Innovation, Stagnation, and Paratrooper Operations
I recently came across a very interesting book: “When Failure Thrives: Institutions and the Evolution of Postwar Airborne Forces”, by Dr. Marc DeVore. The short version of this book’s thesis is that airborne parachute assaults have generally not been historically all that effective in warfare (with perhaps limited windows of effectiveness at various times), but that institutional politics and biases have led to them often being maintained in military training and doctrine despite this ineffectiveness.
This strikes me as an especially interesting case study in “civilizational inadequacy” type models, what structures can support (or stifle!) innovation, evaluations of what levels of play the military is operating on, and so on. Let’s jump into it!
DeVore opens by discussing how organizational inertia leads to military establishments being attached to specific tactics or technologies well after the time where those methods have become obsolete, leading to bad performance against opponents who have better adapted to new developments.
One particularly striking case of this that I’m familiar with from previous study is that several European armies still fielded cuirassiers—horsemen equipped with metal breastplates and swords—at the advent of World War One, far after such were obsolete!
One might be surprised to learn that this photograph was taken in Paris in the year 1914!
DeVore later points out that in the military, obsolete tactics and technologies often exist much longer than in many other areas of human endeavor. Part of this is due to simple lack of test data to draw from, which allows biased conclusions to run rampant:
Why then do obsolescent tactics and technologies persist within military organization? The equivalent of such holdovers in the commercial sector—such as a large firm refusing to use container ships or the internet—is virtually unknown and would swiftly lead to bankruptcy. One reason for greater inertia in military organizations lies in the incomplete and intermittent nature of how military organizations are tested. Indeed, there is no certain method to ascertain how effective armed forces are short of forcing them to conduct a wide-range of military operations against a wide variety of live opponents. Moreover, even the so-called lessons of recent wars are notoriously difficult to interpret because wars are comparatively rare and the nature of the opponents and geography encountered in the last conflict are unlikely to provide adequate proxies for the challenges that will characterize the next one...
It is, therefore, almost always possible for military organizations to ignore unpleasant truths by arguing that the circumstances of future wars will be more favorable to their preferred tactics and technologies. For example, in one particularly brash example of a military professional drawing biased conclusions from contemporary conflicts, British General John French summarily dismissed the need for reevaluating the cavalry’s role after their poor performance in the Boer War. To this end, French wrote, “It passes comprehension that some critics in England should gravely assure us that the war in South Africa should be our chief source of inspiration and guidance...we should be very foolish if we did not recognise at this late hour that very few of the conditions of South Africa are likely to recur.” However, as commander of the British Expeditionary Force at the outbreak of the First World War, French soon learned to his chagrin that the Boer War was a more accurate reflection of modern warfare than he anticipated.
These biases make it very difficult to evaluate military developments properly. Further, internal career incentives can exacerbate said biases further—both for junior officers who want to see organizations they are tied to prosper in order to boost their own careers and for senior officers who want to support the organizations that they came up in, help the careers of their own protégés, etc.
At the same time, though, some innovations are possible—especially when institutional support is thrown behind the development of new methods rather than exalting the old ones!
Structures of Innovation
DeVore holds that one key factor in military innovation is the institutional structures that are used to advance and develop new technologies. When a sufficiently promising new technology emerges, commanders have various options as to how to try and harness it. In many cases, such technologies are integrated into existing military structures—but DeVore holds that this can often be limiting, citing the example of tank warfare:
The invention of tanks in 1916 and subsequent improvements to their performance created opportunities for land warfare to be waged in radically new ways. Indeed, military theorists across the globe were quick to recognize tanks’ potential and most of the great powers had their own armored theorists...
However, while recognition of the tank’s tactical value was universal, the creation of armored forces was a much more uneven process. In many great powers, including Britain, France and the United States, the responsibility for employing tanks was assigned to two traditional service branches—the infantry and the cavalry. Contrary to certain misconceptions, both of these branches viewed tanks as potentially very useful. Nevertheless, they narrowly defined the tank’s role and technical requirements in terms of supporting preexisting infantry and cavalry missions. This meant that the infantry demanded tanks and armored units that were heavily armored, slow moving and optimized for supporting infantry assaults. Meanwhile, the cavalry developed tanks and armored units designed to substitute for the traditional horse cavalry missions of scouting and reconnaissance. In the American case, the cavalry even insisted on combining tanks and horses in hybrid units.
Unfortunately, entrusting the infantry and cavalry branches with tank development squandered their revolutionary potential. This became apparent when Germany launched its blitzkrieg campaigns in 1939-41. Rather than subordinating tanks to existing branches, the Germans created a dedicated armored branch, the Panzerwaffe, to exploit the new technology. In sharp contrast to the approach taken by existing branches, these special-purpose organizations exploited the full potential of armored vehicles for deep maneuvers and causing chaos in opponents’ rear areas. Consequently, although Germany’s armored forces were actually numerically inferior to those of their opponents in 1940 and 1941, they nevertheless dominated the battlefield and won remarkable victories.
In this case, DeVore believes that the German willingness to create a dedicated branch to develop the new technology gave them a powerful advantage over other powers who attempted to integrate it into existing military structures. However, it isn’t always appropriate to create an entirely new branch for a new development. Other options include going further still and creating a new military service (as we saw with various countries creating Air Forces separate from their armies, navies, etc.) or taking a less dramatic step by creating special units within existing military structures that are designed to handle these capabilities. In general, his view is that more revolutionary and powerful advancements should be established as “higher level” institutions, while less promising ones might be better served as being established on a lower level.
Crucially, it is possible to err on either side of this process—an organization given too little resources will have difficulty attracting high quality officers and developing the specialized equipment or methods necessary to achieve its goals, while an organization given too much will be costly and wasteful.
DeVore cites United States special operations forces prior to the creation of Special Operations Command (SOCOM) as an example of an underresourced project—without strong institutional backing, these units had somewhat piecemeal capabilities. After the infamous failure of Operation Eagle Claw (the attempted Iranian hostage rescue), SOCOM was created to better integrate and support special operations capabilities, and these units were much more effective once provided with appropriate support.
On the other side of things, DeVore highlights the Soviet Union’s National Air Defense Forces (dedicated anti-aircraft units) as an example of an over-resourced project. The Soviets elevated anti-aircraft to the level of its own branch, separate from the Army, the Air Force, etc. -- this was quite different from the approaches taken in some other countries and ultimately led to substantial waste as the National Air Defense Forces created redundant bureaucratic and technological structures—ultimately even developing their own aircraft, missiles, etc. that were substantially similar to those used by the Army or Air Force but still separate from them!
DeVore holds that ironically, institutionalizing new capabilities is critical to innovation, but at the same time can actually be a cause of institutional inertia in the long run—the institution that was once free to develop new capabilities can become part of the “establishment” in time, and the political clout and resources that it needed to develop those once-innovative capabilities can then become tools for defending the institution against needed changes!
In fact, the greater the autonomy and resources a military organization possesses, the better it will be at preserving itself when threatened by tactical / technical developments. Such is the case because both conscious and unconscious biases as well as individual self-interest leads military professionals to defend their organizations in times of adversity. Consequently, military leaders either pursue innovations that preserve their organizations’ existing missions, adapt to fulfill alternative roles, or rely on reputation and elite status alone to preserve their organizations. However, the nature of the survival strategies that organizations adopt is heavily conditioned by the institutional resources they possess, with more institutionalized organizations better able to preserve their autonomy and original essence.
DeVore cites three distinct “survival strategies” that military organizations can use in order to try and remain relevant when they are faced with major threats from progress:
The organization can invest in technological innovations that “promise to restore the validity of the organizations’ core missions”—new weapons, tactics, etc. (Example: The United States Air Force investing heavily in new technology and methods to counter air defenses and retain its strategic air power doctrine after encountering major problems against air defense in the early Vietnam War)
The organization can seek new roles and missions that make sense in the new context (Example: The United States Marines started as naval infantry in an era of boarding actions between warships, transitioned from that to being an expeditionary imperial police force during a period of American imperialism and overseas interventions, transitioned from that to being focused on amphibious assaults, and now is kind of a “fast response combined-arms service”.
The organization can argue that its past contributions, traditions, and reputation/”elite” status are important and vital enough that it should not be disbanded even if its original role is obsolete. (Example: the British Green Jackets were originally specialized skirmishers and marksmen in the Napoleonic period, where most infantry fought in dense formations; changes in infantry tactics meant their role was much less meaningful and distinct but they retain at least some elements of their distinct status even now.)
Of these strategies, the first (innovation to preserve the original mission with new methods) is the most difficult and expensive but best preserves the organization’s identity when successful, the last (reputation/status) is the easiest but risks losing the most distinctiveness, and the search for new roles and missions is in between the other two options.
Airborne Forces: A Case Study
With this basic framework established, DeVore shifts to describing the development of military airborne operations. (Note for those unfamiliar with military terminology—”airborne” here refers to operations involving troops landing by parachutes, military gliders, etc. -- not to air warfare more generally) Parachute forces had been theorized about during the later phases of World War One (following substantial improvements in aircraft and parachute technology); there had been some proposals to actually conduct airborne attacks late in that war, but they were not implemented prior to the cessation of hostilities.
During the “interwar period” (the time between World War One and World War Two), various militaries experimented with airborne operations and projects. The most innovative major military with respect to airborne operations was that of the Soviet Union, which conducted large-scale exercises and demonstrations of paratrooper tactics in the interwar years. Other states saw these demonstrations and began developing paratrooper ideas of their own, though only Germany joined the USSR in actually building large formations of airborne troops.
When World War Two broke out, these German paratroopers (Fallschirmjäger) were quite successful in early attacks in 1940, perhaps most notably in the Battle of Fort Eben-Emael, where the Fallschirmjäger landed on top of a strategic fortress using gliders, allowing them to circumvent much of its defenses and disable or distract its defenders while conventional forces crossed the bridges that the fort would have otherwise been able to bombard.
Seeing these early successes, all great powers began developing airborne forces in more earnest. At this phase it seemed like airborne operations were a major part of the future of warfare.
However, the Battle of Crete in 1941 yielded quite mixed results—it was a victory for the invading Germans, but a Pyrrhic one as the invaders took heavy casualties and lost many aircraft as well. Part of this result may have been thanks to major deficiencies in the German paratrooper equipment and tactics. Fallschirmjäger parachutes were notably inferior to those adopted by other nations’ airborne forces, being broadly unsteerable, and many Germans dropped without their primary weapons, which were dropped in separate containers. Making a parachute drop into a contested enemy area is already a very dubious prospect and doing so without a primary weapon even more so—around 25% of them jumped with submachine guns, and the rest had only perhaps knives/pistols/grenades until they got to the canisters that held their rifles and machine guns.
Nevertheless, the battle was costly enough for Germany that despite their victory, the Germans concluded that the element of surprise that airborne assaults could convey had been lost, and indeed never again conducted major airborne operations except against partisans or guerrillas—the Fallschirmjäger were mostly used as elite forces of “normal infantry” after this point. Ironically, their Allied opponents took much the opposite view, seeing Crete as a demonstration of the effectiveness of airborne forces and intensifying development of their own airborne units!
The USSR, despite its heavy investment in airborne operations prior to the war, was unable to make successful use of its airborne forces as such—the three major Soviet airborne operations of the war (Viazma, Demiansk, and Dnepr) were all disasters which not only failed to achieve their objectives but also sustained over 60% casualties (!). The United States and United Kingdom were more successful in their airborne operations, but it was still by no means a legacy of total victory.
Ultimately, DeVore holds that half of the major airborne operations of the war ended in outright failure, and a majority of the remaining operations were either indecisive or were only Pyrrhic victories:
Smaller-scale operations were more successful than their larger counterparts as a whole, but again had very mixed results:
In retrospect, DeVore holds that the great success airborne forces experienced early in the war against small neutral powers—and even that in some cases with heavy casualties on the part of the Fallschirmjäger—were probably taken as indicative of airborne forces being a much more dangerous and relevant thing than they actually were, and the results from larger scale deployments were much less impressive.
If anything, this situation only grew worse following World War Two. Paratroopers are notably vulnerable to armored vehicles thanks to being more lightly equipped than conventional forces—this was already a weakness in World War Two but has only become more pronounced as militaries became more and more armored and mechanized. In principle, airborne armored vehicles could be designed to counter this, and indeed some light tanks, armored cars, and “infantry fighting vehicles” (IFVs) have been developed that are capable of being dropped by air or landed by gliders. However, these designs are fundamentally constrained by weight and space restrictions (they have to fit into the transport plane and not weigh it down too much!) which make them inferior to conventional armor. Further, substantial advances in anti-aircraft weapons have made these operations more
For some time, paratroopers were still relevant in a counterinsurgency role despite their vulnerability in conventional warfare. Indeed, Germany successfully used its paratroopers to attack partisan/guerrilla sanctuaries during World War Two, while France made extensive use of paratroopers during the Indochina War. However, this too proved to be a relatively limited window of relevance, as the development of the helicopter and related infantry tactics proved far more effective in this role than paratrooper operations, and later the development of man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) -- shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles like the famous Stinger—made airborne plans even more dubious. DeVore writes:
Nearly powerless against conventional armored forces and less efficient than helicopter-borne troops in a counterinsurgency role, airborne forces became relegated to increasingly marginal theaters of operation. In fact, paratroops retained true value only in operations conducted at great distances (i.e. beyond helicopter range) and against ill-equipped irregular forces. These factors marked four-fifths of the airborne operations conducted during the 1960s and 1970s, including two Belgian hostage rescue operations in the Congo (1964 65), France’s intervention against Zairian rebels (1978), and South Africa’s raid on a guerrilla base in Angola (1978). However, MANPADS and better armament eventually found their way to even Africa’s insurgents, eliminating the last viable arena for airborne operations.
The last paratrooper attacks by the United States against enemy-held targets were in 1983 and 1989 (Grenada and Panama respectively), and in both cases the US forces were so wildly superior in strength to their adversaries that an airborne attack seemed only dubiously needed. DeVore sums up:
Over the course of their existence, airborne forces have gone from a revolutionary participant in high-intensity warfare during the early 1940s, to a tool for counterinsurgency campaigns in the 1950s, until ultimately being reduced, in the 1960s, to operating against the world’s least sophisticated armed forces. It would be reasonable to expect individual state’s airborne forces to evolve in a manner consonant with this global trend, implying a gradual decline in the size of airborne forces from the 1940s until the 1960s.
On the contrary though, this decline in the size of such forces is not quite what we see. DeVore focuses on the Soviet Union, the United States, and the United Kingdom—of these, the Soviet airborne forces have continued to be very large and well-supplied and the United States airborne force size has fluctuated but is still a significant part of the US military. While the UK did have a substantial reduction in airborne forces, this decline started during a period when airborne forces still seemed quite effective! DeVore hypothesizes that these force changes are simply not based on actual military outcomes, but rather based on differences in institutional strength.
Post-War Soviet Airborne Developments
The Soviets had the worst track record of any of these nations in their World War Two airborne operations, with no dramatic major successes and multiple failed and costly operations. However, they had a very substantial political advantage—the Soviets had heavily invested in the devcelopment of airborne tactics to the point where the Soviet airborne forces administration, the VDV, was a separate branch of their military! DeVore claims that “In every respect, the VDV’s institutional power exceeded that of any foreign airborne force and compared favorably with the Marines’ status in the United States.”
This institutional power led to higher quality recruits, specialized training programs, high prestige, and so on—and in turn it allowed VDV to successfully blame the dramatic failures on resource and equipment constraints that they claimed could be overcome by investment into better transport aircraft, armored vehicles and heavy weapons that could be dropped with the paratroopers, etc.
Indeed, the post-war Soviet Union at least notionally developed innovative tactics for dropping armored vehicles with their crew inside so that they could join in battle almost immediately! (I personally would not at all want to try this even in peacetime, much less in a battle—for those who want to see what it looks like, though, here’s a purported clip (the BMD-2 IFV drops at 0:26):
In any case the effectiveness of paradrop-capable armored vehicles seems quite less than that of conventional armor, and the effectiveness of these tactics in an actual war seems very dubious. But the VDV has managed to retain its prestige and continue these developments regardless, even following the fall of the USSR.
Post-War United Kingdom Airborne Developments
In the UK, on the other hand, there were rapid declines in airborne forces soon after World War Two despite a more successful track record than that of the Soviet Union. DeVore believes this is thanks to their weak institutional commitment to airborne forces. The UK paratrooper forces were led by relatively junior officers, faced obstruction from the RAF when it came to training and transport aircraft development, and so on—indeed, these forces were only as successful as they were after repeated direct intervention by Winston Churchill himself to allocate them more resources!
After the war and with this exceptional support no longer present, British paratroop capabilities greatly deteriorated:
The Parachute Regiment failed to persuade the RAF to design transports with rear-loading doors for parachuting men and equipment, was unable to acquire sufficient training flights for its men to jump more than once annually, and lacked the resources to procure specialized airborne equipment. As a consequence, the aptitude of Britain’s remaining parachute brigade to conduct an airborne operation deteriorated. When ordered to parachute into Egypt in 1956, British paratroops were obliged to scour museums for Second World War-vintage airborne equipment and only succeeded in achieving their objectives thanks to the deficiencies of their opponents.
While British paratroopers still exist, they are basically employing the third of the institutional survival strategies mentioned earlier, where one remains relevant by a reputation for being elite, memories of past glories, and so on—an option appealing primarily, in DeVore’s view, to the institutionally weakest forces.
Post-War United States Airborne Developments
In the United States, airborne forces enjoyed privileged and elite status, specialized equipment, etc. during World War Two—and in part this elite status was “self-rewarding” because it attracted some of the best officers to the paratroopers, who later rose to high positions after the war and formed an informal clique that supported airborne forces amidst postwar cutbacks. However, they did not have the same degree of institutionalization and support as the VDV.
Ultimately, the US airborne forces were able to adapt to new mission profiles. When helicopter-borne warfare became evident as an area of potential development, it was airborne forces who led this development, though they ironically lost some of it to the cavalry (!) -- later, successful political lobbying allowed the US airborne community to engage in victorious but dubiously necessary assaults in Grenada and Panama.
In sum, despite the fact that operational necessities have not justified any of the United States’ airborne operations since the Korean War, the occasional conduct of such operations in benign environments has fostered the illusion that airborne forces still have an important role to play in modern warfare. Nevertheless, the ability of American airborne forces to redefine and restructure themselves in keeping with shifts in American grand strategy proved more fundamental to their survival. Indeed, American airborne forces’ current efforts to redefine themselves as a force capable of responding to the challenge posed by Chinese anti-access/area denial capabilities must be viewed in this broader context.
In short, the US airborne forces enjoyed substantial institutional support—not as much as the VDV but not as little as the UK paratroops did—and this allowed them to survive and adapt despite major changes in the environment around them.
Ultimately, DeVore concludes that the most relevant factor for the sustaining of airborne forces as a relevant organizational force has not been their actual results, but rather their institutional strength. The Soviets had the most institutional support for their paratroopers, so they maintained large commitments there despite bad results; the UK had little institutional support for its airborne units and that capability was broadly neglected even when it seemed at least somewhat effective. DeVore’s view is that airborne operations are broadly obsolete but that they have managed to survive and adapt to one degree or another in environments where they benefited from strong institutional support.
Ironically, the same institutions that can help drive innovation early on can ultimately become ones that prevent obsolete methods from fading away—indeed, the Soviet Union’s early leadership and innovation in airborne warfare may have led to it being saddled with a large airborne force well after that force’s obsolescence.
The reason why wartime performance had so little impact on post-war policy outcomes lies in the ambiguous nature of after-action assessments and the role of institutional factors in determining what lessons were officially drawn. Within this context, analysts in all three of the countries had great difficulty disentangling the different factors that led to the success or failure of individual operations. Moreover, even when the determinants of success or failure were understood, they could be interpreted in multiple ways.
For example, when Soviet strategists evaluated the disastrous Dnepr (1943) airborne operation, they had to decide whether the operation failed because the basic concept of such an assault was flawed or whether it failed because of other factors, such as paratroops being inadequately equipped or Soviet armored forces being too slow in breaking through the German front line. Likewise, when British planners evaluated the success of the Normandy airborne drops (1944) it was difficult for them to determine whether the operations contributed in their own right to the overall campaign or whether their success was itself dependent on assistance from other combat arms, such as naval gunfire support and rapid relief by amphibious units.
The nature of the lessons that each state drew from its experiences was shaped by airborne forces’ institutional roles within their respective military high commands. Where airborne forces possessed a great deal of institutional clout, such as in the Soviet Union, they succeeded at determining how wartime experience was interpreted. This meant, in the Soviet case, that the airborne assault mission itself remained sacrosanct and that wartime failures were attributed to inadequate equipment and training. Interpreted in this way, poor wartime performance became a justification for greater resources in peacetime.
In sharp contrast to the lessons drawn in the Soviet Union, the institutionally weak position of British airborne forces meant that their utility was continually questioned despite their better wartime performance. The singular failure of Operation Market Garden (1944), for example, was exploited ruthlessly by airborne forces’ opponents to argue that they were no longer a worthwhile combat arm for large scale warfare. Thus, as demonstrated by these examples, wartime experience has little independent bearing on post-war policy outcomes because military organizations use whatever institutional power they possess to instrumentalize the wartime record to their own ends.
In other words, the continued existence of large scale airborne forces is a failure of rationality—and lest you think I’m reading too much of a LessWrong or CFAR perspective into this, DeVore uses the exact phrase “failure of rationality”! I view this as a prime case study for Yudkowsky-style “civilizational inadequacy”. Not only are the institutions in question here inadequate, if DeVore is right the very same factors that lead to innovation can ultimately become forces of stagnation! Giving institutional power to new and promising groups can drive change at first—however, in the long term that institutional power may ironically be turned to protect obsolete interests instead.
One potential solution that DeVore recommends is having external evaluators assess these things rather than the groups themselves. For instance, SOCOM was developed in the United States following a disastrous mission that brought significant outside scrutiny onto the special operations community. He further mentions a German historian, Hans Delbrück, who argued that official war histories should be handled not by the military but by academic historians, as the latter face much less pressure to defend or vindicate certain decisions, doctrines, strategies, etc.
A similar principle could be applied to various less dramatic fields. For instance, having external evaluators assess the impact of a project or charity can be a good way to try and maintain more objective criteria; insofar as those evaluators are themselves tied to the project in question, the effectiveness of this analysis becomes more questionable.
Ultimately, I found this book a fascinating look at the institutional dynamics that can lead both to innovation and stagnation—and disquietingly, if DeVore is right those two dynamics can perhaps be one and the same! DeVore claims similar principles are true in business as well—I have yet to look into that but intend to explore further, as I consider this area quite important for coordinating solutions to problems in the world.
As an addendum to the above, I want to add that this book’s thesis has to an extent been tested since its publication—it appears that the Russian airborne forces, despite their huge institutional prestige and investments in specialized equipment, have experienced another set of disastrous operations in the current Ukraine conflict. Russian airborne forces have repeatedly failed to capture and hold their objectives in Ukraine, and the effectiveness of their tactics has been called into question. This book was published in 2015, well prior to these events, but I don’t think that DeVore would have been at all surprised to see that outcome.