ICYMI: Discussing the Continuities of War and the Future of Warfare: The Defense Entrepreneurs Forum

Discussing the Continuities of War and the Future of Warfare: The Defense Entrepreneurs Forum

H.R. McMaster

Thank you to Nate Finney for the opportunity to participate again in support of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum (DEF).   I thought that I might build on the previous essay I wrote for DEF on how to develop an understanding of war and warfare through the study of military history in width, depth, and context.  Many of the recent difficulties we encountered in strategic decision-making, operational planning, and force development have stemmed, at least in part, from the neglect of history and continuities in the nature of war, especially war’s political and human dimensions.  To compound the difficulties we encountered in Afghanistan and Iraq, we may be missing an opportunity to learn from those experiences.  That is because four fallacies about future war have become widely accepted; these fallacies promise that future war will be fundamentally different from those that have gone before it. 

The first of these we might call the vampire fallacy.  It is impossible to kill this fallacy.  It may go dormant for a period, but it reemerges just about every decade.   In its last manifestation, the vampire fallacy emerged as the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) in the 1990’s.  Concepts with catchy titles such as “Shock and Awe” and “Rapid, Decisive Operations” promised fast, cheap and efficient victories in future war.  Those who argued that these concepts were inconsistent with the nature of war were dismissed as wedded to old thinking.  Technology would make the next war fundamentally different from all that went before it because information and communication technologies had shifted war from the realm of uncertainty to the realm of certainty.  US forces would possess ‘Dominant Battlespace Knowledge.’  Under the ‘Quality of Firsts,’ Army forces would ‘see first, decide first, act first, and finish decisively.’   For those familiar with the TV comedy Seinfeld, we might refer to this as the George Costanza approach to war:  US forces would deliver firepower onto a transparent, hapless enemy and then ‘leave on a high note.’  The vampire is much older than the orthodoxy of RMA.  It goes at least as far back as strategic bombing theory in the 1920s.  Today, the vampire myth once again promises victory from standoff range based on even better surveillance, information, communications, and precision strike technologies.  The vampire fallacy is based in an important suite of military capabilities, but it neglects war’s political and human dimensions.  It equates targeting to tactics, operations, and strategy.  And this fallacy neglects war’s uncertainty based mainly on interactions with determined and elusive enemies.

We might call the second fallacy the zero-dark-thirty fallacy.  The zero-dark-thirty fallacy, like the vampire fallacy, elevates an important military capability, raiding, to the level of a defense strategy.  The US capability to conduct raids against networked terrorist organizations is portrayed as a substitute for rather than a compliment to conventional Joint Force capabilities.  Raids, because they are operations of short duration, limited purpose and planned withdrawal, are often unable to effect the human and political drivers of armed conflict or make progress toward achieving sustainable outcomes consistent with vital interests. 

Third, the Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom fallacy may require a little explanation for those of younger generations.  In the 1960s on Sunday nights, families with young children gathered to watch two television shows, the Wonderful World of Disney and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.  The host for Wild Kingdom was Marlin Perkins.  Marlin Perkins would introduce the topic of the show, often a dangerous animal, and provide commentary throughout.  But Mr. Perkins would rarely place himself in a dangerous situation.  He usually left close contact with the wildlife to his assistant, Jim Fowler.  Under the Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom fallacy, the US assumes the role of Marlin Perkins and relies on proxy forces in the role of Jim Fowler to do the fighting on land.  While it is hard to imagine future operations that will not require US forces to operate with multiple partners, primary reliance on proxies is often problematic due to issues involving capability as well as willingness to act consistent with U.S. interests.  The political and human dimensions of war often create what economists and political scientists call principal-actor problems.

Finally, the RSVP fallacy solves the problem of future war by opting out of armed conflict, or certain forms of armed conflict.  The problem is that this fallacy does not give due consideration to enemies in wars or adversaries in between wars.  As Leon Trotsky said, “you may not be interested in war but war is interested in you.”  If the U.S. does not possess ready Joint Forces capable of operating in sufficient scale and ample duration to win, adversaries are likely to become emboldened and deterrence is likely to fail.  As President George Washington said, “to be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace.” 

Preparing effectively for war to prevent conflict, shape security environments, and, if necessary win in armed conflict requires clear thinking.  We might begin by rejecting fallacies that are inconsistent with the enduring nature of war.   As the nineteenth century Prussian philosopher of war, Carl von Clausewitz, observed, "the first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish...the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive."  These fallacies persist, in large measure, because they define war as we might like it to be rather than as an uncertain and complex human competition usually to achieve a political outcome. 

The first step in thinking clearly about future war is to pay attention to continuities in the nature of war as well as changes in the character of armed conflict.  The new Army Operating Concept is grounded in historian Carl Becker’s observation that “memory of past and anticipation of future events work together, go hand in hand as it were in a friendly way, without disputing over priority and leadership.”  The concept establishes the intellectual foundation for Army force development.  It establishes a framework for learning and for applying what the Army learns across leader development, training, doctrine, organization, material development, and policy.    In contrast to the four fallacies, the concept emphasizes that American military power is joint power.  Army forces combine with the tremendous capabilities that reside in our sister services and our special operations community.  These include strategic and operational mobility, ISR, fires, close air support, unconventional operations and many others.    As stated in the Army Operating Concept:  “Since World War II the prosperity and security of the United States have depended, in large measure, on the synergistic effects of capable land, air, and maritime forces.  They have reinforced one another in the conduct of joint operations and together provided options that any one or two services could not provide alone.  U.S. military power is joint power.  Trends in threats, the operating environment, and technology highlight the enduring need for ready Army forces operating as part of joint, interorganizational, and multinational teams to prevent conflict, shape security environments, and win in a complex world.”

I applaud the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum for driving forward conversations such as these…as well as seeking solutions both human and technical.  I wish DEF luck at their upcoming annual event in Chicago on 24 October.

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