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Friday, September 18, 2009

AirLand Battle and Strategic Atrophy

This is a bit obscure if you are not a follower of the US Army's attempt to reinvent itself in the 1970s and 1980s.

One of the products of the Army's effort to relearn warfighting after the Viet-nam war was a new doctrine, known as AirLand Battle.  It was interesting enough that in about 1982 it made the cover of the New York Times Magazine.

Part of understanding all this terminology is thinking about warfighting as a bunch of blocks in a row, called tactics.  On top of them are a couple of blocks, call operational art.  At the top is one block, called strategy.  For an army person tactics covers things that are done from the squad level up through division or even corps (in a really big war).  Strategy directs downward and tactical success sums up to operational success, which sums up to strategic success.  But, all the tactical success in the world doesn't guarantee victory (see Viet-nam).  All the success at the operational level of war doesn't guarantee victory (see Germany in WWII).

But, questions are being raised, as they should be, given that was some 25 years ago, a quarter of a century.  Did we get it right?  Did we misplace anything?

So, along comes a couple of authors who challenge the received wisdom:  Alien:  How Operational Art Devoured Strategy.
The publication of the 1982 version of Army Field Manual (FM) 100-5, Operations, introduced to the English-speaking world the idea of an operational level of war encompassing the planning and conduct of campaigns and major operations. It was followed 3 years later by the introduction of the term “operational art” which was, in practice, the skillful management of the operational level of war. This conception of an identifiably separate level of war that defined the jurisdiction of the profession of arms was, for a number of historical and cultural reasons, attractive to U.S. practitioners and plausible to its English-speaking allies. As a result, it and its associated doctrine spread rapidly around the world. The authors argue that as warfare continues to diffuse across definitional and conceptual boundaries and as the close orchestration of all of the instruments of national power becomes even more important, the current conception of campaigns and operations becomes crippling. To cope with these demands by formulating and prosecuting “national campaigns,” the authors propose that the responsibility for campaign design should “actually” return to the political-strategic leadership of nations supported by the entirety of the state bureaucracy. This would mark the return of the campaign to its historical sources. If the United States and its allies fail to make this change, they risk continuing to have a “way of battle” rather than a “way of war.”
But, that is the long synopsis.

Here is a shorter version from someone out there on the world-wide web.
Can we blame our love affair with the Wehrmacht and all things Auftragstaktik as we developed the AirLand Battle design and the four basic tenets of initiative, depth, agility, and synchronization for impairing our strategic efficacy?

I guess we are the German Heereskommando...very good at the operational level of war.. but oh so bad at strategy... Proves the importance of choosing appropriate role-models.
Why do you care?

You care because it we mess this up then we will have wasted billions of dollars and thousands of lives chasing the hope of victory in our current and future wars without the possibility of that victory.

Remember when we put retired Lieutenant General Jay Garner in charge of the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, and then replaced him with L Paul Bremer.  With L Paul Bremer we were messing up the whole long term strategy.  It cost us.

Regards  —  Cliff

  Mission Orders, or literally mission type tactics.  You are told what to accomplish, not how to accomplish it.
  The top German Army Command in World War II.


Dick Howe said...

I don't think I've seen the phrase "AirLand Battle" since I left the 2nd ACR and the inter-German border back in 1983. My understanding of the concept - and I really needed to understand it since I was one of the folks charged with executing it - was that it was a reaction to the Soviet offense strategy of layering their forces in depth. Whether it was a company or an army group, they would come at us in tightly synchronized waves. The AirLand battle relied on intel to locate the follow-on echelons and then use aircraft or missiles to attack those waves while they were still far from the battlefield. That would give the troops on the ground the time to fight and defeat the earliest waves. Fortunately, we never had to find out whose strategy would have worked. I do know that Soviet invasion plans that were disclosed after the fall of Communism had them planning to be at the English Channel in just a few days.

C R Krieger said...

Ah, the dreaded "Second Echelon."  Thus the ATACMS as the Army weapon of choice to reach back 100 or more kilometers behind enemy lines.

But, ATACMS may have been after Dick's time.

This was still a big deal when I went back to Germany, 1984-1987.