Innovation, especially in peacetime, is a sticky problem for military professionals and scholars. There is a common misperception that most militaries most of the time are hidebound organizations that hold on to well-loved weapons, tactics, and modes of thought long after their expiration date. Nicholas Katzenbach’s brilliant study, “The Horse Cavalry in the Twentieth Century,” for instance, paints a compelling picture of a group of soldiers who would rather be shot off their horses than abandon their mounts in battle.[i]
Others have noted that militaries are rather busy in peacetime, experimenting with all types of new technology, “weaponizing” various science projects by integrating them into force structures.[ii] Carrier aviation, after all, did not miraculously spring into existence with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941; instead, it was the product of a thirty-year long process of experimentation and development.[iii] Nevertheless, as Colin Gray notes, there is no way that militaries can avoid the fundamental problem posed by innovation: “The challenge in peacetime is to guess just how well or poorly novel ideas on tactics and new equipment, and their meaning for operations, will perform in the only test that counts – on the battlefield.”[iv] Only combat itself can provide an answer to what constitutes successful innovation.
“Disruptive innovation” is a concept that can produce hope or fear in the minds of strategists and force developers. Disruptive innovation is a novelty that fundamentally changes established battlefield relationships, force structures, and the very character of war itself, creating a war-winning advantage in a future conflict. In American military parlance and practice, the search for this so-called “silver bullet” focuses on the weaponization of new technologies that can provide a war-winning capability that cannot be countered, or at least cannot be countered quickly enough, in battle by an opponent.[v] From this perspective, disruptive innovation is a source of hope, providing a techno-strategic theory of victory, or as Hilaire Belloc put it, “Whatever happens, we have got the Maxim, and they have not.”[vi]
Disruptive innovation, however, can also strike fear in the hearts of observers when it appears that the opponent is about to field its own silver bullet, stealing a march on our efforts. The recent commotion created within Western air and missile defense organizations about Russian and Chinese deployment of hypersonic weapons is a case in point.[vii]
This article offers a strategist’s guide to the concept of disruptive innovation by describing four ways it is depicted by contemporary observers: The Silver Bullet, Diffuse Disruption, the Revolution in Military Affairs, and Acceleration. This brief survey explores how these concepts draw on different ideas about the sources of disruption, different visions of the scope and nature of disruption, and suggest different prescriptions about how militaries might go about gaining the benefits and avoiding the costs of disruptive innovation. Strategists need to be aware – different phenomena are often captured by the term “disruptive innovation.”
The Silver Bullet
When observers consider disruptive innovation, they often focus on a new type of technology or weapon that provides a significant advantage in battle. These silver bullets come in several varieties. Many innovations are modest, unfold at the tactical level of war, and often prove to be only temporarily effective as opponents usually come up with countermeasures in short order. The simplest of innovations, however, can still have highly disruptive consequences. The Japanese modification of their aerial torpedoes to operate in the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor was something that the U.S. Navy did not anticipate, while it also emboldened Japanese planners to attack the U.S. Pacific Fleet at anchor.[viii] It is hard to imagine how a few wooden fins jury rigged to a torpedo could have a more disruptive impact on the course of history.
The German introduction of jet aircraft, cruise missiles (V-1), and medium range ballistic missiles (V-2) towards the end of World War II also had real “silver bullet” potential. Nevertheless, there were too few jet aircraft available to have much impact on the Allied air armada and the V-1 and V-2 required more potent (chemical? biological?) warheads to produce game changing political effects. This steady stream of profound technological innovation, however, did create real concerns in Washington, London, and Los Alamos that sooner or later the Germans would get around to developing that more potent payload (i.e., a nuclear weapon).[ix]
Silver bullets also can generate game changing effects at the operational level of war, which can produce enduring consequences for military organizations. Following the Battle of Midway in June 1942, the U.S. Navy terminated its battleship program, capping battleship procurement to the four Missouri-class battleships under construction and canceling the planned Montana-class battleship.[x] The aircraft carrier had become the new capital ship, aircraft had become the primary weapon at sea, and the rise of naval aviation ended the dominance of the “gun-club,” the battleship admirals who ran the U.S. Navy. When disruptive innovation produces operational level effects, it is likely to also produce organizational consequences, upsetting bureaucratic pecking orders, career paths, and acquisition cycles. It is still too early to tell if the previously mentioned development of hypersonic bodies will produce disruption at a tactical or operational level of war, but their operational impact will shape their place in the annals of disruptive innovation. Ironically, “silver bullets” might be most lethal against the dominant weapons and organizations of the actors that deploy them, leading to a “Dreadnought effect”.[xi]
Today, everything from autonomous vehicles to artificial intelligence, to 5G networks, to quantum computing, to genetic engineering is identified as a potential silver bullet, disruptive innovations that will provide a war winning capability. The techno optimists who champion these innovations might in fact be correct, but there really is no way to be certain until these technologies are weaponized and tested in battle. Gray was a skeptic when it came to sightings of silver bullets that always seemed to be just over the technological horizon: “Time and again, during the past century excited advocates of military novelty have expressed unwonted faith in the ability of their favorite new ‘toys’ to upset the applecart of established strategic truth. To date, with the possible striking exception of nuclear weapons, such claims have been neither verified nor even found persuasive for very long.”[xii] The silver bullet record is indeed mixed, but it remains a common way of thinking about disruptive innovation
The idea of disruptive innovation had its origins within corporate board rooms and business schools, not among military professionals or academics specializing in the study of war, peace, and international politics. The reason why these more commercially minded individuals gained this insight before their more military minded colleagues can probably be tied to a bias on the part of those who embraced traditional notions of strategy. For scholars of war and peace, the essence of strategy, war and politics is generally thought to be unchanging despite the myriad of contexts in which it unfolds. As one anonymous reviewer remarked, disruptive innovation might change the character of war, but it does not change the nature of war. That is, if we are to remain true to its Clausewitzian essence, war will forever remain an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will despite disruptive, or more mundane, innovation.
Business school professors and corporate executives suffer from no such bias. While the concept of a market – the convergence of buyers and sellers – remains constant, the existence and character of that market can be rather ephemeral. After all, a tulip bulb that costs a king’s ransom to purchase might only fetch a penny when sold.[xiii] Markets can literally be here one day and gone the next, which is sort of akin to saying that war at sea might be here today and gone tomorrow. Diffuse disruption – the change of the ecosystem in which a market and business reside – might be a good way to capture the sometimes-prompt disruption caused by market transformation and collapse.
What happened to the filmmaker Kodak is probably the best-known example of diffuse disruption followed by disruptive innovation, although the history of Blockbuster (video rentals) and Nokia (flip phones) are often referenced in this regard. Most people associate Kodak with photography because its film dominated global markets for decades, but the firm’s executives saw themselves primarily as a chemical company, that is, their primary purpose was to sell the chemicals used to develop the film they sold. They also worked in a highly complex “commercial ecosystem” where film sales and services were sold in a variety of venues (gas stations, camera stores, supermarkets, drug stores, etc.). Kodak did not directly sell film to consumers; other retailers sold their product. Kodak was well adapted to this complex commercial ecosystem, which was not particularly friendly to competitors.
Kodak executives were not caught unaware by the development of digital photography – a Kodak engineer invented the first digital camera in 1975. In fact, executives at Kodak developed accurate estimates of how long it would take digital photography to take hold and the technological hurdles that would have to be overcome before affordable digital cameras made it into the hands of consumers. Nevertheless, they consciously ignored digital photography because they believed Kodak, as a chemical company, had no role to play in the digital revolution.[xiv] By the turn of the century, Kodak’s commercial ecosystem was collapsing. Other firms, which were not handicapped by Kodak’s success and penchant for chemicals, embraced this diffuse disruption in the techno-commercial ecosystem. Disruptive innovation followed as digital cameras replaced film photography. Within a few short years, Kodak was no longer synonymous with corporate success, but was instead associated with corporate folly and myopia.[xv]
Kodak and the other firms that have fallen victim to diffuse disruption in their product ecosystems provide narratives to illustrate the darker aspects of disruptive innovation. No matter how successful, there is no guarantee that weapons, doctrine, or organizations might be rendered completely obsolete and superfluous by diffuse disruption, changes that are beyond the control of any country or military. There is also no guarantee that militaries that are currently dominant will embrace disruptive innovation, leaving it to newcomers to seize first mover advantages to weaponize new technology. Success today is no guarantee of success tomorrow. Or, as Robert Jervis often observed, “nothing fails like success.”
The lesson from the Kodak experience is that organizations that enjoy success and mastery of their operational ecosystem will lack the corporate willingness and organizational ability to respond to diffuse change by engaging in disruptive innovation. Like Kodak, these organizations will see possibility of diffuse change on the horizon. There are ways to see these sorts of changes in the offing: The Gartner Hype Cycle tracks new technologies from the peak of expectations through the trough of disillusionment to either a plateau of actual performance to something truly disruptive.[xvi]
Revolution in Military Affairs
The origins of the concept – Revolution in Military Affairs – can be found in Soviet military writing about U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) programs intended to deter a Warsaw Pact attack or to defeat Soviet tank armies if they crossed the inner-German border. By the late 1970s, the Western allies were hard at work developing long-range weapons and the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance complexes needed to conduct distant attacks against staging areas, command and control nodes, and logistical systems deep behind the forward edge of the battle area (FEBA).[xvii] Programs such as NATO’s Follow-On Forces Attack, the U.S. Assault Breaker and new types of doctrine (the U.S. Airland Battle Doctrine) were intended to cripple the ability of Soviet tank armies to conduct combined arms operations (that is to coordinate air, armor, infantry, artillery and air operations) by damaging their command and control, curtailing their logistics and preventing the coordinated flow of Soviet forces to the FEBA.[xviii] Think about stalled Russian tank columns on the road to Kiev in February 2022, only this time with A-10s actually in the air.
This new long-range precision strike capability and doctrine had its operational debut soon after the end of the Cold War in Operation Desert Storm, the coalition effort to eject Iraqi occupation forces from Kuwait. Following the rapid coalition victory in 1991, Russian observers noted that “integration of control, communication, reconnaissance, electronic combat, and delivery of conventional fires into a single whole was realized for the first time.”[xix] For Russian strategists, a Military-Technical-Revolution was occurring, an assessment that was seconded in work undertaken by the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment. In a 1992 analysis organized by Office Director Andrew Marshall, Andrew Krepinevich asserted that a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) was underway, a revolution that reflected new weapons, a new way of operating and a fundamental transformation of war. The analyses produced by Marshall’s office led to a lively debate as scholars advanced competing definitions and different assessments of the impact of the RMA.[xx] Krepinevich observed that future wars between major powers would be “increasingly dominated by the application of force at extended ranges to exploit the advantages of information dominance,” and that reconnaissance-strike complexes would become common.[xxi]
Today, RMAs are said to occur when a new weapon, a new organization and a new way of war coalesce to create a disruptive change in the conduct and character of war itself.[xxii] As such, RMAs now appear to be relatively rare in the annals of military history. Nuclear weapons, the creation of the U.S. Air Force, and the even more specialized U.S. Strategic Air Command, and the shift from warfighting to deterrence as the primary mission of militaries in the nuclear age is generally agreed to constitute an RvMA. Other potential RMA candidates include the rise of carrier aviation, the mechanization of land warfare beginning in the interwar period through the Second World War, the emergence of Maoist People’s War and the previously mentioned reconnaissance-strike complex introduced by the United States during the First Gulf War, although some have argued that the latter’s revolutionary nature might be in the eye of the beholder.[xxiii] Nevertheless, the RMA concept is a well-known, albeit rarely occurring, type of disruptive innovation.
In 1965, Gordon Moore – one of the founders of Intel Corporation – suggested that for the near future, the number of transistors in an integrated circuit would double every two years.[xxiv] While this growth in computational power has recently begun to slow, the effects of “Moore’s law” are now beginning to have an exponential impact in a host of scientific, technological, and commercial applications, leading to a situation known as “more than Moore.”[xxv] These cascades of new technologies, applications, and operations often interact with effects produced by climate change and political-social developments to produce abrupt discontinuities that effect individuals, societies, and politics. Thomas Friedman calls this trifecta of change “acceleration,” a situation in which disruptive innovations, or diffuse disruption for that matter, occurs with such frequency that it overwhelms the ability of individuals, organizations, societies, or governments to cope.[xxvi] Acceleration suggests that disruption is occurring at ever shorter intervals; before we can adjust to the last disruption, we are beset by another.
The threat of acceleration has been recognized by the Pentagon. According to the former Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral John M. Richardson, USN, “The pace of competition has accelerated in many areas, achieving exponential and disruptive rates of change. As this pace drives yet more unpredictability, the future is becoming more uncertain . . .. We cannot become overwhelmed by the blistering pace.”[xxvii] The problem is that most governments and government agencies are completely overwhelmed by acceleration. It takes the U.S. Navy, for instance between a long-decade and thirty years to innovate, which amounts to an expensive way to guarantee future obsolescence. Change in the U.S. Navy, and most governments and government organizations, for that matter, is completely out paced by acceleration; the U.S. Navy can innovate and adapt, but it operates on “Navy-Time” — it takes decades for it to undertake fundamental innovations.[xxviii] Acceleration, is not solely about technology. It is about sociology and organizational behavior and our collective ability to adapt at a rate that keeps pace with the changes wrought by the information revolution. Individuals, organizations, governments, and societies are not winning this race.
Although Colin Gray recognized the importance of technology and technological innovation in war, he would always quickly point out that technology does not replace, nullify, or transcend strategy. It is not my intention here to differ with Gray’s judgment about the enduring relevance of strategy, although clearly the types of disruptive innovation presented in this essay all find their origins in some sort of scientific or technological innovation. The discussion thus tends to accentuate technology-led, high intensity warfare, which is largely the preserve of a small number of states.[xxix] Technology driven disruptive innovation, however, clearly creates new opportunities and dangers for strategists. The article also suggests that we are not lacking when it comes to innovation – we encounter several varieties of the phenomenon regularly and we are increasingly overwhelmed by waves of change. Strategists, then, must always be on the lookout for these varieties of disruptive innovation because they are usually accompanied by a failure of individuals, organizations, governments, or societies to adapt to change and to utilize the opportunities provided by innovation. The paradox here is that innovation creates heretofore non-existent capabilities, they are served to us on a silver platter; disruption occurs when most of us are unwilling or unable to seize those same opportunities.
[i] Nicholas L. Katzenbach, Jr., “The Horse Cavalry in the Twentieth Century: A Study on Policy Response,” in Robert J. Art and Kenneth N. Waltz (eds.) The Use of Force: International Politics and Foreign Policy (Boston: Little Brown and Co, 1971), pp. 277-297.
[ii] Stephen Peter Rosen, Winning the Next War: Innovation and the Modern Military (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991).
[iii] James J. Wirtz, “Innovation and Navy Time,” in Alessio Patalano and James A. Russell, Maritime Strategy and Naval Innovation: Technolo0gy, Bureaucracy, and the Problem of Change in an Age of Competition, (Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute, 2021),
[iv] Colin S. Gray, War, Peace and International Relations: An Introduction to Strategic History (London: Routledge, 2012), p. 19.
[v] Jeffrey E. Kline, James A. Russell, and James J. Wirtz, “The Navy’s Generational Challenge, Survival Vol. 64, No. 4, pp. 123-136.
[vi] Hilaire Belloc, The Modern Traveller (London: E. Arnold, 1898). N.p.
[vii] Justin Williamson and James J. Wirtz, “Hypersonic or just Hype” Assessing the Russian Hypersonic Weapons Program,” Comparative Strategy Vol. 40, Iss. 5, 2021, pp. 468-481; and Shannon Bugos, “China Showcases Hypersonic Weapon Near Taiwan, U.S. Tests,” Arms Control Association, September 2022. https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2022-09/news.china-shocases-hypersonic-weapon-near-taiwan-us-tests
[viii] Samuel Eliot Morison, The Two Ocean War (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1963), p. 73
[ix] Vince Houghton, The Nuclear Spies: America’s Atomic Intelligence Operation against Hitler and Stalin (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019); and James J. Wirtz, “America’s Atomic Spies,” International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence,” Vol. 33, Iss. 7 2020, pp. 618-621.
[x] James J. Wirtz, “Winning Left of Battle: The Role of Analysis,” Military Strategy Magazine, Vol 7, Iss. 4 2022, pp. 4-8.
[xi] When the British HMS Dreadnaught Navy became operational in 1906, it rendered all battleships in service in the world’s navies, including the British Navy, obsolete.
[xii] Colin S. Gray, The Future of Strategy (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2015), p. 22.
[xiii] John Kenneth Galbraith, A Short History of Financial Euphoria (New York: Penguin 1994),
[xiv] Chunka Mui, “How Kodak Failed,” Forbes January 18, 2012. https://www.forbes.com/sites/chunkamui/2012/01/18/how-kodak-failed/?sh=67bc64d66f27
[xv] Andrew Hudson, “The Rise & Fall of Kodak,” Photo Secrets, August 29, 2012. https://www.photosecrets.com/the-rise-and-fall-of-kodak
[xvi] George Strawn, “Open Science and the Hype Cycle,” Data Intelligence Vol. 3, No. 1 Winter 2021, pp. 88-94.
[xvii] Barry D. Watts, The Evolution of Precision Strike (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2013) https://csbaonline.org/uploads/documents/Evolution-of-Precision-Strike-final-V15.pdf
[xviii] U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, New Technologies for NATO: Implementing Follow-On Force Attack, OTA-ISC-309 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, June 1987); Robert Tomes, “The Cold War Offset Strategy: Assault Breaker and the Beginning of the RSTA Revolution,” War on the Rocks November 20, 2014, https://warontherocks.com/2014/11/the-cold-war-offset-strategy-assault-breaker-and-the-beginning-of-the-rsta-revolution/; Thomas G. Mahnken, Technology and the American Way of War (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), pp. 130-131;
[xix] Defense Intelligence Agency, “Soviet Analysis of Operation Desert Storm and Operation Desert Shield,” translation LN 006-92, October 29, 1981, p. 32.
[xx] Jeffrey Collins and Andrew Futter, Reassessing the Revolution in Military Affairs: Transformation, Evolution, and Lessons Learnt (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).
[xxi] Krepinevich quoted in Watts, p. 10.
[xxii] Eliot Cohen, “Technology and Warfare,” in John Baylis, James J. Wirtz, Colins S. Gray and Eliot Cohen (eds.) Strategy in the Contemporary World 2nd edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 141-160.
[xxiii] Dima Adamsky, The Culture of Military Innovation: The Impact of Cultural Factors on the Revolution in Military Affairs in Russia, the US and Israel (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010).
[xxiv] Gordon E. Moore, “Cramming More Components onto Integrated Circuits,” Electronics, Vol. 39, No. 8, April 1965, pp. 114-117
[xxv] Mike Gianfagna, “What is Moore’s Law,” Synopsys, 30 June 2021. https://www.synopsys.com/glossary/what-is-moores.law.html
[xxvi] Thomas L. Friedman, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Acceleration (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016).
[xxvii] John M. Richardson, A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority Version 2.0 December 2018, p. 4.
[xxviii] Wirtz, “Innovation and Navy Time.”
[xxix] Low-tech innovation also can occur. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s use of vehicle born suicide weapons on a conventional battlefield is a case in point see Ido Levy, Soldiers of End Times: Assessing the Military Effectiveness of the Islamic State (Washington, D.C.: The Washington Institute of Near East Policy, 2021).