Thursday, September 28, 2006

National Intelligence Estimate: The Enemy Metastasizes

There really is no separating foreign policy from domestic politics, especially in an election year. That the GOP and the Democrats are both trying to make political hay over the recently released "declassified" version of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on terrorism should come as no surprise to anyone. Unfortunately, all the he said/she said jabber we're hearing about what the NIE says or doesn't say masks some vital flaws in the nature of the war we're presently fighting against an "ism."

Centers of Gravity and Principles of Warfare

In my military mind, the worst news in the declassified Intelligence Estimate comes toward the bottom of the first page.
We assess that the global jihadist movement is decentralized, lacks a coherent global strategy, and is becoming more diffuse. New jihadist networks and cells, with anti-American agendas, are increasingly likely to emerge. The confluence of shared purpose and dispersed actors will make it harder to find and undermine jihadist groups.

In asymmetrical warfare, the "underdog" adversary force doesn't need a coherent strategy or a structured chain of command. Such things are, in fact, a vulnerability to the adversary. "Shared purpose" and "dispersed" actors are a critical strength in this kind of conflict, and make it far more difficult for a conventional military force to achieve victory over its dispersed opponent.

Today's U.S. military was designed to defeat adversaries through principles of "maneuver" warfare, which allows it to quickly win in battle by applying superior weapons, communications, mobility and command and control doctrine against the enemy's center of gravity.

Coined by the Prussian general and philosopher Carl von Clausewitz, "center of gravity" is a term that dominates almost all of contemporary thinking on warfare and the design and planning of modern military operations. Lamentably though, you'd be hard pressed to find any two military "experts" who agree on just what a center of gravity is. Some doctrinal ideologues will say that there can only be one center of gravity. Others--generally rabid air power advocates--will define a center of gravity as anything that can be bombed or shot down. That leads to operational schemes in which everything is a center of gravity, and as is the case with priorities, when everything is a center of gravity, nothing really is. Thus it is that the "shock and awe" we heard so much about in the early stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom led to little more than sticker shock and "aw shucks."

For now, I won't try to resolve all these differences in warfare philosophy, but think I can draw an illustration of the concept of centers of gravity, and of the difference between "maneuver" and "attrition" style warfare that, as applied to our war on terror, can pretty much be universally understood.

I recently suggested, in a snarky sort of way, that the best thing we could do to defeat the "them" would be to lure them into fighting us "over here." In order to do that in militarily significant numbers, "they" would have to build an enormous fleet and air force to transport themselves across the ocean. By doing so they would form themselves into an operational center of gravity that we could handily defeat in short order with minimal collateral damage through the superior maneuver capabilities of our naval and air forces.

But by staying "over there" and dispersing themselves, therefore denying us an operational center of gravity with its inherent weaknesses and vulnerabilities to exploit, "they" make a decisive, maneuver option unavailable to us. (They also save themselves the expense and logistic and training headaches of building a navy and air force.)

That throws us into the "attrition warfare" mode. "Attrition" is a linear form of warfare in which neither side has a maneuver advantage. Attrition wars, like the U.S. Civil War and World War I, last a long time, exact great costs on both sides, and produce unsatisfactory conclusions--if, in fact, they every really end at all. (A very good argument says that World War I, World War II and the Cold War were part and parcel of the same war. And can anyone who looks at a red state/blue state map of contemporary America really think that today, more than a century after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, the Civil War is truly over?)

By "fighting them over there" with military force, we're not taking the "offensive" as young Mister Bush tells us we are. We're ceding the initiative to our adversaries by maneuvering into a position where they can attrite our operational center of gravity at their leisure. Subsequently, as the NIE asserts, the more we fight them over there, the more dispersed and numerous they become, and the more impossible they become to attrite.

And the more moronic our "stay the course" Iraq strategy becomes. We're not taking the fight to the enemy. We're handing it to them on a silver platter.

Whoever "they" are.


Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes from Virginia Beach, Virginia. Read his commentaries at ePluribus Media and Pen and Sword.


  1. Jeff, I have this notion in my head that we will, at some point, have to have a W.T. Sherman to show the American people the real nature and cost of this war. I am a son of the South but Sherman's Memoirs is one of the best books I've read. In particular, his correspondence with the mayor and city council of Atlanta lays it all out: And there was no Karl Rove to conceal the cost of war to the Georgians between Atlanta and Savannah in the fall of 1864. I hope that "kinda sorta" makes sense, unlike the times we live in.

  2. CDR Huber you have set forth a beautiful argument for approaching the terror issue as a criminality concern rather than a military concern. I have also made the argument but not nearly so effectively. It occurs to me that given the diversity of agencies and types of agencies that comprise the law enforcement community, it effectively mirrors the decentralized nature of the jihadist/terrorist. Clearly what has happened is that soley for political reasons, we are attempting to apply a military solution to a civillian criminal problem. No one should be suprised at all unless, and of course, this is the longest of long shots, unless they are successful.

    What the hell, accidents do happen.


  3. Nav,

    Yeah, heck of a blowback on that Atlanta thing.


    Hoping for an accident to happen--now there's a strategy.

  4. Again, there's that "study history, or be doomed to repeat it" lesson.

    I tried to explain Mel Gibson's "The Patriot" to someone in military strategy terms (the invading/occupying army vs. colonists/insurgents).

    You lay it out much more clearly, obviously. Thank you!

  5. Good analogy: the invader offering vulnerabilities and playing to the insurgents' strengths,