, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1966, pp 17-44,
excerpt available as Gunfire at Sea: A
Case Study of Innovation
available online at   

[iii] Christensen, Clayton M. The Innovator’s
Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book That Will Change the Way You Do Business
Harper Business, NY 1997, pg xviii

[iv] Macksey, Kenneth, Tank
Versus Tank: The Illustrated Story of Armored Battlefield Conflict in the
Twentieth Century
, Barnes and Noble, NY, 1999, pp 66-67  Other tanks, such as the Somua S35 had a one
man turret.

[v] Murray, Williamson, Military
Innovation in the Interwar Period
, Cambridge University Press, New York,
1996, Chapter 1: “Armored Warfare: The British, French, and German
Experiences”, pp 6-49.  Captain Terry C.
Pierce (US Navy) provided his view of this event using the disruptive
innovation model in Chapter 2 (pp 56-79) of his book Warfighting and Disruptive Technologies: Disguising Innovation,
Frank Cass, New York, 2004 though I disagree with the way he used it in many
places.  Note: the tank was only a part
of the new German mobile warfare combined arms doctrine, along with other
innovations such as Auftragstaktik.

[vi] Bingham, Major Gene (USAF), “The Future of Drones: A Force of
Manned and Unmanned Systems,” Air
University Review
, November-December 1977 available at 

[vii] Wheeler, Winslow “5. Revolutionary…Or Routine?” Time Magazine Battleland, part 5 of the
series summarizing the argument made over the previous 4 installments, 2 March

[viii] Beidel, Eric, “U-2, Global Hawk Advocates Square Off in Budget Battle,”
National Defense Magazine, May 2012,GlobalHawkAdvocatesSquareOffinBudgetBattle.aspx

[ix] Connolly, Michele, “Northrop Grumman Unveils U.S. Navy’s MQ-4C
BAMS Triton,” Navy website, 14 June 2012 and “MQ-4C Triton Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) UAS,
United States of America,”

[x] Wheeler, Winslow “5. Revolutionary…Or Routine?” Time Magazine Battleland, part 5 of the
series summarizing the argument made over the previous 4 installments, 2 March

[xi] Hasik, James, “Affordably Unmanned: A Cost Comparison of the MQ-9
to the F-16 and A-10, and a Response to Winslow Wheeler’s Criticisms of the
Drone,” 20 June 2012

[xii] Farley, James, “Over the Horizon: The A-10 Battle and Military
Turf Wars,” World Politics Review,  8 February 2012

[xiv] The sarcastic comment made in this article about “Airpower is
really just airborne artillery” exemplifies the frustration vented numerous
times in the press by US Air Force and Navy pilots about moving down market to
support ground units. Airpower theories founded by Giulio Douhet and promulgated by the
air services have stressed the importance of strategic bombing, deep strike,
and interdiction, with close air support as a necessary, but unfortunate waste
of resources.  As such during major
combat operations air assets available for CAS dwindle.  Likewise, Army combat aviation progressively
moved up market to compete with low end Air Force capabilities, until their
fascination with Deep Strike doctrine culminated in the unsuccessful attack on
the Iraqi Medina Division near
Karbala by the 11th Attack Helicopter Regiment on 23 March
2003.  On Point: The United States Army in Operation Iraqi Freedom, by
COL(R) Gregory Fontenot, LTC E.J. Degen, and LTC David Tohn, Combat Studies
Institute Press, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 2004 Pg 89 and 179-192 also
available online at

[xv] Ogarkov, Marshal N. V., “The Defense of Socialism: Experience of
History and the Present Day,” Красная Звезда [Red Star], May 9, 1984; trans.
Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Daily Report: Soviet Union, Vol. III,
No. 091, Annex No. 054, May 9, 1984, p. R19. 
Watts, Barry, The Maturing Revolution
in Military Affairs
, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2011,  Adamsky, Dima, The Culture of Military Innovation: The
Impact of Cultural Factors on the Revolution in Military Affairs in Russia, the
US, and Israel
, Stanford University Press, 2010, pg 138-143