During the Cold War, when both the United States and the Soviet Union considered the strategic environment to be one of “permanent crisis,” the two great powers concluded that outcomes in modern warfare would be determined, in large part, by the capacity to equip their forces with technologically advanced weapons and platforms. As these sociotechnical systems became larger, more complex, and more expensive, innovative change became an integral part of national security. Militaries could no longer rely on random strokes of genius to prevail in future wars, but instead needed to systematize innovation. This is what Martin van Creveld labeled “the invention of invention”: “A process of technological competition arose, one that was sometimes relaxed but never halted. . . . There could be no question that each country’s effective military power depended on its armed forces continuously keeping abreast technologically.” This trend of purpose-driven military innovation had been evolving over the previous century, but was crystalized in the postwar period. As Michael J. Hogan argues, “American leaders emerged from the Second World War absolutely convinced that science had saved the day by achieving dramatic breakthroughs in military technology.”

The planning of peacetime American forces under the cloud of Soviet threat required processes and institutions to enable perpetual innovation. This included the mobilization of basic science, applied science, and engineering toward military problems. The resulting structure, which continues to characterize innovation processes and culture of the US military more than three decades after the end of the Cold War, came to resemble a lighthouse—tall, vertically oriented, with a single beam of light as its most purposeful and defining feature. In a lighthouse, every other component of the structure exists in support of the powerful lamp at its apex. Similarly in the in the US military, the drivers of institutional innovative capacity are largely centered at the top of the organization—once an opportunity for innovative change is identified, the directive for innovation flows down the vertical structure to predesignated entities tasked with research, development, and implementation. To work, this lighthouse model of military innovation requires three defining attributes: it is hierarchical in structure, due to relative omniscience of the threat space and control of relevant technologies.

The first feature of the lighthouse model of innovation—its hierarchical construction—refers to the centralization and strict division of labor that characterized Cold War planning. World War II had revealed the inefficiencies introduced by lack of coordination among the military services, national command authority, and national intelligence services. The National Security Act of 1947 was designed to rectify this problem by coordinating all these activities under a unified National Military Establishment, moving much authority for planning from the individual military services to the level of the Office of the Secretary of Defense. This drive toward centralization was part of a wider postwar effort to perfect all bureaucratic action and fulfill the Enlightenment goals of rationalization of state function. The culmination of this evolution would be a machine-like apparatus that would utilize elaborate planning and precise division of labor to produce optimal policy—which would include the leveraging of science to produce innovation: “By improving the orchestration of research, engineering, management, and policymaking . . . the rationales underlying practical decisions could be placed on firmer empirical foundations.”

The second feature of the lighthouse model is its reliance on near omniscience of the threat environment for which military innovation was being conducted. Though the international system is always complex, Cold War planners benefitted from a relatively simple and stable environment for which they had to design forces. First, the core weapons and platforms of conventional warfare of the era—including submarines, bombers, tanks, fighter planes, and mechanized infantry—had all been developed and tested extensively during World War II. Other than a steady flow of sustaining modernizations around these technologies, the only truly disruptive military technologies of this era were strategic nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. And while these new weapons had a deep impact on the way each side would devise and implement its deterrence strategies, they had a much more muted effect on military operational planning, which continued to emphasize large-scale, conventional combat. The second source of simplicity was the limited number of scenarios around which planning had to be conducted. More specifically, the scenario that took ultimate priority in US and allied Cold War planning was the potential Soviet invasion of Western Europe through the Fulda Gap. This projected battle took precedence over any other contingency that might arise, thereby greatly simplifying force planning. Finally, the Soviet military establishment was largely comparable to that of the United States as they shared the same basic structures, goals, and tools. Taken as a whole, the Cold War provided a very known—or at least knowable—strategic environment in which to design military forces; this meant that reasonable assumptions could be used to replace gaps in factual information regarding Soviet capabilities and intention. Thomas McNaugher describes this level of near omniscience succinctly: “Soviet forces provided a well-understood, slowly advancing focal point for long-range planning.”

The third feature of the lighthouse model, the control of technology, refers to the capacity of the Department of Defense to exclusively possess, shape, or at least intimately understand all strategically relevant advances in science and technology. This control had always been achieved through money—American defense spending in research and development attracted all relevant nascent technologies to it like moths to a flame. This system was optimized during the Cold War, when the United States government mobilized the civilian university system, university-affiliated research centers, national laboratories, and federally funded research and development centers through the massive spending of R&D dollars. In 1960, for example, the Department of Defense alone accounted for 36 percent of all R&D dollars spent around the globe. This tremendous flow of dollars ensured that the Department of Defense often outright controlled—or was at least intimately aware of the implications of—all science and emerging technologies that related to military power.

The three features of the lighthouse model of innovation fitted neatly with the historical era in which it was developed: the Cold War. The strategic landscape, however, has changed significantly since the Soviet Union’s final dissolution in 1991, and the purely hierarchical structure of the lighthouse is no longer suitable for generating innovation. Instead, US military innovation should look more like a Christmas tree, with innovative activity dispersed throughout the Department of Defense like lights on a festively decorated tree, rather than being controlled and directed solely from above.

One important change since the end of the Cold War is the loss of relative omniscience of the strategic environment. When the Cold War ended, the United States struggled to understand the role its unchallenged military forces would play in the world. Moving from planning around specific scenarios against a mirror-imaged opponent, the United States now struggled with violent extremist organizations, rogue states, nuclear proliferation, peacekeeping, and humanitarian missions. All of these were assumed, to some degree, to be “lesser-included” tasks that could be handled with the overwhelming conventional forces created and sustained by the lighthouse—a mistaken attitude that was reinforced by the lopsided battlefield success of the Gulf War. As the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts turned sour in the decades after 9/11, it became clear that the US military establishment’s understanding of the environment was inadequate, but the lighthouse continued to produce capabilities and concepts that were (at best) incremental improvements of the Cold War force.

A second change is a loss of control over technology. The chief mechanism of that previous control, research money, has dried up. Whereas the Department of Defense accounted for 36 percent of all R&D dollars spent around the globe in 1960, by 2016 that number had shrunk to 4 percent (and continues to decline). Even when the Department of Defense has money to spend, it still fails to connect meaningfully to emerging tech sectors. As a recent Council on Foreign Relations report lamented:

The pace of innovation globally has accelerated, and it is more disruptive and transformative to industries, economies, and societies. Second, many advanced technologies necessary for national security are developed in the private sector. . . . The ability of the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to control [such] activity using traditional policy means has been greatly reduced.

A deeper, point is embedded in this account of loss of control of technological advancement: a lack of comprehension. The Council on Foreign Relations report notes that current technologies emerging from the private sector are “disruptive and transformative”—the implications of which are often not readily apparent for the Department of Defense. The types of innovation that may spring from these disruptive—and alien—technologies is simply beyond the capacity of the lighthouse to meaningfully leverage.

The loss of omniscience and control implies the poor fit of the third aspect of the lighthouse: hierarchy. The rigid, vertical structure and hyper compartmentalization of the US national security apparatus, though well suited to the relatively simple and stable environment of the Cold War, is ill-suited to the current strategic landscape. A new, distributed approach to innovation and adaptability is required. As Williamson Murray argues, “Innovation demands officers in the mainstream of their profession. . . . The bureaucratization of innovation . . . guarantees its death.” This means moving the onus for innovation from isolated specialists to those men and women who comprise the operational force.

Distributed innovation, however, relies on two things for success: (1) incentives that enable innovations to emerge and (2) organizational capacity to identify and scale up these innovative solutions. First, innovation and adaptation should be recognized and rewarded across military institutions. Though bottom-up innovation and adaptation have occurred in military organizations throughout history, it usually occurs for modern American military forces only on wartime battlefields and rarely results in systemic change for the broader organization. If distributed innovation were to occur in the steady state—outside of the crucible of combat—incentive structures and cultures would need to be in place to foster new ideas. This is a challenge for culturally bound organizations that typically respond to novel problems by narrowing their apertures to traditional approaches in the face of adversity, rather than becoming more creative. The second condition for successful distributed innovation relates to scaling. Distributed innovations must be identified and scaled up. Candles of innovation are often trapped under the bushel basket of organizational status quo and better mechanisms are needed to locate and enact wider adoption of innovations that may occur anywhere throughout an organization as large as the US military services.

Given this, a Christmas tree model would better enable innovation in the American military. There are two characteristics of this construct that distinguish it from the Cold War lighthouse. First, there are lights of innovation distributed throughout the tree in addition to the star at the top. This means that, even though major innovation projects are coordinated and resourced from a central location, units and individuals throughout the organization can play an active role in innovation. They can do so by acting as distributed sensors who assist in detecting emerging opportunities, gaps, or threats. They are also empowered to engage in efforts to ideate, prototype, and collaborate around innovative solutions at the lowest level. Second, the branches of the tree act as pathways that allow information and ideas to flow in multiple directions. This is necessary for leadership to learn from the distributed network—both for increased understanding and to harvest and scale up appropriate innovative solutions.

What barriers stand in the way of the United States military adopting the Christmas tree model of distributed innovation? These can be roughly binned into two categories: structural reform and human capital development. Structural reform is, by far, more difficult and may need to entail an entire reformation or abandonment of the Cold War–era Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution (PPBE) system and its onerous requirements process, which was identified by the former chair of the Defense Innovation Board, Eric Schmidt, as “now the single greatest barrier to rapid technological advancement.”

Until these structural reforms occur, however, we can turn to human capital development as an immediately actionable lever to enable innovation. More specifically, professional military education (PME) provides a ready mechanism by which service members can become the distributed lights of innovation. This can be accomplished through three mechanisms.

The first mechanism is through updated curricular content that enables innovative thinking. The current PME system does not lend itself to critically examining previously understood doctrine and domains. This should change. Hard sciences, engineering, history, and social sciences should be complemented by coursework on wicked problems, design disciplines, and prototyping to provide a modern understanding of the complex and rapidly evolving sociotechnical systems that comprise the modern strategic environment.

The second mechanism is through graduate research that is based in innovation. This is accomplished by embedding PME student research into actual innovation projects drawn from operational needs. Doing so will not only professionally develop the students but will improve those ongoing innovation efforts. These efforts would showcase the degree to which PME students can combine their newly acquired academic skills and rich professional experience to contribute to innovation projects that may otherwise be conducted solely by civilian engineers and scientists.

The third mechanism is indirect; it is through improved future leadership throughout the force. As PME students experience the challenges of innovation firsthand—from ideation, through design and engineering, to acquisition and adoption—they will carry these lessons forward to their future roles as leaders. Their education and experience as innovators will, in turn, allow them to empathize with and enable grassroots innovators in their future commands. This will produce a steady stream of more lights to brighten the Christmas tree.

The lighthouse model of innovation was optimized for a bygone strategic environment and no longer meets the needs of America’s military. In its place, a Christmas tree model of distributed innovation would be better fitted to the current environment. Though deep structural reforms would need to be enacted to update the antiquated PPBE system, an actionable path to enabling distributed innovation in the joint force lies in human capital development via PME. As education is a service responsibility, we suggest that these entities increasingly prioritize education for their personnel in an era of shrinking budgets. Additionally, we offer that—with minimal investment and moderate planning—PME student research could be linked directly to ongoing innovation efforts across the DoD ecosystem. In sum, PME programs provide a ready location to enable distributed innovation by turning their students into the lights that lead the way—both as today’s innovators and tomorrow’s innovative leaders.

Leo Blanken is an associate professor in the Defense Analysis Department at the Naval Postgraduate School, where he also serves as the deputy director of the Consortium for Robotics and Unmanned Systems Education and Research (CRUSER) and as the academic lead for the Applied Design for Innovation program. He is the author of Rational Empires: Institutional Incentives and Imperial Expansion and is coeditor of Assessing War: The Challenge of Measuring Success and Failure. He also collects and DJs rare funk and soul records from the 1960s.

Jason Lepore is a professor in the Economics Department of the Orfalea College of Business at California Polytechnic State University and a visiting research professor in the Defense Analysis Department at the Naval Postgraduate School. He has published articles on defense economics, game theory, and industrial organization and he is coeditor of Assessing War: The Challenge of Measuring Success and Failure.

Cecilia Panella is a faculty associate for research in the Department of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School, where she coleads the Applied Design for Innovation curriculum. She holds a graduate degree from Johns Hopkins SAIS in American foreign policy and international economics.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: John Tornow