I get very excited by things like the difference between strategy and operations, which is why I was tremendously interested in a presentation by Hew Strachan at the ASPI Global Forces conference last Thursday.
FINDING AN end to match the means
The idea is so incredibly obvious, it’s natural we take it for granted. It has become an axiom of business, war; every aspect of life – always begin by determining your objective. It's necessary to work out what your goal is before worrying how to get there.
This week Hew Strachan, Chichele Professor of the History of War at Oxford, turned the old, accepted wisdom on its head. He suggested that possibly – just possibly – focusing on the mission is actually the sign of a declining empire, rather than a rising one. Worryingly, this seems to offer a cogent explanation of the disconnect between the way we’d like the world to be and the way it is.
It's the basic disjunction between ideals and reality, or, in this case, strategy and operations.
Take what's happening in Libya, for example. It’s not difficult work out what the West wants. The allied objective is change; getting rid of Muammar Gaddafi. The strategic goal is clear, measurable and plausible. There are other hopes, of course, and everyone would be happy if a Democratic, pro-western regime took Gaddafi’s place (as opposed to the country becoming a fundamentalist Islamic state). Nevertheless, there's no doubt that if Gaddafi was eventually delivered to face a war-crimes tribunal the leaders of European states would be entitled to feel that they'd really achieved something.
Goodness, even Geoffrey Robertson would be happy. His naive belief in the eventual triumph of legal processes would appear to have been completely justified. He'd undoubtedly completely overlook the prolonged and extended bombing campaign that NATO is indulging in at the moment, because it would have produced a result he could be comfortable with. An ‘ethical and moral’ outcome. The death and massacre of a large number of otherwise completely innocent Libyan civilians could be overlooked and somehow wished away nothing more than a regrettable and sorry upshot, which was nevertheless necessary in order to achieve his of universal legal justice.
This represents a focus on the outcome, rather than the process: the grand strategy, rather than the operational method of achieving a desirable goal. Unfortunately, it now appears this relentless focus on achieving our “mission" may be actually blinding us to a far more important truth.
Achieving our goal might not, ultimately, live in the correct articulation of the mission after all. All the formulations that we practice so carefully to make sure that we have defined and limited objectives might actually be symptomatic of our inability to succeed. The key to this conundrum is understanding the difference between an operational goal and a strategic outcome, and the relationship between the two.
Strachan points out that NATO's problem doesn't actually arise out of its mission statement at all. The West's aim – regime change in Libya –has been clearly and precisely stated. The real question is what operational method can best achieve the desired end. It's at this point that the two arise: either an invasion, or instead just dropping bombs. After the debacle resulting from the invasion of Iraq there is no desire to risk another insurgency in an Arab nation. The possibility of launching an invasion was immediately brushed away. The only tool remaining was to blast at targets of opportunity – dropping bombs from the skies. In effect, the operational method was forced to fit the strategic objective, rather than the other way around. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's failed.
Professor Strachan points out that this isn't the case with dynamic, emerging powers.
Consider, for example, how a much younger America reacted to a similar challenge from the same part of the Mediterranean some 200 years ago. During this period the Libyan coast was occupied by Barbary pirates, who made a profit by demanding cash from any passing vessel. By 1801, the Pasha of Tripoli was asking Washington for a quarter of a million dollars in ‘protection money’. Although the U.S. Navy had only been recommissioned six years previously, the young and vigorous democracy refused his demand, even though it had barely any ability to prosecute a war half a globe away. The Pasha cut the US flag down from outside the legation, throwing it in the dust. The Americans responded by dispatching a small naval and Marine force to the shores of Tripoli. The war wasn’t one sided, but eventually the Africans were forced into signing a treaty and the American ships wear allowed to sail unmolested.
When its interests were threatened, Washington had acted decisively. An expeditionary force was sent halfway around the world to achieve a strictly operational goal. The policymakers realised that they could only accomplish their aim by military action. This required sending a fleet. And that’s what they did, acting quickly and effectively. Operational capacity came first and, perhaps more significantly, it was the operational victory that secured the strategic goal. Although the broader rational was always there, Washington didn't bother articulating and balancing different alternatives, attempting to find a better way of achieving its aim. The US had the operational tool, a fleet, and it deployed it.
Contrast that to the dilly-dallying emanating from Washington today. Barrack Obama insists it's up to the Europeans to take the lead in any campaign to oust Gaddafi. The US forces are only there to ‘support’ the mission. And, although the bombing campaign is continuing unabated, it's unclear exactly what all the explosions are achieving. The regime hasn't been overthrown; if anything, it appears to have increased its control over the country during the past few months.
Gaddafi himself, however, must be living in fear of sudden annihilation. It seems plausible to assume he is considering ways of striking back at NATO. Libya hasn’t extended the war by attacking a European capital, yet, even though this is where his assassination has been sanctioned. No one knows what might happen if Gaddafi were to die. It may be he’s refusing to retaliate because he knows that, if he did, nothing would prevent an immediate invasion: the deployment of Special Forces that would, once and for all, destroy his government.
Yet this possibility of an invasion by an expeditionary force was the exact operational method used by the US in 1805 – so why not today? Strachan posed a similar question at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s conference in Canberra, asking if our obsession with strategy is, in fact, a sign of declining power.
The key to achieving a goal lies in the way we go about trying to make it happen – and not simply in articulating the mission correctly. Travel back in history to the time of Alexander the Great and the primacy of operations is evident. The spearmen of the Macedonian phalanx carved their path through any opponents, creating an empire almost by accident along the way. Victory in battle offered the key that allowed Alexander to do whatever he wanted.
What enabled Hitler to (very nearly) achieve his aim of was a simple operational method – blitzkrieg. Using this tool he successively cracked apart the superior forces that were initially arrayed against Germany. The Western nations pondered different strategies for years, but failed until overwhelming military might allowed their forces to win battles. Without operational success any strategy is domed to failure.
Today, the West attempts to rationalise our inability to accomplish goals, whether in Libya or Afghanistan, by announcing that we’ve decided to carefully limit our objectives. Perhaps the reality is we’re just not prepared to accept the cost of doing what’s required.