What does it take for militaries to win in today’s interconnected, interdependent, and complex environment? I would argue that in contrast with the battlefield of the past, today’s environment demands much more organizational agility, the degree to which a team or company is resourceful and adept at flexing in response to both internal and external factors.
The current situation in Syria reminds us again that we are failing in our post-9/11 wars. We have accomplished neither the strategic objectives set forth by the Bush administration nor those of the Obama administration. Both administrations have had notable successes and achieved periodic tactical and operational progress, but neither created sustained strategic success...We must reset our thinking.
While Carl von Clausewitz is often quoted, in reality his treatise On War is rarely studied in depth. In times when the U.S. military struggles to find its strategic footing, however, reading and debating Clausewitz’s complex ideas are needed more now than ever before. Perhaps even the times and conditions in which he developed them deserve a second look, for they contain lessons about how strategic thinkers grow and develop.
Self-sacrifice as a first principle helps strategists to remain faithful to the essential characteristics of a nation’s vital national interests, and it can prevent them from getting lost in moral absolutism when taken as a first among equals rather than as an overriding imperative. In other words, an attitude of self-sacrifice enables strategists to make strategic choices. This principle of self-abnegation is of foremost importance to strategists because its antithesis in limited wars effectively precludes the proper function of strategy and thereby undermines the utility of war.
Hugh Sebag-Montefiore took advantage of the Somme’s centenary year to publish "Somme: Into the Breach," a weighty and well-documented volume privileging the voices and accounts of the men who fought it. He uses letters and diaries to resurrect the combatants as real men, husbands and fathers, while showing us unflinchingly how they suffered and died.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were a highly successful terrorist organization who were famous for successfully forming a fully functional military. Their fight for separation from the Sri Lankan government lasted a quarter century, and parallels can be drawn between the Sri Lankan conflict and the current situation in the Middle East (and elsewhere).
The Tet Offensive was a shock and a surprise for the Americans, where despite the high death toll the Americans inflicted on the Vietnamese, the Americans still lost. The Americans did not understand the restrictions and limitations they placed on themselves: the ideology of anti-Communism and exceptionalist pro-Democracy. But the Vietnamese did.
It is important to view the civil-military problematique through a lens slightly different from that of the United States looking at itself. In this regard, Trinkunas has offered a useful addition to the literature on civil-military relations. And as a history of political transitions, coups, democracy, and civil-military relations in Venezuela from 1945 to 2004, he does not disappoint. But the book doesn't live up to the author's aspirations.
On 15 October 2036, the USS ZUMWALT (DDG-1000) glides through the Philippines Sea on the twentieth anniversary of its commissioning. Nearby, the USS ENTERPRISE (CVN-80) launches both the F-35C and the unmanned F-47C to jointly conduct bombing raids on the Navy’s Western Pacific bombing range. Both ships, along with the entire ENTERPRISE Carrier Strike Group, are headed toward the South China Sea to participate in the annual US-India-Singapore naval exercise called DRAGON FURY. Below the surface, the USS MONTANA (SSN-794) deploys the unmanned underwater vehicle called SEA-EYE to assist in trailing a Russian Dolgorukiy class SSBN as it leaves port headed to its strategic patrol areas.
As the U.S. and China respectively prioritize advances in the same strategic technologies, innovations may take place simultaneously, and diffusion may occur almost instantaneously. As China has become a global leader in multiple critical technological domains—including unmanned systems, hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence, and quantum information science—indigenous Chinese innovation, rather than simply its rapid expropriation and effective emulation of foreign advances, also has the potential to prove highly disruptive. Under these conditions, neither the U.S. nor China is likely to achieve or maintain an enduring technological advantage.
Looking at the current situation on the ground for the Ukrainian military, Henri Jomini and his work The Art of War provides not only a framework for analyzing the conflict at the campaign level, but also for providing a guide to the Ukrainian military in its effort to defeat the two separatist republics. Jomini’s core principles include offensive, rather than defensive, action, as well as massing forces at a decisive point of attack to gain local superiority. His magnum opus elaborates on these principles and their application, often applying geometric concepts and terms to battlefields and theaters of war for explanations.
The nomination of James Mattis as Secretary of Defense briefly brought the often overlooked concept of civilian control of the military to public attention. Commentators debated whether Mattis’ qualifications, personality, and presumed influence on the administration justified an exception to the law prohibiting recently retired generals from serving in that post. Reassuringly, in that discussion as well as in the larger conversation about the unusual number of retired and acting general officers now serving in traditionally civilian posts, there has been no discernible challenge to the notion of civilian control of the military. Yet underneath this consensus as to the desirability of civilian control, hide differences in understanding about what it actually entails. In short, we want civilian control but do not precisely know what it is.
Strategists are a critical bunch. After all, critical analysis is an important skill for those involved in scrutinizing international relations, history, and policy to generate insights. It is therefore curious that Martin Van Creveld’s book A History of Strategy: From Sun Tzu to William S. Lind immediately opens itself to the nitpicking of strategists in two related regards. First, the treatment of such a vast topic is too brief, running just 124 pages. Second, as a natural extension of its brevity, the details about the strategists it addresses are rather sparse. If the reader is able to overlook these limitations, however, A History of Strategy is a useful overview of the figures and ideas that form the canon of strategic thought.
As the armies of the West begin a shift away from counterinsurgency (COIN) and the US Army, in particular, renews its focus on peer on peer warfare, the timing of the publication of Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies by Jeremy Black could seem to have missed the COIN revolution. In the age of a resurgent Russia annexing the Crimea and threatening Baltic NATO members with a similar fate, is COIN still relevant or is it an idea to confine to a dusty shelf while the West learns how to confront Russian cross domain coercion and multi-domain battle? Despite the cognitive shift from COIN back to a paradigm of armor and mechanization, “wars amongst the people” - a phrase that popularized in Rupert Smith's The Utility of Force - are here to stay.
Since the earliest conceptions of Kriegsspiel, militaries have employed wargames as an educational tool for leaders. In The Strategy Bridge #Wargaming Series, our authors laid out their own theories to improve wargames to answer the challenges of informing policymakers and producing better decision-makers on the battlefield.
Recently the Office of the Chief of Staff of the Army, Strategic Studies Group used future decision games to investigate major contingencies possible in the next twenty-years. Similarly, a group of Marine, Army, and Air Force officers in the Marine Corps University, Advanced Studies Program are constructing a series of campaign-level decision games to hypothesize new manned-unmanned teaming concepts. In each case, small teams visualize future war and describe the military problems likely to confront Coalition and Joint forces engaged in multi-domain battle. These teams develop a mission, a concept of operations and articulate a theory of victory and the required capabilities, joint functions, and considerations to achieve it (such as doctrine, organizations, training, etc.). They learn and adapt short of the feedback of actual battle.
With these games will come a far greater deluge of information, requiring of leaders a greater skill, a more urgent need to make sense of it all and inform decisions. Since the dawn of man and war, we have seen technology improve our ability to strike targets and wage war, and we should expect the same learning curve in our application of these three principles for communicating uncertainty together with advances in simulation and computation. At the dawn of airpower in World War I, hundreds of bombs fell before single targets were destroyed. Today we hit single targets within hundreds of centimeters. In the next war, we will be required to use information, like the uncertainty implicit in the outcomes of a hundred wargames, to create strategic effects with the same precision. This simple introduction to communicating uncertainty may be analogous to those early days, to a single bomb dropped in the first World War. Hopefully, though, the utility of these ideas is more readily apparent and their potential will be realized more quickly.