Small Wars Journal

Mattis: Military Should Rely Less on Technology

Thu, 05/13/2010 - 10:12pm
Mattis: Military Should Rely Less on Technology - Christopher P. Cavas, Marine Corps Times.

The military relies too much on technology, and soldiers need to practice more "with the radios turned off," a key general said.

"We must be able to operate when systems go down," Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, head of Joint Forces Command, told a luncheon audience Thursday at a joint war-fighting conference. "It is much more important for officers to get comfortable operating with uncertainty rather than to keep grasping for more certainty." ...

"I don't think we have turned off our radios in the last eight years. What kind of systems are we creating where we depend on this connection to headquarters? While we want the most robust communications, we also want to make sure we can operate with none of it." ...

"Mission-type orders rather than bandwidth are the key to the future," he said. "We need officers who can operate off a commander's intent, understand what the boss several levels above wants, and carry them out to suffocate the enemy's hopes." ...

More at Marine Corps Times.


Ken White (not verified)

Sat, 05/15/2010 - 6:55pm


I believe you'll find that Boyd was far more selective in from whom he took challenges than 'all comers' implies. For an instructor at a school to challenge students at the school is 'hooray for me' and little more. The real point of Boyd is that given technological parity, the better trained individual won... :D

I very much agree that our lack of dispersion is not good. That's what happens when the techno desire for centralization and the bean counter desire for 'efficiencies' are allowed to override the trainers and operators.

An attack as you describe on the harbors would be damaging. However, all things are relative and I submit that with most of the Navy out -- which might be the case, the damage to our warfighting capability could be less then one might think. OTOH, loss of GPS for a month in a major conflict with no fallback capability save other equally fragile technologies would, due to the cascading effect on people and systems possibly be quite injurious to our capability. It could certainly get a lot of people killed unnecessarily.

The good news is that efforts are underway to rectify that typical American over reaction and excessive centralization shown in the major basing. The only holdups are the VA and CA Congressional delegations' objection to move of people and materiel from NorVa to MCAS Beaufort, NAS JAX and Mayport and out west from the San Diego area to Naval Region Northwest.

No one I've seen here including Mattis is suggesting doing away with any technology, the issue is to not become over reliant on technology and to attempt to let it substitute for poor or missing training. That has been the trend in the Army since long before I retired or you were driving Hueys, it's driven by those same techno-nerds who think humans are pointless, the same bean counters who hate to fund training because they're too short sighted to see the payback -- and by Congress who shares both those views...

The issue is not less technology, no one said that; the issue is a better balance between technology and training and a suggestion that total reliance on technology can be dangerous. Any thinking peer opponent of the US is going to seek ways to degrade or render useless our technological edge. We would be foolish IMO to not prepare properly for such unknowns.

SWJ lists another 14 May article with more detail about his speech which covered much more than technology.

Ken, from reading of his exploits against all-comers in air combat training, guess Boyd was like OPFOR guys who kick bootie at NTC. But, too many use his legacy and Vietnam radar missiles to claim Beyond Visual Range engagements and stealth will not be game-changers using 2010 and beyond tech. Add to that, Aviation week mentions a new F-15C, EA-18G and F-35 joint task force for aerial EW that will further contribute to our tech advantage.…

Duck, as Joint Forces Command commander, Gen Mattis views and those of General Cartwright matter. So if technology costs too much, it should not be just Air Force, Navy, and Army technology requiring compromise/fiscal constraint and contingencies to hedge against single point of tech failure. Simply landing sea-based forces on adjacent allied terrain is one clear alternative to amphibious assault. A partial helicopter/partial MV-22 force is equally viable.

On a recent Norfolk tour, I saw 3 aircraft carriers in port, a San Antonio class and a WASP class and another photo of 3 carriers ported in San Diego. That is 6 major carriers out of 11 moored at just two locations. Then I "hear"...literally under their flight path...the 19 squadrons of Navy/Marine aircraft at Oceana Naval Air Station and read that a similar number are at another base in California. Thats two master navy air stations for all of Navy aviation.

So while fully understanding that technology such as satellites is vulnerable, I would ask why we dont better disperse our naval power at more than a few locations. Despite arguments Senator Webb might make, he should know better, as a former Navy Secretary, then to put all key Navy eggs in a few base baskets.

In addition to attacking satellites, isnt it equally likely that a determined powerful foe might take out Oceana and Lemoore as easily as Guam that some are arguing needs better aircraft shelters. Wouldnt suicide-sub or cargo ship nuke attacks at two ports take out up to 6 carriers and a bunch of other ships. A determined enemy would sink our limited RO/RO and fast sealift vessels because we have chosen to rely on sealift to move our stateside heavy forces. That leads to things like AirSea Battle...effectively leaving the Army out of key remaining future combat contingencies as we will see in a report next week.

We can back-up lost GPS satellites through high altitude airships, X-37B launch of temporary smaller satellites (pure speculation), using JSTARS and AWACS to vector fast movers, and by continued use of laser-guided bombs in addition to GPS versions. GPS jammers must omit and therefore become targets themselves. Shouldn't we be equally concerned about attempting to fly all USAF Reapers/Predators out of the US relying on satellites?

Gen Mattis mentioned Khobar Towers in his speech as a way of taking out U.S. airmen who otherwise would prevail in the air due to technology and training. Perhaps additional dispersion of key Navy air and aircraft carrier assets should be equally high on our list of concerns. Heck, cargo ship terrorist nuke or conventional cruise missile attacks, or a sub attack at Norfolk and San Diego would do a lot more long term damage than a temporary loss of GPS. Just my views.

duck (not verified)

Fri, 05/14/2010 - 2:38pm


Don't equate Mattis with USMC acquisition policy. He isn't the commandant.

slapout9 (not verified)

Fri, 05/14/2010 - 1:33pm

It seems he wants to return to the "Fundementals Of Tactics" by Col. Wyly as was published in the Maneuver Warfare Hnadbook. Add to it "The Enenmy As A System" by Col. Warden and you would have a winning doctrine. But I am biased!

This stuff is not rocket science (pardon the pun). I tried to train my subordinates the same way that I was trained. It starts with the basics.

In our first training exercises, I'd tell my new guys the same thing that I was told,

"You're not ready for the GPS yet."

They'd be forced to maneuver with a map and a compass. Sometimes that process slowed us a down a bit :), but the fundamentals were learned. After that, we graduated on to using GPS and FBCB2.

Same goes for radios. Since we're scouts, in training, we'd have six hour windows to check in. Guys would not have to check in unless they came under contact and needed immediate CAS, indirect fire, or CASEVAC OR they identified specific PIR.

Now, I would not suggest doing this in combat (well, maybe sometimes), but the key is to learn the basics in training. It's really not that hard, and there is ALWAYS time.

Robert Haddick (not verified)

Fri, 05/14/2010 - 8:28am

Ditto what Ken White said.

Especially regarding GPS. No less than the USAF CoS recently warned that the GPS system is fragile, vulnerable, and may very well fail (fall to attack) at the worst possible moment.

Ken White (not verified)

Fri, 05/14/2010 - 2:18am

For the sake of discussion...

Mattis didn't say don't use technology, he pointed out that it is rarely failsafe for a variety of reasons and he adds that if you lose a techno-capability, you'd better have a fallback.

Simple example - GPS. Someone kills enough satellites and that capability is gone and your NOE flight is back in. It also means your GMLRS Rockets are just free flight rockets and your JDAMS are dumb bombs. They'll still work, just not as designed.

We'd be foolish to not use the technology that is available. We'd be equally foolish to rely on it to the exclusion of basic skills. I've read nothing to indicate Mattis does not share that sensing.

He's also addressing the training of direct combat units and showing his (and thus my) age -- turning the radios off was a standard training ploy years ago as units maneuvered in training exercises. Well trained units could do most things with or without the command and control capability of direct communication -- some said they did them better without the radio...

Aside from the training value, occasionally one would have to do combat operations with all the emitters turned off (and even a receiver emits to an extent) for OpSec purposes. Not a problem if one trains to do it; a big problem if one is totally reliant on technology.

Incidentally, Boyd wasn't an Ace, his combat experience was in fact quite limited.

For the sake of discussion and with immense/enduring respect for General Mattis (COIN good/EBO bad), if we rely too much on technology, then why are the Marines so invested in technologically complex F-35B VTOL jets, EFVs that act like transformers, MV-22, and all kinds of large complex LCAC and amphibious ships?

The Joint list is endless: Aircraft carriers, submarines, Aegis/Standard missiles, LCS, stealth aircraft, Apaches/Cobras, UH/CH, special operations aircraft, C-17s/C-130J, M-ATV with EW, UAS/UGV, GPS-guided munitions and navigation, Patriot and THAAD, Blue Force Tracker, SINCGARS and SATCOM...where would our military be today without technology?

As a former Huey pilot, I may personally believe we have swung too far in our reliance on GPS, losing some of our map-reading skills. Nevertheless, it is easy to recognize the value of manned and unmanned aircraft that use GPS and digital maps, and fires missiles guided by laser-designators or radar.

Even in Desert Storm at 73 Easting, then CPT McMaster relied on the superior technology of his thermal imagery sights and chobham armor to fight his way to victory. Adaptive leaders like him know how to exploit technology. In an environment of uncertainty, technology is more likely to be a known entity than units and individual Leaders/Soldiers that will always vary in talent, knowledge, and experience.

There are few (and now no) aces like COL Boyd. Sure, in the Korean War, despite nearly identical threat and friendly aircraft capabilities, the US enjoyed a 10:1 advantage in air-to-air thanks to training and experience. However, even our highly trained Joint pilots of today would have great difficulty emerging victorious via training alone if the tables were turned and they were fighting against an F-22 or F-35 flying our own legacy or the threat's non-stealthy aircraft. Likewise, penetration of S-300/S-400 defenses would be far more difficult using training alone.

Sounds like General Mattis is reading some Boyd - people first, ideas second, hardware last.

"We need officers who can operate off a commanders intent, understand what the boss several levels above wants, and carry them out to suffocate the enemys hopes."

Very true, we need Schwerpunkt, but also the freedom to carry it out without having to be constantly monitored and questioned by higher headquarters. Trust goes both ways and is the lube that makes the machine work more quickly.

The general is correct, but once again, who is going to back him up and actually do this? My guess one.