Learning the right lessons

george bush jr. looking at vladmir putin

There is a lot I object to in this article. Much of it is too simplistic.

But the gist is on point.

Yes, American motives were nobler. Yes, American methods were less brutal (most of the time). Yes, there were many other differences between the conflicts. But on a strategic level, the broad similarities are striking. This means there are several important lessons to be learned from recent American military history—but only if that history is looked at from the enemy’s perspective, not Washington’s. Because it was the enemies who won.

Gideon Rose, The Irony of Ukraine: We Have Met the Enemy, and It Is Us

If we had invaded Iraq in 2022 instead of 2003, we would be facing a lot of the same problems the Russians are facing today.

Pay attention, sure.

But it’s important to learn the right lessons.

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How do you “do” irregular warfare?

a map on the wall briefing a military plan

When most folks discuss irregular warfare, I’ve come to believe that they actually want to talk about political warfare. It’s a rung up on the ladder and encompasses a whole lot more.

Political warfare is so big a term that you can be vague in speech and still make sense without inviting too much inquiry.

Political warfare encompasses many different aspects of national power. The military is one of them.

And irregular warfare is the military’s contribution to irregular warfare.

Another dive into irregular warfare, this time, from the 2020 Summary of the Irregular Warfare Annex the National Defense Strategy.

Irregular warfare is a struggle among state and non-state actors to influence populations and affect legitimacy.

The key difference here, again, is the word “violent.”

The document goes on to describe irregular warfare and the importance of institutionalizing it as the Global War on Terrorism (as a security paradigm) shifts to Great Power Competition.

Ok, so, how do you “do” irregular warfare?

You don’t.

Like many terms, it’s an umbrella term that encompasses a bunch of other things that you can “do.” To “conduct irregular warfare” means you are doing something else, or more likely, a combination of things, things that fall under it.

It’s similar to using the term “setting conditions” as a stand-in for actual activities. If you are setting conditions for something, it means you are taking some tangible action to prepare for some other result.

Often, we don’t say that specific thing we intend to do. And that’s bad. It leaves everyone confused.

And most people – military people especially – don’t like to admit they don’t know.

So, what are the things “under” irregular warfare?

It includes the specific missions of unconventional warfare (UW), stabilization, foreign internal defense (FID), counterterrorism (CT), and counterinsurgency (COIN). Related activities such as military information support operations, cyberspace operations, countering threat networks, counter-threat finance, civil-military operations, and security cooperation also shape the information environment and other population-focused arenas of competition and conflict.

Most of the above have their own field manuals.

Now we’re getting somewhere…

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The Non-Kill Chain

shadowrun decker on snes

Spoiler alert: It’s PSYOP, but that’s a post for another time.

Recently finished ep. 46 of the IWI podcast with the very ominous title THE KILL CHAIN: WHY AMERICA FACES THE PROSPECT OF DEFEAT.

I haven’t read Christian Brose’s book yet (it’s on the list) but from the description, I think I get what he’s talking about.

America must build a battle network of systems that enables people to rapidly understand threats, make decisions, and take military actions, the process known as “the kill chain.”

The Kill Chain (Amazon)

A couple of things struck me in the episode. The first is the role of offensive cyber operations (OCO) at the tactical level. There was a good back and forth on where that capability ought to be. And if you’ve listened to Andy Milburn on other podcasts (which you should), you know that this is one of his chief interests.

Is OCO something that needs to get “pushed down” to the Brigade or below level?

Should platoon’s have a designated “hacker” assigned?

I’m getting serious Cyberpunk / Shadowrun vibes.

The second thing that struck me was the way that Christian closed out the episode. Really, everything from ~47:00 on is great but I want to focus on the below, where he is honing our attention on what actually matters if we want to be successful.

What are the things that we actually want our military to do? What are the things we’re prepared to fight for? What are the actual ends of strategy? What are we trying to accomplish?

Competition is interesting, but it’s not an end in itself.

This is exactly right.

One of the toughest things for military leaders to grapple with is the fact that if the ends are not clearly defined by the most senior leaders (military and civilian) then all of the thrashing done at echelons below add up to nothing.

It’s being sent overseas to divide by zero.

It’s how you get the GWOT effect.

Matt Armstrong argues the same when it comes to “information warfare” (a term he wouldn’t use). It’s not about the tactics or getting the right words and images together. All that is about as interesting as deciding to flank left or right.

No – instead, it is about having a clear vision, a direction we are headed, or a commander’s intent. Then, eveyrone below can march in step.

And what we’re talking about is political warfare.

How does the military fit into that?

To quote David Maxwell: “Irregular warfare is the military’s contribution to poltical warfare.”

It all starts to fit together if you can take a breath for a moment and let it sink in.

Lastly, this piece by Colonel Steven Heffington takes the strategy argument even further. He argues that what is needed is a “theory of success.”

…a theory of success, when clear, explicit, and well considered, is the strategic version of commander’s intent. It provides subordinate or lateral actors and institutions a strategy heuristic, allowing them to make decisions about the development of their own innovative, timely, and tailored responses to the evolving context. Simultaneously, a theory of success helps limit the play of operational and strategic creativity to the logic path set forth in the founding strategy, which facilitates rapid, tailored responses and iterative evolution of strategy while reducing the likelihood of line-of-effort or iteration fratricide.

CHANNELING THE LEGACY OF KENNAN: THEORY OF SUCCESS IN GREAT POWER COMPETITION

All good. I’m on board.

Here’s the rub. Leaders – at every level – have a responsibility to ask for that intent. To demand it.

Ask for that theory of success. If it isn’t clear, if doesn’t make sense, or if it is non-existent, it must be clarified.

Otherwise, we’re not going anywhere.

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“We can’t kill our way out of this”

mr. sulu with kobayashi maru screen in the background

Just finished the latest Cognitive Crucible episode with Ori Brafman (The Starfish and the Spider).

Whether you’ve read the book or not, if you have been in or around military circles for the past twenty years you’ve likely heard the thesis regarding human networks.

Towards the end of the episode, during a discussion about how the military has or has not changed, Ori, quoting military leaders he interacts with, says something which I’ve heard over and over again – also for the past twenty years:

We’re not going to be able to kill our way out of this battle. Lethality is no longer the way we’re going to be able to fix this.

~33:30 mark

He then goes on to talk about whether this might mean we need to do more/better IO, cyber, etc.

We’ve heard this line “we’re not going be able to kill our way out of this” or “kill our way to victory” a lot. And it’s usually a line that is lauded because it seems to indicate the person speaking it understands that the conflict is rife with human dynamics that need to be addressed.

And if we can pull the right levers and adjust the dials just right we can turn this thing around.

I have another take; if the problem we’re facing isn’t one that can be solved with a military solution then perhaps we shouldn’t be using the military to solve it in the first place.

When you mix flawed strategy with gung-ho leaders you get the GWOT effect.

Those leaders – who are intelligent, patriotic, and care about victory – will tear down the world looking for a way to win.

But it’s often a case of the Kobayashi Maru. These are no-win scenarios. It’s like showing up to a baseball game with a basketball team. Sure, you can retool and retrain and take all of the baseball lessons you can – maybe even hire some baseball consultants – but you’re still going to be a basketball team playing baseball.

The best you might be able to do with all of that hokum is keep things going for a while.

“Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow….”

Don’t be fooled – the proximate thing keeping things together in these situations is most often the presence of traditional military capabilities.

And what happens to all of that when those traditional military capabilities are suddenly removed?

In fairness, our system is such that when called upon to execute a mission as part of a greater strategy, you do it. And you do your best to make it work and get results.

But I don’t think we should conflate recognizing the lack of military solutions to a problem with some sort of epiphany that might lead to victory.

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What uncomfortable reality?

a soldier with his field tent

I’m a week late to this article over at War on the Rocks – The Uncomfortable Reality of the U.S. Army’s Role in a War Over Taiwan.

It’s timely given the recent rhetoric. The article discusses the fact that we don’t like talking about the reality of what a war over Taiwan would look like.

I agree with that.

It’s a good article that lays out many of the grim realities, without acknowledging the potential – and likey costlier – mission creep, however.

There are a couple of assumptions in the piece that deserve a closer look.

First, that “a majority of the American public supports defending Taiwan in the case of a Chinese invasion.” The cited poll suggests that 52% of Americans would support the use of US troops to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion.

Wars are often popular before they start.

And in this case, when asked if the US should commit troops to defending Taiwan in the event of a Chinese “attack” or “invasion” (both words were used), 52% responded favorably.

Interestingly, a smaller number (46%) support committing to defending Taiwan before the fact. The polling suggests less an interest in Taiwan and more of an interest in China.

And that resonates – I don’t think most Americans spend much time thinking about Taiwan in the same way they didn’t spend much time thinking about Afghanistan.

Until we were there of course. And even then…

Still, the author is right to raise a flag here. If we are going to commit US troops somewhere we ought to know the costs. And the costs would likely be significant in terms of both American lives and expenditure.

How popular would it be then? And does that matter?

Second, the author writes that the Army is in the midst of an “identity crisis.”

“After the withdrawal from Afghanistan and facing a U.S.-Chinese competition that seems to play out on anything but land, the Army is struggling with an identity crisis perhaps as dramatic as its reinvention after the Vietnam War.”

Two things here: that the Army is facing an “identity crisis” and the US-Chinese competition plays out on “anything but land.”

The first (identity crisis) is a major claim. I’m not refuting it, but I’m also not seeing it either.

Is the Army really in the midst of an identity crisis?

Maybe, but it doesn’t feel like it.

Certainly we’re all coming around to recognize a new reality. GWOT is over (right?) and we’re waking up after a twenty-year adventure trying to figure out what the next big thing is.

But it doesn’t feel like a crisis. It feels more like going back to work. It feels like doing what we’ve always done.

To quote a senior special operations NCO on what we should be doing:

I don’t think we need any more lines and arrows, I don’t think we need any more references to the NDS. I think everyone understands what the new threat is, and we just power it down to the companies and let the senior NCOs and Team Sergeants take charge of the training.

That is what the Army is supposed to do.

Units have missions. Units train against those missions. And if called, units execute those missions.

That’s all there is.

Everything else is noise.

Second, the idea that US-Chinese competition plays out on “anything but land.”

Competition and conflict are often thought of and used interchangeably. Many make the assumption that because China is “over there” and we’re “over here” this is mostly a Navy/Air Force thing.

The reality is that competition is everywhere. Everywhere includes land. It also includes the digital world. And I don’t think the Army is spending much time navel-gazing wondering what its role is.

It’s too busy dealing with the reality of competition all over the world.

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“Tactical things don’t matter for big-picture deterrence”

reagan receiving a brief about the middle east

Get smart on the Russia-Ukraine developments.

Over the past several weeks, tens of thousands of Russian troops have gathered in the area near Russia’s border with Ukraine. But what does it signify?

Michael Kofman joins this episode of the MWI Podcast to discuss all of this and more. The director of the Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyses, he is a longtime observer of Russia and specializes in the Russian military. You can listen to the full conversation below, and if you aren’t already subscribed to the MWI Podcast, be sure to find it on Apple PodcastsStitcher, or your favorite podcast app so you don’t miss an episode!

MWI PODCAST: A LOOMING SHOWDOWN OVER UKRAINE?

I’m not a Russia-guy, so this was a good episode to get me up to speed on what is (and isn’t) going on on the border with Ukraine.

The whole episode is good – and Michael Hoffman clearly has firm control over his material (Russia and Russian military capabilities).

I love this quote:

“Most of the cockamaney ideas about sending some more weapons or things to Ukraine – fine, if you want to increase military costs but you have to just appreciate that it’s going to make no difference in the calculus.”

~26:00

And he goes on.

“Tactical things don’t matter for big picture deterrence. Javelins, drones, are completely irrelevant to political leaders. They don’t know and don’t care about the stuff.”

~26:30

I appreciate this take, and I tend to agree. It’s what I was getting at the other day in regards to culture and other aspects of the human dynamics in strategy. These are interesting things to consider, but at the political and strategic level, they ultimately don’t matter.

Should they? I don’t think so.

Even when it comes to military strategy – the input of this or that tactic or weapon system may make a difference on the margins, but if they don’t alter the overall endstate, then it’s an exercise in futility.

It doesn’t matter how smart you are on the capability. There are limits to military power – and if you are using any of these “things” in service of the military, they are also limited – mostly by the strategy you’re operating under.

Then again, maybe it’s worth just rolling the dice? What’s there to lose?

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Human Dynamics in Great Power Competition

a crowded market in the middle east

Interesting article over at MWI on the role of the ‘human domain’ in strategy.

The US military flounders in the human domain of conflict, with respect to foes, friends, and bystanders alike. Failure to engage with the building blocks of humanity—culture, society, politics, economics, and religion—leaves our strategies and plans untethered to reality. The result has been on display to the world for decades. The Afghan collapse provided a final exclamation point.

GETTING COMPETITION WRONG: THE US MILITARY’S LOOMING FAILURE

There is a lot I agree with in this article – like the importance of understanding human dynamics in warfare. The authors don’t really talk about language – but I’m coming around to believing that you can’t call yourself a “regional expert” if you don’t have some language ability in the region in which you claim expertise.

However, I’m skeptical about the idea of building strategy on all of the granular human stuff.

It seems like the powers that be should set the goals, set the objectives, set the end states. And then it is the role of the rest of us to use what we can to achieve those.

I’m not sure it works any other way.

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Video Games as FICINT

ashley wearing pink helmet mass effect

A lot of talk about “FICINT” or ficitional intelligence lately. This is good. Things are moving so quickly these days it’s hard to make logicial conclusions about what’s coming next.

Long-time readers will know that I’m a gamer – it’s my hobby. More than any other medium, I’ve found inspiration to think, write, and reflect, through games. I’d argue that games have always been loaded with meaning and narrative, but it’s true that as the gaming industry and community has matured, the plots and topics embedded have as well.

I never really thought of games as FICINT, but over the years I’ve written a number of pieces pulling directly from games as a way to think about mental health, stolen valor, suicide (and here), the military’s role in a zombie apocalypse, the RPG elements of military service, the importance of “staying alive,” military deception, the absurdity of war, soldiers vs. warriors, decision making, and grand strategy. I’m sure there is more, but that’s off the top of my head.

And I’m not alone. There are plenty of writers who are finding the intersection of war, warfare, and gaming. See this recent article in WOTR on the video game Eve and what it may teach us about the forever war. One of my favorite authors in this space is Matthew Gault, who also is a part of the Angry Planet podcast.

I always get the impression that when folks write about gaming and its relevance to anything outside of entertainment, it isn’t taken as seriously as film or literature. Maybe that is changing, but it’s changing very, very slowly. There is still a bias against gaming, and to many, it’s still considered a thing for children.

The reality is, we’re more than thirty years into a still-growing field. Three out of four Americans play video games. The video game industry is expexted to surpass $181 billion globally in 2021 (compared to $34 billion for the film industry).

When I joined the military in 2001, most soldiers played video games. Sure, there was a cadre of older soldiers who had joined in the 1990s (or earlier) who weren’t really into it, but the shift was already taking place 20 years ago.

The men and women joining the military these days have only lived in an era of “next-generation” video game platforms. Even the original Playstation and Xbox were before their time.

We’re at a perfect point to leverage games to help us understand the world around us. It is relevant.

There have been plenty of FICINT-like pieces written using Star Wars or Game of Thrones as a frame of reference. Those are taken seriously.

Why not games?

As an aside, my original intent for this post was to lament the fact that I’ve only recently gotten interested in the gaming photo community. I was first introduced to it through Dead End Thrills, which captures gorgeous screenshots. As I was looking at relaunching CTG, I wanted to find a space to share more gaming stuff that wouldn’t clog the blog. That’s what I use Instagram for. There is a whole community of gamers who are sharing screenshots. It’s also another way to expand the reach of the blog and hopefully bring in folks who might not have an inroad to ‘critical thinking on war and warfare.’

And the reason for the lamentation is the fact that I’ve missed so many great opportunities to share. Fallout 4, Red Dead Redepmtion II, Death Stranding, the Last of Us II. All done, and games that I’m not likely to go back to for awhile.

Thankfully, the Mass Effect Trilogy remaster will be coming with a photo mode.

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