Small Wars Journal

A Critical Perspective on Operational Art and Design Theory

Mon, 04/30/2012 - 5:50am

Counterinsurgency’s apparent sunset has left the military struggling for a new mission, but it will always have operational art. Once an arcane subfield dominated by specialists in Soviet and German history, doctrine and rhetoric about the design of operations and campaigns reached its zenith in large stabilization and state-building missions.

Rhetorical and practical reliance on operational theory did not end with the Warsaw Pact. Military professionals’ criticism of traditional operational planning methods, the uncertainty induced by unclear political and strategic guidance, and expansive state-building operations all fueled an ongoing reconsideration of the operational art. The result was Design, a new philosophy of operations that challenges traditional modes of operational planning.

The sunset (for now) of counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan presents Design practitioners with both a challenge and an opportunity. Will Design adapt to the changed strategic and geopolitical context of American operations? Or will it become sidelined to the netherworld of “operations other than war,” advisory and training missions, and paramilitary operations?  The answer depends precisely on what defines as “Design.”

Operational Theory, History, and Praxis

Design is conceptually linked, though not identical to, operational art. But what is operational art? Ideas of operational art and the alleged “operational level of war” are heavily contested in military doctrine and theory. The preeminent questions guiding the study and practice of the operational art have hardly been resolved. Is operational art a cognitive process that links tactics to strategy, as Huba Wass de Czege has argued? Or is the operational level an empirically valid evolution in the structure of the military art? James J. Schneider has observed a qualitative difference in pre-industrial warfare, governed by concentration into a small space to achieve tactical effect, and the industrial practice of distributed campaigns and massed firepower. Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive. Operational art could be both cognitive device and historical fact. But Schneider, and landpower specialists like Christopher Bellamy discuss landpower in strikingly different terms than Wass de Czege, emphasizing the physical element of operational art over the cognitive emphasis of campaign planning.

For the purpose of argument, let’s suppose operational specialists agree on what operational art constitutes. But when did it begin? Martin Van Creveld and Claus Telp both posit operational warfare as a trend with broadly Napoleonic origins.  Other authors, such as Schneider, focus their operational lens towards the mid-19th century or later.   Most operational history also mostly neglects naval and air campaigns, to say nothing of small arms. If operational art is a product of the industrial revolution, it is hard to justify a focus on wars dominated by small-unit actions between guerrillas and light infantry. The continental bias of operational theoreticians also colors the neglect of naval warfare and airpower.

Assuming we can agree on what operational art is and when it began, one last remaining historical dispute remains: did America have an operational art before the 1980s? Those familiar with distributed campaigns in the Civil War may find the question silly, but the narrative of American operational art places AirLand Battle as the beginning of American operational doctrinal consciousness. The historical consensus in operational history commonly depicted pre-1980s American commanders as operational neophytes. Russell Weigley, for example, uses the failure of American forces to achieve a complete annihilation in the Normandy campaign as evidence of the essentially tactical focus of the American military art.  But this operational consensus may no longer hold true.

Michael Matheny makes a convincing case in his book Carrying the War to the Enemy that America prepared its officers well for the operational dimension of World War II. American forces successfully executed complex combined operations in North Africa, France, the Phillipines, and Okinawa as a result of the operational education they received during the interwar period.  American operational art emerges not as a pale imitation of Soviet Deep Operations or German blitzkrieg but an original synthesis of logistical feats of genius and synergistic coordination of complex combined expeditionary operations. Cyber warfare is emerging as a significant addition to the American operational suite.

Combined operations and power projection are the raw material of American strategy. Without them, America could not hope to operate globally. It is precisely these kinds of difficult operations that are most challenged by the “anti-access” threat in Asia and the Middle East. But do American commanders design operations and campaigns to further strategy, or does the US simply do grand tactics?  Merely being able to coordinate large, air-land-sea operations does not mean they will realize the political object.

Elements of Design

The military concept of Design, like operational art itself, is also contested. Merely the word “Design” involves a conceptual choice—are we talking about Design in the Army, the design of operations (an old notion), or the Israeli Systemic Operational Design? While the conceptual roots of Design may partially lie in Shimon Naveh’s study of Soviet theory and operations on the Eastern Front and his identification of operational art as a “cognitive tension” between strategy and tactics, Design has evolved significantly. There is the Army’s version of Design, which has aimed to improve critical thinking in the design of operations by emphasizing different concepts of organization, methodology, and operational art. Other versions of Design have drifted throughout the joint community and professional military journals.

Building a synthesis for discussion starts with Schneider and Naveh’s metaphor of the operational commander as creative designer, using individual battles to build a distributed campaign. This idea, in turn, can be linked with Donald Schon’s The Reflective Practitioner, which advanced a similar notion of a broadly self-aware professional who used “reflection-in-action” to bridge the at times cavernous gap between artistic and technical aspects of a discipline. (Schon is discussed in this Military Review article).

Ben Zwiebelson describes Design as a theory that is simultaneously skeptical of dominant theory. Zwiebelson explains that Design is not a doctrine, concept, or methodology. The Designer is simply someone who broadly rejects any one narrative of conflict, using multiple systems of logic—broadly defined as ways of seeing the world—to cope with the operational environment. “Systems of logic” consist of empirical material (brute material facts), theoretical concepts such as language, mathematics, ideologies, and other processes that interact with empirical material to explain the world, and metaphors that promote new ways of thinking. These ingredients combine into narratives and scripts that explain the world within the system of logic’s limiting framework. Narratives and scripts also anticipate how external reality will react to an individual or organization’s action and manifest themselves in organizational behavior.

Despite Design’s theoretical pluralism, most theorists reject reductionism. Most, however, disagree about what it constitutes. Ketti Davison describes both Effects-Based Operations and Design as reactions against the industrial-era methods of decomposition inherent in the MDMP. Zwiebelson argues that the MDMP no longer reflects the complex realities of modern military operations.  Drawn from the empirical material of enemy, geography, technology, population, space, and time, reductionism employs generally agreed tactical, operational and strategic vocabulary such as the principles of war, centers of gravity, and end states as theoretical content. Metaphors, in turn, are generated through lessons-learned reports and the culling of historical anecdotes to explain how future conflicts will occur. Narratives and scripts manifest in the form of the MDMP and the Joint Operation Planning Process (JOPP).

Design theorists criticize reductionism for its engineering framework and assumption that operational problems will be neatly defined by planning guidance. Others argue that the concept of an end-state and backwards planning represent the military’s hubristic assumption that it can use an engineering process to bend reality to its will. In other words, planners expect operational and strategic problems will end because Phase IV ordains it so. Zwiebelson argues that increasing complexity and self-organization in the operating environment make reductionism problematic. Design can promote an unlimited variety of alternative logics that may manifest themselves in genuinely new and useful ways of knowledge and practice. These logics range from systems approaches borrowed from ecology to broadly postmodern and poststructuralist philosophy.

Key to the concept of Design are, as the Commander’s Appreciation And Campaign Design states, the attendant concepts of structurally complex and interactively complex systems. A car is a structurally complex system: closed and elaborate, but driven entirely by internal dynamics. Cities and social groups, on the other hand, are interactively complex. Their dynamics are difficult to product and more characterized by nonlinearity. The Design critique of reductionism is that it emphasizes structural complexity at the expense of interactive complexity.

Design Theory: Context and Critique

It is unlikely that Design would have advanced without the intellectual shock that the post-9/11 conflicts inflicted on the American defense intellectual base. September 11, Iraq, and Afghanistan were direct epistemological threats to the way of war that the United States military had painstakingly developed in the aftermath of Vietnam. Concepts such as Effects-Based Operations (EBO), Rapid Decisive Operations (RDO), and the expansion of Network-Centric Warfare (NWC) from the mere networking of forces into a means of using American military force to shift global “rule sets” all were rooted in a set of assumptions that ultimately proved to be fallacious. The enemy was deprived of agency, and the resulting chaos created room for radical new approaches. Hew Strachan also has noted that the operational level dominates because the strategic and policy threads above it have frayed and decayed.

But has war really grown so complex? There is compelling evidence that, contrary to the writings of everyone from Martin van Creveld to the National Strategic Narrative’s “Mr. Y,” that the structural and interactive complexity of the contemporary operating environment is exaggerated. As Colin S. Gray has argued, there is little fundamental difference between conventional and irregular wars. Conventional wars feature special operations and guerrilla resistance movements, and irregular wars have included pitched battles. Iraq and Afghanistan are a synthesis of classical, modern, and allegedly postmodern small wars. Warfare as a whole has always been distinguished by chaos and complexity—indeed the very nonlinearity of conflict is expressed through Carl von Clausewitz’s metaphor of the “trinity” of emotion, chance and reason and his ideas on fog and friction.

The question of whether or not Afghanistan is a special case of complexity depends in part on one’s willingness to acknowledge the obvious. Afghanistan is complex because the task of building a secure and legitimate government with a semblance of the monopoly of force is complex. Foreigners are least placed to marshal what Karl Polayni dubs “tacit knowledge”—information that can only be transmitted experientially. Or listen to Friedrich Hayek’s 1945 warning to would-be central planners:

The peculiar character of the problem of a rational economic order is determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess. The economic problem of society is thus not merely a problem of how to allocate "given" resources—if "given" is taken to mean given to a single mind which deliberately solves the problem set by these "data." It is rather a problem of how to secure the best use of resources known to any of the members of society, for ends whose relative importance only these individuals know. Or, to put it briefly, it is a problem of the utilization of knowledge which is not given to anyone in its totality.

Hayek discussed the problems in creating a domestic economic order among those who share far more political, cultural, and social assumptions than the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) share with the Afghans. And, of course, Hayek was writing about a peacetime creation of economic order. There is little peace to be had in Afghanistan, and little political and social consensus. This is not to say that Afghans are exotic and unknowable, but that they live in a society ravaged by 30 years of civil war. A society, one might add, that is understandable only to a small minority of Western area specialists and academics. Everyone else, for better or worse, is walking blind.

Afghanistan is both structurally complex and interactively complex. So was the Normandy campaign. Injecting force into the European continent was an endeavor rooted in interactively complex political, military, and operational problems. All of these problems—from weather to the political implications of who would rule a postwar France—had bearing on the design of the campaign. World War II in general only appears structured in retrospect. British and American internal debates over international security policy throughout the 1930s at times demonstrated that all-important criterion of ill-structuredness: educated professionals did not even agree on the structure of the political-military problem. Deciding on the future of warfare, against the backdrop of seismic technological, doctrinal, and political shifts was also far from simple.

The Persian intrusion into Greece, the challenge posed to the European order by the French Revolution and the fanatical energies it unleashed, security debates of the 1920s and 30s, the global Cold War were all regarded as highly complex events that shattered old ways of thinking and shifted basic points of reference.  Compared to these titanic events, can it really be said that 1991-2012 was similarly transformative as to warrant a radical rethinking of the way we plan operations and campaigns?

It is true that the assumptions of linear causality inherent in many aspects of military education do not serve soldiers well in a world that simply refuses to behave. A tactical and reductionist way of viewing the operational or strategic issue as simply the sum of its parts is unlikely to yield solid results. But just because making strategy is difficult does not necessarily mean that strategy itself—as conceived within the framework of ends, ways, and means—is at fault. Perhaps specific plans, operations, tactics, and a technocratic way of war failed the US. But no traditional theorist cognizant of war’s eternal challenges promised the ability to control an outcome. A strategist, as Gray argues, is a “hero” fighting against chaotic forces that could pull him under at any given moment.

Designing Future Operations

Academic debate aside, the political and operational context in which Design was conceived may be nearing a close. Iraq (for now) has been emptied of American soldiers. In Afghanistan, American presence is being downsized. High-end threats, in the form of the elusive “anti-access” opponent have captured the Pentagon’s imagination. Standoff campaigns and small-scale raiding has become the order of the day from Pakistan to the Horn of Africa.

The future cannot be conclusively predicted, but large-scale third party state-building is rare in American history. There are, however, plenty of punitive expeditions and acts of gunboat diplomacy. American history is replete with maritime and air power projection operations for limited ends. It is the Banana Wars, not Vietnam or Iraq, that stands as the archetype of American irregular war. To the extent these campaigns involve operational art, they privilege Matheny’s idea of American operations---expeditionary joint campaigns.  Absent the stimulus of large-scale stabilization, can Design ultimately survive as a mainstream tool of operational design, or will it be relegated to military niche?

It would be a shame if Design theory and practice vanished during the anti-access/area denial era. US operations in the Persian Gulf and Southeast Asia today contain a multitude of complex threats and issues ranging from high-end conventional technologies to irregular threats such as cyberwarfare and paramilitary special operations units. Force-on-force warfare is distinguished not only by highly technical calculations but also by nonlinearity, self-organization, and complexity. The Design critique hits home precisely because the American approach tends to lead to suboptimal strategic outcomes. As Echevarria noted in his article on the military’s sometimes-erroneous approach to Centers of Gravity (COG), military planners can fixate on finding the COG—as defined in their professional military education—at the expense of losing the larger strategic picture. If such a reductive approach was problematic during a time of uncontested primacy, it is even more dangerous in what may be a more multipolar age.

Different logics that enable alternative approaches to the design of operations are necessary, as well as even “anti-approaches” more characterized by emergence and self-organization than top-down orders. At its heart, Design is simply a way of encouraging alternatives to dominating military practices, or at the very minimum not taking established practices for granted.

Design and the Canon of Operations

If Design privileges a new language that cannot be integrated into military practice without adopting a radically different vocabulary, what does this mean for ideas of strategy that we have come to treasure? If the problem lies in our hesitation to embrace alternative ideas—in their original form, not necessarily the way they are transmitted in doctrine and organizational behavior—are we at risk of forgetting the fundamentals?

The Design debate parallels the quarrels over the literary “canon” in the humanities during the 1980s, despite the deep divide between warfighting and arcane debates about Roland Barthes and the “pleasure of the text.” Traditionalists such as Harold Bloom believed firmly in a canon and the importance of preserving a core of tradition that was more or less unalterable. More revolutionary academics wanted to overthrow this canon, challenge its leading figures, and problematize the epistemic assumptions from which it was built. Neither side completely necessarily won. The canon was expanded to include more diverse writers and emphasize a more critical approach to the study of literature. It was difficult to argue against the contention that certain writers had been unjustly overlooked and certain methods of inquiry had completely cleared the field of conceptual gaps.

At the same time, the idea of a canon survived for both instrumental and practical reasons. It was easy to argue that a “common sense” idea of the fundamentals was too restrictive, but too radical to throw out the idea of fundamentals as ends in and of themselves. Every field has a base from which to build, even if that base’s support structures did not support a straightforward architecture. A student of advanced character was trusted to be mature enough to not be frightened by difference or contradiction. More cynically, it helped to have a central idea of the humanities in order to preserve funding for academic instruction at a time when education has moved towards more practical ends.

Towards an American Style of Operations

At the end of the day, the foundation of any serious study of the military art will lie in the “canon” of greats such as Carl von Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, and Antoine-Henri Jomini. The reason why they continue to dominate is fairly practical: they define the contours of war and warfare as we understand it and no one has come up with anything better without doing gross violence to military and political history. Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW) and Unrestricted Warfare (UW), two doctrines that sometimes are offered as successors to the Clausewitzian vision, cannot meaningfully distinguish between politics and violence, to say nothing of the problems with van Creveld’s ideas of Trinitarian and non-Trinitarian Warfare and Mary Kaldor’s concept of New Wars.

The canon, however, has not (and should not) remained stable. Gray’s most recent book on strategy recognizes multiple concentric rings of strategists whose work comprises a general theory of strategy, some of whom have not been traditionally recognized by orthodox strategists. As more theorists and practitioners are recognized as pioneers of the military art, they will be similarly added to the canon of strategy, operations, and tactics. Some accepted notions will be, undeniably, deconstructed and revised. While the present moment is not as disruptive as often claimed, all bets about the future are off given the ways that current macroeconomic trends, emerging technologies, and geopolitics may combine in a manner that could very well shake the world—and with it, our system of reference.

The foundation for American operational art is operations in complex environments. These environments have included, for sure, urban warfare and guerrilla operations. But they mostly—from the Barbary Wars to the Libyan War—have been expeditionary operations. Expeditionary operations require sound thinking as to how best apply force to realize the political object. Design—or merely a tolerance of operational pluralism—can help develop the necessary skills if we recognize the complexity of the Fulda Gap in addition to the ill-structured nature of the battle for Kabul. 

About the Author(s)

Adam Elkus is a PhD student in Computational Social Science at George Mason University. He has published articles on defense, international security, and technology at Small Wars Journal, CTOVision, The Atlantic, the West Point Combating Terrorism Center’s Sentinel, and Foreign Policy.


I'd say that it actually takes a lot of effort to be able to meet the changing conditions of any field and succeed, and not all operational planning methods can be effective. In my case, the challenge was to implement new technologies in my project, and thankfully, specialists from helped me with that. Otherwise, I don't think I'd be able to come up with something attractive to people.


Tue, 04/18/2023 - 9:02am

A critical perspective on operational art and design theory examines the underlying assumptions and limitations of these military concepts. Operational art refers to the planning and execution of large-scale military operations, while design theory involves using creative problem-solving and innovation to achieve objectives. Just visit and get SZRDDM vinyl toy manufacturer to learn more ways about the Arts. A critical perspective seeks to challenge established beliefs and biases in order to develop more effective and ethical military strategies. This approach recognizes the complex and dynamic nature of warfare and emphasizes its importance.


Fri, 02/05/2021 - 7:57am

Tactics as an area of ​​the Art of War is subordinate to and derives from operational art and strategy. In comparison with them, tactics are more mobile and sensitive to all changes in the material base of warfare, in people and military equipment. It is people and military equipment that directly influence the means and methods of combat.
The main tasks of tactics: study of the patterns, nature and content of the battle, the development of methods for its preparation and conduct; determination of the most effective methods of using means of destruction and protection in battle; study of the combat properties and capabilities of subunits, units, formations, determination of their missions and battle formations in the conduct of combat operations and methods of organizing interaction between them; studying the role of fire, strikes and maneuver in battle; development of recommendations for command and control of troops (forces), their combat, special and logistical support; the study of the forces and means of the enemy and his methods of fighting. In order to clearly understand what to have in mind, you can first make out what is in general art in general by reading a couple of essays on the topic of contemporary art. Surprisingly, while writing my first scientific article, I was able to fully understand this topic.
Each branch of the armed forces (Ground Forces, Air Force, Navy), branch of the armed forces (forces, aviation) and type of special forces, as well as military rear and parts of the railway troops have their own tactics, which studies the combat properties and capabilities of formations , units (ships) and subunits of a given type of armed forces, type of troops (forces, aviation), type of special forces, methods of their use and actions in battle independently and in cooperation with other types and types of troops. General patterns and provisions for the preparation and conduct of combat by formations, units and subunits of all branches of the armed forces, combat arms (forces) and special forces form the foundations of the general theory of tactics. Investigating the diverse conditions of combat, tactics does not provide ready-made recipes. It develops only the main, most important provisions and rules, following which, the commander makes an independent decision corresponding to the specific conditions of the combat situation, showing creative initiative.

Vitesse et Puissance

Thu, 05/03/2012 - 1:36pm

If I may be so bold, I would like to introduce a linear and reductionist concept from the world of software engineering to this discussion. That concept is known as a "Design Pattern". As software engineering evolved from procedural, flowchart-driven techniques into object-oriented programming, the software development community noticed that, at the architectural level, software designs tended to fall into "patterns" which could be reused, or modified to build a variation to the original "form". And so you have a rather substantial community of software engineers that seldom, if ever, designs a software program or system from scratch - a rough analogy is modular home design, where the house gets build from predefined components.

Well, what does that have to do with the theory of war, with strategy and the operational art ? Only this - if we do look back to the classics of military thought, what we find that the "canon" largely consists of an attic filled with old operational designs - for wars, campaigns and battles large and small, recent and ancient, rapid and protracted, and so on. The core of Jomini's work (as well as Chandler's history) is an attempt capture the design patterns of Napoleon's campaigns. Clausewitz struggles to give us much useful in the way of design patterns, but his acolytes did not shudder to indulge in historical analogies of this sort - hence von Schlieffen's "Collosal Campaign". Following this logic, Mao's three phase theory of insurgent warfare is likewise a design pattern. Certainly the Pop-COIN lines of operation portrated in FM 3-24 is another sort of pattern, with an historical basis that is a bit less self-evident. Indeed, one might well point out that even Liddell Hart's indirect approach and the subsequent claims of "maneuver warfare" offer a different set of design patterns, that promise quick and easy victory - what else can "recon pull tactics" be than a pattern with a prescription for how to act ? If one is willing to look for patterns, they are ubiqituous in military thought. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, "The simplification of anything is always sensational."

All this may be disappointing to those who wish to espouse tabula rosa as the beginning point of design, and eclectic pluralism as its method. One suspects a fear of subrational choice, in which our action-oriented commanders will grab a design pattern and go with it until - well, until it is too late to pull out. And, of course, that is a distinct possibility, as the practitioner's of von Schlieffen's "Collosal Cannae" learned to their distress. But the one idea that seems to have crept into the house is the notion that what really matters is the perception, as opposed to the reality of success...if we can imagine that our brilliant, foolproof design has worked as intended, we can chalk up the victory and we can all go home. This is what is most problematic about the influence of postmodern thinking, which draws on superstition as well as science. We will spend years sorting out what has really happened in Afghanistan and Iraq, to say nothing of those other nations where terrorism and strife are a reality and not just a news report.

The measure of Design, therefore, does not lie in how complicated we can make it, or intellectually supple it is. It is whether the geniuses who conceive it can communicate it in simple enough terms for persons of average intelligence to comprehend it and for persons of minimal intelligence to execute it. The true challenges our commanders will face in the future have to do with the fact that they cannot simply say the word and it shall be accomplished. This was always so, but it is ever more the case in a complex world which is being systematically shrunk by ever more powerful communications technology. That communications technology both conveys what is happening - and shields the beholder from reality. It becomes even more problematic when the audience really gets into the game and the noise level gets so out of control that the players are unable to hear themselves...of course this analogy and this pattern is a little bit broken, in that the game is not always a non-exclusive event, and one never knows when a stranger will emerge from the stands to join the does occasionally see this, too, in European football games.


Wed, 05/02/2012 - 3:48pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

I'm certainly not saying doctrine is useless or that people like you could not use it effectively in places like Iraq. I'm just saying many carried tacit assumptions based on the model we optimized to fight, which was inappropriate in this context. I also agree they "structured up" as they went along, because organizations form norms and procedures to use resources more effectively and to have coherent command and control in pursuit of their policy. However, even while that happens, sometimes you have diverse groups springing up on the periphery who don't share the same goals, and fight, act, and think differently, which is where I think design (and other tools) help, and I wholly agree with your statement that it helps anticipate the evolution.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 05/02/2012 - 11:52am

Just a quick comment on something raised by Sharapet---a limited number of us old grey breads still trying/working the advisory role said in Iraq from 2005 through 2008 that in fact the Iraqi Sunni insurgency could be templated from a IPB/intel perspective as they were in fact "structuring" up as they were evolving---we were met with disbelieve and many in the intel world said it could not be done.

Now go back and look at even what is available on the open source side and yes at a specific time and place insurgencies can be templated.

It is all about evolution and Design is a way of anticipating that evolution.

Solid article and especially the comments by Sharapet.


Mon, 04/30/2012 - 10:15pm

Very informative piece Adam.

"The Persian intrusion into Greece, the challenge posed to the European order by the French Revolution and the fanatical energies it unleashed, security debates of the 1920s and 30s, the global Cold War were all regarded as highly complex events that shattered old ways of thinking and shifted basic points of reference. Compared to these titanic events, can it really be said that 1991-2012 was similarly transformative as to warrant a radical rethinking of the way we plan operations and campaigns?"

I am no expert on Design but in regard to the comparative history above, I have a few comments:

1. We are very close -actually in - the most recent period and lack the distance to objectively assess any systemic shifts. Only a small minority of innovators in the 20's understood the aftermath of the Great War would require tactical and operational changes, outside of the Reichswehr they tended to be dissenting viewpoints until much more senior in rank. How important or transformative our period will be historically remains to be seen. I will hazard a guess that this period of geopolitical/geoeconomic transition intersecting with technological advances has decades more to unfold.

2. The collapse of the USSR and globalization undercut the strategic rationale for NATO, MAD and the overriding operational concern about a potential escalatory ladder to nuclear war being set in motion from a tactical error (like shooting down a U-2 over Cuba or misreading a military exercise as preparations for a nuclear attack). Some of the constraints on war planners were removed but the political justification for an expensive military establishment was likewise eroded. Military establishments have shrunk globally as a result from Cold War days, even in the US and China which have pursued qualitative upgrades and new capabilities.


Wed, 05/02/2012 - 1:07pm

In reply to by Sparapet

Thank you for your thoughts. I agree that the distinction between conventional and irregular are very fuzzy and almost always come mixed in the same campaigns. However, my point was that we have doctrinal templates, tools and heuristics we specifically apply to deal with the former to optimize our performance against "conventional" threats. "Conventional" forces normally have a uniform doctrine, set of equipment, and a coherent policy->strategy with commensurate constraints and cultural norms. I agree irregulars often gel into more regular forces over time (ala Mao's 3 phases), mainly because its more efficient and easier to control when you establish procedures, coherent command and control, etc.

But often new groups arise with their own agenda and come up with their own divergent strategy, tactics, and yes, weapons (like the EFP example you cited). Instead of figuring out the strategy of one group, others confound your attempts to treat them as a coherent whole, as you can generally do with conventional forces. Sure, conventional forces have individual units that can continue to fight after you defeat one, or a unit can adapt and fight differently, but they ultimately answer to their political authority to achieve their policy unless they go rogue. Irregulars also make the situation more complex by operating amongst the population to a greater degree than regular forces. While the Nazi's left snipers and marauders behind in French villages to impede the Allied advance, they normally did not receive any willing support, and the Allies didn't spend a lot of effort in smoking them out. They drove on for Berlin and engaged whomever shot at them or had recognizable signatures of enemy forces for the most part.

As for your caveat to my WWII example about the Pacific Theater and differing Japanese norms, their cultural and military norms certainly did differ from American ones, but they were still mostly homogeneous across the Imperial Japanese Army/Navy. We could look at their doctrine and capabilities and template their moves to anticipate their actions to a greater degree than we could, say the diverse insurgent groups you listed.

I think design offers a tool (one of many) to take a step back from optimized templates and rethink heuristics we may be applying unconsciously in an inappropriate situation. I'm sure not saying we should throw out doctrine or that current doctrine cannot be used effectively against insurgents.

Finally, I didn't want to digress too much into the ineptitude we've shown in DoD/USG in explaining policy & strategy to the public. My point there was that in the past, leaders had an opportunity to put mitigating measures in place before public outrage struck over a failure or scandal. Now friendly and enemy actions that had previously never been exposed simultaneously hits the public and leaders before they can plan how to deal with it or get things accomplished while they can. Now the other actors can resonate out of control while passions are hot to a much greater degree. The fiasco of the Dieppe raid did not end Allied efforts for a multitude of reasons, but among those reasons was relatively well communicated policy and a public that understood the stakes.


Wed, 05/02/2012 - 10:53am

In reply to by Jon.Jeckell


I think we will agree that a critical approach to "established heuristics" is one of Design's main arguments. But I do wonder why you make the conventional/irregular distinction. How do you explain the planning complexity when the Germans were faced with Soviet or Serbian partisans, or the Maquee (sp?), or the Brits v. the Boers, or for that matter any number of LIC's that involved local insurgents against foreign occupation troops from 1900-Present? I pick this time frame to specifically address two of your points:

1. "Pervasive media presence and instantaneous communications vastly increases the number of actors in the “system” compared to prior wars. Increased awareness of actions by the enemy, friendly troops, and mistakes made by political leaders can resonate much more rapidly, leading to changes in policy, changes in political leadership, or other effects drastically affecting policy and strategy."

Failure in a campaign had the power to undo men and nations long before electricity. Though it might take as long as the boat takes to sail, the effects are no less profound. That DOD <i>failed</i> to properly assess and prepare for the role of a military in a sovereign state in its post-Vietnam planning has less to do with the difference in complexity between 1945 and 2005 than with the fact that a generation of planners got really good at HIC at the expense of LIC. Viet Nam, Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo were ample recent reminders of the types of warfare most armies engage in most of the time in human history and how modern tech shortens the decision cycle. We had the Tet Offensive, "images from Mogadishu" and the reports of the "coming genocide in Kosovo" on TV and news rapidly enough through unfiltered 'actors' to make a political impact. But I would argue that as an institution we didn't learn anything from them except how to hire contractors. It took the utter embarassment of 2004-2007 in Iraq to reach the 'oh-shit' threshold in the etablishment.

2. "in “conventional” operations, the enemy generally operated according to an established doctrine, in aggregated units, in recognizable uniforms, with generally known weapons capabilities and limitations allowing units to template enemy actions using heuristics and other models of behavior."

Save for recognizable uniforms, all of those components apply to insurgents. Instead of a difference in kind we should look at them as existing on a spectrum of organization. As insurgents win more fights or gain land and recrutis, they begin to gel into the "conventional force". The taliban began to organize under commanders once they had more than a handful of fighters. Those commanders operate in a low-resource, low troop quality, "mission command" environment, as opposed to our stated ideal of a high-resource, high troop quality, "mission command" environment. This means their capabilities are knowable quantities with the occasional emergence of a new weapon system (e.g. EFPs). This is not unlike the effects of emergence of better SLM's (shoulder launched missiles) in a conventional enemy. Their limitations are known as well. The types of attacks the Taliban pull off in Kabul are very different than what they can manage in Paktika. The same was true in OIF with say, the Mehdi Army being much more effective where they had local, Sadr-friendly, Shi'a dominance.

The complexity argument comes to the fore when a basic assumption falls apart. You alluded to this in your post by saying "... relatively common norms of behavior (in the European Theater of Operations at least)". That you had to qualify the Japanese as perhaps not following "common norms" is the very kind of culturally relativist lens that needs to be wiped clean in every theater, regardless of whether the enemy there is conventional or irregular. We get good at guessing what covnentional enemies will tend to do by investing massive resources and man power into figuring it out. Something we had not been prepared to devote to the insurgent.

I do agree with you that the <i>modern</i> environment is a more complex one for the reasons you cited. I do however, caution against making a distinction between the LIC and the "conventional" fight. Word of a minor defeat in a conventional fight can be just as damaging politically and disruptive to strategy via the internet etc as Tet was via the TV/Paper, or Abu Ghraib.

The environment is complex, not the enemy.


Tue, 05/01/2012 - 2:57pm

In reply to by Mark O'Neill

I agree with Mark that design has little directly to do with COIN, and that we will continue to deal with insurgencies whether we want to or not. However, I think the connection Adam is making here is that the confusion and chaos in responding to insurgency with our existing methods opened the door for fixes to the problem, whether design really provided that or not.

As our dealings with insurgencies will persist, I hope that design, or at least an openness to look beyond established doctrine, while understanding and using doctrine as a guide. Like COIN, design literature also generated a lot of hype and mixed terminology across a number of professions. However, it has been incorporated in several US doctrinal publications and will hopefully increase in practice.

Regarding complexity, I think the assertion that the contemporary operating environment is more complex than, say, the European Theater of Operations in World War II, or Desert Storm has some merit, or at least the US military established heuristics to simplify the environment it most expected to encounter. Pervasive media presence and instantaneous communications vastly increases the number of actors in the “system” compared to prior wars. Increased awareness of actions by the enemy, friendly troops, and mistakes made by political leaders can resonate much more rapidly, leading to changes in policy, changes in political leadership, or other effects drastically affecting policy and strategy. Secondly, in “conventional” operations, the enemy generally operated according to an established doctrine, in aggregated units, in recognizable uniforms, with generally known weapons capabilities and limitations allowing units to template enemy actions using heuristics and other models of behavior. Friendly and enemy behavior was also constrained by relatively common norms of behavior (in the European Theater of Operations at least). The US military operated under these tacit assumptions to optimize training to maximize effectiveness against Soviet forces. If nothing else, design helps the practitioner step back and re-evaluate assumptions and heuristics.


Tue, 05/01/2012 - 2:37pm

In reply to by Mark O'Neill

Very well said Mark, very well indeed.

Mark O'Neill

Mon, 04/30/2012 - 10:29pm

While I accept that your article actually has little to do with counterinsurgency, your introduction is very wide of the mark. It reflects a narrow view, although I note your qualification "for now"..

Counterinsurgency has not changed, nor is it going anywhere. Just ask the Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis, Syrians, Russians, Thais, Fillipinos, Indonesians, Burmese, Colombians... etc etc.

What you might say is that 'America's recent infatuation with COIN appears to be waning. We can anticipate that normal transmission will resume soon,until the next time we make a another strategic mistake.'

COIN is neither a fashion nor a fad. It is what nations with insurgencies must do, and plenty are doing it. Often far better than 'us'.

I have no doubt that amongst the 'expert' community (a risible term at best) COIN is 'waning'. My bet - watch all these 'experts' become 'expert' at sea-air battle all of a sudden...

One good thing arising from the view about the 'imminent sunset of COIN' in the West will be the departure of the spivs, fools, commentators and self-promoting charlatans. These people, collectively over a decade, have done nothing to advance our knowledge. They merely recycle motherhood statements based on misunderstanding of decades old mythology and non-existent research. It will be good for this to be over, so that scholars and practioners can get on with it, without being tainted by implicit association with the circus clowns.