Ground Forces Best: Mattis

Gen. James Mattis, Commander of Joint Forces Command, has blasted the “wrongheaded thinking” of recent years that led military planners to think technological solutions could solve war’s fundamental challenges and naively dismiss war’s unchanging reality. “We embraced some wishful thinking, we espoused some untested concepts and we ignored history,” he said.

Some people are willing to forgive the defense establishment for its zeal in pursuing high-tech solutions. Gen. James Mattis, commander of Joint Forces Command, is most definitely not one.

In a wide ranging critique of defense planning over the past decade, Mattis blasted the “wrongheaded thinking” of recent years that led military planners to seek technological solutions to solve war’s fundamental challenges and naively dismiss war’s unchanging reality. “We embraced some wishful thinking, we espoused some untested concepts and we ignored history,” he said yesterday at CSIS in Washington.

Mattis didn’t mention the previous Pentagon leadership by name. But it was former SecDef Rumsfeld who turned “transformation” into the catch-all buzzword signaling the military’s embrace of a Toefler-certified digital future. Phrases such as “information dominance” and “Effects Based Operations” filtered into doctrine manuals. In the new American way of war, near-perfect intelligence gathered from unblinking electronic eyes would replace the fog of war that causes confusion, casualties and uncertain outcomes with predictability in American military operations.

Mattis is determined to bury that notion. “Defense planners will not be allowed to adopt a single preclusive view of war,” he said. ”War cannot be precisely orchestrated. By its nature it is unpredictable. You cannot change the fundamental nature of war.”

The military has swung too far in its embrace of high-technology, Mattis said, using as an example what he called “over-centralized” command and control. That over-centralization can create a “single point” of failure, he warned. “The U.S. military is the single most vulnerable military in the world if we overly rely on technical C2 systems.” In future wars, technical systems will be under attack and will go down, he said, so forces must disaggregate authority and decision-making to much lower levels. “We’re going to have to restore initiative” among small units and individual leaders.

Tasked with crafting a force for the “combatant commander after next,” Mattis is striving to prevent the military from repeating past mistakes such as “grabbing concepts that are defined in three letters, and then wondering why the enemy dances nimbly around you.” He recently decreed that EBO be dropped from the American military lexicon. The rhetorical battle over EBO was largely between those who see troops on the ground as the linchpin of future conflicts, versus airpower enthusiasts, who believe just the right amount of precision weaponry applied at just the right point can produce, well, most any desired effect.

In future wars, ground forces — supported by aviation and naval forces — will be the linchpin, Mattis said. It is on the ground, in complex terrain, mixed in with the civilian population, where today and tomorrow’s enemy will confront U.S. forces. “These wars will be fought among the people… we’re going to have to deal on human levels with human beings and not think that technology or tactics by targetry will solve war.” The likelihood that most wars will be of the irregular variety (I’ve noticed Mattis tends to avoid using the descriptive term “counterinsurgency” when discussing current and future wars) will demand troops with “cultural savvy” who know when to shift gears from one form of war to another. War is a human endeavor and so defense planning must focus on the human factors, he said.

The “advise and assist” capability of ground forces will be key, requiring that regular forces achieve a “seamless” integration with special operations forces. “High performing small units are now a national imperative,” Mattis said, “capable of operating independently at increasingly lower echelons.” The effort he envisions is not designed to turn regular forces into special forces, rather, it recognizes that the individual and the small unit are the key players on a decentralized battlefield. Fundamentally, quality becomes much more important than quantity. The vulnerable gaps JFCOM is seeking to plug are those at the small unit level, where guerrilla fighters have targeted U.S. forces over the past eight years.

Future enemies will avoid U.S. technological strengths in sensing and targeting, which is the whole idea behind hybrid threats: an enemy that will rapidly shift its posture and adapt its operations and tactics to keep U.S. forces off balance. “Hybrid means you’re going to see a mix of conventional and unconventional… it’s not going to be in four quadrants of a DOD chart with disruptive, catastrophic, traditional and non-traditional war,” Mattis said.

While the fundamental nature of war is not changing, what is, Mattis said, is how the military will fight future wars. To get the “how” part right, JFCOM is in the midst of a wide-ranging war game that is putting to the test its new warfighting concepts, embodied in the “Capstone Concept for Joint Operations.” The war game’s scenarios are threat based and include fighting a near-peer competitor from a distance, engaging in an irregular campaign in a fragile or failing state and combating a globally networked terrorist enemy.

Mattis said the “capabilities based” approach to defense portfolio management, an idea that gained popularity inside the Pentagon over the past decade, is fundamentally incompatible with American democracy, where the polity’s support for the military is essential. “As we divorced ourselves from a threat based approach, we also divorced ourselves from incurring the support perhaps, certainly the emotional appeal to our people of why this military exists.” If the military is unable to clearly articulate realistic threats, then it risks losing that popular support, Mattis said.

While focusing on the human context and purposefully avoiding a discussion of programs and equipment, Mattis did say he sees a shift in focus from buying big costly systems to money spent on training, particularly on simulations. Strategic lift will be required to speed troops to distant battlefields and sustain them while there without the luxury of forward bases, so “seabasing over a sustained period of time” will be needed.