Military history

Chapter 15

Observation and Orientation

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

—Sun Tzu

With there apparently being little more to say on nuclear strategy and Vietnam having turned into such a bruising experience, the civilian strategists in the United States withdrew from the field. The think tanks began to dwell more on immediate issues of policy and more technical matters. The civilians had never had much to say about the classic questions of regular warfare, though this was a natural focus for the professional military. It was the one area that had been left relatively untouched by the literature of the 1950s and 1960s due to the preoccupation with the unconventional areas of nuclear and guerrilla warfare.

One exception was a retired French general André Beaufre. Whereas the tendency in the United States was to turn strategy into a series of technical and practical issues, Beaufre’s approach was broader and more philosophical. This was reflected in his definition of strategy as “the art of the dialectic of two opposing wills using force to resolve their dispute.”1 This put strategy at the highest level of policy, taking in not just a clash of arms but all possible elements of power. Strategy appeared as the supreme function of the state, requiring choices between different forms of power and their coordinated employment to ensure that their effects were maximized. Success could be achieved by means other than physical force. The target was the enemy’s will to start or continue a fight. Psychological effects were therefore critical.

The dialectic was composed of three interconnecting parts—nuclear, conventional, and cold-war. As a friend of Liddell Hart, Beaufre picked up on the possibilities of an indirect approach but gave it a broader frame, looking to actions in fields other than the military to make an impact. He therefore had a traditional view of conventional warfare as being about a victory but also assumed that in an age of nuclear deterrence this had become less interesting. By contrast, the cold war intrigued him, because it was a new but apparently permanent phenomenon. It was pushing the conflict out into all areas, including the economic and cultural, where the two sides might encounter each other. In this respect, stirring up discontent in colonies or making humanitarian appeals could be part of the same strategy. The risk in this formulation was that events that had quite other causes were explained by this particular “dialectic of opposing wills.”

American readers found Beaufre’s philosophical approach, with its Cartesian and Hegelian influences, hard to follow. Bernard Brodie, with his pragmatism and view of strategy as “the pursuit of success in certain types of competitive endeavor,” described himself as uncertain of Beaufre’s meaning. Brodie also found it hard to take Beaufre’s dismissal of military history and his disinterest in the collection of technical data as a distraction. This went against the “general consensus that awareness of technological and other types of change is a top-level requirement among strategists.”2

Brodie’s reaction to Beaufre may help explain the limited attention paid to a contribution by James Wylie. Wylie was an American admiral who wrote a short but lucid guide to contemporary strategy in the 1960s. His approach was compared at the time to Beaufre’s.3 James Wylie’s Military Strategy retains a following, but its impact has been marginal.4 Wylie first began to set down his ideas in the early 1950s, partly as reflections on his Second World War experience. He worked in concert with another admiral, Henry Eccles, whose thoughts followed a similar path. Both of them put questions of power at the heart of their analyses. Both wondered what that meant in terms of an ability to assert “control.” As naval officers in the Mahan tradition, they believed that control was the objective of strategy.

Eccles recognized that the issue of control went beyond the purely military sphere and was both inward and outward. The distinctive sources of power that had to be addressed internally included not only politicians and the public but also logistics and the industrial bases. The external sources, not only adversaries but also allies and neutrals, were even harder to control.5

In these circumstances, control could clearly not be absolute and had to be considered as a matter of degree. Wylie understood strategy as being about ends and means; it was “a purpose together with a some measures for its accomplishment,” and war in terms of competing patterns of activity, in which one side would gain advantage by imposing a pattern on the enemy. This did not require actual battle. It could work through shows of coercive force, which could progressively constrain the enemy.

Wylie’s main claim to originality lay in a distinction between two types of strategy. The idea was prompted by a comment from the German-American historian Herbert Rosinski in 1951 distinguishing between “directive” and “cumulative” strategies. Rosinski was certainly aware of Delbruck, and he may well have been thinking about updating the distinction between wars of annihilation and exhaustion. Wylie developed his ideas first in a 1952 article. “It landed with no splash at the time,” he lamented, “and has lain on the deck ever since.”6 He tried again in his book. The distinction he drew was between a linear sequential strategy, tending to the offensive, and a cumulative strategy. A sequential strategy would involve discrete steps, each dependent upon the one before, which together would shape the outcome of the war. This offered the possibility of forcing the enemy to a satisfactory conclusion, but it also required an ability to plan ahead and anticipate the course of a conflict. The risk, of which Wylie was well aware, was that once one step turned out differently, the remainder of the sequence must follow a different pattern likely to lead to less satisfactory outcomes than the one originally sought. By contrast, a cumulative strategy was more defensive. It involved “the less perceptible minute accumulation of little items piling one on top of the other until at some unknown point the mess of accumulated actions may be large enough to be critical.” These items would not be interdependent, so a negative result in one area need not put the whole effort into reverse. This strategy could counter a sequential strategy, denying an enemy control, but it could not offer a quick, decisive result. In practice, Wylie did not consider the two to be exclusive. He did see a cumulative strategy as providing a useful hedge against a bold plan going wrong.7

Although this distinction was potentially richer than others that became more prominent in strategic debate in the United States, it is not hard to explain Wylie’s limited influence. The concepts were abstract and did not particularly address the preoccupations of the 1960s. It was well into the 1970s before serious debate revived on regular warfare. By then, the classic questions were ripe for reappraisal. Regular warfare was still the area of greatest military expenditure and effort, and new technologies were starting to challenge established doctrine.

The starting point for the revised interest was one of the most elemental and iconic encounters of contemporary warfare. The aerial dogfight combined the hunt and the chase with advanced technology. Colonel John Boyd, an American fighter pilot with experience going back to the Korean War, wrote the definitive manual on the subject. As he did so he hit upon an insight which he developed into a formula of considerable influence. Boyd began with the premise that the U.S. air force had become too preoccupied with speed. This became apparent during the early stages of the air war over Vietnam when apparently obsolete Soviet-built MiGs were prevailing in dogfights because they were more maneuverable. After an intensive analysis of the competing aircraft, Boyd concluded that the key quality was not absolute speed but agility. In a series of moves during the course of a dogfight, the most responsive fighter would be able to get on to the opponent’s tail, ready for the kill.

The OODA Loop

Boyd summed all this up as the “OODA loop.” OODA stands for observation, orientation, decision, action. The sequence started with observation, as data concerning the environment was collected. This was analyzed in the orientation stage, leading to a decision and then to the execution of an action. The loop became more complex as it developed, especially as Boyd came to appreciate the pervasive importance of orientation. It was a loop because the action changed the environment, which required that the process be repeated. Ideally, the progressive improvement of the orientation and the consequential action would result in getting closer to reality. For the fighter pilot, this brought home the importance of getting to the action part of the loop faster than the opponent. Boyd felt the OODA loop applied to any situation in which it was necessary to keep or gain the initiative. The aim was always to disorient the opponent, who would be unable to grasp a situation developing more quickly than anticipated and in unexpected ways and thus paralyzed into indecision.

Eventually books were written to explain, and in some cases apply, Boyd’s theories. He never produced a definitive text of his own. His basic ideas are contained in several hundred slides entitled Discourse on Winning & Losing.8 They formed the basis of briefings given over almost two decades to numerous audiences, including most of the senior figures in the American defense establishment. Their impact was accentuated because they were spread by enthusiastic acolytes who shared Boyd’s commitment to a combination of hard cost-benefit analysis and broad strategic vision, as well as disdain for the bureaucrats and careerists who by definition lacked both. In addition, at least at first sight, the OODA loop had a compelling simplicity and sustained the gathering complexity of Boyd’s theories. After retiring from the air force, the autodidactic Boyd read widely and moved from his engineering background into mathematical theory and on into history and the social sciences.

His later reading reinforced his views about the difficulty of sustaining the initiative. The enemy might be able to move faster than anticipated; observations might result in more uncertainty than clarity. In one remarkable paper he drew on the work of mathematicians Kurt Godel and Werner Heisenberg to demonstrate the greater risk of disorientation when attempts were made to fit observations into preconceptions.9 He then used the second law of thermodynamics to argue that closed systems led to increases in entropy, that is, internal confusion and disorder. Boyd was showing that instead of searching for “laws” to match those developed by Newtonian physics, it was now necessary to make sense of new forms of theory which challenged concepts of systems tending to equilibrium and pointed instead to chaos. The basic conclusion was the need “to deny the adversary the possibility of uncovering or discerning patterns that match our activity, or other aspects of reality in the world.”10

Because human beings must cope with a constantly changing reality, it was therefore necessary to challenge rigidities in thought. Then these new thoughts would rigidify in their time and so would need dissolving in turn. The lasting importance of Boyd’s work lay in the focus on disrupting the enemy’s decision-making, encouraging uncertainty and confusion. Under his influence, established notions of command and control were amended to take account of how information was collected, interpreted, and then communicated. By the time he died in 1997, the revolution in information and communication technologies was well underway. Boyd had set the terms for its military exploitation.

Boyd was widely read in the scientific literature of the time and picked up easily on developing theories which used simple propositions to explain complex phenomena. From these he drew language and insights to describe the sort of conflicts that interested him. From Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics to Murray Gell-Mann’s complexity theory emerged some core themes about the interaction of parts within systems, adaptation to changing environments, and outcomes that seemed indeterminate but were not beyond explanation. The conclusions for practical strategists that emerged from these theories rarely did justice to the elegance of the originals, and could lead to the suspicion that the main result was to develop more impressive language for matters that were already well understood. Many of the emerging themes were present, for example, in Schelling’s writings. The most important contribution of complexity theory was to underline the importance of considering individual actors as part of complex systems, so that they must always be assessed in relation to their environment, which was adapting to them as they adapted to it. Problems arose with an inability to adapt.

“Chaos theory” explained how systems in which cause and effect were supposedly known, and in which strategic calculations might be assumed to be reliable, could nonetheless turn into disorderly systems marked by apparently random effects. This underlined the point that micro-causes could have unexpected macro-effects, and that initial conditions determined later outcomes, even though the resultant dynamic interactions meant that they could not be predicted. Effects always had causes even though the processes were obscure. One basic conclusion was that mistakes in the short term would be hard to reverse over the long term.11

This challenged the underlying presumption of rationality underpinning bureaucratic organizations and routine planning. Those looking for stability and regularity could find themselves having to cope with the opposite. If effects were uncertain, especially in more complex settings and longer conflicts, how could a responsible strategist think through the consequences of actions. Along with the sociological “laws” of unanticipated consequences and self-fulfilling expectations came the cybernetic concepts of feedback loops and non-linearity. If inputs and outputs were proportional then variables could be plotted along a straight line, as in a linear equation, but with non-linear equations there could be no such plot because the relationships were complex and outcomes would be disproportionate to effects.12

The first thought that might be drawn from this was that all strategy was doomed to failure. The second might be that the process could only truly be managed during its early stages, so the best option was to concentrate on getting the initial advantage. This was fine if the conflict could actually be concluded quickly, but once the early stages were passed situations might be expected to move out of control. There was considerable historical evidence to support this proposition, for example, the failure of the Schlieffen Plan.

Attrition and Maneuver

Boyd’s writings led to the evaluation of strategies in terms of their ability to cause uncertainty and confusion in the enemy’s mind. This could be achieved by undermining the will to fight (“moral warfare”); encouraging distorted perception of reality, by either deception or attacks on means of communication (“mental warfare”); and using the advantages gained to attack warmaking capacities so the enemy could not survive (“physical warfare”).13 The prescriptions that flowed from analysis of the first strategy were largely derivative of the post-Napoleonic classics and of Fuller and Liddell Hart.

One of Boyd’s key examples was the 1940 Battle of France, which prompted his “Blitzkrieg vs. Maginot Line mentality.” French decisionmaking was paralyzed as the Germans worked out how to operate inside their OODA loops.14 One key to German success was the readiness to delegate. Tactical commanders could realize the mission in their own way. This depended on a shared understanding of what needed to be done. Boyd distinguished between attrition warfare, focused on the physical domain and using firepower as a destructive force, and maneuver warfare, focused on the mental domain where the aim was to generate “surprise and shock” by using ambiguity, mobility, and deception. Blitzkrieg could also lead to effects in the moral domain, which Boyd saw as being related to menace and uncertainty.

The example was not chosen at random. It played into a major debate then underway on the future of American military policy. The setting of the 1970s was one in which the armed forces of the United States were still licking their Vietnam-imposed wounds and coming to terms with the implications of an all-volunteer army. The generals believed that they could rebuild the army best by focusing on the priority task of securing NATO’s central front. This had the added advantage of returning to the comfort zone of preparations for major war and away from insurgencies. In addition, since the 1960s American policymakers had indicated a wish to reduce dependence on nuclear deterrence, as it involved increasingly incredible threats. In this respect the later stages of Vietnam and the 1973 Arab-Israeli War had indicated that there might be new possibilities, notably technologies that allowed conventional munitions to be delivered with extraordinary precision, offering opportunities to rethink land warfare doctrine. At the same time there were concerns that the European challenge had become greater than before: the Warsaw Pact was presumed to still enjoy substantial numerical superiority but also to have revamped its doctrine and built up its strength while the Americans had been preoccupied with Vietnam.

The resentment of McNamara’s managerialism at the Pentagon still ran deep, and was reflected in much of the critical literature of the time. He was taken to embody the stifling introduction of conformist practices and the risk-averse culture of large corporations into a business that should really honor warrior virtues and cultivate mavericks. This became another version of the romantic lament against bureaucratization and scientific rationality, although the trends in scientific thinking around complexity encouraged the view that it was the rationalists who were now being overtaken. It also challenged a military elite who had bought into the corporatist culture. Desk bound and far from the scenes of actual conflict, they were as proud of their degrees in business administration and economics as they were forgetful of the ways of military strategy.

The first fruits of the army’s post-Vietnam reappraisal of doctrine came with the 1976 publication of Field Manual 100-5: Operations, the army’s main doctrinal manual.15 The manual drew on the lethality of modern weaponry, bringing all forms of firepower—land and air—to bear in a combined arms approach in order to generate an “active defense.” It was a traditional approach, dependent on the most advanced equipment and professional training to produce a force capable of holding lines against a determined offensive and inflicting crippling damage on the enemy until they were so weak they could not cope with a counterattack.

It did not take long before this manual was subjected to a searing critique. This was as much about reforming the whole military establishment as addressing a difficult conundrum about how to think about NATO’s central front. The criticism originated not from within the military establishment but from a group of largely civilian defense specialists, though many had military backgrounds and were influenced by Boyd. To the fore in the attack was William Lind, intensely conservative though he was working as a legislative aide to a democratic senator. Boyd’s dichotomy between attritional and maneuver warfare, using the Maginot Line versus Blitzkrieg analogy, was picked up with some vigor by Lind, who had a keen interest in German fighting methods. In contrast to attrition, which has the objective of killing enemy troops or destroying enemy equipment, the blitzkrieg-based alternative of maneuver would have as its “primary objective” breaking “the spirit and the will of the opposing high command by creating unexpected and unfavorable operational or strategic situations.”16

Within five years the reformers had apparently won the argument, with the adoption of the doctrine of Air Land Battle in 1982 and a revised army field manual. This was intended from the start to set broad principles for any war, not just one in Europe. The battlefield was to be seen in the round, and the critical attributes of successful operations were stressed as “initiative, depth, agility and synchronization.”17 For Field Manual 100-5, maneuver was the dynamic element of combat, allowing the concentration of forces to use surprise, psychological shock, position, and momentum to enable smaller forces to defeat larger ones. It was seen as “the employment of forces through movement supported by fire to achieve a position of advantage” from which they could then destroy or threaten to destroy the enemy. The aim was to move fast, probe defenses, and exploit success, carrying the battle deep into the enemy’s rear.18 The spirit was offensive and in line with Boyd’s determination to get inside the enemy’s OODA loop:

The underlying purpose of every encounter with the enemy is to seize or retain independence of action. To do this we must make decisions and act more quickly than the enemy to disorganize his forces and to keep him off balance.19

By 1986 the Field Manual 90-8 Counterguerrilla Operations, dealing with action directed against armed antigovernment forces, claimed that the “basic concept of Air Land Battle doctrine can be applied to Counterguerrilla operations.”20 In 1989 the Marine Corps issued FMFM-1 which insisted that its doctrine was based on “warfare by maneuver,” which would provide a means to defeat a “physically superior foe” by rendering the enemy “incapable of resisting by shattering his moral and physical cohesion.”21

Operational Art

“Maneuver” displaced “attrition” remarkably quickly. This all took place within a cold-war context, in which the enemy was both well known and substantial, and the problem to be solved was deterring and if necessary resisting aggression across the inner German border. The focus was therefore on a classic great power confrontation between large armies in the center of Europe. It was one which made it possible to draw on the classic texts of military strategy updated for the information age.

Edward Luttwak, a Romanian-born polymath with an unerring eye for a controversial argument, synthesized the various strands of critical thinking around U.S. military policy with a series of articles and books. He challenged the Department of Defense’s bloated command structures and fascination with weapons procurement at the expense of strategic thought.2 2 Military strategy, he argued, required different ways of thinking than did normal civilian life. The interaction of opposing forces meant that war was a realm “pervaded by a paradoxical logic of its own, standing against the ordinary linear logic by which we live in other spheres of life.” This normal logic was violated by “inducing the coming together and even the reversal of opposites.” As a result, paradoxical conduct tended to be rewarded while straightforwardly logical action was confounded, “yielding results ironical if not lethally self-damaging.”23 Those who understood how to manage the large civilian bureaucracies presiding over the armed forces could not, therefore, grasp strategy because it involved a quite different way of thinking. They would look for standardized solutions, failing to understand how much easier this made the enemy’s task. Luttwak also acknowledged that even if national leaders somehow acquired this paradoxical turn of mind they might not dare display it lest they alarm their constituents and colleagues. Any deviation from the “commonsensical conventions of the time and place” would risk a “loss of authority.”24 The linear planning model, which Robert McNamara had taken to the Pentagon, was flawed precisely because it could not anticipate everything and so was likely to produce perverse outcomes. This led Luttwak into arguing, in effect, for confusion or at least against attempted coherence, for “only policies that are seemingly contradictory can circumvent the self-defeating effect of the paradoxical logic.” Luttwak overdid this point: war did not require a different logic, just a recognition of a different context, one in which it would make perfect sense to follow a different path to one followed in peace.25

Luttwak focused attention on the importance of what he identified as the “operational level.” This had been neglected, and with it the classical traditions of European war. Jomini, Liddell Hart, and John Boyd had referred to this level as one for grand tactics. Jomini described these as “the maneuvering of an army upon the battle-field, and the different formation of troops for attack.” Luttwak believed that the operational level was the critical sphere for generalship and for that reason deplored its absence in contemporary American military thought. It was there that “schemes of warfare such as blitzkrieg or defense in depth evolve or are exploited.” Americans had neglected this because of their dependence on an “attrition style of war.”26

The idea of an operational level of war as a politics-free zone where commanders could demonstrate their mastery of managing large forces over wide areas in a series of complex engagements with the enemy was an inheritance from von Moltke. It was given added salience because of its prominence in Soviet military thought. From the formation of the Soviet Union, its military leadership had been engaged in theoretical debates about the operational level as an intermediate stage between tactics and strategy, and which way they should turn when faced with the choice between decisive annihilation or more defensive attrition. In the build-up to the Second World War, Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky’s reflections on the impact of motorization and airpower had led him to come out firmly in favor of mass, mechanized forces able to conduct deep operations in a war of annihilation. His opponents were castigated not only for poor strategy but for poor theory, which was much more dangerous. This helped seal the fate of many in Stalin’s purges, although it did not spare Tukhachevsky a similar fate. After the war, the initial Soviet focus had been on the impact of thermonuclear weapons, which led to a reduced conventional army, but by the late 1960s the numbers were rising again. Reflecting the view that the best chance of victory was early in a war, before American reserves could get across the Atlantic to Europe, the general staff stressed the importance of being able to mount maneuvers deep in NATO territory with minimal prior mobilization, maximum surprise, and combined forces. This tradition, as reflected in the military doctrines of the Warsaw Pact, was another reason for NATO countries, led by the United States, to get on the same wavelength.27

Luttwak encouraged the view that attrition based on firepower and maneuver based on movement were almost polar opposites. Attrition was presented as not so much a regrettable response to a challenging predicament but a deliberate choice reflecting a particular mindset. For Luttwak it involved an “exaggerated dependence on firepower as such to the detriment of maneuver and flexibility.” This style, he acknowledged, had the “great attractions of predictability and functional simplicity.” All military effort could be geared to attacking sets of targets in a systematic fashion. Under its misleading aura, war would be “governed by a logic analogous to that of microeconomics.” The “conduct of warfare at all levels” would be “analogous to the management of a profit-maximizing industrial enterprise.” In the end, superior resources should win, even though applied with routine and repetitive tactics and procedures. The greater the input, the greater the output. The costs would lie in absorbing the enemy’s reciprocal attrition and the calculation could be upended should the enemy attract an ally to achieve a superior balance of power. Against this dull, methodical, bureaucratic linearity Luttwak promoted imaginative flair and operational paradox. Against attritional science he sought a maneuverist art.28 Relational-maneuver warfare sought to avoid enemy strength in order to attack enemy weakness. It was, Luttwak suggested, an almost compulsory approach for the resource-weak side.

In posing the issue in these terms, Boyd, Luttwak, and their contemporaries were urging a return to the military classics of the modern era, but with a postmodern twist resulting from their heightened sensitivity to cognitive processes. On the critical issues of military strategy, the classics offered less clarity than was often supposed, and so the net result was often to update for a new audience the muddle of earlier times. The starting point was inevitably Clausewitz. But as was well known, On War was not a finished work and Clausewitz was in the process of revising his ideas at the time of his death. The resultant ambiguity had affected all those who had taken this work as their starting point, and further distortions had arisen in the responses of key figures such as Delbrück and then Liddell Hart to what they believed Clausewitz had said. Complications of language and translation easily added to the confusion, which meant that the return to the classics led to some intense debates about what they really meant—as if that could help sort out the conceptual confusion that was developing around the attempted application of their ideas to contemporary problems. While these debates were gathering steam, an important new English translation of Clausewitz by Peter Paret and Michael Howard was published and an English edition of Delbrück became available for the first time.29

Behind all of this there was one large issue, which was whether there was an alternative to large-scale battle as a route to victory. There was a further and more difficult issue about the meaning (and possibility) of victory itself. Limited war had been prominent in the eighteenth century and there were examples of it from the nineteenth. If a war was to end without one state subjugating another, there was going to have to be some sort of negotiation. The bargain struck could be assumed to have some relationship to the balance of power at the conclusion of hostilities. Clausewitz had recognized this possibility, but he had not explored it fully. His main focus was the use of battle to eliminate the enemy army as a fighting force and thus render the enemy state helpless.

This became known as the strategy of annihilation, a term used by von Moltke and then compared by Delbrück with a strategy of exhaustion. Delbrück saw exhaustion as persuading the enemy to abandon the fight even though its army had not been annihilated. Exhaustion suggested that the enemy had been worn down to the point that it could not face further war. This was most likely to occur if its survival was not at issue and the stakes were limited and susceptible to compromise. Confusion then entered with regard to method, because there was no reason why exhaustion could not result from a series of inconclusive battles. Delbrück also used the term “bipolar strategy” to capture the idea of a commander deciding from moment to moment whether to achieve a goal by battle or maneuver.

The choice between annihilation and exhaustion could not just be a matter of strategic preference but had to reflect the material situation. If battle was unavoidable, there must be sufficient strength to prevail but also, even after a decisive battle, enough residual capability to go on and occupy enemy territory. It might be possible to gain an initial advantage through maneuver, but this might not be sufficient if despite the loss of one army the enemy could field another. Unless one was confident of possessing ultimate military superiority, a push for annihilation was unwise. If force had to be conserved for a long haul, set-piece battles were best avoided other than in the most favorable circumstances. For this reason an association developed between exhaustion and maneuver, as ways of avoiding direct battle.30

It was Liddell Hart who took the idea of maneuver and developed it to a new stage by contrasting it much more sharply with major battle. To further add to the confusion, frontal assaults had now become associated with attrition since the Great War, although not as Delbrück understood the term (to the extent that was the term he had in mind). Battle of this scale and intensity went well beyond anything envisaged by Clausewitz, however much he might have recognized the underlying strategic principles in play. Liddell Hart kept open the possibility of defeating an opponent by leaving them confused and disoriented, caught by surprise rather than buckling under heavy casualties. What was less clear was whether something that could work well when one army caught another off guard could work with whole states. Even after stunning setbacks in the field, some states might be able to play for time to bring in reserves or move to civil resistance. There was therefore one issue about whether it was possible to defeat opponents in the field by means other than frontal assault, and another about how military victories could be translated into substantial political gains.

Which brings us back to Clausewitz, because these two issues—which go to the heart of his unfulfilled interest in deviations from the strategy of annihilation—were captured but not resolved in one of his enduring but most unsatisfactory concepts: the center of gravity or Schwerpunkt. This was a concept which came to be adopted by Western military establishments, although in ways that aggravated its inherent problems. So familiar did the concept become that it started to be referred to by its acronym COG. Clausewitz’s focus was on the enemy army, but as the center of gravity was identified as the source of the opponent’s power and strength, it could also refer to an alliance or national will.

By the late 1980s, these various strands had come together to form a distinct doctrinal form embedded in Western military establishment. There should be a military focus on the operational level of warfare. Here forces should be directed against the opponent’s center of gravity. This would be that point or set of points where the application of military force would be most likely to result in the enemy’s surrender. The new thinking encouraged the belief that the most important centers of gravity would be those that led to the enemy’s brain, using shock and disorder to produce mental dislocation and therefore paralysis rather than blasting away at the enemy’s physical strength.

This distinction between the two forms of warfare was sharpened, almost to the point of caricature. The maneuverists presented attritionists in an unflattering light, seeing the “enemy as targets to be engaged and destroyed systematically. Thus the focus is on efficiency, leading to a methodical almost scientific approach to war.” Everything depended on the efficiency with which firepower was employed, encouraging centralized control rather than local initiative. Progress would be defined in quantitative terms, with battle damage assessments, “body counts,” and terrain captured. Relying on inflicting punishing attrition meant being prepared to accept it in return. Victory would not “depend so much on military competence as on sheer superiority of numbers in men and equipment.” The implication was that lives were being sacrificed because of a lack of imagination and skill. Here the maneuverist, relying on intelligence, scored. The maneuverist would

c ircumvent a problem and attack it from a position of advantage rather than meet it straight on. The goal is the application of strength against selected enemy weakness. By definition, maneuver relies on speed and surprise, for without either we cannot concentrate strength against enemy weakness.

The objective was “not so much to destroy physically as it [was] to shatter the enemy’s cohesion, organization, command and psychological balance.”31 To do this required superior skill and judgment. Who would not want to be associated with such a strategy?

The key elements of this approach were all problematic, however. The idea of distinct levels of strategy was rooted in established hierarchies. The underlying principle was that at each level the objectives would be passed down from the higher. At the level of grand strategy, a conflict was anticipated, alliances forged, economies geared, people braced, resources allocated, and military roles defined. At the level of strategy, the political objectives were turned into military goals; priorities and specific objectives were agreed upon and allocations of men and equipment made accordingly. At the level of grand tactics or operations, judgments were made as to the most appropriate form of warfare to achieve the goals of that particular campaign in the light of the prevailing conditions. At the level of tactics, military units attempted to push forward the goals of the campaign in the specific circumstances in which they found themselves.

These levels reflected hierarchical command structures geared to regular warfare between great powers as much as sharp distinctions in contemporary practice. What was striking, given the contemporary fascination with systems theory and information flows, was that these were generally considered to challenge such structures. Under the influence of similar ideas, business practice was moving to flatter hierarchies. Too many chains in the command structure were likely to lead to unresponsive organizations. Information up the chain about what was going on at ground level would be slow and subject to distortion, while initiative could be dampened if new orders always had to come down the chain.

This assumption continued to be reflected in discussions of tactical issues as short term, immediate, and not necessarily of lasting importance; while strategic issues were the big ones, long term and fateful, potentially existential in their implications. Yet in limited wars, single engagements could be decisive and so local tactical factors would become matters of grand strategy and subject to the highest political control. During the 1990s, as local factors became more important, the Americans began to talk of a “strategic corporal,” able to “make well-reasoned and independent decisions under extreme stress—decisions that will likely be subject to the harsh scrutiny of both the media and the court of public opinion.” The strategic corporal would be aware that his actions would “potentially influence not only the immediate tactical situation, but the operational and strategic levels as well,” and thus the “outcome of the larger operation.”32

There was also an operational dimension at work at the strategic and tactical levels. British historian Michael Howard identified three other dimensions of strategy in addition to the operational. These were the logistical, social, and technological. He warned of the danger of a preoccupation with operations in isolation from the logistical effort which made them possible, the social context in which they were being conducted, and the forms of technology which they exploited.33 The attraction of the focus on an operational level where all the critical decisions on the employment of forces took place was that they would be taken away from the civilian-military interface. That was at the notionally more important strategic level. In practice, limiting the focus to a distinct operational level had the effect of keeping actual combat under professional military purview and away from interfering civilian amateurs. In this it reflected one of the military’s explanations for failure in the Vietnam War: civilian “micromanagement.”

The second set of problems occurred with the notion of the center of gravity. Even as the concept was adopted there was little agreement about what commanders should be looking for and the methodology required to find it. It all might have been simpler if they had adopted Jomini’s concept of the decisive point, against which the greatest possible force should be directed. This at least would have avoided the burdens of inappropriate metaphor.34

The army, for example, with access to a large force of its own, took the view that this was not about pitting “strength against strength” as originally supposed but more about an indirect approach, applying “combat power against a series of decisive points that avoided enemy strengths.”35 The Marine Corps, with a smaller capability, initially also took the view that it was best to attack not the enemy’s strengths but its critical vulnerabilities. The Corps even observed dangers in speaking of a center of gravity, because Clausewitz was about “daring all to win all” in a climactic test of strength.36 Critical vulnerabilities appeared to be no easier to identify than centers of gravity. The recommendation was to exploit “any and all vulnerabilities” until uncovering a decisive opportunity. This somewhat random process led Joe Strange of the Marine Corps War College to focus on critical capabilities and requirements leading to a process opening with the exploitation of critical vulnerabilities, which would have the cumulative effect of undermining the enemy’s center of gravity.37

One influential version was developed by John Warden for the air force. He accepted Clausewitz’s basic proposition but sought to relate it to air power. The enemy’s center of gravity was “that point where the enemy is most vulnerable and where an attack will have the best chance of being decisive.” The evidence of decisiveness would be that the enemy leadership could then be convinced “to do what one wants to do.” Warden presented the enemy (any enemy) as a system made up of a several interrelated parts held together by a number of nodes and links, some of which were critical. The centers of gravity could be found in each of the five component parts (or rings)—leadership, organic essentials, infrastructure, population, and fielded forces—that described any strategic entity. The point of this was that air power was uniquely qualified to strike at these points simultaneously through parallel, as opposed to sequential or serial, attacks in order to overwhelm and thereby paralyze an opponent. The effect, he argued, would be decisive.38 The presumption was that the centers were founded on physical structures and their loss would lead the enemy to accept that the game was up. Warden thus sought to demonstrate how employing the sort of firepower that might be associated with attrition could, with careful analysis of targets, be used to achieve the sort of disorientation sought by the maneuverists.

There was, therefore, no consensus on what these concepts meant. After two decades of various formulations it was observed that “the lack of doctrinal guidance on developing and employing COGs wastes planners’ time and provides few tangible benefits.” It was reported that planning teams could “take hours—if not days—arguing over what is and is not the enemy’s COG,” with the outcome often decided by the strongest personality rather than the best analysis.39 This was, however, written in the belief that with a better methodology the task would be manageable and the results worthwhile. The real problem was that concept of a center of gravity had been expanded to the point of meaninglessness. It could refer to a target or a number of targets. The center might be identified because it constituted a source of enemy strength and/or a critical vulnerability. It could be found in the physical, psychological, or political spheres. If all went well once the center was attacked, the result would be decisive or else have consequences with potentially decisive effects, though this might depend on being combined with other significant events. It had become totally detached from the original metaphor, yet the terminology encouraged the expectation that there could be a very specific set of operational objectives that would produce the desired political effect if attacked properly. This reflected Clausewitz’s original notion that the key to victory lay in the defeat of the enemy’s military system, but if the sources of the enemy’s political resilience lay somewhere else, attacks on this supposed center would be bound to disappoint. If it was not a physical location or set of capabilities, but instead a political ideology or an alliance, it would be harder to work out what was supposed to be targeted.

The third set of problems was that military history gave little support to the dichotomous view of attrition and maneuver, or that maneuver could serve as an overall doctrine rather than an occasional opportunity. Carter Malkasian complained that “no commander or theorist who has purposefully implemented attrition or developed the concept was ever cited by advocates of maneuver warfare.”40 Though attrition was presented as a bloody slogging match with troops being sacrificed in mindless exchanges of firepower, Malkasian demonstrated that it could include “in-depth withdrawals, limited ground offensive, frontal assaults, patrolling, careful defensive, scorched- earth tactics, guerrilla warfare, air strikes, artillery firepower, or raids.” There had been many examples of successful attritional campaigns, of which Russia’s defense against Napoleon in 1812 was “perhaps the grandest.”41 The key characteristic of attrition was that it was about wearing down the enemy, which meant the process was likely to be protracted, gradual, and piecemeal. While it could end with a decisive battle, it could also lead to a negotiation when both sides had decided that they had had enough. This meant that it suited coercive strategies with moderate aims. The danger was that attrition could turn into a contest of endurance, and it was hard to know in advance when the enemy would be worn down.

Hew Strachan trenchantly warned of the danger of the operational level as “a politics-free zone” speaking in a “self-regarding vocabulary about manoeuvre, and increasingly ‘manoeuverism,’ that is almost metaphysical and whose inwardness makes sense only to those initiated in its meanings.”42 He traced the preoccupation with the operational level back to General Erich Ludendorff. Prior to the First World War, the German army rigidly focused on the problems with its own military domain, excluding civilians from its deliberations and appearing largely indifferent to the political consequences of its actions, on the assumption that whatever was desired could be obtained politically following a successful war of annihilation. Ludendorff preferred to blame his country’s defeat in 1918 on a civilian “stab-in-the-back,” not his own battlefield failures. He became a proponent of total war by which the complete resources of society must be devoted to victory. Rather than war serving politics, politics should serve war. His view of strategy itself was therefore a continuation of von Moltke’s and reflected the sharp operational focus he had adopted during the past war. He would not accept that this perspective had let his country down. This view accounted for the lack of innovative strategic thought in interwar Germany. The initial success of the blitzkrieg in Western Europe in 1940 did not reflect a pre-war doctrine but the old doctrines of envelopment that had shaped the Schlieffen Plan. This time it succeeded through a combination of inspired improvisation and mistakes by the French High Command, which employed neither its strategic army reserve nor tactical air power to deal with the German threat before it gathered momentum.

The successes of 1940 did convince Hitler that blitzkrieg was the way to win wars, so he adopted it as the basis for the attack on the Soviet Union. Soviet mistakes again helped with early progress, but the offensive soon faltered and the economic demands of the campaign were inadequately addressed. While celebrating blitzkrieg as a doctrine, its proponents paid inadequate attention to this experience in the East—not only its failure but the objectives of conquest, plunder, and racial domination that shaped its course.43 In the end, the experience of the Second World War followed that of the First. The Germans found themselves fighting an attritional campaign after attempting to force a result with a winning maneuver. The blitzkrieg model was therefore flawed, taking little account of the historiography of the Second World War.

Moreover, in terms of NATO’s central front at the start of the 1980s, the possibilities of maneuver were oversold. The language of rapid and unexpected moves was appealing but also vague and, when applied to large and cumbersome modern armies, hard to envisage in practice. It reflected an essentially romantic and nostalgic view of strategy, unhampered by the normal constraints of politics and economics, over-impressed by both Soviet doctrine and its supposed vulnerability to maneuver warfare, as well as over-optimistic about the Western ability to implement it successfully.44The maneuver strategies advocated were often impractical. They would be high-risk options in European conditions, with its urban sprawl and complex road and train networks, and place enormous strain on good intelligence and effective command and control. A faulty maneuver could lead to absolute disaster and leave the rear exposed. Furthermore, a new offensive doctrine could unsettle American allies in Europe, notably the Federal Republic of Germany, which was wary of association with anything that could be considered an aggressive strategy or a defensive strategy that involved turning its territory into a battleground. The failure to consider the geopolitical context illustrated the problem with considering operational art in isolation from a broader strategy in which holding together an alliance might be more important than developing clever moves for a hypothetical war.

Although an advocate for a maneuverist approach, Luttwak provided the theoretical reasons for caution. He had taken from Liddell Hart the indirect approach, the need to follow the line of least expectation. The obvious route, the most direct with the most favorable terrain, would be the one for which the enemy was best prepared. Taking the most complicated and uncomfortable route would therefore be the best way to catch an enemy out. Unfortunately, once a preference for an indirect approach was known, enemies would be alert for the unexpected, which meant that either an even more unlikely and difficult route had to be found, or perhaps there could be a double bluff, with the original, expected route being adopted as the last place the enemy would look. The test as to which way to go was one of surprise. Without surprise the extra effort required by an awkward route would be pointless and probably dangerous. Surprise made possible “the suspension, if only brief, if only partial, of the entire predicament of strategy, even as the struggle continues.”45 The advantage of surprise was that, for a moment, the enemy would be unable to react and so would be vulnerable. His decisionmaking cycle would be disrupted.

There were practical reasons why this logic did not lead to a totally confusing sequence of paradoxes. Movement might be restricted such that only necessary fuel and supplies could be carried and barely any space was available for weapons and ammunition. Unless the original engagement was extraordinarily successful there would be no capacity to continue a fight for any length of time. In addition, surprise depended on secrecy and deception. There was no point in embarking on elaborate maneuvers only to be spotted en route and then caught in an ambush. Therefore, an indirect strategy involved “self-weakening measures,” and thus costs and risks. To these could be added friction, so sharply identified by Clausewitz. This was the cumulative impact of all the grit that interfered with the smooth implementation of the basic plan: broken down vehicles, misunderstood orders, misdirected supplies, unseasonal weather, and impassable terrain. One aim of strategy would be to aggravate the enemy’s propensity to friction by forcing them to adopt an indirect strategy, making sure the direct routes were well protected, and then interdicting supply lines.

Luttwak noted a further paradox, drawn from Clausewitz: the greater the success of the original strategy the greater the risk of friction as an army moved further away from home base. Supply lines became attenuated as the enemy fell back closer to its own home bases where it could replenish and bring forward fresh reserves as the advancing force moved into unfamiliar territory. Victorious armies were apt to overreach themselves, pushing their luck. If they went beyond the “culminating point,” the most advantageous position vis-à-vis the enemy, the balance of advantage would start to shift. An enemy in disarray would be unable to regroup, so the attacker would be well advised to press home the advantage. This raised the problem of the indecisive battle. Without full surrender terms, the enemy would look for ways to regroup and return to the fight, even as an insurgency if the country was occupied. Thus the ultimate test of strategy was not whether surprise was achieved. In the end this was a tactical matter. The test was whether the desired political outcome was reached. The basic point was that sticking with any formula allowed the enemy a chance to adjust and respond.

Lastly, there was behind all of this a presumption of cause and effect, that combinations of “ambiguity, deception, novelty, mobility, and actual or threatened violence” would generate sufficient surprise and shock to cause enemy confusion and disorder. The essence of moral conflict, Boyd insisted, was to create, exploit, and magnify menace (impression of danger to one’s wellbeing and survival), uncertainty (impressions, or atmosphere, generated by events that appear erratic, contradictory, unfamiliar, chaotic, etc.), and mistrust (atmosphere of doubt and doubt and suspicion that loosens human bonds among members of an organic whole or between organic wholes).

The evidence that this would be working would be “surface fear, anxiety, and alienation in order to generate many non-cooperative centers of gravity.”46 While comparative morale and coherence undoubtedly made a difference, and confused commanders could watch helplessly as their armies fell apart, this story was told in excessively stark terms of headquarters tipping over in collective nervous breakdowns, organized troops turning into a disorderly rabble, and apparently disciplined and intelligent individuals suddenly reduced to helpless fools thrashing around in the dark. Boyd saw “courage, confidence, and esprit” as constituting a form of “moral strength” that could counter such negative effects. If the enemy did indeed enjoy such moral strength, the imaginative physical effects designed to cause a moral breakdown would fail. Alternatively, individuals and groups would vary in their responses, with some being able to absorb the implications of events and adapt quickly. Their responses might be suboptimal, but sufficient to regroup and cope with the new situation.

One famous example of a commander thrown into mental confusion by a shock military move (although one about which he had been warned) was Stalin in June 1941 as the German offensive began and made rapid gains. For a few days the Soviet people heard nothing from Stalin as he struggled to make sense of the situation. While he was doing so, individuals at the front responded as best they could, some retreating and some throwing themselves into the fight with great bravery. Eventually Stalin rallied himself, broadcast a stirring message to his people, and took command of the fight. The size of his country and his population meant that a quick victory for the Germans was essential, and Hitler was sufficiently contemptuous of the Slav mentality to believe that a hard push by his forces would see the enemy crumble. When the moral collapse failed to materialize to the degree necessary, Hitler’s forces were stuck and eventually pushed back. The shock effect wore off as the Soviet leadership steadied itself.

It was one thing to argue that because minds controlled bodies, disrupting the workings of minds was preferable to eliminating their bodies, but quite another to assume that just as physical blows could shatter bodies, so mental blows could shatter minds. It was one thing to recognize the importance of the cognitive domain, but quite another to assume that it was susceptible to straightforward manipulation. Human minds could be capable of remarkable feats of denial, resistance, recovery, and adaption, even under extreme stress.

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