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A Flock of Seagoing Easter Eggs: Four Reasons Why It Won't Happen

In Monday’s post, I argued that America should paint our warships headed to the Persian Gulf in rainbow patterns, à la Easter eggs. In short, disruptive camouflage would make Iranian asymmetric naval attacks harder to pull off. (Listen to this 99% Invisible podcast to understand the historical origins of “razzle dazzle” paint jobs.)

Of course, this will never happen. Not because it won’t work. No, innovative--neé disruptive?--ideas, like rainbow camouflage, die quick deaths in our risk-averse U.S. military establishment. In fact, the failure of innovative ideas like “razzle dazzle” combines several On Violence themes over the last few years.


1. The Pentagon/Military is inherently conservative.

Not in a political sense (though it is), but in a bureaucratic, traditionalist sense. I started my last post remarking that most armies prepare for the last war. In the U.S. Navy’s case, none of its current officers were even alive during the last true naval war. As I wrote here, I worry that our navy--filled with large, cumbersome but deadly aircraft carriers, battleships and frigates--might lose ships to Iranian small boats because warfare at sea evolved but our navy’s doctrine hasn’t. Even though small little changes like razzle dazzle camouflage could help, a conservative military won’t see the need for it until after the shooting starts.
As the 99% Invisible podcast described dazzle camouflage’s reception in World War I, “plenty of people who hated dazzle camouflage...traditional navy men mostly”. Not much has changed.

2. In the military, looks matter.

Consider this the triumph of style over substance. I’ve written about this explicitly here (about uniforms and “looking good”) and here (the obsession with shined boots).

So even if dazzle paint jobs saved lives, some Navy officers would ape their predecessors and object on the grounds that it would make their ships look silly.
3. Even if a bold admiral found the courage to adopt “razzle dazzle” it would pay [fill in over-priced defense contractor here] way too much to do it.

Wouldn’t Lockheed-Martin, General Dynamics or Northrop-Grumman compete to earn the contract, but conveniently find ways to keep the minimum paint job price over a 100 million dollars? And then wouldn’t the price keep inflating as they failed to meet the time requirements, which they already charged extra for? And wouldn’t the Pentagon insist on testing every possible variety of paint in every condition, then demand more tests?

In the end, the Pentagon can’t afford to be entrepreneurial.

4. All of the entrepreneurial officers have already left the Pentagon.

I wrote about this in “Why I Got Out: That’s Just the Way It Is”. But I am just one officer who got out expressing his displeasure. An outgoing Marine lieutenant on Thomas Ricks’ blog summed it up, “I’m leaving the corps because it doesn’t much value ideas”. This other Rick’s post has a great summation of all the articles bemoaning the intellectual state of our officer corps. And Tim Kane has an entire book on the topic that just came out.

It’s not hard to see how the Pentagon sucks the entrepreneurial spirit from its commanders. Imagine how many hurdles a Navy admiral would have to clear to paint his ships in razzle dazzle, even if he knew it would save lives. How many officers in the Pentagon would have to sign off on this? How much of his career would be on the line? And would he be considered a rabble rouser who didn’t just toe the line?

The answers: Dozens (and congress), his entire career is at risk, and absolutely. So, yep entrepreneurship is dead in the military.

In the end, winning wars is about making better decisions more often than your opponents.

This might be the new theme of On Violence for 2013. Here is a Robert Rubin quote from his book In an Uncertain World that perfectly sums up this thinking:

“An important corollary to recognizing that decisions are about probabilities is that decisions should not be judged by outcomes but by the quality of the decision-making...Any individual decision can be badly thought through, but be successful, or exceedingly well thought through, but be unsuccessful, because the recognized possibility of failure in fact occurs. But over time, more thoughtful decision-making will lead to better overall results, and more thoughtful decision-making can be encouraged by evaluating decisions on how well they were made rather than on outcome.”

In other words, processes should trump results. It seems counter-intuitive, but it makes sense. Especially in warfare, the side with better processes that makes better decisions more often will win more...on average.

Razzle dazzle represents the failure to embrace better decisions. On its own, razzle dazzle won’t win the war with Iran. But it could lead Iranian small boats into making poor decisions. Combined with our Navy making better decisions--on average--and razzle dazzle could save U.S. lives.

And I frankly can’t see how “razzle dazzle” could hurt the U.S. war effort. Painting ships colors which make them hard to identify at sea has almost all upside, besides the financial cost. Being harder to spot at sea helps no matter what type of war you are fighting, and that includes conventional wars with radar guided missiles.

Considering the enormous Pentagon budget, I can’t see why we can’t spend a few million dollars making ships harder to target at sea. I mean, besides the lack of willingness to embrace innovation within the Pentagon.

five comments

Every one of your reasons for the big military not doing something sensible is valid. But there is one that is left out. Occasionally they don’t do something that seems a good idea because it isn’t a good idea. It has been tried before and found wanting.

This is a reference that may be useful.


It is a multi-part article detailing American and British experience with ship camouflage in WWI and WWII. Camouflage effectiveness is wildly variable depending on where in the world you are, the season, day or night and the size and configuration of the ship. After WWI the British though dazzle was of little use but the Americans thought it was good. Then the Americans did some tests interwar and found dazzle had more disadvantages than advantages.

Then during WWII they tried everything to include dazzle and even pink. The consensus seemed to be that there was no consensus. Some US destroyer skippers thought dazzle was great others thought it useless. What worked best in the North Atlantic (not dazzle) didn’t work in the Pacific. Aircraft carriers were very hard to hide because of their size and no matter how they were painted, that straight deck line and the shadows it cast were going to be seen. Logistical considerations were important. The fewer paint variations, the better. And light gray gave the best ‘round the clock performance.

So with all this in mind plus the improvements in tech both electronic and optical since WWII, plus the unique conditions of the gulf, lots of small commercial vessels, drones, aircraft, shore radars and who knows what else able to give guidance as to where our ships are and are going; I don’t think it unreasonable at all that the Navy stick with color they have.

There seem to be a couple of issues here. The first is whether or not dazzle camouflage would be effective in the Strait of Hormuz or the Persian Gulf. The second is whether a culture of uniformity would stifle debate or experimentation.

To address the first issue, you point out that the threat is from a combination of missiles, mini-subs and speedboats, likely all concentrated in a swarming attack. Paint won’t fool missiles, and Iran’s subs likely won’t have to surface to acquire targets (like the U-Boats of old), which leave speedboats. There is a little bit of historical experience with these threats: the 1988 Operation Praying Mantis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Praying_Mantis) against Iranian forces and the 1991 Battle of Bubiyan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Bubiyan) against Iraqi small boats. In both cases, helicopters with guided missiles made short work of small fast attack boats. Iranian tactics have evolved since then, as described here (http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/irans-doctrine-of-asymmetric-naval-warfare) shifting to dispersed swarming attacks, which have achieved some success, such as a successful suicide attack on an American boarding team in a RHIB in 2004 (http://www.stripes.com/news/suicide-bombing-attack-claims-first-coast-guardsman-since-vietnam-war-1.19271) and capturing 15 Royal Navy and Royal Marine personnel in 2007. In neither case would dazzle camouflage have helped.

Changes in operating procedure, all-around armament with close protection weapons, equipping ship-borne helicopters to fire guided missiles, working with smaller machine-gun equipped boats – these are the kinds of responses that are more likely to achieve success than paint.

As for a culture of blinkered uniformity, I can’t speak for the US Navy, but western armies in general seem to be fighting two contradictory forces. Senior staffs want to re-impose the days of spit and polish and starch. The younger generation wants to carry an extra 20 pounds of laser pointers, flashlights, holographic sights, spare AA and AAA batteries, carabineers, straps, Velcro patches, sunglasses, rigger belts, holsters, scarves, etc. Maybe it’s the latest version of uniformity. As a tongue-in-cheek aside, I sometimes think the best way to ‘win’ the war on abstract nouns is to flood the Middle East, Sahel, Maghreb and Pakistan with rails for RPGs and an assortment of EO Tech sights, each engraved with a different Islamic passage. Then watch civil war break out as they fight to collect the whole set. But to get back to the original point, there’s a younger generation of Naval officers who think that the cool look for a ship is to be festooned with quad .50s, automatic grenade launchers, laser dazzlers, and dozens of RHIBs crewed by aspiring SEALs (beards optional), so there is still a little debate going on. Whether it’s enough is a different issue.

Regarding your last point about winning wars by making better decisions more often than your opponent, I ask you to consider this alternative: Winning wars is about being less incompetent than your opponent. And on that note, you have neglected perhaps the most dangerous weapon the Iranians can use – mines. How’s the US Navy coming along with its minesweeper project?

@ Carl – You are absolutely right that dazzle camouflage just might not work. I hope I am not expressing 100% certainty in this subject. I was a ground pounder, so this is more a thought experiment.

However, it is really tough to describe when the Army/Navy/Air Force/Pentagon has really tried to challenge existing wisdom. I mean, newer Air Force planes can simply fly faster, higher and more invisible. The F22/JSF aren’t dramatic innovations, they are just taking existing technology and pushing it further. Same with most boats in the US Navy. They don’t change warfare, just take the basic principles of WWII and take them to the max.

This article is the really important article. It says, given that other technology might change warfare, could the Navy experiment? Could the Army experiment? Not in a million years.

@F-The Navy isn’t really coming across with minesweepers from what I can tell. Also, I think the willingness for the US Navy to simply say, “Hey we did well in 1988, we can crush small boats again” might be naive. I mean, technology has come pretty far since the 80s, are we so certain that we can win a super quick war without any casualties? I’m not.

I’m not sure technological developments since the late ‘80’s are relevant to the fight against small boats. If anything, small boats represent a downshift in technology. What has changed, though are small boat tactics and the increased use of deception and concealment among civilian boat traffic and shore clutter. The counters aren’t paint – they’re improved patrolling & surveillance techniques, changes in task force composition & armament, and better training for boarding parties. A modern-day version of cracking Enigma in order to listen in on Iranian (or anyone else’s) communications would also help. I believe all of those are underway.

My point about minesweepers is exactly as you state: the program has run aground (in one case literally: http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/201..). There’s nothing sexy about minesweeping, so it ends up being tacked on to something else, like the Littoral Combat Ship. It’s a conscious choice to make minesweeping a low priority. From my perspective and doing my own risk assessment, that’s a choice that smacks of incompetence. But then again, like you, my background is Army, so take my opinion with a grain of salt.

Your point about taking Second World War techniques and technology and improving it to the max is neatly summed in Clayten Christensen’s “The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail.” He writes that the biggest threat to established companies is good management practices! The danger is that the combined pressures of existing customer demands and the need to maximize profits causes established companies to continually focus on higher-end products and services in order to maximize profit margins, forfeiting the market space of products/services with lower profit margins to smaller companies – which is the natural environment for new yet-to-be-perfected technologies. In the end, though, the new technologies mature and small companies grow up and displace the big companies. One counter is to create a subsidiary tailored to the new tech, trying to find new markets. If all proves successful then the big company can reabsorb the subsidiary. The challenge – and this is where Western armed forces need to pay attention – is that the corporate culture required to find new markets for new technologies is usually at odds with the culture of dominating existing markets.

In other words, Big Navy has a culture of maximizing return in the big fight – carrier groups, nuclear subs, starched whites et al. Big Army and Big Navy have created lean and hungry ‘subsidiaries’ (SOF) to fight wars in the margins. Where Big Army and Big Navy fall down is in the wars in between – too big for SOF and too small for nukes, and with nothing but culture clash when the two try to work together. You are spot on that western forces need to think more creatively about dealing with these challenges, and deception is certainly a neglected area. But I still don’t think that cubist art is quite the answer!

Michael C.:

The services do experiment. There was the Future Combat System, the Airborne Laser, the LCS, the new 25mm grenade launcher, anti-missile missiles, drones and other things. Often the problem isn’t that they don’t try to make new things, the problem is the lose sight of what the available technology actually makes possible.

When you have mature technologies, you can’t get much beyond incremental improvements until other more fundamental underlying technologies change, things like materials, manufacturing methods, chemical processes and others. For example, firearms aren’t much changed from WWI. There is only so much you can do with the principle right now.

I wouldn’t sell incremental improvements short though. They can provide a substantial edge. The teen series fighters were just airplanes that went a little farther, a little faster, and could turn a little tighter, but if you had to fight one in a MiG-21, you were pretty much dead.