Leadership: Fighting In A Fishbowl

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April 18, 2009: While American military commanders debate how to get their troops ready for the next war (be it "irregular war" or conventional combat), they are also beginning to realize that both forms of conflict are being overshadowed by a unique new form of combat that is supplanting, or greatly modifying, all previous types. It's called Information War. While Information War has been around for a long time, it's never been as decisive as it is today. This sort of sneaked up on everyone.

For thousands of years, information (orders, reports) and news travelled slowly. Battles were noted for lots of noise and confusion, with commanders having a hard time issuing new orders, and depending on subordinates to be quick to size up new situations and act effectively on their own. That began to change nearly two centuries ago, as, in rather rapid succession, the telegraph, telephone and radio suddenly made it possible for senior political and military commanders to communicate with distant subordinates. This was a radical change, because for thousands of years, when you sent an army or fleet off to fight, it was understood that the commanders would be on their own, with no (prompt) interference from the boss back home. A century ago, this was suddenly no longer true. Over the past hundred years, this change in how far and fast information could travel has not just changed warfare, but cultures as well. War has become a group experience, with the folks, not just the leaders, back home having influence on if, and how, distant wars will be fought.

The mass media developed at the same time, and made it possible to get the message out to everyone quickly. As time went by, "quickly" morphed into "immediately." Politicians have always had to worry about public opinion, even when information moved at the speed of a horse or ship, and most of the population was illiterate. Now politicians have to respond very quickly to cell phone photos tweeted, from the scene of some newsworthy disaster, to the entire world. While military commanders who could anticipate problems have always been more successful, generals and admirals are now learning to anticipate what the media impact will be, as well as what the enemy is capable of.

Last year, the U.S. Army came out with a top line field manual (FM 3-07) "stability operations" (the kind of "small wars" being waged in Iraq and Afghanistan.) The army has always had an FM-7 for "full spectrum operations" (total war, against troops in uniform, armed with a full spectrum of weapons and tactics). Now it is committed to training for both types of combat. The key to this is training the commanders. One discovery in the last decade is that the troops can switch from conventional combat, to irregular type operations, more quickly and efficiently than their bosses.

What the army doesn't like to touch too much, at least officially, is the media angle in all this. The brass are aware of the problem, and have been for decades. It was only in the 1980s that a serious effort was made to address the problems inherent in Information War. But even then, everyone at the table knew it was, well, politically sensitive, to address dealing with how the media, and its impact on the political leaders, would influence what the troops and their commanders would have to do. But the subject is being discussed by officers more and more, if only because it's the elephant in the room that really can't be ignored anymore.

This year, the army will begin holding brigade level training exercises for conventional warfare. These will mainly be for the commanders. The army has simulation technology that makes it cheap and easy to set up a realistic wargame, with brigade, and higher level, commanders, standing in their usual headquarters (everything from a tent, to an office suite back in DC, full of PCs, datalinks and flat panel displays), having to deal with realistic wartime decisions. Some of those decisions will involve how to cope with the media and Information War angle.

Brigades that are now able to stay at their bases for 18 months, will also have a chance to practice conventional warfare, as a brigade, at the electronically monitored training centers. This sort of thing, an army innovation of the 1980s, has proved to be the closest thing to actual combat ever developed. What the army is seeking to confirm is the usefulness of combat experience, which so many troops now have, to enabling them to quickly relearn the skills needed for conventional war. In practice, much of what a soldier does in conventional, or irregular, warfare, is the same. Shooting accurately, carefully planning raids or patrols, attention to detail and discipline are all used in both forms of combat. There are different tactics, but these are learned more quickly by troops who have been in combat. Being a combat veteran makes a big difference, and the coming series of conventional war exercises at the training centers will measure how much. The army is also seeking to see how well the "media relations" training troops are given, at all levels, sticks with the troops.

The army also wants to measure how quickly the commanders can switch from conventional, or irregular warfare, and back again. The colonels and generals now have their two playbooks, and over the next few years, they will be tested. But in the background, officers are debating how best to deal with matters-that-cannot-be-mentioned. While pundits and academics go on about whether the army should concentrate their training on irregular or conventional combat, the officers know that this is concentrating on the wrong problem. The real unknown in combat is how to successfully fight any kind of war in an increasingly wired world, where everyone knows everything right away.

 

 


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