A Marine Takes Charge of Military Transformation

Mackubin T. Owens

October 1, 2007

On 30 September, the Senate approved the nomination of Marine Lt. Gen. James Mattis as the next commander of U.S. Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM). In that capacity, he will receive a fourth star and be responsible for “transforming” the US military, which includes development of “enhanced joint concepts” and experimentation. Ultimately JFCOM is responsible for writing the joint doctrine and developing the joint concepts that will guide the development of future US forces.

Gen. Mattis also will be dual-hatted as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander for Transformation. In that capacity, he will lead the transformation of NATO’s military structures, forces, capabilities and doctrine and oversee NATO training efforts to improve interoperability and military effectiveness on the part of allies and partner nations.

The downside of this appointment is that the country will lose the services of a first-rate combat commander. Gen. Mattis’ previous command was I Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF), a source of units deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan. Previously, he served as the commander of the Naval Task Force that seized an advanced airbase at the opening of the Afghanistan campaign. During the initial phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom, then-Maj. Gen. Mattis commanded the storied First Marine Division, renowned for “leading from the front.”

In such combat roles, Gen. Mattis earned a reputation as perhaps the finest Marine combat leader since the legendary Chesty Puller. He is a highly-respected, beloved, and inspirational commander. As one who had him as a student at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College many years ago, I can attest to his remarkable and probing intellect. What is to be gained by placing such a competent war-fighter in charge of something as fuzzy as “transformation?” A great deal, it turns out.

One of the major functions of military planners—and perhaps the most difficult—is “force planning.” What decisions need to be made today about what our forces will look like in the future—one that may or may not resemble the present? The difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that these decisions must be made while we are in the midst of a war.

The overarching principle that has guided force planning for the last decade or so is the imperative to “transform” the US military from a Cold War force to one better able to handle the challenges of the post-Cold War security environment. Military analysts define transformation as innovation on a grand scale, undertaken by a military institution that believes the character of conflict has changed in significant ways. Transformation is an organizational response to the possibility that revolutionary, discontinuous changes in warfare are occurring.

Since even the best military must adapt to changing circumstances, the concept of transformation, broadly conceived, makes sense. But the Pentagon of Donald Rumsfeld adopted a radical understanding of transformation, illustrated by the 2003 Department of Defense (DoD) publication, Transformation Planning Guidance.

The purpose of this document was to provide 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.

But the Transformation Planning Guide illustrates the degree to which technology has come to be seen as a panacea, the one-size-fits-all solution to future military problems. If nothing else, Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated that success in war depends on a great deal more than technological prowess.

As a seasoned operational commander who has fought the kind of wars we are likely to have to fight in the future, Gen. Mattis is well placed to break the “technology-as-panacea” culture that has long dominated JFCOM. He has been a vocal critic of what he sees as the unchallenged assumptions of much contemporary defense planning. He has argued against those who believe that technology provides a panacea for all of America’s security problems. He has denounced the idea, advanced by some prominent commentators on security issues, that advances in technology have “changed the very nature of war.” He has placed the human element of war at the center of his thinking.

As such, Gen. Mattis takes his bearings from Carl Von Clausewitz, the Prussian “philosopher of war,” who reminds us that war is a violent clash between opposing wills, each seeking to prevail over the other. In war, the will of one combatant is directed at an animate object that reacts, often in unanticipated ways. This cyclical interaction between opposing wills occurs in a realm of chance and chaos. He also identified as the enduring characteristics of war: the persistence of “general friction” as a structural component of combat; the seeming impossibility of eliminating uncertainty from war; and the critical importance of the “moral factors” in war.

As commander of JFCOM, Gen. Mattis will resist the dangerous tendency of the military transformation bureaucracy to impose orthodoxy or dogma on force planning. This tendency was illustrated in 2002 during a massive war game conducted by JFCOM. This exercise, named “Millennium Challenge,” was designed to test a number of DoD concepts such as Joint Vision 2002, “Effects Based Operations” (EBO), and “Rapid Decisive Operations” (RDO).

The “red team” was led by a retired Marine general, Paul Van Riper. Taking his role seriously—doing his best to realistically test the subject concepts—he employed asymmetric tactics and commercial off-the-shelf technologies to inflict heavy losses on the blue team, essentially bringing the game to a halt. According to Gen. Van Riper, “neither the construct nor the conduct of the exercise allowed for [these concepts] to be properly assessed.” In other words, rather than a “free play” exercise that would permit an unfettered red team to really test these concepts, the exercise merely rubber-stamped them. Millennium Challenge revealed the flaws in the “technology-as-panacea” vision of transformation that has permeated JFCOM in the past.

Gen. Mattis understands that if assumptions can’t be questioned, the ability to “re-perceive” the security environment is limited. Such an imposition of orthodoxy is predicated on the assumption that it is possible to predict and fully control the actions of potential adversaries. It discounts the common sense view that the world is dynamic and characterized by uncertainty. Instead it seeks to impose a single vision on the defense establishment. If this vision is correct, things will be fine. If not, defeat may well be the ultimate result. Gen. Mattis is the right man at the right time to ensure that transformation is grounded in reality.

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.