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New Book: American Spartan by Ann Scott Tyson

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

American Spartan: The Promise, the Mission, and the Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant by Ann Scott Tyson 

Was just sent a review copy of American Spartan courtesy of Callie at  Oettinger & Associates which tells the story of Major Jim Gant, the special forces officer and AfPak hand who pushed hard for a controversial strategy in Afghanistan based on arming and training loyalist paramilitaries out of Afghan tribesmen ( or whatever localist network would suffice when tribal identity was weak or absent). I am looking forward to reading this book for a number of reasons.

Long time readers may recall Gant coming to wider attention with his paper, One Tribe at a Time with an assist from noted author Steven Pressfield, where he called for a campaign strategy against the Taliban from “the bottom up” using “the tribes” because the current top down strategy of killing insurgents while building a strong, centralized, state would never work – the war would just drag on indefinitely until the US grew tired and quit Afghanistan ( as is happening….now). Gant, who forged a tight relationship with Afghan tribal leader  Noor Azfal ,won some fans with his paper in very high places, including SECDEF Robert Gates and Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus who gave him some cover to implement his ideas but he also faced formidable resistance and criticism. Academic experts were particularly incensed by Gant’s broad-brush use of “tribes” to cover a wide array of local networks and Afghan identities and that “tribes” were a term modern anthropology held in deep disdain ( RAND’s David Ronfeldt pointed out that while these networks are not historical tribes they are certainly “tribal” in terms of behavior patterns) while the government of Mohammed Karzai and its American boosters were bitterly hostile to any strategy that might arm locals outside Kabul’s direct control.

  It was also a risky strategy. Loyalist paramilitaries are often very effective in a military sense – as happened in Colombia when the government tolerated and encouraged private militias to make war on FARC and the ELN and badly mauled the Communist insurgents – but they are inherently unreliable politically. Paramilitaries can also  “go off the reservation” – this also happened in Colombia – and commit atrocities or become criminal enterprises or engage in warlordism and have to be reined in by the government. All of these were particular risks in the context of Afghanistan where warlordism and drug trafficking had been particularly acute problems even under Taliban rule. On the other hand, warlordism and drug trafficking has hardly been unknown in the ANA regular units and national police and is hardly the province only of irregulars.

Another reason I am interested in this book is the subtitle’s accusation of “betrayal” which I infer comes out of the long institutional cultural and chain of command clashes of bureaucratic politics between Big Army and Special Forces and Special Operations Forces communities. The long history in the big picture is that many general purpose force commanders do not know how to use these troops to best strategic effect and sometimes resent the autonomy with which they operate ( a resentment returned and repaid  at times with a lack of consultation and ignoring of local priorities in operational planning).

The author, Ann Scott Tyson is a long-time and experienced war reporter who embedded extensively with US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. She is also married to her subject which should make for some interesting analysis when I review the book.

Lind on “the Navy’s Intellectual Seppuku”

Saturday, February 22nd, 2014

William Lind had a very important piece regarding an extraordinarily ill-considered move by the Navy brass:

The Navy Commits Intellectual Seppuku 

The December, 2013 issue of the Naval Institute’s Proceedings contains an article, “Don’t Say Goodbye to Intellectual Diversity” by Lt. Alexander P. Smith, that should receive wide attention but probably won’t. It warns of a policy change in Navy officer recruiting that adds up to intellectual suicide. Lt. Smith writes, “Starting next year, the vast majority of all NROTC graduates will be STEM majors (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) with minimal studies in the humanities … As a result of the new policy, a high school senior’s best chance of obtaining a Navy scholarship is to apply for Tiers 1 and 2 (engineering, hard sciences, and math), since CNO guidance specifies that not less than 85 percent of incoming officers will come from this restricted pool.”

….The engineering way of thinking and the military way of thinking are not merely different. They are opposites. Engineering, math, and other sciences depend on analysis of hard data. Before you make a decision, you are careful to gather all the facts, however long that may take. The facts are then carefully analyzed, again without much regard for the time required. Multiple actors check and re-check each others’ work. Lowest-common-denominator, committee-consensus decisions are usually the safest course. Anything that is not hard data is rejected. Hunches have no place in designing a bridge.

Making military decisions in time of war could not be more different. Intuition, educated guessing, hunches, and the like are major players. Hard facts are few; most information is incomplete and ambiguous, and part of it is always wrong, but the decision-maker cannot know how much or which parts. Creativity is more important than analysis. So is synthesis: putting parts together in new ways. Committee-consensus, lowest-common-denominator decisions are usually the worst options. Time is precious, and a less-than-optimal decision now often produces better results than a better decision later. Decisions made by one or two people are often preferable to those with many participants. There is good reason why Clausewitz warned against councils of war.

Read the whole thing here.

Rarely have I seen Lind more on target than in this piece.

Taking a rank-deferential, strongly hierarchical organization and by design making it more of a closed system intellectually and expecting good things to happen should disqualify that person from ever being an engineer because they are clearly too dumb to understand what resilience and feedback are. Or second and third order effects.

STEM, by the way, is not the problem. No one should argue for an all-historian or philosopher Navy either. STEM is great. Engineers can bring a specific and powerful kind of problem solving framework to the table. The Navy needs a lot of smart engineers.

It is just that no smart engineer would propose to do this because the negative downstream effects of an all-engineer institutional culture for an armed service are self-evident.

Should we Laugh or Cry?

Friday, September 13th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski a.k.a “zen“]

Throughout the past half century or so, it became commonplace for high level officials to speak to reporters cloaked in anonymity as “sources in the White House” or who were “close to the Oval Office” in order to pass along slightly harder truths or acidic observations to the public without attribution. Generally, these comments, however troubling the format, were usually smarter and more honest than the ones that could be heard extolling the administration line at official briefings or press conferences.

Well, the Obama administration is working hard to reverse that impression. In a little over a week, we have had these gems from senior officials regarding Syria and Russia:

A second senior official, who has seen the most recent planning, offered this metaphor to describe such a strike: If Assad is eating Cheerios, we’re going to take away his spoon and give him a fork. Will that degrade his ability to eat Cheerios? Yes. Will it deter him? Maybe. But he’ll still be able to eat Cheerios.

This is actually the less disturbing of the two examples. While inane as a choice of metaphor, it did at least correctly indicate the strategic insignificance of doing a “protest bombing” of Assad narrowly targeted to punish for chemical weapons use. That’s something.

This next one is truly amazing:

“Putin is now fully invested in Syria’s CW (chemical weapons) disarmament….

He put this proposal forward and he’s now invested in it. That’s good. That’s the best possible reaction. He’s fully invested in Syria’s CW disarmament and that’s potentially better than a military strike – which would deter and degrade but wouldn’t get rid of all the chemical weapons. He now owns this. He has fully asserted ownership of it and he needs to deliver.”

Yes, I’m certain Putin will put that right at the top of his to-do list now that he has finished submitting his ghost-written op-ed spiking the ball and doing a five minute celebratory dance in the White House end zone.

Let’s hope that was cynical posturing and not an expression of the administration’s operative geopolitical power calculus because it sounds remarkably like a political consultant type trying to import the effects of domestic political spinmeistership into foreign policy making. It is at best an exercise in wishful thinking unhinged from the cold and cruel realities of international relations.

If it represents the quality of thinking on foreign policy surrounding the President of the United States, then we may all be in big trouble.

American Caesar — a reread after 30 years

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

[by J. Scott Shipman]

American Caesar, Douglas MacArthur 188-1964, by William Manchester

Often on weekends my wife allows me to tag along as she takes in area estate sales. She’s interested in vintage furniture, and I hope for a decent collection of books. A sale we visited a couple months ago had very few books, but of those few was a hardback copy of American Caesar. I purchased the copy for $1 and mentioned to my wife, “I’ll get to this again someday…” as I’d first read Manchester’s classic biography of General Douglas MacArthur in the early 1980’s while stationed on my first submarine. “Someday” started on the car ride home (she was driving), and I must admit: American Caesar was even better thirty years later. Manchester is a masterful biographer, and equal to the task of such a larger-than-life subject.

MacArthur still evokes passion among admirers and detractors. One take-away from the second reading was just how well-read MacArthur and his father were. When MacArthur the elder died, he left over 4,000 books in his library—both seemed to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of history and warfare. Highly recommended.

PS: I visited the MacArthur Memorial, in Norfolk, Virginia, recently while in town for business and would recommend as well.

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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