.
P

redicting the future of warfare is likely the only profession where you are guaranteed results—you will always be wrong. Robert Gates, then-Secretary of Defense, said it best: “When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right.” Regardless of what campaign is planned, what potential terrain was surveyed, and what doctrine developed, the conflict that occurs is rarely the one for which planners prepared. Yet, as the oft-quoted sentiment from Eisenhower states, “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

Adaptation Under Fire: How Militaries Change in Wartime | Lt. Gen. David Barno (U.S. Army, ret.) and Nora Bensahel | Oxford University Press | August 2020.

Success on the battlefield is less a function of specific doctrine, technology, or leadership, and more about adaptability—the ability to recognize the type and nature of conflict in which one is engaged and adjusting your military to meet that conflict with the appropriate response. Building a culture of adaptability and encouraging that mentality is, however, largely at odds with mass bureaucracy and institutionalization that defines the Department of Defense.  

Lt. Gen David Barno and Dr. Nora Bensahel are two of the sharpest minds on defense policy, and they take up the task of identifying how militaries change in wartime in their latest book Adaptation Under Fire. Getting this right is not an abstract concept. Failure to adapt in wartime, as the authors note, could result in existential risks. As the pace of technological growth increases, domains of conflict expand, and strategic uncertainty grows, the United States is facing an “adaptation gap” between the conflict predicted and that which occurs. The associated risks of this gap are much greater for the United States—it is far easier to undermine the dominant power than it is to maintain that preeminence. Yet, the situation is not entirely dire, as the authors demonstrate.

Innovation versus Adaptation

For the authors, the division between adaptation and innovation occurs at the outset of the conflict. The former is what takes place under pressure, during war, and is limited by the resulting constraints of pressure, resources, and necessity. The latter takes place during peacetime and enjoys the attendant freedom to develop and experiment, and often enjoys greater resources. This artificial division is, perhaps, useful for making their argument, but seems to suggest that the Department of Defense shifted into a war footing in recent conflicts. One day there is peace and steady-state innovation, the next there is war and an all-out commitment to winning the fight.

This is decidedly not the case as the authors demonstrate. The institution itself—to say nothing of the broader Washington establishment—seemed to ignore the reality that there were two major active conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and many other smaller regional engagements. By the author’s examples, particularly the adoption of technologies in Iraq and Afghanistan, much of the senior leadership in the Pentagon was fixated on the next war or pet programs-of-record rather than rapidly delivering capabilities to the warfighter in the field.

Perhaps most damningly, “the commanders were at war, but the acquisition programs were not.” The Pentagon bureaucracy and the acquisition systems were predisposed to focus on long-term programs of record, as opposed to the short-term urgent needs of the battlefield.

The authors’ framework for approaching the question of how militaries adapt in conflict is smart, dividing it into doctrine, technology, and leadership. The authors lay out their framework in the first part, drawing extensively from social science literature and organizational theory to explain why large bureaucracies are slow to adapt, if not outright resistant to adaptation at all. The second part explores case studies of where adaptation succeeded or failed in their frame of doctrine, technology, and leadership. The book closes with a view of the future and recommendations for improving adaptation.

Politics, Culture, & Adaptation

The opening third of the book lays the groundwork well, and engagingly, for the remainder of the book. It is, however, curious that while the authors recognize that there are some things outside of the military’s control in terms of adaptation, they do not explore these further. For example, the absence of politics in their discussion of contemporary adaptation is curious. Both situations and both adaptations were marred, at their core, by political considerations. To divorce the political elements from the military activities seems to be an odd decision. While the authors obliquely reference this as an issue, it is not as clearly defined as one would expect.

Arguably, the military’s failure to plan for post-conflict reconstruction or stability operations in Iraq was due to the expectation by the political class that such activities would not be necessary.  Moreover, the failure to develop a counterinsurgency strategy for nearly four years into the Iraq war was fundamental because the political leadership did not want to acknowledge that there was an insurgency at all. Equally, the slow development of provincial reconstruction teams in Afghanistan was a function of the starvation of that campaign of resources in the run-up to and execution of the Iraq invasion. Afghanistan rapidly became a secondary theatre to the Iraqi main stage event.

The purposeful omission of culture is a bit puzzling. While there is some validity in their argument that culture permeates all three elements, not including it as a distinct category is a shortcoming. The Pentagon’s culture is one that is based in the industrial era and not one suited to swift innovation or adaptation, regardless of the conflict circumstances. It is decidedly not a creature of the information age.

It is, along with most of the federal government, the only entity that solves failures of itself by creating more of itself. How many rapid acquisitions offices are there today and how many more will be created when the spirit and drive of the new rapid offices wash off and they regress to the mean? Individuals are not rewarded, by and large, for creativity or innovation, and certainly not for failing. The sacred programmatic calves are not to be sacrificed for better off-the-shelf products—as the authors demonstrate with the case of Palantir software versus the military’s DCGS-A, or Distributed Common Ground System-Army.

While there is some momentum for change (and to which many in the Department of Defense point with great frequency) these are at the periphery and not the core of acquisition programs. The authors’ example of the creation of the counterinsurgency manual is evidence enough. The manual had to be created outside of the chain of command, draw upon resources beyond the Pentagon, and yet is still seen as a great success. It is, arguably, a success, but in spite of the Pentagon, not because of it.

The Adaptive (née Strategic) Corporal

Throughout the book, the authors demonstrate that the adaptation occurs best and most efficiently on-the-ground. The soldiers and Marines from World War II to Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated the best adaptability and creativity when confronting battlefield challenges. This adaptability and flexibility slowed if not ceased as the focus shifted from the tactical to the operational, onto the strategic and ultimately the institution of the Pentagon itself.

This is vividly displayed in the leadership section where authors present two tactical-level leaders who adapted to the insurgency in Iraq and the initial invasion of Afghanistan (the so-called “Horse Soldiers”) (Colonel Sean MacFarland and Captain Mark Nutsch), but the theatre-level leadership (General George Casey and General David McKiernan, commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively) failed to adapt in both countries and both conflicts. Both theatre commanders’ failures to understand and appreciate the conflicts in which they were engaged and, consequently, failed to adapt to the changing circumstances.

The book shines in its final third where it assesses the state of American military adaptation as a whole, the prospects for the future, and lays out some supremely sensible recommendations for improving the military’s ability to close the “adaptability gap”. Readers (and the many students) of Lt. Gen. Barno and Dr. Bensahel will not be surprised by the astuteness and accuracy of their perspective. They are two of the smartest and finest analysts and writers on the state of the military today.

Putting it simply, the U.S. military is woefully ill-equipped to adapt for the future. Its training and exercises do not reward or encourage adaptability; the long-standing tension between the services—which organize, train, and equip—and the combatant commands which wage the wars are unresolved; and an overall aversion to risk, the perpetuation of groupthink by design and lack of consequences for adhering to the status quo all stand in the way of an adaptable military. While the United States currently has a qualitative edge against Russia and China, that advantage is likely to be ill-matched for the unexpected campaigns of the future.

The challenge of improving adaptability is a holistic one as the authors note. It is not merely enough to stress it in general, but it must permeate doctrine, technology, leadership, training, and culture (though the authors focus on the first three). It needs to be incentivized and encouraged, not merely be a box to be checked.

It is curious though, that while the authors note that space and cyberspace are two domains to which conflict will extend, they focus solely on the ground capabilities of the Army and Marines. Yes, the ground component will ultimately hold and secure territory, but they are arguably the most adaptable of the services. It should be noted that the Marines are in the midst of a significant overhaul of their doctrine, tactics, and seeking to promote leaders who are particularly adaptable to the return of great power competition and the likelihood of amphibious combat reappearing.

One of the key reasons for the creation of the Space Force was the sclerotic and byzantine acquisition processes of the U.S. Air Force. The service was still acquiring expensive “gold-plated school bus” satellites that are easy to track, easy to target, and easy to destroy, while the commercial space industry was racing ahead with smaller, increasingly capable and cheaper satellites. The U.S. Navy, for its part, was struggling with a vision for its future fleet, while adversaries expand their fleets and invest in small boat swarms, unmanned platforms, area-denial capabilities, and hypersonic missiles. Here again, in both cases, politics and acquisition dynamics make their presence known.

Adapting for the Future

Adaptation Under Fire is an intelligent, well-written, and well-argued book. It is very “wonkish” and is aimed at the defense policy community, which is a strength and a missed opportunity. Christian Brose’s Kill Chain successfully and quite astutely diagnoses many of the problems and defense challenges the United States faces in the coming years but misses the mark somewhat on his solution to those challenges. He largely is enamored with technology and finds the solution to be more technology. What is needed is not technology alone, but an ability to adapt to a highly dynamic, fluid environment where the lines of war and peace are blurry at best or, at worst, do not exist at all.

Here, by contrast, Lt. Gen. Barno and Dr. Bensahel offer keen insights and critical commentary on how the military can be better prepared for the challenges of tomorrow, albeit through a much weightier academic medium. Being able to swiftly adapt to complex and changing circumstances is the only path to success in modern conflict, especially given the trends in speed and reach of America’s adversaries. Moreover, when the adversary is China or Russia—with an equal if not better capacity to adapt to or define the scope of conflict—America’s adaptability will become that much more important.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

Adaptation Under Fire: How Militaries Change in Wartime

February 20, 2021

Adaptation Under Fire: How Militaries Change in Wartime | Lt. Gen. David Barno (U.S. Army, ret.) and Nora Bensahel | Oxford University Press | August 2020.

P

redicting the future of warfare is likely the only profession where you are guaranteed results—you will always be wrong. Robert Gates, then-Secretary of Defense, said it best: “When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right.” Regardless of what campaign is planned, what potential terrain was surveyed, and what doctrine developed, the conflict that occurs is rarely the one for which planners prepared. Yet, as the oft-quoted sentiment from Eisenhower states, “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

Adaptation Under Fire: How Militaries Change in Wartime | Lt. Gen. David Barno (U.S. Army, ret.) and Nora Bensahel | Oxford University Press | August 2020.

Success on the battlefield is less a function of specific doctrine, technology, or leadership, and more about adaptability—the ability to recognize the type and nature of conflict in which one is engaged and adjusting your military to meet that conflict with the appropriate response. Building a culture of adaptability and encouraging that mentality is, however, largely at odds with mass bureaucracy and institutionalization that defines the Department of Defense.  

Lt. Gen David Barno and Dr. Nora Bensahel are two of the sharpest minds on defense policy, and they take up the task of identifying how militaries change in wartime in their latest book Adaptation Under Fire. Getting this right is not an abstract concept. Failure to adapt in wartime, as the authors note, could result in existential risks. As the pace of technological growth increases, domains of conflict expand, and strategic uncertainty grows, the United States is facing an “adaptation gap” between the conflict predicted and that which occurs. The associated risks of this gap are much greater for the United States—it is far easier to undermine the dominant power than it is to maintain that preeminence. Yet, the situation is not entirely dire, as the authors demonstrate.

Innovation versus Adaptation

For the authors, the division between adaptation and innovation occurs at the outset of the conflict. The former is what takes place under pressure, during war, and is limited by the resulting constraints of pressure, resources, and necessity. The latter takes place during peacetime and enjoys the attendant freedom to develop and experiment, and often enjoys greater resources. This artificial division is, perhaps, useful for making their argument, but seems to suggest that the Department of Defense shifted into a war footing in recent conflicts. One day there is peace and steady-state innovation, the next there is war and an all-out commitment to winning the fight.

This is decidedly not the case as the authors demonstrate. The institution itself—to say nothing of the broader Washington establishment—seemed to ignore the reality that there were two major active conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and many other smaller regional engagements. By the author’s examples, particularly the adoption of technologies in Iraq and Afghanistan, much of the senior leadership in the Pentagon was fixated on the next war or pet programs-of-record rather than rapidly delivering capabilities to the warfighter in the field.

Perhaps most damningly, “the commanders were at war, but the acquisition programs were not.” The Pentagon bureaucracy and the acquisition systems were predisposed to focus on long-term programs of record, as opposed to the short-term urgent needs of the battlefield.

The authors’ framework for approaching the question of how militaries adapt in conflict is smart, dividing it into doctrine, technology, and leadership. The authors lay out their framework in the first part, drawing extensively from social science literature and organizational theory to explain why large bureaucracies are slow to adapt, if not outright resistant to adaptation at all. The second part explores case studies of where adaptation succeeded or failed in their frame of doctrine, technology, and leadership. The book closes with a view of the future and recommendations for improving adaptation.

Politics, Culture, & Adaptation

The opening third of the book lays the groundwork well, and engagingly, for the remainder of the book. It is, however, curious that while the authors recognize that there are some things outside of the military’s control in terms of adaptation, they do not explore these further. For example, the absence of politics in their discussion of contemporary adaptation is curious. Both situations and both adaptations were marred, at their core, by political considerations. To divorce the political elements from the military activities seems to be an odd decision. While the authors obliquely reference this as an issue, it is not as clearly defined as one would expect.

Arguably, the military’s failure to plan for post-conflict reconstruction or stability operations in Iraq was due to the expectation by the political class that such activities would not be necessary.  Moreover, the failure to develop a counterinsurgency strategy for nearly four years into the Iraq war was fundamental because the political leadership did not want to acknowledge that there was an insurgency at all. Equally, the slow development of provincial reconstruction teams in Afghanistan was a function of the starvation of that campaign of resources in the run-up to and execution of the Iraq invasion. Afghanistan rapidly became a secondary theatre to the Iraqi main stage event.

The purposeful omission of culture is a bit puzzling. While there is some validity in their argument that culture permeates all three elements, not including it as a distinct category is a shortcoming. The Pentagon’s culture is one that is based in the industrial era and not one suited to swift innovation or adaptation, regardless of the conflict circumstances. It is decidedly not a creature of the information age.

It is, along with most of the federal government, the only entity that solves failures of itself by creating more of itself. How many rapid acquisitions offices are there today and how many more will be created when the spirit and drive of the new rapid offices wash off and they regress to the mean? Individuals are not rewarded, by and large, for creativity or innovation, and certainly not for failing. The sacred programmatic calves are not to be sacrificed for better off-the-shelf products—as the authors demonstrate with the case of Palantir software versus the military’s DCGS-A, or Distributed Common Ground System-Army.

While there is some momentum for change (and to which many in the Department of Defense point with great frequency) these are at the periphery and not the core of acquisition programs. The authors’ example of the creation of the counterinsurgency manual is evidence enough. The manual had to be created outside of the chain of command, draw upon resources beyond the Pentagon, and yet is still seen as a great success. It is, arguably, a success, but in spite of the Pentagon, not because of it.

The Adaptive (née Strategic) Corporal

Throughout the book, the authors demonstrate that the adaptation occurs best and most efficiently on-the-ground. The soldiers and Marines from World War II to Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated the best adaptability and creativity when confronting battlefield challenges. This adaptability and flexibility slowed if not ceased as the focus shifted from the tactical to the operational, onto the strategic and ultimately the institution of the Pentagon itself.

This is vividly displayed in the leadership section where authors present two tactical-level leaders who adapted to the insurgency in Iraq and the initial invasion of Afghanistan (the so-called “Horse Soldiers”) (Colonel Sean MacFarland and Captain Mark Nutsch), but the theatre-level leadership (General George Casey and General David McKiernan, commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively) failed to adapt in both countries and both conflicts. Both theatre commanders’ failures to understand and appreciate the conflicts in which they were engaged and, consequently, failed to adapt to the changing circumstances.

The book shines in its final third where it assesses the state of American military adaptation as a whole, the prospects for the future, and lays out some supremely sensible recommendations for improving the military’s ability to close the “adaptability gap”. Readers (and the many students) of Lt. Gen. Barno and Dr. Bensahel will not be surprised by the astuteness and accuracy of their perspective. They are two of the smartest and finest analysts and writers on the state of the military today.

Putting it simply, the U.S. military is woefully ill-equipped to adapt for the future. Its training and exercises do not reward or encourage adaptability; the long-standing tension between the services—which organize, train, and equip—and the combatant commands which wage the wars are unresolved; and an overall aversion to risk, the perpetuation of groupthink by design and lack of consequences for adhering to the status quo all stand in the way of an adaptable military. While the United States currently has a qualitative edge against Russia and China, that advantage is likely to be ill-matched for the unexpected campaigns of the future.

The challenge of improving adaptability is a holistic one as the authors note. It is not merely enough to stress it in general, but it must permeate doctrine, technology, leadership, training, and culture (though the authors focus on the first three). It needs to be incentivized and encouraged, not merely be a box to be checked.

It is curious though, that while the authors note that space and cyberspace are two domains to which conflict will extend, they focus solely on the ground capabilities of the Army and Marines. Yes, the ground component will ultimately hold and secure territory, but they are arguably the most adaptable of the services. It should be noted that the Marines are in the midst of a significant overhaul of their doctrine, tactics, and seeking to promote leaders who are particularly adaptable to the return of great power competition and the likelihood of amphibious combat reappearing.

One of the key reasons for the creation of the Space Force was the sclerotic and byzantine acquisition processes of the U.S. Air Force. The service was still acquiring expensive “gold-plated school bus” satellites that are easy to track, easy to target, and easy to destroy, while the commercial space industry was racing ahead with smaller, increasingly capable and cheaper satellites. The U.S. Navy, for its part, was struggling with a vision for its future fleet, while adversaries expand their fleets and invest in small boat swarms, unmanned platforms, area-denial capabilities, and hypersonic missiles. Here again, in both cases, politics and acquisition dynamics make their presence known.

Adapting for the Future

Adaptation Under Fire is an intelligent, well-written, and well-argued book. It is very “wonkish” and is aimed at the defense policy community, which is a strength and a missed opportunity. Christian Brose’s Kill Chain successfully and quite astutely diagnoses many of the problems and defense challenges the United States faces in the coming years but misses the mark somewhat on his solution to those challenges. He largely is enamored with technology and finds the solution to be more technology. What is needed is not technology alone, but an ability to adapt to a highly dynamic, fluid environment where the lines of war and peace are blurry at best or, at worst, do not exist at all.

Here, by contrast, Lt. Gen. Barno and Dr. Bensahel offer keen insights and critical commentary on how the military can be better prepared for the challenges of tomorrow, albeit through a much weightier academic medium. Being able to swiftly adapt to complex and changing circumstances is the only path to success in modern conflict, especially given the trends in speed and reach of America’s adversaries. Moreover, when the adversary is China or Russia—with an equal if not better capacity to adapt to or define the scope of conflict—America’s adaptability will become that much more important.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.