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Echevarria and the Irrational in Strategy

Tuesday, September 17th, 2013

Adam Elkus alerted me to an insightful op-ed by Dr. Antulio Echevarria of SSI:

Op-Ed: Is Strategy Really A Lost Art?

…. Instead, we need to rediscover the value of strategizing relative to the outcome, the product, an individual strategy. The hard truth is that policy does not always need strategy to get what it wants. We have used military force plenty of times in our history without the guiding logic of strategy, and—though critics do not like to admit it—we have made it work often enough for it to be taken seriously. Sometimes what policy wants most is not to be tied to something inflexible, particularly something as inflexible as our strategic process. It is the proverbial machine that goes of itself, and it takes, or almost does, the preparation for and direction of war out of policy’s hands. The question modern-day Clausewitzians really have to answer is whether war has its own logic after all, a logic provided by the dictates, the processes, and the dynamics of making strategy.

      In all the online debates and blog sites concerning strategy, one theme is constant: we call strategy an art, but approach it as a science. We praise creative thinking, but assess our strategies with formulae: strategy = ends + ways + means (the ends we want to achieve + the ways or concepts + the availablemeans). This formula is as recognizable to modern strategists as Einstein’s equation E=mcis to physicists. Each defines its respective field. Like all good math, good strategies consist of balanced equations. As our variables change, we merely rebalance our strategy: scale down the ends, increase the means, or introduce new ways. Like any good equation, our strategy remains valid so long as we keep one half equal to the other. This is a far cry from when military strategy meant the “art of the general” and, by extension, grand strategy meant the “art of the head of state.”

.    If the art of strategy is truly lost, perhaps it is because—despite our rhetoric to the contrary—we really wanted it to be a science all along.

Several comments….
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First, Echevarria is correct that it is certainly possible to win ugly, win lucky, win through the other side imploding for internal reasons that have nothing to do with us or to win by unimaginatively, but steadily bludgeoning a much weaker opponent to death while employing a bad strategy or no strategy at all. Finland’s Marshal Mannerheim, for example, repeatedly humiliated Stalin’s immensely larger but poorly led Red Army in the Winter War but the end was never in doubt if Stalin chose to press the issue.  An effective strategy and a Red Army officer corps that were more than lackeys and thoroughly terrorized purge survivors would have markedly improved the USSR’s abysmal military performance, but it would not have changed the longitudinal equation that Stalin had thousands of tanks and planes and potentially millions of soldiers and the Finns did not. The asymmetry between the Soviet Union and Finland was too great; Mannerheim played a weak hand with great skill against an enemy leader whose basic foreign policy outlook was opportunistic yet risk averse ( as Stalin understood the situation at least. He was also a great miscalculator).
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When  however that Echevarria writes “Sometimes what policy wants most is not to be tied to something inflexible” he is certainly correct, but the real crux is that it is politicians who want and policy that bends to their desires. Flexibility can be a virtue when a situation is new, has not yet risen to open hostilities or a hedge is required against many dangers. Raised to systemic practice, “flexibility” -meaning a conscious avoidance of the “strategic process – really means that we have embraced an astrategic culture and accepted not just greater political behavior, but elevated the minutia of domestic politics and cynical careerism to displace strategy as the primary calculus for making decisions of war with unsurprisingly poor results.
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Lastly, I see merit in Echevarria’s criticism of the tendency to view strategy in algebraic or scientific terms. He’s right that this is an arid reification of strategy from which all chance, passion, genius, stratagems, deception, novelty and coup d’oeil have evaporated. Sometimes, the Czarina dies, the unsinkable ship sinks,  the “rules” get broken and certain victory turns into utter defeat because leaders, with the intuitive mind that Einstein called ” a sacred gift”, seize the moment and do what should have been by rational calculation, impossible. We fail to look for such qualities in ourselves or allow room for their expression and worse, fail to discern them in the enemy.
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Strategy is rational, but people doing strategy and the circumstances in which strategy is done often are not.
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War on Speed

Monday, August 26th, 2013

[ by Mark Safranski a.k.a. "zen"]

“When a man is lying in a shell hole, if he just stays there all day, a Boche will get him eventually. The hell with that. My men don’t dig foxholes. Foxholes only slow up an offensive. Keep moving.”

                                                                                                      - General George Patton

“In large-scale strategy, when the enemy starts to collapse, you must pursue him without letting the chance go. If you fail to take advantage of your enemies’ collapse, they may recover.”

“Speed is not part of the true Way of strategy. Speed implies that things seem fast or slow, according to whether or not they are in rhythm. Whatever the Way, the master of strategy does not appear fast”

                                                                                                          – Miyamoto Musashi 

“Two basic principles . . . underlie all strategic planning. . . .The second principle is:  act with the utmost speed”

                                                                                                             - Carl von Clausewitz

Soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Division charge [ Photo credit: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Travis Zielinski]

SWJ Blog published a link to  2013-14 Key Strategic Issues List put out by the Strategic Studies Institute to US Army War College students and researchers regarding the critical questions that the Chief of Staff believes need to be answered for the US Army to adapt to changing circumstances. It’s a good institutional practice and an interesting document to peruse. My attention was drawn to the subset entitled “Chief of Staff of the Army Special Interest Topics”. General Odierno’s second topic begins with an appropriately broad question:

                                       “How important is speed—both in terms of maneuver and information?”

We should look at the question first in a general sense and then in the light of the U.S. Army and the circumstances in which it is likely to find itself in the next few decades.

Common sense tells us that in any conflict, the ability of a single combatant, an armed group or an army corps to move and fight with speed is generally an advantage. This applies in other forms of conflict aside from warfare; for example, the boxing legend Muhammed Ali was great in his early career not merely because he was a big man and a gifted boxer but because he was also incredibly fast compared to his opponents, running rings around them in a match, taunting and humiliating them. When age removed the edge of speed, a slower Ali was forced to change his tactics and absorb a great deal of punishment that he had formerly escaped. Slow moving armies are like Muhammed Ali past his prime -they make for good targets.

In the history of warfare, many great fighting forces were also fast moving ones. Stonewall Jackson’s Confederates averaged close to fifteen miles per day in the Shenandoah Valley campaign; Roman legions frequently marched twenty miles in five hours while the armies of Alexander the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte drew closer to thirty a day. The fierce and elusive Apache topped them all, reputedly covering an astonishing seventy miles a day on foot in harsh desert terrain. Nor are the advantages of great speed limited to land armies, speed at sea and in the air is a tremendous equalizer for numerically inferior forces. It is good to move fast. The US Army, or at least parts of it, should be able to move fast, but this comes with a few caveats:

  • First, speed is always relative advantage. Being the fastest army in the world is a great thing but it is not quite so great if you are fighting the second fastest army in the world and the difference between the two is marginal.
  • .
  • Secondly, really optimizing speed for an entire army (vice specific units) is likely to come with trade-offs in terms of force structure and operational costs. Fast is fine, but fast with firepower is better, unless you think Operation Market Garden is the model to emulate.
  • .
  • Third, distance is often antagonistic to speed (i.e. imposes greater friction costs).  The ability to sustain a campaign in Afghanistan from the Western hemisphere does not mean it will be cheap to run your strykers and helicopters on imported fuel.  Zipping your panzers across France is not the same as slogging them through the vast and roadless expanse of Russia.
  • .
  • Fourth, speed and agility are not the same thing.  Maneuver in battle depends on other things aside from linear speed; the ability to execute fast transients by rapidly shifting what your force is doing on the fly is unlike simply moving them from point A to point B at a high rate of speed. 
  • .
  • Fifth, moving at one easily predictable speed and operational tempo, even at a high rate, is not as good as purposefully changing up both to throw the enemy off of their game. Sometimes employing a slow or erratic tempo is useful for imposing costs on enemy forces, deceiving them or constraining their freedom of action. 

Speed of information is not at all the same as the speed of material things, in part because the qualitative value of the information determines the utility of receiving it faster. An army that could move information and communicate more effectively – by having mastered writing, messenger systems, secret codes, the telegraph, shortwave radio or the internet – usually has a comparative advantage, but only up to a point. Much like medicine, the right dose of information can cure what ails you but too much or the wrong kind at the wrong time can kill you.

Even valuable information – much like Robert E. Lee’s battle plans for Antietam wrapped around some cigars – is simply unconnected data unless it is received by someone (Observation), who unlike General McClellan, is competent to discern the importance, put the information into context (Orientation), plan (Decide)and take appropriate action (Act).  Knowledge is contextual and actionable ( or it is a prerequisite for effective action) while information is isolated, raw and could easily be irrelevant trivia or distracting “noise”.

Quantity of information and the velocity with which it circulates through an organization can undermine the comparative advantage of having greater informational speed. Communication often expands to fill the bandwith allotted to the detriment of organizational effectiveness.  What is useful intel for a squad leader entering a seemingly abandoned village becomes a drowning sea of minutia for a battalion, brigade or theater commander who can only grasp coup d’oeil by focusing on essential components of operational or strategic problems as they are expressed on the battlefield.

Every transmitted message is a form of transaction requiring time, attention and energy from a commander and his subordinates, taxing their ability to prioritize effectively and inevitably creating “fog” by increasing the ratio of useless, incorrect or irrelevant data to crucial information. Improvement comes both from becoming increasingly effective at distilling knowledge from masses of data and from paring back the traffic in informational garbage and “busywork” and legalistic “CYA” communication. Greater informational speed shows it’s true value when an organization (military, business, political etc) can systematically move critical knowledge to the person who needs it at the moment it is required.

How Should the US Army think about Speed?

The US Army, in my view, faces some probabilities in the next few decades in terms of thinking about speed, force structure, potential conflicts and other questions:

  • Barring a resumption of conscription, austerity and domestic politics will mean a smaller active duty peacetime force that will have to formally shed some of the Cold War legacy missions it is no longer capable of executing  or willing to fund. 
  • .
  • Any major land conflict the US enters is likely to be expeditionary against a much more numerous opponent ( North Korea, Iran, Pakistan,  China or a proxy war – likely in Africa) while our technological edge over near-peer and second to third tier adversaries, while remaining, will be less than in previous decades.
  • .
  • The US may face more than one “small war” at a time with an allied or friendly state requesting FID/COIN help against an insurgency of some kind. 
  • .
  • The US may face an insurgency at home from Mexican narco-cartels that may begin as a law enforcement matter and be escalated by cartels into a serious paramilitary insurrection and terrorism problem before political authorities are willing to acknowledge the gravity of the threat (i.e. American politicians will behave much like their Mexican counterparts did in the 2000′s. Indeed they are already doing so in regard to massive cartel infiltration of American cities)
  • .
  • The US will retain sufficient nuclear deterrent, Naval and strategic air capability to make a conventional or nuclear attack on the American homeland extremely unlikely.

The US Army, even in a reduced size,  will probably retain the role of “mailed fist” land force with a core of  armor, motorized infantry, artillery units along with infantry that could conceivably be scaled up to much larger levels of personnel in a grave crisis. But the reality is the politicians will always try to fight foreign wars with peacetime forces, so to be of real use, the Army must be able to go to war “as is” and win it very quickly.  It is unlikely that a serious opponent like Iran, if it’s leaders believe the US intends regime change, will permit America a leisurely 6-12 month build-up of an invading host in a neighboring state the way that Saddam did [ can you imagine PLA generals sitting on their hands as the US Army put, say, 10-15 divisions of American and coalition troops on their border with Vietnam?]

So if the US Army is to be operationally relevant by virtue of speed, there must be a deep all-services investment in the unsexy air and sealift capacity to move a substantial amount of troops and their heavy equipment in days or weeks instead of months ( most likely combined with even greater efforts at pre-positioning ). Speed and maneuver in operations depends on getting there in the first place.

Assuming we have many divisions or brigades (if we stay “modular’) arriving somewhere, increasing operational speed is partly a work of the Army’s leaders spending years changing  the organizational culture to give subordinates real room to take initiative within their commander’s intent. This will help improve both physical maneuver as well as information flow by reducing the institutional incentives to create paralysis by micromanagement.

Accepting loose reins may mean more American casualties, far more enemy combatant casualties and consequent civilian collateral damage as field grade and junior officers take greater responsibility and the tempo of operations accelerates. ROE will have to be simpler and hew closer to what is permitted under the Laws of War vice what overly complex guidance prevailed at certain times in Afghanistan. This will require ruffling the feathers of international law professors, lefty NGO activists, anti-American journalists and some members of Congress.

On the other hand, we might start winning wars again.

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New Book and New Monograph

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

The Strategy Bridge by Colin S. Gray

I have been eager to read this book by the eminent Anglo-American strategist Colin Gray ever since Adam Elkus sang it’s praises and now I have a hardcover copy thanks entirely to an enterprising amigo. A description from Oxford Scholarship:

The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice is an original contribution to the general theory of strategy. While heavily indebted to the writings of Carl von Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, and the very few other classic authors, this book presents the theory, rather than merely comments on the theory, as developed by others. Bridge explains that the purpose of strategy is to connect purposefully politics and policy with the instruments they must use. The primary focus of attention is on military strategy, but this subject is well nested in discussion of grand strategy, for which military strategy is only one strand. Bridge presents the general theory of strategy comprehensively and explains the utility of this general theory for the particular strategies that strategists need to develop in order to meet their historically unique challenges. The book argues that strategy’s general theory provides essential education for practicing strategists at all times and in all circumstances. As general theory, Bridge is as relevant to understanding strategic behaviour in the Peloponnesian War as it is for the conflicts of the twenty?first century. The book proceeds from exposition of general strategic theory to address three basic issue areas that are not at all well explained in the extant literature, let alone understood, with a view to advancing better practice. Specifically, Bridge tackles the problems that harass and imperil strategic performance; it probes deeply into the hugely under?examined subject of just what it is that the strategist produces—strategic effect; and it ‘joins up the dots’ from theory through practice to consequences, by means of a close examination of command performance. Bridge takes a holistic view of strategy, and it is rigorously attentive to the significance of the contexts within which and for which strategies are developed and applied. The book regards the strategist as a hero, charged with the feasible, but awesomely difficult, task of converting the threat and use of force (for military strategy) into desired political consequences. He seeks some control over the rival or enemy via strategic effect, the product of his instrumental labours. In order to maximize his prospects for success, the practicing strategist requires all the educational assistance that strategic theory can provide.

I am unfortunately in the midst of a large project for work, but The Strategy Bridge is now at the very top of my bookpile and I will review it when I am finished.

And as long as we are on the subject of Professor Gray, he ventured into the murky domain of cyber war recently, publishing a monograph on the subject for The Strategic Studies Institute:

Making Strategic Sense of Cyber Power: Why the Sky is not Falling

Obviously, Dr. Gray is not in the “Cyber Pearl Harbor” camp:

The revolution in military affairs (RMA) theory of the 1990s (and the transformation theory that succeeded it) was always strategy- and politics-light. It is not exactly surprising thatthe next major intellectual challenge, that of cyber, similarly should attract analysis and assessment almost entirely naked of political and strategic meaning. Presumably, many people believed that “doing it” was more important than thinking about why one should be doing it. Anyone who seeks to think strategically is obliged to ask, “So what?” of his or her subject of current concern. But the cyber revolution did not arrive with three bangs, in a manner closely analogous to the atomic fact of the summer of 1945; instead it ambled, then galloped forward over a 25-year period, with most of us adapting to it in detail. When historians in the future seek to identify a classic book or two on cyber power written in the 1990s and 2000s, they will be hard pressed to locate even the shortest of short-listable items. There are three or four books that appear to have unusual merit, but they are not conceptually impressive. Certainly they are nowhere near deserving (oxymoronic) instant classic status. It is important that cyber should be understood as just another RMA, because it is possible to make helpful sense of it in that context. Above all else, perhaps, RMA identification enables us to place cyber where it belongs, in the grand narrative of strategic history….

Read the rest here.

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2012 USAWC Strategy Conference on Youtube Part I.

Friday, April 20th, 2012

2012 US Army War College Strategy Conference is under way. Fortunately, the major events are being videotaped and uploaded to Youtube.

Keynote address by former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage:

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The Myth of British Counterinsurgency?

Sunday, October 30th, 2011

This SSI monograph by Dr. Andrew Mumford should stir some robust debate in the COIN community:

Puncturing the Counterinsurgency Myth: Britain and Irregular Warfare in the Past, Present, and Future

Most of Mumford’s points are valid criticisms but I need to quibble with Myth # 1 The British Military is an Effective Learning Institution:

MYTH #1: THE BRITISH MILITARY IS AN EFFECTIVE LEARNING INSTITUTION

According to John Nagl, the British succeeded in Malaya-in contrast to the American failure in Vietnam-because the British army had an organizational culture akin to a so-called “learning institution,” whereby the army quickly adapted to COIN conditions and changed tactics accordingly.2 The array of operational activity, ranging from limited to total war, that the British army has experienced has arguably led to a greater degree of pragmatism in its military outlook. A dogmatic adherence to rigid military doctrine has been absent, which, when compared to the generation-long postmortem on the failure of U.S. strategy in Vietnam, perhaps explains more than most other factors why an almost mythic reputation has descended upon the British. However, this does not explain, nor should it obscure, the languid application of appropriate irregular warfare tactics and the absence of swift strategic design. When it comes to COIN, the British are slow learners.

The early phases of nearly every campaign in the classical era were marred by stagnancy, mismanagement, and confusion. The military was 2 years into the Malayan Emergency before it conceived of a cohesive civil-military strategy in the form of the Briggs Plan. The crucial early years of the troubles in Northern Ireland were marked by displays of indiscriminate force and an inability to modulate the response.3

The Director of the United Kingdom (UK) Defence Academy also concedes that, in relation to Northern Ireland, “[I]t is easy in the light of the later success . . . to forget the early mistakes and the time it took to rectify them.”4 As Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely rightly observes, the Malayan Emergency was, “a much lauded counterinsurgency campaign, but often overlooked is the fact that in the early years . . . the British Army achieved very little success.” In COIN terms, therefore, the British have been consistently slow to implement an effective strategy and achieve operational success. Moreover, the vast body of campaign experience has not translated into a cogent COIN lesson-learning process within the British military. The very need to re-learn COIN in the post-September 11, 2001 (9/11) conflict environment has undermined assertions as to the British military’s being an effective learning institution. Such amnesia has created an imperative for the armed forces now to hone their lesson-learning abilities while simultaneously adapting to the intricate challenges of sub-state and transnational post-Maoist insurgent violence in the third millennium.

What sort of time frame is reasonable for “organizational learning” – that is, transforming a large, hierarchical, bureaucratic entity’s conceptualization and understanding of a situation and reforming and adapting it’s practices in light of experience? How fast can this really happen? An org is not an individual, two years while under fire does not seem slow to me. Am I missing something in Mumford’s argument?

Furthermore, I infer from the third paragraph that Mumford expects evidence of learning were for the Brits to have arrived in Basra good-to-go on COIN doctrine. Learning, whether in a person or org, is not represented by doctrine (lessons frozen in time) but rather a capacity to adapt to new circumstances. Mumford is on firmer ground criticizing British general officers for their blind assumption that they had all the answers on counterinsurgency  while the ragtag Mahdi Army bullied and ran circles around British units.

A monograph worth reading.

Hat tip to Lexington Green and SWJ Blog)

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