Small Wars Journal

A Reflection on the Illogic of New Military Concepts

Fri, 07/04/2008 - 6:36pm
I thought I'd share with SWJ readership an article recently published in Army magazine (May 2008). In particular - I draw your attention to discussion of our infatuation with the term "Irregular Warfare" - US Forces Do Not Conduct "Irregular War".

SWJ Editors' Note: Links have been inserted to relevant research material as well as certain bolded or italicized editing for emphasis.

What is it about the US Military that tends to produce sound, pragmatic, and common sense ideas about the concrete present, and tends toward illogic, faddish paradigms and hyperbole when dealing with the abstract future? Joint Operating Concepts for dealing with post cold war security problems have proven difficult to "get right." This is because they begin from the wrong logical starting point and thus define the problem incorrectly. It is also because of inattention to historical fact, definitional subtlety and the theoretical logic within which military forces must operate. This inattention overlooks key logical inconsistencies in such documents crafted more to "sell" to constituencies within the Washington "Beltway" the capabilities and programs championed by one military interest group or another rather than to inform current decisions in the field. For this reason those who nag about these things tend to be ignored by the practical people dealing with near term problems. When the future becomes the present, the consequences of illogic, faddish paradigms, and hyperbole in abstract concepts can pose insurmountable problems for pragmatic common sense. For one, "Beltway" constituencies have been educated to think according to the attractive new paradigms military professionals have used to buttress their budget arguments. The new "Irregular Warfare Joint Operating Concept" signed by the Commander, United States Special Operations Command, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of Defense on 11 September 2007 deals with the abstract future and exhibits the usual tendencies. We have been here before, and are still suffering the consequences.

The Failed Promise of "Rapid Decisive Operations"

The end of the Cold War, and the collapse of the Soviet Union left the US Defense Establishment with an Air Force and a Navy with no peer, and no real adversary. Defense planners sought ways to leverage this superiority in the air and naval dimension to deal with the crises that arose. A new "American Way of War" emerged in the late 1990's to replace outdated Cold War paradigms for what is now labeled "Traditional War." A concept promising "Rapid Decisive Operations (RDO)" would conserve the exposure of soldiers while coercing enemies with a hail of increasingly precise air and naval missile power. In effect the RDO idea emerged from how to use this asymmetric advantage in capabilities in the strategic planning scenarios of the time - such as the defense of Korea and Kuwait.

While the Chairman and the Secretary of Defense never officially approved RDO, the product had been sold well enough around the Beltway and within the Pentagon (who could be against such operations?) to shape the logic and nature of recent campaign "victories" against the states led by Slobodan Milosevic, the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. Those who challenged the Pentagon "group think" of the time were ignored. It will be useful to reflect on some of the published critiques of RDO before addressing the shortcomings of the new concept. My first attempts to outline the faulty thinking at the root of new concepts of the time was an article, published in Army magazine in the wake of the NATO Kosovo "victory," entitled "The Continuing Necessity of Ground Combat," lest anyone draw the wrong lessons.

We should not try to make a recent necessity into a future virtue. Kosovo was a tragedy which should not be repeated. After 77 days of country-wide destruction, many of the Albanian citizens of the province perished. The river barge traffic along the Danube, important to the economies of six other countries, is still mostly shut down at this writing. The countrywide destruction of the infrastructure setback the development of the one source of opposition to Milosevic - the emerging middle class. And Milosevic and his supporters have survived, and are likely to be a problem for some time to come. A combined air and ground force produces more military power than an air and long-range missile force separately. Ground combat will not necessarily lead to more casualties and devastation. And whenever the outcome of a military action must be assured, and when that outcome is better achieved sooner than later, then the decision of whether and when to quit must not be left with the enemy. Ground combat, and close combat within ground operations, are not always necessary but the enemy must never doubt that we can and will put superbly led and equipped soldiers and marines on the ground to assure victory.

The momentum of the RDO idea rumbled on around the Beltway unchallenged by ground force leaders and their thinkers. As the months passed I spoke up again in "A Critique of RDO," published by Army in June 2002. The April 2000 Defense Planning Guidance tasked US Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM) to develop "... new joint warfighting concepts and capabilities that will improve the ability of future joint force commander's (JFC) to rapidly and decisively conduct particularly challenging and important operational missions, such as... coercing an adversary to undertake certain actions or denying the adversary the ability to coerce or attack its neighbors..." In response to this guidance USJFCOM developed a new concept called Rapid Decisive Operations (RDO) that aims to change the way the US fights all "high end small scale contingencies" regardless of positive or negative aims. It also serves as the concept for the opening phases of a counter aggression campaign that could escalate to major theater war. Relying on "smart" weapons, it promises the need for fewer forces, at less cost, with fewer casualties. The key ideas are that, "The United States and its allies asymmetrically assault the adversary from directions and in dimensions against which he has no counter, dictating the terms and tempo of the operation." The RDO approach, with certain modifications, can be of value in special circumstances, when achieving negative aims is sufficient. But it will not assure either rapid or decisive results when a positive aim -- a specific end state we desire-must be achieved. Therefore no matter how well we do it - how precise, how much tempo we apply, how many bombs or how big - the approach is unreliable on its own in such cases. In the February, 2002 issue of Army, Jeffrey J. Becker hails it "That Elusive Operational Concept" of then-Col. David Fastabend's June 2001 article. As good as this sounds, I believe we need to look further. It may in fact be a prescription for long and indecisive campaigns. This in fact is what both Afghanistan and Iraq have turned out to be, with much learning along the way. At the eve of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) the civilian "wise men" of the Beltway advocated leveraging our air and naval "dimensional superiority" and reducing the size of the Army. One glaring deficiency of US military capabilities during OIF was the inability to introduce ground troops in enough numbers rapidly enough to transform certain military victory into a strategic success. "War with Implacable Foes" published by Army in May 2006 draws conclusions that would have been inevitable had RDO been given closer scrutiny sooner.

When the strategic aim is a change of regimes, it is not enough for the former regime and its soldiers to melt into the general population. Rather, the enemy regime must have no choice but to comply with the terms of the peace. In other words, the leaders of that regime, its means of resistance, and the entire apparatus of control over that society must be brought under tactical control. And having destroyed the previous regime, the conqueror has to fill the power vacuum in villages, towns and cities across a foreign country to maintain social order and basic necessities of life.

So what has this to do with the new "Irregular Warfare (IW) Joint Operating Concept?" If an "unofficial" joint operating concept promising "Rapid Decisive Operations (RDO)" can have such consequences, an official document describing "how future joint commanders could conduct protracted IW to accomplish national strategic objectives in the 2014-2026 timeframe" could have similar ones. And it seems that "conceptually" we haven't made progress.

US Forces Do Not Conduct "Irregular War"

To assert publicly that the forces of the United States of America should conduct "irregular warfare" is a major strategic error. We are not selling soap; this is about the security of our people. Irregular warfare may sound catchy, but this term creates two self inflicted mortal wounds to any practical long-term effort to deal with the problem of determined and dangerous irregular adversaries.

One is that some may remember what irregular warfare originally meant. The distinction "regular" and "irregular" had to do with whether combatants where "regulated" or not. It had less to do with how they dressed and fought. It had more to do with the rules they obeyed. For instance, "regulars" like privateers were "regulated" by sovereign states to prey on the shipping of hostile nations during wartime. When captured by the opposing Navy they would be treated according to the regulations of war. Irregulars like pirates were treated as outlaws or criminals. This was a big issue with the Soldiers, Marines and Sailors of the early American Republic up through the War of 1812. Military forces in the pay of sovereign states are still expected to fight within the guidelines of international law and therefore are "regulars" by definition. And suppressing the pirates of the Barbary Coast in those early days was bloody fighting requiring unusual methods but it was not "irregular warfare." It was warfare against "irregulars," and there is a difference. We should stress the "unregulated" nature of our "irregular adversaries" and the potent but "regulated" nature of our own responses. A better title would be "Joint, Combined, and Interagency Operations Against Irregular Adversaries." And that leads to the second self-inflicted problem.

Not only will it be important that our behavior be scrupulously "regulated" but that most of what we do to combat irregular adversaries not be called "warfare." In fact much of what the sensible parts of this document advocates is neither "warlike" nor "warfare" in a strict sense. It would be silly to interpose a title and novel definition between ourselves and success of this important work. Using a term like "Operations Against Irregular Adversaries" is much more "politic," would garner vital support outside the US Department of Defense, and it happens to be much more accurate as well. The message should be that US special operating forces can support the necessary "whole of government" efforts of the US, allied, and host nation governments through affordable, sustained, low-visibility and high impact military operations. The US benefits as much as, or more than, any other state from operating within a regulated international system, whether in war or peace. And as the only acknowledged superpower, should be the arch-supporter of this system's rules for warfare regardless of the irregularity of its adversaries. In fact, our special operating forces routinely accept great risks to meet this standard. It is illogical to even hint otherwise, given the importance of enlisting partner states. The US is also the arch proponent of peaceful solutions wherever possible. Some counter-irregular-adversary operations proposed in this document are "warlike" others are not. Covering them all with the "irregular warfare" blanket is just not logical and unnecessarily self-defeating. As a practical matter, operations against irregular adversaries will require close cooperation not only among the joint services of the United States, but with other agencies of this government, as well as determined "whole of government" efforts by partner nations, not the least of these being the nations abroad who will host our efforts on their soil and among their people. It would be best to stress the sustainable, cost effective, low-profile, unobtrusive and high impact nature of military operations in support of their operations. And it would be wise to minimize the profile of the also "cost effective, low-profile, unobtrusive, and high impact" but much more rare acts of war against implacable foes among our irregular adversaries. The US government's civilian authorities did not force its US Military authorities to take the logic trail from "irregular threats" (a challenge) to "irregular warfare" (a phenomenon), to "irregular warfare" (a mission and capability category for US Forces). The last Congressionally mandated Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) simply classified four strategic security challenges for the decades ahead and recommended shifting some emphasis from what it called "traditional" security challenges to greater efforts to meet irregular, catastrophic and disruptive challenges. It would be highly unusual for military professionals to permit civilians to dictate their professional terms and language. This is a self-inflicted wound and easily healed without outside assistance.

False Distinctions

Assuming this obvious change in title is made, and the implications of this definition of "regular" and "irregular" is carried throughout the text, still leaves several logical shortcomings. For one, this Joint Operating Concept makes false distinctions between "irregular warfare" and its ways and means over its strawman "traditional" or "conventional" warfare and its ways and means.

Aiming "to erode U.S. influence, patience, and political will," is not exclusive to irregular methods and insurgent movements. So have well-run "conventional warfare" operations. A famous historical example was Wellington's campaign on the Iberian Peninsula to oust Napoleonic forces. Britain, a naval power and weak on land, organized a coalition force of British regulars and peninsular irregulars to fight a protracted campaign "to impose prohibitive human, material, financial, and political costs on the" Napoleonic Empire "to compel strategic retreat from a key region." Wellington employed the classic approach of the weaker of any two adversaries in any bitter political struggle that crosses the threshold from peaceful means to war. This same approach, for the same reasons, may also characterize future warfare among states, as it has in the past. Was this not the fundamental logic of the war against the Milosovic regime? Is this not the principal logic of Douhet's air power theories? There are many more examples.

All statesmen and warriors must heed political forces. In the insurgent case, the host population is the main focus, but the home populations of outside powers also need to be considered, at least as far back as the Peloponesian Wars of the ancient Greeks. In warfare between states, statesmen and generals cannot ignore the will of their own polities, and in modern times it has become increasingly prudent to court the people on the other side as well. Sacking, plunder, slavery and salting ploughed earth are out of fashion. Populations, friend or foe, can help or hinder during active combat. And, in the end, installing a new government is always easier when the people have not been exceedingly antagonized. It may be true that tacticians of the past have been less mindful of civilian populations than have strategists, but in the minds of many today this has been because most of the operations of Desert Storm, the paradigmical experience for many, were in the open desert, rather than in the more populated parts of Kuwait.

Clearly, consideration of populations is not an exclusive province of "irregular warfare." Politics played a huge role in the nature of the allied defense of the European Central Front during the Cold War -- down to the last tactical detail. In fact, the political inadvisability of yielding any ground spawned first the brittle "Active Defense" and then the idea of gaining defensive depth by attacking Soviet formations early while they were mostly on Warsaw Pact terrain.

Additionally, since at least the days of the ancient Greeks and Romans, "irregulars" and "unconventional" or "special" "regulars" have also been an important complementary and supplementary adjunct of "conventional" forces. We now call state owned and organized unconventional fighters "special operating forces." Special forces, a branch of the special operating forces, organize guerilla units that are "irregulars" to fight within the scope of "conventional" campaigns. Had there been war in Europe in the Soviet Era, both sides would have used large numbers of special operating forces. All of our operations since then have relied on them. And they are growing in utility! Nor are indirect approaches, asymmetric methods, or protracted campaigns an exclusive province of either kind of force. These are a matter of sound generalship, and the possibilities at hand.

In other words, "warfare that focuses on defeating an adversary militarily" and merely "isolates the population from the conflict" is waged by incompetents. We have learned this lesson recently! It will be more and more unrealistic to conveniently compartment warfare. Any such attempts will prove wholly artificial. (See "War with Implacable Foes" mentioned above.) To speak of the hybridization of war is to misunderstand the "chameleon" nature of warfare it has been, and will always be.

A catchy title may generate interest and mobilize resources but it will prove an impediment in the long term. Defining the problem by how to use a capability risks being little more than a sales pitch for the capability and a general, and over-ambitious, formula for how it should be used. Over-ambitiousness risks strategic under-performance when it matters most. And a broadly general formula cannot replace sound doctrine nor inform operational art. These require attention to historical fact, definitional subtlety and the theoretical logic within which military forces must operate.

SWJ Editors' Note: Huba Wass de Czege is a retired U.S. Army brigadier general. During his career as an infantry officer, he served two tours in Vietnam and gained staff experience at all levels up to assistant division commander. General Wass De Czege was a principal designer of the operational concept known as AirLand Battle. He also was the founder and first director of the Army's School for Advanced Military Studies where he also taught applied military strategy. After retiring in 1993, General Wass De Czege became heavily involved in the Army After Next Project and served on several Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency v advisory panels. He is a 1964 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and holds an MPA from Harvard University.


Paparone (not verified)

Mon, 07/07/2008 - 10:14am

George Bernard Shaw once defined the use of pseudo-scientific type terms and definitions as a dangerous façade that can be created by use of jargon, a phenomenon he described as a "conspiracy against laity." If we look deeper, we find that many of our concepts and terms are not precise terms that we would expect in the applied sciences. Rather, we often turn to metaphoric devices ("center of gravity," "full spectrum," "irregular," etc.) -- borrowing meanings from the applied sciences. We use the borrowed meaning where there are analogical overlaps, but we may fail to pay attention to aspects of the metaphor that do not apply. Critical thinking reveals the metaphoric reasoning that is being used and uncovering the "underlap" of meaning. So, by "irregular," we analogically refer to a physical pattern that is not a "straight" (I think of the various kinds of scissors). Or are we calling upon the "theory of evolution" metaphor where there are "punctuated" disruptions in otherwise predictable progression of "species" of war? That irregular warfare does not somehow fit into the evolution of warfare (recall the articles and debates on 4GW), perhaps we unknowlingly create a "pretense of science" when we fail to recognize the metaphoric reasoning at work (we tend to "reify" the metaphor into what we grow to believe is concrete meaning).

Here's how metaphoric analysis (aka critical thinking) could work in this case. If there is such a thing as irregular warfare, one would have to believe that "regular warfare" exists and that (like regular organisms) warfare evolves. Irregularity would be like an organism that evolves but as time goes on there is some sort of disruption in that evolution and a "new species" of warfare emerges. In retrospect, one can see this "irregularity" in evolution.

Unfortunately, such metaphoric reasoning tends to focus on similarities to develop a theory of the evolution of warfare (the analogous theory is Darwinism).

What we do not pay much attention to are the aspects or conceptualizations of the metaphor that do not match up well to the phenomenon we are trying to explain. In this case, warfare is not really like an organism. It does not evolve through complex bio-chemical processes that are interactive with the physical environment. Warfare involves the most complex organisms on the planet -- interacting people. We cannot aggregate the study of this dynamic into a Darwinian process. The metaphor breaks down as we go deeper into its overlap with the phenomenon under study.

We only borrow meaning from these applied sciences to explain an otherwise unexplainable phenomenon. Our categories we apply to warfare are not entirely like categories we apply to species, yet we have a tendency to make sense of the otherwise unimaginable complexity of human conflict by using these sorts of analogies. What if we were to step back and think about how no two situations are alike in complex operations. Perhaps there are infinite ways to describe these unique qualities through time (historians tend to oversimplify by the way). Western civilizations (through the Enlightenment) have a cultural propensity to explain categorically what has gone on or is going on. By relying on dichotomous categories (such as regular and irregular) we lose insight gained by richly describing the uniqueness of events. We may miss opportunities for greater insight by being so categorical.

Andrew Ortony (Ed.), Metaphor and Thought.
Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphor We Live By.
Karl E. Weick, "The Generative Properties of Richness," Academy of Management Review.

Rob Thornton

Sat, 07/05/2008 - 10:28pm

Interesting piece and some good follow up thoughts.

As I'm a believer in form following function I think it raises some good questions about "what is new".

How far does the function have to change before you have to change the form to accommodate it? If something must be modified or extended to the point that its original function is now inadequate to meet the policy expectations, do you need to change the form? Should the form reflect the range of possible policies the function will have to cover? Do you reduce, increase or sustain confusion when you have multiple interpretations of what something means because a given form or term means different things to different people?

While somethings should can and should be adapted until they have reached their usefulness, other should only be preserved, and still others will probably come into being in order to account for the broader function that could not be expressed before. Undoubtedly there are other interests at stake be they expansion or preservation, but that too has always been, and in some cases its easier and more effective just to accept it as is and focus energies on figuring out better ways to get the parts and pieces working together - its a question of how we expend gray matter.

Personally, I do not care what form it takes, as long as the function is adequate to the range of policy objectives it has to account for, and the commanders and planners (be they Joint, Combined or Inter-Agency) can speak the same language and understand the requirements and risks so that when they go and ask for amendments, exceptions or new laws they can speak in one voice so the tools and authorities to employ them are synchronized. Whatever form allows them to do that best I'm all for.
Best, Rob

Norfolk (not verified)

Sat, 07/05/2008 - 4:43pm

An excellent article by General de Czege, and a warning against reinventing the wheel - for the umpteenth time. As Colonel Maxwell points out, there is simply no meaningful justification for even proposing a new concept of "Irregular Warfare" when long-standing FID Doctrine already covers it specifically and in detail, and sets it within its strategic and operational context. Not to dwell in the past (or to overlook the errors or ommissions of the time), but much of the operational and tactical doctrine that had taken form in the 1980's and 1990's would still have served quite well, provided of course that such doctrine had been progressively revised and refined over the course of time.

Instead, those who sought to leave their mark scrapped good doctrine and failed to institutionalize lessons learned along the way. A consequence of this has been the making of a virtue out of the necessity to not only learn and adapt to the unique character and conditions of present "Irregular Warfare", but indeed to have to relearn the entire body of basic and fundamental knowledge even to begin to do so. In most cases, the principle outcome of new conceptual initiatives has been a perpetuation of institutional amnesia.

BG(R) Wass De Czegas piece below reminds me of an analogy that a wise boss of mine once told about new commanders and transforming organizations. A new company commander takes command and goes into his office which consists of one door, one window, and a desk with chair. He surveys the office and decides he must make a change and moves the desk from one wall to another, calls in the First Sergeant (1SG) and says. "1SG, how does this look?" To which the 1SG replies, "Fine, sir." When the next Captain takes command he walks into his new office and subsequently moves the desk to another wall and calls in the 1SG with the question, "How does this look?" And the 1SG replies, "Fine, sir." Two years later a third Captain takes command and moves the desk back to the original position. He calls in the 1SG, who is now on his third company commander, and asks him, "1SG, how does this look?" And of course the 1SG replies, "Fine, sir." All three commanders thought they had transformed the organization but to the guys on the ground there was no difference, only a cosmetic change. (and of course another important lesson is think about the man at the end of the line who has to live with all our "transformation"!)

Is the concept of Irregular Warfare (IW) transformational? Are the "new concepts" of Security Force Assistance (SFA) and Train, Advise, and Assist (TAA) and building partner capacity new and transformational? As I have asked before, what is wrong with the existing Foreign Internal Defense (FID) doctrine? Doesnt SFA, TAA, etc logically fall under FID? (I submit that we are developing SFA and TAA because those who are developing those concepts have not really read and understood FID doctrine (nor have they lived it) and they wrongly believe that it just belongs to Special Operations Forces). I can tell you many areas where FID doctrine should be changed (specifically authorities!) but everything in SFA and TAA falls under indirect FID, direct FID, or combat FID doctrine. Lets update the doctrine but not waste a lot of time and energy (and manpower resources) and throw the baby out with the bathwater looking for the new perfect concept. Sometimes perfect is the enemy of good enough (and the other thing we should learn is there is no cookie cutter solution to the threats and conditions we will face in the future, just as there has never been in the past - our search for the perfect doctrine or the perfect theory or war and irregular war often diverts of from the task at hand and getting on with business - but dont get me wrong, we have to continue to think about and try to understand war and irregular war - or better wars across the spectrum of conflict, we just should not waste our time searching for the "holy grail" of the perfect template/cookie cutter solution for how to conduct operations across the spectrum of conflict).

I am a great believer that IW is an important environment in which we must be able to operate but we do not conduct IW. We have to be able to fight irregulars we have to be able to understand and operate against irregular threats and conditions that cause irregular warfare. But most importantly we have to advise and assist our friends, partners, and allies to fight those that are destabilizing their nations and thus threaten US national interests. We have to help them to eliminate ungoverned spaces that exist in their countries (that can provide sanctuary to elements that will conduct IW), and we have to help them to change the conditions that give rise to terrorists, insurgents, and irregulars that might conduct irregular warfare operations or use irregular warfare methods for the purposes of achieving their objectives. We will not be conducting irregular warfare when we help our friends, partners, and allies but we will be conducting operations that help counter irregular warfare and irregular threats and irregular forces.

One thing I do disagree with BG Wass de Czega on though is his implication that IW is another "resourcing" concept. I think the irony is that there are not that many new resources tied to it. Sure people are on the Intelligence Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) bandwagon to support IW who think that high tech (and high dollar) ISR platforms are key to IW but those ISR platforms are just as important in ALL operations not just IW - we are going to develop advanced ISR capabilities whether there is an IW Joint Operating Concept (JOC) or not. The simple fact is that the IW JOC is not going to drive the resourcing process like the Rapid Decision Operations (RDO) concept did. Operations in an IW environment are people intensive not platform or equipment centric. To be able to operate against enemies who are conducting Irregular Warfare we need highly educated and trained leaders leading highly trained, properly manned and resourced, adaptive and creative (dare I say enlightened!) units that integrate with the "whole of government" effort to counter these threats or ideally aid our friends, partners, and allies to have the capacity to defeat those threats and most importantly to change those conditions before they give rise to terrorism, insurgency irregular warfare.