Small Wars Journal

Thoughts on 'Strategic Compression'

Sat, 02/03/2007 - 10:00am
The following excerpt is from a draft 'think piece' -- work in progress -- on an issue that is a recurring theme in much of the work I've been involved in over the last several years. I am not the author -- but did participate in many of the discussions concerning Strategic Compression and its implications for coalition forces that fed the content of the paper. It is presented to provoke thought, help frame a debate, and be a catalyst for further discussion.

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.


CMSbelt (not verified)

Thu, 05/07/2009 - 5:47am

Dave, did the article you mentioned come out someplace? I think this is an important concept but have seen very little written about it beyond a few dozen posts on SWJ.

A Google search comes up with some passing mentions here and there in various books and articles, and short bullets in PPT slides on exercises like Millenneum Challenge, but it seems to be a very loosely defined concept that is assumed yet has not been thoroughly explored.

I'm interested in developing this concept further, but am trying to get a handle on what's already been covered. Any suggestions?


Chris Schnaubelt

It's very true that media attention allows an unseemly amount of power projection to terrorists and insurgents. Al-Zarqawi's Al-Qaeda in Iraq were one of the weaker factions in the insurgent group and distrusted by all sides. Yet their use of the media, particularly their televised beheadings, gained them a notoriety and level of attention that made them major players.

goesh (not verified)

Tue, 02/06/2007 - 2:00pm

Tantric Compression and Dog Soldiers:

Like Karma Yoga practitioners, where consideration of consequence does not exist or matter, insurgents are able to focus totally on the dynamics of engagement. Civilians on both sides are expendable assets only, nothing more, and that mind set is what frees them, in short, what mostly enables their ability to almost instantly compress. Our ROE are static, non-dynamic, no matter how you cut it or slap high tech digitalized analysis on it - it is pretty much fixed and set in stone. Their's is not and never has been. We attach morality to our tactics and politics to our strategy. The Cheyene Dog Solider could not distinguish pain from killing the enemy - they were one and the same thing, thus his whole focus was on the engagement and he always died victorious - he had nothing else occupying his mind except the killing of his enemy. We expect to come home, they don't. Man! talk about flexibility and an erratic chain of command, huh? They can hold up on a small ambush simply because they didn't have any hot tea that morning and the presence of a Bradley or a chopper in the air doesn't have a damn thing to do with it. Now that's compression at its finest.

laure paquette (not verified)

Tue, 02/06/2007 - 1:29pm

I myself wrote an article that explains strategic compression: Strategy and Time in Clausewitz and Sun Tzu in Comparative Strategy in, I think, 1991.

I have since developed a trick that can help people deal with these situations, something that can be learning in about an hour, but to become proficient it takes about 6 hours worth of training.

Looking for money to put all this online so the armed forces can use it. Let me know if you know of anywhere.

"As such, the levels of war seem to compress in time and in causal linkages."

It sounds like you are talking about the loss of momentum because of elastic (when relationships are diverted in another direction) and non elastic (when friction is added to relationships) collision (collisions being between two objects, say the enemy and an influenced American public opinion).

It would be interesting to note how much of this unexpected-causal-relationships and breaking-of-expected-causal-relationships among the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of conflict was really unexpected and un-allowed for. I mean our military establishment, at least at the strategic if not tactical level , must have learned something from Vietnam. Don't they war-game this sort of thing? Didn't anyone figure out that this might become a slow-slog and the war would lose momentum because of it?

Obvious the voting(in Iraq) thing would help build momentum, but there must have been some thoughts beyond this.

Perhaps the "compression" is between the strategic and tactical planners. They compress the operational aspect by not being transparent in their actions.

Very good posting, I hope more people join in.

ghuddles1 (not verified)

Mon, 02/05/2007 - 12:06pm

I highly respect the officers and their education who are involved in this process of analyzing the war and making recommendations.

I admit that my following statement may be quite trite and sophomoric, but it is the only way I can understand sectarian and religious fighting.

You see; way back when, there were these two families, the Hatfields and the McCoys who squabbled over a loose pig. Now since both families raised a good number of pigs and all the pigs generally looked alike they argued over the ownership of this one pig. Now one of the boys, very handy with a long rifle shot the pig and took it home, thus starting the dispute. It wasn't safe for any member of the family to be seen alone outside of the farms and frequent gun shots could be heard exchanged over the fences. That was so many years ago that no one remembers the pig story, only the fact that the two families are feuding and that they are enemies. Logic cannot prevail because now the families have evolved into a pure sociological schism. If the sheriff shows up because someone was shot, the story is that it was a hunting accident and the families keep the feud between themselves, no outsider is wanted, welcome or needed.
Today, this story is part of American mythology , however, feuding over ideology or pigs seems to be a part of human nature and is persistent throughout history as far back as Cain and Able.
I don't like to think of the U.S and our allies pulling out of Iraq immediately because of the seemingly eminent bloodbath, notwithstanding that we should never have been there in the first place. I don't like to think of leaving this whole region of the world in the hands of the "Islamic Extremists" and what may come. I don't like the thought of the U.S.having to become an isolationist nation, refusing all new immigration, closing our borders with our military. There are many things I don't like to think about, but I do, and I vote.

One of the ways to counter the enemy use of media and force context into the picture would be to keep a running tally of enemy war crimes that would include the use of religious and hospital facilities for combat operations. The cumulative effect of the war crimes total would eventually have the effect of degrading support for enemy activities and get the focus away from the failure to stop the war crime. With every human bomb attack, a spokesman could point out that it was the xxx number war crime of the enemy since the start of the war.

The type of war crime could also be broken out to heighten awareness of violations of the Geneva Conventions by not wearing an identifying uniform and deliberately targeting non combatants.