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Innovation and Invention: Equipping the Army for Current and Future Conflicts

September 16, 2015

Throughout the history of the United States, military experts have debated how best to provide capability for future military forces. Some who advocate for the technological dimension of warfare have argued that modern weaponry can transform the very nature of war, making it possible for the United States to defeat opponents quickly, economically and with minimal casualties. As stated by former defense official William Perry in 1978, “Precision guided weapons have the potential of revolutionizing warfare. . . . If we effectively exploit the lead we have in this field, we can greatly enhance our ability to deter war without having to compete tank for tank, missile for missile.”1 On the other hand, some have pointed to cognitive, physical and social aspects of war—the human dimension of warfare—as factors equally critical to ultimate battlefield success.2 They argue that technology is no substitute for leadership development, character and resilience.

Both perspectives have merit. Superior technology has contributed significantly to American victories, notably the 1991 Persian Gulf War. However, technological superiority, on its own, does not guarantee the successful attainment of strategic objectives. As expressed by B. H. Liddell Hart, “In war, the chief incalculable is the human will.”3 Human willpower and determination adjust tactics, mitigate weaknesses, seek advantages and persevere in the face of great odds. History provides numerous examples wherein human persistence and ingenuity have prevailed over a technologically superior enemy.

Despite these caveats, technology remains a critical enabler that allows the U.S. Army to maintain overmatch against its opponents. Through technical superiority, Army forces can capture the initiative quickly and create multiple dilemmas, thereby limiting the opponent’s options on the battlefield. In the future, technology will only increase in importance as the joint force faces an expanding range of threats and as advanced capabilities become more affordable and accessible to potential adversaries. This importance is further heightened since the development of weapon systems generally requires a significant amount of time and effort. The Army faces the challenge of how best—in a fiscally constrained environment—to enhance the capabilities of the current force while sustaining those capabilities for the future force. As a result, the Army is simultaneously pursuing near-, mid- and far-term strategies to develop and maintain these capabilities.

First, the Army is pursuing an innovation strategy—leveraging on-hand and mature technologies—to enable its units to maintain technical overmatch for the near term (the next two to three years). Second, the Army is pursuing product improvement programs (PIPs)—upgrades that enhance the operational capacity of a platform in relation to its effectiveness, efficiency or reliability—to maintain technical overmatch in the mid-term (from three to eight or nine years out). Third, the Army is pursuing an invention strategy—leveraging emerging, leap-ahead technologies—to counter future threats even before they materialize and ensure overmatch for the far term (beyond ten years from now). This paper argues that the Army’s multiphase strategy to concurrently pursue innovation, product improvement and invention best positions it to remain the world’s most advanced ground force today and in the future.