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Optionality on the Battlefield: Examining How Enemies Build and Employ a Toolkit for War
We all seem to be scouring for ‘lessons learned’ in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not only do we wish to perfect our ability to operate in the complex and uncertain environments that have defined the past decade, but we want to avoid internalizing the wrong lessons going into the future. As a result we attempt to envision future operating environments and challenges while building a force that aligns with these projections.
To effectively learn from these experiences, we should recognize that our military and our government as whole can only retain so much skill in so many facets of power projection. In other words, military capabilities and capacities will always be limited somewhere, at least in the eyes of the enemy. An enemy will always be able to determine how and where our military forces are most vulnerable. This provides the enemy with an advantage.
If we view this in terms of a criminal attempting to physically breech a secure compound, we see that the intruder – often the seemingly inferior force – actually possesses several advantages that the superior force and its security measures tend to lack. A criminal, in this instance, possesses the advantage of 1.) Freedom to act upon the target (how and when they desire) and 2.) Knowledge of their own best options for achieving tactical success and the likelihood of that success (i.e. an intimate understanding of their own capabilities and capacities). The asymmetry that we often discuss between armies in military terms can provide the inferior force with a set of benefits that changes the true calculus of an engagement with that superior force. If our calculus fails to address the skills, advantages, and likelihood of success for a single adversary, that same calculus can surely be devastatingly wrong and harmful when applied to a larger population or enemy force.
I address this aspect of conflict because I think it is important as we attempt to learn from Iraq and Afghanistan. I think we have neglected some lessons about these wars. We have neglected both the operational freedom of our adversaries and the impact of their own learning process on how they fight. Simply put, they possess a level of freedom and knowledge that we have yet to appreciate. The adversaries that we perceive to be clearly inferior may in fact be harboring options on the battlefield that elude our military and civilian leaders; options that modern states seem not to recognize as an inherent quality of irregular warfare. It is this option – a component of the enemy’s toolkit for war – that I think is a crucial component of our perceived-weaker enemies, and one that we fail to properly understand.
Adversaries will always exercise their use of ‘options’ on the battlefield. This does not mean that all actors and armies will possess a large or even suitable set of options in every conflict, but it does mean that a particular enemy will be making determinations about whether or not to fight and how to fight based on a set of options that they possess.
Optionality is about positioning yourself toward situations and events by which you can most likely exercise an option that provides for the most upside and the least downside toward your objective. Nassim Taleb expresses this idea in his 2012 book Antifragil through the story of Thales, the 5th Century BCE Ionian philosopher. As Taleb explains, Thales “put a down payment on the seasonal use of every olive press in the vicinity of Miletus and Chios, which he got at low rent. The harvest turned out to be extremely bountiful and there was demand for olive presses, so he released the owners of the olive presses on his own terms, building a substantial fortune in the process.” [i]
This story was told by Aristotle hundreds of years later as a case for possessing and exercising knowledge. It was Thales’ knowledge of astronomy, Aristotle says, that allowed him to determine during the winter that there would be a high olive yield. But this is all wrong. It was not his knowledge that provided the financial payoff, Taleb argues, but instead it was having “put himself in a position to take advantage of his lack of knowledge…” This is the essence of optionality: the ability to exercise an option that is most favorable to you and your goals without the knowledge that would allow for an informed prediction. For Thales, he possessed “the right—but not the obligation—to use the olive presses in case there would be a surge in demand; the other party had the obligation, not the right.” It was never required that he make any sort of prediction, he simply bought the rights to an option that would yield large benefits if a certain outcome presented itself, which in this case it did. [ii]
Optionality on a larger scale addresses much of what the military attempts to do with regard to force structure and capabilities. We would like to possess options for all contingencies, all enemies, and all regions of the earth, and then simply deploy those options when needed. In this sense – discussing options within our defense community – the idea of optionality is familiar. But the discussion is less understood when you demonstrate that our adversaries, especially non-state actors and insurgents, possess similar options when deciding how to engage in combat. The size and strength of our military does not nullify the ability of our enemies to choose engagement strategies. We are so obsessed with making sure that the enemy fights on our terms that we lose sight of their tactical and operational freedom when it actually does exist. I think this freedom is more pronounced then we like to admit.
Michael Vickers, the recently-retired Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, explained this aspect of asymmetry – which I have termed optionality – as the enemy’s possession of “favorable cost balances.” This advantage enables adversaries to “focus on one area and cause us to spend a lot more trying to counter that challenge than would be a good strategic exchange.” As an example, Vickers cites North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons programs as being a favorable cost balance which forces the U.S. to spend a lot of time and resources in an attempt to counter that specific threat. [iii] We saw this happen dramatically during OIF and OEF with the substantial use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against coalition forces.
We can view a weaker enemy’s use of optionality on the battlefield through this limited framework:
- Militarily inferior adversaries will always exercise optionality in the face of superior forces.
- The option(s) they choose, and the one they continue to implement, is inherently their best option – the result of exercising optionality on the battlefield.
- Superior military forces can choose to (a.) engage the enemy within the realm of their ‘best option,’ (b.) choose to avoid engagement with the enemy within this realm, or (c.) exercise some combination of the two.
Our enemies also learn during the interwar period (it’s not just us). We may be expending a lot more money and intellectual energy, holding more conferences and writing more papers, but this does not mean our adversaries are intellectually stagnant in between times of conflict. This also does not mean that we are learning more effectively than others. Energy and resources expended is never a predictor of future success or even effective preparation.
If the enemy is also learning then we must accept that the lessons we internalize now, gained from the last decade and a half, are not concrete lessons that will automatically prove useful or sufficient on future battlefields. This knowledge of a ‘learning enemy’ must come into our calculation about how and what we should be learning now.
Improving U.S. Options
In December 2013, then-Deputy Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter wrote a Foreign Affairs piece about the Pentagon’s response to capability gaps in Iraq and Afghanistan. His article charts with appreciable detail the troubles and triumphs of the Pentagon’s process of learning to become agile in defense acquisition, to quickly provide needed equipment for the military during two wars.
Carter says the original weakness in the Department of Defense (DoD) acquisition model was made clear by the scope and devastation of IEDs. This model took many years to flesh out, first with the Joint Rapid Acquisition Cell (JRAC) in 2004, to the institutionalization of the Army’s IED Task Force (becoming ‘JIEDDO’) in 2006, then the creation of the MRAP Task Force upon the direction of Defense Secretary Gates. The story is fairly well understood now. In bypassing the traditional acquisition model the U.S. was able to field over 24,000 MRAPs to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, becoming “the largest defense procurement program since World War II to go from decision to full industrial production in less than a year.” [iv]
Fortunately for the military, Secretary Carter understands the dangers of letting these advancements and lessons wither away with the drawdown in troops. The Pentagon, he assures us, is working to retain its improved agility with the Joint Urgent Operational Needs process and the Warfighter SIG (Senior Integration Group; focused on current operational needs); the Joint Emergent Operational Needs process (focused on acquisition for future capability gaps); and greater flexibility in the Pentagon’s funding authority. As he appropriately stresses,
“The challenge for the Pentagon now is to lock in these gains and make sure that the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq are not forgotten.…Simply learning the lessons of the wars is not enough; the Pentagon must institutionalize those lessons so that it does not have to start anew the next time they are relevant. In fact, many of these changes need to happen immediately, as the country faces potential new threats.” [v]
I would agree that the MRAP Task Force was successful given what it was designed achieved – fielding a specific product as quickly as possible for operational use (once the program was finally instituted). But the lessons of rapid acquisition at the DoD should be cautiously congratulated. Even in contention with some of my previous thoughts, I find the exaltation of this model suspect and potentially dangerous for a military that will be deployed to more conflict zones, possibly in the near future.
For one, the MRAP was a ground vehicle that had already been tested by the Pentagon in 2000. [vi] The MRAP design, with its V-shaped hull, had been around for years, used by the South Africans to protect against landmines. I doubt that this level of rapid acquisition could have taken place if no design, prototype, or at least knowledge-base had already existed in the defense industry.
As we push to engage our military and our diplomats more fully in the Asia-Pacific, we need to be cautious about applying the MRAP model to future naval and air vulnerabilities that may come with the terrain. The MRAP was the product of institutional initiative with a clear goal and an already tested design. How do we use the MRAP model when Marines cannot reach the beachhead or sailors cannot even stay safe ten miles off the coast? While Carter says that the Pentagon is already preparing for possible Iranian swarming tactics on U.S. ships by upgrading our targeting systems and munitions, [vii] there is no guarantee that other urgent operational needs in these different domains (air and sea), especially with no product or design to work with, can be delivered to our troops before operational or strategic failure.
Additionally, this MRAP acquisition history seems mildly incomplete. While Secretary Carter admits that it took years for the DoD to initiate the MRAP program, even after it was clear that IEDs were growing ever more deadly, he seems to underplay to role of the military services in this effort. Clearly the program only succeeded because Secretary Gates made it a highest priority, but the military receives no recognition of this effort outside a mention of Gates being urged by LTG Odierno, then Multi-National Corps Commander in Iraq, to build these vehicles. [viii]
It was Robert Gates who stated in his memoirs that the “Marine Corps had taken the lead in developing MRAPs.” He explains this history, saying that in February 2005 BGen Dennis Hejlik first signed a request for more than a thousand MRAP-like vehicles for his Marines in Anbar province. It took a second request, fifteen months later, to get Pentagon approval. The vehicles finally arrived in Iraq in February 2007, “two years after the original request,” Gates bemoans. The request for armored vehicles in Iraq well preceded even the 2005 request. The Marines had already asked for twenty-seven vehicles for its EOD teams in December 2003, and the Army had asked for armored vehicles to sell to the Iraqis in late 2004. Later on, the Marine Corps took the initiative to solicit bids for armored vehicles (November 2006) and award contracts to nine companies for MRAP prototypes (January 2007). In light of this additional history, we see that there was both a desire for these vehicles and knowledge of their existence and suitability for military operations long before Gates’ DoD-wide directive in 2007. [ix]
Gates and Carter both provide similar explanations for this acquisition lag-time, but Gates’ account provides us with some different lessons. Acquisition reform at the Pentagon was necessary, and those lessons and organizations need to be retained, but we cannot fail to learn that our military is most acute of its vulnerabilities, is most apt to innovate when necessary (not innovate unnecessarily), and must hold a substantial voice on discussions of operational effectiveness, even when the answer is product acquisition and, or additional funding from Congress.
Future Enemy Options
If our adversaries are learning about both our responses to IEDs and irregular warfare during OIF/OEF (improved TTPs, new technologies, unit and institutional innovations, greater ISR capabilities, etc.) and about our current attempts at learning to internalize and institutionalize lessons for future combat (e.g. Carter’s article on how the Pentagon plans to remain agile and his praise for the MRAP model), then our adversaries are learning in a similar fashion as we ourselves learn.
This reveals the importance of thinking in second and third-order effects, surely a process of thinking with which our senior military officials are familiar. War can of course become a chess match in this process, where each player not only establishes options for his own future moves, but attempts to formulate options for his enemy’s future moves, which in turn affects his own options and strategy. Endless preparation, war-gaming, or “what-if” and “if-then” statements can catalyze elements of paralysis in our own thinking, but can be used effectively to entertain realistic elements of concern and danger. I think this is true when assessing our enemies’ future options.
The enemy gains valuable future options for its forces by viewing our past and present actions in learning from wars.
Our past actions against insurgents and IEDs demonstrate that we fully engaged with the enemy within their realm of this option. They possessed a leverage that our leaders never anticipated and were unable to deal with for years, and still have not solved (if it were even solvable). As Secretary Carter explains, IEDs and insurgent tactics became “strategic threats to U.S. objectives.” [x] In turn the enemy learns the age-old lesson of all insurgents: bigger and mightier armies can always be brought to a stumble, forcing weakened moral, a disheartened public, and a scouring for exit signs. If simple insurgent tactics and improvised weapons can create this sort chaos, then all the enemy has to do is convince a modern state that its military engagement will be 1.) Necessary, 2.) Easily-controllable (escalate or not on its terms), 3.) Short-term, and 4.) Show clear options for disengagement.
If we bypass these concerns, then an enemy only has to create a level of chaos that makes our options for disengagement appear far worse than our options for staying strong and fighting. It is this chaos that plays to the enemy’s hand, revealing their options, and forcing us to fight on terms that are not our own. We can easily convince ourselves that a war will never turn into this or that – an insurgency or nation-building effort – but we seem to have little control over either predicting that outcome ahead of time or controlling the ground conditions once we do commit to war. Secretary Gates impressed upon us these same cautions:
“Usually we don’t get to choose and almost never accurately predict the kind of war we will fight next. I am always amused when I hear a senior military officer of a politician declare that we will never fight certain kinds of wars again. After Vietnam, our defense ‘experts’ avowed we would never again try to fight an insurgency, yet we have done so in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We are hearing the same claim now. Those who assert we will fight only certain kinds of wars in the future forget history and the reality that our enemies, as I’ve said, always have a vote, as do future presidents.” [xi]
Our enemies “always have a vote”… they have options, and these options dictate their willingness to engage militarily, how to engage, and whether or not to commit to a war against us. The Taliban, al Qaeda, insurgent forces, state-supported proxies – all of these groups commit to fighting because they are committed to the long war. They are willing to endure greater loses and hardships in the near-term for the objectives they seek and expect to obtain in the long-term. And this broaches exactly the essence of what it means to be a technologically advanced nation with rapid acquisition programs, expeditionary warfighting units, and immediately deployable SOF elements – our strength rests in the intense, the rapid, and the precise, but none of this solves the problems of nation-building or the difficulties of a COIN campaign.
Our current attempts at learning from OIF/OEF can also inform the enemy about future engagements. If our defense and political establishment finds solace in the DoD rapid acquisition model and the potential for it to be a savior when capability gaps are exploited – which they will be – then we have certainly learned and improved on a technological and logistical level, but this could also be reinforcing our confidence in overmatch capabilities. It would be sad if the greatest lesson we learn from our troubles in these wars is how to become a more efficient bureaucracy, instead of learning how to better wage war and control the environment through the entire spectrum of political, economic, and military engagement.
Adversaries are watching how we evolve through these conflicts. If we develop better methods of analysis, targeting, even a reduction in blow-back, then we have learned. But that process still appears similar to the Revolution in Military Affairs leading into Desert Storm. The methods, resources, and tactics may be different, but the confidence with which we enter into a conflict, believe that we can control the conflict on our own terms, and then exit the conflict at our discretion remains real and believable.
If our politicians and military leaders include the MRAP model in their analysis of whether to engage or how to engage future adversaries, then we have forsaken the lesson we pretend to learn decade after decade, but actually never internalize: that there are no military options that are completely free of downside, possessing only upside for our forces and our strategic objectives.
This spans the whole of government, even in recent years. The rapid expansion of private security contractors to war zones has a downside; the increase in security clearances and the greater sharing of intelligence across the community has consequences; repetitious deployment of our service members has negative implications at home and abroad; the development of machine, non-human implements of war are broaching new questions of moral and political implications. Of course we should be concerned with decreasing these negative implications, attempting to foresee consequences and potential blow-back years and decades into the future, but we should not talk of warfare as if it is devoid of these natural and expected failures and disasters.
Again I quote Robert Gates, addressing an audience at the National Defense University in 2008, he told us to “‘Look askance…at idealized, triumphant, or ethnocentric notions of future conflict that aspire to upend the immutable principles of war, where the enemy is killed, but our troops and innocent civilians are spared; where adversaries can be cowed, shocked, or awed into submission, instead of being tracked down, hilltop to hilltop, house by house, block by bloody block.’” [xii]
Is it healthy and productive for us to say, “Maybe there exists no foreseeable solution to all of our problems in combat”?
Instead we may need to recognize the true nature of war and the limits of a democratic nation’s ability to exert power on territories and peoples around the world. We should be thinking in terms of optionality though. We should be thinking how best to mitigate the downside as realistically as possible, while understanding that violence has consequences on us and those that we fight for generations.
Confidence in our qualitative military edge is not necessary to succeed on the battlefield. In fact, this mindset may be playing to our adversaries’ advantage. If our enemies can convince us that we forever possess a qualitative edge, that we can forever learn from our past failures to succeed in future wars, then they can convince us to fight anytime and anywhere that our options appear simple and clear. We need to understand our current process of learning so that we guide our institutions and even our ways of thinking in a direction that can help us avoid falling into these old traps that benefit our adversaries.
Conclusion: How to Make Sense of Optionality
The main reason for drawing a corollary between optionality and the position of non-state actors is to address a similarity in decision-making. We all choose between certain options in life. The military makes decisions within the realm of optionality as well. Non-state actors more closely resemble Thales the philosopher than the U.S. military does. As long as these groups are choosing amongst options that are relatively inexpensive, or options whose use has variable functions or formats (such as components of improvised weapon systems), then their intelligence does not have to match the apparent ‘intelligence’ with which our military approaches conflict zones (think: research, doctrine, policy).
In the words of Nassim Taleb, “If you ‘have optionality,’ you don’t have much need for what is commonly called intelligence, knowledge, insight, skills, and these complicated things that take place in our brain cells. For you don’t have to be right that often. All you need is the wisdom to not do unintelligent things to hurt yourself (some acts of omission) and recognize favorable outcomes when they occur. (The key is that your assessment doesn’t need to be made beforehand, only after the outcome.)” [xiii]
Prediction is not what these forces are betting on. They are betting on the cheapest, most customizable, easily scalable, and impactful option that can be employed if conditions become favorable. When Taleb says that the assessment only has to be made “after the outcome,” in irregular warfare, this can mean that an array of military options are harbored without the intent of employment but can be unearthed and unleashed only once a stronger enemy shows up in their backyard and reveals some vulnerability.
We need to internalize the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan, but we also need to internalize some lessons about the policies that commit us to war and about our willingness to fight these wars. There is a pride in the American military that seems to suggest that all enemies will fight on our terms and that we can always innovate-around, out-fund, and out-gun every obstacle. It is necessary that our military learns from its fights in hopes of fighting better or at least remaining effective in the dynamic world of violence. But there needs to be an equal process or attempt at learning about warfare on the political front. If our military is bred to be subservient to the Congress and the Executive, then no amount of military-only learning can perfect our ability as a country to deal with conflicts, to solve international crises, or even fight on a battlefield. Our military leaders will never say “no,” just as a soldier or Marine will ever say “no” to their Platoon Commander. If there’s not a way, then at least I’ll go down trying. That mentally is useful only as long as the political leg work as has been carried out and exhausted, and our politicians and hopefully our citizens are convinced that our military must stand up and fight.
From a military perspective we must understand that options are constantly available to an enemy and that these options do not have to be carefully prepared for or internalized by the enemy. The U.S. will always exhibit some vulnerability, and the adversaries that do make the determination to engage our forces will likely be in possession of an option that can exploit some weakness. The presence of options in our enemies’ arsenal should not make us interminably hesitant to wage war, but it should help ground us in the knowledge that wars resembling Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which became nation-building efforts, can easily put the U.S. military at a considerable disadvantage. We should not let success in one area or with one program, like rapid acquisition of MRAPs, dictate the lessons that we learn about larger, more critical questions of military effectiveness in a COIN environment.
There are some critical questions about warfare that need to be discussed right now and over the next few years. There is also a huge track record of successes and heroics in the military over these fourteen years. Historians may be more apt to point out the failures and fallacies than the people living and experimenting through this period. As long as we treat our failures, politically and militarily, with equal attention as we do our successes, then I think we’ll be alright. But this discussion needs to take place and we cannot allow optimists to solely lead the way.
[i] Taleb, Nassim Nicholas (2012) “Antifragile: How to Live in a World We Don’t Understand,” pp. 173-4, (London: Allen Lane).
[ii] Ibid., p. 174.
[iii] TISS (Triangle Institute for Security Studies), "UNC Defense Speaker," YouTube, (00:31:55 – 00:32:56), 16 March 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YSfjFwA5Wmw, accessed 9 July 2015.
[iv] Foreign Affairs, “Running the Pentagon Right: How to Get the Troops What They Need,” Jan/Feb 2014 issue, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2013-12-06/running-pentagon-right, accessed 29 May 2015.
[vi] Gates, Robert M. (2014) “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War,” p. 121, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf).
[vii] Foreign Affairs, “Running the Pentagon Right: How to Get the Troops What They Need,” Jan/Feb 2014 issue, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2013-12-06/running-pentagon-right, accessed 29 May 2015.
[ix] Gates, Robert M. (2014) “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War,” pp. 121-2, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf).
[x] Foreign Affairs, “Running the Pentagon Right: How to Get the Troops What They Need,” Jan/Feb 2014 issue, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2013-12-06/running-pentagon-right, accessed 29 May 2015.
[xi] Gates, Robert M. (2014) “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War,” p. 590, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf).
[xii] Ibid., p. 592.
[xiii] Taleb, Nassim Nicholas (2012) “Antifragile: How to Live in a World We Don’t Understand,” p. 180, (London: Allen Lane).