Adaptability remains a constant — even as the ‘character of war’ changes
A fighter pilot of bygone decades could help us make sense of recent remarks from Gen. Mark Milley to the NATO Joint Force Command in Norfolk, Va. The Joint Chiefs chairman traveled to Norfolk on July 15 to formally inaugurate the new allied command. He told the officers and eminences assembled on board USS Kearsarge that the command would be crucial to victory should a great-power war break out. It would orchestrate a new Battle of the Atlantic against hostile naval, air and missile forces — much as the Allies fought off German U-boats during World War II, allowing shipments of troops and war matériel to reach Europe across the sea.
In the course of his remarks, Gen. Milley offered some intriguing prophecies about the “character” of future war.
That’s different from the “nature” of war. War’s nature is everlasting. It engages politics, human interactions, dark passions such as fear and spite, and chance and uncertainty. These never change. Meanwhile, the character of war is in constant flux as technology gallops along, along with methods for harnessing technology for tactical, operational and strategic gain. Milley postulated that the decades between the world wars were the last time strategic affairs saw change of the magnitude on display today. That’s when weaponeers and military chieftains across the globe combined and recombined newfangled technologies — military aviation, aircraft carriers, radar, and on and on — to support novel warmaking tactics and strategies.
Nazi Germany, the Joint Chiefs chairman observed, fared best at military innovation. German legions overran Western Europe within about 18 months as a result. It took the Allies time to get their own hardware and practices right. But future foes might not grant the United States, its allies, and its regional partners the luxury of time to get ready in future conflagrations. In fact, they will do their utmost to deny America that luxury. The Chinas and Russias of the world want to fight short, sharp wars if they have to, not protracted world wars. They want to win fast, before U.S. and allied forces can step in to reverse aggression.
That being the case, getting new technology and warmaking methods right in the coming years — the next 15 years at the outside, by Milley’s estimate — is pivotal to deterring aggression in peacetime and prevailing in wartime. There may not be time later, amid the clangor of combat.
The challenge is daunting. Milley estimated that 40-50 exotic technologies are maturing at present, and that a wide array of competitors — chiefly states, but also non-state adversaries — can try to make use of them. Precision-guided weapons of unprecedented reach and accuracy are coming online, along with a suite of new intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sensors to guide those munitions to far-distant targets. Artificial intelligence promises to speed up and bolster the quality of human decision-making. Traditional crewed warplanes and warships increasingly team up with autonomous planes and ships in an effort to rule sky and sea.
The chairman also alluded to how hard it is to coordinate weapons development, tactics and doctrine, even within a close alliance of long standing such as NATO. Allies tend to take varying perspectives on martial affairs and reach varying conclusions on how best to proceed. No one makes them pursue compatible solutions to military problems. That complicates efforts to act in unison, achieving material and human “interoperability” that lets a multinational force fight in harmony as though it were a cohesive national force.
Clearly, NATO and other U.S.-led alliances have their work cut out for them as they try to incorporate high technology into their collective armory.
One of history’s most celebrated fighter pilots, U.S. Air Force Col. John Boyd, can supply some pointers. Boyd took to the skies late in the Korean War era and wondered why he was so successful in practice aerial battles. He went undefeated, and in fact, bet any takers he could defeat them within 40 seconds! To figure things out, he made himself into a strategist through intense study of the strategic canon. His conclusion: Combat is less about brute strength than about adaptability. The combatant more in tune with the tactical or strategic surroundings commands an advantage over an out-of-touch, slower-adapting antagonist.
Boyd’s gold standard was a contender able to take control of the surroundings and change something abruptly, springing a “fast transient” on the opponent. A fast transient disorients the opponent. The agile competitor, that is, outthinks, outmaneuvers and outfights the adversary by seizing control of the engagement and manipulating events to its advantage. Boyd reduced the process to a diagram, his iconic “OODA loop” — the triumphant competitor Observes the surroundings, Orients to them, Decides and Acts with greater dexterity and velocity than its antagonist.
The Orient phase is an intensely human phase. Not just the capacity, quirks and limitations of the human brain but intangibles such as history and culture influence how people interpret — and try to shape — the competitive environment around them.
Technology can help out with the other phases, and in fact Gen. Milley hinted at how during his talk in Norfolk. A gee-whiz intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance complex helps human operators observe the surroundings and guides the commander’s actions, such as putting precision ordnance on target at long range. Artificial intelligence helps the commander decide what to do, spelling out options in a hurry. Precision munitions and unmanned craft are implements that help combatants carry out the action decided upon. Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance helps the commander evaluate the results achieved through the action.
And around and around the loop circles until victory is in hand. Whichever contender puts technology to use tightening its OODA cycle positions itself for success.
Somewhere John Boyd is smiling.
James Holmes is J.C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a nonresident fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. The views voiced here are his alone.