May 17, 2012

The Political Economy of Operational Art

In the Principles of War, the Principle of Mass
calls for the commander to concentrate combat power at the decisive time
and place. Sounds simple enough. Those who allowed themselves to be defeated in detail learned firsthand the price of forgoing this maxim during Napoleonic engagements. The Allied inability to reinforce the advance force at Arnhem in World War II stands as a modern operational example of concentration's importance. But this obscures one problem: while the Principle calls for concentration at the decisive time and place, militaries can concentrate in exclusively  spatial or temporal dimensions. A military can certainly concentrate in the decisive time and place, but it can also concentrate either in a defined space or execute a simultaneous concentration in many contigious or noncontigious spaces linked together by an common operational design. For example, a commander could throw his or her combat power in one sector of the enemy's defenses in the hope of effecting a breakthrough or press multiple points at the same time.

There is some controversy in the Civil War historiographical community as to whether or not Archer Jones or James McPherson should be credited with the idea of concentration in time. Either way, as the linked blog makes clear, the notion is somewhat of an anachronism. Civil War operational artists certainly thought in term of simultaneous advances, but the notion of those advances equating to a kind of temporal concentration should not be taken as a given. Whatever the origins of the concept, the idea of concentration in time holds that it is possible to generate a significant concentration of force across an theater of war, or in the case of a multitheater strategic offensive, throughout any and all important areas of military competition. McPherson's argument in Tried by War, to some extent reinforced by James Schneider's idea of a distributed campaign made up of several simultaneous and/or successive operations, is that Lincoln and his generals conceived of later strategic offensives as continent-wide. Operations in one theater reinforced the other in service to one overriding strategic design. Concentration in time generates cumulative rather than wholly sequential pressure on an adversary, leading to a cascading military failure. In an odd way, concentration in time--especially when it pursues a strategic center of gravity--is the real "effects-based operation."

Schneider makes clear that distributed campaignng is not by any means easy. Concentration in time requires continuous logistics to support the complex architecture of a distributed campaign, and instaneous command and control is also needed to deal with the increased tactical and operational opportunities that a distributed force encounters.  The obsession with "self-synchronization" in the network-centric literature is one example of an effort by information-age militaries to deal with the problem of command and control in a distributed campaign. As befitting the continental bias of the operational art literature as a whole, concentration in time is obviously dependent on having the resources to mount simultaneous and successive operations. Concentration in time looks more realizable with lesser numbers in a naval context, with a exponentially larger operational space and powerful platforms capable of exerting power over operational distances. Naval power is still governed by Schneider's basic set of requirements despite its general difference from the continental model of military theory the notion of operational art issues from.

The past ten years of operations seem to suggest that Western military forces struggle to meet any of Schneider's basic requirements for distributed campaigning. Logistically, as Jonathan Riley points out, Western forces struggle to supply continuous logistics:

In modern campaigns, static operations in theatres like the
Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan have brought their own problems in
over-stretching military logistic units and military forces that rely on
contractors to provide many functions. This situation is almost the
reverse of Napoleonic times. Once the line of communication has been
established, the use of contracts allied to food technology and other
commodity storage have made it far simpler to maintain a static force
than a mobile one.

Indeed, contractors have become indispensible to projecting force across strategic distances and for austere militaries it is also financially easier to build supplies off networks of contracts than generate sustainment as a core competency. If Napoleonic armies foraged off the land and industrial logistics created a continuous stream of mobile supply that could follow a campaign, even shattering operational successes like the Gulf War were dependent on prestocked logistics and base infrastructure. My Abu Muquwama blogmate Dan Trombly has also written at his own site about the importance of prestocked equipment in maintaining a capacity for intervening in the Hormuz strait.

Instantenous command and control has also recently eluded Western military forces. Martin van Creveld has written often about the growth in headquarters staffs and the growing complexity of what used to be a simple staff process for generating orders and processing operations. To some extent, this is a result of technological and organizational complexity. Witness the Herculean struggles of an brigade commander in Afghanistan:

Few people would recognize the sheer
amount of complex equipment fielded to a brigade today that requires sync. There
is much, much more to integrate. We have UAVs employed by every echelon from
Company to Theater level, plus helicopters and CAS to manage. The airspace is
complex and must be deconflicted. We have signals collection gear that does
some amazing stuff. We have ground penetrating radar mine detectors. We have
precision guided mortar rounds. We have explosive detection dogs. Electronic
jamming gear. We have various MISO/PSYOP assets, such as portable radio
stations. We have balloons to integrate into the ISR plans with all kinds of
towers. We have a host of interagency and joint embeds. We have ISAF/NATO
countries which may or may not speak the language. We have SOF assets playing
in our area with their own enablers. The list goes on but you get the idea. None
of this can be employed haphazardly or we lose the effect of the system, or
worse, the systems "fratricide" each other unless someone is looking
holistically at the employment. So mission command has its limits.

The cost of this complexity, especially when it comes to even more organizationally tangled Coalition operations, is the ability to exploit local opportunities and respond to local conditions. Granted, commanders in previous wars dealt with an equally complex array of weapons, units, and armies (Alexander, Hannibal, and the Persians had large multinational armies with platforms ranging from horse archers to war elephants) but did so with the benefit of unity of command, more personalized command and control, and smaller operating environments. Moreover, as David Johnson has argued about the 2006 Lebanon War, the languid (compared to mobile campaigns like 1940, 1967, or 1991) pace of guerrilla wars accustoms operational planners to a far different style of operations then would be characteristic either of mobile or static conventional wars. Finally, modern wars has added the legal problems inherent in the modern targeting process and the concept of operational "lawfare" to the already tangled command and control loop.

These complex military organizations are also simply much smaller than they used to be. Technological advances have made individual weapons and units more powerful, but at the price of investing in complex platforms that require a more technically complex support infrastructure. The complexity of qualititvely superior platforms and their attendant personnel costs feeds into the problem of a contractor-augmented "tooth-to-tail" ratio and fuels the growing fiscal crisis of Western democracies. Escalating per-unit costs of technologically complex weapons designed for qualitative superiority fed through a dysfunctional design and acquisition process are responsible not only for problem-plagued aerial dominance fighter aircraft, but also a host of other troubled platforms. Even the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), originally conceptualized as a light craft to extend Western power to littoral regions, has become a financial sinkhole. Cost growth in major weapons platforms and growing personnel costs (which as noted before have a symbiotic relatioship) add to the costs of replacing and/or modernizing aging Cold War platforms.

This "wicked problem" has been dubbed the "defense train wreck." This, as Dakota Wood noted a couple years ago about the threat posed to the Marine Corps's institutional design by the fiscal drain of the F-35B and the Expenditionary Fighting Vehicle, not only complicates employing core platforms but threatens service and theater strategies writ large. It goes without saying that these problems, while toleable in a flush fiscal climate, are deadly in today's atmosphere of fiscal austerity. And at a certain point, quantity has a quality all of its own, particularly when expeditionary forces are far from their strategic base area and are confronted by local forces with an abundance of cheap but deadly weapons. This, without DoD buzzwords, is what "anti-access" amounts to. The United States, after all, relied on anti-access capabilities in the 19th century with its coastal fortress network and defensive naval strategy.

In Afghanistan and Iraq the cost of operations, inflexible logistics easily disrupted by political concerns or enemy action, and small forces spread out over large distances hampers the ability of military forces to gain strategic control. Just as in naval strategy, the cost of gaining control over a large area with small distributed forces is substantial. The cost, on the other hand, to the enemy of disputing control is very small. Joshua Foust has noted in his Afghanistan metrics series that the ability of the Taliban to sustain complex attacks in Kabul over many years has had a significant political cost to Afghan perceptions of safety and security, and Foust has argued elsewhere that military pressure in Helmand came at the expense of security in other equally important regions.

Looking to the future, the growth of urban megacities does not particularly bode well for small expeditionary forces. John Collins argued in his Military Geography that the Schlieffen Plan, if dodgy in 1914, might be impossible today due to the slowing power of extensive urbanization in what used to be terrain fit perfectly for mobile war. It is difficult for even host nations to exercise control over large cities, as anyone familiar with Latin American public security problems may surmise. For a long time, criminals in Rio de Janeiro controlled fortified neighborhood expanses and police, like American troops pre-Surge, engaged mainly in raiding operations. Peace in El Salvador was (albeit perhaps temporarily) granted by a truce between the country's two most powerful gangs, not a government political-military operation.

If concentration in time was really a 19th century innovation borne out by the power of industrial command and control and logistics, the political and military economy of Western defense suggests a potential return to the military methods of an era before the age of mass armies. Armies moved in dense blocks, proficient through rigid command and control at intrabattle maneuver but struggled at intratheater maneuver--to say nothing of strategic power projection. Some accounts of 18th century operations read like modern news clippings. Modern operations, like the 18th century depot system that so frustrated the generals of that period, are increasingly tied to dense stockpiles. Contractors taking over core military competencies is not, as commonly portrayed, really an alarming product of today's politics. Rather, it is a return to what really can be considered a military norm in recent Western history. Finally, brittle platform-intensive Western militaries may not be risked for fear of damage and loss of expensive machines or valuable personnel, just as Frederician militaries were similarly frustrated by the cost of direct battle. 

Concentration in space, which assumed paramount importance in the days in which low-ranged and relatively inefficient weapons needed to be massed to achieve tactical effect, may come back to the fore. The primary difference is that the space in which concentration occurs has grown exponentially larger. We aren't going back to Leuthen or Cannae-type engagements.  The other crucial difference is that the means by which military power is concentrated also do not have to fit a 19th century continental model of military power.

American power projection has traditionally prized a different form of strategic concentration than either the continental or purely naval schools of strategy. As Dan has pointed out, drones and special forces are simply the latest manifestation of the age-old American design for naval-backed discrete operations:

The broad authorization for use of military force which began the War on
Terror and its “undeclared” nature has very little to do with drone
technology, and more to do with the fact that the United States has
never formally declared war on a non-state actor in its history. Even in
areas frequently identified with drone warfare, such as the Horn of
Africa, Yemen, and Pakistan, non-drone US interference has occurred at
varying levels of frequency during the War on Terror. As I have argued
before, drones increase operating tempo more than anything else. ...The tradition of undeclared wars against belligerent irregular foes
across poorly defined regions is something very familiar to the Founding
Fathers. .... The all-volunteer force,
private contractors, and sea-deployed small units conducting raids into
sovereign countries are products of the US body politic’s rejection of
the heavy costs of mass mobilization, but continued interest in
responding to actual or perceived threats and slights to broadly
conceived notions of America’s international rights – in many respects,
it is a return to the Barbary-style of warfare (the tradition of which
is reflected in the “Small Wars” era of USMC operations in the early
20th century), where irregular threats did not merit a formal
declaration of war and were dealt with without conscription or
mass mobilization of the army. 

Dan gets to the heart of where strategy really becomes linked to political economy. Traditional European continental military powers that in earlier eras pioneered the era of mass warfare no longer have the capability to exert power beyond their borders and generally lack threats to justify large mobile combined-arms forces for warfare on the Eurasian landmass. The United States has traditionally rejected the continental model of military power and large standing forces were maintained only after World War II and Korea made clear the necessity of projecting worldwide military power. The Cold War can be seen as an exercise in grand strategic concentration in time. The United States aimed, when possible, to project military and paramilitary force in theaters both crucial (Europe, the Persian Gulf, and Northeast Asia) and peripheral (Southast Asia, most of the Middle East, and Latin America) rather than forfeit any kind of advantage to what was viewed as a monolithic Communist threat.

Such a worldwide threat is a historical aberration. A landscape of discretionary wars and humanitarian interventions with small contractor-supported and paramilitary-intensive military forces is actually truest to American political tradition. The late 1700s to early 1900s yields many examples of interventions waged by flexible naval-enabled forces, from American participation in the crushing of the Boxer Rebellion to the Banana Wars. When Eisenhower attempted to implement the "New Look," it was a attempt to consciously do away with the continental operational model of massive land forces in the hope that nuclear forces could bridge the gap. As Dan notes, the political economy of American strategy and operations is, contrary to dreams of an better past, extremely conducive to undeclared wars and covert operations. Take a look at the Quasi War and the Barbary Wars, waged under extremely questionable legal backing and in the case of the latter supported by foreign militias raised by American operators. And as David Parrot argues in The Business of War, Western militaries as a whole have traditionally preferred flexible forces augmented with contractors and local auxilaries in a "plug-and-play" fashion to large national armies. Such methods, to the extent they are politically viable, constitute the best chance of enabling Western power projection in the new fiscal environment.

Does this mean that these interventions will manifest in strategic effect? Not necessarily. But this is not necessarily a problem with the means provided by American material or the ways dictated by American operational art. Rather, it is a problem of strategic ends. If political economy dictates a certain style of operations for the near term, American strategists ought to take note of what such force can and cannot realize on the world stage. But a reversion back to older ways of using force does not necessarily imply a simultaneous reversion to older political and strategic conceptions of military goals. The challenge for military planners is to reconcile, as always, the means and ways available to a political determination of ends wholly (and rightly) outside their sphere of influence.