The Next Manhattan Project
What are operational concepts and is there a spin-on to the defense establishment from the commercial sphere that can infuse defense strategy with innovative answers to that question?
Last November, I wrote about the report of the National Defense Strategy Commission. I was especially intrigued by its call for clean-sheet reconsideration of operational concepts, the “essential link between strategic objectives, defense policy, and budgetary priorities.” Sustaining my attention to the topic was Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s abrupt resignation in late-December and President Trump’s peremptory dismissal of him following publication of his resignation letter, a drama which amplified the Commission’s alarm over what it already had deemed a “crisis of national security.”
In turn, these events prompted me to re-read “Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge,” the unclassified synopsis of the US National Defense Strategy to which Mattis had given his imprimatur in January 2018. In it, under the heading, Build a More Lethal Force, I rediscovered the commandment, “Evolve innovative operational concepts.” Echoing the Commission, Mattis’s commandment makes the point, “Modernization is not defined solely by hardware; it requires change in the ways we organize and employ forces.”
As defined in the Rand classic, Strategies to Tasks, military operational concepts “tie together the systems, tactics, and organizational relationships devoted to [a] mission.” More concretely, Commissioner Andrew Krepinevich, a leading exponent of CONOPS, has cited Nazi Germany’s blitzkrieg and the cold-war US Army’s AirLand Battle to illustrate how smart operating concepts can create decisive military advantages.
These calls to innovate operational concepts find a nearly perfect analogue in the other preoccupation of my professional life, business strategy. In business, that which ties together systems, tactics, and relationships is called a business model, and innovating business models is arguably the most vibrant field of contemporary business analysis and source of competitive intensity. And it’s not just the darlings of Silicon Valley and behemoths of Seattle disrupting markets with new business models. Business-model innovation is also transforming heavy industries like steel, staid financial services like insurance, and other mature-industry sectors. As defined by one of the field’s chief priests, Alex Osterwalder, a business model “describes the rationale for how an organization creates, delivers, and captures value.” Substitute Jim Mattis’s mantra “lethality” for the term “value” in that definition, and the analogue comes fully to life.
The significance of this analogy for US defense strategy is threefold. First, it suggests a compelling answer to the question of how US military forces will gain leverage that decisively tilts the balance of power against antagonists and competitors? Our country’s 20th-century answers to that question— superior scale, first of men then machines, followed in the cold war by superior capital and technology—are no longer plausible when others now enjoy equal or greater access to these customary sources of our strategic successes. Consequently, the more plausible answer to our strategic quandary suggested by business-model innovation is that the 21st-century American military must achieve decisive leverage by conceiving and implementing superior ideas to meet core operational challenges.
The second significance of this business-model analogy is that it suggests the pathway to differentiation, a keystone to any competitive strategy. A strategy staked on deep knowledge, creativity, and the ability to apply their insights better, quicker, and cheaper than competitors especially befits today’s American and other Western societies (if not yet their military establishments). Indeed, the great preponderance of such winning practices and companies in the commercial sphere are rooted distinctively in North America and Europe. Our strategic competitors may excel at antagonizing on the cheap and imitating at scale, but because our society exhibits a qualitatively superior propensity to conceive innovative CONOPS, our strategy should deliberately engage that muscle.
Finally, the other significance of business-model innovation for the Pentagon’s strategy is that it suggests the vast headroom available to a campaign of innovation in military concepts of operation. Whereas the campaign for business-model innovation shows an excited fermentation of books, articles, frameworks, patterns, classes, awards, taxonomies and more, the still of military CONOPS innovation is notably languid even a full year after Secretary Mattis issued his commandment. The Commission has done a great service by refocusing attention on the matter, but much, much more of talented time, organizational effort, and institutional money needs to be committed to developing this critical lever in US defense strategy.
No less than a Manhattan Project of CONOPS innovation would be fully responsive to the crisis of strategy that we face.