'People, ideas, machines' V: Colin Gray on Defence Planning
'Politics is the womb in which war develops'... Errors in politics and strategy dwarf errors in operations and tactics... Relevance for UKR... Seventeen Moments of Spring...
‘The very nature of interaction is bound to make it unpredictable.’ Clausewitz.
‘It is something of a mystery why the terms [strategy, tactics] continue to be grossly abused… It is remarkable how resistant many defence profressionals are to accepting the admirably clear meaning with high utility of Clausewitz’s distinction.’ !! Colin Gray. (I’ve made this point for years about the abuse of the term ‘strategy’ in politics. It’s interesting to see a doyen of ‘defence intellectuals’ say it’s also true in military circles.)
Below are notes on Colin Gray’s Defence Planning. Gray is one of the leading academics on ‘strategy’ since World War II.
Some key points about the book.
1. The highest value learning is abstractions at the right level.
The most important advice for those in politics, strategy, defence planning and management generally is his exhortation to abstract lessons at the right level. All sorts of details are important ‘to historians’ but not to non-historians trying to learn general ‘lessons from history’. And all sorts of deep lessons recur in history if one abstracts at the right level. Historians are interested in details like ‘how Rome won the Battle of X because particular ABC’ but most of these details are only interesting to a historian interested in the particular case. But ‘how Rome innovated’, ‘how Rome organised military training’ and ‘how Roman leaders connected political ends to military operations’ are deep timeless lessons.
Stark, crucial examples of such abstractions that are constantly forgotten and have to be relearned?
Ancient lesson: war is carried on in the dark.
Ancient lesson: war is politics.
Ancient lesson: ‘fear, honour, interest’ drive politics and war.
(I tried to apply some of these lessons — what I called ‘unrecognised simplicities of high performance’ — to politics in the euro campaign, Department for Education, referendum, No10, removing Boris and wrote about it here.)
2. War is politics, politics must dominate analysis of ends, per Clausewitz...
Politics is the womb in which war develops… War is not a mere act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political activity by other means. (Clausewitz)
This is obviously critical today. My criticism of some military analysis about the UKR war has been based mainly on disagreements with their political analysis and particularly their ignoring of, or confusion about, ends which must be political. (I also think many military experts have ignored the Godfather advice — never hate your enemies, it clouds your judgement — in their predictions of ‘Russian collapse’ and ‘UKR victory’.)
Our politicians have not described coherent ends for our action in UKR. ‘Putin must fail’ is not a coherent end (and there is intense disagreement about his ends). Truss’s definition of the end as ‘removing Russia from Crimea’ is a ticket to nuclear war — obviously our abysmal media and MPs being what they are, this has been ignored in the leadership farce-campaign.
We have politicians pushing escalation with the world’s biggest nuclear power over a state, Ukraine, that is of trivial inherent importance to the world and which we are not obliged to fight for by any alliance. A ‘humanitarian’ logic makes no sense given we routinely ignore such humanitarian logic applied to millions of blacks getting slaughtered in Africa for decade after decade. And our debate ignores the crucial political fact that in the east the war resembles a civil war, with both sides speaking Russian, layered on top of the history of some of the most appalling battlegrounds and massacres of the Eastern Front in World War II hence, partly, the depth of hate and the atrocities. Unlike the student politics of statues and cries of ‘Nazi’ in Oxford or Harvard, the fights over statues and ‘Nazi’ in Ukraine evoke the emotional depths of the Eastern Front that are still living memories. (As I wrote in my Reading List, one of the greatest films ever made is Come and See (Иди и смотри) about the Eastern Front. I highly recommend it in general but also as relevant to the war now.** below)
Without clarity over ends, military action risks not just failure but disaster. These risks are even greater given the neocons and their media sympathisers, who made such terrible errors in Iraq and Afghanistan and who promote conflict with China over Taiwan too, incite media hysteria over atrocities and chant nonsensical slogans exhorting us to ignore the most important aspect of Russia, its nuclear arsenal.
Pointing out the obvious fact that Boris Johnson cannot explain coherent ends, which are essential for military success, gets you attacked by senior academics as a ‘Putin stooge’ (even though in every other context the exact same academics mock him as a clown). I’ve talked to serving officers involved in UK operations in UKR. Without exception when I ask ‘what do you think the government’s ends are, is the MoD improving under the pressure of the war?’, they reply ‘nobody knows, no almost everything is stupider than ever’.
I won’t rehash everything I’ve written on UKR. My point here is: Gray’s lessons on the inherently political nature of defining ends, and how this dominates purely military calculations, applies to UKR now, as does his warning that this lesson is often ignored and causes disasters.
3. My main disagreement with the book… He’s right to warn that a) quantitative methods cannot eliminate uncertainty and b) hubris concerning them can be disastrous, but he pushes the lesson too far. Such methods can usefully constrain uncertainty about politics, which he treats as a domain almost entirely outside quantitative analysis.
Gray wrote before the Tetlock experiments and his worldview was shaped before the advances of modern data science and its tools. He is rightly sceptical of futurology and predictions. He rightly warns that hubris with quantitative methods has often been dangerous and/or disastrous, from RAND to McNamara’s Whizz Kids.
But there is scope to integrate the ancient wisdom of Thucydides and Sun Tzu with modern methods provided it’s done with humility. He warns that we can’t reliably predict crucial political ‘tipping points’ but he’s wrong. For example, Bayesian techniques applied to polling/models can and do predict critical tipping points in elections, which are inherently political and therefore the root of strategy in Gray’s own formulation. There are many similar examples though obviously this entire field is massively under-rated in politics/government because they’re so hard and so dysfunctional.
This obviously does not negate the profound wisdom of classics. It does not mean we should ignore ancient warnings to be humble in the face of inherent uncertainty, nonlinearity and chance. But we can cautiously improve methods and know more of the future, at least in the relatively short-term (months not decades), than a reasonable historian or scholar of strategy may think. We must always keep in mind the fragility of such predictions, the dangers of depending on them, and the need to seek strategies that are robust in many different plausible branching futures.
Quantitative methods and tools can be applied to fields that have previously ignored them and produce great value. They can also be disastrously mis-applied.
A classic example…
In the 1940s-60s, the Manhattan Project, the ICBM project and Apollo developed new methods for managing highly complex projects (‘systems management’ and ‘systems engineering’). In the 1960s, McNamara, a famously successful businessman, ran the Pentagon. His Whizz Kids went to work on Vietnam, defence planning and procurement. Not only did they horribly botch Vietnam, but in the name of ‘efficiency’ and ‘accountability’ and ‘transparency’ they also changed the way the Pentagon did procurement, including ditching the phenomenally successful methods of Manhattan/ICBMs/Apollo. No more highly fast, effective and efficient deals done with a handshake and trust. Ever since, the Pentagon has got worse and worse and has resisted all attempts at systemic reform. (Cf. Packard’s attempts in the 1980s, Schriever’s letter etc.)
Today, Britain and America run highly complex projects much worse than we did 50-70 years ago, despite having the internet and many other technologies! Procurement and infrastructure building is a disaster. Across the west we’ve seen highly complex projects simultaneously take longer and longer, cost more and more, and fail more and more disastrously. In the UK, many tens of billions are destined to be wasted for 30 years in the appalling HS2 project (which I tried and failed to stop in Q1 2020) — already a case study in government incompetence and certain to become more famous as the idiocy becomes more public and the bills grow and grow. It is no coincidence that Westminster has both made building such things disastrously slow and expensive and, when challenged, produces rushed comedy graphs justifying the project with forecasts showing literally the entire UK population either traveling on high speed rail or building more of it. The same systems have produced our energy policy and infrastructure…
4. It’s normal for states to fail to integrate politics, strategy and defence planning and we never really learn from failure.
States are constantly and inevitably surprised by political developments. These surprises are often terrible for their military (e.g UK 1940), sometimes catastrophic leading to the state being conquered (e.g France 1940). When disaster hits, it seems obvious that it would have been wiser to prepare forces to cope with a wider distribution of possible futures.
Yet this lesson is never really learned. The surprises and disasters recur reliably. This seems to fit with my point about extremely high performance teams: almost nobody learns, entropy and the ‘silent artillery of time’ always do their work.
Given nuclear weapons, biological weapons, and the accelerating AI/drone swarms arms race, it’s hard to be optimistic.
5. Main criticism (apart from being a bit repetitive). He should have done some case studies of the absolute best and most disastrous examples of defence planning, with reading lists, explaining the reasons. If anybody knows of a book/paper giving such case studies please link below. I don’t mean histories of campaigns, I mean analysis of the bureaucratic processes and personalities explaining what worked very well or badly, i.e something similar to what The Dream Machine did for ARPA/PARC or Now It Can Be Told for Manhattan. Person X set up process Y with the following key people and they did XXX, AAA worked, BBB didn’t etc.
E.g Prussia’s success in 1866 and 1870, which led to states copying the General Staff model, which then failed in 1914. I want to dig into the arguments re myths/reality viz the planning process for Blitzkrieg, Guderian, von Manstein etc.
** Come and See
It’s an accurate portrayal of atrocities on the Eastern Front therefore truly horrific. The director was evacuated from the horror of Stalingrad as a child:
The city was ablaze up to the top of the sky. The river was also burning. It was night, bombs were exploding, and mothers were covering their children with whatever bedding they had, and then they would lie on top of them. Had I included everything I knew and shown the whole truth, even I could not have watched it.
If there’s one film to show Nietzsche brought back from the dead, maybe this is it. The Nazis did indeed think they were creating a new world ‘beyond good and evil’, so did Stalin. The title comes from Revelations 6 (7-8):
And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see.
And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.
I’d also highly recommend another piece of Russian art from the 1970s, Seventeen Moments of Spring, the most watched TV show in Russian history, the story of a brilliant Russian double-agent outwitting the Nazis. The streets emptied when it was first shown.
It’s fascinating artistically. E.g Surely nobody today would dare open a TV show with minutes of a man just looking at the sky and trees. It’s possible for things seen as ‘elite’ to be hits if they’re done well enough.
It’s fascinating for what it says about Russia. Like reading Dostoyevsky and watching Come and See, you realise just how other Russia is, such as the combinations of sentimentality and brutality that seem odd to western sensibilities.
It’s also interesting as it seems its influence has affected how Putin tries to present himself. Shtierlitz, unknown in the west, tops polls of who Russians would like to lead them, a little like James Bond topping polls in Britain. Its production was carefully orchestrated by the KGB yet one of its effects seems to have been an odd unintentional elevation of Nazi aesthetics. Every Live Player in politics is also a Sorcerer’s Apprentice…
Previous in this series:
Two charts illustrate very deep long-term problems in military organisations, thinking and procurement — and an inability of the political parties nominally in charge of these bureaucracies to change direction — in America, UK and the EU.
Building has got incredibly slow
Building has got incredibly expensive
Obviously we cannot stay on these exponential curves.
But HOW will these curves change? Will we keep our rotten institutions and we just see the curves flattening? Will fear force change? So far despite much greater fears over Russia and China there is little sign of institutional change.
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