Innovation And Bureaucracy

Jim Bennett has a good column about…well…lots of things, including idiotic grandstanding politicians, but Transterrestrial regulars may find this part of interest:

During peacetime, military bureaucracies historically tended to follow the pattern of civilian ones: stick to the rules, and beware innovation. During the stress of wartime, especially when things weren’t going well, militaries, to be successful, had to find a way to encourage and use innovation. Thus the military, unlike civilian bureaucracies, had legends of rule-breaking innovators that saved the day — sometimes literally. During the American Civil War, the innovative Union armored warship Monitor steamed into Hampton Roads the day after the similarly innovative Confederate ironclad, the Virginia, had decimated the wooden-hulled Union fleet. It is also a comment on the relative flexibility of military bureaucracies versus civilian ones to note the amount of time it took the British admiralty to give up on the wooden warship once news of that battle reached London: all wooden warships under construction were cancelled the next day.

Thus, when in 1957 the Soviets challenged the West by launching the first satellite, Sputnik, President Eisenhower reacted by creating two new government organizations. One became NASA, which went on to create the American civil space program (also conveniently drawing attention away from the already-massive American military space program, which had been drawing close to deploying the first reconnaissance satellites.) The second was a military agency, DARPA, which was a classic example of the military reaction under challenge — innovate and take risks. Although NASA became instantly famous, DARPA labored in mostly-welcome obscurity for decades, creating the occasional little invention like the Internet.

I found it particularly interesting in that I read it shortly after returning home from a meeting with someone fairly high in the ranks of the Air Force, at which we discussed this very problem.