11 May 2016

We need to broaden and change how we think about conflict

May 5, 2016 

Nobody does large-scale conventional warfare better than the U.S. military. The problem is that adversaries know this, so they're looking for whole new ways to project power and prevail in conflicts. We can't defeat the inventors of transistors by making the world's best vacuum tubes. Therefore, the one thing we must do is broaden our very definition of conflict to one that emphasizes innovation, adaptability, agility. We need to think differently and decide differently.

But how? Here are a few suggestions:

Use wargames to elicit likely weaknesses. Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work has directed an increasing use of wargames, in large part because they bring out areas of concern more effectively than other forms of analysis. Quantitative methods such as OR, in particular, are too easily captured by the assumptions the analysts started with. But wargames can be captured as well, if the game designers and sponsors insist on predictability in the game. When a game is used to train junior officers, as many are, making “Red” predictable and thus compelling a “Blue” victory is standard practice. For assessment of potential threats, however, “Red” should be free to be diabolically inventive.

Add “soft” moves to wargames. The most insidious and effective way to bias a report or an analysis is in the decision of what to look at. Modern conflict includes actions such as village stability operations, economic sanctions, seeking publicity, and subtly accreting influence. We're still playing chess, looking for a sequence of specific moves that lead inexorably to a clear favorable conclusion. Our adversaries are playing Go, slowly acquiring tenuous influence over larger and larger areas. Our wargames need the “white cell” capability to evaluate non-kinetic moves quickly and accurately.

Equip and train for adaptability. As we move to a doctrine of fewer units, each expected to be able to succeed in a wider variety of tasks, there's a natural tendency to load them down, physically and mentally, with a bit of everything. But a Marine can't fight very effectively in the tropics in cold-weather gear, and nobody can sustain fast-moving mobile warfare in heavy protective armor and CBERN protection. Commanders have to be able to select quickly what to bring, and personnel at all levels have to know how to use it — or get by without it. New doctrine plus cost-cutting also decreases the time units that will deploy together spend training jointly. This decrease will tend to impair coordination in combat.

Staff and supply for redundancy in key technology. If everyone is communicating and coordinating via radio and computers, every unit will need multiple people who can maintain that equipment. The biggest component of weight an infantry unit must transport is usually water, not ammunition — but batteries are rapidly moving up the list, too.

Perhaps most important, develop innovative metrics. Doing all kinds of new things and assessing their effectiveness by the conventional measures of merit is the surest way to stifle all new approaches. We need to have a good idea (we can't know for sure!) of what works in the new ways of the world, and we need to encourage and reward those who lead the way. First and foremost, however, is simply recognizing that new modes of conflict continue to appear and making that recognition the core of our approach, all the way up and down the line.

Douglas A. Samuelson is president and chief scientist of InfoLogix, a small R&D and consulting company in Annandale, Virginia.

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