Let's Stop Fighting the Last War

While generals are known for coming up with plans to win the last war--but not the next one--the Pentagon may offer a model for innovation. 

toy soldiers fighting

In roughly 2000, I sat next to a retired naval officer at a corporate dinner. When I asked him about his career, he ran through a number of positions, concluding, "I retired as commander of the Pacific fleet."

Oh. So he was a four-star admiral responsible for the U.S. Navy's presence on about a third of the world's surface? 

I asked around about him over the next couple of days of the conference and learned that his claim to fame in the Navy was that he had innovated within an environment that makes change hard and slow. When he was the commander of a carrier group, he saw the potential in all the advances in personal computers that had been happening in the '80s and '90s, but the processes for testing, procuring and incorporating them into the sailing of ships and the use of weapons were going to take years--so he bought all his officers a laptop and said, "Go for it." 

His bold move worked and jumpstarted a wave of innovation. A recent article about the lessons the U.S. military is taking from the war in Ukraine suggests that something similar is now afoot even more broadly at the Pentagon -- and that insurers could take to heart as they strive to innovate. 

As a student of military history, I could go on at great length about all the times the generals have been caught planning for the last war, not the next one. I won't. But I'll offer one example to illustrate: the poor French. 

They were routed in the Franco-Prussian War at the beginning of the 1870s and concluded that they should never have retreated, even after a lost battle. In the next war, they would always attack. But machines guns and barbed wire, supplemented by advancement in trench warfare, made attacks suicidal by the time World War I started. The French learned again and built the Maginot Line, a system of forts that would serve as anchors for trench warfare -- but tanks and powerful aircraft made trenches far less effective by the start of World War II, and Germany overran France within weeks.

But every once in a while the military gets a glimpse of the future that makes clear that fighting the last war won't cut it, and the war in Ukraine seems to be doing that for the U.S. armed forces. While the U.S. has continued to invest in the aircraft carriers that let it project power globally and in the tanks, artillery and aircraft that let it defeat Iraq and eventually quell ISIS, the war in Ukraine is a different animal entirely. It depends heavily on inexpensive drones, on satellite surveillance and on electronic measures and countermeasures. 

Multimillion-dollar tanks aren't so formidable when a $1,000 drone can appear out of nowhere and drop a bomb on top of one. Nor do massive ships have much defense against swarms of cheap, low-flying drones that can be dispatched from hundreds of miles away, as Russia has learned with its Black Sea fleet. "Secret" artillery placements and "secret" troop movements aren't so secret when the whole battlefield can be monitored by drones and satellites. 

So I was happy to see a recent article by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, "The Pentagon Is Learning How to Change at the Speed of War.

He writes that, despite some agitation for faster innovation, "an addiction is hard to quit — especially one that benefits so many congressional districts around the country. So the military sailed on, spending ever more money on vulnerable platforms that would probably survive only for minutes in a war with China."

But the lessons from Ukraine have been too blatant to ignore, so the innovators at the Pentagon are making headway on cheap drones that can act autonomously, in the face of electronic jamming by an enemy, Ignatius writes. 

The hero of his story, Kathleen Hicks, deputy secretary of defense, said in a speech in January that the “Replicator Initiative” had achieved in five months what ordinarily would take two to three years at the Pentagon. She told Ignatius that the key was "to leap over... the 'valley of death' — the long gap between development of prototype weapons and procurement and deployment at scale. 'Bureaucracies need to be shown that new ways of doing things are possible. That’s what we’re doing,' she messaged me."

The "valley of death" is actually an old, much-used term in innovation literature, but I think what Hicks and others are doing at the Pentagon can serve as inspiration for innovators in insurance, so I encourage you to read the whole article. 

She has the advantage that the war in Ukraine has shown dramatically that same-old, same-old won't work and that the stakes are so high. But she's also operating within an environment that is even more hidebound than insurance. 

There are plenty of areas in insurance that we all know could operate much better. We can keep focusing on incremental improvement, investing in those aircraft carriers and tanks, or we can take out a clean sheet of paper and imagine what the next "war" will look like.

The clean sheet approach is disruptive, but I think that quite a number of technologies are coming into focus -- AI, sensors, drones, cameras and more -- and that they could not only allow for breakthroughs in efficiency and customer experience but could enable a Predict & Prevent business model that moves beyond the industry's traditional repair-and-replace approach. We just have to put forth the effort and force ourselves to think out a few years, not just a few quarters. 

When I lived in Belgium in the 1980s, I visited any number of battlefields where the French would have won the last one but didn't win the war they were actually fighting. I vote for planning for the next war, not the last one.