Strengthening the intellectual foundation for our profession of arms.
July 8th, 2016 by Tom McDermott
I’ve just watched a Rehearsal of Coordination (ROC) Drill on Ex HAMEL, and I’m struck by a thought. I had the same thought when teaching tactics and planning at the British Staff College. The thought is as follows:
As western militaries we plan well. We are good at applying our process, at manoeuvring forces, at building blocks. But in applying this process we are in danger of losing touch with our enemy. We are forgetting that the heart of war is a contest of wills. We are forgetting to think about actually winning. In doing so, we will lose.
Let me explain. To come to the heart of this thought, we don’t have to go much further than Chapter One of On War. In his first core definition of war’s nature, Clausewitz talks about war as a duel. He seeks to be explicit from the outset; ‘war is nothing but a duel on a larger scale‘. He goes on immediately to make one of his first, and most important, conclusions – ‘war is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will‘.
For me, this linkage between force and will is one of the most critical parts of the enduring nature of war. Every action we take in the military, deep down, involves an application of force (or the threat of force) to get someone to do our will. This may not take much; the mere posturing of a warship or the presence of armed soldiers might do the trick. At the most extreme, however, it might involve the application of overwhelming and lethal violence through combined arms operations. Such is the spectrum of war.
The role of any military planner, commander or tactician is to play this game of force and will. The art of planning is to work out exactly how much force is required, and how (and where) it needs to be applied; the tactical ‘sweet spot’ that allows us to exploit our adversary’s weaknesses, protect our own strengths and minimise the risk to our own interests. The desired output is always a psychological one, even if the intent is to ‘destroy’ (killing being the most psychological effect we can have). Critically, though, we always have to remember that there is another living, breathing, thinking and cunning human being on the other side. His aim is the same as ours; the application of force to bend us to his will. In the end, whoever finds the ‘sweet spot’ first, wins. Herein lies the duel.
My ‘HAMEL’ and ‘DS at Staff College’ conclusion is that we need to listen (as ever) to Clausewitz, and refocus our ‘way of war’ on force and will. It is only by considering conflict as a duel, all the time, that we will be able to leverage war’s enduring nature to our advantage. The adversary must be our main focus. We must understand him intimately; not just his capability and the ranges of his weapons, but his wants, his needs and (critically) his fears. Only by truly getting under his skin can we defeat him. To do this, I think we need to consider the following (in order of priority):
The character of war is ever changing. The rapid proliferation of technology is adding complexity to a battlefield that is increasingly without geographic boundaries. But as long as war is a human activity, the duel will remain at the heart of its nature. Our applications of land power may sometimes require us to replace ‘enemy’ with ‘actor’, but the reality is that we (as the military) exist to apply force or the threat of force on behalf of government to get others to do our will. Winning the duel is our raison d’etre.
The exam question is this. How do we maintain this at the heart of our ‘way of war’? How do we leverage both our culture and our developing capability to win the ‘duel’? And, critically, how do we do this against an adversary that won’t play by the rules? You may have the answers, and DEF Australia is hoping that you’ll speak up.
About the author
Tom McDermott is the Director of Activities for DEF Australia. An Australian Army officer who also served for 15 years in the British Army, he is a passionate advocate of the Profession of Arms. He believes that rapid innovation and adaptation is the key to the future success of Western militaries. Tom is studying a PhD in strategy at ANU, and is a Fellow of both UNSW’s Australian Centre for the Study of Armed Conflict and Society, and KCL’s Centre for Military Ethics. He can be followed on Twitter via @helmandproject.