2011/03/27

Elegance in warfare

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Elegance is the attribute of being unusually effective and simple. It is frequently used as a standard of tastefulness, particularly in the areas of visual design, decoration, the sciences, and the esthetics of mathematics. Elegant things exhibit refined grace and dignified propriety.

I associated "elegance" with cars or evening dresses until I stumbled on a definition for "elegance". The good thing is that it describes a concept of mine very well. (Granted, I'm certainly just a re-inventor).


Elegance in warfare.
This sounds weird, if not wrong.

Let's keep the definition in mind; it's about simplicity (and, by other definitions, about omitting unimportant details).

This omission of unimportant things can be applied to much, including to the assignment of resources. Elegance is therefore a larger principle, of which the Clausewitzian concept of Schwerpunkt (not the modern distortion known as "center of gravity") is a sub-concept. You omit the assignment of resources to non-decisive areas if you follow the Schwerpunkt concept, you do so in order to maximise your strength in a decisive engagement. The mirror concept is known as "economy of force".

The Schwerpunkt concept treats the challenge as a zero-sum game. You can shift resources, but it never makes sense to not use some of your resources at all. The Schwerpunkt concept advocates that you put everything you can spare elsewhere into your decisive engagement.


My concept of elegance in warfare allows for not committing some resources at all, but first I'd like to present an example:

You're a strategic air war planner. Your enemy has 1,000 trucks, one oil refinery and one truck factory producing 100 trucks per period. You can order two air attacks, strong enough to take out either refinery or factory each. What are your orders?
You could bomb only the truck factory, but the 1,000 trucks would still serve your enemy.
You could bomb only the oil refinery and the 1,000 trucks would soon become useless. In fact, the production of additional trucks would become pointless.
Do you order to bomb both?

That would certainly make no sense. You should omit the bombing of the truck factory and just bomb the oil refinery.

Believe it or not - that's not what many people would think. Many, many people - too many - would propose to bomb both.
In fact, the Allies did so in WW2. There were two key groups of armed forces supplies;
(1) supplies related to internal combustion engine vehicles and thus related to fuel
and
(2) supplies related to guns and thus related to explosives and propellants.
The Allies could have focused on fuel and explosives/propellants, or alternatively on the universally required electrical power plants. Instead, they bombed almost everything.
They were experimenting and had many uncertainties about how war economies cope with damages, of course.

Well,  we arrived at a plan that was not about zero-sum, but about omitting some possible combat actions (at least I hope that you followed me so far). It was just a simplistic model, but I think it's a good start.

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Next, I'd like to point at the "accidental guerrilla" concept. This basically says that if you kill one wrong man, dozens of neutrals could become your new and additional enemies. You might end up in a Hydra fight without a firebrand.
At its core is the assertion, nay, observation that sometimes less is better, some actions have a negative effect and are just wrong. Some actions would be wrong even if they would have no fiscal or personnel costs.

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Next, we could think of the economical principle of accomplishing a given mission at minimum possible costs.

Think of Japanese soldiers sitting on irrelevant islands in the Pacific in 1944. They feed themselves by fishing because they are completely isolated. Should you kill them?
No, it makes no sense. Even if it was entirely free for you, we're not only nationals but also humans. First and foremost humans. To kill enemies who are irrelevant is homicide.
This becomes probably easier to understand if we assume that killing them would not be for free. Some of your countries' marines or aviators would die in the attack. By now it should be obvious that irrelevant enemies are irrelevant . You do not need to and you should not kill them.

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Is this whole post too self-evident and pointless?
Sadly, I don't think so.

The concept of elegance is quite alien to military forces. The bigger their hammer, the better. The more damage, the better. Smart, elegant  approaches to challenges only surface in (very) limited resources scenarios. Hardware solutions which violate this habit (such as guided concrete bombs to minimise collateral casualties) do not mean that the attitude in general has improved.

Organised violent conflicts could be much less damaging and lethal, probably even shorter, if there was a greater emphasis on elegance in them. The disadvantage would be that less terrible wars might be less deterring, of course.

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I suspect (strongly) that the neglect of elegance is a systemic flaw. We can be smart, but we are only smart if we need to be. Quite often we waste resources on irrelevant actions instead. 
Some armed services have lists of principles of war; elegance in warfare is certainly a good candidate for an update. Economy of force (far from being universally recognised anyway) can be ditched instead.


S O
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1 comment:

  1. "Do you order to bomb both?
    That would certainly make no sense. You should omit the bombing of the truck factory and just bomb the oil refinery."
    Considering the length of the second world war, the truck factory could be repurposed as a machine gun factory or an artilery factory or anything else.

    I'm not quite sure I agree with your hoarding of resources concept though, I'd probably bomb the refinery twice.

    In a larger scenario, if your opponant has two truck factories and two refinaries, it makes no sense to bomb one of each.

    My view is that a single link should be picked and devestated at the expensive of virtualy anything else.
    Wiping out the electricity grid would cripple a country far more thouroughly than kncoking out 10% of electricity, gas, transport, communications and so forth

    I kind of get your point, but I dont think its as bad as you make out.
    The bombing of Libya probably wouldnt qualify as elegant, but its hardly been excessive or wasteful either.

    "Next, I'd like to point at the "accidental guerrilla" concept. This basically says that if you kill one wrong man, dozens of neutrals could become your new and additional enemies. You might end up in a Hydra fight without a firebrand."

    I place no faith in that concept.
    If it had any validity, the Afghans would have risen up against the Taliban and driven them out long ago.

    The reverse is more likely to be true, the Afghan populace is content to stand by as the engineering unit that just built them an irrigation system blunders into a minefield, because the Taliban will slaughter them if they get involved.

    Punishment attacks against villages are just as likely to create cowed populaces who control their sons as they are a new wave of fighters.

    If we nerve gas the home village of every identified enemy, would we create lots of jihadis out for a fight, or lots of tribal chiefs extremely interested in controlling their wayward youths?

    If you can answer that, you should have used your crystal ball on fridays Euromillions....

    "Think of Japanese soldiers sitting on irrelevant islands in the Pacific in 1944. "
    Thats rather reliant on us knowing they are irrelevent islands to the Japanese war effort and them being irrelevent to our war effort.
    Now, I havent studied every island attack in detail, but my understanding was that most had an airstrip at the very least.
    An airstrip and a wing of torpedo bombers sat on your shipping route is a dangerous thing.

    We know there were no torpedo bombers of course, nor where there submarine resupply bases or anything of value. But as far as I'm aware, this wasnt always clear.

    There is also a psycological effect.
    Would we really want to colonels sat around convincing themselves that if the Polynesian Fortress Islands can hold out under siege and behind enemy lines for a year, the Home Islands can resist the nuclear bombings.

    ReplyDelete

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