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How shall “in the box” people think “outside the box”?

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — a gadfly question ]
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We have seen various conversations online in which its is plausibly suggested that YESness leads to upward mobility across an array of silos and disciplines, specifically including the intelligence community and the military — the end result being risk-averse group-think that is pretty much “inside the box” by definition.

Similarly, we have noted that serious and nuanced issues are frequently debated in the media by those who are known for their general-purpose punditry or seniority, rather than by those with specific knowledge of and insight into the particular issues of concern.

Question: How shall we get outside the box thinking from inside the box thinkers?

Don Vandergriff on The Break it Down Show

Sunday, March 1st, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Don Vandergriff

Friend of ZP blog Don Vandergriff, author of Raising the Bar and co-author (with Fred Leland) of The Adaptive Leadership Handbook, was a guest on The Break it Down Show:

The Path of Don Vandergriff 

Don Vandergriff is an author of several books on leadership and development, especially as it relates to military strategy or law enforcement.  He served in the Marines and the Army, and still consults for organizations in both the public and private sectors.  

This week he talks with us about where our military organizational structure came from and where it’s headed, and why we need it to evolve like everything else.  Take a listen.  And click on the link below to check out his book, The Path to Victory: America’s Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs

Listen to Jon and Pete interview Don here.

In Praise of Don Vandergriff for the “Next Yoda” at ONA

Saturday, January 17th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Don Vandergriff

Friend of ZP blog and expert on adaptive leadership training Don Vandergriff has thrown his hat into the ring to replace the much admired, should not have been retired, Andrew Marshall,  the long time (appointed originally by Richard Nixon) head of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, affectionately known in DC circles as “Yoda”. Given the military’s badly broken personnel system and dire problem with “toxic leaders” and Vandergriff’s adamant philosophical emphasis upon ethical integrity, strategic thinking and honest intellectual inquiry, he would be a breath of fresh air and catalyst for change.

James Fallows of the Atlantic Monthly gave Don a ringing endorsement:

Want to signal a change? My candidate, until someone has a better idea, is Donald Vandergriff, who has in fact applied for the job.

Vandergriff spent 24 years on active duty an enlisted member of the Marine Corps and an Army officer. When he retired ten years ago as a major, a relatively junior rank, he exemplified the tensions between an independent-thinking, irrepressible, let’s-rock-the-boat reformer and the “don’t make waves” normal promotion machine.

Because of his writings and advocacy, near the end of his active-duty tenure Vandergriff was described as “the most influential major in the U.S. Army.” I did an Atlantic-online discussion with him and Robert Coram, author of a popular biography of the late Air Force colonel John Boyd, a dozen years ago. He has written many well-received books about working fundamental change in the training and promotion of officers, including The Path to Victory; Spirit, Blood, and Treasure; and Raising the Bar. If you want an illustration of someone willing to take (and suffer) career risks in the cause of telling unpleasant but important organizational truths, he would be your man.

Yes he would.

Fabius Maximus blog weighs in as well:

….Donald Vandergriff (one of the authors on the FM website) has identified a powerful point of leverage to change our massive and dysfunctional military apparatus:  its personnel system, the process by which the Army recruits, trains, and promotes its officers. Change this and the effects ripple outward through the entire organization over time as the nature and behavior of its leaders evolve. The Army has begun the long slow evolution of its personnel policies, responding to the ideas of Vandergriff and others.

This success puts Vandergriff on the cutting edge of America’s sword. He, and others like him, are crafting a solution of the third kind (about people) to defeat our foes at 4GW.  We can win at 4GW. We must learn to do so, or the 21st century will be a harsh time for America.

There are many strategic and operational issues that the U.S. military and NatSec community would prefer to ignore because they do not play to our areas of strength where the United States enjoys overwhelming dominance relative to the rest of the world. Well, these problem areas will only grow in scope and importance because they are the points where our adversaries see hope of gaining leverage and comparative advantage over us. I am almost tempted to say “Duh” here because enemies hitting your weak points instead of running headlong into our strong points and being killed en mass is strategy 101, but strategy is less popular in some quarters these days than it should be. Don Vandergriff is the sort of man to highlight deficiencies so they can be remediated and, eventually, become new strengths.

Don Vandergriff….strongest recommendation.

America’s Defense Amnesia

Friday, November 1st, 2013

(by Adam Elkus)

Over at The National Interest, Paul Pillar diagnoses America with an “amnesia” about intelligence. The US, like Guy Pearce’s amnesiac character in Memento, does not perceive that it is caught in a larger oscillating cycle:

Attitudes of the American public and elected officials toward intelligence go in cycles. There is an oscillation between two types of perceived crisis. One type is the “intelligence failure,” in which things happen in the world followed by recriminations about how intelligence agencies should have done a better job of predicting or warning of the happening. The recriminations are customarily accompanied by “reform,” or talk of it, which chiefly means finding ways to do things differently from what was done before—not necessarily better, just different. Usually there also are accusations of malfeasance by individuals, even though there is an inherent tension between attributing failure to unreformed institutions and attributing it to individuals who screwed up. Often the response also involves additional empowerment of institutions, in the form of added resources or added authorities.

The other type of crisis involves seeing institutions as too empowered, with the response being to place additional restrictions on them. For U.S. intelligence agencies one of the most conspicuous examples of this phase of the cycle was in the 1970s, with some of the agencies in question already suspect as the nation came out of the Vietnam and Watergate eras, and with the principal response being to erect Congressional and legal checks that are still in place today. Now we are seeing in a somewhat milder form the corresponding phase of another cycle, as the nation comes out of more than a decade of recovery from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which stimulated the most recent burst of empowerment. There is new talk about reducing the powers and scope of activity of agencies and adding more checks and restraints.

Pillar goes on to explain that the nature of intelligence does not provide easy directions regarding how allied intelligence targets figure into larger geostrategic intelligence factors that impact what policymakers desire out of the intelligence community. It is a great read from a man who is both a veteran of the intelligence world and a consistent critic of US foreign policy and security. However, I’d like to expand Pillar’s metaphor of “amnesia” beyond the intelligence world. We really have defense and national security amnesia.

After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it was not uncommon to hear sentiments arguing that force-on-force, firepower-centric conventional warfare could not cope with the challenges of a “global counterinsurgency.” Indeed, some argued that the previous high-tech military ideas not only were out of date with the nature of the challenge, but almost lost the war altogether. Both manpower-heavy and manpower-light counterinsurgency campaigns were proposed.  The Surge is still seen today in many quarters as the closest thing America has to a recent military triumph. As Antulio Echevarria noted, critics of conventional warfare argued that opponents had adapted around America’s strategic advantages, but it was less clear that there was any causal relationship.

Circa 2007-2009, however, large-scale occupations in the Muslim world began to go out of style. Critics began to clamor for a light footprint approach heavily based around counterterrorism strike forces and standoff firepower. A presidential candidate promised to hit al-Qaeda hard with flexible counterterrorism forces. Reduce the terrorist threat steadily growing in safe havens, he and his staff argued. The zeitgeist began to turn towards a culture of raiding, characterized by some of the very same assumptions about light and lethal forces that were so widely criticized prior to the counterinsurgency era. Manpower-intensive occupations were out, intensive counterterrorism in the dark was in. Instead of stabilizing failed states, America would use a combination of intelligence, special operations, and statecraft to marginalize and undermine al-Qaeda.

The age of “dirty war”  became a lightning rod for criticism. But one of the most trenchant criticisms was that an obsession with tactical counterterrorism intelligence was harming America’s intelligence agencies’ traditional specialties in strategic intelligence and counterintelligence. The line between military and intelligence was being “blurred.” The larger cost? Focusing so much on short-term, tangible, and easily justifiable counterterrorism intel requirements blinded America to the larger picture that it needed to see. As a result, it would be perpetually surprised by events like the Arab Spring.

In light of today’s furor over spying on allies, it is worth examining how this line of argument cast the difference between strategic intelligence and strike intelligence as a military-industrial complex analog of the classic dichotomy between basic and applied scientific research. Basic scientific research is often difficulty to justify in the short term, and frequently does not result in immediate payoff. But none of today’s scientific discoveries would have been possible without it. Hence, as Pillar noted in his essay, in retrospect it is easy to see “failures of intelligence” in areas where ambiguity regarding the purpose of intelligence, targets, and immediate payoff motivated hesitation. Ironically, as Dan Trombly tweeted, most of the intelligence community’s “counterterrorism obsession” critics were silent (with the notable exception of Joshua Foust) when evidence accrued that foreign spying was conducted for non-counterterrorism purposes.

Returning to Pillar’s opening metaphor, it seems that the American defense and foreign policy community is suffering from a collective case of amnesia. A call for counterterrorism, light footprints, and intelligence leads to an intelligence architecture that supports a raiding posture, and is then promptly and widely criticized for focusing so intensely on counterterrorism. A call for counterinsurgency results in substantial investment in counterinsurgency abilities, and then is promptly and widely criticized for its time and expense.

My analysis is undeniably unfair in some ways. First, the aggregated commentary of the DC defense commetariat consensus as presented here smoothes out meaningful differences, nuances, caveats, and variations. It was not as simple as I make it out to be, but the consensus of a community is not easily described in a single paragraph. Second, each idea also produced data that was (fairly or unfairly) evaluated. Counterinsurgency theory looked very appealing to many analysts in 2006 but was pronounced dead by war-weary Americans in 2011. Compared to Iraqi and Afghan quagmires, drones and special ops seemed compelling . But as the wars drew down and more press attention focused on the ramped-up counterterrorism campaigns, analysts began to have substantial misgivings.

That said, the problem is that while the world certainly changes fast, it has not changed fast enough to justify the kind of analytical mood swings that have frequently occurred since the beginning of the COIN era. If one took the last 12 years of national security commentary as gospel, they would believe that some seismic, worldview-invalidating event occurred every 1-3 years and necessitated a wholesale rejection of the policy the previous worldview-invalidating event spawned. Events have complicated and qualified—but not wholly invalidated–the merits and demerits of COIN, special operations and counterterrorism, and strategic intelligence (which includes spying on allies). While all of the arguments I’ve summarized here contradict each other, I can’t say with confidence that any of them are completely wrong.

The problem with America’s defense amnesia is not “be careful what you wish for.” No one can know exactly how their policy preference will work out. It is not even “remember what you wish for.” Rather, the lesson is to keep in mind that however fast events may move, there are larger and systemic factors and tradeoffs that stimulate day-to-day policy problems. These systemic factors change very slowly, and remain fairly consistent across administrations. Why we cannot comfortably dismiss any of the varying defense memes I’ve cataloged is that each dealt with a segment of a larger problem.

Being conscious of the unchanging challenges of American national security, from the difficulties of maintaining local outposts of American hegemony to how America’s national position produces incentives for perpetual war, has important intellectual benefits. We can avoid calls for dramatic course correction over hysterias of the moment and keep the longer term in mind. And we gain an appreciation for what has changed and what remains the same. A wider view tells us that war is not more complex, the calculus of strategic intelligence is not simple, and there are costs to both counterinsurgency and standoff counterterrorism that must be evaluated.

Moreover, we gain a greater respect for the policymakers who must deal with underlying manifestations of deeper and systemic problems instead of behaving (as even I sometimes do) like we have cracked some secret code unavailable to the idiots in Washington. There is some truth behind the disdainful phrase “good enough for government work.” But if the national security and foreign policy problems that government tackles were as obvious or linear as today’s criticism often implies, would our policy demands oscillate as wildly as Pillar alleges? It seems that unless we start tattooing relevant names, events, and information on our bodies (like Pearce’s Memento character does to help him remember), we won’t remember enough to answer that question. Such is the life of an amnesiac.

Octavian Manea interviews T.X. Hammes

Saturday, September 7th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Octavian Manea and SWJ are on something of a roll lately. Colonel T.X. Hammes (ret.) PhD is the respected author of the excellent The Sling and the Stone. If you have never read it, you should.

The Fallacies of Big Expeditionary Counterinsurgency: Interview with T.X. Hammes

SWJ: How different is Mao’s people’s war compared with what you call 4GW (Fourth Generation Warfare)? Is 4GW an updated, evolved form of people’s wars? In the end, isn’t 4GW focused on people and minds, on influencing people and minds?

TX: Mao is a little bit different because (in China) it was a domestic insurgency and focused on wearing down the nationalists and changing the minds of the warlords who supported them. In the case of 4GW, the focus is overseas. People you can’t reach with force, you must reach with the message. 4GW is an evolved form of insurgency. It is also important to note that Maoism is a type of insurgency that essentially fits a hierarchical society, not a tribal one. It always ends with a conventional campaign to destroy the government’s army as the final step in overthrowing the government. You can’t run a Maoist insurgency in the mountains of Afghanistan, the society won’t tolerate that kind of structure.  Nor can you do it in Iraq. 4GW covers both because its objective is not the military defeat.  4GW does not focus on the destruction of the enemy’s armed forces, but on changing the minds of the enemy’s political decision makers. 4GW directly attacks the will of enemy decision makers.  Once the outside power has been ejected, the conflict can continue until resolution. 

SWJ: Tell us about the center of gravity in a 4GW.

TX: The center of gravity in a 4GW is the will of the policymakers of the other side. 4GW war uses all available networks – political, economic, social and military – to convince the enemy’s political decision makers that their strategic goals are either unachievable or too costly for the perceived benefit. 4GW is not necessarily targeted at the people.  If the war is small enough, it can run on for years like El Salvador.  In that case, the US commitment was small enough there was no major political cost to US decision makers to continue supporting the El Salvadorian government.

When you look at the counterinsurgent side, I am more and more convinced that as a foreign power you can only do indirect counterinsurgency. You can advise and assist.  But keep it small – the host nation has to make it work. We, the United States, have done this successfully a number of times. Admittedly, we have not created the perfect nations that the nation-builders want, but that wasn’t the goal. The goal was to achieve US strategic goals. And we achieved our strategic goals in the Philippines, El Salvador, Columbia and Thailand. In a 4GW, the insurgent is not trying to win over the people as a whole. But the counterinsurgent must do so. In a tribal society, you can do what Kilcullen refers to as wholesale COIN – if you persuade the tribal chief everybody flips. In a more democratic society, you have to convince the people. It is more of a retail operation. It is critical to understand the society you are in and tailor your counterinsurgency and insurgency accordingly. 

I would add, in the 4GW theme of reasoning with the “moral level of war”, that a foreign power supporting a host nation government with FID that faces an insurgency, can probably get away with “punitive raiding”  of the non-state actors from time to time, particularly in rapid response to some heinous action committed by rebels. A heavy in-country footprint though will change the political calculus for the population – it is too easy to look lie occupiers and stringpullers. Foreign troops are rarely welcome guests for long.

Read the rest here.


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