The following piece has been contributed by Dr. James Lacey, Professor of Strategic Studies at the Marine Corps War College and author of the recently-released The Washington War: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Politics of Power That Won World War II.
Picture credit: War on the Rocks
TEACHING OPERATIONAL MANEUVER
For well over five decades the U.S. Military has ruled the tactical battlefield. While much of this tactical superiority is explained by superior military technology, it mostly reflects the literally thousands of “set and reps” tactical leaders receive in training events, professional military educations system (PME), and actual combat. We have highly capable and rapidly adaptive tactical units because, to a degree unequaled in other militaries, U.S forces really do train as they fight. As such, the battlefield is a familiar place, and given virtually any situation, an American combat leader can instantly reach into his memory to retrieve a similar circumstance from training.
This capacity of “instantaneous pattern recognition” is what keeps leaders from freezing in combat. So, although every training or combat situation has its own unique elements, effective training almost always creates sufficient similarities for experienced leaders to draw upon a stored “mental template” to rapidly build, in their mind’s eye, an accurate picture of the fight, and to immediately start making decisions. It is during home station training, while at training centers, on deployments, and in classrooms that our tactical leaders get the “sets and reps” they require to “see” the battlefield and react rapidly and appropriately, while under the stress of combat.
Unfortunately, none, or precious little, of this level of preparation exists at the operational level and above. While we are fantastic at fighting battalions and regiments/BCTs, the skills necessary to fight a dozen or two dozen BCTs as a coherent whole in a swirling maneuver battlefield have atrophied. If Multi-Domain Battle is going to become a battlefield reality, we must once again teach senior leaders how to fight battles, campaigns, and wars above the BCT level. Further, rising senior leaders need to relearn the art of combining a series of battles into combinations of war-winning campaigns.
Some may argue that PME accomplishes this at the ILE level. And admittedly, there are some small pockets where the rudiments of what is necessary are still being taught, but, for the most part, ILE (and related) institutions no longer teach operational maneuver. Instead they teach the “process.” Told to get ‘Force A’ to ‘Objective X’, an ILE graduate can layout courses of action, and present a plan to move along ‘Axis Y or Z’ to arrive at the objective. They can also do much of the detailed staff planning necessary to make such a move possible. What they cannot tell you is whether “Objective X” was the right place to assault in the first place.
I first noted that our senior officers had no idea about how to ‘think about or conduct’ an operational battle while attending various Service wargames. For instance, in one major game the scenario called for US and NATO troops to retake the Baltics, currently occupied by Russian forces. The solution that a room full of field grade officers arrived at was to send the attacking force straight north from Poland. The predictable enemy response was to launch the 1stGuards Tank Army into the attacking force’s unprotected flanks and rear – obliterating the four NATO divisions.
This only confirms something that has disturbed me ever since I began employing wargames in War College classrooms. To help the students master the mechanics of these complex games I bring in local civilians with years of operational and strategic level wargaming experience… but no military experience. In every case, no matter the time-period, or the game level (strategic or operational), the war college students are consistently outclassed by civilian hobbyists – it is not even close. This holds true even after the students have played the game a few times and fully understand the game rules and mechanics. Time and again, my students are out-thought by civilians with no military experience or education.
This does not mean that civilian wargamers would be effective on a real battlefield. In truth, few of them could lead a platoon out of a paper bag and most of them would seize-up if confronted by a real combat situation. Moreover, wargamers lack the experienced-based judgement that is a product of years of training and combat experience. When one plays a wargame, every unit has a set of assigned numbers, which typically everyone knows at the start of the game. For instance, unit counters will typically have their strength, speed of movement, and other factors printed on them. So, when a friendly unit runs into an enemy unit one can quickly calculate relative strengths and with a glance at the game’s combat results table instantly know the probability of success of any engagement. In real life things are never that easy. A unit’s strength is always a judgement call that must be made by an experienced commander. Moreover, this judgement (a mental number) is constantly changing as the battlefield situation evolves. For instance, a battalion commander might mentally consider his best company a “10” on a scale of 1 to 10. But, maybe he will assign that same company a “6” after it has been in prolonged combat for 72-hours without a rest… and reduce it further to a “4” or lower if it has lost a few key leaders. If he manages to rotate the company out of the line for 48-hours rest he may, once again, elevate it to a “7”, and then make it an “8” based on getting some quality replacements. In combat commanders are continually assessing their units and judging their relative effectiveness; no one is giving them that number. Moreover, the best commanders are doing the same thing when they judge the relative combat power of their battlefield opponents.
At the operational level of war, the capacity to make such judgements are the result of years (decades) of accumulated experience. This is why the judgement of wargamers cannot be applied in an actual combat environment. Still, wargames remain the only way to “simulate” war at the operational level and above, short of training maneuvers on a scale no one is willing to pay for. And despite the shortcomings of wargames and civilian wargamers as military leaders, a singular truth remains; at the strategic and operational level, civilian wargamers display a capacity for “instant pattern recognition” that very few field grade officers can match. In most cases, a civilian wargamer requires only a cursory glance at a map and a rudimentary understanding of the game mechanics and objectives to comprehend the entire situation and decide on a course of action. Similarly, I can set up actual operational or strategic situations from World War II (or any past war) on a map and the civilian wargamers will come up with a plan of action in a fraction of the time it takes most professional military officers.
The answer appears simple; our PME systems must wed its students’ undoubted tactical expertise, leadership abilities, and judgement to the “instant” operational and strategic “pattern recognition” that many civilian wargamers possess. Getting there, however, is not going to be easy, as it means undertaking a major curriculum upheaval within almost every PME institution at the ILE level and above.
For over a decade-and-a-half, field grade PME institutions have been focused on teaching leaders how to integrate an all of government approach to fighting COIN conflicts. Given the global situation – almost all of the nation’s landpower engaged in two COIN fights – this was undoubtedly the right thing to do. But, while we were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the world refused to sit still. As we rise our sights above the COIN fight we find ourselves confronting two global military powers, each capable of meeting U.S. forces on the battlefield as peer competitors. It took nearly a decade to get the right people within PME to transform our institutions into COIN academies. Unfortunately, our potential peer-level opponents are unlikely to allow us that much time to realign curriculums back toward operational maneuver.
At this level of warfare civilian wargamers have a tremendous intellectual lead over most military professionals, as they typically have thousands more strategic and operational “reps and sets” than the average field grade officer. Our nation has been served well by company, battalion and brigade level leaders who, because of enduring thousands of “tactical reps”, have repeatedly proven themselves demonstrably superior to their battlefield opponents. After two decades of training and combat experience we can be reasonably sure that a lieutenant-colonel confronted with almost any tactical situation (real or simulated) will think quickly, move rapidly, and act decisively; all because he has a stored “mental template” to work from. But, unless they are self-taught, military leaders are given few, if any, “reps and sets” at the operational level. Consequently, when confronted with an operational or strategic level problem, their capacity for rapid and decisive action vanishes.
The second great advantage civilian wargamers have over most military professionals is a deep grounding in history, particularly military history. That this advantage exists is somewhat surprising, as military officers are told from the start of their careers that they need to read widely and deeply into all aspects of military history. Unfortunately, disturbingly few bother to do so.
Almost every wargame hobbyist I have met is a walking encyclopedia of historical knowledge. Sit down to play one in a simulation of the Battle of Gettysburg and you will discover that they not only know the big events of the battle; most of them can also tell you what time and from what direction each of Hill’s and Ewell’s brigades arrived on the first day. But their knowledge usually goes far deeper than such minutiae. Over numerous discussions, I have discovered that they are almost always well-read on the politics, diplomacy, and economics behind any strategic game or simulation. In fact, when it comes to discussing history the average wargamer of my experience can hold his own with any War College faculty member.
Consequently, when a wargame hobbyist examines a new operational or strategic situation he draws upon a huge reservoir of knowledge to contextualize and understand what he is looking at. In short, he has thousands of “mental templates” in his head that help him make sense of even the most complex situations. Moreover, they also have a very good idea of what others have done in similar situations – what worked and what failed. On the other hand, the typical field grade officer, bereft of the opportunity to develop such “mental templates”, views every situation they are exposed to (and that is way too few) as something totally new… and every approach as novel.
As we begin to reform and realign PME our first question must be: how do we take tactically proficient proven leaders and turn them into – to use an old term – maneuverists? There really is only a single answer; it is the same one that that made them masters of the tactical battlefield. We must increase the number of operational and strategic “reps and sets” they are exposed too. This is the only way to instill in our future senior leaders the “instant pattern recognition” necessary to make them outstanding operational commanders and strategic thinkers.
There are, regrettably, no quick fixes for this problem, as there is no crash course that will give senior leaders the thousands of operational or strategic “reps” they require. Moreover, while most would agree that a leader’s progress toward higher levels of operational and strategic comprehension should start early in their careers, this has always proven a bridge too far. Besides, this is the time when young leaders must focus on the basics of the profession, learning how to lead, and becoming tactical masters. We can, however, certainly do much better in placing more operational maneuver wargaming and simulations at the ILE level. And then using the war colleges to reinforce these initial “reps and sets”.
I am not advocating turning the “entire” curriculum over to wargaming/simulations and other forms of experiential learning, but they can and should become the “centerpiece” of operational level and strategic education. As Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Paul Selva have written: “Should we instead think about using wargames that explore joint multidimensional combat operations to pursue our JPME objectives? Building school curriculums around wargaming might help spark innovation and inculcate the entire Joint Force with a better appreciation and understanding of trans-regional, cross-domain, multidimensional combat.” Only by placing our future senior commanders within a series of operational and strategic situations can they begin building the “mental templates” and decision-making skills necessary for success on the maneuver battlefields of the 21stcentury. Time spent on often useless electives would be much better used running a series of operational and strategic exercises (or other experiential learning events) that will teach as well as challenge students at the higher levels of warfare.
The second part of the solution is to finally get serious about teaching military history to future strategic leaders. By this, I mean history writ large, in a program where military history is the focus, but also includes the political, economic, and diplomatic contexts in which conflicts are conducted. It is no longer sufficient to create a booklist and hope officers read it (most do not). A professional reading program must be instituted and enforced (not talked about) at every level. At its best, such a program would eschew lists of required books, in favor of something akin to study guides. For instance, an officer desiring to develop a better understanding of the American Civil War, would be able to access a 2 or 3-page guide that lists a number of books he can choose from, depending on what his current emphasis of study is.
Where would I like us to get to? As a start, I would hope that every field grade officer would have the knowledge to reply to General Bernard Law Montgomery’s request for three courses of action to take Arnhem with: “Sir, should we not first consider taking Antwerp?
If you have no idea what the above analogy references, or you don’t know why “Antwerp” is the right answer then your study of military history is sadly deficient. Get to work on that.