'People, ideas, machines' I: Notes on ‘Winning the Next War’
How do militaries innovate? Why do good ideas stall? What sort of organisations innovate best? Why can't politicians learn? Implications for UKR/Russia?
‘All warfare is based on deception… Know the enemy and know thyself, in a hundred battles you will never be in peril.’ Sun Tzu
‘There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order.’ Machiavelli
‘People, ideas, machines — in that order!’ What Colonel Boyd shouted in the Pentagon for years…
Below are some notes on Stephen Rosen’s book Winning the Next War: Innovation and the Modern Military. Given UKR, I’ll post notes on this and other books on war/science/management I’ve read over the years. It’s about how military organisations invent, innovate and procure.
Rosen asks some basic questions about military organisations and learning:
How do military organisations learn, create new ideas about how to fight, and create new capabilities?
Are they doomed to fight the last war?
Is it easier to innovate in peacetime or wartime?
How does technological innovation differ from innovation in ideas about how to fight?
What is the role of intelligence in military innovation?
What’s the difference between invention/innovation, and research/development? What kind of organisations and ideas are suitable for which category? E.g what are the pros/cons of having one R&D organisation or does it make more sense to split functions up?
How and why do bureaucracies stop new ideas? How can common problems be overcome?
How does feedback happen between people-ideas-machines-bureaucracies?
These questions are directly relevant to a) general problems we have with our institutions for crisis management whether war, pandemic etc, and b) this Ukraine crisis, both short-term and long-term: e.g if western countries want to take defence more seriously, what should they really focus on?
Strong caveat: the book looks at some specific US and UK examples from ~1900-1960s. It does NOT look at, for example:
the famous example of Germany in the 1920s/30s bringing together tanks, radios and new ideas that together crushed France so quickly in 1940.
the Manhattan Project or much of the ICBM project under Schriever (though it touches on some background on missiles).
the combination of precision strike, stealth, GPS, drones and so on that emerged in the 1970s (partly from DARPA and Skunk Works), which I wrote about here and which apparently is directly relevant to Ukraine (because thinking from Ogarkov in the 1970s has apparently been revived in Russia, which I was not aware of until I read a brief a few weeks ago from Bismarck Analysis on Russian modernisation).
Russian or Chinese innovation.
I started reading Rosen in January as I started thinking about the 2020 ‘integrated review’, a story I should write about. Media duds like the FT’s Philip Stephens have been posting comical takes about how UKR shows … we should have stuck with tank acquisition plans that were ‘world leaders’ in wasteful, disastrous, and dangerous procurement.
Prediction: 1) lessons from UKR will overwhelmingly support the arguments of those who in 2020 argued for radical MoD changes (including taking money from old tank projects that everybody privately admitted were a multi-billion pound disaster) and 2) the correct criticism of the review and connected documents will be seen as a) they did not go nearly far enough, b) the collapse of No10 follow through on defence reform in 2021 was — like the collapse of 2020 plans for planning reform, tax cuts, deregulation, Project Speed, intense focus on R&D and skills etc — a disaster for the country (and a political disaster for the Tory Party).
I wrote a lot about defence innovation/procurement 2016-19. E.g here on the crucial emergence of ‘systems engineering’ and ‘systems management’ in the 1940s-60s and how highly effective processes for managing complex projects and procuring new technologies were then dismantled in the Pentagon and lessons were forgotten. (Also here in 2014.)
A good example recently was the collapse of the Obama website for healthcare. He had to call friends in Silicon Valley to come to DC to fix it because basics have been forgotten and DC couldn’t fix it. We’re used to thinking of technological progress but most people in politics have no sense of how management has deteriorated in many parts of our civilisation and how this connects to how almost everything to do with infrastructure and military procurement takes much longer, is much more expensive, and often fails — and politicians don’t even pretend to try seriously to change the systems that repeatedly fail.
They also pay no political price because all the parties are the same year after year. There is a stable equilibrium where the sort of people who almost always dominate western political parties are the sort of people who have neither the interest in nor ability to change these big complex bureaucracies. Provided they all stick to roughly the same model of political action — i.e focus on the media and signalling to in-group factions, not the public or important problems — the equilibrium holds, even after repeated disasters, because it’s hard for ‘live players’ to break into the political competition.
Also cf. here, where I made predictions about how our EU-law based (Whitehall-goldplated) procurement system would endanger us in a crisis. These predictions came true in covid. SW1 response? Fail. Lie. Don’t learn. Repeat. Wave exclusives at lobby. Lobby ignore because procurement is ‘boring’ or cheer legal actions brought to slow everything down…
In the next few days I’ll blog on nuclear weapons. Next week I’ll blog on The Kill Chain by Brose, copies of which I gave in 2020 to some of those working on the UK ‘integrated review’ and which has been read by many of those now responsible for defence reform. Brose now works at Anduril, an interesting startup that is trying to bring the world of Silicon Valley to the world of defence procurement.
Please leave links to books/articles on these themes with a 25 word or less summary of why it’s important.
I’ve started posting SNIPPETS on UKR here instead of adding to the noise/hysteria of Twitter.
NB. Invention and innovation are often treated synonymously in policy world but most scientists I speak to treat invention as something new and innovation as something incremental. Invention at its best can have 1000X or more impact than ‘innovation’. It can be the difference between, say, Feynman and Deutsch coming up with the first concepts of ‘quantum computers’ and Google improving an important bit of engineering by 10%. Rosen has his own definition of innovation which is not the same.
Quotes below are from Rosen unless specified.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Dominic Cummings substack to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.