Small Wars Journal

State, Society, and War

Tue, 07/12/2016 - 1:18am

State, Society, and War

Robert P. Chamberlain

Military revolutions are seldom legible to their participants in advance.  New technologies, organizational templates, and doctrinal concepts only reveal the extent of their superiority when tested in battle.  After their dominance has been demonstrated, the rest of the world scrambles to catch up and a new way of conducting war supplants methods that had been in place for decades or centuries.  Thus, figuring out whether one is in a revolutionary moment and positioning oneself on the winning side of history is a matter of pressing concern for military professionals.

One way to approach the study of military revolutions is to develop some working definition of the concept and then inventory all such revolutions over a given span of history.[i]  While common, this technique is unsatisfactory.[ii]  Identifying and selecting cases based on an outcome of interest makes the process of causal inference impossible because there is no mechanism for differentiating the selected cases from the population at large.  For instance, all successful American generals weigh less than 400 pounds.  If one only considers cases of “successful generals,” as opposed to “all generals” or “officers” or “soldiers” in determining the causes of battlefield success, one might ascribe significance to a characteristic that is quite common across all generals, successful and otherwise.

Rather than fall into the trap of starting with revolutions and working backwards, this paper will start from general theories of the state, society, and war and work forward.  Theories structure information and explain relationships between causes and effects.  By positing a theory that explains how states produce military power, it becomes possible to organize a vast amount of information about the world into manageable, focused analytical categories.  These categories enable one to derive relationships between state, society, and military power and test the resulting hypotheses using historical cases.  The first section of this paper describes contemporary thinking on the sources of continuity and change in war.  It argues that military power is a function of five things: the regime type, the state’s penetration of society, the economy, the society’s human capital, and the technologies extant at that point in history.  This implies that a radical change in any one of these variables results in a radical shift in the military options available to that state.  The section concludes with an illustration of this theory using a well-known historical example of a revolution in military affairs – the production of military power by France and Germany in the 1930s.

Having assessed where military power comes from in broad terms, the next task is to describe how states employ that power to achieve political outcomes.  The military, as an institution, realizes the war-making potential of its state and society by translating war-making potential into political outcomes.  This section describes a military’s theory of warfare as a chain that begins with the constraints generated by the state’s sources of military power and the strategic environment.  Given these constraints, a military will produce materiel, doctrine and organizations.  These tools are produced in order to produce a military effect against an adversary, which is intended to generate a favorable political outcome.  This sequence is illustrated by returning to the example of 1930s France and Germany, two states that developed and implemented two very different theories of warfare in response to the different structural constraints and strategic challenges they faced.

The purpose of a theory is to structure information and enable people to draw useful conclusions.  This paper will show that the interlocking theories presented in the first two sections illuminate both evolutionary and revolutionary changes in warfare, help simplify the process of thinking about the future operating environment, and can clarify the search for the 3rd offset, which is itself an attempt to leverage American society’s comparative advantages to military effect.  It does so by conducting a thought experiment which pits a future United States against a near-peer adversary with different political, social, and economic constraints.

Five Sources of Military Power

Changes in warfare are often caused by changes in the raw material from which war-making institutions are constructed.  War, by definition, is a political endeavor – one group of human beings attempts to impose its will on another through actual or threatened violence.  Both the characteristics of human organizations and the tools of violence change over time.  This section presents five ways of thinking about these sources of military power that will enable a clearer examination of major shifts in the conduct of warfare.

Regime Type

The method by which the leadership of a state is selected determines its regime type.  Different types of regimes produce different types of militaries.  The most obvious distinction in the contemporary world is between democratic and non-democratic states, but adding nuance to each of these categories generates a more useful typology for present purposes.  For example, within democratic states, one can make a distinction between national and non-national democracies.  A nation is a group of people who believe they should determine the political leadership for their group, based on a common identity.  Where the boundaries of nation and state coincide, there is an overwhelmingly powerful tool for the generation of military power: the nation-state.  The nation-state, and especially the democratic nation-state, is able to overcome citizen resistance to paying for and participating in a military at much lower cost than competitors.  The advent of the nation-state had such a profound impact that Knox and Murray identify it as the first of five military revolutions in Western history.[iii]  Of course, where the boundaries of nation and state do not align, one observes challenges to the state’s ability to generate and employ military power – the Kurds are an example of this phenomenon, the troubles in Northern Ireland are another.

Within non-democracies there are a variety of regime types.  To distinguish between these, it is important to determine who selects the political leadership.[iv]  For most of history, leadership was selected on the basis of war-making ability.[v]  However, interminable leadership competitions between rival warriors are ultimately destabilizing to a political entity and this system for selecting leaders gave way to patrilineal regimes, where power is passed from father to son.  This regime type remained the norm for centuries, but has been supplanted by the single-party regime in modern times.[vi]  In a single-party regime, an organization with restricted membership determines the composition of the state’s leadership.  This party can be quite large – the Chinese Communist Party has nearly 90 million members – or can be highly restrictive, like a military junta.  The point is that there are consensual mechanisms, acceptable to the party membership, for determining leadership and that the party, through the state, is able to impose its preferences on the rest of society.  Because the party is able to attract a wider constituency and provide greater opportunities for advancement than other sorts of non-democratic alternatives, one-party regimes tend to be more stable and have a greater ability to generate military power than patrilineal (or other autocratic) regime types.[vii]

Additionally, there is an enduring concern on the part of any regime regarding the potential for the military it builds to simply take over the state.  In democratic regimes, rules governing military professionalism are augmented by a general belief among citizen-soldiers that the regime is legitimate and that democratic preferences should determine the political order.  To the extent that the state is skeptical of the democratic bona fides of its military, it tends to create a weaker military apparatus, subject senior leadership to political litmus tests, and create alternate centers of military power.  French politics and military planning in the first half of the 20th century vividly illustrates this dynamic.[viii]  Since the patrilineal regime of Napolean III was only overthrown in 1870, the commitment of senior military officials to the Third Republic was considered suspect, as the military was a pillar of the old regime and was generally feared to have reactionary tendencies (especially after the suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871).[ix]  The result was a military that was less prepared than its strategic leadership would have preferred in either 1914 or 1940.

In non-democratic regimes, the problem of the military can be even more acute.[x]  The state needs a military to defend it from external threats and suppress internal dissent.  However, if the military is too powerful, it will take over.  Thus, non-democratic regimes are forced to trade military efficiency for security from military coup.[xi]  This can result in the constitution of parallel security agencies, so that the National Police watches the military, the military watches the National Police and only the state leadership watches both.  It can result in the creation of parallel command structures in military formations, such as the Soviet political officers.  This situation can result in deliberately under-supplying formations, positioning forces away from population and political centers, and preparing to sabotage internal lines, which was the Iraqi monarchy’s strategy.[xii]

State Penetration of Society

The state is the organizational apparatus that determines political outcomes for a given population in a given geographic area – it is the final arbiter of who gets what and why.  Among its other characteristics, it ensures its survival by extracting resources from society and employing them to create and maintain military power.[xiii]  Naturally, given an option, most people prefer to keep resources under their own control and let somebody else provide public goods.  The extent to which a state can overcome this popular resistance to extract resources and influence individual behavior is what I mean by state penetration of society.[xiv]

In contemporary America, the state is overwhelmingly powerful.  The state is constrained by rule of law and enjoys widespread democratic legitimacy; nevertheless, citizens are given unique identification numbers at birth, required to submit an individually assessed portion of the annual productivity, are potentially subject to compulsory military service, have their rights of ownership arbitrated in the state’s courts, etc.  And even this level of penetration pales in comparison with totalitarian regimes of the past, which fully captured even the most mundane human interactions under the aegis of state and party.[xv]  However, states this powerful are not the norm internationally or throughout history.[xvi]  In many places, the state struggles to penetrate other political forms (like a tribe, for instance)[xvii] and the process of breaking down these barriers and building new political allegiances is slow and incredibly costly.[xviii]  The resources available for the production of military power and the forms that the military will take can differ considerably in response to these local conditions – think about local militias, religiously-motivated fighters, and tribally organized formations in the contemporary world, or, historically, knights called up by feudal allegiances or mercenaries hired by Italian city-states.

The Economy

The method by which a society produces and distributes desired goods is inextricably connected to its politics and, by extension, its military.  A state must extract from the economy the materials it uses to construct a military, must either produce or buy military goods using the economic means at its disposal, and will attempt to prevent the export of militarily significant commodities to its rivals.  To render this enormous set of interlocking behaviors more tractable, I will focus on the predominant source of wealth in the economy, the relationships between classes of economic actors, and the total resources available for extraction by the state.  All three of these variables have a significant impact on the creation of military power.

Modes of production can be broadly separated into agricultural, industrial, and service economies.[xix]  Agricultural production centers around the manipulation of natural processes to generate consumable goods.  In agrarian economies, land holdings are the predominant source of wealth, manufactured goods are produced on a local, artisanal basis, and most human labor is dedicated to farming, fishing, or mining.  Industrial production combines inputs from the natural world with labor and capital (factories, equipment, etc.) to produce much higher volumes of manufactured goods than could be created by individual artisans.  In industrial economies, capital is the predominant source of wealth, goods are manufactured in factories, and the population is increasingly urban and employed by others in exchange for wages.  Service production employs human capital to generate efficiencies in the creation and allocation of goods and services.  In service economies, capital is the predominant source of wealth and profits are generated and captured in the non-manufacturing components of production (finance, design, marketing, shipping, insurance, sales, strategic management, etc.).  The archetypical worker in a service economy is in an office of some type, not on a factory floor or a farm.

Changes in the economy lead to changes in social organization.  In early agrarian societies in Europe, agricultural labor was supplied by peasants tied to the land and managed by a network of feudal nobility that controlled the land.[xx]  This mode of social organization is profoundly unsuited to industrialization, which requires a mobile labor pool, the ability to transfer and redeploy capital, and large markets.  Therefore, during the process of industrialization the peasantry is replaced by a wage-earning labor pool (and, occasionally, some small-holding farmers), a middle class of small business owners and managers, and an aristocracy defined by control over variously fungible forms of capital.[xxi]  In service economies, capital becomes incredibly mobile, and is able to seek out opportunity in a global labor market.  Since it is much easier for a capital owner to move assets to another country than it is for a worker to migrate, there is a tendency for rapid deindustrialization in some countries, the use of globalized management systems, and the need for workers to repeatedly reskill during their careers.  Thus, society splits further into a “precariat” of unskilled labor, skilled labor, high-wage managers, and a capital-owning elite.[xxii]  Notably, all or any of these classes can be controlled by the state rather than governed by an open market – the late Soviet regime absolutely had a division between laborers and a relatively stable managerial class, although everyone was employed by the state.[xxiii]

These dynamics are significant because they dramatically impact how military power is generated.  The mobilization of peasants is a function of land-based coercion – to create an army, nobles would demand their peasants either join the fight or lose their livelihoods.  This incentive scheme leads to armies with small pools of motivated  nobles and a large pool of unruly peasants who would much rather wander off and go back to the farm than campaign.  By contrast, the industrial tendency to generate specialized labor encourages standing armies trained to operate the machines of war built by an industrial economy.  Large-scale conscription directly impacts the productive capacity of war-time industry, and management of the labor pool becomes an ongoing concern.  The service society’s way of war is still emerging, although perhaps the ongoing concern about talent-management and the individual allocation of skilled labor to organizational needs reflects the broader demands of a service economy workforce.

The final consideration in the impact of the economy on the military is, of course, the fact that more is better.  Paul Kennedy argues that “there is a very clear connection in the long run between individual Great Power’s rise and fall and its growth and decline as an important military power (or world empire).”[xxiv]  The larger the output of the economy, the larger the amount of military power it can produce.  This is related to the previous factors inasmuch as fundamental changes in the economy have led to explosions in productivity that generate both technological overmatch and enormous wealth available to resource military requirements.

Human Capital

Militaries wage war by combining technology with human capability.  While there is a tendency to concentrate on technological overmatch, which will be discussed below, the human capital available in a society can also be a source of military advantage.  I will consider two forms of human capital – physical and cultural.

As people respond to the demands of their environment, their bodies adapt (or they are selected out of the gene pool by their higher propensity to die before they reproduce.)  Mongol warriors lived on vast steppes and needed to be able to ride great distances in order to function as nomads.  This ability then translated into incredible strategic and operational mobility that enabled the rapid concentration of force which, when combined with a tendency to massacre their enemies, prevented local coordination of adversaries, deterred uprisings by conquered populations, and created an enormous empire.  Similarly, the adaptation of early American settlers to physical labor, reduced disease, and improved nutrition led to a soldiery able to withstand long marches through wilderness and the ability to exploit British forces operating on extended lines of communication.[xxv]

Human beings also bring cultural practices with them when they enter military service.  These understandings can be highly politicized, like the revolutionary armies in Europe who saw themselves as on a quest for human freedom that was naturally in conflict with monarchies.[xxvi]  They can be more tightly focused on military virtue, such as the definitions of martial courage that inspired French formations to conduct bayonet charges in the face of withering artillery and machine gun fire in August 1914.[xxvii]  Or cultural values can focus on more basic notions of hierarchy, teamwork, or the relationship between group and individual, as in the Duke of Wellington’s famous (and probably apocryphal) claim that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.  Similarly, the British army historically has been much more comfortable providing its officers with personal assistance and has called such individuals “batmen,” whereas the much more egalitarian American culture produces a military that made no such provisions for its junior officers.

Available Technology

Technologies are the physical tools, organizational templates, and methods of employment that are utilized during war in pursuit of a combatants objectives.  Technology is so fundamental to warfare that the two often merge in popular imagination – wars are often remembered by the tools used to fight them.  These materiel solutions are ably defined by the warfighting functions: firepower, protection, movement and maneuver, intelligence, sustainment, and mission command.  Any warfighting technology can be understood in terms of its (or its user’s) ability to do harm, to be harmed, to move, to perceive its surrounding, to continue operations, and to coordinate with others.  When a one of these attributes changes radically in a short period, militaries attempt to leverage this new imbalance to their advantage.

A second form of technology is organizational.  In previous eras, materiel overmatch could be retained for considerable stretches of time – think of the power of the Greek phalanx, pikes, and shields or Roman legions armed with short swords, century-based formations, and expert military engineering.  By contrast, more modern eras have seen the rapid diffusion of technology, so that rival militaries are able to adopt similar-looking tools of warfare nearly simultaneously – the tank, jet aircraft, ballistic missiles, nuclear weapons, etc.  In moments of relative parity in materiel terms, the key is for leaders is:

[t]o know what one can do on the basis of the available means, and to do it; to know what one cannot do, and refrain from trying; and to distinguish between the two – that, after all, is the very definition of military greatness, as it is of human genius in general.[xxviii]

In the contemporary era, the overwhelming lethality of the battlefield is generated by a suite of interlocking technological solutions that has extended battlefield geometries over progressively greater distances as militaries disperse and conceal forces in order to preserve combat power in the face of modern firepower.  Stephen Biddle calls this the “modern system of warfare,” and argues differences in the ability to train and employ disciplined small units lead to enormous disparities in battlefield outcomes.[xxix]  The ability to unify individual efforts across a dispersed battlefield requires an enormously complex command and control apparatus, which requires both materiel solutions and trained commanders and staffs.  The bureaucratic history of these organizations, the training of the commanders, and the recent history of the military all inform their ability to adapt existing human and technological capital to the demands of contemporary warfare.[xxx]

Application: Sources of Military Power in 1930s France and Germany

The usefulness of a theory is defined by its ability to organize information so that complex phenomena can be understood accurately at the minimum cognitive cost.  To demonstrate the usefulness of dividing the sources of military power into the five broad categories described above, this section will apply this approach to France and Germany in the late 1930s.  The 1930s and 40s are widely accepted as the advent of mechanized warfare and are considered a military revolution in affairs by scholars working in that vein.[xxxi]  Since the outcome of the German invasion of France in May 1940 was especially stark, it serves as a useful illustration of a state that successfully adapted to a military revolution (Germany) and one that was comparatively unsuccessful (France).

A later section will discuss the particulars of French and German approaches to warfighting.  However, in order to understand the context out of which those approaches emerged, it is necessary to outline the structural situation facing France and Germany in the late 1930s.  The paper will return to this example at the conclusion of the next section; what is important to note at this juncture is the extent to which France was disadvantaged relative to Germany in the production of military power of a particular sort.  The Nazi party’s capture of the German state enabled it to repurpose the entire state apparatus for the production of military power and disciplined cadres.[xxxii]  At this juncture, the Nazi regime had not yet begun its reliance on slave labor, but was still actively repressive of non-party labor organization.  It actively cooperated with large German industrial conglomerates – indeed, the unification of party and corporate power under a pseudo-market system is a defining feature of fascist ideology.[xxxiii]  It also leveraged a culture of innovation in the German military which had been conducting active experimentation with emerging concepts and technologies.[xxxiv]

By contrast, the French state was wracked by a series of confrontations between workers and employers that had been deferred during the Great War.  French governments fell with disturbing regularity, preventing long-term stability in defense planning.  Further, French labor unrest led to frequent strikes and the reconstruction of northeastern France, the impact of the Great Depression, and manpower shortages due to World War I casualties left the French government with a smaller pool of resources to allocate to defense than it would otherwise have had.  Thus, military modernization was delayed until the late-1930s and the drive to mass produce new equipment was substantially disrupted by the mobilization of the French industrial workforce into the Army.[xxxv]  While the French had access to tank and aircraft technology, they were slower to adapt to new ideas:

[French] military leaders basked in the glory of a victory that had required the best efforts of them and the entire nation.  They were neither hypnotized nor blinded by their experiences in the war, and they were not bound for defeat in 1940 because they succeeded in 1918.  Instead, they were confident of the methods and weapons that had given them success in the war, and they saw no reason to abandon or modify them without careful thought, thorough analysis, and challenging tests.[xxxvi]

Theories of Warfare: Turning Potential Military Power into Political Outcomes

If war is an attempt by one group of human beings to impose its will on another through actual or threatened violence, a military is the bureaucratic mechanism through which that violence is achieved.  The connection between the structural conditions discussed above, the military organization, the application of violence, and the determination of a political outcome is determined by the military’s theory of warfare.[xxxvii]  In its simplest form, a theory of warfare takes a given set of background conditions and a strategic problem; determines a doctrinal, organizational, and materiel arrangement most conducive to solving that problem; applies the military instrument thus generated to an adversary; and, given that application, predicts some change in the adversary’s political behavior.  These theories tend to be quite durable, are deeply rooted in institutional culture, and change only in the face of immense pressure.  In the words of Gen. Balck, a German Army Group commander and a key figure in the German breakthrough in 1940: “… no army can separate itself from the principles on which it has acted from the very outset.”[xxxviii]

The insight to be had from this way of thinking is not that militaries can be defined through their Doctrine, Organization, and Materiel (along with the remaining DOTMLPF-P factors), but that: first, these factors are constrained by background conditions that are seldom discussed but are overwhelmingly important; second, the belief about how the application of the military will impact the enemy’s will and capability to continue to resist can and does vary across militaries; third, that the relationship between military and political outcomes is a matter of organizational belief and informs thinking about how the organization should be built and what it should be doing in battle.[xxxix]

The Army Operating Concept is the foundational document for the Army’s theory of warfare in the 2020-2040 timeframe.[xl]  It presents an evaluation of some of the sources of military power and outlines strategic challenges, it describes a military problem and the methods by which that problem will be overcome, and it emphasizes the importance of achieving durable political outcomes.[xli]  It is, however, one of multiple theories of warfare competing for attention and resources.  In order to demonstrate its relative merits, it is important to be able to clearly delineate what theories of warfare are, what they are meant to do, and how this particular approach to thinking about warfare can inform investments in future offset strategies.

The Givens: Context Matters

In 2004, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously remarked that “[a]s you know, you go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”  In addition to being a classic Rumsfeldian bon mot, it also highlights the reality that, regardless of the demands of the operational and strategic environment, a military can only be built using the material made available by the society which generates it.  Not only is the military constrained by choices made in a previous era, it is constrained by its organizational culture, by bureaucratic inertia, by the ability of the state to produce resources, the regime type and its relationship to the military, the state of technology at the time, etc.  One of the great challenges American advisors faced in Iraq was trying to determine what reasonable expectations for the Iraqi army really were.  A culture that operated on complex webs of loyalty, used a shadow economy and shadow bureaucracy to get things done, had mass illiteracy, and had limited exposure to the intricate electronic systems was probably not going to do well with a system of small unit leadership that relied on bureaucratic transparency, careful maintenance of electronic systems, written records, and a great deal of individual initiative.  On the other hand, the ability to pool soldiers in groups, grab vehicles, assign an officer, and commence operations gave the Iraqi Army an impressive ability to generate tempo.  An entire Iraqi battalion could be formed and moving in the time it took its American advisors to reset a radio’s encryption.

Equally important to the five sources of military power is the strategic environment as understood by the authorities forming the military.  A great power tends to focus on the threats emanating from other great powers – so when General Don Starry wrote that the United States Army had to be able to fight outnumbered and win, he was responding to the particular strategic problem posed by the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact in Europe.  In most other situations, the United States could reasonably expect to be able to generate both a qualitative and a quantitative edge over its adversaries.  Other countries, though, have their own concerns that focus the attention of their militaries.  One of the recurring challenges the United States faced during the Cold War was convincing its allies to focus on the Soviet menace, rather than their own more specific concerns.[xlii]  This problem is only more acute for non-democratic regimes, which may face both internal and external security challenges, and thus design a military that is suboptimal for international conflict but quite well suited for the suppression of local dissent.[xliii]

How to Change the Military Situation

The purpose of conducting military operations is to produce some effect on a targeted force or population.  A theory of warfare posits the connection between the operations and the effect that will be produced and such theories have varied across time and between militaries.  For example, an attritional theory of warfare would organize, equip, and train forces to conduct operations designed to achieve a favorable loss-exchange ratio with their adversaries.  The military effect of these operations on the adversaries would be to induce losses until the force collapsed.  By contrast, Rapid Decisive Operations argued that by combining advances in intelligence and firepower, key adversary nodes could be attacked from distance and destroyed, leading to widespread fear and confusion in the adversary decision-making apparatus.  Other theories argue that bypassing adversary strengths to target key enabling capabilities (centers of gravity) will render the adversary’s military unable to continue to offer productive resistance.

The point here is not to catalogue every military theory in history, but to observe that what often feels obvious and universal from within a military institution is less so from outside of it.[xliv]  In fact, there is a great danger in optimizing a force around a flawed theory of warfare, as it may perform exactly as designed and still fail.  That is, it may have the appropriate doctrine, organization, and materiel to undertake planned operations, and fail to have a useful military effect on the adversary because it has targeted the wrong vulnerabilities.

How to Generate Political Outcomes

The final component of a theory of warfare is the connection between changes in the military situation and political outcomes.  In the case of a war of annihilation, the connection is clear – the goal is the destruction of the adversary’s society and, perhaps, population.  In modern times, the target of a total war is aimed at the adversary’s political apparatus – the collapse of the state and the elimination of organized resistance to whatever new political order is to be established.  In these cases, there is no space for a negotiated settlement between combatants, “military efforts that aim to coerce enemy leaders to accept undesirable terms are very problematic” and, therefore, “are historically accompanied by complementary efforts that force closure by defeating the enemy’s power to resist regardless of his will.”[xlv] Thus, in this case the political defeat mechanism is a complete collapse of the adversary’s ability to resist militarily.

However, in limited wars between states, the purpose of military operations is to change the cost-benefit calculus of an adversary and produce a negotiated settlement that accurately reflects the balance of power between the two sides.[xlvi]  How states understand cost and how warfare changes beliefs about the wisdom of negotiation and settlement is a topic of strenuous disagreement.  For example, proponents of the nuclear doctrine of Flexible Response and a long, multi-tiered escalation ladder believed that wartime behavior could transmit nuanced messages about future intentions and political thresholds.  Opponents of that approach believed that messages sent across cultures through a violent medium tend to lose their nuance and are prone to misinterpretation; thus, thresholds have a far greater significance, because there are fewer boundaries to be crossed.

In wars with non-states, the challenge becomes even more difficult, as resistance by local power centers to the imposition of state authority can be negotiated away through concessions in some cases, through a demonstration of military capability and resolve in others, and through the elimination of the challengers when reconciliation is not possible.  A great deal of the debate about counterinsurgency has to do with the connection of military activities to political outcomes and the extent to which occupying powers are able to effectively distinguish between types of insurgent motivation and broker durable peace agreements between warring factions.

Again, the point here is not to catalogue the beliefs that people have held about the relationship between war and politics, but to point out that the belief about the relationship is an indispensable component of any theory of warfare.  How a military outcome translates into a favorable political situation determines the types of military outcomes one seeks.  The type of military outcome one seeks determines how one equips, organizes, and employs the military instrument.  The creation of that instrument is a function of the strategic problem set facing the state and the sources of military power.

Application Part 2: Theories of Warfare in 1930s France and Germany

The interwar period and the adoption of mechanized warfare is often considered a military revolution, with the German military valorized as free-thinking innovators and the French military castigated as hide-bound fools.  The tendency to work from revolutions backwards focuses on what the Germans did well and what others did poorly.  However, the approach presented here enables us to examine what both sides did and learn from the strengths and weaknesses of both theories of warfare.

The German theory of warfare, driven by legendary officers and thinkers like Guderian and Rommel, leaned heavily on the importance of audacious, relentless attacks that dislocate an opponent’s defensive scheme and prevent an effective response.  In continental warfare, this initial punch was delivered by armored formations designed for just that purpose.[xlvii]  Rather than slow the formation down to wait for the artillery to move up, fire support would be provided by light and medium bombers.  These aircraft could operate from hastily established airfields and be resupplied by transport aircraft.  Once a breakthrough was achieved, this force would continue to advance, followed by traditional infantry and horse-drawn artillery.  With their defenses in tatters, the adversary would panic and capitulate.  A negotiated settlement that established a German-friendly regime and/or territorial concessions would be completed and the German military administration of the territory would begin.

By contrast, the French military initially planned a counterattacking strategy for 1940.  Faced with the manpower shortages caused by WWI and cognizant of the difficulties that were created by losing the French industrial heartland to Germany in August 1914, the French theory of warfare called for a robust defense in depth along the border, supported by a large reserve capable of capitalizing on adversary exhaustion or errors in judgment.[xlviii]  This defensive system, called the Maginot Line, was to stretch the entire length of France’s eastern border, tying into the Belgian system of fortifications.  However, due to the enormous expense involved in buying property and clearing fields of fire in built-up areas, the scheme was never completed.  Further, complicating issues, Belgium withdrew from its defense agreement with France in 1936.  Thus, in practice, French defensive works were weighted towards the south.  The French made heavy investments in aircraft design in the 1920s, which left them with an expensive but out-dated fleet by the 1930s.  Their tank technology was good for the day, but 2/3 of French tanks were dispersed throughout the Army, rather than organized into armored units.[xlix]  Armor was not intended to support a rapid breakthrough that would pull along follow-on forces; instead, it formed an integral part of a centrally organized “methodical battle” to be launched in 1941-2, once conditions had been set for an offensive.[l]  Learning from World War I, this offensive would not need to extend the length of the adversary’s territory before a settlement was reached and a favorable political result could be established.

In 1940, the French were concerned about a German attack against the Maginot line and were positioning their reserves for offensive operations along the Dyer river in Belgium.  The French plan assumed risk in the middle of their line by positioning less prepared forces in the Ardennes region.  The Germans attacked through the Ardennes using its armored formations, premier infantry divisions, and significant close air support.  The German army penetrated the French defensive line in the center; meanwhile, the French decision-making apparatus was slow to assess where the German main effort was being made, due to an aggressive military deception plan that generated signals of an attack near the Swiss border and launched a strong attack into Belgium.  The French reserve, which was out of position and constantly harassed by German medium bombers, made local counterattacks in a piecemeal, disorganized fashion.  The German breakthrough was followed by an aggressive exploitation that encircled French, British, and Belgian forces in the north, which were force to evacuate.  The German army then turned south, and attacked the positions assembled by the now significantly outnumbered French army.  After the German army broke through the line established by this force, the French government capitulated and the Vichy regime was established.  The entire operation had taken six weeks.

Despite the result, it is important to note that the German theory was not obviously right, nor was the French theory obviously wrong.  In the words of Sir Michael Howard: “Certainly the blitzkrieg tactics of 1940 and 1941 need not have worked so effectively as they did … [c]ompetent adversaries who kept their heads might have sealed off the penetration achieved by the German armoured spearheads in the Ardennes, and the campaign would have gone down to history as a disastrous gamble.”[li]  And, of course, the gamble at Sedan was followed by a much larger gamble against the Soviet Union, where the vast geographic distances involved prevented German military success from inducing a complete Soviet collapse following an initial period of panic.  While the French did lose the war, they also managed to destroy half the German armor on the continent in the process; they had simply left the defenses too thin, placed their reserve in a poor position, and moved too far forward on their left wing in the early phase of the attack.   Importantly for the purposes of this paper, in the mid-1930s the French were also constrained in their ability to spend large sums on military modernization by both economic and political factors.  Internal divisions limited the military power the French could produce relative to Germany during the period.  Germany, for its part, was able to leverage innovation, expanding power, and a willingness to take risks into a military that was able to achieve enormous success on the battlefield and then translate the shock of those military outcomes into desirable political results.  However, the same system of technological investment, risk tolerance, and totalitarian politics led to the destruction of the German military and the end of the Nazi regime.

Sources of Military Power, Theories of Warfare, and the 3rd Offset

Thus far, this paper has made a theoretical argument about the sources of military power and the development of theories of warfare.  It has illustrated that argument using a moment commonly identified as a “military revolution” as an example: the German and French responses to developments in military technology in the interwar period.  The Germans are commonly associated with a successful adoption of a revolutionary approach, whereas the French are identified as an example of what not to do.  It has argued that German success was predicated on the military power available to them 1930s, the adoption of a theory of warfare remarkably well-suited to their strategic situation and likely adversaries, and a good deal of luck.  French failure was also a function of the limitations imposed on the French military by the conditions of the 1930s, the adoption of a theory of warfare that relied on defenses that had not been built, and a panicked response to early German success.  With this theoretical structure and brief historical demonstration in place, this section turns to an application of the theory to the problem of future warfare.

A state is able to derive military advantage another when either it sees a relative expansion in its access to one of the five sources of military power or it develops a theory of warfare that leverages available resources more efficiently than its adversaries.  An example of the former is the American ability to produce nuclear weapons in the early-1950s, an example of the latter is Napoleon’s ability to implement a superior theory of warfare.  Thus, the question that must occupy American defense planners is: where will our comparative advantage in the sources of military power be in 2050 and how do we design a theory of warfare that best leverages those advantages?

For the sake of argument, assume that America in 2050 sees an intensification of present trends.  The U.S. remains a democracy and the state continues to be able to collect taxes on an individual basis from its citizens.  The service sector, mediated by ubiquitous information technology, dominates the U.S. economy, and so most people view work as a highly individual endeavor with high mobility across firms.  People reskill regularly and are adept at learning new software and hardware packages necessary for their work.  Competition among workers and between firms is brutal, and workers expect regular challenges and opportunities for advancement.  Firms mold and remold their work force on a regular basis.  All of this requires a robust educational infrastructure that produces people able to innovate, work in novel contexts, and rapidly process and implement instructions.  This society generates soldiers who are expert in the modern system of battle – they are problem-oriented, comfortable with ambiguity, and able to act with minimal management in order to achieve their objectives.  They are also very interested in skill improvement and the ability to move both within the military and in and out of service as opportunities arise.  Materiel capabilities can never be kept secret long, and adversaries can quickly reproduce changes in systems that yield advances in any of the warfighting functions.  Thus, the trend of increased battlefield dispersion and increased lethality continues.

By contrast, a theoretical strategic adversary in 2050 has a different set of endowments.  This state is semi-authoritarian.  It is either a one-party state or allows competitive elections that are dominated by the ruling party on a consistent basis.  It is able to penetrate society, but some senior party members are able to protect their personal interests from state intrusion, which may limit state access to wealth and technology.  The economy is built around large, state-owned industrial conglomerates.  The workforce is educated to work in the factories and teamwork is reinforced at every stage of the educational process.  This state produces soldiers that are highly disciplined, responsive to authority, willing to work together, and motivated to defend the state ideology.  They are proficient at the modern system of battle, but lose momentum if cut off from leadership.  This state is outstanding at the reproduction of materiel innovation and can produce the full suite of modern weapons.

Given this set of conditions, there is a clear U.S. advantage in terms of human capital and ability to fight on a widely-dispersed, highly-lethal battlefield that requires small unit initiative.  In a longer war, the inefficiencies of oligarchic state industry would become problematic for the adversary state, although the U.S. would need to reconstitute a significant industrial base or ensure a steady supply of industrial inputs from a network of allies.  Thus, the U.S. is optimally advantaged if it relies on a professional force using existing equipment to win a short, sharp fight.

This set of conditions then generates a theory of warfare.  Given materiel parity and extreme battlefield lethality, U.S. and adversary forces will fight with the forces they have available at the moment of crisis.  The U.S. will organize for dispersed, small-unit tactical action and will generate a “dirty” electro-magnetic and cyber battlefield.  If all combatants struggle to communicate with subordinate formations, then the U.S. will have an advantage.  The purpose of fighting is to inflict maximum damage on adversary forces within a circumscribed area as quickly as possible.  Once the adversary is unable to pursue their military designs, they will become open to a brokered settlement, which will end the crisis and separate the combatants.  The U.S. must posture forces forward that are sufficient to inflict this level of defeat without signaling an intention to escalate to a global conflict.

This thought experiment can be expanded by manipulating any of the sources of military power to advantage either the U.S. or an adversary or by exploring the efficacy of different theories of warfare given a fixed set of assumptions about the 2050 environment.  In so doing, it offers an alternative way to think about the future that extends beyond trend analysis or a focus on shifts in materiel capabilities.

This is especially important because of the current focus on replicating the success of the 1st and 2nd offsets.  Using the language of this theory, both nuclear and precision technology offered the U.S. a comparative advantage in the ability to generate firepower.  In the case of nuclear technology, the window in which the U.S. had enough weapons to seriously alter the battlefield calculus and the Soviet Union had no meaningful nuclear response (the so-called “era of nuclear plenty”) lasted about 5-10 years.  Archival research after the Cold War revealed that the Soviet Union did not significantly alter its policies regarding the importance of maintaining a strategic buffer and its willingness to use force to pursue its interests during this window.  While precision technologies were very helpful to U.S. forces in the wars of the past 30 years, the ability to implement the modern system of battle and the advantages in American professionalism and tactical excellence probably contributed more.[lii]  Thus, while materiel capabilities generated in pursuit of the 3rd offset are likely to be important, it seems equally likely that the advantage they generate will be as relatively short-lived and contextual as those of the 1st and 2nd.  Moreover, if the experience of the French is any indication, mistimed materiel acquisition strategies might deeply disadvantage the future force.

It is far more difficult to generate the human capital necessary to employ the cutting-edge “offset” technology of the future.  As the American labor marketplace shifts, the skills, expectations, and mobility of the military’s workforce will shift as well.  This can be a source of incredible advantage or a liability.  Ironically, the thought experiment conducted above suggests that the digital natives of the future might have a comparative advantage on an intentionally degraded battlefield.  It also suggests that, depending on how conflict is envisioned, it may be necessary to think about how to get the right resources into the fight quickly enough to make a difference.  That is to say, future offset strategies must marry transitory materiel advantages with more enduring sources of military power.


The purpose of this paper is to provide a framework for thinking about the relationship between the state, society, and war.  Using this framework allows a clearer understanding of the constraints faced by strategic decision-makers in the past and clearer thinking about the problems of the future.  Any military reflects the state, society, and historical context which produce it.  The creation of an organization designed to use violence to produce political outcomes necessarily implies a connection between the design of that organization, the impact it is expected to have on an adversary, and the political outcome that is expected to result.  By articulating these categories in a unified framework and specifying the relationship that these categories can have with one another, it becomes possible to conduct a sustained inquiry into the possible contours of the future without having to draw definitive conclusions about what will happen next.  It offers insight into the general types of investments that will bear fruit in a variety of futures and those that will offer benefits of a relatively short duration.  It is an important first step in the ongoing project to understand, visualize, and describe the future and to design a force that will be able to fight and win the nation’s battles.

End Notes

[i] For an excellent overview of the RMA literature, see Shimko, Keith. 2010. The Iraq Wars and America’s Military Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Ch. 1

[ii] In technical language, this is called “selecting on the dependent.”  It is an aggregated version of the post hoc, propter hoc fallacy.  Fischer, David Hackett. 1970.  Historian’s Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought.  New York: Harper and Row.

[iii] Murray, Williamson and MacGregor Knox. 2001. “Thinking about revolutions in warfare.” The Dynamics of Military Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 6

[iv] This is pithily referred to as the “selectorate.” Bueno de Mesquita et al. 2005. The Logic of Political Survival. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

[v] North, Wallis, and Weingast. 2009. Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[vi] In fact, the most common transition between regime types in the world is from patrilineal to single-party.  Geddes, Barbara, Joseph Wright, and Erica Frantz. 2014. “Autocratic Breakdown and Regime Transitions: A New Data Set.” Perspectives on Politics. 12:2. 313-331.

[vii] It merits pointing out that it is possible for a democratic regime to function as a one-party state and use a similar system of rewards and punishments.  Magaloni, Beatriz.  2008.  Voting for Autocracy: Hegemonic Party Survival and its Demise in Mexico.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  Levitsky, Steven and Lucian Way.  2010.  Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes after the Cold War.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[viii] Bourachot, Andre. 2014. Marshal Joffre. Andrew Uffindell, trans. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, Ltd.

[ix] Horne, Alistair.  2007 [1965]. The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune.  New York: Penguin.

[x] However, centrally-managed, non-democratic practices may support large scale mobilization in a way that democratic, market-based practices do not.  Thus the pressure of an arms race may cause states of all types to converge on less democratic solutions sets.  See Maiolo, Joseph. 2010. Cry Havoc: How the Arms Race Drove the World to War, 1939-1941. New York: Basic Books.

[xi] Quinlivan, James. 1999. “Coup-Proofing: Its Practice and Consequences in the Middle East.” International Security. 24:2. 131-165.

[xii] Chamberlain, Robert. 2014. Security Exchange Theory: How Great Powers Trade Security with Small States. Dissertation.  New York: Columbia University. 213.

[xiii] Tilly, Charles. 1992. Coercion, Capital and European States: AD 990 – 1992. Oxford: Blackwell.

[xiv] Huntington, Samuel. 1968. Political Order in Changing Societies. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[xv] Berman, Sheri. 1997. “Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic.” World Politics. 49:3. 401-429.

[xvi] Spruyt, Henrik. 1994. The Sovereign State and Its Competitors. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[xvii] Migdal, Joel. 1988. Strong Societies and Weak States: State-Society Relations and State Capabilities in the Third World. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[xviii] Weber, Eugen. 1976. Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France 1870-1914. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

[xix] Also referred to as the primary, secondary, and tertiary sectors of the economy.

[xx] Moore, Barrington. 1966. Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World. Boston: Beacon Press.  For an account outside of Europe, see Scott, James C.  1976. The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. New Haven: Yale University. This dynamic was different in Africa due to the overabundance of arable land and the relatively low population densities – Herbst, Jeffrey. 2000. States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[xxi] Piketty, Thomas. 2014. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Arthur Goldhammer, trans. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.  Barrington Moore also discusses the process.

[xxii] The dynamics of modern economies are discussed in Piketty.  The term “precariat” appears in Savage, Mike. 2015. Social Class in the 21st Century. London: Pelican.

[xxiii] Derluguian, Georgi. 2005. Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus: A World-System Biography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[xxiv] Kennedy, Paul. 1989 [1987]. The Rise and Fall of Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000. New York: Random House. xxii

[xxv] Ketchum, Richard. 1997. Saratoga: Turning Point of America’s Revolutionary War. New York: Holt.

[xxvi] Bukovansky, Mlada. 2002. Legitimacy and Power Politics: The American and French Revolutions in International Political Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[xxvii] Bourachot, Andre. 2014. Marshal Joffre. Andrew Uffindell, trans. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, Ltd.. 109-112.

[xxviii] van Crevald, Martin. 1985. Command in War. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 102

[xxix] Biddle, Stephen. 2004. Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[xxx] See Winton, Harold. 2007. Corps Commanders of the Bulge: Six American Generals and Victory in the Ardennes. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press; Snyder, Jack. 1984. Ideology of the Offensive: Military Decision Making and the Disasters of 1914. Ithaca: Cornell University Press; Schein, Edgar. 2010. Organizational Culture and Leadership, 4th ed. San Francisco: Wiley;  Marshall, Andrew. 1966 “Problems of Estimating Military Power.” Santa Monica: RAND.

[xxxi] Murray, Williamson and MacGregor Knox. 2001. “Thinking about revolutions in warfare.” The Dynamics of Military Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 14

[xxxii] Evans, Richard J. 2005. The Third Reich in Power. New York: Penguin. 338 regarding the role of factories in creating a hardened, disciplined population and Horne, Alistair. 2007 [1969]. To Lose a Battle: France 1940. New York: Penguin. regarding the role of youth and other party organizations.

[xxxiii] Evans, Richard J. The Third Reich in Power. 351

[xxxiv] Murray, Williamson. 2001. “Contingency and fragility of the German RMA” The Dynamics of Military Revolution. Murray, Williamson and MacGregor Knox, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 158

[xxxv] Jackson, Julian.  The Fall of France: The Nazi Invasion of 1940. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 19

[xxxvi] Doughty, Robert. 2008 [2005]. Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 515-516

[xxxvii] Chamberlain, Robert. “The Mud of Verdun: Falkenhayn and the Future of American Landpower.” Military Review. Forthcoming.  This article discuss this model and applies it to the German conduct of the battle of Verdun.

[xxxviii] BDM Corporation. 1980. “Generals Balck and Von Mellenthin on Tactics: Implications for NATO Military Doctrine.”

[xxxix] Biddle, Tami Davis. 2015. Strategy and Grand Strategy: What Students and Practitioners Need to Know. Carlisle: US Army War College Press. 2-3

[xl] TRADOC PAM 525-3-1. 2014. The U.S. Army Operating Concept: Win in a Complex World.

[xli] Chapters 2 and 3, respectively.

[xlii] Chamberlain, Robert. 2014. Security Exchange Theory: How Great Powers Trade Security with Small States. Dissertation.  New York: Columbia University. Chapter 6

[xliii] David, Steven. 1991. “Explaining Third World Alignment.” World Politics. 43.

[xliv] Biddle, Tami Davis. 2015. Strategy and Grand Strategy: What Students and Practitioners Need to Know. Carlisle: US Army War College Press

[xlv] Wass de Czege, Huba. “The Hard Truth about ‘Easy Fighting’ Theories: The Army is Needed Most When Specific Outcomes Matter.” Landpower Essay. No. 13-2. Washington: AUSA Institute of Land Warfare. 6.

[xlvi] For example, Falkenhayn believed that the purpose of his offensives on the Eastern front was to enable the German government to offer inducements to Russia to make a separate peace, not to trigger the total political capitulation of the Russian Empire.  Foley, Robert. 2005. German Strategy and the Path to Verdun: Erich von Falkenhayn and the Development of Attrition, 1870-1916. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[xlvii] However, it is important to note that this was not just a theory of armor – in Norway, an audacious maneuver from the sea supported by leap-frogging land-based aircraft achieved a shocking success and seized a northern port and railway essential to German iron ore imports.

[xlviii] Maiolo, Joseph. 2010. Cry Havoc: How the Arms Race Drove the World to War, 1931-1941. New York: Basic Books. 84

[xlix] “Of the 2900 French tanks in 1940. Only about 960 were organized into armoured divisions.” Jackson, Julian.  The Fall of France: The Nazi Invasion of 1940. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 24

[l] Jackson, Julian.  The Fall of France: The Nazi Invasion of 1940. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 24-5

[li] Howard, Michael. 2009 [1979]. War in European History. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 132.  see also Horne, Alistair. 2007 [1969]. To Lose a Battle: France 1940. New York: Penguin.

[lii] Biddle, Stephen. 2004. Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle. Princeton: Princeton University Press.  This is the core argument of his book.


About the Author(s)

Major Robert P. Chamberlain is Chief of the Integration and Analysis Branch of the Future Warfare Division, Army Capabilities Integration Center, TRADOC.  He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Columbia University and has served in operational assignments with the 101st Airborne Division and the 1st Infantry Division, as well as teaching in the Department of Social Sciences at the United States Military Academy.  The views advanced here are the author's own, and do not reflect those of ARCIC, TRADOC, or the United States Army.


From the author's conclusion above:

"The creation of an organization designed to use violence to produce political outcomes necessarily implies a connection between the design of that organization, the impact it is expected to have on an adversary, and the political outcome that is expected to result. ... It is an important first step in the ongoing project to understand, visualize, and describe the future and to design a force that will be able to fight and win the nation’s battles."

This being the case, then it would seem that we would need to, first and foremost, "describe the future" that we seek to obtain and to articulate the political outcome(s) we wish to achieve so as to realize this future; for example:

A future in which all the states and societies of the world have, in one way or another, been persuaded (if possible) or forced (if necessary) to (a) become organized, ordered and oriented more along modern western political, economic and social lines and to, thereby, (b) become more fully integrated into the global economy.

What this essentially says is that the U.S./the West -- as relates to both potential conflicts it might realize within its own borders (some of which we are witnessing today) -- and international conflicts as well -- will need to design force(s)/capabilities that can overcome the "natural atavism" and "cultural backwardness" (Schumpeter) that is being exhibited by both our own citizens and statesmen -- and by those of the outside world today also?