How “Synchronization Warfare” Has Removed the Human From Modern Warfare
U.S. and NATO doctrine manuals are too thick and redundant. I recommended to the Army CSA General Casey in 2008 in an office call that they should be pocket book, handbook size around 30 double spaced pages, in big font, and mainly using short historical vignettes—good and bad—for examples. They should consist of principles. Under Mission Command let our people figure it out how to accomplish the principles based on a never ending evolution of Lessons Learned and experience; intermix them with good and bad historical lessons. Unfortunately our manuals reflect our doctrine, which reflect the culture of the U.S. and NATO militaries. They still resemble high-tech manuals, detailing everything with overwhelming redundancy. They reflect top-down control and risk aversion.
Doctrine expressed through manuals in the age of so-called Mission Command continues to emphasize Synchronization Warfare (SW). The top-down decision-making architecture embraced as doctrine in the Army, Air Force, and Navy is an updated version of the French World War II doctrine called “methodical battle.” Today, SW is in the form of a concept that emerging sensor, communications, data processing, and precision-guidance technologies can be glued together with detailed standard operating procedures (SOPs). At the heart of SW is the cybernetic concept of negative feedback control loops that can be used to build a single mechanized OODA loop fitting all levels of an organization. Being a mechanical conception, SW emphasizes hardware over people, as can be seen clearly in the hype surrounding the techno-centric revolution in military affairs so popular with defense intellectuals, politicians, and contractors.
Synchronization warfare aims to centralize decisions and achieve unity of effort by giving the commander a detailed feedback control system.
However, SW is a methodical, analytic, top-down thinking process that assumes that a top-level commander can observe and orient himself to all the details on the entire battlefield. Given his god’s-eye view (made ever more effective by “revolutionary” sensing and computing technologies), he will be in the best position to make decisions on what should be done, a well as how and when. Synchronization warfare aims to centralize decisions and achieve unity of effort by giving the commander a detailed feedback control system. He can precisely regulate and control (or micromanage, to use a pejorative term) all the activities of his subordinate units, much the way a centrally directed, computer-controlled system of thermostats would regulate the temperature of each room in a building from the penthouse.
Retired Army colonel Robert Holcomb working at the Institute of Defense analysis back in early 2000 provides an excellent description of how information technologists are trying (and failing) to cobble together an information system to cope with complex demands of synchronization architecture for a ground force. Holcomb’s analysis illustrates the central conundrum impeding the effectiveness of SW. Its top-down architecture also assumes one can establish a common tempo and rhythm for all the OODA loops in the hierarchy of a military organization. However, different levels in the hierarchy have different natural rhythms. Logically, a common tempo can be achieved only by a close-control system that speeds up higher-level OODA loops and/or slows down lower-level OODA loops.
Speeding up higher-level loops is limited, because the theory of a god’s-eye view proliferates the quantity and variety of information about both friendly and enemy forces that flows into higher headquarters. The explosion of “information” is fueled by the quest for a perfect picture and the natural result buries the headquarters in an avalanche of detailed data managed by very large and top heavy staffs. This phenomenon, known as “information overload,” makes it more time-consuming to sort out contradictions and ambiguities in the effort to synthesize the common picture needed to synchronize all the OODA loops.
Thus, even in scripted exercises, it takes more time and effort to “sort the wheat from the chaff,” notwithstanding great advances in data processing and sensing technologies. It should not be surprising that experience has shown the potential for speeding up decision cycles at the highest levels is limited at best under SW, and consequently the common practice has been to slow down the decision cycles of the lower-level units to achieve a common cycle. This can be seen in the increase to a seventy-two- to ninety-six-hour cycle to complete an Air Tasking Order (ATO) in both the 1991 Gulf War and the 1999 air war over Kosovo, compared to the twenty-four hours it took during the Vietnam War. Another example: during the Gulf War, Central Command (CENTCOM) and the U.S. Army VII Corps rigidly adhered to maneuver control measures during the great “Hail Mary” play or “grand wheel” that “pushed” the Iraqi Republican Guard “out the back door,” leaving it capable of fighting again a few weeks later.
And later in the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, detailed operations orders and huge staffs oversaw the actions of units as small as platoons. In his advance on Baghdad in March-April 2003, Major General Buford C. Blunt, Commanding General of the 3rd Infantry Division (which attempted to operate within the principles of Mission Command) remained 24 hours ahead of the of V Corps and CENTCOM HQs situational awareness and their orders (interview with MG Blunt (ret.), DEC 2005). So-called COIN operations in Iraq and today in Afghanistan are overseen by massive layers of people and technology all trying to fight for the smallest piece of information, which in turn makes the control of every action of individuals a by-product. Thus, a resemblance of Mission Command is by exception or default (failed communications or subordinates simply ignoring higher if they can (but they can be seen!!)). The result of this type of Command-Push is that there is a never ending demand for information to feed the machine at the top, which in turn forces their focus inward versus outward on the enemy.
On the other hand, the requirement for quickness and agility on the battlefield does not go away for smaller units. Agility is the difference between life and death for the smaller units doing the real fighting at the tip of the spear. A doctrinal architecture that forces these units to operate at a reduced tempo increases their sluggishness, makes them more predictable, and decreases their ability to shape or adapt effectively to quick-changing threat conditions. This occurred shortly after 2d Squadron, 2d Armored Cavalry Regiment, defeated the Iraqi rear guard at the Battle of 73 Easting during the ground phase of Operation Desert Storm. Instead of rapidly following up the cavalry’s success, VII Corps brought up battalions of corps artillery against the supposed main belt of the Iraqi defense, when in actuality the Iraqis were withdrawing under the cover of the destroyed rear guard.
There is another equally dangerous consequence of SW. The natural tendency toward information overload forces commanders to rely on mechanistic filtering procedures to synthesize the flood of observations into a timely orientation to the unfolding situation. This has increased reliance on a filtering theory known as “templating,” which refers collectively to the array of rigid internal procedures and priorities glued together by methodical modes of sifting sensor data through predefined correlation matrixes.
In SW, templating creates a dangerous vulnerability in the orientation of the centrally controlled OODA loop. At its heart is the assumption that the higher-level commander knows in advance the entire universe of possible signatures, or types and patterns of in-formation, the enemy will exhibit on the battlefield? If his adversary presents him with an ambiguous signature that does not “fit” any of these preconceived patterns, the template cannot reliably-filter the observations and the orientation function of the OODA loop will slow down and possibly collapse in confusion. If a clever-adversary feeds the templaters a deceptive signature—such as the Serbs reported use of microwave ovens to simulate radar emissions and decoys to simulate vehicles—the orientation process could lead an unsuspecting commander into a trap. In sum, this process fits an enemy action into one of the preconceived correlation patterns expected by those who template in order to synchronize friendly actions.
A breakdown in orientation decouples observations from decisions and actions and causes the actions to become disconnected from the threat.
In either case, the crucial point is that a breakdown in orientation decouples observations from decisions and actions and causes the actions to become disconnected from the threat. As actions become more irrelevant, observations of their results are likely to feedback into the commander’s OODA loop in a way that will amplify his confusion into chaos and possibly even panic as the entire command system becomes progressively disconnected from reality. William Shirer’s Collapse of the Third Republic contains an excellent description of the incestuous amplification of chaos in the French army during its collapse in May 1940.
A template-driven orientation process is theoretically flawed because it makes the user predictable and therefore vulnerable to the penetration of his own decision cycle. This problem is not one of abstract theory, our quasi-religious belief that technology will overcome SW’s central conundrum notwithstanding. Its practitioners litter the history of warfare with examples of a failure to adapt. These include the execution of the German Schlieffen Plan during the invasion of France in 1914; the British Somme offensive in 1916; the French doctrine of “methodical battle,” based on the Maginot Line and rigid mechanical movement of maneuver forces into Belgium in 1940; the over-control of U.S. ground operations in Vietnam (e.g., the stack of command helicopters circling over the battlefield decried by Gen. Bruce Palmer in The 25 Year War); the failure to envelop the Iraqi Republican Guard in the Persian Gulf War; North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) air forces’ inability to keep up with or retard Serbian ground actions in Kosovo from March through June 1999; and the Rules of Engagement demanding approval for supporting fires by several layers of command in Iraq and Afghanistan 2001-2014.
The synchronization architecture of the NATO command structure seduced commanders into seeing what they wanted to see as opposed to what was actually happening to Serbian ground forces in Kosovo. This is evident by examining a 19 May 1999 NATO slide describing the ongoing effects that NATO leaders thought their bombing campaign were having on Serb forces. Briefing officers claimed that NATO had destroyed 31 percent of Serbia’s heavy forces in Kosovo (312 tanks, artillery pieces, and armored vehicles among 556 pieces of equipment). Thanks to an expose by Newsweek in May 2000, the public now knows that Serbia lost only fourteen tanks, twelve self-propelled guns, and six to ten towed artillery pieces. Moreover, after the ceasefire in June 1999, Cable News Network (CNN) viewers watched incredulously as a virtually un-touched, well-disciplined, and defiant Serbian army drove out of Kosovo. According to news reports, more troops left Kosovo intact than were assumed to be in it before the bombing started.
Dialectic of the Current Culture: Maneuver Warfare
An alternative to Synchronization Warfare is somewhat misleadingly labeled Maneuver Marfare (MW). The confusion arises from the fact that forces maneuver in all forms of war, including SW. Maneuver Warfare, however, is an organic, intuitive, bottom-up decision-making architecture based on the theory that lower-echelon commanders on the scene can be trusted to better appreciate local conditions and are competent enough to be empowered to make independent decisions consistent with the commander’s intentions. In contrast to SW, MW does not focus on methodical procedures to build a uniform OODA loop. It is better thought of as a way of thinking that enables commanders at all levels to naturally harmonize their efforts and maintain their focus on the enemy while operating at their own OODA loop’s natural tempo.
Maneuver warfare achieves this by weaving certain central ideas to a decision-making pattern that stresses leadership, decentralization, internal simplicity, speed, and harmony of effort. The glue that holds this process together is trust founded on the professionalism and shared experiences found in cohesive units. When commanders and units achieve the ability to practice MW, they become extremely agile as “past actions are absorbed as experience so that future, identical actions do not lead to the same results.” Maneuver warfare has some fundamental concepts:
- Commander’s Intent. This is a commander’s long-term vision of what he wants to do to the enemy. It is incumbent on each subordinate commander to understand the intent of the next two commanders above him in his organization’s hierarchy. Each commander must state his intent clearly and simply.
- Mission Orders. These can be thought of as a contract based on mutual trust. The subordinate agrees to make his near-term actions serve his superior’s intent, and the superior agrees to give the subordinate the latitude to determine how that intent is to be realized. Mission orders simplify internal arrangements by reducing details to essentials.
- Main Effort (Schwerpunkt) and other, or Supporting, Efforts (Nebenpunkt). Schwerpunkt and nebenpunkt are the yin and yang of a unit’s efforts. The main effort, or schwerpunkt, is a unifying idea used to shape commitment and harmonize subordinates’ initiative within their superiors’ intent. Nebenpunkt is viewed by officers outside the schwerpunkt as how they will assist their comrades on the left and right flanks to succeed, especially if they are the schwerpunkt.™ Schwerpunkt permits the simplification of information and decentralization of tactical command within centralized strategic guidance at all levels from theater to platoon. For example, a company commander might assign the main effort to one platoon, and the other platoon leaders then use their judgment and the commander’s intent to determine how to shape their actions to support the main effort. The commander of each unit can change his schwerpunkt at any time (this maintains operational fluidity) if such a change will help him more easily achieve his commander’s intent. Once such a change is made, subordinate units align their supporting efforts accordingly. The ability to shift main and supporting efforts quickly within the constraint shaped by the commander’s intent maintains fluidity of action and harmony of effort in changing circumstances.
- Surfaces and Gaps (Strong and Weak Points) and Multiple Thrusts. This is the basis for focusing efforts—a way of looking at the enemy as an organic, directed entity rather than as a mechanical inventory of targets. The idea of surfaces and gaps goes well beyond physical attributes. For example, a surface to be avoided could be adverse world opinion resulting from some action, whereas an adversary’s internal political dissent might be a gap. Forward-screening forces infiltrate the enemy to probe his intentions, find surfaces and gaps, or create gaps. Follow-on forces reinforce successful penetrations and larger units flow in and roll out in an expanding flow. They isolate surfaces while being sucked forward through gaps by the tactical decisions made by commanders in the lead elements and the reinforcing decisions of higher-level commanders (these tactics and decision-making patterns are sometimes known as “recon pull”). The basic tactical idea is that lower-level commanders use their commander’s intent to help them decide where and how to infiltrate and penetrate the enemy with multiple thrusts. The multiple thrusts make the attack ambiguous on the receiving end, and successful penetrations uncover opportunities that higher-level commanders can then choose to reinforce (depending on their appreciation of the unfolding situation) by sending in follow-on forces with the idea of pouring through gaps and around surfaces. Done properly, this action creates a quickly coalescing flow, much like an increasingly powerful torrent of water that gathers form, directs, and energy as it flows down a hill.
- Large Reserve. This is a proactive concept to cope with uncertainty and exploit opportunities. Commanders at all levels always maintain a reserve force in defensive or offensive combat. When committed, it either supports or becomes the main effort.
- Combined Arms. Commanders employ tactical repertoires that call for hitting the enemy with two or more combat arms (armor, air support, infantry, fire support, engineers, electronic warfare) simultaneously such that by focusing his defenses against one arm the enemy will be more vulnerable to the other(s).
The combination of these concepts, bonded through trust, results in “emergent behavior.” Emergent behavior is more than the sum of the parts: the aggregate interactions create their own patterns. In maneuver warfare, each commander and leader in a unit learns about its immediate environment and automatically acts harmony with the overall commander’s intent without waiting for orders. Subordinate leaders compare the results of their tactical actions and adjust them if they are found wanting. This simultaneously simplifies the commander’s need for control and gives the higher unit the flexibility to deal with new enemy actions. The MW commander and unit have a faster OODA loop or operating tempo. This ability eventually overwhelms and collapses the enemy’s ability to react in a timely fashion to a new friendly action.
The ideas of MW are most often thought of in terms of Third-Generation Warfare, particularly the German blitzkrieg, the actions of the U.S. Army’s 4th Armored Division in France in 1944, the Israeli variant of blitzkrieg, the Marine Corps’s reforms in the 1980s, the opening phase of Operation Enduring Freedom in OCT-DEC 2001 and 3rd Infantry Divisions advance on Baghdad in MAR-APR 2003. Colonel John Boyd has shown that the general philosophy of empowerment and decentralization based on the organizing ideas of commander’s intent, schwerpunkt/nebenpunkt, and mission orders apply in all forms of conflict and competition, including the emerging phenomenon of Fourth Generation Warfare, political or economic competition.
Maneuver warfare sounds like what the U.S. Army should adopt as its basic doctrine. As a reflection of society, it is similar to the spread offense of collegiate football and recent business practices. However, MW is professionally demanding in that it puts a premium on people first, and ideas and equipment second, takes a lot of effort to study and understand MW. This stands in contrast to an army dominated by a personnel system that does not allow units to become stabilized and does not leave officers in positions for a sufficiently long period of time to truly master the requisite skills, most importantly, it does not know how to develop leaders to operate under Mission Command (despite the dramatic advance of learning theory over the last 10 years). A military service adhering to these values by empowering its people with authority, respect, and responsibility to be better positioned to solve the problems described by hundreds of officers in recent surveys.
When we continue to prescribe in details such knowledge through our doctrine manuals, regulations, policies and acts such as mandatory training, carrying pocket card reminders, etc…we limit the scope of our leaders to think and imagine. This turns into risk aversion over time. In terms of risk aversion, lack of trust defines one’s relationship with subordinates and politicization with one’s superiors. This is caused by the unwillingness of senior officers to take action that could reflect unfavorably on them, or to not take action when they were put in embarrassing situations, regardless of the facts of the matter. The choice of these two courses by senior officers is the direct result of their having risen to the top in a culture shaped by an unforgiving personnel system. The present personnel system produces a willing servant in the bureaucracy, the wrong type of officer to be a troop leader at any echelon. He is even more a mismatch to the operational doctrine and battle environment one can expect in the next several decades. The personnel and training systems creates officers and now NCOs who:
- wait for orders;
- believe they must do everything “by the book;”
- actually believe the textbook solution is the best solution;
- have learned to avoid telling the boss things that reflect poorly on their own performance;
- have learned to never tell the boss anything that will make the boss look bad if passed to higher echelon;
- have learned to never trust anything but documentation that one has followed orders and followed the rules;
- have never been rewarded for cooperating with peers;
- have never had experience relying on independent decisions generated by trust in peers; and
- have never functioned in a high-trust environment—period.
What Should Doctrine Look Like?
Doctrine guides the ideas of a profession. It is the Army’s guiding light, the moral blood that runs through its veins. Doctrine includes ideas or fundamental beliefs on warfare, from its nature and in theory to its preparation and conduct. It establishes a way of thinking about war, a way of fighting, a philosophy for leading soldiers in combat, a mandate for professionalism, and a common language. In short, it establishes a foundation for the profession. Doctrine helps provide the basis for harmonious actions and mutual under-standing.
New doctrine will be substantially different. In the past, doctrine instructed a soldier on what to do, not how to think about war. Instead of guiding and shaping how the army should operate in peace and war, it was a checklist, a procedure, and a formula. It considered the enemy the same as it would a piece of terrain or a doctrinal template, examining it as part of a checklist.
It will provide principles for exercising good judgment in unique situations, not formulas. Although the use of specific weapons and basic procedures are ingrained through training and education, doctrine advocates flexibility in the application of these techniques in battle. It must be written in such a way that specifics are left to the officer—a bottom-up approach—whose vast experience and education will allow him to pick the right solution for the right situation (senior leaders must trust junior officers’ decisions). At the tactical level, an officer will make decisions according to the particular conditions of terrain, the enemy, his own force, and his mission using his best judgment. Currently, combat training centers and pre-deployment packets teach specific combat techniques or habits so they can be repeated in a consistent manner regardless of conditions.
Officers can only gain the ability to execute new doctrine with experience and education, stressing force-on-force operations brought to a conclusion with clear winners and losers.
The difference between the old and new doctrine is similar to the difference between techniques and tactics. Techniques require inflexibility and repetition inherent with second generation warfare’s fire and movement techniques. Maneuver warfare tactics require flexibility, good judgment, and creativity. Officers can only gain the ability to execute new doctrine with experience and education, stressing force-on-force operations brought to a conclusion with clear winners and losers. No tactical concept is an end in itself. Tactical concepts cross the gap from theory to reality. For example, a counterattack must not be thought of as simply a counterattack. A counterattack is only valuable if it is delivered at the proper time by well-trained, cohesive units on known terrain against a confused-enemy in order to win and not salvage defeat.
The emerging doctrine should stress maneuver-oriented warfare instead of the attrition/firepower warfare now called precision engagements. Instead of calling for an adherence to command by plans, new doctrine should establish mission orders as a means of assigning responsibilities to subordinates. It will require everyone in the army to exercise initiative. It will require leaders to think through a commander’s intent, to choose a focus of effort in all operations and tactics, and to make that focus clear to subordinates. It requires that every member of a unit support the intent and focus of effort the leader establishes. This places the focus on the enemy, not inward on the process.
According to new doctrine, officers will seek to pit their strengths against enemy vulnerabilities (surfaces and gaps) from the tactical to the strategic level (leaders at the operational level translate strategic intent into an operational plan that executes into tactical action). Based on their knowledge of the commander’s intent two levels up, officers will not wait for orders if the situation changes, they will not stop because of a lack of further guidance. Instead, they will exploit fleeting opportunities. Officers and soldiers must learn to operate at a high tempo, demonstrating speed in everything they do. Staying ahead of the enemy is achieved when subordinates exercise their initiative by acting without orders according to the demands of the situation. In order to achieve this tempo, subordinates must have regularly practiced such actions in a peacetime environment. Seniors must establish a climate of trust and earn the trust of their subordinates long before the unit reaches the battlefield. Trust will become the most important theme in new doctrine. Maneuver warfare will not work without trust.
The Army should use its doctrine in both peace and war. Officers and soldiers will act according to it—including tactics, operations, training, education, and administration—because they know that the habits they learn in peace will carry over into war. This is the essence of new doctrine, a bottom-up guide to the new culture.
The term doctrine is often used loosely and means different things to different people. From World War II to today, soldiers have been overwhelmed with manuals outlining every detail in every conceivable situation translated to mounds of reports and regulations including the non-stop use of doing risk assessments for operations as simple as a convoy move across town. To correct this deficiency, doctrine, regulations and policies should be consolidated into fundamental beliefs outlined in no more than two short books that are disseminated within a year of the decision to reform the culture-Many other army publications will exist, but they will be technical manuals, procedures, and material for specialists. Based on projected threats in the future, two small books dealing with doctrine for the operational and tactical levels of war will be the key professional books for every officer and soldier. They should be concise short, and well written because their content will be central to every officer’s philosophy, including every specialist, as everyone exists solely to support war fighting.
The doctrine will be divided into the following subjects: operations FM 3.0 with emphasis on the operational level of war, and tactics. These small manuals should rely on principles leaving as much as possible to the imagination of the professional.
Old and New Officers and New Doctrine
Information technology is making accurate and timely situational awareness available to commanders twenty-four hours a day. It makes time, translated in doctrinal manuals as the control of battle space, imperative. Information technology is already overwhelming officers operating in World War II-based organizations. For example, a comparison of the World War II chain of command from squad through platoon, company, battalion, brigade, and division through corps to theater level to today’s shows there are no differences. The detailed data available today offers commanders and staffs opportunities unheard of in the history of warfare if they can simply learn how to translate it into information. The ability of leaders at all levels beginning at the squad level to translate information into decisions begins with the culture. The hardest task, learned through innovative education, training and experience, is when to make the decisive decision at the appropriate level, while enhancing and not interfering with a subordinate as he executes his mission. This applies both to commanders making decisions and commanders accepting and living within those decisions.
The ability of leaders to make rapid and decisive decisions at all levels of command following their commanders’ intent will destroy sequential types of warfare and overcome the gradualism associated with current “COIN” and “Nation-building” missions. Warfare fought under the new doctrine will combine types of missions into war fighting, where controlling the tempo, or the OODA loop, is most important. Only well-educated and experienced officers and NCOs leading agile units operating under an umbrella of trust can achieve a rapid OODA-loop. Decision support templates/matrixes have no place in this kind of warfare. Instead, “Maneuver theory draws its power mainly from opportunism—the calculated risk, and the exploitation both of chance circumstances and (to borrow a tennis term) of ‘forced and unforced errors’ by the opposition; still more on winning the battle of wills by surprise or, failing this, by speed and aptness of response.”
As a result, most operations will initially resemble offensives and will have to be conducted with surprise, shocking the enemy and overwhelming his decision cycle and disrupting his ability to go on the offense. Cohesive, experienced, and well-led U.S. forces will confuse enemy preparations, never allowing him to regain balance. New organizational and personnel models will be proposed to develop the type of officer and units that can be part of and execute Maneuver Warfare.
Units at the combat group, battalion, company/battery/troop, and platoon level will be maintained as an extension of this aggressive adaptability. All operations will be mobile and nonlinear, both in operational and strategic depths. The initial phase may be a coup de main against a hostile government, seizing (not just an aerial bombardment) leaders, government buildings, communication centers, in military command centers, and so forth. Subordinates will have to fight effectively without becoming decisively engaged.
At the operational level, this means bringing hostile forces to action and crusting them. Enemy forces will be encircled quickly, before they can disperse to become guerrillas. This will be possible in both armored and light infantry environments. Rifle units will carry out “light infantry blitzkriegs.” Sheer numbers or firepower will not matter. The combination of new doctrine, a new personnel system, and new organizational structures will enhance effectiveness. Types of mission and levels of war will merge, becoming alternating wavelengths in the bandwidth of war.23
Future defensive postures will be temporary, only setting the stage for the offense. Small percentages of U.S. forces will be deployed in traditional defenses. Gaps between point rather than linear defenses will be areas for commanders to exploit. Operating forward of defensive positions and between gaps, screening or security forces led by junior leaders will be left on their own to fight and maneuver based on the intent of their commanders. These forces will constantly move to shape the battlefield and be supported by helicopter attacks and precision strikes. Joint force commanders will deploy helicopter-borne infantry and light-army combat groups, supported by strike packages to exploit enemy vulnerabilities. Simultaneously, heavy tank and mechanized infantry combat groups will deliver devastating blows on enemy weaknesses Battles will be quick and decisive, yet always linked to a higher intent.
Both commanders and staffs must possess a common language and understanding of the new doctrine to be able to work in harmony with maneuver echelons. They also must use emerging information technology to provide situational awareness to be able to make speedy decisions. “Situational awareness is the most revolutionary technology in the history of warfare,” writes Lt. Col. Robert Leonhard. “It is more important and far-reaching than the invention of the wheel, gunpowder, or the internal combustion engine. Once harnessed by intellect and vision, situational awareness will give birth to a whole new way of warfare—a method of conducting military operations that will be unlike anything we have seen in tin past.” It is time to return to small staffs!
Staffs will support their commanders by assimilating the right information from masses of data, and thus be able to generate situational awareness in all units. They will become experts at information processing, leaving commanders free to focus on their units’ goals. Experienced staffs will assist commanders in making timely decisions, thus maintaining speed and tempo. With situational awareness, commanders will move forces to avoid the traditional temptation to “slug it out” with the enemy. Rapid assimilation of data will lead to rapid decisions raising the operational tempo to the point where only when an enemy is wounded, dying, or significant numbers of his troops are in prisoner of war cages will the operation stop. The battle of the future will likely begin with a movement to contact through gaps in the enemy’s forces. Units will fight only if it enhances their ability to maintain movement, or continue the fight to move (whether it be a platoon executing a security mission or a brigade in a high-intensity battle).
The key element in all these fights is that opportunities at all levels must be exploited immediately without waiting for orders to be disseminated to maneuvering units. Subordinates will lead small, widely dispersed forces and will be expected to find, fix, and destroy the enemy not identified by sensors, thus confusing him as to U.S. intentions. Moving skirmishes will rely on the educated mind of an officer on the spot. He will lead from the front, not connected to a computer screen, and he will not hesitate when making decisions, actions may last seconds, a few minutes, or hours, allowing the next echelon of forces to continue to focus on destroying their deeper counterpart to achieve the overall goal. The new doctrine will make warfare, either at the tactical or operational level, a series of interrelated conflicts rather than one large battle.
Contrast maneuver and synchronization warfare. For operations like the Gulf War, Kosovo, and COIN operations (with their huge NASA like control rooms or CJOCs), today’s training slow the tempo to synchronize. Exceptions to this was the October-December 2001 Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and the March-April 2003 Operation Iraqi Freedom where the initial phase was conducted at high tempo (even during OIF there was an “operational pause” to allow the headquarters to catch up with events). The Army and Marine Corps demonstrated their ability to conduct Maneuver Warfare in these two short, opening phases of these two otherwise lengthy campaigns, but were still tethered to large headquarters. Even with these exceptional examples, the U.S. military had planned for overwhelming synchronized invasions prior to the interference from civilian consultants.
Even with situational awareness, risk is still involved when one has to make decisions that will result in contact and combat.
Otherwise, in many mock battles or computer simulations, forces led by risk-averse officers take the safer course of action. They go to ground setting up a hasty defense, hoping the OPFOR will carelessly walk into their traps. On a real battlefield, an enemy who knows U.S. methods will immediately exploit the respite given him. Movement in the future must combine speed with risk, not slowness with conservatism.
Even with situational awareness, risk is still involved when one has to make decisions that will result in contact and combat. Risk is bypassing enemy elements without waiting for orders, only occurring with trust, which allows the leader the flexibility he needs to operate in accordance with his commander’s intent. When trust does not exist, officers rely on and stick to rules and processes. A methodical approach, coupled with aversion to risk, will result in needless casualties and the inability to set a sufficiently fast tempo.
The reverse of taking risks occurs during peacetime training and on simulated battlefields. Officers using situational awareness will tighten the control of forces. When officers are accountable of every action and evaluated on their process versus the end state they become cautious, reliant on checklists, or worse, on computes models to solve problems: “He checked every block the observers-controllers had and during the AARs he looked good on the computer screen. He was noted by the chief controller to have completed every task to standard, but he was my worst company commander.”
In this environment of perfection, where everything, both simulated and actual battlefields, is expected to be conducted to mathematical perfection, commanders many echelons up in the hierarchy naturally take control of platoons and companies, resembling the micromanagement of Vietnam, graphics control in the first Gulf War, and the incredible administrative and command over sight in Kosovo. In the opening phases of Gulf War II, March-April 2003, CENTCOM attempted to control the operation, but 3rd Infantry Division and 1st Marine Division moved too fast for them to control it through synchronization; and when they did, they suffered a disaster when the 11th Aviation Attack Group was defeated by Iraq air-defense.
Operations today are held together through synchronization by a few, instead of trust and the understanding of doctrine by many. Technology has only increased centralization. The reverse can occur with institutional changes in the culture. Digital capability and sensors will increase the situational awareness of officers, speeding up their decisions and actions, thus creating velocity. Technologically enhanced command battles should not become more centralized. Officers and NCOs have observed that their “commanders always seemed to be waiting for the perfect information to make the perfect decision, which never occurred, so the enemy beat them.”
The Army already has an example of how situational awareness can be used to enhance speed in the initial phase of OER and OIF with the use of the Blue tracker technology. At the NTC, observer-controllers (OCs) employ an advanced position location system to assist them in evaluating and controlling training through a centralized computer-based center called the Star Wars building. From there, officers and NCOs can track all vehicles operating at the NTC. They have sensors linking them to tracking stations throughout the reservation, linked to monitors and operators in the Star Wars building. There, OCs using digital radios prompts their assistants behind computers for necessary information to stay on top of events or to update locations, allowing the OCs to see the battlefield with their eyes and minds rather than through a computer monitor. The result is that controllers use a centralized information system to enhance their situational awareness and decentralized decision making.
The evolved C4ISR Surveillance, Communications and “blue tracker” centralized information system over the last 12 years could be employed in enabling Mission Command doctrine to provide instant information on the status of units achieving success or failure. The Army needs to do the same by combining evolving cultural and technological changes in parallel evolutions. Small-unit operations in the past were associated with low levels of instructive force. Small units in the future will be capable of tremendous destructive force. Soldiers will have to have a deep tense of unit loyalty, and simultaneously a strong sense of personal independence. In a physical sense, the individual’s level of isolation will dramatically increase. Visual contact with other troops may be impossible. The data links will keep the unit together, but when those fail, the mission will have to continue.”
Senior leaders now have the ability to push down responsibility or decision making while providing up-to-the-minute information. Smaller higher headquarters should exist to push needed information and resources down, thus enhancing success and helping commanders to increase their tempo. Only experience, not the computer, will allow commanders and staffs to pick out key pieces of information from the flood of data they receive. This same experience will teach them when to ask for the information needed to carry out the commander’s intent.
By properly educating officers sufficiently in the art of war, they will be able to imagine the battlefield before they receive downloaded images. Imagination allows commanders to point their subordinates in the right direction, giving them the ability to view the battlefield in three, instead of two, dimensions. If an enemy does not react as predicted, or if the terrain is different from the way a database described it, combat becomes reactive in nature. Indecision slows the tempo of operations. Soldiers die as a result of indecision, where “the process becomes more important than how they accomplished the mission—it does not matter if they won what matters is did they follow the right procedure outlined in doctrine?”
To create decisiveness in leaders—and to increase tempo—the Army should decrease leaders’ reliance on thick doctrinal manual, reinforced by top-down demands for every detail, through training that remains out of touch with the latest progression in learning. It cannot rely on checklists or computer-generated orders to put in place the mind and voice of an experienced, imaginative commander. The importance of a calm commander talking to his subordinates cannot be stressed enough. A mutual understanding will come from well-written yet brief doctrinal manuals, enhanced with the use of radios and other digital technology. So-called secure radios with inexperienced officers at both ends resemble talk radio shows. The computer cannot replace essential voice communications, while technology cannot replace the well developed and prepared mind.
This article was provided by Don Vandergriff based on excerpts of his book Path to Victory: America’s Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs. The author would like to thank Major PJ Tremblay, USMC for editing and suggestions and Chuck Spinney for his assistance. The views expressed in this article belong to the author alone and do not represent the Department of Defense.
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Header Image: US Army soldiers supported by an M4 Sherman tank move through a smoke filled street in Wernberg, Germany — April 1945