Strategic Agility Needed as Nature of Warfare Shifts
War and the use of force have revealed significant shifts over the past several decades. The importance of acknowledging and understanding these shifts is far from merely an academic issue for our political and military leaders.
As Eliot Cohen and John Gooch point out in their book Military Misfortunes: The Anatomy of Failure in War, some failures can be catastrophic. Think of France in 1940 and the collapse of the French army. This disaster resulted from a combination of failures to anticipate, learn and adapt. The French, the authors write, “built up a picture of what a future war would and should be like as a result of a selective view of the past … They also failed to anticipate the future on the basis of available evidence [and] it was a failure to act speedily and effectively enough” on what they did know.
U.S. military leaders pay close attention to many of war’s shifts, but their attention focuses mostly on tactical and operational employment of force. Such attention is necessary, and the nation is well served by its military services and joint headquarters, whose job it is to attend to this aspect of using force. But military attention is insufficient.
Using force has a strategic dimension as well as tactical and operational, and there is no hard line separating these dimensions. For using force, in whatever variety, is inherently a civil-military affair. While the authors of Military Misfortunes rightfully place blame on French and British military organizations for their part in the 1940 catastrophe, blame also falls on French political and diplomatic leaders.
What strategic changes might current U.S. senior civil-military leaders be missing? Among the many possible answers to this question, the five trends that follow seem relevant.
1. The historical causes for which large-scale wars have been waged are again emerging.
At the close of the Peloponnesian War, Donald Kagan reminds readers, in the end, this global war was about power, glory, ambition, revenge and fame. Look around the world today; not much has changed. Nations tend to be hierarchical and opportunistic, Geoffrey Blainey says in The Causes of War, and wars usually begin when nations disagree on their relative strength. The more a nation faces threats to its power and control over its affairs while it also senses a real opportunity to increase its power, glory and fame, the more likely war is to occur. Fear plus ambiguity and perceived opportunity increase the probability of a resort to force. These conditions are present in today’s strategic environment.
One of the main causes of today’s conditions is the still-emerging information age. Peter Stearns, in The Industrial Revolution in World History, says the ongoing industrial revolution has brought changes that are accompanied by excitement and opportunity for the “winners” and fear, stress, anxiety and loss for the “losers.” Industrialization, he says, “united and divided the world, and this tension continues.” It created, and continues to create, “massive social and political [not just economic] transformations” at “bewildering speed.” The result, according to Klaus Schwab in The Fourth Industrial Revolution, is “profound and systemic change” that, in turn, creates huge inequalities and produces societal risks and inevitable disruption that will stress our domestic and transnational institutions and their processes. And remember: “Rapid social change and rapid mobilization of new groups into politics coupled with the slow development of political institutions” increases the potential for stress, instability and violence, according to Samuel Huntington’s Political Order in Changing Societies.
Some current stresses and disruptions include ongoing wars and major migrations of people; information networks in which individuals and small groups can have oversized impact on the social, economic and political life of a community; conflict over natural resources; and the creation not only of nouveau rich but also nouveau poor as well as the strife such a gap creates. Furthermore, networks can produce a “whirlwind of confirmation bias and online gratification [that] can swiftly mobilize millions [to] devastate markets, upend elections … push nations to the brink of war [and] cleave huge rifts across society,” P.W. Singer and Emerson Brooking write in LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media.
The result of all this is a sense of precariousness. The future may not consist of only small wars fought by special operations forces and with standoff, precision munitions. The post-World War II peace, at least in the sense of no global conventional or nuclear war, is not something to take for granted. As Robert Kagan observes in The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World, the alliances, relationships and vigilance that have kept this peace need “constant attention lest the jungle grows back and engulfs us all.”
2. War has returned as the unitary concept it has always been.
For years, U.S. civil and military strategists have operated on the false belief that there is a categorical difference between war—meaning conventional war—and every other form of using force. That “everything else” was sometimes called “military operations other than war,” other times “operations other than war,” or “hybrid warfare,” “peace operations” or now, “gray zone operations.” Of course, war as a legal construct differs from other uses of force. The understanding of war as a human phenomenon, however—using force to achieve strategic aims of a political community—is a unitary concept. Whether a political community—state or other-than-state entity—uses force below or above the threshold of conventional war or the legal definition of war is immaterial. For from the standpoint of senior civil or military leaders of that community, using force below or above that threshold is conceptually the same in two important ways.
First, use of force includes tactical and operational employment considerations. Whatever military or nonmilitary forces are used requires individual tactical actions aimed to attain specific objectives, then linking those actions, sequentially or simultaneously, into a coherent set of campaigns that, in turn, increases the probability of achieving the political community’s ultimate strategic aims.
Second, use of force includes strategic considerations: using whatever forces are involved for the right reasons and for clear, achievable aims; aligning military and nonmilitary strategies, policies and campaigns with stated aims; translating plans into action, then adapting as events unfold; maintaining legitimacy and popular support; and bringing the use of force to a successful end.
Russia’s use of force in Crimea and Ukraine, China’s use of force in the South China Sea and Iran’s use of force in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq are examples of using military and nonmilitary forces to attain each nation’s strategic aims below the threshold of conventional war. These examples demonstrate the conceptual unity of war. Each case illustrates the applicability of the “tactical-operational-strategic” framework to any use of force, whether below or above the threshold of conventional war. U.S. strategic leaders acknowledge this framework as part of war, but not so much when it comes to using force below the threshold of conventional war.
The future of war will require success in using force both below and above the threshold of conventional war, which means the U.S. must treat both as conceptual equivalents—a challenge for American senior civil and military leaders.
3. Force and forces have reasserted themselves as essential to victory.
In some forms of war and uses of force, military force alone can achieve tactical successes. It is never sufficient, however, to attain strategic success. Strategic victory requires the orchestrated application of nonmilitary forces—e.g. diplomatic, industrial, labor, economic, informational and fiscal, among others.
One need only look to World War II to see how vital nonmilitary forces were to ultimate Allied success. In each nonmilitary area, civil and military leaders developed campaign plans aimed at contributing to ultimate strategic success. Creating, deploying, employing and sustaining military force would not have been possible without successful nonmilitary campaigns working well enough individually and together.
Nonmilitary forces also are vital tactically, operationally and strategically when using force below the threshold of conventional war. Vietnam, Somalia, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan provide examples of how important to ultimate success both military force and nonmilitary forces were at each level of war. One could make a good argument that in these instances, inattention to integration of nonmilitary forces at each level proved detrimental to strategic success.
Currently, as quoted in LikeWar, Russian Gen. Valery Gerasimov explains, “The role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown.” One specific he talks about is the internet, which is not just a means of communication and entertainment, but also is a weapon of war. The Russians have used this weapon effectively to produce confusion and paralysis in Crimea and Ukraine. Russia also is using this weapon to attack American and European democracies to diffract social and alliance cohesion. Since 2002, LikeWar reports, the Chinese also have weaponized information in three ways: to “manipulate perceptions and beliefs … manipulate treaties and international law … and manipulate both Chinese and foreign populations.”
The Islamic State group, too, has become an expert at using the internet as a means of war. Artificial intelligence is able to pass itself off as human by combining video images and audio messages that can manipulate specific targets or large populations to influence key civil and military strategic decision-makers. What is becoming apparent is that to produce strategic success, uses of force will require coordinating individual cyber and information actions into campaigns, then integrating those campaigns with military force and other nonmilitary forces at all three levels of war.
Success in future uses of force, whether below or above the threshold of conventional war, will involve both military force and nonmilitary forces at the tactical, operational and strategic levels—with the battle for truth and reality being one of the biggest challenges.
4. Strategy has again proven more decisive than tactics.
Winning battles is different than winning wars. Success in the tactical and operational employment of military and nonmilitary force is no guarantee to strategic success. Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the global war on terrorism, are examples where U.S. combat forces routinely defeated enemies in each engagement. Yet none are examples of the U.S. attaining its strategic aims.
As retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal states in the foreward to Sean McFate’s The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder, “Our tactical success gave both soldiers and policymakers the false impression that our strategy was working. In reality, though, we were simply carrying out discrete missions that were often brutally effective against our foe, but which were not truly rooted in any unifying national strategy or ultimate end-game. We were living one operation at a time; we celebrated our successes, but lacked a wide enough perspective to clearly assess the impact we were having.”
His message was the same as the one delivered by a North Vietnamese colonel described by Col. Harry Summers Jr. at the start of On Strategy: The Vietnam War in Context: “ ‘You know you never defeated us on the battlefield,’ said the American colonel. The North Vietnamese colonel pondered this remark a moment. ‘That may be so,’ he replied, ‘but it is also irrelevant.’ ”
The future of war will demand not just tactical and operational excellence, but also strategic excellence.
5. Skill in fighting and waging war in all its varieties is the new normal.
With respect to their tactical and operational skills, military services and departments have begun adjusting to the future of using force below and above the threshold of conventional war. They created new, and modified existing, organizations, changed the conditions under which they train, reoriented some part of their professional education systems, and altered command selection and promotion systems. None of these adjustments are finished and all will improve, but they’ve begun.
Improving American strategic skills, however, lags behind. The strategic skills the future will hold at a premium are the ones the U.S. has proven weak in for a long time. Constructing nonmilitary campaigns and coordinating these campaigns with military force remains an American strategic weakness. Achieving success below the threshold of conventional war remains another strategic weakness. Both weaknesses reveal the ineffectiveness of U.S. senior civil and military leader relationships and dialogue and the ability to take coordinated interagency action.
Military services and joint headquarters training focuses primarily on the tactical and operational, straying into the strategic mostly in professional education forums. To prepare adequately for the future, U.S. senior civilian and military leaders must determine how to practice their strategic responsibilities more frequently. Waiting until the next real-world opportunity when lives are at stake almost guarantees unpreparedness.
In the meantime, the important question is this: What governmental entity has the responsibility for adapting America’s strategic capacity necessary to address the significant shifts of the past several decades? We need an answer, because America is not immune to catastrophic failure.