Now that dramatic improvements in weaponry, communications, sensors and even the utility of individual combatants have been demonstrated in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is clear that America must revise and expand its principles of war to effectively plan and execute the more expansive and complex warfare of the future battlefield.
Before redefining the principles of war for future conflicts, three questions must be answered. First, how has the revolution in military affairs (RMA) affected military capability, and how will it affect capability in the future? Second, what types of conflicts and enemies should America expect to confront over the next quarter-century? And third, who will be cooperating with America in military operations of the future? Even these seemingly simple questions have complex answers and significant caveats that must be recognized.
With regard to the effects of the RMA, some historical perspective is necessary. The current principles of war have remained essentially unchanged since at least 1921, when in the wake of World War I, there was a push in the U.S. military to codify doctrine based on the lessons of that conflict. Going into the future, great benefits for, and changes to, conventional military power are expected from the RMA. The Global Information Grid promises to be a leap forward for communications and the collection, analysis and distribution of information. Developing systems will allow a commander on one platform to electronically execute offensive or defensive action using the sensor data from a second platform and weapons from a third. The net-centric battle space will allow for seamless interservice communication, information-sharing, and the rapid fulfillment of support requests. A mistake can be made, though, in assuming that the RMA has an endpoint and the military will return to a static structure following transformation. Therefore, the first assumption when drafting new principles of war is: A new set of principles of war must be broad enough to readily accommodate the fast pace of development in military doctrine, technology and capabilities.
With respect to threats, most observers of the events of the past decade point out that America is facing a new enemy. But in this observation, critics of America’s current force usually are only half right. Yes, America is in an ongoing war with a dispersed, low-tech, nonstate, adaptive and resourceful enemy. But in truth, the terrorist threat is an additional threat, not a replacement for old threats. China continues to modernize its military to challenge American hegemony in the Pacific, and the possibility of war at sea still looms large, even if it appears to be over the horizon for the time being. In addition, most of the rogue states of the world, like Syria, North Korea and Iran, still have significant conventional military forces that may need to be defeated to achieve American objectives.
The lines between different levels of war in the range of military operations are also blurring. In the past, casualties and destruction of property in low-intensity conflict were small. Now, a small, well-funded and organized group of irregulars or terrorists could execute extraordinarily destructive attacks. Therefore, the second assumption underpinning the reassessment of the principles of war is: The types of conflicts America will face will continue to broaden, and new principles must be equally applicable when raiding a terrorist safe house, when confronting a large, conventional force on land or sea, or when planning for nuclear deterrence and response.
When considering potential U.S. partners in conflict, political and military realities become apparent from examining a number of recent conflicts. There is no doubt that military and political objectives are easier to justify when support and participation in a military operation is multilateral and broad. In addition, there are many aspects and consequences of war that are uniquely nonmilitary, such as humanitarian relief and care of refugees, which require careful consideration and planning. When America encourages the participation of allies — other governmental agencies and nongovernmental organizations — these actors must not only be integrated into the coalition force, their participation also must be meaningful. As a result, the third assumption in this process is: American forces are not likely to be the only important actors in a conflict, and any updated principles of war must be flexible enough to integrate all the participating forces and organizations.
Given these observations and assumptions, the current principles of war require considerable revision and expansion. But they cannot be discarded wholesale. All of the current principles represent timeless, essential elements of warfare that will continue to be relevant in the future, although most are applicable now in more limited circumstances. Instead, the current principles must be developed into more complex principles that represent a better approach to the future of war.
Without a clear, achievable objective, the threat cannot be adequately assessed, courses of action cannot be developed, and consequences and contingencies cannot be identified.
1 Objective is focusing all efforts toward the decisive achievement of an obtainable end state and is the only current principle of war to emerge unscathed by the changes of the past few decades. Clearly defining an achievable end state remains critical to successful military operations. This was reinforced in the Weinberger Doctrine after evaluating American experiences in Vietnam and Lebanon, and confirmed by America’s experiences in Somalia and Iraq.
2 Speed is the rapid execution of all functions and operations related to war. Implied in speed are the current principles of offensive and maneuver. The practice of seizing the initiative, striking an enemy and striking him again before he has a chance to reorient and act has proven successful time and time again. Speed enables a force to seize the initiative, deliver time-critical strikes and plan and decide on the fly. The need for speed, however, doesn’t begin and end when the first and last shots are fired. America must rapidly deploy and build up forces prior to combat operations and rapidly redeploy once the end state is achieved. A moderate force that is in position to act 10 days after the start of a conflict can be just as effective as a large force that takes 30 days to arrive. In addition, enemies will always seek to exploit periods when America seems occupied with one conflict and unable to respond, so America must demonstrate that it can reset on a moment’s notice and be back in position to act.
3 Concentration of effects, which replaces mass, is the focusing of conventional fires and other useful tools, such as electronic attack and information operations, to defeat the enemy. Today, the battle line is difficult to identify as operations are conducted on a dispersed, in-depth battlefield. The range and precision of advanced weapons, capability of long-range sensors, employment of space systems and unmanned vehicles, and proven utility of nondestructive tactics such as electronic attack, deception and information operations leaves mass with increasingly narrow utility. The rising cost of technology and platforms — and necessary decrease in the numbers of platforms — further devalues the principle of mass. Going forward, the rapid evolution of combat forces and technology, combined with the smaller size of future forces, demands planners think not in terms of force but in terms of effects.
With effects now taking primacy over forces, successful military operations require a commander to focus first on how the areas of effect of systems and weapons overlap, and second on the positioning of platforms. In truth, areas of effect have always been the first consideration in the positioning of forces. Military formations were developed to concentrate the effects of weapons, and the dispersal of forces and combatants beginning in the 20th century was designed to counter massing of fires and area effect weapons. Just how secondary the position of platforms has become was demonstrated in the Kosovo war, in which heavy bombers based in the central U.S. routinely serviced targets halfway around the globe. It may be wise to forward deploy or concentrate such platforms in particular scenarios to increase availability and utility, but it is not always necessary — and in some circumstances deployment or concentration may result in an asset being unavailable in a concurrent conflict.
4 Economy of effects is employing the right number and combination of effects to neutralize or destroy an enemy and achieve the objective. Economy of force, which is replaced by economy of effects, has been debated for decades. The first major re-evaluation of economy of force began during the Vietnam War, when some drew the conclusion from evaluating the forces deployed to Southeast Asia that America was not committed to winning the war. The first high-profile refutation of economy of force was spoken by Gen. Colin Powell, a combat veteran of the Vietnam War, during the run-up to the 1991 Persian Gulf War when he proposed that America should, in the future, employ overwhelming force in military conflict rather than a strictly economical force. The RMA dealt the final, fatal blow to economy of force with its shift in focus from forces to effects.
In the future, planners must employ a systems-thinking process to evaluate and address a commander’s minimum requirements. By this process, planners may sequence the effects of systems, platforms and weapons synergistically to produce the desired result with a minimum of destruction and casualties. One note of caution is required when considering economy of effects, however; when requesting forces for an operation, planning must include some definition of required tasks and corresponding effects for contingencies and the unlikely and worst-case scenarios.
5 Pervasive awareness is building an exploitable, in-depth knowledge of the battle space, the opponent, and his centers of gravity and vulnerability. One of the lessons of recent conflicts is that decision-makers, planners and operators up and down the chain of command must have access to comprehensive, timely and actionable intelligence. Poor intelligence resulted in America bombing the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo conflict in 1999. Inadequate or excessively time-late intelligence led America to miss several opportunities to apprehend or kill Osama bin Laden and a number of the Sept. 11 hijackers. Poor integration and dissemination of intelligence have also been blamed as factors in America’s failure to recognize Islamist terrorists as a grave threat to national security before 9/11.
Information is increasingly critical to the effective planning and execution of combat operations, and this awareness must extend beyond the battle space awareness provided by multispectrum sensors. Decision-makers, operators and planners must have access to much more than the standard laundry list of military positions, equipment, training and tactics. Information and intelligence on the enemy’s communication and power grids, transportation and public works infrastructure, and even social structure, institutions and political actors can and should be collected, analyzed, disseminated and exploited when possible.
6 Continuous planning is the ongoing development and redevelopment of courses of action, for the current situation and contingencies, to rapidly achieve the objective. Given the complexities of modern warfare, the old axiom that no plan survives first contact with the enemy is even more salient. Planning for conflict must begin at the first hint of a crisis, continue apace with the progress of the conflict, and include detailed planning for post-conflict operations up to and including turnover to the host nation or nongovernmental and international organizations and withdrawal of coalition forces. In the age of net-centric warfare, simplicity is the first casualty of war — Napoleon’s corporal is dead. No longer is the simplest plan necessarily the best plan, and no longer can we expect anyone to understand all of the details of the plan. Unnecessary complexity should still be avoided, but an increasing level of complexity in plans should be expected.
Planning must also expand to give adequate attention to unlikely, worst- and best-case scenarios. For instance, the Iraq war has brought an interesting caveat of success to light: The unexpected success and rapid advance of coalition forces created an environment in which coalition forces could not adequately control the territory they had gained. Armed with this lesson in success, planners in the future must anticipate potential successes as well as potential failures.
7 Flexibility is rapidly adapting to new or different requirements or situations. Underpinning economy of effects, concentration of effects and continuous planning is flexibility. Many of America’s current and future systems offer the capability to deliver similar effects. In addition, the useful effects of systems are often discovered in times of emergent need when innovation is at its peak. The focus of planners and commanders must be on performing mission-essential tasks in a timely, efficient manner, and they must be encouraged to consider their options carefully and be creative in employing weapons and systems.
8 Sustainment is ensuring the persistence of forces to see the conflict through, from entry to withdrawal. Forces have depended upon supply and logistics for ages. The armies of the First Crusade failed to reach the Holy Land because they could not forage enough to subsist en route. The teeth of America’s force racing across Iraq in 2003 were required to slow their pace of advance and wait for their logistics tail to catch up. A force in the field, no matter how well equipped or trained, is useless if it cannot be sustained, and in the future, sustainment is an indispensable principle of war.
9 Efficiency of command is ensuring the force has no more divisions and layers of command than necessary, and implies unity of command. War is divided into levels in American doctrine for good reason, and the speed and scope of future conflicts argue for more authority in the hands of unit-level commanders, not less. Unnecessary review of target lists and interference in tactical decisions must be eliminated. In situations in which political concerns are significant, higher levels of command must provide clear guidance to subordinate commanders and trust them to act with good judgment. Commanders must resist the temptation to allow loyalty to their parent service or community to influence the development of the best plan or force structure. Likewise, political leaders must resist the temptation to let everyone play and unnecessarily widen the field of actors in the name of jointness.
10 Security is ensuring the safety and integrity of forces and certain noncombatants during all phases of the operation. The principle of security expands somewhat with the nature of war. If there is one lesson America has learned the hard way in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is that security remains an essential consideration in planning and executing future operations. In addition, security of NGO and other-agency personnel, persecuted minorities and refugees, politically and legally, may need to be provided, as well. During the Bosnia conflict, the inability of a Dutch force to protect the civilian population of Srebrenica proved politically disastrous for the Netherlands and NATO.
11 Integration of actors is allowing appropriate participation in planning, and assigning useful tasks to all forces, agencies and NGOs taking part in an operation. Unilateral military action by the U.S., except on the small scale, is becoming less and less likely. The current principles of war were essentially defined in an era when joint operations were unheard of and combined operations were a recent innovation. Major international conflicts now demand the participation of coalition partners and are arguably more successful because of international participation. As a result, the principle of integration of actors must be adopted to ensure planning is executed not only for joint and combined military forces, but also for the participation of other government agencies and NGOs.
12 Surprise is acting in an unpredictable fashion to leverage the utility of effects, and it retains some value in the updated principles of war. Strategic surprise is increasingly difficult in the information age when around-the-clock news on troop movements and the political process is available to anyone with a satellite dish or Internet connection. In addition, in exercising the Bush Doctrine to pre-empt threats, it may be necessary to show America’s hand by laying out the causes and urgency of the conflict to gather political support and coalition partners before military action is executed. However, operational and tactical surprise remain undiminished, and by exploiting pervasive awareness, a flexible, creative military commander should always find opportunities to strike at a time, in a place and in a manner that an opponent cannot predict.
Finally, feedback and evaluation are what brings it together. The collecting and analyzing information from the force, during operations and for immediate application, are already familiar to the American military. Every evolution, exercise and operation conducted by the U.S. military today concludes with debrief and identifying lessons learned. In the future, the rapid execution of operations requires ongoing feedback from operators to planners on what did and did not work. Planners and commanders must then identify and incorporate lessons into revised planning to maximize the effectiveness of forces in the field, reduce the duration of the conflict and minimize the effect of the war on civilians.
Transformation and technology expand and complicate the battlefield of the future, and to remain usefeul, the principles of war must expand and become more complex. The independence of individual principles is now a thing of the past, as well.
Like the actors and systems in this new method of war, most of the new principles of war are interdependent. For example, flexibility, pervasive awareness, and feedback and evaluation are key to continuous planning — feedback and evaluation depend on the integration of actors and pervasive awareness, and economy of effects and concentration of effects depend on flexibility.
Most who argue that the principles of war should remain unchanged begin by pointing to the timeless nature of war mentioned earlier. However, they then usually go on to propose an extensive overhaul of the meanings of individual principles. Retaining the current terms, even if they could adequately be reinterpreted to fit the evolving conduct of war, is a half-measure that fails to communicate the transformation in progress. The elements of successful military operations have evolved and will continue to evolve with the nature of war, and it is time the American military acknowledges these changes in official doctrine.
Lt. Cmdr. Christopher E. Van Avery is a damage-control assistant assigned to the amphibious assault ship Essex. He has 21 years of active and reserve Navy service and has served in Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq.