Image courtesy of Wikipedia. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

By Professor Robert Farley

Major Cavanaugh’s post brings to the fore one of the most critical issues facing any defense establishment: the relationship between technology and organizational design. How does the way in which we structure our military organizations affect military technological innovation? The short answer is that institutions both shape and manage technology.  The services set priorities for procurement and innovation that lead to technological transformation.  This is as it should be; specialists in land, air, and naval warfare know what they need, and should have a hand in pushing the defense industrial sector in the right direction. At the same time, organizations have to respond to disruptive, unanticipated technological change.  Military success over the last century had depended on having the capacity to manage such change.

Yet we struggle with major reform to our institutions; bureaucracies have ways of protecting themselves, often by mobilizing political influence. Institutions are good at pointing out how important they are, and what critical roles they play in existing structures. But granting that the technological environment in which we plan for and fight war in the future will differ considerably from the environment that exists today means that we have to consider how our institutional arrangements will shape the future.

In 1947, the United States, in a mistaken interpretation of extant military technology, decided to divide its military assets across three services, each with a theoretical commitment to a particular domain (land, sea, or air).  Over the years that arrangement has been tested and shifted; the development of the helicopter pushed the Army out of fixed wing, the development of ballistic missiles led to an elaborate series of arrangements over which missiles belonged where, and the development of drones led not only to a nasty series of fights between the services, but also to conflict between the Department of Defense and the intelligence community. As technology develops, these problems will only grow worse. We have come up with successive kludges to paper over the fact that our sea, air, and oriented services don’t make any sense in context of innovative, disruptive technological development.

A glance at the history of UAV development and employment in the United States makes puts this aspect of Major Cavanaugh’s argument into stark relief.  As with ballistic missiles, the idea of unmanned aerial vehicles has always sat uneasily with an Air Force founded by pilots.  Free money (through the National Reconnaissance Office and the intelligence community funded early drone development, but the key innovations (including development of the Predator drone, and the earliest armed UAVs) were pursued by other agencies.

And yet at the same time, as detailed in former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates new memoir, the Air Force felt compelled to fight hard to maintain control of the most sophisticated drones, in large part to keep them away from the Army. As Gates wrote, “There was an unseemly turf fight in the ISR world over whether the Air Force should control all military drone programs and operations.  The Army resisted, and I was on its side; the Air Force was grasping for absolute control of a capability for which it had little enthusiasm in the first place.”

From an Air Force point of view, this makes complete sense; there is no bad faith involved.  Centralized control of air assets under an Air Force officer has been an Air Force priority since the North African campaign in World War II.  The Air Force has come to tolerate, to greater or lesser extent, the presence of other “air forces” in the theater, but consistently resists steps that threaten to deprive Air Force officers of centralized control over what they regard as their domain.  Allowing the Army to operate advanced, armed drones would be nearly as bad as allowing the development of a second “tactical” air force, a threat that manifested during the early years of the Vietnam War. The problem isn’t that the people are bad or ignorant; it’s that our institutions structure how we think about innovation and conflict.

We have, unfortunately, designed our military institutions around the idea that air, ground, and sea warfare are separate, when in fact they are inherently interactive. Jointness notwithstanding, the services continue to guide innovation, which leads to a focus on the domain rather than on warfighting. It isn’t surprising, in this context, that the service which views the use of the air as a means to an end rather than an end in itself appears more innovative with respect to the use of drones for air superiority combat.

Future conflict—and we should emphasize that where nations are concerned, conflict and combat are not the same thing—will span across the entire range of national military, political, and economic capabilities.  With defense-as-percentage of economy falling across the international system, the watchword will become efficiency; which states can most efficiently utilize their military capabilities in order to achieve their political goals? Boundaries are inevitable; every service has branch divisions in order to create a community of professional expertise.  However, services go beyond branches in that they represent independent political/bureaucratic entities that can command attention in Congress and in the Executive.

If we don’t fix this problem ourselves, preferably when the international security situation remains relatively relaxed, someone will force us to fix it in the future.

**For more, Professor Farley’s personal site can be found here, as well as an article in Foreign Affairs which previews some arguments from his new bookGrounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force.