The Magazine


The changing requirements for victory on the battlefield.

Jan 23, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 18 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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The Gulf war debate was hardly unique. In 1914, Europeans expected a short, decisive war of movement. In 1940, observers were astonished by Germany's rapid defeat of France. Neither Arabs nor Israelis expected anything like the staggering losses of the 1973 war. "We must and can do better," says Biddle. "But real improvement will require a new approach" that avoids the shortcomings of the current state of the art: analysis that is either rigorous but narrow, or broad but un-rigorous. Biddle contends that the key determinant of battlefield success or failure is force employment--the doctrine and tactics that govern the operations of a state's military force.

He takes aim at a key claim of transformation/RMA advocates: that today's battlefield is qualitatively different from battlefields of the past. Biddle contends that "since at least 1900, the dominant technological fact of the modern battlefield has been increasing lethality." Technological change since 1914 has only increased the range over which exposure to fire can be fatal.

To execute missions on such a battlefield, a military force must reduce its exposure. Since 1918, the central means of doing so has been what Biddle calls "modern system force employment"--a "tightly interrelated complex of cover, concealment, dispersion, suppression, small-unit independent maneuver, and combined arms at the tactical level" (the level of combat at which battles are fought) and "depth, reserves, and differential concentration at the operational level of war" (the level of war concerned with the conduct of campaigns).

When fully implemented, "the modern system damps the effect of technological change and insulates users from the full lethality of their opponents' weapons." But not all states can master this system, which is complex and poses painful political and social tradeoffs. For instance, an autocratic state may not be willing to permit the decentralization and freedom of action to its junior officers that the modern system requires. Accordingly, the major military "gap" of the future will be between those states that have mastered the modern system, and those that have not.

Biddle tests his theory of force employment by first examining three historical cases. The ones he chooses would seem to favor the "materialist" alternatives--preponderance and systemic technology--to his theory. In all cases, his theory of force employment proves superior to the materialist alternatives: Operation Michael, the unprecedented German breakthrough at the Second Battle of the Somme (1918); Operation Goodwood, the failed British breakout from the Normandy beachhead (1944); and Operation Desert Storm (1991). He then turns to analysis of statistical data and, finally, to computer simulation experimentation. In all cases, his new theory of force employment outperforms its more orthodox materialist competitors.

Military Power is an important book. But it is open to criticism, the most important of which is the undeniable fact that, in the past, the side with the most operationally competent military nonetheless suffered defeat in the war. So yes, Operation Michael was a German success at the operational level, but Germany still lost the war. Indeed, there is a consensus among military historians that the German army in both world wars was far more effective at the tactical and operational levels of war than its opponents, but that this excellence was trumped by a combination of Allied material superiority and bad German strategic choices.

However, this criticism does not outweigh the real value of Military Power. It has important implications for both international relations theory and defense policy. I focus here on defense policy--visions of future war, defense budget priorities, force structure, weapon development and acquisition, campaign assessment, and military doctrine. The most important point is that the radical changes advocated by "transformers" in current approaches to war (the doctrine and force structure that advocates demand) could actually reduce U.S. military capability. That is because the "emerging battlefield is a further extension of the one for which traditional approaches were designed," says Biddle.

Future war, he argues, is not a radical departure from historical precedents, as the transformation advocates seem to believe, but a continuation of trends and relationships that have been evolving for a century and a half.