Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Some Philosophical Musings from The Military Philosopher

Having been at this for a while, I should share my thoughts about the military philosophy of The Military Philosopher.  After a lifetime of reading military history, studying wargames and simulations, walking battlefields, time spent in various uniforms in the Army National Guard and as a living historian, and a career working in political military affairs in both the State and Defense Departments, I do have a military philosophy. It principally draws upon Clausewitz mixed with a bit of Sun Tzu, a dash of Liddell Hart and the indirect approach, JFC Fuller’s mobile warfare, and odd ideas here and there from many others.  What I propose to do here is to hit some of the highlights rather than attempt to replicate On War or The Art of War.

Let’s begin by defining some terms.  War is the organized use of the threat of violence and/or actual violence in conflict between two or more states (or proto-states).  Warfare is how humans go about  conducting a war.  War is universal while warfare is where we see the impact of culture, history, social organization, technology, personality, inspiration, etc.  War and warfare exist upon one extreme end of a spectrum that runs from that extreme to the other – peace.  This spectrum presents the range of activities of states and proto-states as they interact with each other. 
The first lesson I took away from reading Clausewitz at the Naval War College was what I read as his insistence in the introductory chapters of On War that war is absolutely, definitively the dumbest possible way to resolve a dispute.  The rest of the book is for the benefit of those who ignore that advice and read on as Clausewitz explains what war is, what warfare is, and how to be successful in waging war.

The Principles of War are a checklist, a reminder, not a straightjacket.   The commander needs to mentally run down the list in planning or executing military operations to determine which ones are relevant, but there is no need to churn out reams of explanation of how each one does or does not apply.  I’m not fixated on any one version of the many lists of principles that have been put out, primarily because there is a lot of overlap from one list to the next and usually the variations reflect a particular technological period and are adjusted as technology changes.

·         Speed is I think the most important of the principles of war – but in the sense given it by Suvorov when he said, “Speed is essential, haste harmful.”   Speed is critically important for seizing and maintaining the Initiative as John Boyd famously captured the thought in his OODA Loop – observe, orient, decide, act – in order to get inside your opponent’s own OODA cycle and put him into a purely reactive posture.

·         Surprise means doing anything that your opponent did not expect, i.e. attacking him in a place, or at a time, or with a capability that he didn’t expect.  Surprise is one of the very earliest ‘force multipliers.’  A critical effect of surprise is to give the attacker the Initiative.

·         Mass and/or Unity of Effort are aspects of the same challenge for the commander, i.e. making sure that enough friendly force is concentrated at the right place and right time to ensure victory and that few if any friendly forces are needlessly left out of the fight.

·         Simplicity – as in “Keep it Simple, Stupid”.  Combat is a multiple body problem and as the physicists/astrophysicists know the more bodies you have in motion the harder it is to know who’s doing what much less control them as they do it.

You never want to pit your strength directly against your opponent’s strength.  You want to commit it against his weakness – never fight fair.  Therefore, all properly executed warfare is Asymmetric Warfare. 
The Combined Arms approach to combat is essential – infantry, armor, artillery, air and sea power.   No single arm wins wars without the support and aid of the other forms of combat power.  While never denying the delight in having effective close air support (among other things), nothing says victory like a foot parade through the streets of the enemy capital (though the political decision-makers may conclude that it’s better to trade that pleasure for a sustainable peace after the war).  When everything inevitably breaks down, everyone in uniform is an infantryman.  When all else fails, you should still have your personal weapon(s) and the knowledge of how to use them effectively.

As for commanders, I have seen at least two senior German Generals, General Kurt von Hammerstein and Field Marshal von Manstein, quoted as offering a formula which must have been taught at one of the German training schools (or learned in the corridors, so to speak).  I prefer the version attributed to von Hammerstein but both say essentially the same thing:

“There are four kinds of officer:  the lazy, stupid type who do no harm; the intelligent, hard-working type who make good staff officers; the lazy, intelligent type are the best strategic leaders; and, finally, the stupid, hardworking type who must be dismissed immediately as they will lead to disaster.”

Thomas Kuhn argued that his concept of scientific revolution was not applicable to the social sciences but I disagree.  I am a believer in the concept of The Revolution in Military Affairs, though I do not buy in to all of the touted RMAs cited over recent decades.  RMA is still not widely or correctly understood.  For example, many people do not realize that there can be more than one RMA at work simultaneously and that they are usually more easily recognized after the fact.  It is also overlooked that the real revolution is in the application of a “new” technology – often something that has in fact been around for a decade or two before its optimal application is understood, recognized, and used.   It is important to remember that there is no such thing as an obsolete weapon or military technology; it retains value as a niche or situational tool.

Holding the Moral High Ground in conducting military combat operations is critically important.  This is true for the individual soldier, sailor, marine, or airman as well as for the armed forces to which they belong, and for the nation that sent them out to do so.  We have to give the individuals all of the tools – physical, mental, spiritual – that will enable them to identify and secure that moral high ground in every tactical, operational, strategic, and political situation.  They need to begin building this from their first day of training because done correctly this will also equip them for the transition back into the civilian world upon the completion of their service.

To close, I offer one final observation.  Having invented warfare in order to better harness war and bend it to benefit humanity, history amply demonstrates that after millennia we generally are not very good at it.  The expenditure of treasure and blood is usually greater than whatever material benefits (barring simple survival) have been gained by that expenditure.  Even the greatest masters of the art of war like Napoleon I and Alexander the Great fell short over the span of their careers.  This should give us all added reason to pause and think calmly about any decision regarding launching a war because war always includes renewed validation of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Michael O'Hanlon, his book "The Future of Land Warfare", and Me

Michael O’Hanlon has released his latest book entitled “The Future of Land Warfare” though it is a discussion of the future size and shape of American Land Power than about the future of warfare in conflicts that might call upon US land power.  O’Hanlon argues here for land forces that are at least the same size or even slightly larger than those currently fielded by the United States.  Three chapters survey possible conflicts or humanitarian disaster/relief situations that could emerge in different regions of the world and discuss what US forces and capabilities would be needed to respond.
The conclusions re US force structure represent somewhat conservative and mainstream military thought but as the author points out more than once, force planning must be done conservatively because it is less embarrassing to have more forces than you need than it is to have fewer.  I agree that ground warfare will remain the central defining aspect of war over the foreseeable future, simply because humanity remains tied to the 30% of our world that is its land surface.  I also think that his proposed 1 war + 2 regional crises formulation is a reasonable basis for this exercise.

I do have to quibble with him on a couple of points advanced during his discussion.  The regular US Army before the Civil War was about 15,000 men, but 97% of the men who fought that war for the United States did not enlist in the Regular Army, they enlisted in Volunteer regiments that were governed by separate (though very similar) legislation, regulation, policies, and procedures – in effect a massive army of citizen soldiers who resumed their civilian lives after the war.  I do not challenge his figures on the number of men who served under arms (Continental Line, State Line, Militia, etc.) during the American Revolution, the largest single battle of that conflict saw an American Army reportedly numbering about 10,000 men versus 22,000 Crown forces, significantly smaller than most battles fought in Europe during the latter half of the 18th Century.

Michael dismisses the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) concept or perhaps more accurately the ideas, etc. put forward in recent years in the name of RMA.  While I agree that the RMA idea has too often been invoked by people wanting to sell either hardware or an associated theory of how we should be making war, I have to disagree with such out of hand dismissal just as I disagree with Thomas Kuhn’s belief that his theory on such revolutionary processes could not be applied beyond the hard sciences. 

However, it is easier for us to apply hindsight in identifying RMAs than to apply foresight.  Too much of the debate has focused upon technology and hardware and not enough upon the breakthrough revolutionary applications of technology.  Twenty-four years after tanks first appeared on the battlefield, Germany in 1940 in France fielded tanks that were generally inferior to tanks used by both the French and the British armies, but neither of the latter countries understood just how revolutionary was the German use of tanks on the battlefield.

The oft revived debate that the USA does not or has not had at key moments a coherent clear national strategy has seen me on both the sidelines and as a participant.  However, I have come to attribute the oft noted lack of a strategy to the reality in the years following the Second World War that the USA has been primarily a status-quo power.  Maintenance of the status quo has been at least our default national strategy even if not clearly expressed or artfully presented and supported in public debate.  I would argue however that in the face of the reality that the one constant of life is change, it is long past time for the USG to abandon the status quo.

We should have a national strategy that reflects the reality of a constantly changing world instead of wasting our time, treasure, and resources trying to maintain the status quo.  Our global strategy should examine where we want to be in that oncoming changed world and then work at achieving the changes to the world that we desire.  This strategy would have to be supported by the military forces appropriate for implementing the military elements of that strategy, but in the absence of such a strategy we continue to guesstimate instead.  I would note also in this context that Michael O’Hanlon asks how great a reliance the US should place upon its allies.  However, I believe he stops short of the even more pointed question of how much reliance do we want our allies to place upon the US?  How great a burden will we take up in that regard?

The challenge of formulating an effective national strategy is affected also by the persistence of American exceptionalism contending with a residual isolationism and a desire to further disengage from the world.  Recurring demands for American leadership partially reflect a reality shaped since World War II by US reluctance to see the UN or any other nation emerge as a rival source of leadership.  Yet, I am persuaded that the greatest obstacle is the absence of consensus on such critical questions as our national identity as a country or of a clear definition of what our interests are in the rest of the world.  Lacking answers to those questions we cannot have a clear national strategy.

Some other points that occurred to me in reading Michael’s book follow:

·        The mistakes made in 2003 were not due to the fact that no one in Washington DC anticipated or predicted the outcome in Iraq, but came about because those who offered warnings about this outcome were ignored and pushed aside by decision makers who had already decided.

  • Nation-building remains apparently as much beyond our understanding and our capability as it was in the attempted reconstruction of the post-Civil War American South some 150 years ago.

  • I would add in connection with the scenario discussions regarding India and Pakistan that in 1990, intelligence indicators were that the war we would have to deal with would be between those two South Asian nations.  Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait kicked that idea to the side of the road so to speak.  Also, it would appear that an Indian “Cold Start” doctrine and related planning would also prepare India to respond to a collapse of Pakistan requiring an Indian response to keep it from spilling over in any way onto Indian soil.

  • No nation or group of nations has the power to deny any nation the right to decide for itself on matters of national security and defense, including NATO.  If NATO was to and is to retain its meaning and place on the world stage, it has to keep its doors open to membership by any nation that meets its criteria.  Russia’s absence from NATO today is as much or more a product of its own failure to meet those criteria and its insistence despite that fact that it receive special treatment and consideration and join NATO directly foregoing the tedious process followed by all other modern new members.  Likewise, in the face of a Russian invasion and occupation of even a portion of the territory of a NATO member state, a NATO failure to respond militarily would sound the death knell for the alliance, for where is the value in membership if NATO does not fight for even its smallest and most vulnerable members?

  • As frustrating as we may find it now to deal with Putin’s Russia, the greater tragedy may well be that Obama’s successors will find themselves dealing with a post-Putin Russia that knows no other paradigm for interacting with the West than the one bequeathed to them by Vladimir Putin.

  • The conflict in Syria and Iraq is on the verge and in my view already constitutes a single conflict with numerous fronts.

  • China’s role and actions in a future Korean Peninsula crisis must not be seen as limited to militarily propping up the regime.  It is already clear the Beijing does not relish being confronted with a wave of refugees from North Korea in the even war breaks out on the peninsula.

  • Historically, If you’re lucky, you start fighting the next war with the army that won the last war for you.  Of course, it’s rarely if ever the army you really need for the new war and you find yourself adjusting on the fly.  Even our best wargames rarely predict for us the war that we find ourselves fighting but they can still give us some idea of how we will fight the next war.

  • A military force facing the challenges outlined by Michael O’Hanlon and others must fight better, faster, harder but especially smarter.  A critical element in fighting smarter is bringing the nation’s best from our civilian National Security agencies to the field with the force to help inform the decision-making of our military commanders.  This means that DoD, DoS, and the others must start working now to give their personnel the joint training experience that will prepare them to become 'expeditionary'.

Finally, the author presents an excellent explanation as well of why we cannot return to a draft-based military, though I agree that military service would be an important element in any proposed universal national service obligation.

This discussion also helped me probe deeper into my own mind experiment of a wholly Reserve/National Guard military.  Michael O’Hanlon’s calculations confirmed my conclusion that this would require significantly more people in uniform in order to provide the Inactive Reserve/Active Reserve/Active Force throughput.  The amount of time to be served in the Inactive/Active Reserve/Active Force needs to be carefully calculated in order to ensure sufficient active capability and the necessary reserve supports.  There would have to be some number of career servicemen and women to fill command and planning functions, especially in the Army, Corps, Division headquarters organizations what would be always in the Active Force.  Employment protections for the civilian jobs of the members of such a force would also need to be enhanced and enforced.   However, such a force once stood up could fulfill one element of a possible system of universal national service and would great reduce the chasm that has opened up between our military personnel and their civilian population in general.

Friday, April 10, 2015

What Would I Change About the American Foreign Service?

This week I participated in one of a series of forums sponsored by The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA).  AFSA is the professional association as well as labor ‘union’ for American Foreign Service Officers and I maintain my membership as a retiree.  The purpose of these forums was to present the various candidates now seeking office in AFSA’s leadership positions – President, Vice President, Secretary, various representatives, etc., to different membership groups.  This forum was for the retiree community.
After the candidates, or their representatives, had spoken, the meeting was opened to questions from the floor.   After hearing several exchanges, I realized that one thing missing from the discussion about how to protect and defend the Foreign Service, etc., was ‘how would these candidates seek to change the Foreign Service and prepare it for the challenges ahead?’  This question arose in my mind because I remembered that the Foreign Service that I joined in 1973 was not the Foreign Service that I thought I was joining.  While the Foreign Service from which I retired in 2002 was not the Foreign Service that I had joined thirty years earlier.  Knowing that change is inevitable, I wondered what AFSA might do to try and guide and influence that process of change – what would we change about the Foreign Service?

I asked my question, addressing it to the candidates for AFSA President and any other candidate who wanted to discuss this, but it also occurred to me that I should answer my own question as I would if the positions were reversed.  So here’s my answer and since I’m not running for anything I feel no compulsion to engage in any prolonged defense of these ideas or to push for their adoption, but I would be interested in seeing how others in AFSA’s ranks might answer the question.

Q) What changes do I think should be made to prepare the Foreign Service for the future?


1) Extend the duration of a standard career path:  this would provide additional staffing, retain experience and expertise, and create time within a standard career to allow for more professional training opportunities.

2) Increase staffing and hiring: the added personnel would fill existing vacancies as well as ‘mothballed’ positions, provide a training ‘float’ to carry personnel on professional training assignments, support the interagency role in DoD and other USG agency training exercises in order to prepare both host agency and State Department personnel to work together in real world situations being examined in exercises.

3) Introduce 360 degree evaluations for all staff:  experience has proven to me that no one knows an officer or staff member better than those who work under or around them, this would also help the system spot  officers who ‘kiss up and kick down’ to the detriment of their supervisors, subordinates, and the Department.

4) Strengthen language requirements and create more language designated positions: language proficiency (and the resulting cultural/political awareness) are the sine qua non of the FSO and facilitate the direct access that enables the FSO to truly become knowledgeable about the host country.

5) Require mid-career professional training at the university graduate degree level with options that include both private institutions and the military war colleges:  I’ve found that DOD’s emphasis upon midcareer professional training has produced a corps of officers with both broad and deep knowledge of war and warfare but also of politics and diplomacy, if FSOs are going to hold their own and support the President, the USG, and the Department, we need to up our game.

6) Coordinate with DOD on its annual training calendar to identify exercises that should include State Department participation and designate officers for that duty: Both State and DOD need to have the best possible understanding of what each can and cannot do in future situations and the best way to do that is for FSOs and other State personnel to support and participate in DOD training exercises that call for interagency participation (from writing the scenario to the execution of the exercise in the field, the additional personnel needed to enable State to thus support DOD and other agency exercises will be supported by the expanded personnel float.

7) Enhanced Security Awareness training for all officers regardless of overseas posting to include weapons familiarization and advanced weapons training for selected volunteers:   It’s a new and dangerous world out there and State needs to be less risk averse about placing its personnel in harm’s way – but that comes with the requirement for those personnel to be trained appropriately so that they can take a greater responsibility for assessing and assuring their own security and safety and can more effectively cooperate with either Diplomatic Security or DoD personnel tasked with the security function.

8) Restore funding and representational responsibilities at all levels with each post to designate a senior officer to oversee the post’s representational activities program, to include coordination of each officer’s activities and a feedback/guidance loop to enhance the effectiveness of post’s representational activities.  I’ve watched with dismay as other agencies representatives at overseas posts have engaged in active representational programs supported by their Department or agency.  Such activities are an essential part of the development of the contacts and personal knowledge of a country that should be the hallmark of the FSO.

9) Assignments process? – when I joined the Department, I heard horror stories about the old system dominated and controlled by long-term Civil Service employees who, if they liked you, were your best friends, but if you crossed them you would never leave an endless cycle of hell hole assignments.   Now, I suspect the horror stories are more about the wolves that guard the henhouse and FSO assignment officers whose best efforts are dedicated to their own onward posting.  I defer to those who now have to live with the assignments process to put forward suggestions about reforming it but I’m sure a close examination would show some work is needed.