Thursday, March 11, 2010

RMA Redux

John Arquilla, the self-anointed prophet of net-centric warfare and proponent of the Rumsfeldian RMA, has a strange piece in the March/April edition Foreign Policy modestly entitled 'The New Rules of War.'

In it he decries the alleged myopia of the modern US military for remaining wedded to outmoded force structures, technology and doctrinal concepts, and proposes three new rules to kill by:

1. 'Many and small' beats 'Few and Big'

2. Finding matters more than flanking

3. Swarming is the new surging

I'll leave it to you to read his arguments in their original (and relatively concise) form rather than rehashing them here, but a couple of contradictions seem to to leap out.

First, at various points Arquilla applauds the Army for expanding the number of brigades and points to the limited pre-Surge establishment of small JSS/COPs as a positive example, but then proposes massive cuts in the number of personnel, arguing that:
The model for military intervention would be the 200 Special Forces "horse soldiers" who beat the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan late in 2001. Such teams would deploy quickly and lethally, with ample reserves for relieving "first waves" and dealing with other crises.
Are we really back to citing a sort-of operational success that abjectly failed to achieve our strategic objectives as a model for the future? Aside from that absurdity, I find it bizarre that Arquilla seems to ignore the requirement for 'many' in his own construct of 'many and small.'

Second, he professes great admiration for the 'social networking' by US forces in Iraq that allowed them to hunt down insurgents, holding it up as an example of how the military should adapt to become a 'sensory organization.' Yet he manages to ignore the fact that quantity mattered: in general, Iraqis began providing information when there were enough American and/or locally trusted Iraqi troops around to convince them they'd be safe from insurgent reprisals. In some cases Iraqis took chances and reached out to the US before those troops were fully in place, but seemed to do so in the expectation that they were on their way. Moreover, such 'networking' isn't technological - it's human! Yes, linked databases, social network mapping software, biometric population control measures and other technological tools are important, but they aren't a replacement for the people who employ them effectively.

Finally, in all the discussion of ending heavy US investment in the capability to overmatch near-peer competitors in a conventional fight, I feel like we're kind of missing an obvious point. As Shawn Brimley and Vikram Singh's now legendary whiteboard scribblings depicted, the move to adopt hybrid warfare, anti-access strategies, and cyber-warfare by our adversaries represents strategic adaptation to American dominance of the conventional battlefield. While we clearly need to adapt in turn to deal with those threats, it shouldn't be at the expense of conventional dominance: that would just create a new gap for adversaries to exploit. Of course this is easier to say than to do, particularly in the age of multi-trillion dollar wars, global financial crises and fundamental changes to the world economy. But it should at least be acknowledged in the ongoing debates about the future threat environment that if the US is to remain the global hegemon, it's got to be able to deal with entire spectrum of threats, not just the bits that interest one pundit or another.

14 comments:

  1. You could have stopped at "flanking" - which he uses gratuitously in the article.

    Military units have flanks. When you attempt to attack your enemy in or behind their flanks, that maneuver is called envelopment. NOT "flanking" - there is no such word in military doctrine. A first year cadet knows that, which begs the question of this guy's military "expertise."

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  2. Okay, I'll admit that I thought flanking was an acceptable term, not that I recall ever using either term.

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  3. MK: All good points... Max Boot recently wrote a pretty devastating critique of this piece (and Mark Helprin's on "Why the Air Force needs the F-22") on Commentary's blog.

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  4. I worked with John Arquilla at NPS. He is wicked smart with a brilliant mind in the fashion of John Nash. I was not impressed with this article. I haven't discussed my dissent with him directly, but I was curious to see if he wrote the article to test out some ideas that he's developing. Bottom line, IMO, disregard this article but don't discount Dr. Arquilla.

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  5. See also:
    Thread at SWC (caution - your nemesis William F. Owen agrees with you).
    Zen Pundit also weighs in.

    @MK - Not trying to redirect your readers elsewhere - those two threads seem to have died down, but lots of discussion there that could be continued here.

    @Tintin - not that there's anything wrong with that.

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  6. Maybe we should develop the capacity: to effectively C2 "many and small"; to rountinely "find" with consistency and accuracy; and, to "swarm" a "surge" in a timespan less than 9 months, before we again embrace an academic's doctrinal concepts better suited to Robert Heinlein novels than SOCOM, the GPF, COCOM realities and the laws of physics.

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  7. Maybe we should develop the capacity: to effectively C2 "many and small"; to rountinely "find" with consistency and accuracy; and, to "swarm" a "surge" in a timespan less than 9 months, before we again embrace an academic's doctrinal concepts better suited to Robert Heinlein novels than SOCOM, the GPF, COCOM realities and the laws of physics.

    I don't know who you are, but I like you (unless this is SNLII and you forgot to sign it).

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  8. Via Ex on Twitter, here's a T.X. Hammes smackdown of Arquilla from the summer of 08. Registration's required, but it's free.

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  9. Thank you to Gunslinger for the penetrating insight into Arquilla’s background.

    It is good to know Dr. Arquilla wasn’t using flanking merely as a verb to explain a larger concept (as an academic might). Obviously, Arquilla’s personal experience leading small unit maneuver makes it undeniable that he would ground his discourse in applicable doctrine.

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  10. Thank you to Gunslinger for the penetrating insight into Arquilla’s background.

    I'm sure Dr. Arquilla is an expert in something, but this didn't strike me as that topic. I don't buy that he could be using the term merely as a verb to explain a larger concept (as an academic might) - if this is a document by an academic, in a purportedly serious magazine, to convince other academics and persons in government on how warfare is changing and what the author thinks we need to do to address those changes: you don't think language matters??

    Of course it does. Professionals use enveloping. Hollywood uses flanking. I, like everyone else, have only limited time to read things. I have to say, when I see "flanking" I stop reading because by simply using that word, the rest of the piece probably isn't worth my time. It's like "Islamo-fascist",comparison to Hitler, or any other term that shows at face value that the following writing was not intended for a serious audience.

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  11. Gunslinger,

    They teach Army cadets to use "flanking." All the cadre use it. Combat arms and POG cadre alike. I have never heard anyone say not to use "flanking", or instead propose "envelopment." We got a new E-7, a lifetime in the infantry, taught at Ranger school, so I'll see what he has to say about it.

    Just saying.

    -Deus Ex

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  12. Deus Ex - I'd be interested to hear what he has to say about it. I should say that "flanking" can be used as an adjective, such as in "flanking fires" or some such thing.

    When all else fails, consult the professional's guide to the Army: Operational Terms and Graphics. Cut and paste from said manual:

    flank – The right or left limit of a unit. (FM 3-90)

    envelopment – (DOD, NATO) An offensive maneuver in which the main attacking force passes around or over the enemy’s principal defensive positions to secure objectives to the enemy’s rear. (Army) – A form of maneuver in which an attacking force seeks to avoid the principal enemy defenses by seizing objectives to the enemy rear to destroy the enemy in his current positions. At the tactical level, envelopments focus on seizing terrain, destroying specific enemy forces, and interdicting enemy withdrawal routes.

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  13. Both words sound like something out of a Civil War reenactment.

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