Document created: 15 June 05
Air & Space Power Journal - Español  Segundo Trimestre 2005

Military Innovation in Times of Conflict--Is It Too Risky?

Major Michael McNerney, USAF

"Building a 21st century military will require more than new weapons. It will also require a renewed spirit of innovation in our officer corps. We cannot transform our military using old weapons and old plans. Nor can we do it with an old bureaucratic mind set that frustrates the creativity and entrepreneurship that a 21st century military will need."

President George W. Bush
Graduation Address
U.S. Naval Academy, May 25, 2001

The issue of innovation within the U.S. military has received much attention in recent years. The emergence of both state and non-state terrorist threats has redefined U.S. national security priorities and suggests a requirement for similar changes within the military organizations charged with their defense. The application, magnitude, and pace of these proposed changes differ amongst the political leaders, military leaders, and scholars concerned with the issue. This paper addresses whether military innovation during times of conflict can, or even should, be pursued. The author begins by defining military innovation, and then evaluates contemporary arguments regarding its pursuit. Following this, the paper defines the preconditions that have been correlated with occurrences of military innovation. These preconditions are then tested against a case study that focuses on the Gran Chaco War. Finally, the author discusses the implications of the study for innovation in today’s military.

Military Innovation - Definitions

In some writings, the term military transformation and appears as a synonym of innovation. They are, however, distinctly different terms with unique meanings. Lt. Col. Christian Daehnick writes, "Transformation implies some significant changes in organizational culture, to include which skills are most valued by the organization, who gets promoted and ultimately who leads the organization, and even the image of the organization to itself into the outside world." John Kao, consultant to the Department of Defense’s Office of Force Transformation adds, "Vision defines the desired future and the vector of transformation, which is the bridge from today to the desired future. Innovation is the engine that drives transformation. Creativity is the fuel for innovation." Harvard Professor Stephen Rosen defines a major innovation as,

[A] change in one of the primary combat arms of service in the way it fights or alternatively, as the creation of a new combat arm. ... [It] involves a change in the concepts of operation ... that is, the ideas governing the ways it used its forces to win a campaign, ... [and] a change in the relation of that combat arm to other combat arms and a down-grading or abandoning of older concepts of operation and possibly of a formerly dominant weapon.

A 1999 RAND study alternatively defines military innovation as follows:

For a specific military, innovation is manifested by the development of new warfighting concepts and / or new means of integrating technology. New means of integrating technology might include revised doctrine, tactics, training, or support.

Authors of both definitions agree that military and technological innovations are not identical. Military innovation may employ new means of technology, or utilize old technology in a unique manner that effectively counters an adversary’s strategy. In fact, technological innovation can arguably impede military innovation. For example, the advent of the nuclear age brought about a policy of "massive retaliation" and theories of war in the atomic age that effectively stagnated military innovation. This was particularly evident with regard to the Army, as evidenced by military strategist Bernard Brodie’s 1946 statement, "From now on its [our army’s] chief purpose must be to avert them [wars]. It can have almost no other useful purpose." The Air Force did create technical innovations during this period in terms of delivery systems, but the dominance of Strategic Air Command and the nuclear option prevailed over any progress in joint AirLand doctrine.

Based on these considerations, this paper defines military innovation as newly applied doctrinal, organizational, or technological change that has a definitive impact on combat effectiveness. It is a necessary, but potentially not a sufficient facet of transformation. Evaluating whether a nation’s military force can effectively innovate during protracted periods of limited conflict may be critical for success in regional conflicts.

Arguments Against Innovation in Times of Conflict

While there are valid arguments against major innovation within military organizations, there are equally compelling counterarguments. Many agree that the U.S. is facing an arduous struggle in the war on terror, but differ on how to approach it. For some, such as followers of Arthur C. Clarke, attempting to effect military innovation while involved in a conflict is a foolish risk. They argue that military innovation requires significant resources and manpower that should be applied towards winning the war. However, not pursuing military innovation can carry equal risks. The changes presented by the information age and the evolving enemy threats suggest that innovation might not only be desired, but also required. Military reorganization, joint basing, realistic joint exercises and professional military educational reforms are some examples of initiatives that may facilitate military innovation. These ideas are difficult to implement because of the incredible effort required to get them started, but long-term dividends should outweigh the initial expenditures. The concept would facilitate better joint doctrine development, technical and logistical compatibility, and increased combat flexibility.

Opponents of military innovation during conflict also challenge that major innovations may encourage aggression from rival nations. If the U.S. military innovates organizationally and doctrinally to create smaller mobile forces that replace the large conventional force, nations may seize the opportunity to build up their conventional forces to challenge us. Also, further functional innovations in terms of technology and weapons systems may encourage "late modernizers" to leapfrog ahead of the innovating nation’s capabilities. On the surface, these arguments have merit, but they require deeper analysis. While conventional minded foreign leaders may observe U.S. military innovation as a less formidable conventional threat, it would not necessarily be the case. One example of a potentially successful innovation would utilize small mobile units in ways that ensured the flexibility necessary to combat both low intensity and high intensity conflicts. While it may encourage an initial attempt of aggression, the resilient combat effectiveness of these forces across the spectrum of conflicts would ensure that other nations refrain from belligerent acts. As far as the late modernizer argument, the U.S. already leads the world in technological advances. Therefore, the danger of other nations leapfrogging ahead of U.S. capabilities based on its own technologies already exists. Moving ahead incrementally now would only allow adversaries, who choose to leapfrog on U.S. capabilities, to gain a larger advantage in the future.

An added case in opposition to military innovation suggests that the changes will make operations with coalition partners more difficult due to an "innovation gap." While the arguments focus on technological innovation, organizational and doctrinal issues are just as contentious. Unfortunately, the politics of coalition operations can be just as detrimental to combat operations as inter-service parochialism. While one cannot discount the need for international assistance in the war on terror, the need to have each country represented on the battlefield for the sake of involvement is counterproductive. Instead of approaching coalition building with a "liberal internationalist" approach, the focus should be on the integration of intelligence and law-enforcement capabilities of international allies. The argument that a nation’s military should restrain innovation for the sake of effective coalition combat operations is not sufficient to warrant serious consideration.

The need for U.S. military innovation seems clear. One area not sufficiently discussed is sustaining military innovation. If a nation commits the resources toward military innovation in terms of organization, doctrine, and function, it must ensure that the pursuit of continued innovation endures. In attempting to do so, it must also be careful not to institutionalize the concept of innovation. Historian Williamson Murray sums up this point in when he states, "The bureaucratization of innovation – particularly in the current framework of the U.S. military – guarantees its death." This is been clearly true in the past efforts of the military to institutionalize such innovations, such as the U.S. Air Force’s failed attempt in its Quality Air Force program. As noted by that service’s Chief of Staff, "We once had a quality Air Force that was ruined by a concept known as Quality Air Force." Therefore, the military should instead create an environment that fosters innovation and allow the crafting of vision to occur both from the bottom-up and top-down simultaneously.

Preconditions for Military Innovation

Attempting to define a checklist for what will lead to innovation is not a realistic endeavor. Rosen offers:

Much of the problem with social scientific studies of bureaucratic innovation has been that as one study found a factor that seemed to be associated with innovation, another would find evidence of innovation when that factor was absent, or even when the opposite of that factor was present.

History has, however, produced some common indicators associated with whether or not a nation achieves military innovation. In Rosen’s evaluation, he states,

Wartime innovation can proceed from wartime learning, but learning that goes beyond improvements in the application of existing organizational routines involves the development of a new measure of strategic effectiveness. The military has to learn what to learn about, and how to learn. If pursuit of the old performance goals only makes the problem worse, then a new strategic goal has to be defined.

Doctors Jeffrey A. Isaacson, Christopher Layne, and John Arquilla propose that several factors may be suggestive of military innovation. They call these high external threat, revisionist aims, relative resource constraints, societal cohesion, past failure, product champions, and career paths. Since these factors were garnered from evaluating societal, organizational, and structural realist approaches, this paper will simplify the categories into external factors and internal factors and derive slightly different dynamics from historical examples. Internal factors refer to institutional characteristics within a military organization, while external factors include domestic and global influences that affect the organization.

External Factors

The presence of a significant external threat appears in many past cases of military innovation. This has been illustrated in both war and peacetime environments and in cases where the nation has suffered recent defeat or victory. These factors, therefore, do not appear as important as the existence of a perceived threat. Examples of innovation in light of an external threat include: German stormtroop tactics during World War I, American aircraft carrier deployment in the interwar period, and Paraguayan implementation of decentralized maneuver warfare in the Chaco War from 1931-1935. In each of these cases, the military organizations radically changed portions of their doctrine, organizations, and functional tasks to create more effective fighting forces.

The simple existence of the perceived threat, however, is not sufficient to guarantee that innovation will occur. Leaders must also have a thorough understanding of the threat and the boundaries of the battlespace they are operating in. Without this knowledge, innovation may be misdirected or non-existent. The Confederate Army’s reliance on offensive doctrine during the American Civil War, the German decision to forgo submarine development during the interwar period, and the continued conventional operations of General Fulgencio Batista’s army against Fidel Castro’s insurrection in Cuba exemplify this point.

Domestic and international politics can also affect the military’s capability to innovate. Since the civilian leadership ultimately determines the national objectives in conflict, their influences can shape military organizations. These leaders are themselves influenced by popular opinion, international pressures, and their own experiences. President Abraham Lincoln provided a positive example of innovational influence with his notion of exploiting exterior lines through the use of rail and telegraph. Political influences can also have negative effects on innovation. The corruption and inefficiency of General Romeo Lucas Garcia’s regime in Guatemala severely impeded the ability of his military to develop effective counterinsurgency efforts prior to 1982.

Internal Factors

The institutional aspects internal to a military organization are historically greater influences on military innovation than the external factors. In environments where military leadership fostered decentralization and creative thought, innovation was more prevalent than in highly centralized, traditional environments. Encouraging innovate thought, however, is not enough. The recruitment and promotion of junior officers (and non-commissioned officers) who possess organizational and developmental skills is also necessary. Two contrasting examples of this include Germany and Great Britain’s militaries during the interwar period. The German leadership was very receptive to new thinking by its junior officers and allowed them the freedom to create and employ new doctrine. The British military, however, remained institutionalized and squelched innovations with regard to mechanized warfare. Field Marshall Alan Brooke even ensured that any officer who served with proponents of armored innovation was kept from leading combat units at the division level or above.

Education is vital to ensure that the military organization can exploit the innovative atmosphere cultivated by their leadership. Programs should be in place to provide cutting-edge technical, organizational, and doctrinal training to a military soldier throughout his or her career. Critical and careful analyses of historical cases should be integrated with the cutting edge material. Occasionally, old technology or means of warfare can be synthesized with current resources to provide innovative approaches to warfare. Most importantly, however, is that the program must remain dynamic. If the education programs become institutionalized, they will create a stagnation of progressive thought within the military and cause more damage than benefit.

Inter-service cooperation has also been critical to military innovation. While competition and debate can foster innovative thinking, bureaucratic parochialism can damage progress even more. The German Army and Air Force’s development of close air support in blitzkrieg tactics of World War II presents a great example of how combining critical analysis with cooperative attitudes can lead to positive innovation. Contrary to this, the British example of inter-service rivalry between the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy stalled aircraft carrier innovation shortly after its inception. This rivalry also impeded innovations in torpedo bombing and dive-bombing, all of which limited Britain’s overall combat effectiveness.

The following sections will compare these factors in the Bolivian/Paraguayan Chaco War to illustrate how these factors did or did not specifically contribute to Paraguayan innovation during the conflict. Then, comparisons with current issues will be discussed to suggest that the U.S. military can apply some of these lessons needed to ensure successful innovation.

The Great Chaco War (1928-1935)


The Chaco War largely took place in a region known as the Chaco Boreal, a 250,000 square mile semi-desert area in the tri-border region between Paraguay, Bolivia, and Argentina (see figure 1). Under Spanish colonial rule, it was under Bolivian viceroyalty. The Bolivian people had very little use for the land, and did not live in or exploit any of the spare resources within the region. The Paraguayans, on the other hand, had settled portions of the region to raise cattle and begin a tannin industry. Spanish rule collapsed in 1810, and for many decades there was little dispute over the forbidding region.

Figure 1. The Great Chaco Region

Beginning in 1852 diplomatic maneuvering began for internationally recognized claims to the region. These negotiations continued half-heartedly until the early 1920s, when Bolivian and Paraguayan expansion into the Chaco region began to elevate tensions. The settlement effort included a military presence and the establishment of fortines (outposts made up of huts and garrisoned by a small number of soldiers). In February 1927, a Paraguayan encroachment near a Bolivian fortin resulted in the first bloodshed during the prelude to the Chaco War. Numerous small skirmishes continued throughout the next five years as diplomatic and military "cat and mouse" games continued. In July 1932, both countries’ forces closed on a key water source at Lake Pitiantua. Conflicting reports abound as to who was responsible for initiating combat operations in this area. Investigations following the Chaco peace conference, however, indicate that the Bolivian military was the aggressor. Shortly after the Paraguayans recaptured their fortin on Lake Pitiantua, both nations mobilized for war. The Paraguayans, under Lt. Col. Jose Felix Estigarribia, took the offensive early with an attack on the Boqueron fortin. After a siege of thirty-one days, Paraguay took the fortin. The losses to both sides were quite significant, with Paraguay suffering 1513 casualties, and Bolivia losing over 2000 (to include those taken prisoner). The battle itself was not decided by force, but rather by the Bolivian’s depletion of their water supply and ammunition.

Comparing the Combatants:
An Apparent Imbalance of Power







Mobilized manpower












Stokes-Brandt mortars



Table 1. Balance of Power (From Isaacson, et al., 1999)


Following this battle, Estigarribia realized that his smaller forces would be unable to succeed if he continued to wage head-on offensive battles against the larger Bolivian forces. Table 1 illustrates the disparate balance of power between the forces. Estigarribia, therefore, decided to abandon the "defense dominance" lessons of World War I, and instead employed small decentralized forces. These forces effectively used 81 millimeter Stokes-Brandt mortars and maneuver warfare while avoiding heavily fortified fortines to destroy key portions of the Bolivian logistical lines.


Table 1. Balance of Power (From Isaacson, et al., 1999)

Estigarribia also understood the limitations and advantages of Paraguayan airpower. He worked closely with Paraguay’s air group commander, Lt. Col. Alcides Almonacid to maximize the support that the air forces could provide to the war. In one instance, Estigarribia had Almonacid mobilize the entire air fleet to deliver ammunition onto an improvised airstrip at Nanawa, allowing ground troops to hold their position. In another instance, the naval air forces dropped 800 pounds of bombs on Bolivian fortines during the first night time bombing campaign in the Western Hemisphere.

In the end, the Paraguayan military almost pushed the Bolivian forces completely out of the Gran Chaco. The war ended with a cease-fire on June 12, 1935. This was followed by a full truce in 1938 that granted Paraguay three-quarters of the Chaco Boreal region and denied Bolivia the waterway to the Atlantic Ocean it had hoped to gain.

Paraguayan Preconditions for Innovation

Internal – The Paraguayan military placed a strong emphasis on education for their officer corps. A majority of officers also attended staff colleges abroad in locations such as Italy, Belgium, Argentina, and France (where Estigarribia himself studied). This made the Paraguayans better informed and more widely read than their Bolivian adversaries, who rarely pursued any education following their commission. The Paraguayan military also recruited soldiers who were professional and creative, forming them into cohesive units by balancing their strengths and weaknesses. The Bolivians, on the other hand, heavily recruited Indian peasants and miners, and created ad hoc units. Estigarribia encouraged innovative ideas from his troops and was able to decentralize operations to the commanders of his small units dispersed throughout the Chaco. This allowed the Paraguayan army to operate far more effectively than their counterparts who suffered under the strict, centralized management of General Hans Kundt. Finally, Estigarribia’s ability to overcome Army and Air Force parochialism allowed for integrated and innovative contributions to Paraguay’s success. Unlike the Bolivian leadership, he trusted his air force’s reconnaissance reports, allowing him to have better battlespace awareness.

External – Bolivia definitely posed a significant threat to the Paraguay. The War of the Triple Alliance still affected Paraguay due to the costly reparations and enormous loss of the male population. Bolivia’s apparent military and economic advantages, coupled with their expansionism, made this a fight for Paraguayan survival. Paraguay, however, had much better knowledge of the battlespace, even before employing their airpower. They had already settled much of the Great Chaco and had excellent intelligence and maps of the area. The Bolivians, on the other hand, did not have a single document on the area until August of 1931. The Paraguayans also increased their battlespace knowledge through careful study of their adversary, especially the Bolivian transportation network and troop dispositions. The Bolivians made no such effort. Perhaps the most important element of success was that Estigarribia had the complete trust of the political leaders of Paraguay, and was granted autonomous authority, even to the point of ignoring basic army doctrine. The Bolivian Army and government, on the other hand, squabbled amongst themselves incessantly.

While this case study does not make a definite causal relation between the preconditions and actual innovation, it does present a compelling correlation. This correlation should create discussion and encourage further investigation into how military forces could benefit from setting these preconditions in the current global environment.

Contemporary Implications

Making a direct comparison between the current war on terror and the Chaco war is implausible. The broad characteristics of conflicts with sub-state actors and those between two nation-states have many differences. Within the current U.S. military, however, the need for innovation seems to be necessary, and suggesting the application of the preconditions may have some merit. The rapidly evolving technologies and threats facing the U.S. insist that the Cold-War era military structure is no longer suitable for national security. The threat to the U.S. from proliferation of weapons of mass-destruction, state and non-state sponsored terrorist organizations, and rogue political powers such as North Korea demand maximum flexibility and effectiveness of our military. The stakes are now higher than ever before because we are not simply concerned with European, East Asian, or Central Asian stability, but with the security of our homeland. In his address to the nation on May 24, 2004, President Bush called Iraq the "central front in the war on terror." If this is the case, the consequences of loss on this front will be quite substantial.

There are several ways the U.S. can achieve the preconditions for innovation necessary to meet these new challenges. The first is expanding the education opportunities for officers and non-commissioned officers alike. These opportunities should include varied institutions throughout the globe and not be limited to the institutionalized professional military education programs currently offered. With regards to decentralization there is positive progress within the U.S. military. Using small, dispersed teams to combine the capabilities of standoff weapons with those of close-in forces has maximized the efficiency of our military firepower and human capabilities. However, these forces are still operating under a hierarchical headquarters that tightly controls the soldier’s freedom of movement. Shifting from this centralized control toward a "top-sight" function in order to provide deconfliction and intelligence to combatants will enhance innovation. The U.S. also needs to eliminate the parochial nature still present within individual services. Eliminating disproportionate service representation in joint agencies and creating service regulations that actually match joint regulation is one way to attain this.

The U.S. has improved its battlespace knowledge, but is over-reliant on technological measures to do so. The asymmetric threat forces that can effectively hide in the urban areas effectively counter these technological measures. More investment in human intelligence, informal network exploitation, and surrogate recruitment will expand the awareness of the battlespace characterized by insurgents and sub-state actors. The U.S. military must also gain the trust and support of the political leadership they fall under. The current administration is a making a diligent effort to foster military innovation; one example is the appointment of an Army Chief of Staff who wasn’t part of the normal succession of command and returned to service from retirement. However, similar to John F. Kennedy’s transformation attempts of the 1960s, today’s efforts have also alienated some military leaders who realize that political administrations are quickly replaced and simply need to be "waited out." With the international and domestic popular support for the current administration waning, this appears a possible course of action for those who wish to maintain the institutional conservatism of the U.S. military.

The final measure to achieve preconditions for innovation is to suffer another devastating attack against the U.S. homeland. This would remind the nation that a significant external threat still exists. The problem is that the response will be reactive and not proactive. Any innovation attempted at this phase will likely be hurried and not thoroughly considered. The best chance for success is to convince senior political and military leadership of the requirement to innovate in response to the new asymmetric threat now, while we still have the initiative.

Overall, the prognosis for U.S. military innovation today appears questionable, but it is not impossible. Overcoming the existing bureaucratic inertia will require a great deal of effort on the part of military innovation proponents. The Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal has also further eroded political and social trust that the military needs to innovate. Public relations efforts to regain that trust are already ongoing and must persist. Also, larger numbers of mid-level officers and enlisted personnel are better educated and genuinely interested in military innovation. The improvements in officer and non-commissioned officer promotions may offer hope that professional, educated and innovative leaders continue to rise in rank and allow the military to prevail in the current struggle.


1. Christian C. Daehnick, Through a Glass Darkly, Innovation and Transformation in the Twenty-First Century Air Force, (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University, April 2001), 13.

2. John Kao, "Innovation, From Getting It to Getting It Done," Briefing to the OFT/IDA conference, 22 October 2003; Available from; Internet; accessed 23 May 2004.

3. Stephen P. Rosen, Winning the Next War, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991), 7-8.

4. Jeffrey Isaacson, Christopher Layne, and John Arquilla, Predicting Military Innovation, (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1999), 8.

5. Ibid, 8. and Rosen, 8.

6. Bernard Brodie, ed., The Absolute Weapon, (New York: Harcourt, Brace, & Co., 1946), 33.

7. Arthur C. Clarke, Superiority, (New York: Scott Meredith Literary Agency Inc., 1951).

8. John Arquilla and David Rondfeldt, Swarming and the Future of Conflict, (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2000), 1-23.

9. Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett, eds., Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 326.

10. General John P. Jumper, Speech to the SNCO Academy, (Maxwell AFB, AL: 27 June, 2001), available from; Internet, accessed 2 June, 2004.

11. Rosen, 3.

Ibid, 181.

12. Bruce I. Gudmundsson, Stormtroop Tactics: Innovation in the German Army, 1914-1918, (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995), 91-105.

13. Isaacson, et al., 46-47

14. David Donald, ed., Why the North Won the Civil War, (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1960), 46-48.

15. Murray and Millett, 231-241.

16. Ramon L. Bonachea and Marta San Martin, The Cuban Insurrection, (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1995), 226-260.

17. Donald, 54.

18. Georges, Fauriol, ed., Latin American Insurgencies, (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1984), 103-106.

19. Ibid, 27-29, and 350-352.

20. Ibid, 144-163

21. Ibid, 149-152, and 197-203.

22. Robert Craig Johnson, "The Gran Chaco War: Fighting for Mirages in the Foothills of the Andes," Chandelle, December 1996 [journal online]; available from; Internet, accessed 23 May, 2004.

23. David H. Zook, Jr., The Conduct of the Chaco War, (New Haven, CT: Bookman Associates, 1960), 

24. Leslie B. Rout, Jr., Politics of the Chaco Peace Conference 1935-1939, (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press), 219-221.

25. Zook, 101-102.

26. Bruce W. Farcau, The Chaco War: Bolivia and Paraguay, 1932-1935, (Westport, CT: Praeger), 37-63.

27. Isaacson, et al., 46-47.

28. James S. Corum, "Airpower in the Chaco War," The Latin American Aviation Historical Society [journal online]; available from; Internet, accessed 25 May, 2004.

29. Ryan Lindsay, "The Chaco War," The Inventory of Conflict & Environment [journal online]; available from; Internet, accessed 25 May, 2004.

30. Farcau, 25.

31. Ibid, 34-43.

32. Ibid, 123-143.

33. Ibid, 23-24.

34. Ibid, 26, 42.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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