A conception of war

Harry Summers

March 13, 1991|By Harry Summers

THE JOB OF the order-of-battle (OB) section of military intelligence is to try to think like the enemy, to immerse itself in enemy doctrines, strategies and tactics; to know the details of his arms and equipment, his training, and his organization for battle; to ferret out his strengths, his weaknesses and his vulnerabilities; and, as far as possible, to read the enemy commander's mind so as to fathom his battlefield intentions.

If Saddam Hussein had an alert order-of-battle specialist, the enormous confidence radiated from the very beginning by both Gen. Colin Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and by Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the U.S. commander in the Persian Gulf, should have been a cause for great concern.

But for all his spies and secret police, Saddam Hussein obviously did not have an intelligence organization worthy of the name. And his erstwhile pals in the Soviet KGB (who almost certainly knew the source of American military confidence) let him down ** as well. As a result, not only did he fail to anticipate the terrible power of American military hardware, he also totally misread American military strategy as well.

A document providing the foundation for that strategy has been openly available for more than 75 years. Titled "The Role of Doctrine in Naval Warfare and written by Navy Lt. Commander (later Commodore) Dudley W. Knox on the eve of America's involvement in the First World War, it was a primer on the establishment of war-fighting doctrine.

Rediscovered by the Navy War College after the Vietnam War, it was widely circulated and later republished by the Army War College for students to read. Within its pages are the blueprints for the Navy's Maritime Strategy, the Marine Corps' Maneuver doctrine, and the Army and Air Force's AirLand battle doctrine that proved so successful in the gulf war.

Arguing for the need to "think harmoniously," Knox argued that "without doctrine large military operations cannot be carried on satisfactorily against a strong and active foe . . . the influence of doctrine upon victory is profound."

"The first and most essential step," Knox pointed out, "is to improvise and formulate a concrete, comprehensive and coherent conception of modern war." Then one "can proceed with the easier deductive processes of evolving doctrines out of their basic conception. We must build from the foundation upwards and not from the roof downwards."

One of the reasons Knox's arguments were so well received by the post-Vietnam military was that in the Vietnam War the exact opposite approach had been taken. The "conception" of that "counter-insurgency" war had forced upon the military from the roof downwards by President John F. Kennedy himself. This "new kind of war" was the brainchild of academic social science departments. As Harvard's J. Bower Bell put it, "For the American intellectual theoreticians of order, the nature of the appropriate response . . . fit the prejudices and aspirations of the moment . . . the guerrillas could be met by using the advanced tools of social science for the betterment of man."

When then Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Decker disagreed with Kennedy about this conception, he and his ilk were fired and replaced by more compliant go-along-get-along leaders. But critic Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr. pointed out in his 1986 work, "The Army and Vietnam," while the military gave lip service to counterinsurgency doctrine, they rarely put it into practice on the battlefield.

With neither a conception of war nor a war-fighting doctrine, confusion reigned and the bravery and sacrifice of America's fighting men and women was squandered. "The ultimate irony," noted former CIA director William Colby "was that the people's war launched in 1959 had been defeated, but the soldiers' war, which the United States had insisted on fighting during the 1960s with massive military force was finally won by the enemy."

It was a mistake the military was determined not to repeat. Using Commodore Knox's formulation as a basis for action, the Navy formulated a post-Vietnam maritime strategy. Seen by the media only as a scheme for a 600-ship Navy, it was actually based on a conception of war that put the Navy on the offensive, charging it with seizing control of the oceans and building and maintaining a sea bridge so that the mobilization capability of the United States could be brought to bear.

Marine Corps' doctrine was also rethought, evolving the corps into an expeditionary force that stressed battlefield maneuver. In the meantime the Army, working with the Air Force, formulated what came to be known as AirLand battle doctrine, the war-fighting doctrine that was the key to success in the Persian Gulf War.

Such conceptions and doctrines were hardly a secret. AirLand battle doctrine, for example, had been spelled out in Army field manuals since 1982. More than likely even Iraqi intelligence had a copy in their files. But thanks to a divine Providence, neither Saddam Hussein nor his OB staff had read it. If they had, they'd have known that a well thought-out and thoroughly rehearsed battlefield plan was the reason why Gen. Powell and Gen. Schwarzkopf were so self-confident. As events proved, that confidence was well placed.

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