Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Baffle Them with Warfare

by Jeff Huber

John McCain…knows how to win a war.

--Sarah Palin

My matriculation at the United States Naval War College left me with an indelible regard for the wisdom of Ernie Pyle's admonition that in war "nobody really knows what he's doing." As a scholarly discipline, war doesn’t even have a coherent vocabulary. Almost everyone agrees that "center of gravity" is a vital concept, and that it must always be the object of our efforts, but almost nobody agrees on what a center of gravity is.

If you ask a Marine Corps warfare expert, he'll tell you there can only be one center of gravity, but that's only because Marines can't remember more than one. If you ask a naval aviator, he'll say the center of gravity is always an aircraft carrier. An Air Force general will tell you that a center of gravity is anything he can bomb, which is just about everything, so you better buy him a whole lot of expensive bombers so he can bomb all the centers of gravity and a whole lot of expensive fighters to keep the expensive bombers from getting shot down. If you ask any Army general who's been involved in running the Iraq war what a center of gravity is, he'll start breathing through his mouth, and if you ask John McCain he'll tell you the story about the prison guard who drew a crucifix in the dirt with his toe.

If you ask me*, I'll tell you that centers or gravity are related to warfare's objectives, and that grasping the center of gravity concept is essential to understanding why military force cannot achieve the goals of the kind of war we're supposedly fighting right now.

Staying Centered

Centers of gravity may vary across the different levels of war, which are commonly labeled the tactical, operational and strategic levels. Simple Simon would tell you that the tactical level is where combat takes place, that the strategic level is where military actions achieve (or don't achieve) the political aims of war (as per Clausewitz), and the operational level is where the commander and his staff coordinate tactical actions in order to achieve the strategic requirements. Centers of gravity may also change over space and time, but those factors are a bit too esoteric for Simon to explain, so we'll skip over them for now.

Whatever the place, time or level, your center of gravity is that part of your assets and resources that will accomplish your objective(s), and the enemy's center of gravity is that part of his assets that can thwart your aims. At the tactical and operational levels, centers of gravity are always some unit or collection of military force. If Simon is skipper of the U-29 and wants to sink an allied supply convoy, the center of gravity he must defeat is the convoy's destroyer escort.

At the strategic level, in my very strong opinion, the center of gravity is always political leadership. Some will argue that strategic centers of gravity include things like economy and public opinion, but those things are more accurately described as critical factors: strengths, weaknesses and critical vulnerabilities. Failed economies and lack of public support may influence the political leadership's behavior, but it may not. It's often asserted that totalitarian leaders are less vulnerable to failed economies and loss of popular backing than leaders of democratic societies, but look at our young Mr. Bush; a shipwrecked economy and record low poll numbers haven't deterred him from pursuing a tyrannical agenda. At the end of the day, your strategic objective is to coerce your enemy into a political behavior of some sort, and the only the enemy's political leadership can effect that.

That, in large part, is why going to war with the goal of regime change is so foolish: once you lop off the political coherence of your adversary, you're left with an angry mob on your hands, and as we've seen so clearly in the last five years and change, an angry mob is an ugly thing.

Herding Cats

Centers of gravity can be concentrated (massed) or dispersed; most lie somewhere on the spectrum in between. Before he died and was still in charge of Iraq, Saddam Hussein was a stellar example of a concentrated strategic center of gravity. The guy was a tsar class autocrat, and when he wanted to make something happen in his country, he didn't wait for anybody to tell him "Simon says." At the opposite end of the spectrum is what we've had for an Iraqi government since our Army staged the toppling of Hussein's statue in Baghdad. The body politic is a field of factions tangled like a goat rope, tied in a Gordian knot and wrapped in a Mobius strip, and that's just the official central government. The real power still lies with mullahs and tribal leaders.

Neocons will argue that what we have now is better that dealing with Hussein, but they're daft; Hussein had already complied with our stated political aim for the invasion—he'd abandoned his weapons of mass destruction program—before we even invaded him. Now that our true aim of establishing a permanent robust military footprint in Iraq has become apparent, the closest thing Iraq has to a head of state—Nuri al Maliki—is telling us to pack our caissons and hit the dusty trail, and it doesn't sound like he's just saying that to impress some girl he met last month on MySpace.

As for operation and strategic centers of gravity, we scattered them far and wide when we told the Iraqi army to go home. Now the "enemy's" combat power is so dispersed that it no longer presents a center of gravity that can be decisively beaten. Our forces are trapped in a cat rodeo; they'll never get the adversaries back in the corral because they multiply faster than our cowboys can rope them or run them over with lawn mowers.

Lack of an operational center of gravity to attack is the defining characteristic of counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, low intensity conflict, etc. Superpowers who fight these kinds of adversaries never come out smelling floral. As co-creator of the Fourth Generation Warfare concept William Lind wrote recently, "invaders and occupiers have almost never won against a guerrilla-style war of national liberation. Not even the best counterinsurgency techniques make much difference."

How Terrorist Groups End, a recent Rand Corporation report authored by Seth G. Jones and Martin C. Libicki, studied 648 groups that existed between 1968 and 2006 and analyzed how their terror activities terminated. Only seven percent desisted because of military force applied against them. 83 percent of the success against terror organizations came from policing and political actions. "Against most terror groups," the report states, "military force is usually too blunt an instrument." It notes that "even precision weapons have been of limited use against terrorist groups," and that the "use of substantial U.S. military power against terrorist groups also runs a significant risk of turning the local population against the government by killing civilians." Regarding use of American troops overseas to combat al Qaeda, the report says the best approach is "a light U.S. military footprint or none at all."

"Our analysis suggests that there is no battlefield solution to terrorism," Jones and Libicki write. They also admonish that "Military force usually has the opposite effect from what is intended: It is often over-used, alienates the local population by its heavy-handed nature, and provides a window of opportunity for terrorist-group recruitment."

Many of us had arrived at these conclusions long before the Rand report hit the streets; but backed by the aegis of Rand analysis, those conclusions should have grabbed the attention of top level decision makers like, say for example, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who aspires to be commander in chief and who consistently reminds us how smart and experienced he is on foreign policy matters. But no, John McCain blithely continues to tout military force as the key to conquering al Qaeda and its evildoing cohorts.

A popular adage says that generals always plan for the last war. American generals and their supporting warmongery always plan for the last world war; we've been training and equipping our military to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan since we defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, nations who had the kind of political structures and war making machinery that conventional military forces were designed to defeat. If John McCain knows how to win a war it's World War II, and that doesn’t do him or the rest of us a whole lot of good.

Plus, John McCain was five years old when World War II started and he'd only just turned nine when it ended, so he may not even remember how he won it.

* Most of my warfare theories are heavily based on the work of Professor Milan Vego of the U.S. Naval War College.

Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes at Pen and Sword . Jeff's novel Bathtub Admirals (Kunati Books), a lampoon on America's rise to global dominance, is on sale now. Also catch Scott Horton's interview with Jeff at Antiwar Radio.


  1. Commander,

    Outstanding! As usual.

  2. John McCain…knows how to win a war.

    Could that line possibly mean that Sarah Palin thinks we won the Vietnam War? I mean, that was the only war John McCain was ever in. And I don’t remember him “winning,” I think it was more like he got “honorable mention.”

    I only ask because the woman also thinks the Earth is 6000 years old, which suggests that the bounds of her ignorance are, um, nonexistent.

    I think this sums up the McCain/Palin ticket nicely. Sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words…

  3. Yeah, JP, they're pretty pathetic. Even more pathetic, though, is that they still have a chance to get in the WH.

  4. Here's hoping that chance is getting smaller by the day.

    Obama may be a complete tool, but at least he doesn't have crazy eyes.

  5. Maybe Palin meant "McCain knows how to do peace with honor"...?

    Just finished my Masters degree, and my last Strategic Planning textbook says:

    Pitfalls in Strategic Planning

    Using strategic planning to gain control over decisions and resources

    Doing strategic planning only to satisfy accreditation or regulatory requirements

    Too hastily moving from mission development to strategy formulation

    Failure to communicate the plan to the other employees, who continue working in the dark

    Failure to involve key employees in all phases of the planning process (preparation, strategy development, evaluation, and implementation).

    Top management believing that it can create a plan by delegating the planning function to a "planner." While the planner may facilitate the planning process, management must still take ownership of the plan itself

    Management rejecting the formal planning mechanism and making intuitive decisions that may conflict with the formal plan; this also creates confusion for other employees on how the plan is to be employed in their work activities

    Failure to create a climate which is collaborative and not resistant to change

    Becoming so engrossed in current problems that insufficient time is spent on long-range planning

    Becoming so formal that the process lacks the flexibility and creativity needed to address the uniqueness of each company

    -- Strategic Management, Concepts and Cases, 12th Ed., Fred R. David, 2007, p. 17-18.

    It all sounds so... familiar, somehow.

  6. Yeah, Jeff, it sounds incredibly familiar.


  7. ". . . we've been training and equipping our military to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan"

    Guess that's, in part, why we antagonize Russia and keep China at arm's length -- becuase we need macro enemies to justify preparing for big wars.

    How quickly they forget. Americans themselves have frequently used insurgent and terrorist tactics, e.g., the Swamp Fox, Quantrill.

  8. Anonymous12:07 AM

    Interesting take on the "political leadership" as center of gravity. I have just finished Jeremy Black's "Rethinking Military History" and he essentially agreed with you (if I understand your unstated point) that, despite everything else, war is about imposing your will on your opponent.

    I'm currently doing research on the Philippine-American War and one of the conclusions I will likely make is that the US Army also wrongly focused on a leader (Emilio Aguinaldo) and were baffled when capturing him did not end the war (they didn't kill him, though). What they did in the end was to co-opt the local elites who were essentially keeping the resistance to the Americans alive, giving them continued authority under American rule. In sum, they legitimized these local land-owning, economic elites, and kept them in power despite the blatant corruption or "undemocratic" nature of these elites' power. You know... nation building doesn't have to be all about building a democracy.

    Herfried Munkler argued in "The New Wars" how insurgencies don't "end", but persist and the line between war and peace becomes a long frontier of continuous negotiations over power and authority. I suppose the ideologues for this war are just trying to create a situation where they can plausibly argue for "victory". They'll leave the mess of debates for the future generations to wrangle over.

  9. The Hirsch report probably trumps that Rand report in the minds of our “leaders.” I’m sure that the key figures (esp. Cheney) behind American policy in Iraq are well aware of our energy predicament, and the fight against “terrorism” is doubtless just a fig leaf over their real intentions, i.e. to go where the oil and gas is and stay there forever. I don’t see how we could leave Iraq now, even if the jackals in Washington wanted to (and they don’t). And I say that as someone who opposed both the initial invasion and the current occupation on moral and humanitarian grounds.

    I’m certain that the United States will someday adorn the pages of a book on civilizational collapse, and I’m also certain that our almost supernatural consumption of natural resources will be of particular interest to the authors. I expect that the Joseph Tainters and Jared Diamonds of the future will probably come to a conclusion something like, “The Americans had to resort to the military option to secure energy supplies, because by that point in their history they had no other choice.” That’s because we’re the collective victims of a series of bad choices on the part of our leadership (both political and economic) that are largely irreversible. The main ones that spring to mind are: 1) the decision to pursue economic growth at all costs; 2) the jettisoning of low-energy forms of transport (e.g. passenger rail, urban mass transit) in favor of a massive auto and truck fleet and interstate highways (thanks, Ike); 3) building our latter-day economy on a foundation of massive debt; and 4) constructing our national infrastructure and living arrangements on the assumption that oil and gas would always remain inexpensive (maybe they’ll each get a chapter of their own in that future scholarly tome).

    As much as I loathe guys like Cheney and McCain, and as much fun as it is to think of them as either lunatics or bumbling fools, I think they know exactly what they’re doing. They’re pursuing the only viable strategy left open to them at this point (and which, for all the talk of PNAC shenanigans, was probably more the result of the secret meetings of the NEPDG, the energy task force chaired by Dick Cheney). As much as libertarians like to entertain fantasies of “market rescue,” it’s unlikely that simple nonintervention by government (military or otherwise) will fix “the problem.” First, there is the upcoming oil export crisis, when producing nations will be diverting energy from the world market to meet domestic demand. Then there’s the likelihood that “the market” is likely to take one look at our fiscal condition and run screaming in the opposite direction (that seems to be happening now, as a matter of fact). And “the market” is likely to decide that it is more profitable to shove gas through pipelines to countries on the same continent as the producing nation, rather than going to the expensive trouble of liquefying it and shipping it to those deadbeat egomanics in America.

    So, I really don’t see how we can avoid military engagement at this point. I’m not saying it will work, in fact it’s practically destined to fail. One day soon, China, Russia, et al. are going to be sick enough of our bulls*** to pull the plug on us (i.e. quit buying our treasury debt. And that will be that.

    There is another option, of course, and that is to level with the American people about the situation they face. That is, that the national infrastructure that served them so well in the era of cheap energy is about to become useless, perhaps even lethal (as Dimitri Orlov points out, if your car doesn’t eat then neither do you). I expect the main reason they haven’t come clean is because there is no profit in it, but they probably also have vivid memories of how well that worked for Jimmy Carter.

  10. Oh wow. That was long, wasn't it? Sorry. Maybe I should get one of those blog thingies.

  11. Russ,

    Interesting you mention the Swamp Fox. Marion and Nathaniel Green were part of what, in my opinion, was one of the most fascinating joint/combined force campaigns in the history of warfare. Their guerilla operation against Cornwallis is what set him up for his defeat at Yorktown, via some outstanding generalling from Washington, specifically his coordination of movements with French land and sea forces.


    That I'm aware of, the "imposing your will on the opponent" line comes from Clausewitz, though he no doubt stole it from someone too. Re the Philippine war, yeah, as the Rand study also stated, most of that sort of thing ends with the insurgents becoming the legit power owners.


    Blog thingie or no, you should develop the piece you just drafted here.



  12. Out on a limb one more time here.

    We (The American People) gave up gasoline, butter, meat, tires, sugar, tin cans, and other "war essentials". We had our ration books (I still have a couple.) As kids, at school, we bought stamps at $.10 each to fill a book --- $18.50.
    And, then we bought a "War Bond."

    We planted "Victory Gardens." We, who lived in D.C. put up black window shades -- for blackouts. Each block had an Air Raid Warden,(Civilian Defense) whose job it was to patrol the block, to see that no light shined from any house, when we heard the sirens. We knitted squares, (Khaki, Navy Blue, and Maroon) and sewed them together to make blankets for our men in the service.

    What we didn't do was "go shopping."

    That's some of what my family did during WWII. Don't know what Admiral McCain's family may, or may not have done.

    On telling the American people the truth. FDR used to have these "fireside chats." They seemed to work ok. Maybe they are better done on the radio, than tv.

    Commander, I don't think it's in the mindset of the American military to ever stop using a wrecking ball, to swat a fly.

    To justify having the "wrecking ball" you almost have to, at some point, use it. Nuclear or not. That's the frightening part. The nuclear wrecking ball.

  13. Don't worry too much, EL. We vampire killers will keep them at bay.


  14. Anonymous4:05 PM

    Jeff, wonderful blog! Love the Van Gogh of the day!

  15. Thanks, Kim. Yeah, isn't the van Gogh thing great? I remember going to see a big traveling gallery of his stuff at the Chicago Museum of Art when I was in my 20s. Incredible to see live.


  16. Anonymous5:10 PM

    "'imposing your will on the opponent" line comes from Clausewitz, though he no doubt stole it from someone too.'---sounds a bit like Tacitus, who might have followed with the line:"To plunder, to slaughter, to steal, these things they misname empire; and where they make a wilderness, they call it peace."

  17. A man for our time, Tacitus. He'd know about an empire gone rotten.


  18. Anonymous6:33 AM


    as a fan and a Marine LtCol, I can tell you in no uncertain terms, Marines can actually count and retain numbers up to three, usually on one hand - thats why we have 3 divisions, 3 air wings, and 3 log support groups active (on one hand) - and 1 division, air wing, and log support group (on the other). And I still have a bunch of fingers left over for other stuff!

  19. Hilarious. Now if you Marines can teach us squids to use words like "left" and "right" and "front" and "back" instead of that arcane sea lingo we use, we'll be getting somewhere. ;-)


  20. Anonymous11:21 AM

    Indeed...if you ask a Marine his right from his left 10 times, you will get 10 different answers, and no two will be the same. Thats why close-order drill is so repetitious - eventually, it sinks in.

  21. Funny you should mention close order. I was just thinking how some of my fondest memories of the military involve doing rifle drill with my class and drill instructor at AOCS on a sunny Florida afternoon.


  22. Anonymous10:15 AM

    on another note - Iraq and US apparently have reached a draft agreement on letting US troops stay in Iraq past the current CinC's tenure. And we just passed the '09 Defense Authorization bill, a record allocation for defense. HMMMMMMMM - I wonder if there are any earmarks for a certain Shiite politician playing both sides of the fence? After all, Haazan Shaalan got away w/ 1.3billion US tax payer dollars. There should be plenty to pay off any Iraqi politicans whose rubber stamp we need to stay there for the indefinite future. But I digress -

  23. I don't know what to think of that business yet. Last I read the SOF agreement is held up in the legislature and they may ask the UN to grant an extension on its mandate.