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.