Operational creativity and innovation in the war in Ukraine

A Neokohn főmunkatársa, Izraelben élő biztonságpolitikai szakértő.

The art of war, or as the more lyrical souls would say, „The science and art of war,” consists of many disciplines. Some of these, such as the theory of war, warfare and military technology, are not so diabolical to teach. There are, however, other subjects that pose very serious theoretical and methodological challenges to the instructor. Of the latter, the teaching of applied creativity and innovation is perhaps the biggest headache. Commentary by Robert C. Castel.

How do I know? 

Because I have been trying to drill this discipline into the heads of people for years at the Israeli Military Academy, in the training of combat troops and in the training courses I have given abroad. The most difficult task is not the teaching of innovation theory, or the plethora of case studies in military history, or even the time-wasting board games that some try to sell as “creativity development.” The main challenge has been to develop a practical way of thinking that goes against the whole spirit of soldiering based on orders and instructions.

The more rigid the organizational culture of a bureaucracy or a military corps, the more difficult it is to teach leaders to think outside the box and at the same time act inside the box.

Creativity and innovation applied in operational contexts is far from a series of brilliant feats of knighthood,

as the organizational development literature would have us believe. War is a realm of uncertainty and the natural human instinct is to seek to reduce that uncertainty. Those who seek to increase this uncertainty by applying new ideas with uncertain outcomes are rarely met with encouraging looks. In the world of military bureaucracies, it is usually less painful to fail by acting according to the Big Book than to have to explain at length to senior management what the wild idea was that we put into practice.

Who are the ones who are innovating? Usually players who have no other choice. The motivation to take risks, to step out of the box, to move the cheese is usually born of desperation. Those who are assured of victory inside the box are most likely not going to risk a sure thing.

But why is this relevant to the war in Ukraine?

Because, as far as the leaked news can tell,

in this war, neither the belligerents nor their allies in the background have shown much in the way of creativity and innovation.

The sensationalist Russian and the no less sensationalist Allied propaganda machine would certainly have jumped at the chance — if there had been one.

Of course, it is not impossible that brilliant innovations in the world of special forces, intelligence and electronic warfare have been made, but will remain in the shadow of secrecy for decades to come. It is conceivable, but so far we have found no basis for believing that they really existed. Before anyone else brings up carrying an anti-tank missile on a “Bagaméri” tricycle or serving a fragmentation grenade in a glass bottle, that is not an innovation, it is a proven improvisation based on practice, usually at the tactical level. They solve a specific problem, but they do not add any qualitative value.

Military innovation is a little more than that.

Unfortunately, it has to be said that what has come to light to date from the Russo-Ukrainian war will provide very few case studies for military innovators in the ages to come.

Why is this a problem?

From the Russian point of view, it is not a problem at all. They have succeeded in devising and imposing on the Ukrainians a form of war that compensates for their weaknesses while allowing them to exploit the strengths of their army. They don’t really need to think outside the box because they are winning, albeit slowly, inside the box.

From the Ukrainians’ perspective, however, there is a great need for creative and innovative use of their existing military and human resources.

President Zelensky’s statement about the “one million-strong Ukrainian army” is a huge step — in the wrong direction.

Given the objective differences between the two states,

Ukraine will never be able to defeat Russia, which is several orders of magnitude larger than itself, in a fully symmetrical war.

The essence of warfare has always been the search for and the creation of asymmetries, thousands of years before the term “asymmetric warfare” was coined. The phalanx of the Thebans at the Battle of Leuctra is just one classic example of the exploitation of tactical asymmetry.

If Ukraine wants to win this war, or at least come to the negotiating table from a more favorable starting point, it will need to adopt a much more original mindset than it has at present.

What kind of new ideas can we find if we just randomly reach into the toolbox of applied operational creativity and innovation?

One principle that Ukrainians could apply with great effectiveness is the transition from two-dimensional to three-dimensional thinking. What do we mean by this, in this context? That so far, apart from the tactical use of air power, the Ukrainians have fought a two-dimensional war at the strategic level. The vast majority of Ukrainian combat events take place along or behind the line of engagement, with little depth. Are there no strategic targets in the Russian hinterland worth attacking using a vertical approach, using artillery and/or other maneuvers? 

These targets could be tens, hundreds or even thousands of kilometers away. The benefit of such attacks would be primarily to achieve a psychological effect: to move the enemy out of his comfort zone and boost domestic morale. Operation Entebbe and the 1942 air raid on Tokyo led by Colonel Doolittle are classic examples of these „behind the line of sight” operations.

Another such innovation principle is the principle of changing the state of affairs. In this context, it means that if you can’t get behind the Russians on solid ground, you might be able to do it at sea. Russia has 800 km of highly vulnerable coastline. There is absolutely no reason why Ukrainian special forces should not carry out a series of raids against the opponent’s installations on or near the coast. The most memorable such operation in recent decades was the U.S., British and Polish Special Forces raid on the al-Faw peninsula in March 2003.

A third principle that could be applied is the principle of nesting:

To place something or hide it in something else, using the advantages of both entities. The Ukrainian merchant fleet has more than 400 ships. A considerable number of these are not involved in the war in their home ports, but are in various parts of the world’s oceans. Why not deploy these mobile, sovereign Ukrainian assets, equipped with special troops and strike-measuring devices, in various locations around the world, thus making the threat against the opponent’s interests global?

It’s an open secret that the Iranian merchant fleet is moonlighting as Revolutionary Guard mother ships. The extent of this open secret was demonstrated by the mine attack on the cargo ship Saviz in April 2021.

A fourth innovation principle: the principle of changing parameters.

Ukraine has a number of long-range strike capabilities that can be used to attack land targets, even though they are designed for completely different targets. Harpoons against ships and S-300 missiles for air defense are just two examples of systems that can be deployed against deep targets by changing the target parameters. The Russian military successfully tested S-300 missiles against simulated battlefield targets over a decade ago.

Last but not least, the principle of inversion can also provide some creative ideas:

Ukraine has used sea mines with great success to defend its ports, especially Odessa. Why not use this defensive weapon as an offensive weapon against enemy shipping? The deployment of sea mines can be done even from small fishing boats. This method can be used to significantly limit an opponent’s maritime trade with a minimum investment. How much investment is required to build such a mine barrier? Not much. Just one sea mine that causes tangible and undeniable damage to an enemy ship, and one, just 1, press release announcing the existence of the mine barrier.

In 1984, the CIA used sea mines as offensive weapons against Nicaragua with great success, including the loss of a Soviet tanker.

These are just a few impromptu examples of how the principles of operational creativity and innovation can be applied to generate a range of “outside the box” ideas. Generating ideas is not the beginning of the end, nor even the end of the beginning. Every innovation has a cost and a risk, in addition to its benefits. Some innovations are particularly harmful and regressive, even if they are technologically perfectly feasible. It is for military leaders and technologists with expertise in the field to consider these. It is also their task to distinguish between genuine, value-added innovation and organizational attention-grabbing „pyrotechnics.” 

It also has to be taken into account that innovations have to pass through a very brutal organizational, budgetary and technological „funnel” and most of them will be eroded in the process. This is a natural part of the military innovation process. It is the task of political and military decision-makers to facilitate the path of innovations to the funnel. To provide resources and organizational support to the very rare white ravens that survive the process.

If it really wants to help Ukraine, the West needs to package the spirit of military innovation alongside ammunition and iron.

Sanctions and perceptions

An other war is being fought with as much fervor, faith and devotion as its kinetic counterpart on the battlefield. Commentary by Robert C. Castel.