Center for Strategic Communication

It’s the Sequestration Game of Thrones, and a careful observer of DC defense politics will glimpse much tumult as the Army, Marines, Navy, and Air Force all battle for supremacy through both official channels and favored proxies in the defense punditosphere. I don’t mean to trivialize this or cast aspersions, however. It is deadly serious business and it rests on serious and credible differences about the path of future American national security. One primary transmission channel for these arguments is analysis of the present and future defense challenges facing the US.

Some future vision of the operational environment, and the larger geopolitical environment from which operational context is derived, must be called upon to support a view of organizational change. Sometimes this isn’t as much a prediction of the future as much as a recognition of continuity, as can be found in Joseph Collins’ recent Small Wars Journal piece on the enduring value of landpower. Often times we see thinking on defense challenges enshrined either implicitly or explicitly under a given theory of military change.

Despite overly broad warnings of anti-intellectualism, the defense landscape has been very friendly to theory over the last 20 years. We’ve seen a lot of theoretical writing about war and change, from network-centric warfare to all of the post-9/11 inspired takes on COIN, insurgency, and complex warfare. Much of these theories take the following structure: (1) declare that some change in the nature or character of war has occurred (2) detail some characteristics of the quality they observe, (3) explain the causal mechanisms of how it occurred/why it occurred and (4) lay out recommendations as to how the joint force can adapt and/or change. Bullet 4 here is really the most important because the ultimate consumer of the product is not necessarily an academic audience but an policy elite with the power to set programs and budgets.

There is, however, a conflict between a sound theory and a useful one for practitioners in the military-industrial complex. War, like any large-scale social issue, is very messy and often characterized by causal complexity. There are many variables at play that produce military transformation and change. Many of them will be beyond the control of policymakers. For example, take the ill-fated notion of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). The most sound academic takes on the issue pictured such seismic military changes as the outcome of an complex interaction between political forms, modes of economic production, culture, and external geopolitics.

The most popular versions of the RMA, however, tended to focus squarely on technology, doctrine, and military organization. Things like the nature of the international system was mostly beyond the control of Pentagon bureaucrats. Technology, doctrine, and organization are at least theoretically manipulatable by the military.1 So to be blunt, the problem is that an truly solid theory of warfare would be likely very much of little use to practitioners. I could imagine such a conversation between a theoretician and a defense practitioner as going like this: “You have a decent probability of winning/changing your military/etc if x, y, and z are in place. What you can do does matter, but can be canceled out by these larger factors.” 

I’d be pretty po’d if I was on the receiving end of a Debbie Downer lecture like that. And it also suggests why incentives to give a false picture of the policymaker’s agency and ability to achieve desirable endstates are pretty high. We all like to imagine ourselves as history’s actors, but history has room for only a few truly disruptive actors like Napoleon. And military historians have continuously debated how much of Napoleon’s sucesses had to do with his unique persona and how much had to do with the political-military system he inherited from both ancient regime military innovators and revolutionary figures like Carnot. Of course, it’s likely some combination of both, but that’s also a pretty unsatisfying answer. 

There’s also the not-so insignificant matter that many would-be military conceptualizers do not give enough thought to basic problems of evidence and method. The first is fairly daunting. Take, for example, thinking about naval change. The question of the carrier’s supposed irrelevance has been ongoing since the early 70s. But consider that a major fleet battle has not occurred since World War II, and there have been barely any ship-to-shore engagements that would constitute a meaningful test of “anti-access” weapons. if we were to look at the carrier’s continued use as a geopolitical power projection tool alone, we might conclude that talk of the carrier’s twilight is hot air.

Of course, then we get into looking at omitted variables that might explain why we would have good reason to question the carrier’s prominence, such as the nature of the international system. We have not, for various reasons, yet seen either a true diffusion of truly dangerous anti-ship weapons that would hobble the USN from demolishing most regional militaries. The militaries capable of actually causing the USN serious difficulty have not engaged it. So if we were looking to build a theory of naval change that involves a case analysis of the state of the carrier today we would have to think very hard about all of those issues, and then some.

Finally, we get to the actual mechanism of change. The popular way we are predisposed to think about change in general is polluted by a heavily dumbed-down version of the economic “creative destruction.” Something big appears on the horizon, almost totally exogenous to anyone or anything it might effect. The change makes everything prior to it irrelevant, and has a uniform effect on all kinds of prexisting diverse social and political trends. The message is clear: you either get with the times, or you get rolled. This is why we often see books and articles often titled with “the end of ____.” The end of marriage, the end of men, the end of power, etc. It’s the “video killed the radio star” approach to defense.

The problem with such ways of thinking immediately pop up. If, say, a future of nonstate irregular warfare is the inevitable result of the theories we’ve collectively imbibed, then we have a tough time explaining why more traditional threats like Iran and North Korea occupy so much attention. In the case of the Kim Family Regime, it turns out that (to play the Napoleon card again, as the Corsican was a artillerist by trade) a bunch of well-placed big guns (conventional and nuclear) can really make the difference between just being a Team America: World Police comedy device and having the world obsess over you. Diversity and complexity are empirically observed characteristics of both social and “natural” systems.

Second, the change often bears the collective influence of all of the entities it effects. Those influences, from global considerations to national and subnational factors, bear sustained consideration.  Fears of drone proliferation leading to suboptimal outcomes ignore the powerful role that national-level and systemic-level characteristics bring to bear on technology. Not all states or armed groups can, for various reasons, acquire the technology or the powerful logistical-organizational-political backbone that supports the US drone campaign. Nor do they share the same goals as the US and their future politico-military behavior cannot be simply reduced to the “US targeted killing on steroids” stereotype of “China and Russia are gonna catch some bodies when they get TEH DRONES” (of course, they’ve also had said drones for a while).

Note that both China and Russia face far more dangerous threats to their own national security from Islamic militants than the US does. But the response of both states to the threat has differed immensely in nature and scope from the US. Some of this has to do with internal considerations unique to both actors. But regional and systemic factors matter too. China and Russia, for example, free-ride on US stabilization efforts in Central Asia while making their own arrangements with local actors (many of whom share a similar threat understanding) to deal with specific terrorism and extremism issues. Second, it is worth noting that the most severe efforts both states have engaged in against what they view as threats to internal stability have been in either states historically a part of the parent country (Chechnya, for Russia), or actually within their territory (Xinjiang, for China). Is it possible that either could, with the tacit cooperation of other states, go on a robotic hunting expedition for jihadists unfriendly to your average Ivan or chafing at the presence of the Chinese military’s G.I. Zhou in Xinjiang? Certainly. But this would be a glaring outlier in what is otherwise a fairly consistent approach to handling internal security issues.

All of this comes back down from the 30,000 feet level to this realization: good theory about military change often goes against what we might see as “common sense” and may in some circumstances be largely useless to actually gaining operational advantage. One of the most sobering readings I recently did was Dima Adamsky’s The Culture of Military Innovation. Adamsky argued quite convincingly that the Soviets came to a useful conception of what they would have to do to adapt to the possibilities of technological shifts in conventional warfare. Of course, the political, economic, and technological side of that shift wasn’t there whatseover in an already terminally decaying late Cold War USSR. I doubt that knowing that warfare reliant on advanced conventional command and control was on the rise helped the Soviets much if they already knew that a technological and economic behemoth like the US would be far better at building and fielding such systems.

Don’t get me wrong. I like military theory. I also like thinking about the future. A good deal of my writing on this blog involves both. But ideas have consequences, and this makes thinking about “under the hood” factors like the stuff I’ve reviewed tonight all the more important.



1 In practice, service competition and other grubby day-to-day realities actually prevented the pan-service RMA ideal from being implemented.