By (ret'd) Pat Stogran - The Armchair Colonel
Last month in “The Armchair Colonel” I closed off with the suggestion that we have embarked on a campaign against ISIL to:
(a) make Canadians safe at home and abroad,
(b) uphold what many perceive to be our humanitarian obligations, and
(c) support our coalition partners.
At the same time I introduced the concept of a “defeat mechanism,” defining that as the conditions that we would seek to exploit in order to allow us to impose our will on ISIL, and invited readers to suggest what this might be. We will leave the discussion of defeat mechanisms for the time being in order to introduce the concept of “strategy.”
Thomas C. Schelling’s seminal work The Strategy of Conflict offers a useful albeit highly theoretical discussion of the concept. What struck me by Schelling’s work was his examination of strategy as it pertains to game theory. Unlike games of skill and chance, games of strategy recognize the interdependence of decision-making between adversaries. The best concise definition of strategy that I found to suit my purposes as a war-fighter-wannabe came from a book about the Asian way of war, the name of which I have not been able to come up with, that defined military strategy as “art of advantage.” As such, I believe that a strategy aims at causing an adversary to make decisions or act in ways that will be advantageous to us, which makes strategies intrinsically linked to what I call defeat mechanisms.
In my experience in the CF, strategies were, in reality, little more than long-term plans. The difference, I believe, is that plans, even so-called strategic-level plans, are executed tactically. Strategies, on the other hand, set the conditions for the tactics to be successful in achieving the desired end state. Let me use one of my personal war-fighting training experiences to illustrate.
As a young platoon commander on winter exercise in the Chilcotin region of B.C., I was tasked with a night attack against a position that had only one avenue of approach. While I led my platoon on our bellies through the waist-deep snow around to a flank, one of my section commanders, Sergeant Eric Green, commanded my supporting firebase situated on that obvious approach. At H-hour, he was to open up on the objective — as per standard operating procedures (SOPs) — but I had also told him to orchestrate his activities in a way that would cause our enemy to consider his element to be the main attack force. So Ranger Green (he was a Canadian graduate of the United States Army Ranger Course), set up what appeared to be a firebase and separate assault force, but collectively their fire was aimed at supporting my assault onto the objective. Sure enough, my assault force, the real one, could hear the enemy reacting to Green’s ruse, and as we leopard-crawled forward we could see exactly where the enemy trenches were by their weapons’ signatures. (This was long before the days of portable night-viewing equipment.) By the time I called for my firebase to swing fire, our battle was already won.
In this case, “defeat” simply meant destroying the enemy position and the tactic was simply a right flanking, which we had exercised together probably a hundred times or more. The strategy was one of interdependent decision-making, where I wanted to cause my adversary to decide that my firebase was my main effort in order to make it easier for my assault force and me to gain lodgment on the enemy position. The strategy manifested itself on the cerebral plane, while the tactics played out on the physical plane.
Strategic plans, on the other hand, normally take a long time to execute and sometimes never become a reality in the physical plane, which I believe is why they can be construed as strategies. In the private sector at the strategic level, where skill and luck in the marketplace are more the determinants of success than interdependent decision-making, plans might be analogous to strategies, but strategic plans alone are not adequate in the ultimate game of strategy: war.
In Canada, in my opinion as an admittedly unqualified historian, general officers and flag officers (GOFOs) have seldom, if ever, been notable strategists. The likes of Sir Arthur Currie, Canadian corps commander at Vimy Ridge, and Guy Simmonds were masterful managers at pouring hoards of men and mounds of materiel into the jaws of battle, but they were hardly visionary strategists.
When I was a ‘thrusting captain’ I had the opportunity to test that hypothesis during a monumentally memorable battlefield tour in Italy. At a private moment with a German officer who had fought, desperately outnumbered, against the Canadian formations, I asked: “Sir, as you can expect our history tells us that Canadians virtually won the war single-handedly. No bullshit, and confidentially, what did you think of the Canadians you were fighting?” He replied that it was a mark of honour for a German soldier to have survived close combat with Canadians, because Canadian troops were renowned for their fighting prowess and incredible tenacity. Our generals, however, were “pedestrian.” He went on to describe how they were entirely predictable, plodding, and missed many opportunities when, he believed, he and his tiny force would have been defeated handily.
Today, when we send GOFOs on operational duties overseas, they are seldom if ever called upon to effect decisive operations, so manipulating interdependent decision-making to gain an advantage has never been deemed as an important professional attribute.
In a paper entitled “Tactics Without Strategy or Why the Canadian Forces Do Not Campaign,” Chief of Defence Staff General Jonathan Vance, a colonel at the time, argued that the strategic goals assigned to the Canadian Armed Forces are “less concerned with tactical outcomes, and more concerned with the political advantages of being seen to participate.” Vance coined the term “contribution warfare” for the Canadian way of war, one that is absent of strategy to pursue Canadian interests and void of “operational-esque decision making.” Our intervention in Afghanistan, specifically Kandahar Province, was a significant departure from the fire-and-forget missions we traditionally sent Canadian troops on to that point in our history, but Canada failed miserably in accomplishing the desired end state.
The command and staff training we subject our GOFOs to is overly set piece to inculcate an operational strategy mindset. Training scenarios are overly clinical, and performance and enabling objectives too focused on what to do in order to get a good mark than how to think if one is to outsmart a determined foe. While the training syllabuses are replete with reflections on the likes of Clausewitz, Sun-Tzu and B.H. Liddell Hart, too much emphasis is placed on the constructs of their theory and not enough on applying them with creativity and audacity to CAF operational deployments.
Consider the boldness and decisiveness of Nazi General Heinz Guderian, who virtually disobeyed the orders given him by breaking through French defences at Sedan, in the Ardennes, in order to accomplish his higher commander’s intent and force France into early capitulation.
These kinds of legends abound in the grooming of GOFOs in the CAF; however, Canadian GOFOs in charge of contemporary military operations have characteristically executed their duties in a passive, managerial fashion. Their subservience may never have run afoul of the politicians and bureaucrats whom the respective GOFOs were serving but, unlike Guderian’s bold initiative that virtually won the war for the time being, on several notable occasions their passivity had catastrophic ethical and humanitarian consequences.
In my next articles I intend to build on our understanding of strategy from the ground up, examining some theories of operational art and tactical manoeuvre that, I think, demonstrate “strategy” with a view to discussing a campaign design that might truly “defeat ISIL.”
As usual, I very much look forward to hearing from Esprit de Corps readers. At this point I don’t want to “situate my estimate,” in other words going through this process to confirm my personal biases, so I am eager for any constructive criticisms or creative ideas readers have to offer. This process is very much more an art than a science, so there are no right or wrong answers and out-of-the-box thinking is especially welcome.
Again, a copy of my book Rude Awakening: The Government’s Secret War Against Canada’s Veterans will be sent to anybody who offers an opinion, observation, or idea that I think adds a new and interesting dimension to our consideration