by Adam Elkus
Counterinsurgency’s apparent sunset has left the military struggling for a new mission, but it will always have operational art. Once an arcane subfield dominated by specialists in Soviet and German history, doctrine and rhetoric about the design of operations and campaigns reached its zenith in large stabilization and state-building missions.
Rhetorical and practical reliance on operational theory did not end with the Warsaw Pact. Military professionals’ criticism of traditional operational planning methods, the uncertainty induced by unclear political and strategic guidance, and expansive state-building operations all fueled an ongoing reconsideration of the operational art. The result was Design, a new philosophy of operations that challenges traditional modes of operational planning.
The sunset (for now) of counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan presents Design practitioners with both a challenge and an opportunity. Will Design adapt to the changed strategic and geopolitical context of American operations? Or will it become sidelined to the netherworld of “operations other than war,” advisory and training missions, and paramilitary operations? The answer depends precisely on what defines as “Design.”
Operational Theory, History, and Praxis
Design is conceptually linked, though not identical to, operational art. But what is operational art? Ideas of operational art and the alleged “operational level of war” are heavily contested in military doctrine and theory. The preeminent questions guiding the study and practice of the operational art have hardly been resolved. Is operational art a cognitive process that links tactics to strategy, as Huba Wass de Czege has argued? Or is the operational level an empirically valid evolution in the structure of the military art? James J. Schneider has observed a qualitative difference in pre-industrial warfare, governed by concentration into a small space to achieve tactical effect, and the industrial practice of distributed campaigns and massed firepower. Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive. Operational art could be both cognitive device and historical fact. But Schneider, and landpower specialists like Christopher Bellamy discuss landpower in strikingly different terms than Wass de Czege, emphasizing the physical element of operational art over the cognitive emphasis of campaign planning.
For the purpose of argument, let’s suppose operational specialists agree on what operational art constitutes. But when did it begin? Martin Van Creveld and Claus Telp both posit operational warfare as a trend with broadly Napoleonic origins. Other authors, such as Schneider, focus their operational lens towards the mid-19th century or later. Most operational history also mostly neglects naval and air campaigns, to say nothing of small arms. If operational art is a product of the industrial revolution, it is hard to justify a focus on wars dominated by small-unit actions between guerrillas and light infantry. The continental bias of operational theoreticians also colors the neglect of naval warfare and airpower.
Assuming we can agree on what operational art is and when it began, one last remaining historical dispute remains: did America have an operational art before the 1980s? Those familiar with distributed campaigns in the Civil War may find the question silly, but the narrative of American operational art places AirLand Battle as the beginning of American operational doctrinal consciousness. The historical consensus in operational history commonly depicted pre-1980s American commanders as operational neophytes. Russell Weigley, for example, uses the failure of American forces to achieve a complete annihilation in the Normandy campaign as evidence of the essentially tactical focus of the American military art. But this operational consensus may no longer hold true.
Michael Matheny makes a convincing case in his book Carrying the War to the Enemy that America prepared its officers well for the operational dimension of World War II. American forces successfully executed complex combined operations in North Africa, France, the Phillipines, and Okinawa as a result of the operational education they received during the interwar period. American operational art emerges not as a pale imitation of Soviet Deep Operations or German blitzkrieg but an original synthesis of logistical feats of genius and synergistic coordination of complex combined expeditionary operations. Cyber warfare is emerging as a significant addition to the American operational suite.
Combined operations and power projection are the raw material of American strategy. Without them, America could not hope to operate globally. It is precisely these kinds of difficult operations that are most challenged by the “anti-access” threat in Asia and the Middle East. But do American commanders design operations and campaigns to further strategy, or does the US simply do grand tactics? Merely being able to coordinate large, air-land-sea operations does not mean they will realize the political object.
Elements of Design
The military concept of Design, like operational art itself, is also contested. Merely the word “Design” involves a conceptual choice—are we talking about Design in the Army, the design of operations (an old notion), or the Israeli Systemic Operational Design? While the conceptual roots of Design may partially lie in Shimon Naveh’s study of Soviet theory and operations on the Eastern Front and his identification of operational art as a “cognitive tension” between strategy and tactics, Design has evolved significantly. There is the Army’s version of Design, which has aimed to improve critical thinking in the design of operations by emphasizing different concepts of organization, methodology, and operational art. Other versions of Design have drifted throughout the joint community and professional military journals.
Building a synthesis for discussion starts with Schneider and Naveh’s metaphor of the operational commander as creative designer, using individual battles to build a distributed campaign. This idea, in turn, can be linked with Donald Schon’s The Reflective Practitioner, which advanced a similar notion of a broadly self-aware professional who used “reflection-in-action” to bridge the at times cavernous gap between artistic and technical aspects of a discipline. (Schon is discussed in this Military Review article).
Ben Zwiebelson describes Design as a theory that is simultaneously skeptical of dominant theory. Zwiebelson explains that Design is not a doctrine, concept, or methodology. The Designer is simply someone who broadly rejects any one narrative of conflict, using multiple systems of logic—broadly defined as ways of seeing the world—to cope with the operational environment. “Systems of logic” consist of empirical material (brute material facts), theoretical concepts such as language, mathematics, ideologies, and other processes that interact with empirical material to explain the world, and metaphors that promote new ways of thinking. These ingredients combine into narratives and scripts that explain the world within the system of logic’s limiting framework. Narratives and scripts also anticipate how external reality will react to an individual or organization’s action and manifest themselves in organizational behavior.
Despite Design’s theoretical pluralism, most theorists reject reductionism. Most, however, disagree about what it constitutes. Ketti Davison describes both Effects-Based Operations and Design as reactions against the industrial-era methods of decomposition inherent in the MDMP. Zwiebelson argues that the MDMP no longer reflects the complex realities of modern military operations. Drawn from the empirical material of enemy, geography, technology, population, space, and time, reductionism employs generally agreed tactical, operational and strategic vocabulary such as the principles of war, centers of gravity, and end states as theoretical content. Metaphors, in turn, are generated through lessons-learned reports and the culling of historical anecdotes to explain how future conflicts will occur. Narratives and scripts manifest in the form of the MDMP and the Joint Operation Planning Process (JOPP).
Design theorists criticize reductionism for its engineering framework and assumption that operational problems will be neatly defined by planning guidance. Others argue that the concept of an end-state and backwards planning represent the military’s hubristic assumption that it can use an engineering process to bend reality to its will. In other words, planners expect operational and strategic problems will end because Phase IV ordains it so. Zwiebelson argues that increasing complexity and self-organization in the operating environment make reductionism problematic. Design can promote an unlimited variety of alternative logics that may manifest themselves in genuinely new and useful ways of knowledge and practice. These logics range from systems approaches borrowed from ecology to broadly postmodern and poststructuralist philosophy.
Key to the concept of Design are, as the Commander’s Appreciation And Campaign Design states, the attendant concepts of structurally complex and interactively complex systems. A car is a structurally complex system: closed and elaborate, but driven entirely by internal dynamics. Cities and social groups, on the other hand, are interactively complex. Their dynamics are difficult to product and more characterized by nonlinearity. The Design critique of reductionism is that it emphasizes structural complexity at the expense of interactive complexity.
Design Theory: Context and Critique
It is unlikely that Design would have advanced without the intellectual shock that the post-9/11 conflicts inflicted on the American defense intellectual base. September 11, Iraq, and Afghanistan were direct epistemological threats to the way of war that the United States military had painstakingly developed in the aftermath of Vietnam. Concepts such as Effects-Based Operations (EBO), Rapid Decisive Operations (RDO), and the expansion of Network-Centric Warfare (NWC) from the mere networking of forces into a means of using American military force to shift global “rule sets” all were rooted in a set of assumptions that ultimately proved to be fallacious. The enemy was deprived of agency, and the resulting chaos created room for radical new approaches. Hew Strachan also has noted that the operational level dominates because the strategic and policy threads above it have frayed and decayed.
But has war really grown so complex? There is compelling evidence that, contrary to the writings of everyone from Martin van Creveld to the National Strategic Narrative’s “Mr. Y,” that the structural and interactive complexity of the contemporary operating environment is exaggerated. As Colin S. Gray has argued, there is little fundamental difference between conventional and irregular wars. Conventional wars feature special operations and guerrilla resistance movements, and irregular wars have included pitched battles. Iraq and Afghanistan are a synthesis of classical, modern, and allegedly postmodern small wars. Warfare as a whole has always been distinguished by chaos and complexity—indeed the very nonlinearity of conflict is expressed through Carl von Clausewitz’s metaphor of the “trinity” of emotion, chance and reason and his ideas on fog and friction.
The question of whether or not Afghanistan is a special case of complexity depends in part on one’s willingness to acknowledge the obvious. Afghanistan is complex because the task of building a secure and legitimate government with a semblance of the monopoly of force is complex. Foreigners are least placed to marshal what Karl Polayni dubs “tacit knowledge”—information that can only be transmitted experientially. Or listen to Friedrich Hayek’s 1945 warning to would-be central planners:
The peculiar character of the problem of a rational economic order is determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess. The economic problem of society is thus not merely a problem of how to allocate "given" resources—if "given" is taken to mean given to a single mind which deliberately solves the problem set by these "data." It is rather a problem of how to secure the best use of resources known to any of the members of society, for ends whose relative importance only these individuals know. Or, to put it briefly, it is a problem of the utilization of knowledge which is not given to anyone in its totality.
Hayek discussed the problems in creating a domestic economic order among those who share far more political, cultural, and social assumptions than the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) share with the Afghans. And, of course, Hayek was writing about a peacetime creation of economic order. There is little peace to be had in Afghanistan, and little political and social consensus. This is not to say that Afghans are exotic and unknowable, but that they live in a society ravaged by 30 years of civil war. A society, one might add, that is understandable only to a small minority of Western area specialists and academics. Everyone else, for better or worse, is walking blind.
Afghanistan is both structurally complex and interactively complex. So was the Normandy campaign. Injecting force into the European continent was an endeavor rooted in interactively complex political, military, and operational problems. All of these problems—from weather to the political implications of who would rule a postwar France—had bearing on the design of the campaign. World War II in general only appears structured in retrospect. British and American internal debates over international security policy throughout the 1930s at times demonstrated that all-important criterion of ill-structuredness: educated professionals did not even agree on the structure of the political-military problem. Deciding on the future of warfare, against the backdrop of seismic technological, doctrinal, and political shifts was also far from simple.
The Persian intrusion into Greece, the challenge posed to the European order by the French Revolution and the fanatical energies it unleashed, security debates of the 1920s and 30s, the global Cold War were all regarded as highly complex events that shattered old ways of thinking and shifted basic points of reference. Compared to these titanic events, can it really be said that 1991-2012 was similarly transformative as to warrant a radical rethinking of the way we plan operations and campaigns?
It is true that the assumptions of linear causality inherent in many aspects of military education do not serve soldiers well in a world that simply refuses to behave. A tactical and reductionist way of viewing the operational or strategic issue as simply the sum of its parts is unlikely to yield solid results. But just because making strategy is difficult does not necessarily mean that strategy itself—as conceived within the framework of ends, ways, and means—is at fault. Perhaps specific plans, operations, tactics, and a technocratic way of war failed the US. But no traditional theorist cognizant of war’s eternal challenges promised the ability to control an outcome. A strategist, as Gray argues, is a “hero” fighting against chaotic forces that could pull him under at any given moment.
Designing Future Operations
Academic debate aside, the political and operational context in which Design was conceived may be nearing a close. Iraq (for now) has been emptied of American soldiers. In Afghanistan, American presence is being downsized. High-end threats, in the form of the elusive “anti-access” opponent have captured the Pentagon’s imagination. Standoff campaigns and small-scale raiding has become the order of the day from Pakistan to the Horn of Africa.
The future cannot be conclusively predicted, but large-scale third party state-building is rare in American history. There are, however, plenty of punitive expeditions and acts of gunboat diplomacy. American history is replete with maritime and air power projection operations for limited ends. It is the Banana Wars, not Vietnam or Iraq, that stands as the archetype of American irregular war. To the extent these campaigns involve operational art, they privilege Matheny’s idea of American operations---expeditionary joint campaigns. Absent the stimulus of large-scale stabilization, can Design ultimately survive as a mainstream tool of operational design, or will it be relegated to military niche?
It would be a shame if Design theory and practice vanished during the anti-access/area denial era. US operations in the Persian Gulf and Southeast Asia today contain a multitude of complex threats and issues ranging from high-end conventional technologies to irregular threats such as cyberwarfare and paramilitary special operations units. Force-on-force warfare is distinguished not only by highly technical calculations but also by nonlinearity, self-organization, and complexity. The Design critique hits home precisely because the American approach tends to lead to suboptimal strategic outcomes. As Echevarria noted in his article on the military’s sometimes-erroneous approach to Centers of Gravity (COG), military planners can fixate on finding the COG—as defined in their professional military education—at the expense of losing the larger strategic picture. If such a reductive approach was problematic during a time of uncontested primacy, it is even more dangerous in what may be a more multipolar age.
Different logics that enable alternative approaches to the design of operations are necessary, as well as even “anti-approaches” more characterized by emergence and self-organization than top-down orders. At its heart, Design is simply a way of encouraging alternatives to dominating military practices, or at the very minimum not taking established practices for granted.
Design and the Canon of Operations
If Design privileges a new language that cannot be integrated into military practice without adopting a radically different vocabulary, what does this mean for ideas of strategy that we have come to treasure? If the problem lies in our hesitation to embrace alternative ideas—in their original form, not necessarily the way they are transmitted in doctrine and organizational behavior—are we at risk of forgetting the fundamentals?
The Design debate parallels the quarrels over the literary “canon” in the humanities during the 1980s, despite the deep divide between warfighting and arcane debates about Roland Barthes and the “pleasure of the text.” Traditionalists such as Harold Bloom believed firmly in a canon and the importance of preserving a core of tradition that was more or less unalterable. More revolutionary academics wanted to overthrow this canon, challenge its leading figures, and problematize the epistemic assumptions from which it was built. Neither side completely necessarily won. The canon was expanded to include more diverse writers and emphasize a more critical approach to the study of literature. It was difficult to argue against the contention that certain writers had been unjustly overlooked and certain methods of inquiry had completely cleared the field of conceptual gaps.
At the same time, the idea of a canon survived for both instrumental and practical reasons. It was easy to argue that a “common sense” idea of the fundamentals was too restrictive, but too radical to throw out the idea of fundamentals as ends in and of themselves. Every field has a base from which to build, even if that base’s support structures did not support a straightforward architecture. A student of advanced character was trusted to be mature enough to not be frightened by difference or contradiction. More cynically, it helped to have a central idea of the humanities in order to preserve funding for academic instruction at a time when education has moved towards more practical ends.
Towards an American Style of Operations
At the end of the day, the foundation of any serious study of the military art will lie in the “canon” of greats such as Carl von Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, and Antoine-Henri Jomini. The reason why they continue to dominate is fairly practical: they define the contours of war and warfare as we understand it and no one has come up with anything better without doing gross violence to military and political history. Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW) and Unrestricted Warfare (UW), two doctrines that sometimes are offered as successors to the Clausewitzian vision, cannot meaningfully distinguish between politics and violence, to say nothing of the problems with van Creveld’s ideas of Trinitarian and non-Trinitarian Warfare and Mary Kaldor’s concept of New Wars.
The canon, however, has not (and should not) remained stable. Gray’s most recent book on strategy recognizes multiple concentric rings of strategists whose work comprises a general theory of strategy, some of whom have not been traditionally recognized by orthodox strategists. As more theorists and practitioners are recognized as pioneers of the military art, they will be similarly added to the canon of strategy, operations, and tactics. Some accepted notions will be, undeniably, deconstructed and revised. While the present moment is not as disruptive as often claimed, all bets about the future are off given the ways that current macroeconomic trends, emerging technologies, and geopolitics may combine in a manner that could very well shake the world—and with it, our system of reference.
The foundation for American operational art is operations in complex environments. These environments have included, for sure, urban warfare and guerrilla operations. But they mostly—from the Barbary Wars to the Libyan War—have been expeditionary operations. Expeditionary operations require sound thinking as to how best apply force to realize the political object. Design—or merely a tolerance of operational pluralism—can help develop the necessary skills if we recognize the complexity of the Fulda Gap in addition to the ill-structured nature of the battle for Kabul.