Back in 2015 and again in April 2016, I commented on what I consider to be a fairly consistent litany of failures in Ameican strategic leadership since, about 1960. Just this month I saw a new article (almost a synopsis of his recent book) in Foreign Affairs by George Packer about noted (notorious to some) America diplomat “Richard Holbrooke and the Decline of American Power.”
One paragraph caught my eye: “We prefer our wars quick and decisive, concluding with a surrender ceremony, and we like firepower more than we want to admit, while counterinsurgency requires supreme restraint. Its apostles in Vietnam used to say, “The best weapon for killing is a knife. If you can’t use a knife, then a gun. The worst weapon is airpower.” Counterinsurgency is, according to the experts, 80 percent political. We spend our time on American charts and plans and tasks, as if the solution to another country’s internal conflict is to get our own bureaucracy right. And maybe we don’t take the politics of other people seriously. It comes down to the power of our belief in ourselves. If we are good—and are we not good?—then we won’t need to force other people to do what we want. They will know us by our deeds, and they will want for themselves what we want for them.“
There is, I fear, a lot of truth in that little paragraph and I am also worried that the American fascination (mainly the Pentagon’s fascination) with process and organization has spread to Canberra, London, Ottawa, Wellington and even Berlin. The notion is that if we can just get our organizations and procedures right then everything will fall into line. We have forgotten that while good, sound organizations and sensible, simple, robust procedure do matter, they need to be in service to a sound strategic aim (a vision, if you like) and, sometimes, ad hoc organizations and “off-the-wall” procedures work best in new situations, whether counter-insurgency or all-out war against a peer.
Some of the greatest victories of all time were managed by ad hoc organization that, like Topsy, just “growed“ from 1939 to 1945, as Churchill and Roosevelt searched for ways to operate a grand, strategic alliance fighting against formidable enemies, while the postwar fascination with process, led in large part by US Defence Secretary (1961-68) Robert S. McNamara, contributed, I believe, in a major way to the strategic and military debacle that was the Vietnam War (1955-75) when data began to replace tactics, and management theory, coupled with complex organization charts, replaced military acumen and strategic vision.
There is nothing wrong with good, sound management and management theory and management science (and, yes, I believe there actually is a such a thing) have much to teach us all, including governments and the military, about how to get the most from one’s always limited resources, especially time. But, too often, in my opinion, management becomes an end in itself and process replaces critical thinking and analysis. When this happens in both the political/bureaucratic and in the military realms, as I believe it has in Canada (which has tended, since about 1970, to follow the USA almost slavishly) then I believe that our national defence is in peril.
It is common, amongst military people, to accept that there is a “master principle of war:” Selection and Maintenance of the Aim. That means that one MUST understand what one is trying to do and then focus all one’s efforts on getting that done. The corollary is that if you don’t know what you need to be doing then getting the results you want (need) is unlikely. I believe that the Canadian Armes Forces lack good strategic direction because the Government of Canada, the Trudeau government, is unconcerned with anything past the next election. I also believe that the military leadership, lacking strategic direction, simply follows whatever new process seems to be popular in the Pentagon. Canadians, therefore, are not getting value for money from either the government they elected nor from the military forces for which they pay.
I don’t have a full-blown prescription for reform, but what I am sure is needed is a greater focus on basics, on principles, and less focus on the ‘flavour of the month.’ Counter-insurgency ~ the topic that preoccupied Richard Holbrooke for much of his career is a good example. It used to be understood that every insurgency was different; what may have worked in Malaya would not work in Indo-China because the insurgents were fighting for different reasons and in different ways and the lessons learned in Indo-China and Vietnam, and many were, would not be readily applied in Nicaragua or Yemen because, once again, the problem was different and none of the ‘solutions’ from Malaya through to the First Gulf War would work in Afghanistan … but generals kept offering “the answer,” even when experience said that every single answer was wrong. There are a few well-tested principles for peacekeeping and low-intensity operations and peace-making and counterinsurgency but there is no “right way,” no process that works and can be taught on a six-week course. Canadian generals need to move all the “process” books to the bottom shelf of the bookcase and put the handful of “principles” books back on top. Ditto for all aspects of training; the tactics that worked in the Gulf War or Grenada are not going to work against China or Russia, and what we expected would “work” against a large, modern, well-equipped enemy in 1969 is unlikely to work against a large, well-equipped enemy now, a half-century later … even if some of the equipment looks almost the same.
The same applies to ‘cyber‘ or ‘information warfare;’ there is no doubt that technology has changed the so-called ‘battlespace,’ making it bigger and more complex by, in effect, adding an invisible dimension. We have been conducting ‘information operations‘ for decades, even millennia ~ I would argue that at the end of the Third Servile War (73-72 BCE) when Marcus Licinius Crassus crucified 6,000 of Spartacus’ followers on the Appian Way (it is not clear if Spartacus, himself was among them) that it was psychological warfare which is either a subset of or a near relation to information warfare. But the tools have changed and with them, tactics need to change, too, but some principles will remain as they were 2,000 years ago, or 100 years ago (the Zimmerman Telegram) or 75 years ago (Turing, the Enigma machine and Bletchley Manor).
There is considerable churn in the technology arena that has strategic and military/national security impacts. As Terry Glavin says, in an article in Maclean’s magazine, datelined 17 May 2019, “by apprehending Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver last December, Canada was not foolishly allowing itself to be drawn in to a mere trade fight between U.S. president Donald Trump and Chinese president Xi Jinping. What’s going on here truly is a big deal. It has grave implications for Canadian sovereignty. Technology is the main theatre of contest in the new global struggle for economic domination, and the way events unfold in the Huawei standoff, and in the Trump-Xi trade talks, will determine the kind of world we’ll be living in for years and years to come … [and, now, in Ottawa] … The Privy Council Office has partitioned cabinet’s deliberations on Huawei behind a highly secretive review of the national security implications involved in 5G technologies that has drawn in several federal agencies, including the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the Innovation, Science and Economic Development department, and the Communications Security Establishment … [and] … Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale and his officials have gone backwards and forwards over whether a decision on Huawei and 5G will be made before the federal election in October. Finance Minister Bill Morneau has weighed in with a less than confidence-building caveat about the national-security review, to the effect that a decision on Huawei’s 5G role would have to be “balanced” against economic considerations … [then Mr Glavin asserts that] … This matters, because for all intents and purposes Huawei is a key strategic weapon in Beijing’s global economic and political ambitions—Chinese President Xi himself has said as much. Huawei is one of Xi’s “national champion” corporations. The threat Huawei poses is not merely from backdoor mystery spyware subterfuge of the kind Taiwanese and Dutch government agencies have detected in Huawei gear.“
The government needs to get its head around the notion that it must prepare for a range of very unwelcome military eventualities. It must tell its defence forces and security agencies what it expects them to be able to do. The armed forces must present their shopping list and the government must then, cut its (military) coat to suit its (fiscal) cloth. Organization charts and bromides and HQ reorganizations that only add new layers of military bureaucracy are not helpful.