It should surprise no one that a book about future warfare includes a chapter on strategy. This topic is difficult to discuss as it depends on each situation. Most people are afraid to offer their ideas on strategy, thinking that experts exist somewhere. However, strategy is a game and experience is found by studying history. As a result, most military officers have no better grasp of strategy than accountants, like author Tom Clancy. Fredrick the Great ridiculed combat veterans who thought that had made them strategic thinkers when he wrote: "Some of my pack mules have experienced three campaigns, but they still don't know anything about waging war." The French Generals who failed to defend France in 1940 had years of combat experience and decades of service in a respected army. They had more manpower, better equipment, and even more tanks than the invading Germans. Why did they fail so badly?
The Fixation with Offensives
A good example of rigid thinking is the idea that offensive action is always best; one of the lessons of World War II. History proves otherwise, which is evident in a fundamental form of warfare, hand-to-hand combat. Bruce Lee was not a military man but fought serious street brawls while growing up in Hong Kong, studied all forms of close combat, and earned a college degree in philosophy. He developed his own martial arts style that he called, "The Way of the Intercepting Fist." This principle is that a counterattack is the best form of fighting. Stand on the defensive until your opponent commits himself to striking, which leaves him open to an intercepting blow. Lee's conclusion was probably influenced by ancient Chinese warrior Sun Tzu who wrote: "In ground which offers no advantage to either side we should lure the enemy by feigned departure, wait until half his force has come out, and make an intercepting attack."
Western military thought emphasizes the offense despite the historical success of counteroffensives. A major application of this strategy was by the Russians in 1942. As powerful German armored forces bypassed Stalingrad, the Russians realized that a counterstroke into the lengthy German flank would be more effective than moving forces far to the southeast to defend against German armor. This "intercepting fist" resulted in the complete encirclement and surrender of the German 6th Army, while powerful German tanks were abandoned far to the east from a lack of fuel and supplies.
By 1943, the greatly outnumbered Germans learned to use intercepting fists as well, which they referred to as "mobile defense." Since the Germans lacked the resources to mount offensives, they found it easier to wait for the Russians to expose themselves with offensive thrusts, avoid their armored spearheads, then counterattack into their exposed flanks to maul Russian rear area troops and roll up their spearheads from behind. This led to political fights with Hitler who hated giving up ground and only approved of massive offensive operations rather than small counteroffensives.
German Generals wanted to use "mobile defense" against the Americans who had overextended their forces around Aachen in 1944. However, Hitler insisted on a major offensive in the Ardennes that ultimately failed, better known as the "Battle of the Bulge." During that offensive, the Allies could have used an intercepting fist to surround German forces, but directed reserves to block the German spearheads. This led to the bloodiest fighting on the western front and allowed German forces to gradually withdraw in good order. A bold Allied commander could have let the Germans advance while Patton rolled up their flank from the south, an idea that was debated. The farther German panzers advanced toward Antwerp, the farther they would have had to retreat to prevent encirclement. The Allies could have trapped the entire German force with an intercepting fist from the south by letting the German spearheads advance.
There are many other examples from World War II where an intercepting fist could have been used. When Douglas MacArthur's forces in the Philippines pulled back into the Bataan peninsula in 1942, they were able to repel repeated enemy attacks, but began to run out of food after several months. Although they outnumbered the Japanese attackers, the rough terrain and total Japanese naval and air superiority made offensive operations impossible. Rather than surrender from a lack of food, the Americans could have allowed the Japanese to breakthrough into a trap and used a counteroffensive to encircled them. While their chance of success are debatable, this was a better idea than surrendering to a Japanese army that killed most prisoners.
The Korean war stalemate during 1952 and 1953 provided many chances where an intercepting fist would have been effective. Allied forces turned back many Chinese offensives with heavy firepower and blocking movements leading to a stalemate. If the Allies had used a Sun Tzu tactic and lured the Chinese into a false sense of accomplishment by withdrawing in the face of an attack, much of the Chinese Army could have been trapped and strangled. Likewise, as 12 of 13 North Vietnamese divisions advanced on Saigon in 1975, the US military contemplated an intercepting fist. A proposal that a Marine Corps division land just north of the DMZ and press westward to cut off supplies was considered. This was rejected for political reasons but may have stalled the North Vietnamese offensive way down south.
An intercepting fist is the ideal strategy for America's concept of rapid deployment forces. Early arriving forces are light and lack supplies needed for prolonged defensive engagements. Tossing them in front of enemy armored spearheads is foolish. Even elite American airborne forces considered themselves mere "speed bumps" if Iraqi armored divisions had pushed south from Kuwait in 1990. A counteroffensive is a better strategy in such cases since the further enemy forces rapidly advance, the more vulnerable they become. Of course politics comes into play as enemy objectives may be deemed essential to defend. In such cases, light units equipped and trained for rearguard actions are best. Nevertheless, offensive oriented Generals must learn that an intercepting fist is often the best strategy.
Military strategy is not limited to combat, economic strategy is important. Much of World War II strategy involved securing oil supplies. Chapter 2 discusses the value of strategic materials but stockpiles only buy time. Nations must think long-term and consider subsidizing certain industries for national security reasons. For example, the day may soon arrive where all American steel mills close because it is cheaper to import steel from Asia. However, if war disrupts those imports the USA will be unable to manufacture many military items and will have trouble starting up a steel industry since no domestic expertise will exist. This is not to say that all American steel mills must be protected, but some capacity must be retained along with the expertise needed for wartime expansion.
The operations of massive multi-national corporations pose problems as well. Ownership and control of these powerful ubiquitous organizations is difficult to follow. The Germans have quietly taken over the Chrysler corporation, although they are open about it. The Chinese bought IBM's personal computer division, and then tried to buy Unocal but failed. The extent of foreign ownership is difficult to measure as shares are owned by third parties like mutual funds, banks, and hedge funds.
Since shareholders own corporations, nothing prevents a foreign nation from buying shares and thus voting rights and control over the board of directors of defense contractors. They needn't place foreigners on the board, just anyone willing to support their interests. Board members may pressure the CEO to export military technology or move a factory overseas. For example, most American soldiers are shocked to learn that China is building numerous types of American designed military HMMWVs (left) with a license and parts support from General Motors.
The export of military technology is an important strategic issue. The United States spends billions of dollars to develop advanced equipment but often gives that technology away so a contractor can make a few more dollars. For example, the computerized ship defense radar technology called Aegis was sought by the Japanese. The US Navy spent billions of dollars to develop this system, but Japan didn't want to buy it outright even though they have a huge trade surplus with the USA. Instead, they were allowed to manufacture it under license, which means they paid a small sum for the technology to build it themselves. The South Koreans demanded a similar deal to build F-16 fighters and India wants to get its hands on F/A-18E/F blueprints.
Chinese fighters now carry copies of Israel's Python 3 air-to-air missile, which downed 50 Syrian aircraft in 1982. Israel is thought to have sold numerous types of weapons to China, including Patriot missile technology, which was possible after a Patriot missile was stolen from an American battery defending Israel during the 1991 Persian Gulf war. This is a difficult area but military strategists must be aware that hidden business deals can alter the balance of power among nations. Friends and alliances can change quickly as demonstrated by this photo of US Marines posing with an American built UH-1 Huey helicopter captured in Iraq.
Nevertheless, the United States supplies the dictatorship of Egypt with over one billion dollars a year in military aid, which includes advanced equipment like M1A1 tanks, AH-64D "Longbow" Apache helicopters, and Harpoon anti-ship missiles. Egypt has no threat that justifies these weapons and the strategic rationale for providing these advanced weapons to an unstable nation whose citizens are mostly hostile to the United States is questionable. Other Arab dictatorships are sold very advanced weapons. For example, the UAE has purchased F-16Es, which are more advanced than the F-16Cs used by the US Air Force.
One excuse is that business is business and that if the USA does not sell advanced weapons they will buy it elsewhere. However, the few advanced nations that produce these weapons are allies. It will benefit world peace if makers of advanced weaponry, which include the USA, France, Germany, Britain, Sweden, Israel, Russia, Japan, and now South Korea formed a weapons cartel to restrict sales to less developed regions like Africa, Central and South America. Similar restrictions have limited improvements to China's arsenal, although Russia has become a major supplier as a result.
International corporations are not evil; they are often a positive influence. In 2004, Pakistan and India began trading insults and threats as they have done every few years since their 1948 war. However, India is industrializing and its economy is growing rapidly due to foreign investment. Tough talk worried major corporations so they put plans on hold and many chose to locate operations in other nations. The leaders of India quickly determined that an old dispute about a remote area was not worth the loss of foreign investment so the harsh rhetoric ended. Likewise, North Korea was pressured to open up by China and Russia because they wanted rail links to their new major trading partner, South Korea, which now ranks #8 worldwide in industrial production, just ahead of France.
Economic warfare is more common that most realize. The world disapproved of South Africa's apartheid policies and implemented an economic embargo that lasted for years and eventually succeeded in encouraging needed change. The US and Britain defeated Libya by organizing an economic embargo. Eventually, Libya "surrendered" and stopped supporting terror groups and Islamic revolutions in Africa. In 2014, the US and Britain overthrew its government anyway.
Embargos are often difficult to enforce as arms dealers are skilled at shipping items through third party nations. Worldwide trade is so massive that no one has time to inspect more than a sampling of shipping containers that flow through ports. This has become a problem for the US military as foreign agents attend Defense Department surplus auctions and pay tiny sums to acquire varied surplus parts because some contain advanced technology. These are complex issues and entire books are written about these subjects.
"The men the American people admire most extravagantly are the greatest liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth."
How should a nation train military strategists? The first challenge is teaching students that some of what they learned in school is false. Nations and institutions develop a culture based upon myths of superiority. For example, World War II combat infantryman Paul Fussell's book "Doing Battle" didn't sell nearly as well as books by Stephen Ambrose, who somehow missed military service but became wealthy writing about brave and brilliant American troops in World War II. Perhaps Fussell's work wasn't popular because he insisted on writing:
"In the opinion of British military historian Max Hastings, the American forces were so bad (and actually so were most of the British) 'that when Allied troops met Germans on anything like equal terms, the Germans almost always prevailed.' Thank God the troops, most of them, didn't know how bad we were. It's hard enough to be asked to die in the midst of heroes, but to die in the midst of stumblebums led by fools -- intolerable. And I include myself in this indictment."
Fussell wrote that of the 12 million Americans who served during World War II, only one million volunteered. The rest entered "kicking and screaming" with the threat of imprisonment and spent the war scheming to avoid combat. His short book "The Boys' Crusade", is about infantrymen fighting in Europe during World War II where he served as a lieutenant. He noted many great books on the war, but wrote that all missed key elements, such as:
- Most fighting was done by American infantrymen, who were just out of high school. They were drafted and didn't want to be in the war or the Army. The Army's official tally was 19,000 deserters in Europe.
- Self-inflicted wounds (a downward bullet wound to a leg or arm) were so common that the Army kept a tally and used it to measure unit morale.
- When the U.S. Army's new 106th Infantry Division was attacked at the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge, it didn't put up a fight. Its boys were so startled by the unexpected appearance of large numbers of German panzers that officers jumped into jeeps and fled while 8000 GIs threw up their hands and surrendered.
- The "platoon guide" was a junior sergeant added to each infantry platoon whose duty was the trail the platoon and confront anyone who attempted to desert.
- During the Battle of the Bulge, the Germans sent 150 English speaking commandos dressed in US Army uniforms to infiltrate American frontlines and cause chaos. They were quickly captured because American MPs guarded all roadways. Any healthy soldier heading toward the rear was presumed a deserter and arrested and interrogated.
It is difficult to learn from history because by definition it is "his story"; the victor's account of what happened. Students of history cannot learn from mistakes if they are hidden. Blunders are often spun into magnificent accomplishments. For example, during World War II the US Pacific Fleet Command thought the Japanese island of Iwo Jima was lightly defended and that it would take just three days to secure it with the loss of around 600 Americans killed. This tiny, remote island with no harbor or fresh water source was not important since it posed no threat to American ships or aircraft.
As a result, the Iwo Jima landing began with a light naval gunfire bombardment, then Marines went ashore to mop up. They were surprised to find 21,000 Japanese dug into fortified mountains. An intense battle raged for 36 days that resulted in 6800 marines, soldiers, and sailors dead. Twice that many were wounded so badly they were sent home and discharged. This unnecessary battle wiped out almost half the combat power of the entire US Marine Corps. Why was intelligence so bad? Was more reconnaissance possible? Should the Marines have withdrawn when the mistake was discovered?
Such issues are never addressed because this bloody battle was spun into a dramatic victory. Even worse, there is a shallow mindset among many people not to question government historical accounts because it is viewed as unpatriotic. This controversy is summarized in an excellent yet unpopular book, "The Ghosts of Iwo Jima." A US Marine Corps major once stated that having an extensive and effective public relations branch was good, but its own officers confuse positive sales crap with reality.
Another element that dampens military thought is the power of military contractors. In the United States they are free to hire retiring Generals to promote products, who earn their pay by influencing former subordinates and friends still in uniform. This caused military doctrine and tactics to appear just to support the sales pitch for certain types of technology. Soldiers in the US Army dismiss the value of "robotics," but complex and expensive systems are pursued anyway. Everyone is told that unmanned aerial vehicles must be purchased, although their utility is often dubious. The US Marine Corps embraced an unworkable doctrine called "Operational Maneuver From the Sea" (OMFTS) despite its obvious flaws. In the December 2001 issue of Naval Proceedings, Marine Corps Major Chris Wagner from the Strategy Center at Headquarters Marine Corps revealed: "The OMFTS concept was developed to create tactical synergy through integration of forces afloat and ashore, and it was instrumental in justifying major acquisition programs such as the advanced amphibious assault vehicle and the MV-22 Osprey." There is detailed discussion on this in Chapter 9.
This warping of military strategy discussions into sales pitches for new expensive equipment was criticized a few years ago by Marine Corps General Paul Van Riper: "There's an unfortunate culture developing in the American military that maybe should make you nervous. I don't see the rich intellectual discussions that we had after Vietnam. I see mostly slogans, clichés and unreadable materials." Van Riper was referring to the Pentagon's blueprints for the future, which are dull and void of details. The current arrays of doctrinal publications crafted at the Department of Defense are mostly garbage. If you browse through that material, you may find some things of interest, but it is "mostly slogans, clichés and unreadable materials."
While the authors of these materials carry impressive credentials, it is obvious they lack the intellect, courage, or knowledge to write useful publications. Most are products of institutional inbreeding where people are promoted for supporting the status quo or whatever idea has caught their rater's fancy. They have a nice job that requires little real work, so why upset everyone trying to change things? In addition, military officers know there are profitable post-retirement jobs for those who don't rock the boat. The book "Private Warriors" includes lucid comments from former Pentagon official Ernie Fitzgerald:
"Military officers for the most part are forced to retire when their family expenses are at a peak -- they've got a couple of kids in college and they're still paying a mortgage. They won't starve of their retired pay. But at the same time, they can't keep up their lifestyle. What happens in our system is that the services see one of their management duties as placing their retired officers, just like a good university will place its graduates. And the place the services have the most influence at is with contractors. If you're a good clean-living officer and you don't get drunk at lunch or get caught messing around with the opposite sex in the office, and you don't raise too much of a fuss about horror stories you come across--when you retire, a nice man will come calling. Typically he'll be another retired officer. And he'll be driving a fancy car, a Mercedes or equivalent, and wearing a $2000 suit and Gucci shoes and Rolex watch. He will offer to make a comfortable life for you by getting you a comfortable job at one of the contractors. Now, if you go around kicking people in the shins, raising hell about the outrages committed by the big contractors, no nice man comes calling. It's that simple."
The US military once had interesting and respected independent professional journals supported by subscriptions from their officers. However, defense contractors knew that articles in these publications carried weight, especially if that officer was near or past the end of his career and unafraid of retribution. They began to advertise heavily in these journals to gain influence. These small publications now had much more money, which allowed nicer offices and higher salaries. As a result, their editors became hesitant to bite the hand that feeds them by printing articles critical of weaponry or unworkable new tactics invented to justify them. No one questioned why corporations were spending money to advertise something like an attack submarine. Did they expect a reader may want to buy one?
A big factor in getting published is not quality but politically correct content. All professional journals prefer articles that reinforce the established viewpoint of that organization. Although editors consider themselves independent and like to read controversial ideas, they mostly adhere to the company line. They may accept a controversial article for future publication, but never publish it. Despite inter-service rivalry, don't expect one service publication to print an article critical of another service. US military bureaucracies operate under a truce in which public criticism is discouraged.
On the other hand, organizations like to view themselves as innovative, so articles that propose radical change are allowed, so long as they are vague and unrealistic. An article detailing the advantages of delaying the F-35 program will never get published, although it may be "accepted" then shelved in deference to the advertising clout of contractors. However, an article advocating "major change" and discussing "synergy" and "new paradigms" is attractive to editors. Lofty articles about transformation and free thinking are lauded, so long as they do not propose real change that threatens careers or corporate profits.
As a result, American military officers are shocked to read anything challenging the status quo or articles critical of a major weapons system in development. They assume that several successful military operations in recent years has proven their superior training, doctrine, and equipment. Yet the military balance in all these conflicts has been overwhelmingly in the favor of the United States military. Bragging about successes in these lopsided fights would be like a professional sports team bragging about their success in crushing local high school teams comprised of teenagers. This is not to say the US military is inept, it has many excellent units. However, Germany had excellent units in World War II yet lost the war after strategic blunders caused by overconfidence.
Developing Strategic Thinkers
Unfortunately, rigid thinking is most common among senior military officers. They advanced in rank by following orders and supporting the status quo in an environment where independent thinking and candid discussion is strongly discouraged. This is why senior military colleges produce such lousy Generals. When General George Marshall took over the US Army prior to World War II, he decided the Army's prestigious Command and Staff College was making his officers less capable, so he closed it.
It is difficult for military institutions to teach independent thought, especially to officers who have been exposed to no other corporate culture. The ideas which propelled the German army intellectually in the 1930s were the result of several books, not teachings from their war colleges. Even then, radical changes like panzer divisions and dive bombing aircraft were opposed by most German Generals and implemented only because Adolf Hitler saw their merit.
American military colleges have digressed from military education to satisfying the egos and post-military career aspirations of officers. Over the past few decades, they became accredited like civilian universities so degrees could be awarded to their graduates. This required hiring expensive PhDs, many with no military background or interest in warfare. Adopting academic testing and grading (e.g. pleasing the PhDs) was part of this recognition, as well as adding unnecessary classroom instruction, while eliminating many military courses.
If military officers need a civilian degree, it is far cheaper to send them to the best "accredited" universities in the nation, which allows them to mix with people outside their military culture. If a military college wants to teach strategy to future General officers and Admirals, students should not spend a year in classrooms learning institutional myths and memorizing test material, they should be stimulated to form their own ideas. This is best accomplished by observing military operations while reading professional books, watching professional videos, and discussing the issues raised. There should be no tests so students can educate (and offend) anyone with frank comments.
For example, a group of 20 American colonels can arrive and spend just a few hours at a "war college" to check-in and board their tour bus. They start out with a month of briefings in the Pentagon and other nearby agencies. Then off to Norfolk where they spend two weeks on a Navy aircraft carrier preparing for deployment, and a month at Camp Lejeune to serve as umpires for a major joint operation. Next they spend two weeks at the Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, then a month at Fort Polk to observe an infantry training rotation at that center. They are allowed one-month to spend at home with professional reading assignments along with another month of personal leave for vacation. They then meet at Nellis AFB in Nevada for a month to observe a "Red Flag" exercise, then a month at Fort Irwin to view an armored warfare training rotation, followed by a month at 29 Palms to watch a Marine Corps combined arms exercise. Then a month to visit a Defense Logistics Agency activity. Finally, they participate as umpires in another field exercise, then perhaps a trip overseas to visit a world hot spot at the cutting edge.
During these travels, most Colonel-students would read more military books than during their previous twenty years. However, the selection of professional reading material becomes problematic. In the US military, each armed service has developed a list of professional books to read. These are selected by senior Generals who are keen to avoid controversy and want to portray their service in the best light. These include excellent books that are non-controversial, and reading common books is essential for classroom discussion. Therefore, it is best for half the books that students must read come from institutional recommendations, but students should be free to select the other half of military books they wish to read from wherever they can find them. Rather than group discussion used for the required institutional books, students will present an oral book report for each of their chosen books to their classmates and answer questions.
Another method of teaching strategy is through games. There are hundreds of sophisticated and realistic war games that can be played on home computers. Many military training centers have complex exercise simulators available. Students should be exposed to war games so they understand that strategy depends on what your opponent wants to do as much as what you want to do. Since it takes some time to learn war games, chess should be the primary form of instruction. Read Teach Chess for more information. Chess may not be the best war game, but most students already know how to play and it doesn't require a computer. Students on tour will be involved in a continual chess tournament, eventually playing everyone in their class a few times.
Videos are a great instructional tool. Several outstanding series have appeared on television, usually on the History Channel, including one called "Strategy," which reviews famous battles in detail, complete with moving map displays, historical pictures, and film footage. The brilliant documentary "The Fog of War" is a must see. There are many excellent military films that provide an ideal format for discussion of difficult leadership issues. Once again, the problem of which films arises, so half are selected by the war college while each student is free to select any military film for his class to view together. Videos may be watched aboard their bus, or perhaps in the evening while on the road at a room in the officer's club so everyone can enjoy a few drinks during the film, followed by frank discussions.
Students at these mobile colleges would have no instructors, just a class advisor who travels with them and a briefer at each location who works for the war college, so as not to burden and annoy the commands they visit. This may seem expensive, but it will cost much less than maintaining all the infrastructure and staff for a war college. The class would travel on a bus like a tour group, while they read, play chess, watch videotapes between tours to observe military operations, and learn from those who actually perform military tasks. A mobile military college planning to graduate 1000 students a year needs no instructors nor classrooms, just a single briefing room for arrivals, 50 tour buses with drivers, 50 tour guide officers (class advisors), and a dozen liaison-briefers at varied locations where they visit. This method will stimulate strategic thinking, instead of manufacturing unthinking machines at an expensive war college factory.
Steps Toward Developing Military Strategists
1. Eliminate advertising at professional journals. With computers and the Internet, it only takes two or three full-time employees to produce an excellent monthly journal. If money is short, don't publish a print edition, put it on the Internet. As a result, editors would not care if an angry executive from Boeing calls.
2. Eliminate "accredited" military colleges and the awarding of advanced civilian degrees.
3. Replace senior military college classroom instruction with tour buses filled with books, videos, and chess sets. Warfighting and original thinking is best learned by reading, playing (chess), watching (videos), observing operations, and talking with people on the frontline.
These changes address General Patton's concerns from 70 years ago:
"No one is thinking if everyone is thinking alike. In too many organizations, toadyism is buried like a cancer. It must be removed with the sharpest bayonet available. All sorts of suggestions, ideas, concepts, and opinions must be allowed to promote an environment of learning and imagination. A fault of many potentially fine commanders is a lack of the ability to admit that other people have good ideas. If younger soldiers are not allowed to use and cultivate their imaginations and their abilities for abstract thought, where will we get the next generations of qualified, motivated, and confident commanders? Commanders who never ask for an opinion, never listen to suggestions, and think they have the only correct idea find that their soldiers will stop communicating altogether. They'll begin to sit on their asses and wait for orders before doing anything. No matter how high in the ranks a man goes, he can't know everything. We can always learn from each other. Juniors must learn not only to be allowed to use their imaginations, but they must be encouraged to do so."
General George S. Patton Jr.