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NATO is not as flexible as it could be when preparing for future contingencies. In a recent article, Gerry Long raised the issue of western military tradition’s obsession with achieving tactical decision, i.e. winning the battle[i]. He is not the first to do so, but insights like his tend to go unheeded. It is disconcerting that western nations seem to be lagging behind potential and current adversaries in understanding this important topic. Both widely recognized and largely unrecognized shortcomings in the application of force by western militaries can be traced back to this intellectual failure. The following article will highlight these shortcomings. It will then present a concrete, albeit nationally specific, example of how to address them. The motivation is to inspire a broader debate among those concerned with improving the utility of military capability.
The widely recognized shortcoming alluded to above needs little elaboration. The wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan are well known examples of conflicts where the weaker side avoided pitched battles. In this article, what is meant by the terms ‘tactical decision’ or ‘winning a battle’ is what Jim Storr refers to as causing the ‘withdrawal of participation’ by the enemy[ii]. The local enemy in question believes himself defeated and either retreats or surrenders. The weaker side in Vietnam and Afghanistan were not geared towards this effect, as they opted for light infantry forces employing raiding tactics. They avoided presenting their enemy with concentrations that could be readily fixed. Their actions were too limited to cause a perception of defeat in their immediate opponent. These limited engagements did, however, result in cumulative strategic effects. The perception of defeat and the resulting withdrawal of participation then occurred on the strategic level. Thus, the materially far superior military was unable to bring its weight to bear in a relevant way. A historical study has shown that when a significantly smaller actor achieves this asymmetry, there is a 63.6% probability of the smaller party achieving its war aims[iii]. To current military professionals, this result probably comes as no surprise. Indeed, a significant portion of military theoretical discourse during the last decade has focused on how to counter this phenomenon. What is puzzling, though, is that western militaries seem to have arrived at the answers to this question several times. Yet they are forgotten in time for the next war. The Congressional report on the conduct of the Vietnam War provides a telling example. It formulated the conclusion that rather than conventional forces designed to fight for a tactical decision, what was needed were ‘small, mobile, lightly equipped units of the ranger or commando type. It requires different weapons, command systems, communications and logistics’[iv]. Such changes in both training and equipment would counteract the elusiveness of light infantry who employ raiding tactics. When these opponents can be fixed in battle, material, technological and professional superiority remain deciding factors. It is logically inescapable that, with all other factors being equal, success will most likely go to the stronger side. Gerry Long refers to a similar observation of how ‘guerrilla tactics augmented by [superior] firepower’ would produce tactical success[v].
With the need identified, and knowledge of that type of warfare abundantly available, why are western armies not better at it? The answer, of course, is that unconventional forces are not the only challenge facing these militaries. Direct, conventional threats to national sovereignty, though more infrequent, are rightly seen as the defining task for these organisations. Historically, focus has tended to oscillate between defeating symmetric and asymmetric opponents. And so, timeless lessons are forgotten only to be relearned when the need arises once again. Unfortunately, this process of rediscovery is marked by a hefty human, material and strategic price. Expeditionary commitments are now drawing down and (re)emergent great powers are shaping an increasingly multipolar world. The pendulum of doctrinal focus might, thus, very well be swinging towards more direct, national defence. At the same time, western intervention abroad is by no means an unlikely scenario in the coming decades. Our enemies in these conflicts must be expected to strive for the same asymmetry that has proven so effective in the past.
The solution to this seemingly contradictory doctrinal challenge can be found in a less recognized consequence of western obsession with the decisive battle. Gerry Long, among other military thinkers, focuses on how this cultural disposition inhibits the West from responding relevantly to an opponent avoiding pitched battle. However, a different angle to the problem has gone largely unmentioned. The supposition that an operational concept is somehow tied to culture is as illogical as it is uncritically accepted in many circles. A superficial glance at history, from Catholic Spaniards through Communist Vietnamese to Muslim mujahedin, reveals that culture is a weak predictor of when unconventional warfare is seen as a rational choice. This, at least, is commonly accepted; unconventional war is the way the weak fight the strong. An obvious implication has been ignored in western military thought. The size and strength of western nations and their militaries are as varied as any such relationship in other parts of the world. Why, then, is it obviously assumed that all western militaries should be trained and equipped to fight a conventional opponent with symmetric capabilities in search of a tactical decision. The root cause of this assumption is easy to imagine. The ideas and theories that make up the military portion of western cultural heritage build almost exclusively on the experiences made by great powers with strategically offensive ambitions. John Lynn points out that the western army style has evolved after the pattern of one nation’s army gaining notoriety, causing other nations to emulate that model[vi]. The most recent role model was the Prussian/German army, before the role was assumed by the US Army. For smaller nations, however, it might not be in their best interest to match so completely an organization resting on a wholly different resource base. Granted, they would maintain a breadth of capabilities not far removed from their bigger counterpart. Depth of capacity, on the other hand, would approach (or even fall below) critical mass. The result is a military that is unacceptably fragile on its own. Smaller nations should therefore seek greater capacity for national defence by ruthlessly cutting capabilities that are only necessary for the political ambitions of the bigger role model. The resources released should then be channelled into capabilities that have proven to benefit small, defensive actors. Raiding forces have already been mentioned as such a capability, and this will be considered below.
Finland and Switzerland are prominent examples of small states that have not gone the way of bigger contemporaries. That these are alliance-free nations illustrates the most common, current counter-argument to small NATO-members developing unique doctrines; small alliance members must align their military forces with those of their larger partners. By preparing to fend for one self it is feared that that contingency will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. While this might appear eminently logical, it is a flawed assumption caused more by a lack of military creativity than by objective necessity. Fundamentally, it is questionable for a sovereign state to design its military in such a way that it is likely to fail should it have to stand alone. What is more, by conforming to the operational concept of the strongest alliance partner, the alliance as a whole is deprived of the flexibility that a new breadth of capability would yield. Allied doctrines should be compatible, not identical. Compatibility comes from common terms and procedures and interoperable technology. It should not come from superimposing concepts of operation unsuited for a given context.
From this line of reasoning it should now become apparent that a critical look at the value of winning the battle reveals how to handle an unconventional opponent. Additionally, it tells us that NATO can expand its capacity to do this without compromising its members’ capacity for direct national defence. This article will now present an example of how a small NATO member, in this case Norway, might design its land power to contribute to this more flexible alliance.
Current Norwegian military doctrine is in every meaningful way a copy of the American AirLand Battle concept. In this regard, the country has gone the same way as most other NATO members. Doctrines that have proven informative to its practitioners are the ones designed to counter a specific threat in a specific operational context. In the case of AirLand Battle, the threat and context was the Warsaw Pact in Central Europe. It is interesting to note that the Americans themselves considered ALB to be an unsuitable option in the Norwegian context[vii]. That opinion is well founded. When you push heavy, mechanized forces into the canalizing valleys and coastal roads of northern Norway, you are left with combat that diverges fundamentally from the principles of manoeuvre warfare. Rather than avoiding strength and striking weakness, mechanized forces are locked in a frontal confrontation with a numerically superior opponent. They are unable to access the enemy’s flank or rear, except at the lowest tactical levels. The whole endeavour devolves into a material slugging match, one which a small country like Norway is likely to lose on its own. This last point highlights the burden one member’s maladapted doctrine places on the alliance. For Norway’s doctrine to achieve the goal of protecting the country’s territory, the alliance must divert sufficient resources to allow the force to prevail in this slugging match. This ties up resources which might be needed elsewhere. What is needed is a Norwegian doctrine that sets its military up to pursue a strategically defensive ambition with minimal allied support. Any assistance the alliance is able to provide would be valuable, but its absence would not be decisive. The fundamentals of such a doctrine are likely to be found in Norway’s historical light infantry-tradition. Here, rugged terrain and a harsh climate are turned to an advantage, not an obstacle.
Swarming behaviour has gained increased attention during the last decade, parallel to the advances in information technology. Sean Edwards has studied a range of historical cases where swarming was observed on the battlefield[viii]. His conclusion was that with the right combination of the factors elusiveness, superior situational awareness and stand-off capability, a swarming force can defeat a heavier opponent. The defining characteristic of a swarming force is one composed of small, semi-autonomous units that rely on dispersion for protection while they conduct aggressive reconnaissance to locate vulnerable targets. When a target has been acquired, the locating unit informs nearby units that then converge on the target from multiple directions. Jim Storr has referred to simulations that demonstrate that such tactics greatly increase the likelihood of achieving surprise against the enemy[ix], with the attendant positive effects on combat outcome. When the element of surprise is expended, however, the units in contact should disengage. Thus, they do not exploit the surprise with the aim of instilling systemic shock in the enemy organization. The swarm will maintain surveillance of its opponent, and if the opportunity arises it pulses in for additional attacks along new axes. This behaviour puts the swarming force clearly in the ‘raiding’ category according to Archer Jones’ model referred to by Storr[x]. When Storr raises doubts about the effectiveness of relying solely on forces unable to conduct decisive shock action on the enemy[xi], we return to this article’s initial argument: the need for a tactical decision primarily belongs to the strategically offensive side. The materially weaker, defensive side can, and indeed should, aim to achieve its political goals by avoiding decisive battles.
In the Norwegian context, the same factors that hinder the effective implementation of AirLand Battle greatly favour a swarming force fighting a mechanized opponent. A Norwegian swarm will use helicopter or small boat insertion of light terrain vehicles with signature-reducing technology into the mountains of its northern province. The force will use dispersed manoeuvre to mitigate a likely enemy air threat. It will infiltrate to positions which threaten the few roads available to the mechanized enemy. Superior situational awareness is gained through a combination of aggressive ground reconnaissance, a sympathetic local population and higher level, or allied, intelligence support. All this is connected by real-time network communications. Based on the resulting information superiority, the swarming units will avoid the enemy’s main combat units. They will seek out vulnerable targets in the tactical or operational rear instead. When suitable targets are located, available forces converge and engage them with portable, precision guided munitions from multiple directions. Manually portable air defence systems are employed to counter potential enemy vertical envelopment. Before the enemy can mount a concerted response, the swarming units disengage to preserve combat power and seek out new opportunities for attack. The enemy is faced with a seemingly ‘amorphous’ and ‘ubiquitous’[xii] adversary, both tactically and strategically. He will experience increasing frustration as casualties mount without being able to respond relevantly. Eventually, his offensive ambitions are abandoned as the price starts to exceed the value of the goal.
If the last paragraph appears to describe what many term ‘guerrilla warfare’, that is because the fundamental principle is the same: refuse to fight a stronger enemy on his own terms. However, swarming involves a higher degree of coordination, albeit decentralized self-coordination. Hence, its effect is more controllable. In addition, John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt argue that modern advances in information technology, both in weapon systems and communications, are poised to reveal an unprecedented potential for dispersed, networked units[xiii].
With its swarming force, Norway would possess the means with which to deter attacks even when operating with minimal allied support. Another aspect of this force might, however, be more relevant in the near future. It would contribute to NATO’s solution to the challenge of defeating enemies that refuse to enter into decisive battle. The Norwegian swarm would consist of personnel trained to operate independently in small teams, with weapons to make these teams a formidable threat and with mobility support allowing unpredictable courses of action. This highly mobile force would not offer its raiding opponent the warning time he needs in order to refuse a battle that is not to his liking. In short, the swarm would be able to confront unconventional opponents symmetrically, bring superior equipment and training to bear and defeat them at their own game. Both as direct contributors to allied operations, but also as concept and competence developers in the alliance, this nationally adapted doctrine could be one piece of a more flexible NATO.
[i] Long, Gerry, ‘The Edge of Glory: The Western Way of Combat and the Search for the Elusive Decisive Battle in an Age of Terror’, Military Operations, Volume 2, Issue no. 1, Winter 2014, pp 13-1.
[ii] Storr, Jim, 2009, The Human Face of War, London: Continuum Publishing, p.51.
[iii] Arreguìn-Toft, Ivan, 2006, How the Weak Win Wars, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
[iv] The Pentagon Papers: The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam (Senator Gravel Edition: 4 vols), Boston: Beacon Press, 1971, p.435.
[v] Long, Gerry, ‘The Edge of Glory: The Western Way of Combat and the Search for the Elusive Decisive Battle in an Age of Terror’, Military Operations, Volume 2, Issue no. 1, Winter 2014, pp 13-16.
[vi] Lynn, John A., The Evolution of Army Style in the Modern West. I: The International History Review XVIII 3, August 1996, s 505–545.
[vii] Sæveraas ,Torgeir E. og Henriksen, Kjetil, Et militært universalmiddel- Amerikansk «Maneuver Warfare» og norsk doktrineutvikling, IFS, 2007, s 147.
[viii] Edwards, Sean J.A , Swarming and the Future of Warfare. RAND, 2005.
[ix] Storr, Jim, 2009, The Human Face of War, London: Continuum Publishing, p.87.
[x] Ibid. p.66.
[xi] Ibid. p. 128.
[xii] Arquilla, John, Ronfeldt, David, 2000, Swarming and the Future of Conflict, RAND Corporation, p.45.