Understanding the Need for a Balanced Joint Force: A Mix Martial Arts (MMA) Analogy

The recently released President’s Budget and the 2014 QDR highlight the need for a balanced joint force in light of fiscal constraints the nation and Department of Defense are facing. As the nation continues to extricate itself from 13 years of counterinsurgency warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq, rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific, and grapple with a re-assertive Russian land-based threat towards Europe, while manage instability in the Middle East and Africa, the need for a force capable of managing threats across the spectrum of conflict will require leadership and prudent planning to ensure the nation has the force needed to secure its interests. The debate leading up to the release of the QDR and budget focused on the perceived changing nature of warfare due to new developments such as cyber, the increased interconnectedness from globalization, and the unlikelihood of a future land-based conventional threat to the U.S. and its allies. Despite the fact, as Clausewitz clearly points out, that the nature of war never changes but only its character, the QDR and the Budget illustrate a disturbing trend that ignores history and continues to seek technological solutions at the expense of manpower. Since antiquity, land forces have and will continue to be the ultimate decider of conflicts. The recommended decision to reduce our ground forces within the U.S. Army anywhere from 160K to 215K (depending on sequestration) will unbalance the force and create unnecessary strategic risk while increasingly relying on air and naval platforms to serve as our strategic hedge. Additionally, the counterinsurgency focus since 2001 has allowed conventional combined arms maneuver skills to atrophy — a skill set our military and political leaders cannot afford to lose; while a nation can afford to lose a counterinsurgency, it cannot afford to lose a conventional fight against a peer or near peer competitor. The debate on how much we invest in each component of our armed forces to provide us a joint force runs in parallel to the debate on which martial art is the most effective or whether having a mixed capability is best.

The world of martial arts, like warfare, has seen a rapid evolution in individual fighting techniques.

Human conflict ranging from individual-on-individual fighting to nation states waging war has seen evolutionary changes to techniques used in combat. The world of martial arts, like warfare, has seen a rapid evolution in individual fighting techniques. Each has various philosophical underpinnings and was developed to address the unique challenges faced by practitioners. Throughout the ages, the question many asked was which technique, martial art, was the greatest of them all. The same debate has emerged in state-on-state and state-on-nonstate warfare regarding the effectiveness of landpower, seapower, and airpower. The history and development of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) helps illustrate the utility and shortcoming of each style of fighting, stand up strikers and ground fighters, as an analogy of today’s debate between land, sea, and air, and the necessity of mixing things up.

Strikers (Air and Sea Power)

For many fighters, keeping your opponent at a distance is the preferred option while delivering punishing blows. Striking martial arts like Korean Tae Kwon Do, Chinese Kung Fu, Japanese Karate, Thai Kickboxing, and Western Boxing provide the fighter an arsenal of punching, kicking, knees, and elbow strikes designed to stun, incapacitate, or knockout an opponent. These martial arts are visually stunning to watch and such fights are predicated on an agreement by both opponents to utilize similar techniques or because they lack grappling techniques to put the fight on the ground — a concept similar to Clausewitz’s polarity where the two opponents are equal in measure. In promotional fights or Olympic matches, the fighters will rarely use bone joints manipulation techniques to force an opponent to submit and rely on a point system to determine winners and losers. When confronted by grapplers, strikers struggle to prevent the fight from going to the ground, and once their striking weapons are neutralized, they usually submit. In modern war, air and sea power represent the striking martial arts. They are highly effective against untrained opponents or grapplers (landpower) who use poor form to expose them to punishing strikes causing a knockout. However, against a determined opponent who uses proper defensive techniques and takedowns, strikers (air and seapower) quickly lose their ability to knock out their opponent or cause them to submit. Likewise, Air and Seapower and its “Shock and Awe” attempts have had the ability to hurt opponents, but never caused an enemy to submit.[1] For example, the 78-Day Air Campaign in Kosovo ended more as a result of a threatened ground assault and domestic pressure than from the effects of bombings. Finally, an opponent can feign weakness and show near-defeat to strikers and suddenly re-emerge with strength, similar to Muhammad Ali’s Rope-a –Dope. As Royce Gracie, the famed Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighter, showed in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), absorbing or dodging strikers provides opportunities to catch an opponent’s legs and force the fight to the ground. Hezbollah in southern Lebanon became the Royce Gracie for Israeli air supremacy.

Grapplers (Landpower)

Most observers or participants in modern MMA, or even those who engage or witness street and school fights, know that many fights end up on the ground with the opponents grappling. Grappling generally comes in two forms: direct and indirect which reflect similarities to regular and irregular operations in warfare. The most well-known direct grappling art is Greco-Roman wrestling, a classic Olympic sport, where two opponents seek to maximize force against their opponents in order to pin them or force a submission. Indirect grappling forms include Brazilian and Japanese Jiu-Jitsu, Judo, and Aikido. These indirect forms emphasize using an opponent’s strength against them thus allowing smaller opponents to gain the upper hand. Greco-Roman wrestlers represent regular armies engaged in head-to-head conflict seeking to defeat their opponents and cause their political leaders to submit. The experience of the U.S. Army during the Civil-War, WWI, WWII, and the Korean War reflect such direct grappling matches against the Confederates, the Germans, and the North Koreans and Chinese. On the other end of the spectrum, irregular forces represented by styles like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) have demonstrated their ability to redirect the force of the regular (Greco-Roman Wrestlers) in ways that require regular armies to expend more energy, effort, and time. Unless the Greco-Roman wrestler is able to quickly overpower the BJJ practitioner, the wrestler will exhaust their energy and open themselves to a grappling counter-move. The image that comes to mind is when the much smaller Royce Gracie, a BJJ practitioner, shocked fight watchers by defeating a much larger and stronger Greco-Roman wrestler Dan Severn after a 15-minute bout. Thus, the American Revolutionary Army was the BJJ practitioner against the British Greco-Roman Wrestler where George Washington’s Army was able to absorb defeat after defeat, but exhausted the British, and ultimately applied a triangle choke hold that caused the British to submit and sue for peace.

In order to win now and in the future, the U.S., partners, and allies have to become proficient in all forms of fighting which leads them to modern MMA.

Throughout history, armies that started out like BJJ practitioners sought their opportunity to compete in the Olympics and evolved themselves into Greco-Roman Wrestlers. These armies, such as the U.S. and Israeli armies, were prepared to combat fellow Olympic armies represented by the Soviet Red Army or the combined Arab Armies. While both armies were prepared to fight near-peer competitors, they instead found themselves beating up poorly-trained Greco-Roman wrestlers with no defense against the strike (Iraqi Army), or were surprised by the entrance of other BJJ fighters (Hezbollah, Sunni Insurgents, and the Taliban). The U.S. and Israel were the best strikers (air and seapowers) as well as Greco-Roman wrestlers of their weight classes, but were significantly challenged by BJJ fighters who negated the effect of striking and exhausted the wrestler. In order to win now and in the future, the U.S., partners, and allies have to become proficient in all forms of fighting which leads them to modern MMA.

Mixed Martial Arts (Balanced Joint Force)

Newton’s third law of physics where every action has an equal and opposite reaction applies to martial arts. Since the advent of the UFC, fighters have evolved from seeing fighters of all styles lose to like or opposite forms. As a result, fighters shifted their learning to apply multiple systems in their arsenals, causing the expansion of MMA. MMA itself is not a new concept. Fighting styles from the ancient Greek Pankration, Russian Sambo, to Bruce Lee’s development of Jeet Kune Do emphasized incorporating elements of striking and grappling. In WWII, the U.S. was one of the first true MMA fighters that balanced its land, sea, and airpower components to defeat fighters (Italy, Germany, and Japan) that were less balanced.

The adaptation by the U.S. and its NATO allies and partners to the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan using tactical applications of COIN are akin to the Greco-Roman Wrestler learning BJJ techniques during the match to expand his arsenal and counter the BJJ practitioner. The U.S. challenge faced in Iraq and Afghanistan is that rather learning to fight opponents head on with BJJ techniques, the U.S. found itself simply going into the “guard” against the BJJ practitioner while training a second fighter to subdue the insurgent opponent. This approach was not because the U.S. military did not want to fight and win the heavy weight belt, but more because the coaches (political leaders) were concerned the fight was not worth the money offered and chose the second fighter as means of extracting U.S. military. This had led to a disappointed audience (the public) in the arena and likely emboldened future challengers (China, Iran, etc.) to seek a chance at winning the belt or at the very least denying the belt for the U.S. The main thing holding the challengers back is their knowledge that the champion is still a formidable opponent to beat who constantly trains in the gym while the coaches (political leaders) can change the guidance. In order to retain the title, the champion (U.S. military) needs to ensure the coaches (Congress and Executive Branch) know the worth of continued time and effort in the gym while learning even more techniques.

Retaining the UFC Championship Belt

Like the fictional Russian MMA fighter from the movies Undisputed II and III, Yuri Boyka, the U.S. is “the most complete fighter” there based on experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the current fiscal challenges cause a re-evaluation of the defense budget, the nation must be cautious to ensure the U.S. retains the ability to be the most complete martial artist in the world. The debate cannot be whether to invest more in striking and cut back on grappling, but on the best way to ensure balance to meet future challengers. Future challengers are working on improving in MMA (or developing new BJJ) to compensate for weakness in their striking or grappling techniques. The debate within Congress and the Department of Defense should not be whether to focus more on air and seapower while sacrificing landpower, but how to balance the three to ensure the joint force is capable of fighting across the range of military operations using the complementary capabilities inherent among the services as a unified entity. If not, the U.S. risks becoming the predictable fighter who is upset by the new heavy weight champion.

Chad Pillai is an Army strategist. The views expressed are the his alone and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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[1] The air-delivery of nuclear weapons against Japan and the threat of continued destruction is the only concrete example of airpower (strikers) forcing an enemy to submit. All the aerial bombing by the Allies against Germany and firebombing of Japan previously failed to force them to surrender. Germany surrendered when it was pinned to the mat by the combined Allied (US, UK, Canadian, French, and Soviet armies).