After the 1991 Gulf War, the character of war changed dramatically, and not in the way America believed it would. While spell-binding CNN footage sold us on the value of precision attack, our adversaries across-the-board learned two very different lessons. First, if it matters, it has to move and hide. Second, reclaiming the initiative from the US is always possible, as Iraqi SCUDS nearly proved. Their new playbook was clear — absorb, re-form, and reengage. Shock and Awe had its moment, but is gone for good. That is, unless we shift away from the idea we can take down a resilient, adaptive system by attacking centers of gravity, and instead harness our ability to observe and affect a system’s centers of activity.
Understanding the adversary in retrospect is much easier than in real time.
Originating with legendary theorist Carl von Clausewitz, U.S. military doctrine now defines center of gravity as “the source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or will to act.” Over the years, theorists like John Warden, the architect of the air operations in 1991, used centers of gravity to bin an adversary into functions and manageable bites to plan operations that, at worst, whittled away at the adversary system, or at best, struck a decisive blow that led to its collapse. Most military theorists are Monday-morning quarterbacks, that is, they use historical evidence of success and failure to develop their ideas. Understanding the adversary in retrospect is much easier than in real time.
The flaw isn’t the idea of centers of gravity, but the belief that the national security establishment can understand them adequately to design future operations. Too often, we falsely assume centers of gravity and their associated components won’t shift, change, or even emerge during the course of conflict. We press forward with planning, while making numerous, untested assumptions along the way. And as we strike the first series of blows, the ants scatter to eventually reshape the colony. We dedicate most of our intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) resources to watch over the operations that stem from our original assumptions, rather than posturing ourselves to learn how the adversary adapts. They evolve, and we don’t…at least not in the manner and at the pace we must.
We have weighed ourselves down intellectually and created unrealistic expectations for decision-makers, who now want to be certain of the results before we ever act. Consequently, even short-term planning has become a monstrous, bureaucratic effort. We rarely scrutinize the plan once we step out the door, because we certainly wouldn’t want to plan again. We therefore view any new information through our original lens, and become more vulnerable to surprise.
The difference between Industrial Age conflicts, like the 1991 Gulf War, and today is our unmatched ability to observe activity.
Now we have a better option: instead of going where our assumptions take us, we can go where the intelligence takes us. The difference between Industrial Age conflicts, like the 1991 Gulf War, and today is our unmatched ability to observe activity. That ability now involves seeing the data trails left by every actor engaged in conflict. This not only includes data ISR capabilities produce, but data anyone in proximity can produce. A simple tweet by a Pakistani IT consultant could have blown the cover of the SEAL team sent to kill Osama bin Laden. The lesson: if you’re not already leaving a data trail, someone will create it for you.
Over the last few years, the Intelligence Community (IC) has made incredible strides in enabling analysts and operators to gather, integrate, and visualize data. As David Vernal and I wrote in an article last November:
IC-developed technology is now delivering on the promise of nearly instantaneous access to much of the community’s collective data through a world of data clouds, metadata tagging, and apps. National agency databases, especially those developed and sustained by the Combat Support Agencies, are becoming increasingly accessible. Customized IC tools that extract and manipulate cloud-based data are growing in power, sophistication, and flexibility.
In short, we can quickly integrate the data trails to visualize activity in a way that leads to smarter questions and focused intelligence collection. Analysts can identify centers of activity, the areas where data from disparate sources converge to suggest ongoing adversary actions, beyond the front lines, giving new life to ideas of interdicting the enemy before they engage or warning of their activity before they surprise.
Afghanistan proved physical presence neither adequately increases our understanding, nor helps us cope with a complex, adaptive adversary.
This concept will likely be controversial to those who would argue data visualization is never adequate for understanding the activity. Indeed, remote observation alone does not lead to understanding, but neither does direct observation from an occupation force. Our contemporary counterinsurgency theory, for example, suggests we must physically be in an environment to understand it. Afghanistan proved physical presence neither adequately increases our understanding, nor helps us cope with a complex, adaptive adversary. In fact, presence has the greater chance of doing the opposite. It’s like trying to understand what’s happening inside a house by either watching through the window, or walking in the door. In the first case, you can’t see and hear everything you could, in the second, you make the occupants act differently, hiding the real dynamic.
While neither remote observation nor ground occupation gives us full understanding, it may not matter. We may not entirely know what the enemy is doing and why, but we know it’s him and we know where we need to act. If we expect to prevail in military campaigns abroad, where our rivals better understand the human and physical terrain, we have to carry out raids, maneuvers, strikes, or (more frequently) non-kinetic actions to purposefully disrupt activity and enable learning. This does not mean we attack indiscriminately, but we quickly and creatively kick the ant pile with the purpose to see what’s underneath.
Doing so requires us to overcome two dangerous paradigms fostered by center-of-gravity thinking. The first is our belief is that actions must be precise. Precision engagement leads to bureaucratic decision cycles that, after the initial (unfortunately-coined) shock-and-awe phase, inevitably lead to pinpricks over paralysis. The cycles only speed up when the enemy is at our door. Along the way, we ignore an important paradox of the Information Age: modern technology makes it easier to target the enemy, but also enables him to adapt and sustain attack. We can’t assume we are impacting an adversary’s ability to communicate and influence, just because they’re losing military strength and territory. If we are going to attack the enemy’s playbook and prevent him from taking the initiative, we have to be persistent with our pace of action to instill chaos and friction in his system.
The second paradigm is the need for persistent ISR. Aside the privacy concerns continuous surveillance paradigms create, the concept has led to an unconstrained demand for sensors (especially remotely piloted aircraft, a.k.a. drones) that is simply unsustainable. We don’t have an intelligence collection problem, we have a focus problem. That problem is now solvable through the intelligence fusion techniques I describe above. We cannot afford, in any sense of the word, to carry on with persistent ISR or precise action. We must move forward with precise ISR and persistent action as the ways and means for coping with Information Age adversaries.
It’s time to stop doing just enough to prevent failure, and start doing what it takes to succeed. If everyone is leaving data trails, then we should focus on creating recipes of data to identify and characterize our rivals’ centers of activity. Concocting those recipes will often require us to lower our threshold for action in order to illuminate data that will lead us to the actual centers of gravity. Persistently pursuing centers of activity, while posturing ourselves to learn how our adversaries adapt, is the path to gaining and maintaining the initiative…a warfighting maxim that matters more than understanding the enemy…because in the Information Age, you’ll never understand your adversary, if you’re not the one taking the initiative.
Jason M. Brown is an officer in the U.S. Air Force. He is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School, Marine Corps Command and Staff College, Marine Corps School of Advanced Warfighting, and Air War College. The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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