Improvisation Won’t Do It

Oct. 1, 2008

In recent decades, the US military hasn’t had many large, classical force-on-force clashes. American power frequently has been employed against specific target sets to produce a certain and preplanned effect, not to deal death and destruction.

These “effects-based operations” have attempted to combine military might with other forms of US power—economic, political, diplomatic—to push enemy behavior to desired end states. Up-front planning needs were huge. Still, many believe EBO now has been proved from the Gulf to the Balkans and Afghanistan.

That view, however, has never cut much ice with land power advocates, who seem to regard EBO as, among other things, some kind of airpower cult. Retired USMC Lt. Gen. Paul K. Van Riper, speaking to Inside the Pentagon, described it as “utter nonsense.”

Recently, Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis, head of US Joint Forces Command, slammed EBO as being too complex and vague. He wants the military to return to “time-honored principles and terminology … tested in the crucible of battle and … well-grounded in the theory and nature of war,” as he put it in an Aug. 14 memo.

Mattis, a well-regarded infantry officer, penned his memo with the specific goal of banishing EBO from joint affairs. As he said in a companion paper, “Effective immediately, USJFCOM will no longer use, sponsor, or export” any EBO terms or concepts.

He claims EBO assumes unachievable predictability and requires unattainable knowledge. As he observed in an earlier speech, “I will sum up in three words what I have learned about fighting over the last 30 years: improvise, improvise, improvise.”

For USAF, this is a big deal. EBO-type thinking entered joint doctrine a few years ago and has supporters in all services. Even so, it was USAF’s brainchild and is a good fit with airpower’s attributes of speed, range, precision, and flexibility. Failure to continue EBO doctrine development could inhibit full USAF contributions to the joint force.

How do airmen respond to the Mattis action? The first thing to be said is that, to them, the effects-based approach to war no longer is a mere “theory,” as the critics often claim.

They note that the power of EBO was demonstrated in at least three US operations—Desert Storm in 1991, Allied Force in 1999, and the opening phase of Enduring Freedom in 2001.

In the Gulf War, for example, attacks on the electricity grid produced the “effect” of shutting down the Iraqi air defenses but took far less time and effort than destroying each radar, SAM battery, and anti-aircraft gun. In the Air War Over Serbia, preplanned strikes at high-value targets forced the Belgrade regime to capitulate.

The effects-based approach, airmen maintain, dovetails with the American way of war—reducing risk to our forces while maximizing the risk to the enemy’s. In the Gulf, they say, the decimation of Iraq’s forces from the air likely saved the lives of thousands of soldiers and marines.

Airmen believe use of an effects-based approach in Iraq could have helped prevent a debacle by identifying the desired outcome up front and forcing the system to contemplate the resources needed. The commander, Army Gen. Tommy Franks, planned only for the major combat phase, failing to take up the possibility of a bloody aftermath.

It is interesting, say airmen, that the concept has seeped down to the lowest level of ground units in Iraq and Afghanistan where young officers embrace it. They say it helps them focus on goals and make wise decisions in a confusing war.

According to airmen, Mattis’ guidance ignores strategic art. It seeks to make “commander’s intent” the touchstone of efforts to design, plan, and execute an operation, leading to a tactical result. The EBO method, based on extensive sources of information and analysis, is superior, they add.

“General Mattis would apparently prefer to form his ‘commander’s intent’ in the same strategic vacuum still plaguing our efforts in Iraq,” noted retired USAF Maj. Gen. Charles D. Link, a keen observer of joint matters, in a recent response.

Land force critics plainly have a hard time understanding the concept. (In Mattis’ paper, variations of the word “confusion” appear nine times.) This appears especially true in maneuver forces—infantry and armor units that aspire to “close with and destroy the enemy force” in close combat. USAF Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, a key architect, argues EBO is a “fairly simple” thing. He concedes, however, that some have distorted it and made it more complex than need be.

No one presents EBO as a magic-bullet solution for all US military challenges. Over all, the effects-based approach to war, say airmen, should be regarded as one of a number of approaches to campaign design. They point out that large-scale, “traditional” destruction of enemy forces would be an “effect” all its own.

Make no mistake, however: Mattis’ words carry weight. His decisions will affect joint training, doctrine, and professional military education. One who expects it is Van Riper, who says “the debate is over, and effects-based operations or EBO is dead.”

In an interview with Inside the Pentagon, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas G. McInerney predicted problems.

McInerney claimed that the policy shift will bring “numerous adverse consequences,” one of which is an “attritional approach” to war that will “place many American military personnel, both short-term and long-term, at much greater risk.”

We believe that, given the stakes and strong feelings involved, now would be a good time for Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to step in and suggest a widening of discussion. Indeed, an organization such as Joint Forces Command, rather than closing off debate, should be encouraging a wider variety of perspectives on how to enhance joint operations.

On such matters, no service or individual has a monopoly on wisdom. Improvisation does not exactly inspire confidence. A big question is whether all parties understand that.