Transformation: The Changing Requirements for Victory on the Battlefield

Mackubin T. Owens

January 1, 2006

Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle by Stephen BiddleMilitary Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle
Stephen Biddle (Princeton University Press, 2004), 312 pp.

The late Harry Summers, author of On Strategy, an influential but controversial book about the Vietnam War, used to tell the following anecdote. When the Nixon administration assumed responsibility for the war in 1969, the analysts at the Pentagon fed all the available quantifiable data related to both the United States and North Vietnam into a powerful Cray computer. Then they asked the computer, “When will we win?” The computer whirred for about 30 seconds and spat out its answer: “You won in 1964.”

Of course, Vietnam proved beyond a doubt that success in war depends upon more than economic power and an edge in technology. Clausewitz pointed to the importance of “moral factors”—fear, the impact of danger, and physical exhaustion—observing that “military activity is never directed against material forces alone; it is always aimed simultaneously at the moral forces which give it life, and the two cannot be separated.”

While the United States has recovered from its defeat in Vietnam, and now sits at the pinnacle of world power, critics of U.S. defense policy suggest that we persist in favoring material over nonmaterial factors in preparing for our wars.

There is no question that Pentagon planners focus heavily on one material factor in particular: the role of technology. For the last decade, Department of Defense planning documents have advanced a vision of future war shaped by technological innovation, especially vast improvements in informational technologies. A decade ago, the term was “revolution in military affairs” (RMA). Today it is “transformation.” A recent Pentagon publication, Transformation Planning Guidance (2003), provides a template for transforming current military forces, shaped by the demands of the Cold War, into:

information age military forces [that] will be less platform-centric and more network-centric. They will be able to distribute forces more widely by increasing information sharing via a secure network that provides actionable information at all levels of command. This, in turn, will create conditions for increased speed of command and opportunities for self-coordination across the battlespace.

Such writings reinforce the claim that technology is the central driver of the Defense Department’s transformation strategy.

Stephen Biddle’s Military Power calls the Pentagon’s focus on technology into question, developing a theory of military power that stresses the importance of “force employment” as the key to success or failure in war, as opposed to such traditional factors as technology and preponderance.

I first became aware of Biddle’s work when he published an important essay in a 1996 issue of International Security entitled “Victory Misunderstood: What the Gulf War Tells Us About the Future of Conflict.” He argued that the main cause of the one-sided coalition triumph in the Gulf war was not, as the advocates of RMA claimed, technology per se but the skill differential between the coalition forces and those of Iraq. He demonstrated that the allies’ technological edge served primarily to punish Iraqi operational and tactical errors, thereby magnifying the skill differential between the two sides.

Biddle’s research led him to broaden and generalize the issues he had raised with regard to the Gulf war. What are the causes of victory and defeat? How does a state maximize its chances of victory while minimizing casualties? Is there something about modern war that has changed the answers to these questions? Such questions, Biddle observes, are matters of life and death affecting everyone “from infantrymen on the battlefield to office workers in the World Trade Center to entire nations and peoples.”

Unfortunately, the answers to such questions have left much to be desired. In 1991, for instance, congressional debate about the use of force to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait hinged to a great extent on the likely casualties that the United States would suffer. Yet all the analyses used to ascertain U.S. losses radically overstated the numbers: The closest estimate was wrong by a factor of two; the majority of predictions were off by more than an order of magnitude.

The Gulf war debate was hardly unique. In 1914, Europeans expected a short, decisive war of movement. In 1940, observers were astonished by Germany’s rapid defeat of France. Neither Arabs nor Israelis expected anything like the staggering losses of the 1973 war. “We must and can do better,” says Biddle. “But real improvement will require a new approach” that avoids the shortcomings of the current state of the art: analysis that is either rigorous but narrow, or broad but un-rigorous. Biddle contends that the key determinant of battlefield success or failure is force employment—the doctrine and tactics that govern the operations of a state’s military force.

He takes aim at a key claim of transformation/RMA advocates: that today’s battlefield is qualitatively different from battlefields of the past. Biddle contends that “since at least 1900, the dominant technological fact of the modern battlefield has been increasing lethality.” Technological change since 1914 has only increased the range over which exposure to fire can be fatal.

To execute missions on such a battlefield, a military force must reduce its exposure. Since 1918, the central means of doing so has been what Biddle calls “modern system force employment”—a “tightly interrelated complex of cover, concealment, dispersion, suppression, small-unit independent maneuver, and combined arms at the tactical level” (the level of combat at which battles are fought) and “depth, reserves, and differential concentration at the operational level of war” (the level of war concerned with the conduct of campaigns).

When fully implemented, “the modern system damps the effect of technological change and insulates users from the full lethality of their opponents’ weapons.” But not all states can master this system, which is complex and poses painful political and social tradeoffs. For instance, an autocratic state may not be willing to permit the decentralization and freedom of action to its junior officers that the modern system requires. Accordingly, the major military “gap” of the future will be between those states that have mastered the modern system, and those that have not.

Biddle tests his theory of force employment by first examining three historical cases. The ones he chooses would seem to favor the “materialist” alternatives—preponderance and systemic technology—to his theory. In all cases, his theory of force employment proves superior to the materialist alternatives: Operation Michael, the unprecedented German breakthrough at the Second Battle of the Somme (1918); Operation Goodwood, the failed British breakout from the Normandy beachhead (1944); and Operation Desert Storm (1991). He then turns to analysis of statistical data and, finally, to computer simulation experimentation. In all cases, his new theory of force employment outperforms its more orthodox materialist competitors.

Military Power is an important book. But it is open to criticism, the most important of which is the undeniable fact that, in the past, the side with the most operationally competent military nonetheless suffered defeat in the war. So yes, Operation Michael was a German success at the operational level, but Germany still lost the war. Indeed, there is a consensus among military historians that the German army in both world wars was far more effective at the tactical and operational levels of war than its opponents, but that this excellence was trumped by a combination of Allied material superiority and bad German strategic choices.

However, this criticism does not outweigh the real value of Military Power. It has important implications for both international relations theory and defense policy. I focus here on defense policy—visions of future war, defense budget priorities, force structure, weapon development and acquisition, campaign assessment, and military doctrine. The most important point is that the radical changes advocated by “transformers” in current approaches to war (the doctrine and force structure that advocates demand) could actually reduce U.S. military capability. That is because the “emerging battlefield is a further extension of the one for which traditional approaches were designed,” says Biddle.

Future war, he argues, is not a radical departure from historical precedents, as the transformation advocates seem to believe, but a continuation of trends and relationships that have been evolving for a century and a half.

From Alfred Nobel’s prediction that dynamite was such a radical change that it would lead to the end of war, to similar claims about the machine gun, the naval torpedo, the bomber, and the nuclear bomb, predictions of revolutionary change in warfare have been commonplace—and wrong. The radical restructuring of the U.S. force structure from a balanced force of air, land, naval, and space capabilities to one that relies primarily on long-range air-or ship-delivered precision strikes would be very risky. Such an unbalanced force structure might work well against an opponent that has not mastered the modern system of force employment. But against one that has such mastery it would be at a severe disadvantage.

Transformation advocates fancy themselves revolutionaries struggling against reactionary military establishments. Biddle argues that they have not made their case. Certainly, in the past, some military organizations have been too slow to adapt to changing conditions, but there are also many examples of militaries that have changed too fast or too much: the interwar Royal Air Force, the U.S. Air Force in the late 1940s, the French jeune école navalists of the 1880s, and the British Army in the late 1930s.

Military Power reminds us that defense policy is a topic too serious to be left to “true believers.”

Mackubin T. Owens is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center and an associate dean of academics and a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He is writing a history of U.S. civil-military relations.