Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Principles of War have not changed: We need objectives in Libya

I am absolutely perplexed why people are suggesting that somehow the Principles of War have fundamentally changed in the last few years. While the tools and methods for the application of the Principles evolve over time, the Principles themselves have not changed and I don't see any reason to change them now. I'm specifically referring to the conjecture that we don't need objectives or a description of a desired end state with regard to Libya, a mantle taken on by Tom Ricks and yesterday by Crispin Burke as a guest poster at Best Defense.

I'm going to pick on Crispin first, because as an Army officer he brings credibility to his writings on design. But I also think he completely misrepresents both traditional operational planning and campaign design. Traditional operational planning, a system that has evolved since the Napoleonic Wars to what we know today in the 5-paragraph operations order based on the Military Decision Making Process, is not a rigid system that completely ignores the ability to adapt or understand complex systems. In fact, I think it does a pretty good job of handling those two issues as long as your commanders and planners are capable of adapting and understanding complex issues. The invasion of Iraq, meticulously planned, is a good example of an engineered operational plan that went to shit thirty minutes before LD and was FRAGOed the rest of the way by competent people until the fall of the regime. The proposition that MDMP-based planning leads to rigid thinking and doesn't provide enough adaptability to commanders (or situational needs) is bunk and I'm afraid that if you make that conjecture you may not truly understand how planning is supposed to work (I should point out here that Crispin says they are important, but Tom isn't so keen on objectives at all). Objectives are not antithetical to adaptability or flexibility - they're actually quite essential to it!

I also think Crispin overestimates the panacea of design. To state that design helps commanders understand the problem, which gives them the ability to not worry so much about mission statements, objectives, or end states is flat out wrong (I'll concede a withdrawal plan isn't necessary at the start as long as you have end state objectives). TRADOC Pamphlet 525-5-500 (Commander's Appreciation and Campaign Design) states as that the first function of campaign design is "Identify the combination of parallel and sequential objectives that lead to mission success and define the way the mission will be performed." Read the rest of the pamphlet - the terms objectives, end states, and mission statement are pervasive. I can't even fathom how you expect subordinate commanders to execute operations in a campaign if they don't even know what they're driving at or what their purpose is! How is that supposed to work??

I am actually a big fan of many elements of campaign design, but just like the old MDMP you need people who understand how to use it. Had design been used in the Sanchez or Casey days of the Iraq War I highly doubt things would have turned out any better. The utility of any system is limited by the capabilities of the people using it. Within Army planning circles, the discussion of MDMP versus design is turning into something similar to the old COINdinista/COINtra debate or even of the Effects Based Operations debate. Design provides commanders and planners with some great ways of approaching planning, but it doesn't solve all of the problems inherent to the older way of doing things. So let's all not make this a debate on old versus new, because modern campaigns need elements of both design and MDMP.

Certainly, things like strategic and operational objectives are still required to successfully run military campaigns. I don't even understand the logic that dictates that they aren't needed - even the literature on the subject says it's still a fundamental part of design. So yeah, we need operational objectives and an end state that lets us know when we've accomplished our goals. They may change over time, but we need to start with something. Otherwise we will suffer strategic and/or operational drift, often leading to mission creep or other such things you don't want in a campaign. As I said before, the methods of warfare have evolved since the 1830s, but the principles have not.


  1. Hi,
    I am not suggesting that the principles of war have changed. Rather, I think that since the 1980s the U.S. military has become rigid in its insistence on ways-means-ends formulas. I think this is unrealistic.

  2. Tom,

    Thanks for commenting. I'm with you on not insisting on the withdrawal plan not being part of the initial plan (things are likely to change too much in the interim), but I don't see how commanders can be expected to undertake combat operations without knowing what they're supposed to achieve and what they have to achieve it with. Again, understanding that the desired ends may evolve over time. Any way you could elaborate?

  3. Jason,

    I agree almost everything that you say; however, I think that Design is actually worthwhile. In fact, good commanders do it intuitively. I'm starting to use the analogy of building a home/office as a way to describe how design fits into the decision making process.

    First, the building must be on a firm foundation. In our world, that's strategy/policy. Ends, ways, means.

    Next, an architect will design a plan for the building. Sometimes, this process includes the project manager (Commander in MDMP process); sometimes is it is separate.

    Then, the project manager (CDR)works with the construction team, plumbers, electricians to build the structure.

    That's how I see it, but the foundation must come first.


  4. Totally with you brother. I love design. I just don't think Crispin portrayed it accurately in his post at Best Defense, especially when comparing it to operational planning.

  5. Crispin's trying to juggle that big brain of his with his responsibilities at work in his real job. I wouldn't be surprised to see Adam Elkus and him write a longer essay on design and the Arab Spring as time permits.

    I personally think/hope that the President and SecState are looking at this from a bigger perspective- framing our response in the larger issue of ME and NA along with eventually trying to get more tools in the toolbox than just a hammer.

    Going back to your original post, I think that if the owner of the project fails to select a good foundation or hire a designer, then they should not be upset when the project manager takes on those responsibilities. That's just trying to get the project done, not usurping power or a politico-military crisis.

  6. I blame the Gynosaurs. And battle command.


  7. I've got to be honest with you: this Design stuff gives me tired-head. I like Crispin and Adam a lot, but man, I find their SWJ piece on the subject from last year to be totally inscrutable.

    Objectives are essential, full-stop. Objectives are the way you plan backwards from desired endstates or outcomes to apply the resources at your disposal in a meaningful way. The great failure of EBO, as far as I'm concerned, is the idea that one can plausibly expect to accomplish objectives through the creation of vague "effects" -- that is, that military operations produce effects that accomplish objectives rather than accomplishing objectives to produce effects.

    This is a bit of a digression, perhaps, but it gets to my big frustration with what Jason's written about above. That's really what Tom and Crispin seem to be suggesting here: that military forces should be engaged in producing effects, then "adapting" to produce whatever other effects are deemed necessary... all without the formal elaboration of strategic endstates or military objectives.

    To be quite honest, I'm really not sure what Tom and Crispin are trying to say -- even considering Tom's clarification above. To claim that "the U.S. military has become rigid in its insistence on ways-means-ends formulas" and that "this is unrealistic"... well, I'm just not seeing it. How is it unrealistic? While we may not rigidly apply this methodology in any kind of a formal sense (e.g. writing an operations order, powerpoint slides, etc.), aren't there ends, ways, and means involved in any planned action, military, organizational, personal, or otherwise? This construct is how you avoid "doing stuff just to do stuff." It's the very lifeblood of strategy.

    Crispin clutters the whole thing up even more by suggesting that we can ignore objectives, endstates, and even PLANS, and instead focus on "problems." I'd suggest that this is a step in exactly the wrong direction. Problems are the purview of the political leadership of this country. The president identifies the problem when he lays out the military mission. The military's job is to identify the endstates that satisfy the president's goals, then plan backwards to figure out how to get the job done.

    Frankly, I just can't even understand how any of this is controversial.

  8. To be fair to Crispin, I think he's actually channeling some of the ongoing debate about causative forces in messy, nonlinear wars.

    The notion is to begin the planning by assessing what political, economic, theological, et al, reasons for the strife, and then adapting the uses of force or suasion to address or mitigate them (if this language sounds familiar, it's because I'm writing some of the foundational drafts for the theories and it's being dribbled out by a number of people).

    My problem with CB's writing is I think he's being intentionally provocative to push a point, not necessarily to really suss out what is causing the unrest in Libya or discussing a means to "solve" it in the traditional cost/benefit analysis.

    While "endstate" is part of the larger conception of these complex, murky sorts of wars amongst the people, more pragmatic interests intrude. I rather wish that he had discussed those.

    They're quite Clausewitzian, actually.


  9. principal of war change, it is good or not?