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New Study on the History of Pentagon Reforms Holds Warnings for Current DoD Innovation Efforts

China’s threats to invade Taiwan and Russia’s attack on Ukraine are pushing the Pentagon to seek out adapt to a changing global security environment, the author of a new report on Defense Department innovation said this week.

“The fact the red lights are blinking should wake us from the stupor,” said Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment CEO Thomas Mahnken said Tuesday. Innovators in the services and the Pentagon and senior uniformed and civilian leaders can come to an understanding that those kinds of new threats defy “conventional solutions.”

“Innovation doesn’t just happen,” he added. First comes speculation, followed by testing and experimentation, and implementation if all signs point to go-ahead.

As Mahnken said several times in the online discussion of CSBA’s “Innovating for Great Power Competition” – major changes in operations, practices and organization “doesn’t guarantee success.” An example contained in the report of necessary changes with leadership backing that failed is the “Pentomic Army.” Nuclear war meant land forces needed to be dispersed to survive, but a key factor in its failure lay in the 1950s limited communications technology.

While the strategy had strong support in civilian and military leadership, the technology of the day couldn’t support the demands for command and control for dispersed land forces in the Pentomic Army implementation phase, said Mahnken.

The report cautions technology could also decide whether the Pentagon’s ambitious Joint Warfighting Concept will succeed.

Tyler Hacker, a co-author, noted that dispersed operations maintained networked and resilient communications are central to the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations and the Marine Corps Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations [EABO] and Littoral Operations in Contested Environments.

In moderating the discussion, co-author Evan Montgomery said CSBA’s study looked at the relevant best cases where innovation paid off like the Air Land Battle developed by the Air Force and Army and the Navy and Marine Corps Maritime Strategy both developed after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. The study also looked at the services’ and Pentagon’s current efforts at innovation like the Navy’s Project Overmatch and DoD’s Joint All-Domain Command and Control [JADC2]. Lastly, the report sought out the linkages between the services’ individual drives and the overall joint effort.

Mahnken cautioned against drawing too many analogies from Air Land Battle and Maritime Strategy to counter today’s threats from Beijing and Moscow.

“We shouldn’t underestimate all that went into making [the strategies’ successful.” A major difference is that there was only a single adversary, the Soviet Union, and where the war would likely happen in Central Europe.

At the same, while there’s an opportunity to learn from Ukraine, there are the “pitfalls in studying other people’s war” with preconceived notions. Today, Mahnken said the pitfall danger is in dismissing the Kremlin’s military efforts by saying “the Russians aren’t very good” and also downplaying Kyiv’s own strengths by saying “we’re supporting them so much.”

Looking at China’s increasingly aggressive moves against Taiwan, Montgomery noted the pressure the services and Pentagon may feel “to produce a product” quickly to be ready in case an invasion is launched in 2025, 2027 or some other near-term date.

“The seriousness of the current situation can only help innovation,” said Mahnken, but the question remains as to what goes into that.

Looking at the department’s push on its two largest efforts at innovation, the Joint Warfighting Concept and JADC2, Hacker said, both are “ambiguous and lack clarity” that the public including Congress or even another service can understand. Complicating matters further, “many of the documents around these two remain classified.”

On the Joint Warfighting Concept, the report advises the Pentagon look back to the 1950s and the Army’s failures then. “DoD should consider that the ultimate goal of ‘linking everything together’ within the U.S. military is an overwhelming and potentially unachievable goal in the near term. DoD must heed the lessons of the Army’s Pentomic scheme and avoid basing the entire success of future warfighting concepts on technological progress that may or may not be achieved on the desired timeline.”

Likewise, JADC2 needs more scrutiny. The report recommends “a single entity to set requirements and establish key JADC2 nodes in each service” to succeed. Once that is done, the services can create links to each other.

Clear unclassified papers explaining the reasoning behind both are needed, the panelists agreed.

Hacker said the report also sees the services “aren’t moving in lockstep” in the different stages of innovation and the Pentagon “is lagging a little behind at the joint level” at tying it all together.

Even inside a department, there can be splits that raise doubts over whether one service’s innovation priorities mesh with another’s, like the Marine Corps and the Navy. The report said, “the Marine Corps EABO concept is dependent on Navy amphibious forces capable of delivering small groups of Marines in contested environments. Should the Navy fail to shift its amphibious force structure to meet this requirement, EABO and Force Design 2030 may be left missing crucial capabilities.”

Another factor weighing heavily on the Marine Corps innovation design rests on the outcome of the continuing debate between the Air Force and Army over long-range strike, missiles Marines could be firing from dispersed locations.

To overcome some hurdles, the Pentagon could serve the functional lead, say in long-range strike. Another would be to designate a lead service by geography, most forces in the area or most capable forces present.

“The Marines are most effectively conveying their new concepts and how innovative programs enable them, but even the Corps has not fully explained how Force Design 2030 will proceed if the other services do not fully support the Marine Corps,” the authors wrote.