July 11, 2012

Guest Post: Drones and Disruptive Innovation

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 consequences.

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 them.[xiv]


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 http://cs.gmu.edu/cne/pjd/TT/Sims/Sims.pdf   

[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 http://www.airpower.au.af.mil/airchronicles/aureview/1977/nov-dec/bigham.html 

[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 2012, http://battleland.blogs.time.com/2012/03/02/5-revolutionary-or-routine/

[viii] Beidel, Eric, “U-2, Global Hawk Advocates Square Off in Budget Battle,” National Defense Magazine, May 2012 http://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/archive/2012/May/Pages/U-2,GlobalHawkAdvocatesSquareOffinBudgetBattle.aspx

[ix] Connolly, Michele, “Northrop Grumman Unveils U.S. Navy's MQ-4C BAMS Triton,” Navy website, 14 June 2012 http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=67815 and “MQ-4C Triton Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) UAS, United States of America,” naval-technology.com http://www.naval-technology.com/projects/mq-4c-triton-bams-uas-us/

[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 2012, http://battleland.blogs.time.com/2012/03/02/5-revolutionary-or-routine/

[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,” http://www.jameshasik.com/weblog/2012/06/affordably-unmanned-a-cost-comparison-of-the-mq-9-to-the-f-16-and-a-10-and-a-response-to-winslow-whe.html 20 June 2012

[xii] Farley, James, “Over the Horizon: The A-10 Battle and Military Turf Wars,” World Politics Review, http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/11415/over-the-horizon-the-a-10-battle-and-military-turf-wars  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.  http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/dear-boss-i-dont-just-quit-i-give-up 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 http://usacac.army.mil/cac2/cgsc/carl/download/csipubs/OnPointI.pdf

[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, http://www.csbaonline.org/publications/2011/06/the-maturing-revolution-in-military-affairs/  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