What is Strategic Compression?
Strategic Compression is the forming of unexpected causal relationships and breaking of expected causal relationships among the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of conflict. Furthermore, Strategic Compression occurs due to the rapidity of information transmission and Blue actors' lack of understanding of pre-existing and emergent trends and social appetites both within the local area of operations and within the world-wide audience. As such, the levels of war seem to compress in time and in causal linkages.
The chain of command system is an example of a pre-existing organizational scheme that is intended to aid in command and the distribution of information and allow for purposeful and coordinated operations in attaining strategic objectives. Mechanisms such as lines of operations formed in the campaign planning phase are tailored to accomplish strategic and operational objectives through a collection of tactical and operational actions. Strategic level guidance requires crafting a suitable response that is tempered by the forces available. While contingency planning can aid in advance preparations each event demands a fresh look at situations and objectives as every crisis or event has its own unique characteristics that need to be acknowledged and accounted for. In both cases, military planners rely on assumptions of pre-existing and developed causal relationships in dealing with new situations.
In Strategic Compression, there are two major types of changes to causal relationships. The first is where an entirely new, unexpected causal relationship forms at any level of war that causes a change in another level of war. The second is one that breaks or negates an otherwise existing and expected causal relationship. Both result in changes in the operational approaches in the levels of conflict. The formation of a new causal relationship or the destruction of an existing causal relationship can be either top-down (strategic ---> operational ---> tactical) or bottom up (tactical ---> operational ---> strategic).
How Does Strategic Compression Work in the Current Security Environment?
In dealing with conflict in the current world system, the number of actors and factors one has to account for is overwhelming. The dense overlay and dynamic interweaving of social, political, and economic interactions produce the situation on the ground. Pulling the layers apart in order to find critical nodes or mechanisms that can be leveraged to accomplish strategic and operational objectives is a daunting task. The complexity of the environment is such that all actors are continuously interacting, reacting, and adapting to each other in a fluid and evolving setting. If one group of insurgents is dismantled, another takes its place. If one social problem is alleviated, such as food distribution, another can appear, such as sanitation. Obvious solutions to problems do not always work. Even if a problem has been largely solved, other problems or difficult situations appear which diminish or negate positive effects already created. Furthermore, the uniqueness of each problem due to the complex interaction of social factors is such that lessons learned are not transferable to the next problem. Each attempt to solve the problem changes the underlying nature of the problem. In such complex interactive systems, it is impossible to predict -- and also to repeat -- effects and results.
One of the great paradoxes of Small Wars is that terrorists are regularly able to leverage Strategic Compression -- use tactical actions to create strategic effects -- yet great powers seem unable to. Terrorists and insurgents regularly fight through using asymmetric engagement: using tactics, equipment, and resources that generate disproportionate effects. While asymmetric engagement is the method in which asymmetric actors wage war against the U.S., it is a term distinct from Strategic Compression. Strategic Compression is specifically leveraged by insurgents and terrorists when actions are undertaken with the intent to influence public opinion through the media (traditional and non-traditional) towards specific aims. The tactical actions of killing a few U.S. soldiers or destroying U.S. vehicles are just a means of achieving the greater goal of eroding support or enraging the domestic and local AO populations, respectively.
In Iraq, this has happened in instances where insurgents have taken positions in hospitals and mosques. By drawing the U.S. into fights in these areas, the insurgents are specifically trying to leverage Strategic Compression against the U.S. Any battle with insurgent forces in a sensitive area would cast the U.S. in a bad light as uncaring or worse, disrespectful of Islam. The goal of the insurgents is not so much to kill soldiers or destroy vehicles but rather to affect the perceptions of the local and global public audience. Media, if involved would likely capture brutal images of death and destruction of Iraqis and religious buildings respectively. If media was not present to capture images, other images would likely appear through non-traditional sources showing the effects or for example the collapsed roof of a mosque. The underlying message would presumably be that the U.S. was responsible. Furthermore, regardless of traditional or non-traditional media action, the local population would have a visible reminder and it would possibly be portrayed as an example of how the U.S. does not care about the people of Iraq, is an occupier, etc.
The wide-spread presence of photo and video cameras, the proliferation of communications devices and technology, and the availability of new web services (blogs, Youtube, etc.) has opened the doors to the global instantaneous "rumor mill." True or not -- pictures, video footage, and reports of incidents can be rapidly transmitted around the world. Even if this data is 'true' in the loosest sense, it is not necessarily grounded in its proper context. Images of soldiers firing on a crowd might not show insurgent perpetrators in the crowd. In the current environment, news is as likely to be carried by mainstream media as it is to be propagated by new and non-traditional means (i.e. camera phones and the aforementioned Youtube). In leveraging public opinion through Strategic Compression, America's enemies will make use of both new and old modes of communication. However, it is important to point out that technology is an enabler and an accelerator of Strategic Compression, but it is not the cause. Strategic Compression is rooted in the unpredictable interaction of complex systems and is not dependent on technology per se.
The proliferation of images, videos, and reports filtered through traditional and non-traditional media allows terrorists, insurgents, and unsympathetic members of the public to convey a story is either false or selective with the truth. An alarming characteristic of current information technology is that images, pictures, and quotes can be sent to the worldwide audience without any contextual information. This allows actions or results of actions -- real or perceived to be --used in information warfare by insurgents against the United States. Images of soldiers firing into a crowd could in reality be coordinated shots at insurgent snipers. Regardless of reality these images could give the impression that American forces kill indiscriminately. Al-Sadr's staging of rallies next to the hotels in which foreign journalist stay can give the impression that the entire city of Baghdad is falling rapidly into anarchy.
While they give the viewer an impression of understanding the reality on the ground, these previously mentioned images are in fact just raw data. This raw data can be easily spun in a certain way to espouse a certain view point. Even worse, in an age where images are easily manipulated they could be also be completely false and have no basis in any real event. Furthermore, in the absence of context, those watching the images tend to superimpose their own opinions and beliefs on them. If there is a natural predisposition towards one view point or another, the raw data can become further 'fuel for the fire'.
Some Thoughts on the Future of Strategic Compression
The unexpected linkages created amongst the levels of war are unlikely to diminish. Inexpensive, readily available cameras and the ability to post images and video on the internet by amateur reporters will increasingly contribute to this phenomenon. Sources of news will likely proliferate and instances of media responding to tactical mistakes are likely to grow. Other causal linkages are likely to become more apparent or emerge. All of these factors will result in placing greater emphasis on General Krulak's strategic corporal idea as tactical actions should be expected to receive hyper-scrutiny in the future. The CNN effect will play an increasingly important role in Small Wars relative to major combat operations (MCO), because unlike the enemy in MCO, the two major centers of gravity in small wars -- the occupied population and the American public -- depend upon news media to gain information and formulate opinions about military actions. Ensuring that tactical actions are well understood by both audiences is essential. Small wars are also likely to be increasingly fought in urban environments. The likelihood that collateral damage will occur during operations and be documented by international and non-traditional media is dramatically increased. As such, Strategic Compression is exacerbated when American forces are operating amongst urban civilian population centers.