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The agility imperative: a revelation in military affairs

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The agility imperative: a revelation in military affairs 

War fighting in the 21st century and the information age is more about the speed of learning than it is about the speed of reloading. Granted, this simplistic understanding of modern warfare is enticingly suggestive in that it appears to focus on something more than just destruction. The notion that the number of tanks or warships you have matters less than your ability to think network rather than linearly is comforting. But gone is also the physical certainty of winning or losing decisive battles and formal surrenders of state actors. The security environment is driven by an unparalleled explosion in information transfer that has affected how humans fundamentally organise and develop ideas. The military cannot avoid the impact of these developments and the challenges they present. By the end of 2013 the agility imperative will likely stand out as one of the defining characteristics necessary for military organisations to fight wars in the 21st century.


The military legacy of learning – or not

Military history is full of moments where military organisations learned the hard way that maintaining organisations, technologies and doctrine for war fighting based on tradition and routine rather than environment can have terrible consequences. Few to none of these have been celebrated as victors or heroes, most pitied as the unfortunate victims of modernisation. And like other significant times in military history driven by technological breakthroughs, there is a period of transition within both the physical and cognitive dimensions of the war fighting environment. From the spear to the armed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), from the romantic idealism of chivalry to the legal rationality of the Law of Armed Conflicts, the environment in which we fight is constantly evolving and always has. However, the information age is more than a physical attribute of the modern war fighting environment; its impact is on the dynamic of change itself. There is no doubt that the onset of the information age has affected every aspect of human life: how we think, how we manage information, how we use the information, how we communicate with each other. It has also set in motion a pace of learning, development and change that is perpetually accelerating. The faster we learn from each other, the faster we adapt, innovate, develop and respond. We are exploiting knowledge faster and over greater distances than at any other point in history.

The context of military operations is not a separate universe from the one all humans are expected to operate in. It is this environment of information hyper drive that the 20th-century military has found itself struggling to adapt to. Struggling with retaining, discovering and recreating its own identity and history. Struggling to fit a fast changing world that only a short 30 years ago was still slow enough to provide a rock solid raison d’étre for continuing the way the military has generally organised itself since the time of Napoleon.

Military history is full of significant leaps forward in military organisation, doctrine and technology. Examples are many: the invention and employment of chariots, flex bows, longbows, gunpowder, cannons and, more recently, machine guns, aircraft, the tank by the British, its effective use by the Germans. There are many. However, despite being significant leaps, sometimes heralded as revolutions in military affairs (RMAs), they have all had limited periods of dominating success, mainly because human opponents do what human opponents do best when faced with annihilation – learn quickly how to survive.

The agility imperative: a revelation in military affairs
But this time the change is different. This time it is not a technological development in itself or a new way of using technology in terms of doctrine or organisation providing the fortunate commander complete battlespace domination. This time it is a much deeper and fundamental change. This time it does not resemble a revolution in military affairs as much as it resembles a revelation.

The war fighter may not like to use the word ‘ontology’, but war fighting organisations are already planning and fighting ontologically. For those not familiar with the word ontology, it simply refers to the study of categories of realities. Today’s military is working operationally with two ‘reality’ categories of ontology, the cognitive and the physical. And though the cognitive reality consisting of subjective beliefs, understandings, perceptions, identities and norms has always been there, the information age has significantly amplified its importance to military operations. As of 2013, the armies, navies, air forces and marines throughout the Alliance can be found discussing the merits of narrative lead operations, lines of operations for social media and the importance of culture to situational understanding. What must sound even more bizarre to some traditionalists are military discussions on the harmonisation and synchronisation of kinetics and non-kinetics for the destruction or construction of things and/or ideas, understandings or narratives.

Pragmatism and enlightenment
Over the last five years the military has engaged the cognitive and physical realities of the battlespace through complex ‘system of systems analysis’ known (somewhat lovingly) to some as SoSA. These networked-defined understandings of battlespaces such as ‘PMESII’, representing the interaction between the Political, Military, Economic, Social, Infrastructure and Information domains of a battlespace, attempt to delineate and describe and synthesise the two realities of the battlespace. This understanding is then combined with an effects-based thinking (EBT) philosophy that attempts to manage the interaction between the PMESII domains or, if you wish, between the two realities, the cognitive and the physical. Light-heartedly translated as ‘blow something up at the right time and place to create a perception – or if you wish – at the right time and place destroy a perception by not blowing something up’.

And despite the echoes of ‘common sense’ ringing somewhere in the background of this perpetual interaction between the cognitive and the physical dimensions, from a scientific perspective it is a complex ontological relationship between two categories of realities. Now, imagine what the Internet or social media has done to the speed of those interactions, and you will understand how the speed of learning and adaptation in the battlespace itself has taken a quantum leap.

So the military has realised that its battlespace is a nexus – a sort of smelting pot – for net sum interactions of the physical and cognitive realities of the battlespace. The adage ‘actions speak louder than words’ is not really a cry for kinetics but rather a cry for physical confirmation of a socially defined cognitive understanding. If you do it – you must mean it. So what are the key characteristics of a 21st-century battlespace in my view?

  1. Actions in modern warfare acquire meanings and understandings, while meanings and understandings require actions in modern warfare.
    In this regard the information age has expanded and speeded up the ‘meanings and understandings’ part beyond anything seen before in history. Roughly stated it is not just what you blow up that is important; it is its effect on the systems of systems context surrounding the why, how, when, where that determines the end value of the kinetic action. The action must be encased in the appropriate narrative perceived to be to your advantage. If not, though a certain physical action in the battlespace might be desired from a military standpoint, you might actually be shooting yourself in the foot politically, economically or socially with regard to perceptions of the action. The net worth of the action is therefore determined by the sum of effects in both the physical and cognitive realities of the battlespace.
  2. The greater part of complexity and uncertainty in the modern battlespace comes from the interaction of multiple subjective contexts in one time and space.
    Or stated another way, if all belligerent parties in the battlespace had the same culture, norms, values and narrative histories – managing warfare in the information age would still likely be a relatively straightforward test of physical strength.

So, there it is. Note the absence of any discussion as to conventionality versus unconventionality. As inferred earlier, this revelation is far deeper than competing (and somewhat deterministic) taxonomies of doctrine.

As the chances of everyone suddenly enjoying each other’s company in a common constructed narrative of ‘mankind’ are not high for the foreseeable future, military efforts must focus on managing the challenges found in the first principle. It is based primarily on the need for speed and precision in knowledge development. It depicts a battlespace that is dynamic, subject to rapid transformations in time and space due to the speed of information flow. Action and perception can be as instantaneous as the streaming video or tweeting technology in use on the day will allow. It depicts a battlespace that demands agility.

Battlespace agility

‘Battlespace agility’ is a war fighting concept that is simply defined as the speed at which the war fighting organisation is able to transform knowledge into actions for desired effects in a battlespace. It stems from a decade of NATO agility research and the application of conventional constructivist understandings in intelligence analysis and operational planning. At its very heart is the call for developing both the human and technical capabilities to learn and exploit knowledge of the battlespace faster than an opponent, the objective being to outpace, deceive, disrupt and if possible destroy the enemy’s Observe, Orient, Decide and Act (OODA) loop. If you destroy their OODA loop, you have effectively destroyed their ability to manage the interaction between the physical and the cognitive realities of the battlespace. When they take action, it will be perceived as the wrong one; when they decide on actions based on their perceptions, they will be based on the wrong understandings.

As battlespace agility is itself a function of knowledge over time and space and in an age of split-second knowledge development, the onus of being agile starts with a competent military intelligence capacity continuously developing and presenting the commander with opportunities to exploit knowledge. It also requires a completely synthesised working relationship between operational planners and intelligence providers in order to be agile and responsive to the war fighting environment. And this agility must be trained so that the process of discovery and learning about the environment one finds oneself in (the Observe and Orient phases of OODA) is not lost through the constant hand feeding of scenarios for validation of existing organisation and doctrine. Battlespace agility requires that we stop trying to make the situation fit existing organisation and doctrine and focus on our ability to adapt the organisation and doctrine to the situation. Instead we should focus on building a military intelligence organisation that can observe and orient complex war fighting environments with good speed and precision. Instead we should train for the validation of the military organisation’s ability to observe, learn, adapt, innovate, respond, and change to exploit the situation. Agility is the imperative for war fighting in the 21st century, and training to be agile is training to fight and win.

Further reading:

  • Alberts, D. (2011) The Agility Advantage. Washington, DC: CCRP.
  • Henrotin, J. & de Swielande, T. S. (2004) Ontological-Cultural Asymmetry and the Relevance of Grand Strategies. Journal of Military and Strategic Studies. 7 (2). 1-25.
  • Libicki, M. C. and Johnson, S. E. (eds.) (1996) Dominant Battlespace Knowledge. April.
  • Mann, P. (2001) Defence Reform Stresses Speed, Agility, Jointness. Aviation Week & Space Technology. 154 (25). 72.
  • Mitchell, W. (2013) Battlespace Agility 201: The OODA Moment. Copenhagen: Royal Danish Defence College Press.
  • NATO SAS-085. (Forthcoming 2013) Operationalizing Agility.
  • Robinson, C. Jr. (2003) Military Marches Towards Agility. Signals Magazine. May.

About the author

Military researcher

Dr. William L. Mitchell

Email: imo-vf11@fak.dk