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Innovating European defence


If war is inherently a social act, the same must be said of military innovation. Even narrowing down the key terms and definitions reveals this. The subject of this chapter is the innovation of European defence, but the literature on military change has been referred to as ‘revolution’ (as in the Revolution in Military Affairs), ‘transformation’ (as in military, martial or force transformation), ‘innovation’, ‘adaptation’ and ‘change in military praxis’ (see Grissom, 2006).

Traditionally, the literature on military innovation was understood to be more the discipline of history and military studies than a social science perse. According to Grissom (2006, p. 906), this early literature was formed of ‘grand historical narratives, operational histories, or bureaucratic-political case studies’. That is, until the publication of The Sources of Military Doctrine, by Barry Posen, in 1984. Posen stands out for bringing a social scientific approach to the study of military innovation, but is representative of only one school of thought on how militaries innovate. Since then, there has been a flourishing literature that is informed by both the disciplines of history and the social sciences.

Stephen Rosen has defined major innovation in defence organisations as ‘a change that forces one of the primary combat arms of a service to change its concepts of operation and its relation to other combat arms, and to abandon or downgrade traditional missions’ (1988, p. 134). This definition is appropriate because it allows us to understand innovation in terms of material, ideational and operational indicators of change. Since the end of the Cold War, military organisations in Europe have faced significant reductions in both budgets and manpower while many have also been conducting martial operations, either independently or through collective security organisations such as the EU or NATO. In short, European militaries have been asked to do more with less, which, in turn, necessitates some form of innovation. The aim of this chapter is to understand the various ways defence forces in Europe have innovated to accommodate this confluence of factors. The chapter addresses military innovation by first looking at historical, geopolitical and strategic contextual trends.

The chapter will then outline some of the key conceptual ways that scholars have sought to theorise drivers of innovation in military organisations more generally. Finally, we will apply these concepts to specific cases in order to illuminate the varied and particular approaches to innovation that European militaries have incorporated to meet their material, ideational and operational challenges.

Military innovation and the traditional approach: keylessons from history

This section illustrates some of the central themes and motivating questions that have been central to the more ‘grand historical narratives’ approach to understanding military innovation. It demonstrates the ways in which key historical events - in particular large-scale wars -have shaped the thinking of military strategists and organisations when it comes to how they prepare, respond and generally attempt to innovate before and after these events, ft also demonstrates how scholars and theorists have come to understand the central questions and challenges that face military organisations in terms of innovation in response to socio-political, resource, and organisational concerns. Box 11.1 offers a comprehensive (but not necessarily exhaustive or mutually exclusive) indication of the challenges and questions facing modem military forces and their prospects for innovation that are considered in this chapter.

Box 11.1 Types of questions driving military innovation

Socio-political questions:

  • • To have democratic-political oversight of armed forces?
  • • What is the military for and what is the extent and range of tasks it is expected to perform?
  • • To pursue nuclear forces or remain conventional only?
  • • All-volunteer forces vs. conscription?
  • • The role of women in the armed forces?
  • • What degree (if any) do alliances play in a military strategy?
  • • How much to spend as a percentage of GDP on armed forces?
  • • To what degree will armed forces participate in frontline high-intensity tactics and operations?
  • • What ratio between territorial defence and expeditionary forces?
  • • To what degree should the military be integrated with another state's or an international organisation's military decision making, command and operational structures?

Economic and resource questions:

  • • Full-spectrum force versus specialisation?
  • • How much to spend on new capability development and R&D vs. only maintaining current force posture?
  • • What is your defence industrial strategy?
  • • To buy military capabilities off-the-shelf, develop and procure from domestic defence industry or pursue multinational military development and procurement programmes - or some mixture of these options?
  • • How to prioritise quantity vs. quality of military capability?

Organisational questions:

  • • Size of regular forces vs. dependency on reserves?
  • • What ratio between land, air and sea force structure (now also cyber and space)?
  • • The ratio of prioritisation between preparedness, doctrine and capabilities for conventional warfighting (e.g., fighting near-peer adversaries) and/or irregular warfighting (e.g., counter-insurgency)?
  • • To prioritise manoeuvre or attrition when preparing for future war?
  • • How will technology and military capabilities shape the character of war?
  • • To what extent will your forces be interoperable with allies?
  • • What percentage of your force will be earmarked for bi-lateral or multilateral military operations or peacekeeping missions?
  • • How to prioritise risk vs. force protection?

A central concern of military strategists and organisations has always been attempting to understand the character (not the nature) of the next war. According to Clausewitz, the famous Prussian military strategist, war’s nature does not change but its character often does (1997, p. 22). As Christopher Mewett (2014) has explained, the nature of war relates to its ‘unchanging essence’ or, ‘those things that differentiate war (as a type of phenomenon) from other things’. Thus, the nature of war is ‘violent, interactive, and fundamentally political’. However, the ‘character of war describes the changing way that war as a phenomenon manifests in the real world’ (Mewett, 2014). Logically, our focus must be skewed towards the character of warfare, as our concern is the processes and drivers of military innovation; how and why militaries change, adapt and transform in order to be fit for (some) purpose - traditionally that of wining wars. This chapter considers how militaries - specifically European militaries - innovate in terms of both theory and practice.

In terms of traditional approaches to innovation, thinkers tended to address this question according to strict interpretations of defence and military studies. In other words, the focus was primarily on the study of military tactics, operations and strategy, the outcome of large-scale wars and any lessons learnt that could be gained. For example, they may consider if the next war (i.e., a war that may have to be fought) is likely to be dominated by defence or offence, often referred to as manoeuvre or attrition. A separate but related issue is the impact of technology and military capabilities for shaping the character of the next war. The First World War is often, as we will see below, understood as a classic example of when military strategists got things wrong - and devastatingly so - but as this section demonstrates, military strategists quite often get it wrong. A few key historical examples help to illustrate this.

In the current age, conflict is often described with terms such as irregular or hybrid warfare and fought in grey zones. But the traditional understanding of regular warfare is something that takes place between the identifiable militaries of states (usually great powers) and with finite conclusions. Of course, these are generalities and historians are always keen to point this out. Yet, before major wars, there is always a lot of uncertainty about what the next war will look like and how the combination of capabilities, technology and doctrine will affect the tangible character of the conflict that transpires.

The accepted thinking before the First World War was that a combination of speed - due to industrialisation - and advances in technology, leading to an increased lethality of weapons, would mean this next war would be deadly, mobile, offensive and short. Deadly as it may have been, the war was, in fact, a slow, bogged-down war of attrition. Military planners fundamentally misunderstood the impact of those weapons they believed to be offensive (machine-guns and artillery) but which turned out to be much more suited towards defensive tactics and operations. Therefore, a central concern that emerged from the Great War - and one that focused the minds of strategist and innovators alike during the inter-war period -was how to burst the tyranny of defence. Wartime is a critical driver of innovation by necessity, but strategists also try to use times of peace to learn key lessons from the past to innovate their forces, capabilities and doctrine.

This leads to another key theme emanating from the traditional approaches to military innovation: innovators and planners usually draw different lessons from the study of previous wars. In the inter-war period, strategists from all the great powers did exactly this. The conclusion that the French Army drew from the First World War was to further strengthen strategies of defence, ultimately resulting in the Maginot Line. The German answer was to prioritise combined arms with speed and mobility by innovating and refining their use of capabilities and doctrine towards blitzkrieg. During the same period, but not simultaneously, factions arose in both the USA (within the Army Air Corps) and the UK (the RAF) that looked to airpower for strategic answers on how to win wars. In short, military thinkers and strategists often prepare for the last (or wrong) war. Moreover, war and the perceived threat of war causes competition for ideas with regard to the most prudent ways for militaries to innovate.

Interestingly, capabilities were generally advancing in line with technological progress for all the great military powers. The difference was how the various military organisations chose to employ those capabilities. Michael Horowitz (2010, p. 7) has termed this ‘adoption capacity theory’, or the match between the financial and organisational requirements for adopting a new type of military innovation and the capabilities that a particular country might have. All the great powers were developing advanced (for the time) prototypes of submarines, aircraft and armoured fighting vehicles, but the missions they assigned those capabilities and the doctrine they applied were distinctive and tailored to their own lessons learnt.

Before we turn to the next section, two more themes that developed out of the more traditional approaches are insightful with regard to innovation more broadly. The first is that advocates of innovation often oversell (at least initially) the strategic impact of their proposed innovation. During the Second World War, both the examples of blitzkrieg and strategic airpower help to reinforce this concept. Although blitzkrieg was a highly successful militarytactic, this lethal combination of combined arms and manoeuvre was not enough to translate into a strategic victory on either the Western or Eastern fronts. Moreover, Germany’s adversaries were eventually able to learn and adopt these tactics as well, demonstrating again that innovation tends to happen most rapidly during war. In the case of strategic airpower, early attempts to innovate and apply these tactics were not met with the success rates that the first US Army Air Corps’ advocates such as Edgar Gorrell, Thomas Milling, William ‘Billy’ Mitchell, and William Sherman had envisioned or asserted before the start of the war. All of this points to one final theme: certain factions of innovation may fight over the best tactics, operations and strategies, but it is war that ultimately decides.

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