Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Long Nasty Record of the Seduction by Short Splendid Wars

As I am going through my pre-WWI reading arc (latest is Margaret MacMillan's The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914), what keeps coming to mind is the repeated failure throughout history of those of us in uniform to make sure that our civilian leaders understand the difference between "The Operational Art" as some like to call what is done in the "Five" part of the world, and the horribly named "Military Science."

Some do warn, as happened in multiple nations prior to WWI, but these people are often marginalized by the politicians and politically minded uniformed leadership who only want happy stories that answer with what politicians want to hear, not what they need to hear. You get what you promote - in a fashion.

Take it from a Planner, if we include the right Assumptions and have a planning staff that is malleable enough, wecan create any plan they want to. Of course, plans never survive first contact with the enemy, but people dismiss that. People want something they can point to and say, "Let's do this. Our top men have show how it can be done. Our. Top. Men."

So many times in history, nations have stumbled in to war because a plan was written to match the aspirational goal of the politicians - in this case - the desire for a short war that won't excessively impact trade, commerce, election cycles, or pre-existing stockpiles.

 Sometimes because the plan itself was unrealistic and the assumptions too fragile - but more often than not it is that Goals and Endstates change at some point when you are already down a few lines of operation towards a different set of Goals and Endstates, etc. What was a modest little war gets carried away in to a broader war. Not a Sequel to a Plan, but a Plan that degenerates in to a grabassary of making it up as you go along (Wes Clark call your office).

For some reason, as I was reading about how sure the German General Staff was that the war would be short and decisive, I was thinking about the panel I watched Jim Holmes moderate at USNI West 14, he wrote about it here.
Enlightened opinion on this side of the Pacific Ocean evidently finds one of two things unfathomable: that Beijing is contemplating war, or that the People’s Liberation Army prefers to avoid a protracted test of arms should one prove unavoidable. Let’s take those possibilities in turn.

First, what else should PLA strategists do than plan for a war to uphold what the political leadership obviously considers an important national interest? .... Armed services exist to furnish their political masters options in times of trouble. Thinking about the unthinkable — and doing advance legwork should statesmen deem the unthinkable thinkable — is what they do.

Indeed, commanders commit malpractice if they fail at this basic function.
It’s also irresponsible for military leaders to game the strategy-making process, foreclosing certain options or pressing others on policymakers. That’s why proclaiming that one course of action is “the” solution to some politico-military dilemma or another is so problematic. If military commanders take a one-size-fits-all approach to complex problems, they hand policymakers a stark choice in wartime: select the only option on the table or do nothing. That amounts to the tool — the military — instructing the repairman — the president or prime minister — how to do his job.
In very broad terms, there are two strains in Chinese strategic culture. One favors protracted war, the other prizes quick, decisive victory. We can put Mao Zedong’s face on the former, Sun Tzu’s on the latter. But does China really prefer Maoist methods of protracted war? Does Beijing automatically string out armed conflicts? No. Even for Mao, conventional victory is the ultimate goal, protraction a mere expedient in situations where China starts off as the weaker combatant. There’s little reason to think the Great Helmsman relished the grind of irregular warfare and what-not.

If China starts off as the stronger antagonist, then, why wouldn’t it take the swiftest and surest route to success? Sun Tzu warns that no protracted war ever benefits the state. Such conflicts sap the national treasury and other warmaking resources while leaving the state vulnerable to predatory neighbors — even in victory. That being the case, why not heed Sun Tzu’s wisdom if China is the stronger competitor in the East China Sea? Beijing is doubtless content to win through Sun Tzuian methods if it can.

However execrable a statesman, Mao the war leader counseled sagely against letting strategic doctrinaires, or “chatterers,” dominate debates over strategic and operational questions. He professed a more supple approach contingent on relative strength. In this case, at least, it may be wise to listen to the man brandishing a Little Red Book. If Beijing confronts a united U.S.-Japan alliance, it may incline to the protracted approach. If the alliance shows fissures, suggesting that China can go mano-a-mano with a peer or weaker Japan, then Beijing may indulge its Sun Tzuian proclivities. It may strike suddenly, like a hawk — as the grand master advises.
If the Chinese fo make the mistake of being seduced in to running the odds on a "short splendid war" that draws the USA in, are we ready for that? Not materially - though that is a good question in itself - but intellectually? Do we have a clear view of the Chinese military of 2015?

As Dingding Chen reminds us; the modern Chinese Army isn't the waves of men in quilted jackets rolling over hills;
... resolve is absolutely critical. This factor has not been given adequate attention by military analysts when estimating the PLA’s ability to fight a war. If the PLA does enter a war, then it most likely will be a defensive war for China in areas near its borders. This is about defending China’s sovereignty and territories and this is fundamentally different from conquering others’ territories. Thus morale will be high. If history is any indication, the Korean War tells us that the weaker Chinese army could repel and defeat a stronger U.S. army. The fact that China then was fighting for its sovereign integrity is a key factor in explaining the defeat of the United States.

In sum, the Chinese PLA can indeed fight a modern war regardless of its potential opponent. Whether the PLA can win a war is a different story as it depends on many different factors. The key point is not to only focus on the PLA’s material capabilities; instead we should examine the PLA’s morale and resolve, two factors that have so far not been seriously studied.
If their leadership is unwise enough to think, in a moment of weakness by others, that they can do a Crimea-like snatch-n-grab, or find a way to have a contained conflict, the potential for everyone to fall down in to that pit is a non-zero figure.

Combine that ever present planning-risk with, on our side, a significant cadre of over-confidence and, well ... it makes you ponder a bit about the darker side of history's patterns.

Somewhere, there are a few Chinese plans out there that promise a "splendid little war." Let's hope they get ignored.

I keep saying it, because it boils down to one of the few things I feel to be as true as can be in the military world: war is a dark room; you can see the door just fine, but you have no idea what you will find once you go inside - and you can't back out once you are in.

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