Innovation is the lifeblood of progress, and in the context of the military, it is a crucial component of keeping pace with today’s rapid technological evolution. The multifaceted challenge of innovation—which requires understanding emerging threats, leveraging cutting-edge technology, and overturning established paradigms within tactical doctrine—is not merely pivotal; it is a strategic imperative. Tactical innovation, a subset of the broader military innovation ecosystem, must be driven by the on-the-ground practitioner and is based on four key pillars: ground-up ideation, rapid prototyping, deliberate fusion of technology and tactics, and the emergence of novel concepts.
Ground-up ideation, the first pillar, is problematic for most militaries—including the US joint force. Typically, military tactical organizations spend most of their training on doctrinal approaches, proficiency on mission essential task lists, and preparation for future deployments. This schedule is not necessarily conducive to an innovative mindset. Rather, it often hinders junior military members by limiting their ability to institute any meaningful change. While the need for the training and task proficiency is categorically correct, a parallel, integrated effort must be encouraged. Ground-level soldiers have the knowledge and intimate details of tactical applications that many at higher echelons no longer possess. Their understanding of the equipment, the application of its use in tactics, and the doctrinal templates used during training form the bedrock of tactical innovation. Upon this bedrock, creativity can solve contemporary challenges facing the tactical practitioner, igniting novel solutions that are impossible in an innovation pipeline driven from the top down.
Even when ground-up innovation exists, the missing component is often the ability to transform tactical ideas into functioning prototypes. Rapid prototyping, the second pillar, propels these nascent ideas from mere concepts to tangible realities. The traditional trajectory of prototyping, marked by bureaucratic processes and detachment from the original creator, is set aside in favor of a more hands-on approach. By enabling soldiers to actively participate in developing and refining concepts, a more nuanced and sought-after solution can be enabled, all the while steering clear of the pitfalls that bureaucratic, top-down processes often present. This dynamic process not only accelerates the timeline but ensures that innovations remain intimately connected to the tactical needs they aim to address.
The development and prototyping process is enabled by the creation of innovation hubs, partnered at the unit level, where prototyping expertise pairs directly with the idea sponsor. Innovation hubs such as Fort Campbell’s Eaglewerx or Fort Liberty’s Airborne Innovation Lab, supported by the Civil-Military Innovation Institute’s role in the US Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Pathfinder program, are great examples of how tactical innovation partnered at the unit level can achieve outsized results. This approach empowers tactical leaders to be intimately involved in the idea development process and, in turn, will encourage more soldiers to come forward with good ideas that would otherwise sit nascent and undeveloped. The ability to research and develop ideas into functioning prototypes is likewise an opportunity for the military to partner more closely with local academia and industry to develop capabilities rapidly and field new and creative solutions to tactical problems.
The progressive trajectory of soldier-driven, ground-up innovation, synergized with a rapid prototyping framework, inherently fosters the imaginative evolution of military tactics. By instilling a culture that encourages critical and creative thinking among military personnel regarding existing tactics, coupled with the ability to design and prototype components essential to their tactical framework, the military can adapt to the ever-shifting landscape of contemporary battlefields. This methodology not only amplifies flexibility and adaptability—crucial attributes in modern warfare—but also positions tactical-level units as catalysts for the development of novel capabilities. Empowered with the ability to challenge established methods ingrained in current doctrine, these units, driven by an instinct for innovation, spearhead a dynamic approach to military tactics. Through exploring emerging trends in contemporary conflicts and a contextualizing military training, tactical practitioners can delve into inventive and disruptive avenues, reshaping existing doctrine and facilitating the third pillar of tactical innovation—the seamless integration of cutting-edge technology with innovative tactical applications.
Finally, the fourth pillar manifests as the convergence of disruptive tactical concepts with emerging and novel technologies, giving rise to transformative operational constructs. This process involves evaluating the viability and effectiveness of new concepts grounded in the dual principles of operational comprehension and technological advancement. The significance of this cannot be overstated: it amounts to a paradigm shift wherein established norms are not merely challenged but transcended. In essence, the fourth pillar not only encapsulates the synthesis of disruptive concepts and emerging technologies but also underscores the significance of a systematic and forward-thinking approach in evaluating and incorporating these innovations. This process positions the military not merely as reactive responders but as proactive architects of the employment of military force, ensuring resilience and adaptability in the face of an ever-evolving global landscape.
The path to military innovation lies in these four pillars: ground-up ideation, rapid prototyping, creative applications of tactics, and the integration and development of novel concepts. Embracing these principles fosters a culture of innovation within the military, driving the ability to adapt to evolving threats and incorporate new, emergent technologies. In an era of constant change and strategic uncertainty, the military can maintain its operational edge by enabling tactical practitioners to pursue innovative concepts grounded in the nexus of current tactical realities, emerging technological advancement, rapid prototyping and development, and ground-level testing and evaluation.
Achieving powerful tactical innovation is not an insurmountable hurdle. It starts with empowering tactical-level units to develop and integrate new technologies with divergent tactical capabilities, creating new, novel concepts and propelling us into a future where innovation isn’t merely a buzzword but a celebrated catalyst for transformative and innovative change.
Robert Leach currently works for the Civil Military Innovation Institute as an innovation chief on the Army Research Lab’s Catalyst-Pathfinder program. He served twenty-one years in the United States Army, retiring as a master sergeant from 5th Special Forces Group in 2023, with three combat deployments and seven additional operational deployments throughout the Middle East.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Staff Sgt. Julius Harris, US Army