Everyone seems convinced that sequestration and the end of the wars in Southwest Asia presents the Pentagon with a unique opportunity to “think outside the box.” It is time, we’re being told, for the military to question long-held assumptions, reassess the utility of well-established practices and procedures, look for innovative ways of doing business, break down barriers, eliminate stovepipes and incorporate new and hopefully cheaper technologies. The only cliché I haven’t run across recently, at least as applied to the military, is Schumpeter’s classic “creative destruction.”
Thinking is a good habit to cultivate. Now is probably a good time to do more of it. As Winston Churchill is reported to have once opined, “Gentlemen we have run out of money. Now we have to start thinking.” It is also good to think outside the box, meaning to free oneself from preconceptions, reconceptualize problems or be open to new solutions. Okay, so far.
Unfortunately, the phrase “think outside the box” carries with it the unstated assumption that outside the box there is freedom. It seems to be an article of faith among those inside and outside the Department of Defense that by taking this liberating step, the Pentagon will find itself with a new vantage point from which to view the future, room to move, the opportunity to be innovative and the luxury of choice. Perhaps this will be true. However, it is more likely that what Pentagon leaders will discover is that outside the box they are currently attempting to transcend there is another, possibly only slightly larger box. Said another way, there are a number of practical factors and real world circumstances that will condition and even circumscribe any solutions regardless of how innovative they might be.
One such factor is geography. Simply put, the United States is a long way from most places. It still takes a long time to get to the Asian mainland or the Persian Gulf. Compounding this situation is the fact many of our friends and allies and most of our potential adversaries are “over there,” meaning we have to go to them in order to protect our interests or defeat aggression. This means moving lots of stuff and people from here to there and sustaining both. That is, of course, unless our new ways of thinking can get around the laws of physics.
Another factor is time. Even the most creative solutions take time to implement. The greater the technological change involved, the longer the cycle time. Motorola developed the first commercially available mobile phone in 1973. Precision weapons were first employed in World War Two; it took more than 50 years for their share of total air-delivered munitions to exceed 50 percent. Invention isn’t the problem; it is market penetration that typically takes a lot of time. The reality is that we will fight the wars of 2030 primarily with equipment already in the inventory or now in procurement. There is no alternative, for example, to acquiring the F-35 if the United States wants to be in the manned tactical aircraft business 20 years from now. When I read about replacing manned aircraft with unmanned systems or the invention of weapons based on nano-materials I have to wonder will I even be alive to see the results of such “out of the box” thinking?
A third factor is human nature. Thinking anew does not necessarily translate into new ways of behaving. In fact, there is often profound resistance to “out of the box” solutions no matter how sensible they seem because they run counter to vested interests. Perhaps the most “out of the box” thing to do when it comes to aspects of reforming the Pentagon such as base closure is to buy off potential opposition.
Demands for “out of the box” solutions can also serve as a device to avoid making difficult decisions even though both the problem and solutions have been recognized for years. For example, the dysfunctional nature of the defense acquisition system has been recognized for decades. The solutions are equally well-known. Instead of spending time and resources coming up with new answers how about just putting in the effort to implement old but worthy solutions? We could start by revisiting the recommendations of the Packard Commission.
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