In the years after the American Civil War, Otto von Bismarck demonstrated back in Europe that design principles could be applied at a very high level of statecraft. He made a point of very carefully isolating the targets of his aggression so that when Prussian forces marched against them they would have no allies to come to their rescue. Thus the chances of victory in wars against Denmark, Austria, and France were enhanced by Bismarck's grand strategic design approach. It is highly ironic that Germany, which rose to world power on the shoulders of Bismarck, so soon forgot his principal lessons, and ended up fighting and losing two world wars against the overwhelming hosts of opposing alliances.
But Germany and its Axis partner Japan had other design problems as well in World War II, as Paul Kennedy's marvelous new history, Engineers of Victory, makes clear. His is perhaps the first major study that poses a great war as a design challenge. From how to master the U-boat wolfpacks, to countering German blitzkrieg tactics, and beyond, Kennedy hones in on the ways in which design innovations were able to change the course, conduct, and outcome of battle. And his focus on the middle years of World War II, when Axis defeat was hardly a given, helps make clear that design factors made the difference between victory and defeat.
Coming closer to our time, it seems to me that design thinking would go a long way toward explaining the American debacle in Vietnam, where over half a million troops and massive firepower failed to defeat a badly outgunned foe. The design angle in this war is best viewed from the North Vietnamese side, where simple design innovations like loading bikes with hundreds of pounds of ammunition and rice and pushing them along a dirt path proved beyond the American ability to counter. Whenever the Ho Chi Minh Trail was bombed, some bike pushers were lost and potholes were created. But potholes were easily filled, and there were always more bikes and men. Thus the insurgency remained armed and fed, on its feet and fighting, until the frustrated Americans gave up and left.
Something similar is going on today, in this new age of irregular wars. The American instinct has been, all too often, driven toward massiveness in design -- large field forces and tremendous firepower. Our enemies have persisted by means of designs that focus on creating lots of little Ho Chi Minh Trails, or "ratlines," and by making a wide variety of explosive devices that allow them to inflict casualties from a distance -- that is, with little risk to their own forces. In Iraq, for a while, this was countered by the design solution of creating a physical network of small outposts and a social network based on convincing many of our enemies to switch sides. In Afghanistan, something similar is contemplated today, in the form of small outposts in villages and diplomatic deals with many tribal leaders. But we have to admit that our enemies' designs have proved quite robust.
Still, in an era of looming budgetary constraints, awareness of the value and power of design thinking in military and security affairs may prove to be something of a secret weapon. Thus sequestration, far from crippling our military, might actually spur the sorts of design innovations that will enable victories to be won over enemy hosts who have, so far, been unimpressed with the "overwhelming force" approach of the Americans. It seems clear that only skillful new designs will lead to victory; it is just as clear that design thinking can allow us to do more, and do better, at lower cost. It's worth a try.