US Army War College

Dr. Frank Hoffman – “Defeat Mechanisms in Modern Warfare”

Released 27 December, 2021.

This article explores the current debate about service and Joint operating concepts, starting with the Army’s multi-domain operations concept. It argues for adaptations to an old operational design technique—defeat mechanisms; updates to Joint and service planning doctrine; and discipline regarding emerging concepts. Rather than debate over attrition versus maneuver, combinations of a suite of defeat mechanisms should be applied to gain victory in the future.  Click here to read the article.

Episode Transcript:

Stephanie Crider (Host)
Welcome to Decisive Point, a US Army War College Press production featuring distinguished authors and contributors who get to the heart of the matter in national security affairs.

Decisive Point welcomes Dr. Frank Hoffman, author of “Defeat Mechanisms in Modern Warfare,” featured in Parameters 2021 – 22 Winter issue. Dr. Hoffman is a distinguished research fellow at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. His latest book, Mars Adapting: Military Change under Fire, was published this year.

Frank, I’m glad you’re here. Thank you for joining me. We’re here to talk about your article that was published in Parameters Winter 2021 – 22, “Defeat Mechanisms in Modern Warfare.” Your article assesses several conceptual efforts to better posture US military for success and future wars. Specifically, you explore the debate between service and joint operating concepts and the opportunities and vulnerabilities of cyber-enabled systems to produce decisive effects at the operational level of war. Please set the stage for our listeners and explain the current debate.

Dr. Frank Hoffman
Sure, thank you. Great to be here today.

It’s just interesting that, you know, in the literature right now, we’re going back to fundamentals about how we in the military conceive of, plan for, and conceptualize obtaining victory. And there seems to be quite a fervent debate going on both in the military literature and in the academic literature. In the current issue of “Survival,” published by double I double S in London, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Franz-Stefan Gady challenges American concepts and thinking about maneuver versus attrition, which is an age-old debate that goes back in the Army and the Marine Corps back to the 1980s. And Gady suggests that we need to reemphasize attrition, since maneuver, both in the sense of movement and mobility across the battlespace, is going to be much harder because of persistent surveillance, attacks from drones, drones as a source of ISR. His reading of future technology suggests that maneuver is going to be very hard and that we need to focus on buying capabilities to attrit the adversary.

And this is also taken up by Michael Kofman from the Center for Naval Analysis, who argues that the Army and the joint world need to let loose their embrace of strategic or operational paralysis, you know, attempting to confuse commanders. And we need to reembrace attrition and firepower to destroy enemy capabilities, not by combinations and not by the way we currently think about it.

And this is also then taken up by Dr. Heather Venable, who’s a professor at the Air University. And she also argues that most of our thinking in the Army and the Marine Corps is based upon some rather thin historical cases drawn largely from either 1916’s infiltration tactics or the theories of John Boyd and the OODA loop and this notion of cognitive paralysis and outmaneuvering the enemy in the broader sense through combinations of forces in modern combine arms.

Those are the critics. In the service literature, in the joint world, and in the United States, we do seem to have this emphasis now on what in the Army is described as creating multiple dilemmas for the opponent as a theory of victory. I found in the Air Force’s doctrine the same kind of theory of victory. And I’ve also found it in the latest British integrated operating concept that we’re predicating our ability to win and to defeat the adversary by somehow generating multiple dilemmas. And that there’s this perception that if we come from different directions with different cross-domain capabilities, our opponents will be cognitively constipated or somehow operationally paralyzed and unable to defend themselves. Or they’ll just make a lot of mistakes.

And I do have some problems with this notion of cognitive paralysis. So I’m glad that the critics have pointed up this particular debate, but I’m not sure that attrition, particularly against peers, is really the way to go about it. So I’ve been exploring some old concepts that I learned from General Wass de Czege in the 1990s, that I think need to be reintroduced. They need to be updated to account for the cyber and information strike capabilities we have now. We just don’t rely upon physical strikes. We have offensive capabilities in cyber and the electromagnetic spectrum capability as well. As do our adversaries. So I think a refreshing look at defeat mechanisms, a terminology that I learned from the Army a long time ago, more than two decades ago, just needs to be refurbished and made more contemporary. And that’s what the essence of the article is about.

Your article says the real issue is the construction of concepts or operational plans that have a historically demonstrated or testable theory of victory. What are some possible defeat mechanisms that might contribute to a solution?

Well, I do have to say that the critics are right, that attrition, or the phrase I use that I think is more preferable is destruction–the use of firepower to destroy either capabilities or the capacities of the size of the enemy forces–is a component. But I think in the cyber realm, we also need to think about disorientation or disruption through both deception through information operations and through cyber capabilities. There is certainly this physical and nonphysical means that we have of both destroying and disorienting the adversary to gain an operational advantage. That is where I think the future lies.

I do believe that maneuver in its tactical sense, you know, the movement of forces, can create the options of dislocation, and again, this is where seizing a positional advantage or making an opponent’s defense irrelevant by moving around them or over them or coming from a sudden direction, still has some utility–even in a period of massive surveillance capability. We can still blind somebody, disorient them first, and then conduct the maneuver and dislocate them.

So disruption disorientation, dislocation, and destruction are the for defeat mechanisms that in different contexts against different adversaries, can be combined and sequenced and orchestrated in time and place to gain an operational advantage and achieve a degree of systems disruption over the adversaries operating system that makes them far less capable relative to us. I think that’s where the future lies in creating overmatch or creating a competitive advantage in the battlespace in the future.

I don’t believe that we can paralyze an enemy commander, I don’t believe that we can stupefy them. But I do believe that their system disruption, through the combination of disorientation, dislocation, and disruption, is still feasible in the twenty-first century. And I think our concepts, our military planning, should define some of these terms. And I’m only offering my definitions to begin the debate. Let the joint doctrine world find the best terms.

But this isn’t a big lift for us intellectually, but it does put us on, I think, more solid ground both in terms of what has worked in the past, what worked in World War II, what has worked in contemporary conflict, and what will work in the future in a world in which command systems are operating at great ranges–in which everybody has some space parity and some operational aviation capability. We’re dealing with a much more contested space; I think we need to reconceptualize victory and defeat mechanisms to deal with this twenty-first century.

Can you give us any final thoughts or any concluding thoughts on this topic?

I think this is very, very critical. It’s particularly critical for our concepts. It’s particularly critical for us to imagine and understand what it is to be in a competitive environment with a peer–someone whose space capabilities and aviation capabilities, and their C-2/AI-enabled capabilities may approach our own in some senses. We’ll have edges and some areas and not. I think it’s very important for us to rethink our operational art and refocus. After 15 or 20 years of focusing on the lower half of the conflict spectrum, the scale, the pace, the role of destruction, also, but the role of deception and disorientation and dislocation is still relevant, I think, in the 21st century. I think we need to rejuvenate our thinking about this.

Thank you for joining me. I had a blast and learned a lot.

I’m really pleased to work with the Army War College Press.