zenpundit.com » Opposed systems design

Archive for the ‘Opposed systems design’ Category

Two on Strategic Thinking

Friday, December 16th, 2011

Colonel Paul Yingling hits a theme much beloved here at ZP:

An Absence of Strategic Thinking

….The future of Pakistan is more difficult to predict. It could limp along as a failing state, or suddenly fail with little warning. The West knows so little about the internal dynamics of the country that virtually any significant change will come as a surprise. Although the exact timing and extent of state failure in Pakistan is difficult to predict, the consequences of such failure are not. Partial or total state failure of a nuclear Pakistan would pose a grave threat to the United States. In such a scenario, the White House would not know who controlled Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. A nuclear-armed al Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba, or other extremist group would be difficult if not impossible to deter.

ISAF’s exit from Afghanistan has much more to do with American domestic politics than with coalition strategy. American fiscal constraints and political paralysis set this course in motion long ago, and corrective measures are unlikely in the absence of a crisis. Too often, what passes for strategic thought in the United States is actually a struggle among self-interested elites seeking political, commercial, or bureaucratic advantage. Such behavior is the privilege of a country that is both rich and safe. However, a pattern of such behavior is self-correcting: no country that behaves this way will stay rich or safe for long.

Hat tip to The Warlord Loop and SWJ Blog.

Wiggins at the Wohlstetterian Opposed Systems Design blog weighs the question of a grand strategy board and finds it to be wanting:

Everyone wants their greybeard panel but relationships and timing matter

….The influence of these sorts of boards depends massively upon relationships and timing. Senior leaders have tight schedules and must makes decisions with whatever information they have at hand. If the SECDEF or the National Security Advisor knows and trusts someone, even if they don’t have a formal role in government, then an informal conversation with that person might be able to help. But what the senior leader needs at that point is cogent and focused advice, which is why the relationship (does the leader trust the adviser? does the adviser understand what the leader really needs?) and timing (can the right advice be delivered at the right time?) matter so much.

Strategy, fundamentally, cannot be routinized. It cannot, therefore, be broken down into a bureaucratic process. Thus, any attempt to improve strategic thinking through bureaucratic reorganizations misses the point. That reality is unsatisfying and messy but accurate.

A fair point by Wiggins. The existence of a grand strategy board would be a goad to remind an incoming administration that “strategy” is important and would put a tool at their disposal. It would not guarantee strategic thinking in policy making any more than the NSC guarantees an orderly national security decision making process.

Presidents currently get the NSC they want rather than the one that they deserve, and the same would be true of a grand strategy board. Some who recognized the utility though, would use it well.

More Differing Views on China

Sunday, October 17th, 2010


Good counterpoints to my previous post:

Wiggins, whose orientation toward strategy is Wohlstetterian, offers a critique.

Opposed Systems DesignThe trauma of constrained ascendancy

….Mark correctly identifies a shift in Chinese behavior over the the past year or so. Where Mark’s analysis falls short lies in presuming that incompetence or short-sighted factions are responsible for this shift. The international relations theory of power cycles offers a richer way of understanding China’s position in the international system and how that has produced a change in its behavior.

Briefly, China’s relative rate of growth has begun to slow. After roughly 30 years of (accelerating) relatively faster growth than the major powers in the system, this trend has reversed itself. This is confusing, since in absolute terms China continues to grow and – by these same absolute measures – it came through the global financial crisis much better than the U.S. In tension with these trends, however, are a host of systemic factors that are constraining its growth (including demographic shifts, environmental degradation and inefficient capital allocations). The transition from early to late stage growth (or from labor-intensive to extensive or innovation-based growth) confronts China with new challenges. It becomes harder to accurately discern its place in the system and its trajectory of growth. This leads to more internal dissent among leaders trying to interpret these disparate trends and creates incentives to discard the cautionary policies of Deng (hide brightness, nourish obscurity). Before the first inflection point, time was on China’s side. A post-first inflection point China, on the other hand, begins to feel pressure to realize some of its ambitions before its window of opportunity closes. Hence, we begin to see cracks forming in the implementation of Deng’s strategy.

I have only read one paper on power cycles, recommended to me by Wiggins himself in his non-internet persona, so I am not qualified to comment on it’s theoretical strengths and weaknesses as an evaluative tool ( it would also help if were a quant rather than a qual academic). I will say that, as a rule of thumb, selective relative changes, those that are marginal in nature, are often perceived more acutely in terms of political angst than are absolute changes in real terms.

For example, agrarian populists in 19th century America were absolutely furious about the effects of a deflationary gold standard on crop prices relative to debt, liquidity and access to credit but not so exercised about the increases in purchasing power and access to consumer goods that farmers enjoyed that were unknown a generation earlier. Perhaps somewhere, there is a Chinese William Jennings Bryan in Shaanxi waiting to burst on the scene. 🙂 Or a von Tirpitz.  So there may be merit, in a macro-systemic sense, to Wiggins criticism of my post.

Dr. Thomas P.M. BarnettThe “rising near peer” returns the paranoid favor

….And we wonder why the Chinese military seem to think we’re their number one enemy?  Are we honestly that clueless or has our disingenuity broken through to some higher, slightly irrational plane?

Follow me into this brave, alternative world:

  • Imagine the Chinese navy holding multinational exercises with the Cubans and Venezuelans and Nicaraguans (a silly sight, I know) in the waters around Cuba, while Beijing warns us subtly that their 1979 Cuba Defense Act will be pursued to the ultimate vigor required, including the sale of advanced attack aircraft to the Cuban air force.  
  • Imagine Chinese carriers conducting such operations, sporting aircraft and weaponry that could rain destruction over most of the continental U.S. at a moment’s notice.  
  • Imagine Chinese spy craft patrolling the edge of our local waters and flying around the rim of our airspace.  
  • Imagine the Chinese selling all sorts of missile defense to Venezuela and other allies “scared of rising American militarism.”
  • Imagine weapons purchases throughout Latin America doubling in five years time, with China supplying most of the goods.  
  • Imagine Chinese naval bases and marine barracks doting the Latin American landscape and Caribbean archipelago.
  • Imagine a Cuban missile crisis-like event in the mid-1990s, which led the Chinese military to propose a new evolution in their warfare since.  
  • Imagine the Chinese military conducting regime toppling events in the Middle East, involving countries upon whom our energy dependency is dramatically and permanently rising, while China actually gets the vast bulk of its oil from non-Persian Gulf sources like Canada, Mexico, Latin America, Africa and itself.  
  • Imagine the Chinese government demanding that the Chinese military produce an elaborate report every year detailing the “disturbing” rise of U.S. military power.  
  • Imagine the Chinese military announcing their new military doctrine of attack from the sea and air, with their documents chock full of bombing maps of U.S. military installations that are widely dispersed across the entirety of the continental United States, meaning their new war doctrine has–at its core–the complete destruction of U.S. military assets on our territory as the opening bid.
  • Imagine the U.S. military stating that this new doctrine of attacking the entirety of the U.S. territory is necessary to maintaining the regional balance of power in the Western hemisphere, because the U.S. Navy has–in an “unprovoked” and “provocative” manner, begun significant patrolling operations in the Caribbean Basin, whose waters constitute a “profound” national interest to the Chinese.
  • Imagine this series of developments unfolding over close to two decades, as China, having lost its familiar great-power war foe, the Soviet Union, firmly glommed onto the U.S. as a replacement enemy image.
  • Imagine all that, and then imagine how the U.S. military views the Chinese military.  
  • Imagine if the Chinese military offered military-to-military ties under such conditions.  

What do you think the U.S. Congress would say to that?  Would it be considered “caving in” to Chinese pressure?

In backchannel, .mil circles, Tom is sometimes accused of being a “panda hugger” but I think that is attributable to the poverty of genuine strategic thinking that prevails in our national security community. A prerequisite in constructing a strategy is being able to “see the board” from the perspective of the other fellows shoes. If you can’t do that, you are stuck at the tactical-reactive level of analysis. Seeing another side’s perspective is an iterative advantage, not a weakness or evidence of sympathy. If you can game out their best moves before they can, then you are a strategist who has the ability to wrest maximum concessions at minimum cost to your own side.

We need more of that kind of thinking, not less; we’d make fewer mistakes ( like the kind the Chinese are making of late).

Following up on the Strategy Links with….More Strategy! And a Few Comments

Friday, July 2nd, 2010

Wiggins  at Opposed Systems Design responds to Kenneth Payne at CI/ KoW:

On Strategists

….Strategy – thinking about how to achieve goals with one’s given resources (in the face of an opponent), which generally requires one to find asymmetric advantages to exploit because one’s resources are finite – is a distinct activity from managing military operations or storming a building. National security strategy requires a familiarity with the nature of military operations and power, but it is not a simple extrapolation from these activities. It is a distinct skill (perhaps, as Watts argues, at least partially an innate skill that can be developed but not completely taught) and the way the U.S. military is currently structured, civilians may be better positioned to cultivate strategic expertise. To go back to Biddle’s example. He compared his career trajectory to that of a military officer. If he’d been a career officer, Biddle was about the age of an O-6, meaning that he’d have – at best – spent a few years in graduate school and perhaps a tour teaching at a service academy. Let’s say roughly six years where one’s primary task was to think, write and read about the elements of strategy. Much of his time would have been spent in managing increasingly large groupings of military force. Biddle, on the other hand, had spent the entirety of his career studying these dynamics.

I find myself largely in agreement with the salient points of my Wohlstetterian amigo, Wiggins. Or, as Herman Kahn once said ” How many nuclear wars have YOU fought, general?”

I am not knocking military expertise with that quote. Civilian appointees, politicians, newspaper editors, political activists or bloggers who have never heard a shot fired in anger have no business telling active duty military personnel which tactical response they should make in the heat of battle or much of the day to day, nuts and bolts, operational business of planning or running a military campaign. That’s why we have military professionals, unlike civilians, they know what the hell they are doing.

Strategy, in the sense of national objectives is quite another matter.

Military expertise, like all forms of expertise, is by definition, narrowly focused. Military people, from the most part, look at strategy from the perspective of how well a proposed strategy fits with the military’s capabilities and operational/doctrinal/cultural preferences and as they move further away from things military into other aspects of the DIME spectrum, their knowledge becomes less certain, their awareness of geopolitical opportunities and costs more vague or prone to error. I find this to be the case especially with economic implications, which are a crucial component of national power.  Strategy is not supposed to be about what the institutional military likes or understands best, but it is difficult for such a systemic bias not to creep in if a nation leaves its formulation of strategy exclusively to dudes in uniform with stars on their shoulders. Nor is that how a democratic system is supposed to work when existential questions are being entertained.

Strategy, unlike expertise, is broad . It applies to more forms of conflict and competition than war alone and requires an ability to connect a panoramic vision with the drill-down focus of application. More than likely, on average, the best strategists will have some expertise in more than just one narrow field and will know a fair amount about many things and have spent a long time thinking matters through from all angles prior to acting. As a consequence, they will be able to shift cognitive perspectives more easily, a fundamental characteristic of strategic thinking.

The costs of a poorly conceived strategy are likewise broad. If tactics are bad, the soldiers on the batlefield will pay the price; if the strategy is bad, we all may pay the price.

Dr. Barry Posen on American Grand Strategy

Friday, July 18th, 2008

Falling on the heels of the Bacevich post, MIT’s  Dr. Barry Posen’s testimony before the House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee for oversight calls for ” Restraint and Renewal” (PDF – guess not too many interventionists received a subcommittee invite).

Posen is a sharp thinker who aims here to deflate comfortable assumptions and a number of sacred cows – like the existence of NATO or security relationships with Israel and Japan. While much of his critique of American excess is reasonable, Posen’s alternative quasi-non interventionist grand strategy is predicated, like others in this vein, on lowballing estimates of the negative, unintended, consequences on an American strategic retraction on this scale. America pulling out of NATO military command and loosening ties with Japan and Israel will cause ripple effects in the international order.

Hat tip to Wiggins.

Two Quite Reasonable Observations

Saturday, March 8th, 2008

From John Robb at Global Guerillas:

The US national security budget is nearly $700 billion a year (much more if the total costs of Iraq/Afghanistan are thrown in), more than the rest of the world combined. Unfortunately, within that entire budget there isn’t a single research organization or think tank that is seriously studying, analyzing or synthesizing the future of warfare and terrorism. Fatally, most of the big thinkers working on the future of warfare do their critical work in their spare time, usually while working other jobs to put food on the table for their families. In sum, this deficit in imagination will soon be the critical determinant on whether the national security bureaucracy remains relevant in a rapidly changing global security environment. That relevance is the key to its future.

From Fabius Maximus:

This has been criticised as dividing insurgencies into rigid categories – black and white, not accounting for the shades of grey found in all human experiences.  That is both true and a good thing.  All rules of thumb are arbitary, in some sense, but useful for practicioners who know their limitations.  Even the exceptions to this “rule” about insurgencies, and I believe they are quite few, tell us something new.  For example, the Malayan Emergency shows the importance of having a legitmate local government to do the heavy lifting (even though the COIN literature tend to follow the Brits’ view, considering it “their” win – not that of the locals).

The value of these kinds of insights was well expressed by a post Opposed Systems Design (4 March 2008):

A deeper understanding of these dynamics deserves an organized research program. The first concept – an artifically binary distinction between “foreign COIN” and “native COIN” – has served its purpose by highlighting the need for further work on the subject.

One reason for our difficulty grappling with 4GW is the lack of organized study.  We could learn much from a matrix of all insurgencies over along period (e.g., since 1900), described in a standardized fashion, analyzed for trends.  This has been done by several analysts on the equivalent of “scratch pads” (see IWCKI for details), but not with by a properly funded multi-disciplinary team (esp. to borrow or build computer models).

 We are spending trillions to fight a long war without marshalling or analysing the available data.  Hundreds of billions for the F-22, but only pennys for historical research.  It is a very expensive way to wage war.

When the Cold War was as young, the newest of America’s armed services, the Air Force, sought an intellectual edge over their venerable and tradtion-bound brothers and funded the ur-Think Tank, RAND Corporation. I say “funded” because the USAF brass, while they expected products that would justify a strategic raison d’etre for the Air Force to Congress, wisely allowed their creation autonomy and this in turn yielded intellectual freedom, exploration and creativity. The Air Force and the United States were richly rewarded by these egghead “wild men” who advanced nuclear warfighting and deterrence strategies, Game Theory analytics,  a renaissance in wargaming, Futurism and a multilpicity of other successes. Moreover, RAND itself became a model for a proliferation of other think tanks that created an intellectual zone for public intellectuals and scientists outside of the constraints of academia.

We need something like that today. A few years back, I called for a “DARPA for Foreign Policy” but the need is equally critical in considering the future of war and conflict as is taking a multidisciplinary, intersectional, insight-generating “Medici Effect” approach.

We can do better.

Wow-That-Was-Fast Department:

Wiggins extends the conversation on RAND’s origins as an inspiration for today.

Switch to our mobile site