Small Wars Journal

A Kuhnian Moment Approaches for Military Art and Science

Mon, 10/13/2014 - 10:34am

A Kuhnian Moment Approaches for Military Art and Science

Kevin C.M. Benson

On 10 September 2014 during his speech to the nation on his policy to counter the Islamic State the president announced, “American forces will not have a combat mission.”[i]  This appears to me to be rather clear guidance.  It is also clear to me our current system of military operations is reaching a point where it is NOT producing options which fit the expectations of our civilian leaders, and perhaps the changing conditions of 21st century war. 

The obligation of the leaders and planners of our armed forces is to turn the president’s statement of policy into strategy and supporting campaign plans.  Of course a major part of this obligation is to point out the risks attendant to attaining policy objectives given the guidance.  The development and execution of strategy requires us to act in accord with changing circumstances and not pass any opportunity to strengthen our position and weaken the enemy’s.  In recent testimony on Capitol Hill GENs Dempsey, Odierno and Austin correctly pointed out when conditions on a battlefield change they are obligated to go to the president and make updated recommendations.  War remains an extension and instrument of policy.  Does our current paradigm provide the answers for current complex problems we believe face the nation?

In his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn argued the history of science shows scientific progress is not made by a linear accumulation of new knowledge.  In general, science is broken up into three distinct stages. Pre-science, which lacks a central paradigm, comes first. This is followed by "normal science", when scientists attempt to enlarge the central paradigm by "puzzle-solving." Guided by the paradigm, normal science is extremely productive: "when the paradigm is successful, the profession will have solved problems that its members could scarcely have imagined and would never have undertaken without commitment to the paradigm."[ii]  Science itself undergoes periodic revolutions, or “paradigm shifts” when the conduct of scientific inquiry within a particular field is abruptly transformed.

During periods of normal science, the failure of an experimental result to conform to the paradigm does not refute the existing paradigm.  Lack of conformity is seen as the result of a mistake on the part of the researcher.  However, as anomalous results build up, according to Kuhn, science reaches a crisis.  At this point a new paradigm, which subsumes the old results along with the anomalous results into one framework, is accepted. This is termed revolutionary science.[iii]  There is also a corresponding effect of insulation within a scientific community.

Kuhn wrote, “The effects of insulation from the larger society are greatly intensified by another characteristic of the professional scientific community, the nature of its educational initiation.”[iv]  Sound familiar?  We argue about how to best select and educate strategists as well as commanders of our formations.  We also argue about the size of the conventional force and its role vis-à-vis the special operations forces.  The shared paradigm of how to develop force structure and strategy frames our solutions for strategic challenges.

Kuhn also wrote, “Men whose research is based on shared paradigms are committed to the same rules and standards for scientific practice.  That commitment and the apparent consensus it produces are prerequisites for normal science…”[v]  Kuhn's theory stressed for the new paradigm to come about the old one had to be discarded.  The effect of a continuous series of anomalous results could no longer be explained by mistakes on the part of the researcher.  Our force designers, concept developers, planners and operations specialists have shared a paradigm, their normal science, for a number of years.

The current paradigm ranges from the conventional army is on point for the nation to threat based and capability based force structure planning, 2 and ½ wars to SOF is a force multiplier.  Yet the responses to current crises revolve around special operating forces, air delivered fires and sea power.[vi]  Our present policy-makers have hypothesized this policy toward the Islamic State and the associated strategy will achieve their designed ends.   

We might not like the situation we are in but we must consider being at a Kuhnian moment, a shift in paradigms regarding the roles of conventional and Special Forces, the structure of campaign planning and the development of strategy.  If the national response to future crises is similar to the current strategy to destroy the Islamic state, IS, then we must answer the question of what is the role of conventional land forces in this changing reality or new paradigm?

Recent reports state our Army is preparing to deploy a division headquarters to Iraq.  The Army Times cited General Odierno stating the Army, “will send another division headquarters to Iraq to control what we’re doing there, a small headquarters…The complexity of the environment that we have to operate in now, and probably the next 10 to 15 to 20 years, we need these headquarters,” he said. “If you ask me one of the stress points in the Army, it’s our headquarters.”  This headquarters will coordinate the efforts of the 1600 Soldiers presently in Iraq.  So, Army division headquarters will provide command and control over forces, now and into the future.[vii]

The primacy of conventional ground forces, general purpose forces, might be coming to an end.  The commitment of the Army is likely to become a true “last resort.”  Ground forces which will be committed to the campaigns across the bulk of the range of military operations appear to be Special Forces and special operations forces, complemented by air and sea power.  Such ground forces as might be deployed in future campaigns will be those associated with power projection and protection; port opening packages, logistics units and air and missile defense.

Accepting this alternative future how large should the active component of the Army be, in order to sustain the land campaigns of the future and serve as a training ground for special operations forces?  The Marine Corps has three divisions to support the flow of Marines into and out of the Marine Special Operations force.  Can the Army sustain 25,000 to 30,000 Special Forces of all types with six regular divisions and associated units dedicated to mission command, sustainment, and force protection? 

Commitment of the convention land forces of the US to battle as a “last resort,” certainly bolsters the arguments of those who would save monies by transferring the bulk of the fighting formations of the Army into the National Guard.  Last resort implies time to alert, mobilize and train reserve formations in time for high intensity combat.  An option for this shift of forces to the National Guard is the return of the Guard to the mobilization base and strategic reserve.   In this manner the Guard readiness can go down and Guard units come off Army Force Generation, ARFORGEN, schedule charts.  This switch would allow a smaller active component force which can be maintained at higher readiness.  This also allows a smaller active component to operate as an operational reserve to Special Operating Forces.  Given a higher operational tempo and smaller unit deployments a higher level of readiness in Army Service Component Commands, ASCCs, might be required as well as the controlling headquarters for sequencing and sustaining force protection and logistical support to a wider range of committed forces in multiple areas.

I personally do not subscribe to the notion the regular portion of the Army should be reduced.  Further, I think placing the bulk of our forces in the reserve is unacceptable risk when facing the complexity of the 21st century.  Still, we are obligated to question our current force design paradigm.  The options above have huge implications for all of our Doctrine-Organization-Training-Materiel-Leadership and education-Personnel-Facilities, DOTLMPF areas to say the least.

Clearly war and the use of force is an extension of policy.  Deploying a division headquarters to West Africa to coordinate the activities of Army units in support of Liberian and West African governments’ efforts to combat the Ebola epidemic is a use of force to attain policy objectives.  Deploying a division headquarters to coordinate the training support mission in Iraq is another example of using force to attain policy objectives.  Where do we educate Army officers to link the successful accomplishment of tactical tasks by medical, MP, and engineer units to strategic and policy objectives in West Africa?  Where do our general staff officers learn to translate strategic and policy objectives into attainable tactical tasks under such conditions?

I do not think we can fall back on the tired and unproven mantra of “if we can write an operations order for combined arms maneuver we can write one for lesser tasks.”

If GEN Odierno is correct in his assertion the days of one big war are over at a minimum we are going to have to reconsider many areas of emphasis.  How we educate general staff officers and commanders to face the range of military operations?  We will certainly have to face major reductions in the size of the regular Army.  We will also have to work very hard to establish a floor under the Army end strength.  In an era of deploying smaller units to multiple locations how to ensure the accomplishment of tasks by these units attain the required military objectives needed to reach policy objectives.[viii]  The use of force in the 21st century is and remains an extension of policy. 

This essay in no way represents official policy of any US Army organization.  The thoughts expressed are solely my own.


Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd Edition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Army Times.  Army chief: Division headquarters will deploy soon to Iraq. Michelle Tan. 23 September 2014.

End Notes

[i] Federal News Service.  President Obama’s remarks at the White House on Sept. 10 outlining his strategy to defeat Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.  10 September 2014, transcript found at the White House web site.

[ii]Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd Edition, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996, p. 25.  Hereafter cited as Kuhn.

[iii] Drawn from Kuhn, chapters II, III, and X.

[iv] Kuhn, pp. 164-165.

[v] Kuhn, p. 11.

[vi] For the most recent example see the transcript of President Obama’s speech on destroying the Islamic State.

[vii] Army Times.  Army chief: Division headquarters will deploy soon to Iraq. Michelle Tan Sep. 23, 2014

[viii] I gratefully acknowledge the help of COLs (ret) Greg Fontenot and Joe Buche in developing this essay.  Errors of course are mine alone.


About the Author(s)

Kevin Benson, Ph.D., Colonel, U.S. Army, Retired, is currently a seminar leader at the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.  He holds a B.S. from the United States Military Academy, an M.S. from The Catholic University of America, an MMAS from the School of Advanced Military Studies and a Ph.D. from the University of Kansas.  During his career, COL Benson served with the 5th Infantry Division, the 1st Armored Division, the 1st Cavalry Division, the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, XVIII Airborne Corps and Third U.S. Army. He also served as the Director, School of Advanced Military Studies. These are his own opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army or Department of Defense.