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My guest today is Amos Fox, who is an officer in the US Army with more than 24 years of service in uniform. Amos has written extensively on war and conflict over the past decade, producing over 60 publications. His work focuses on causal mechanisms to explain patterns in armed conflict. Much of Amos’ current writing addresses proxy war, land warfare, the Russo-Ukrainian War, and military thinking.
He joined me to discuss some of his views on the state of Western military thinking, particularly our potential over-reliance on the concept of manoeuvre warfare.
Some of the topics we covered are:
- Amos’ background in the military and path into academia
- Influences of Amos’ first operational deployment in Iraq
- Understanding the reality on the ground – when intentions clash
- Defining manoeuvre warfare and its adoption by Western militaries
- Lack of pragmatism and reality in Western doctrine – what you need to know
- Why accurate and relevant doctrine matters for success in war
- Learning from Liddell Hart and his relevance today
- Debunking the illusion of manoeuvre in modern battles
- Avoiding misapplication of past terminology in today’s warfare
- Battle of Mosul – Western usage of sieges examined
- The Precision Paradox – what it means for modern warfare
- Expanding doctrine to include Sieges, Urban Warfare, Proxy Warfare and re-imagined combined arms/joint warfare
- Russian invasion of Ukraine – A case in point for modern warfare
- The importance of questioning preconceived ideas for effective learning
During our chat, I made reference to my conversation with Marc Garlasco, Chief of High Value Targeting at the Pentagon between 1997 and 2003, where he led targeting teams during operations Iraqi Freedom, Desert Fox, and Allied Force. You can find that episode here.
Additionally, you can find all the articles Amos mentioned at the links below:
“Moving Beyond Mechanical Metaphors: Debunking the Applicability of Centers of Gravity in 21st Century Warfare,” The Strategy Bridge, https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2017/6/2/moving-beyond-mechanical-metaphors-debunking-the-applicability-of-centers-of-gravity-in-21st-century-warfare.
“Ukraine and Proxy War: Improving Ontological Shortcomings in Military Thinking,” Association of the United States Army, Land Warfare Paper 148, https://www.ausa.org/sites/default/files/publications/LWP-148-Ukraine-and-Proxy-War-Improving-Ontological-Shortcomings-in-Military-Thinking.pdf
“Maneuver is Dead? Understanding the Conditions and Components of Warfighting,” RUSI Journal, https://doi.org/10.1080/03071847.2022.2058601.
“On Sieges,” RUSI Journal, https://doi.org/10.1080/03071847.2021.1924077.
“The Reemergence of the Siege: An Assessment of Trends in Modern Land Warfare,” Institute of Land Warfare, Land Power Essay 18-2, https://www.ausa.org/sites/default/files/LPE-18-2-The-Reemergence-of-the-Siege-An-Assessment-of-Trends-in-Modern-Land-Warfare.pdf.
“Sieges in Modern War,” Presentation delivered at Harvard Law School, 31 March-1 April 2021, http://dx.doi.org/10.13140/RG.2.2.31870.25929.
Lastly, Amos has extended an invite to anyone who may wish to take this conversation further to email him at email@example.com.
Listen to the podcast here
Amos Fox – Beyond The Illusion Of Manoeuvre: Navigating The Clash Between Intentions And Reality In Modern Warfare
My guest is Amos Fox, who is an officer in the US Army with many years of service in uniform. He is pursuing a PhD in International Relations from the University of Redding, where he is focusing on the intersection of power, time, and social relationships within proxy wars. He is also a graduate of the US Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies, where he was awarded the school stop honour to Tom Felts Leadership Award in 2017.
He has written extensively on the conflict over the past decade, producing over 60 publications. His work is unemotional and focuses on causal mechanisms to explain patterns in armed conflict. Much of Amos’s writing addresses proxy war, land warfare to Russia Ukrainian war, and military thinking. He has previously appeared on Rusi’s Western Way of War Podcast, the This Means War Podcast and the History HIT Podcast. He has also presented at Harvard Law School, Texas Tech University, and many other academic settings.
I’m sure Amos will reiterate this point, but as he is a serving officer in the US Army, it is important to stress that this conversation represents his own views and does not represent in any way the views of the US Department of Defense, the Department of the Army, or any other agency of the US government. He joins me to discuss some of his views on the state of Western military thinking, particularly our potential overreliance on the concept of manoeuvre warfare. Thank you very much for joining me on the show.
Thank you very much for the opportunity to sit down and talk with you. I appreciate the opportunity. My opinions are expressed here on my own and are not reflective in any way, shape, or form of the US Army or the US government at all. It is me and my personal opinions here.
As I have come to learn since starting the show, those are the best. Before we get to the media subject of strategy and war, maybe we can find out a little bit about you and your background. Why did you join the Army in the first place nearly a quarter of a century ago? What motivated your journey into academia subsequently and dedicating so much of your time to thinking about war?
I originally joined the Army coming out of high school. I joined the National Guard in Indiana to help pay for college because I didn’t come from significant means. While I was in college, everything got underway with 9/11. I started college in ‘99. I joined the Guard in 1999, and 9/11 happened while I was in the Guard. I decided like that line at the beginning of the movie Patton, where Patton is addressing the audience at the beginning of the movie.
He says something to the effect of when you are sitting down with your grandkid by your fireplace and he asks you what you did in the Great World War II. You don’t want to tell him that you shovelled crap in Louisiana. I had a similar feeling about myself. I said, “With this war in Iraq and Afghanistan going on, I don’t want to sit back and say that I didn’t do my part.”
I got into to ROTC Reserve Officer Training Corps program at the school I went to. I went to Indiana University in Indianapolis. I got a commission. I was only going to do three years and get back out because, at that time, I was dead set on being a college football coach. I had my dream job lined up, not even lined up. I already had it. I was an Assistant Football Coach at Butler University while I was finishing up school.
I put that aside and decided to get a commission. I was commissioned into the Army. I was going to do three years at a three-year contract. I was going to go deploy, go to Iraq or Afghanistan, whichever the case may be. At the time, Iraq was the big hot thing because this was 2005. I went to Fort Hood. I started my career there with the Fourth Infantry Division. I was deployed to Iraq almost after I got to Fort Hood. I was deployed with the division for a year. We were at FOB Kalsu in the Kalsu and the Iskandariya area about 30 miles south of Baghdad. It was a wild and crazy year.
In the book Black Hearts, we shared a boundary with that unit. There are a lot of the stories that occurred in that book. I remember it happening in real time. We shared that boundary. We are in the south of those guys. Things change, and life happens. You realise you somewhat enjoy soldiering and doing all that. What was supposed to be three years has now turned into a full-blown career. At the end of my career, I will retire soon.
Is that a compulsory thing? Do you have to retire because of the time you have served?
No. I’m going to go ahead and do something else. I’m going to get into academia and go that route. That goes to the PhD. As part of that, I have always approached being an officer in the Army from the lens of a football coach. Football coaches don’t look at things as they are and accept them as they are. They always look for the how and the why.
You mentioned the 60-something publications that I’ve done. A lot of that is because I always look for the how and the why. I haven’t taken what is, in doctrine or culturally accepted thinking, as the norm. I have always said, “Why is this the way that it is? Where did it come from?” I have always tried to go back and understand the starting point to see where we are and see why things have evolved or not evolved based on that line of logic. It goes back to that.
As a football coach, you sit down on Sunday, and you tear apart the game film for the team that you are going to play that following weekend. Throughout the week, you are continually analysing both them and yourself and saying, “Is what I’m doing going to work? If not, why not? What do I need to do differently?” That frame of mind has always been how I have approached my job and approached thinking about armed conflict in general.
When I see things that I don’t think necessarily make sense, I stop, question it, try and understand and find the how and the why, “Why is it doing this? Why do we say what we say? Why do we think what we think?” That has been the basis of the genesis of my outlook on thinking about armed conflict. It has formed how I have done things over the course of my time, looking at war, warfare and the big picture. Like a lot of folks in the military, I enjoy studying war. I loved the movie Patton when I was a little kid. I grew up doing that and reading the books.
I always wanted to be a soldier coming along, but I also always enjoyed thinking about armed conflict in general. The evolution of military thought to me has always been fascinating. My dirty little secret is I always wanted to be the next Liddell Hart. I have approached things from that standpoint. Liddell Hart, minus the baggage that comes along with them. I wouldn’t say JFC Fuller, but JFC Fuller has way more baggage than Liddell Hart. That is the genesis where I started to where I am now.
You made reference to your immediate deployment to Iraq, post-effectively training or becoming commissioned. What was that experience like to set against what you were taught? How has that initial experience of warfare and military thinking shaped what turned out to be quite an enduring career and one that revolved around a lot of this how and why thinking?
I got to Fort Hood in August 2005, after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. That created a bunch of chaos because a lot of units from Fort Hood had to go down and help out. That all happened, and it was somewhat chaotic there at Fort Hood. We ended up deploying in November of 2005. We deployed to the FOB Kalsu, Iskandiriya and Kalsu area, and it was relatively peaceful to a degree in the area that we were in, initially. We had replaced a National Guard unit out of Mississippi.
It was peaceful, but the mosque in Samarra was blown up. I forget the exact date. Once we went from the winter of ‘05 into the beginning of ‘06, and the mosque was bombed in Samarra, you could feel the wheels fall off the wagon. Every now and then, you would make contact with an enemy. It was like driving around and getting blown up. That was every day. Before you roll out, you bargain with yourself like, “What am I okay losing now? I think I could handle not making it back without a leg.” It was a bad time to be there because that is when the insurgency was out of control, and we were struggling with how to address the insurgency.
They had started the COIN Academy up at Taji shortly before we got there. A company commander had to go to that and come back. He had some cool ideas, but nobody had trained for them because we had trained up. I didn’t catch most of the train up before we deployed because I showed up early to the deployment. When I showed up, we went out and shot Bradley Gunnery before we left. When we got there, we were driving around our tanks and Bradleys. Meanwhile, there is uncertainty going on. They were targeting our tanks and Bradleys. We ended up transitioning to primarily being a Humvee-based force over the course of that year.
Why is that? For many in the audience, that might not necessarily make sense. Clarify why you made that transition from something like a Bradley to Humvee.
In line with the counterinsurgency strategy, we were trying to present a less combative appearance or posture. At the same time, it also forced us to be less combative because we are in a Humvee. You got a 50-cal lower type of machine gun on there versus a 120-millimetre main gun or a 25-millimetre gun. If you did react to something in a Humvee, you are causing far less damage than you would if you were in a tank or a Bradley.
On top of that, the little thing that folks don’t necessarily appreciate is the infrastructure there in that area, and most of the country was fairly rudimentary in a lot of places. Power lines, for instance, would hang low down over the street. If you are rolling around with a Bradley, which sits pretty high, in many cases, you would be yanking down power lines and knocking the power out in the neighbourhood. They didn’t get a lot of power to begin with because of the way their power grid ran. It was us trying to embrace the counterinsurgency strategy that was implemented around that time and present a less combative presence towards the local population there.
How successful were you? This is not a loaded question in any way. I’m not setting a trap. The reason I’m asking that is because, in my view, this adds to the conversation we are about to have. That is how our thinking about war translates to the situation on the ground or how it applies to the situation on the ground.
The bottom line answer to that question is we weren’t all that successful. How does that fit within the hierarchy of where you fit here during that time? Things were somewhat calm and cool when we first got there. We had a guy in my company who was killed the night before he flew home at the end of the deployment. That was the last guy we lost.
That was indicative of how that deployment went. Up to the end, we were taking it on the chin. That is not to say that we didn’t do our best and try and do things the way that we should have been doing it because we were, but at the end of the day, this will go into what we talk about later, the way you want things to go is only a portion of the equation. There are many other factors that come into play that often undercut and sub-optimise what it is you’re trying to do.The way you want things to go is only a portion of the equation. There are many other factors that come into play that often undercut and sub-optimise what it is you're trying to do. Click To Tweet
From an individual standpoint, tons of great effort on our part. Guys tried and cared, but by the end of it, you’re in the same boat everybody else was when they were going home. You said you did great, but when we left, a lot of the locals that we had put into power over knocked off. The unit that comes in behind you is the same way when we got there. The unit you replaced was awful. You did a great job. When you leave, the same unit replaces you. It is the same thing. I’m like, “These guys are horrible.” We have done a great job. We have turned the corner.
That has shaped my outlook on a lot of things. It doesn’t matter what you want to do necessarily, and you can go out and try and do what you want to do all day long, but there are many other factors that interfere. You have to be careful about that and not be emotional about what you have done and want to do because, in many cases, you can end up disappointed.
It is the environment that will, in many ways, impact your behaviour, but also the outcomes. I’m taking that example. That spoke to me when you said why you shifted from Bradleys to Humvees, not only because of the posture you presented but also your own behaviour. You use the tools you got. If you are behind some significant armour and you got a big cannon to do the work dirty work for you, why wouldn’t you use it? As opposed, if you limit yourself to the type of platforms you have available, there is only a certain amount of damage you can do.
That applies to everything else. It is not necessarily what you intended to do, but it is for the tools you got, what the environment presents and what you make of that, which is a telling important aspect of war that is fairly discussed, but it is something you have touched on. It is a good way to pivot to the meat of our discussion, which is manoeuvre warfare.
The reason I wanted to talk to you about manoeuvre warfare is because as somebody in the Australian Army, we pride ourselves on the fact that we embrace the manoeuvre approach. It is the underpinning principle of how Australia chooses to fight wars. In many ways, that is because we are small, and we have to think about the war where we use our strengths against the enemy’s weaknesses. Perhaps before we delve too deeply into that, I might ask you to define manoeuvre warfare for us and explain to what extent it has been adopted. Here I’m going to use Western militaries because those are the ones that certainly I’m more familiar with, but I suspect many in my audience.
What you are going with is your governing definition. There are a couple of different definitions. One of the most common is the combination of fire movement and pursuit of some tactical objective. I got to hear one of my favourite theorists speak. He addressed a group of people that I was with. He said, “Manoeuvre warfare is the pursuit of advantage.”
The problem that I think exists with a lot of those definitions is the combination of fire movement, and pursuit of objective is inherent in anything that you do. It is the same thing with an advantage. Manoeuvre doesn’t have proprietary ownership over the pursuit or the leveraging of advantage. Everybody tries to use advantage. If your advantage is massed and more numbers, you may use that as a tool of advantage.
The idea has been corrupted over time. There have been a lot of writing and theorists that have elevated it to some false sense of high-mindedness. If you are a “manoeuvrerist,” you are somehow an enlightened thinker or an enlightened leader when it comes to manoeuvre warfare. At this point, it is at the top of all Western militaries. For the Australian Army and the British Army, when you look at their doctrine, the manoeuvre approach is central to all of their land warfare doctrine.
I published a paper in Rusi in 2022 called Manoeuvre is Dead? It was a question that I sought to answer based on listening to Peter Roberts and Anthony King talk about manoeuvres on Peter Roberts’ podcast. I went, and I was like, “Let’s look at this.” I published a paper in 2017 about the manoeuvre at the time. I thought, “Manoeuvre wasn’t the only thing.” There was a manoeuvre position in attritional warfare that you would cycle through.
As I have continued to research, think, reflect, and watch real-world situations, I don’t even think that that is necessarily an accurate thing. I don’t think attrition, for one thing, is a form of warfare. If I say, “Show me attrition tactics,” what are they? There isn’t anything because what you have in any form of fighting is varying degrees of contact, physical contact or fire contact based on fire.
What you are talking about is how much you are trying to move relative to the opponent versus how much you are trying to direct fire straight at the opponent. The whole manoeuvre is better than anything else, or attrition is some taboo thing. When you mentioned positional warfare, nobody even knows what that means anymore.
I have never been taught it unless some of my instructors will castigate me for that, but I don’t recall it.
This goes back to what I mentioned before. When we talk about what we want to talk about, we don’t talk about the broad range of things that we may experience in Iraq. Why did the collective we, the West, that was over there working together struggle when things went sideways after the fall of the Iraqi Army? It is because we have limited scope in terms of doctrine. Our doctrine talks about the manoeuvre. It doesn’t talk about anything else.
When you only have 1 lexicon, 1 toolkit, and 1 model, when you experience something that doesn’t perfectly sit within that model, you will experience chaos, and you are like, “What is going on? How do we handle this problem? That gets to the part of the discussion on sieges. You may not like the word siege. You may not want to talk about sieges, but the siege is a reality, especially now.
When you look across the span of post-Cold War conflict, sieges are the recurring theme that pops up everywhere and in every conflict multiple times. If you flip open any doctrinal publication and you try and find the word siege, and I have not deep-dived into Australian doctrine, but I have looked at US, British, NATO and French doctrines, sieges are almost not mentioned at all. When it is mentioned, it is in a bad way. You failed, and you find yourself besieged. It is something the bad guys do. It is the same thing with proxies. If you read most Western doctrines, it is written the same way. The use of proxies is something the bad guys do, and it is not something we do. That’s so true. We rely on partners.
You have this limited lexicon because you are speaking out of preference and idealism as opposed to reality. That is something that is missing in a lot of the literature, but in the way that Western military speak and think about things. If you go up to your random person in the military and you say, “Talk to me about land warfare,” the number of times manoeuvre comes out versus any other descriptive word for how to fight is astronomical. It is because they don’t have another word.
It was like, “Tell me another word that explains what you are doing because what I see you doing isn’t manoeuvre. What is it that you are doing?” They will throw out things like, “I’m manoeuvring to a position of advantage to do X, Y, or Z.” You are using positional warfare. If you are using tactics and movement to lure people in and out of places of advantageous position to trap them or pull them out of somewhere that they have occupied that is advantageous for them to stay in, you are using positional warfare and positional tactics.
That seems to be a problem. It will continue to be a problem. Collectively, we need to think broader and think not about idealistic preferences for what we want the war and warfare to be, but we need to think and speak in the language that is that reflects reality. That is something that is missing now in both Western military thought and Western military doctrine.We need to think and speak in language that reflects reality. That's something that's really missing today in Western military thought and Western military doctrine. Click To Tweet
I wonder, to what extent do you think that’s perhaps an issue of definitions? When you were talking about how you define manoeuvre, it is fire and movement, which to me seems rather kinetic and violent means, certainly in the Australian context, we try to make manoeuvre something that gives you the option to be kinetic and non-kinetic or violent and non-violent. It is the way it is postured, and our doctrine is that it is about manoeuvring the mind. It is attacking the capacity to react to an enemy. That might even include attrition.
By our doctrine, attrition falls inside of manoeuvre. It is the overarching concept of manoeuvring around the battle space in such a way that you are as efficient as possible using the minimum amount of resources to achieve the maximum gain by targeting the weaknesses of the critical vulnerabilities of an enemy.
In theory, it is designed to incapacitate the mental capacity of an enemy or an opponent to defeat their will to fight without necessarily degrading or destroying their physical components, whether that’s equipment or personnel. It sounds neat in theory, but I wonder whether that is a definitional issue and whether that is a similar definition to what you come across in the US, British, French and NATO doctrine and whether Australia might be different in this sense, at least the way we approach this particular problem.
The focus on the cognitive aspect of things figures factors heavily into discussions of manoeuvre as well as the will. Those are good ideas, but in reality, what does that even mean? It was like, “Show me how that works.” You can look at what is going on with the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. How is will being affected? Will, morale, and cognitive ability on the Russians’ part have been impacted exponentially in a negative way as a result of Ukrainian operations. They have done terrific. It has almost been a while since the Russians are still throwing bodies at the problem.
If 120,000 casualties or 120,000 killed in action is the indication of how things are going, that is not having a cognitive effect. If killing that many people or inflicting that many casualties aren’t triggering some cognitive effect or some negative impact on Russian will, I would be hard-pressed to believe that some big death left hook where you are getting somebody’s rear is going to make them say, “You got my rear. I give up.”
In defence of that, someone might say, “Ukraine maybe hasn’t worked out what the actual critical vulnerability of Russia is.” In other words, manpower might not be a vulnerability.
This is part of the problem because when I have this discussion with people, they will always say, “Manoeuvre is more of a philosophy than a set of tactics.” I’m like, “Philosophies don’t mean wars.” If that is the case, throw it out because why are we even talking about it? Going back to your comment on definitions, part of the problem is we use the word manoeuvre to mean everything. By it being everything, it means nothing.We use the word “manoeuvre” to mean everything. And by it being everything, it means nothing. Click To Tweet
When you were giving that Australian definition, you used it in three different instances where it means three different things. At one point, it meant moving from A to B. You meant it in the actual manoeuvre-fighting sense of the word. You said it in another form. It completely waters it down. What does it mean? It doesn’t mean anything. It is the same thing.
Anytime you look at a concept of operation attached to maneuver units, what are maneuver units? You have baked in the solution to the question. That is not a manoeuvre unit. It is a battering ram because it is got to be a battering ram, or it is a sprinting thing that darts around the end. I love Liddell Hart. A lot of his indirect approach idea was bastardised and taken out of context in many regards.
Many of my audience might not be familiar with Liddell Hart. Maybe give us a quick rundown on who he is and why the relevance.
He is a 20th-century British military theorist. He started off as an officer in the British Army in the First World War and got injured and medically retired after the First World War. He was frustrated with the state of the British military thinking coming out of the war. He saw the butcher that happened at all these battlefields for dawn. He said, “There is got to be a better way.”
He was the understudy of JFC Fuller, who was another British military theorist. He ended up retiring as a Major General from the British Army. Liddell Hart retired as a captain, but he became known as the captain that advised generals because his thinking was good and ahead of its time. He was brought in, and he was influential within the British military thinking.
He and JFC Fuller were early advocates of the tank and how tanks could break the stalemate of trench warfare and what was seen in the First World War. He became a huge proponent of that. Over the course of his life, he published a significant amount of work, books, papers, and presentations on military thinking. He is one of my favourite theorists because he does take a critical look. There are no sacred cows with him.
One of my favourite lines that I have ever read is from his book The Ghost of Napoleon, which was published in 1926. I have a first-edition copy on my bookshelf here at my house. It is my prize possession. I had to pay quite a bit of money and get shipped from London. He says in there, “There is no sacred cow.”
That book is his analysis of Napoleonic warfare, and he takes his class to task in the book. That is part of the reason a lot of military thinkers don’t like him because he doesn’t hold Clausewitz in some fancy light. He says, “There were a lot of shortcomings with his thinking.” One of the comments that Liddell Hart has in The Ghost of Napoleon, is terrific based off the prose itself. I’m paraphrasing but I’m close to the accurate quote here. Coming out of the First World War, he said, “The generals of World War I were drunk on the blood red wine of Clausewitz seeing growth.”
I always thought that was the most beautiful line. It cut straight to the heart. Regardless of your feelings about Clausewitz, it is still a great line. At Kings College in London, they got a department named after him there. He was Michael Howard’s mentor when he was coming up. He helped shape Michael Howard’s mind and his approach to the study of war.
He was one of the thinkers behind the idea of combined arms warfare in general. You made that point about how to use tanks with infantry and supported by reentry aviation at the time. If my memory serves, that was attributed to Liddell. He is a pragmatic thinker, as you alluded to. This is something that strikes me as possible. We rely on this idea of manoeuvre because it gives the impression that we can fight war precisely, efficiently, and cleanly. That is its appeal. What do you think about that?
That goes back to Liddell Hart. The whole idea behind his indirect approach is outlined in several different things that he has published, but primarily in his book Strategy, his idea of the indirect approach is what we alluded to earlier, where he used movement to get to the enemy’s rear to induce cognitive paralysis in them so they give up. He also said in that book, “The longest route is the quickest way home.” He was referring to the idea of the indirect approach and manoeuvre and not striking straight into the enemy but taking a long way around it. What’s the question part of that again?“In strategy the longest way round is often the shortest way there - a direct approach to the object exhausts the attacker...” – B. H. Liddell Hart Click To Tweet
I was asking whether the allure of manoeuvre is his promise of being clean and efficient because it reads neatly. I’m going to use my small forces to target the enemy’s critical vulnerabilities to undermine his critical requirements. Therefore, undermine his centre of gravity, which is the locality. I don’t know how you define the centre of gravity in the US context, but for us, it is the capability, characteristic or locality from which a particular force will draw its will to fight and its freedom of action. It looks neat, theoretically. If I hit these vulnerabilities, it cascades upwards. Therefore, it denies the enemy freedom of manoeuvre or freedom of action and, otherwise, its will to fight.
My question to you is, is that a pipe dream? Are we swallowing a nice marketing message to give us the idea that war can somehow be efficient and clean? What you said about Liddel is, “The war is anything.” The quote you used about the generals being drunk on Clausewitz, who is the Father of the Centre of Gravity construct. I wonder if there is a link there that it is the war is not that clean. You can’t go and think that you can hit these finite points, and the enemy will crumble. It rarely, if ever, happens that way.
There are many layers to this question. If you go back to Napoleon, the old Napoleonic campaign is a fascinating dichotomy between this idea of clean manoeuvre, bludgeoning fighting and positional fighting. Marshal Davout encircled 30,000 Austrians. I forget the name of the forest. It was the definition of manoeuvre.
Fast forward to Pratzen Heights, Napoleon uses position to trick the Russians into attacking the heights. He slams right into them. Davout comes and doesn’t save the day but helps augment and seal the victory there at Austerlitz. You have this dichotomy between the two ends of the spectrum that is useful when you think about it.
That is the problem Liddell Hart was trying to solve. He was trying to solve that bloody anti-septic thing. Even though there is a strong ban on reality to what Liddell Hart writes and says, in many cases, there is an aspirational aspect to it, but it clouds the ideas. Liddell Hart was trying to inject this clean anti-septic idea. We can’t have more songs, verdant, and battles of Ypres that existed. He developed this idea that I don’t think matches reality. I don’t think that you can induce cognitive paralysis in the Army that is the size that they are now.You can’t induce cognitive paralysis in the armies that are the size that they are today. Click To Tweet
These terms that we are using are carryovers from Napoleonic warfare. The problem is warfare nowadays is fundamentally different in that. Back then, the heads of state led their armies in the field. If it wasn’t the head of state, it was his brother or somebody in that line. Armies weren’t interconnected systems that were networked to their national industry and all these other things. It was a thing in the field.
If you could encircle it and cut it off, you could defeat it. If you could go out and inflict enough damage on the forest while the head of state is sitting there on its horse, you are going to induce this cognitive effect on the policymaker. We have taken these terms and these ideas because the centre of gravity is something that I don’t think is a thing either for that reason. In the past, when this term was developed, Clausewitz was talking about mechanical systems.
Nowadays, what you are talking about is a systems theory-type situation in which states and nations are coming together with far more robust and resilient apparatuses to fight wars. There are 120,000 casualties on Russia’s part in a year. Those numbers are ridiculous. If you were applying those terms from the past against that now, it doesn’t necessarily make sense because that is not how things are now. We have to update the terms that we use to talk about war. I hear things like sinners of gravity all the time. I never see it mean much of anything, like critical vulnerabilities.
There will be scores of people cringing.
I published the paper with The Strategy Bridge back in 2017. If the readers want to look it up, it is called Moving Beyond Mechanical Metaphors. It makes the case for why centres of gravity aren’t a thing. It is that idea.You are going against the national system as opposed to an Army in the field. By virtue of that, you can’t induce the same effects on a national system that you can against an Army in the field.
An Army in the field is a brittle thing, whereas a national system is robust and resilient. Like any system, it seeks stasis. It does what it has to do to stay alive. It kills off parts of it that aren’t working or that are dragging the system down. Whereas a fragile Army in the field exists or doesn’t exist. It is far easier to induce a lot of those cognitive things that sound cool but don’t carry over now. That is the big thing that is missing.
Part of the problem is when you say systems, system theory, and system thinking, there is a whole bunch of people that get all upset about it because John Warden’s Five Ring Theory was based on systems theory, and I reread his paper again not too long ago. I’m like, “You were doing good until you tried to equate it to a human body. That is where you got off track.” There is a lot of baggage with the systems theory thinking from his theory, but also the effects-based operations doctrine that was going on in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, but also not a fashion.
Part of that is it wasn’t improperly articulated. We would have the idea of systems theory, but we were trying to shoehorn in centres of gravity, manoeuvre and all these carryover words that sound cool but don’t fit. It is the same thing. It is decisive. We overuse the word decisive, but what does that mean? In the historical sense, when we talk about decisiveness, it means something that triggers a decision, whether that’s a change in operations or a change in policy, but we throw it around like it is anything. It is a big smash-up battle.
Usually, that is what we tend to mean when we say it, but in reality, what it meant was a decisive battle that was something that could be achieved because the head of state was on the battlefield. He would see his Army crushed or encircled and make a policy decision on the spot. Because the policy was close to tactics at that point, things like decisive battles were realistic.In the past, policy was so close to tactics that the term “decisive battle” was realistic. Now that heads of state are not on the battlefield, it has devolved from being a useful term. Click To Tweet
Whereas nowadays, the head of state is not on the battlefield in the sense that they were up until that time. The last time last documented instance of a head of state or heads of state being on the battlefield was the Battle of Solferino from the Second Italian War of Independence in 1859. Since that time, you could argue that the idea has slowly devolved from being a useful term.
In your view, what needs to change and what do we need to consider in military doctrine to make it more contemporary, relevant, pragmatic, and real?
The words you said are big things, pragmatic and real. Those are two words. It is a carryover from the rules-based international order that we all adhere to and liberal international relations theory being what we package our language around. Because of that, we have a hard time injecting pragmatism and reality into military thinking in the West. Militaries reflect the societies from which they come. If your society is advocating Western liberalism and all these ideas that fall under that, which is great, that has a trickle-down effect on how the military frame their language.
The problem with that is there can be the language that you use publicly, but there also needs to be the language that you use to communicate realistically. In many cases, we don’t have pragmatic and realistic language in the volumes of doctrine and other things that we have out there. You open up a book. Where does it talk about sieges? They don’t because we don’t do sieges. You can say that we don’t, but we do. The Battle of Mosul in Iraq from 2016 to 2017 is a prime example.
Talk about that a little bit because that ties into something you said earlier and that things like sieges or attrition are something only the bad guys do. It feeds into this idea and narrative in our minds that we fight war cleanly, ethically, justly, and efficiently. It is what we try to do. There is no question of that. There is a big gap between reality on the ground and what we like to theorise and conceptualise in our classrooms. Sieges in Mosul is a good example. I have heard you talk about it elsewhere. If you don’t mind, spend a moment on that because it is a nuanced point.
To get to Mosul, it is important to make a distinction here on things. In most military thinking nowadays, there are four schools of thought now. There are the futurists, which everybody is in love with now. Those are the people that talk about science and technology and how it is going to be this revolutionary thing for the future. They talk in length about precision fires and drones. There is that school of thought. In my opinion, a lot of that is not necessarily based on realistic expectations of how things occur in war.
There are institutionalists. Those are the people that do whatever their institution tells them to do and think. Those people pick up and read the book. They learn the terms. They can spout the terms without thinking and questioning what they need. There are also the traditionalists. They are not necessarily historians, but they are the people that are like, “That is not what Clausewitz says.”
The school of thought that isn’t marketed doesn’t have a rose pin on it now. It is what I call the conflict realists. They are the ones who look at things and accept the bloody reality of war and warfare. They accept the idea that wars are fought between rugged, adaptive robust systems that are going to slug through things. They are going to apply a lot of the principles of systems theory that are publicly known.
It is a system that wants to maintain stasis and wants to stay alive. It is going to do things to keep itself alive. It uses feedback loops to learn. It is adaptive in learning. It is aware. There are those four schools of thought. The problem with a lot of the thinking is the conflict realists are marginalised or pushed to the side because what they say comes across as cynical or insensitive and not as cheerful. We don’t do that.
They are perhaps not as intellectual because it is not as refined. It is bludgeoning, death and destruction, which is what war is, but it is not as enlightened.
I used that to get to Mosul and say, “Mosul was, in many cases, falls into that trap.” I got a big book from RAND here on my bookshelf, and it is The Air War against the Islamic State. It is 400 pages. The role of air power and operation inherent resolve. Almost entirely throughout the book, it talks about how great precision strike is. Precision strikes great, but at the same time, when you factor in things like the enemy wants to live, which isn’t like this earth-shattering idea. If you were on the receiving end, you wanted to live too. What are you going to do? You are going to come from a covered position to a covered position.
In doing so, what have you done? You have created, in Mosul’s case, a huge urban battle. At the beginning of that battle, there were 10,000-ish ISIS fighters that fell into the city. It goes into the other aspect. They are not going to come to meet you in the field and say, “Here we are. Kill us.” It goes back to the point like feedback, loss and learning.
Combatants are also thinking and saying, “What can I do to stay alive while still trying to presume my own aim?” If you have an overwhelming advantage and strength in terms of firepower, by virtue of that, they are going to look to do things that put your firepower at a disadvantage. You still have a mole. They realised, “The Iraqi Army plus the coalition has significant firepower advantages over us. What are we going to do?” They were like, “We are going to suck into this city and chew them up block by block as they try and eradicate the Islamic state.” That is what happened.
You had precise weapons being used within the city, but it was precisely chewing the city up. I have talked about this and written about this before. There is this idea of the precision paradox. When you factor in an enemy that wants to maintain staying alive, it is going to do things like not meet you out in the open to get killed. They go into a building. You hit a building, but you haven’t killed everybody that is in that building. They are going to move to another building. They are going to keep doing that.
There is this gradual erosion of the city as you use precision weapons to chase these people until you have eradicated them. That is a big reason that you saw Mosul get chewed up the way that it did. It is interesting. I had a conversation once with a guy. We were talking about the battle of Mosul at a point a few months afterwards. We were chatting about it. It was very reminiscent of Spinal Tap. Have you seen the Spinal Tap?
I know of it.
The scene where Rob Reiner, who is the producer, is doing this documentary on this band. He and the guitar player are having a conversation about the amps. The guitar player is showing Rob Reiner the amp. He says, “This goes up to eleven.” then Rob Reiner says, “Why don’t you make ten louder?” This conversation I was having with this guy was this argument on Mosul and precision strike. He kept saying, “Yes, but we used precision strike.” I kept saying, “What is the difference if the city got flattened anyway?” It was reminiscent of that argument of, “This goes up to eleven. Why not make ten louder?”
That reminds me of a discussion I had with Marc Garlasco. I don’t know if that name rings a bell with you, but he was the Chief IT for the invasionin 2003 at the Pentagon. When I had a discussion with him, he didn’t refer to it as the precision paradox, but it accurately describes what he was saying. The first 50 targets, which he was in charge of selecting and recommending to be prosecuted.
I’m conscious that I’m using again words that desensitise and dehumanise what we are talking about. They were hunting Saddam and the first 50 bombs were dropped accurately on where they thought he was. All 50 missed, but all 50 killed civilians. Those civilians were the collateral damage, as the destruction left in its wake. It speaks to that point, precision paradox. These were precision-guided munitions. They hit their target, but the target they were trying to hit wasn’t there. That is left in the wind and not discussed as part of the problem of precision weapons. The point you are making about Mosul speaks to that.
Precision, in my opinion, is often used as a dog whistle. It is a distracting word to get you off your game. It was like, “We use precision.” To your point, precision and accuracy don’t mean effectiveness. Because you were precise and accurate doesn’t mean that you achieved the effect that you intended to achieve. You can’t use the word effect based anymore because that got baggage that we already talked about.
Using the word precision is an imprecise way of talking about what it is you mean, which is we are using hyper-effective targeting. That is the rub. You are trying to get people on their heels by using the word precision. You are like, “That is a better way to do it.” In reality, precision may mean accurate or on target, but it doesn’t mean effective. That is part of what is lost in this discussion about precision weapons.
When we go back to the conflict realism argument, conflict realist is what I classify myself as. That’s not international relations theory realists like John Mearsheimer-type realism. This is a different vein of thinking, but they accept the reality that things like that come with sub-optimisation. This is what I forgot when I mentioned the four schools of thought. There are four things that influence the reality on war. There is your opinion, what you want to do.
If you think of it as a circle and a pie chart, there is the enemy who has a huge thing about what is going to happen. There is a terrain that also has a huge thing about what is going to happen. That is part of the reason manoeuvre isn’t this thing that always can and happens. Terrain says no a lot of times. If you are not in suitable terrain, you can’t do a manoeuvre.
Chance is the fourth component of this. You have yourself, the enemy, terrain and chance that all influence what it is you can and can’t do in the warrant. In your opinion, there is only 1/4 of that pie chart. What percentage of that fourth? It depends on the power of the other components within that pie chart.
This is why you have to have broad taxonomies and ontologies of thinking as it relates to war and warfare because you are only one component. If you want to think about it, that gives you a sub-optimisation factor. If 75% of the equation is not you, you need to apply whatever it is you think you want to do times that it doesn’t have to be 75%.
Some portion of that is going to work against you and sub-optimise what you want to do. That is a big part of the pragmatism and reality that is missing in a lot of Western military thinking is that we don’t account for those variables. We account for ourselves, which is one of the big variables, but it is not the only variable. It is certainly not the one that dictates how things go.
Your opinion is highly underpinned by what you have been taught and the doctrine that you have come to believe to be true, which therefore becomes a limiting factor if the doctrine is limited. If the conceptual frameworks that you’ve got to work with, exercise, and test on are limited, that translates into limited effectiveness when interplaying with the other three. War is the ultimate game. Those analogies are useful.
If you are in offence in football and you have 1 or 2 plays, but you find yourself going against all these different defensive configurations that are built and schemes to shut down the 1 or 2 plays that you know and think, you completely limited yourself and your ability to adapt to the changing environment, the changing threat across the ball from you. You have built in a cognitive handicap, which translates into an applied handicap on the field.
You run the risk also of going the opposite direction and making so much stuff in your playbook, but at the same time, you can look at trends and say, “Since the end of the Cold War or 9/11, what are trends that have occurred in warfare that we should probably integrate into how we think about war?” In doing so, there are several things at the surface. Sieges are one of those. Urban warfare and proxy war are another.
Proxy war comes with a ton of baggage. I had a conversation with a guy a while back. He was like, “We did proxy wars well in the Cold War.” I’m like, “This isn’t the Cold War. Those proxy wars were a bit different.” Getting over these institutional biases and the traditionalist bias that affects a lot of military thinking is another hurdle that, collectively, we need to get over in order to maintain a competitive advantage in war and warfare.
If you had a magic wand and you could change it, what would be the main changes to get some meat out of this? What would you like to see in doctrine that you are not seeing now? How would you like us to conceptually wrestle with this problem to try and impose a little bit of reality and pragmatism into military thinking?
I think of commissioning some steady group. You can bracket it however you want. Post-Cold War is a good bracket now. It would drift well into the future, or you could go post-9/11, but in post-9/11, you limit yourself. You are applying a lot of global war on terrorism bias if you do that. Bracketing that, looking at it and saying, “Let’s analyse the wars that have happened since then. What are the features that are recurring that have happened almost every time?” Those things you can apply and say, “These need to be integrated into doctrine or Western military thinking, doctrine or documentations.”
Those things need to get injected into there. Once you have identified one of those things, you can say, “This character of warfare, like a siege or urban warfare, is in.” From there, you have to know working groups that think through all the different mechanics associated with that and the ways that those things can and can’t happen, like sieges.
A lot of times, when you say that word, people think, “Sieges are the same idea as siege warfare. It is a way of warfare.” It is not. It is an operational or tactical tool. It is situationally dependent. Part of the problem is people often equate sieges as having to have an encirclement. With ranges of weapons, encirclement is a loose idea. You can encircle something from great distances if you are encircling it with fire. A lot of times, folks will conflate urban warfare and sieges with urban warfare. That is not the case either because there are different situations where sieges can occur completely away from an urban area where a forest is physically under siege, not necessarily in an urban area.
It is the same thing with starvation. This was an interesting thing. When I did the presentation on the siege at Harvard Law School, one of the big things that the audience and conference members there continually went back to was how international law has a big caveat known about starvation as the condition forges. I was like, “If we are talking realistically, it is far greater than that.”
What you need are study groups that come up with the meat and potatoes. This is how it fits into the character of war. You come up with the associated ways that you want to go about addressing those problems. I categorise sieges into two general categories. There are open sieges, which are things that happen outside of urban terrain. There are closed sieges, which are things that happen in urban terrain. Within that open siege situation, there are four options that occur. Within the closed option, the urban option, there are three different types of sieges.
The point of all that is those things need to be articulated and not necessarily the ones that I articulate the way that I articulate. I’m saying, “You need to dive deep to flesh out these different situations and put those into Western military thinking. When you run into one of those situations, it is not the first time you have seen it, and you are like, ‘What are we doing here?’”
It goes back to Napoleon. He said something to the effect every time of you went to battle. It wasn’t the first time he was in battle. He had already visualised it 1,000 in his head because of everything that he had studied and read. Convincing down these ideas, putting them in and saying, “Here are these eight situations you may run into when you find yourself in a siege or on the outside besieging somebody because you will encircle the city in besiege.” It is like we did in Mosul or Fallujah in 2003 and 2004.
These things happen. The problem is they are not bad. They are tactics and operations that are done in war. That is a big one. It took way too long to answer that question. I focused on one aspect, but those are things like that. There are a couple of things that are my own pet rocks because they are underrepresented sieges, urban warfighting, expanding the idea of land, combined arms joint warfare beyond a manoeuvre focus and proxy war. If I were to pick four things that have to get looked at honestly and deeply, those would be the four.
The war in Ukraine helps make that clear. Do you agree that it helps support your claim, given what we are seeing in Ukraine?
I’m not trying to say, “See, I told you.” The war has validated a lot of the things that some people have been saying, including myself, regarding the character of warfare. I don’t know how you can point to 120,000 casualties or KIA, whichever the case may be, and say, “Look at the manoeuvre.” That is not manoeuvre. That is some attritional warfighting.
You had Mariupol occur and several other smaller sieges that have occurred. I’m not trying to take anything away from what is going on in any of those, but Mariupol is the most well-known to come out of that conflict so far. These ideas aren’t wild ideas that crazy people are thinking and talking about. They are being substantiated in real-world conflict now. It is the same thing with proxies. There is a range of proxies. Proxies aren’t something for civil wars and irregular warfare. Proxies can and are used in many different ways and in conventional armed conflicts like you see in Ukraine.
They are a contractual proxy based on the emerging literature on proxy warfare. They are a contractual proxy. Each type of proxy has a different use. Contractual proxies are right up there with cultural proxies in terms of the ones you can use with the greatest amount of latitude because they have low agency costs. You have high trust in them. They are internally motivated for whatever reason. Because they have high internal motivation, you can trust them to do difficult and complex tests. Whereas coerced proxies are far more tepid and far less reliable. They have high agency costs. If you see a coerced proxy, in many cases, you see an advisor from whatever principal that is working with that proxy co-located with that proxy.
If you go back to the 2014 and 2015 campaigns in Ukraine, the DPA, Daekanese People’s Army, and the Luhansk People’s Army like to stylise them as separatists. They weren’t separatists. They are Russian proxies. It was a manufactured insurgency that Russia created. They are in Eastern and Southern Ukraine. They had high agency costs.
What you saw in many cases was Russian officers commanding DPA units, and the Russian officer was the shadow commander. The local “Ukrainian separatist” was a nominal commander, but it was being commanded by Russian officers. A lot of recent reporting says that the Wagner contractors were also commanding those DPA and LPA forces. It is going to take a long time for a lot of verified information to come out on all that, but it is important to understand that.
We also do proxy. It is not something that the bad guys do. We use proxy warfare and have used it for decades as a viable tool.
That gets to the bigger point. This is why you need expanded lexicons on what is and isn’t proxies. Coalitions and alliances are distinctly different than proxies. If you have a taxonomy that lays all that out, you can easily see where, whatever, or whoever third-party person it is you are using and it’s not necessarily a negative sense. Sometimes it is extractive and exploitative, but sometimes it is transactional.
“I’m going to give you things to fight against somebody I don’t like because we both want you to beat them.” You can take that wherever your mind wanders with it, but there are several different ways that proxy wars unfold. I have another recent paper that came out a bit not too long ago that lays out that model. If anybody is interested, hit me up. I’m more than happy to share the papers that I have mentioned.
What you do is stir up our bias, which is great because we are biased in the way we think and the way we operate. Many will say, “Ukraine is a proxy war.” Perhaps that was a hint in some of your wording. That was a useful way to also look at it. It could be a proxy war to the contest between Russia and NATO or Russia and the West.
If we don’t start thinking about these types of wars in the multi-layered ways that they exist, we are going to keep falling for trap stuff. We haven’t won a war. I mean, we, the West, in a little while. It reminds me that since World War II, if we have won an actual war that I’m missing apart from ‘91 in Q8, but any prolonged war, we can’t say that we want it. That is a failing in our thinking about war. I don’t know if you have any comments on that. Maybe I have shown my own bias here.
There are some smaller wars, especially on the US side of things. We have been successful, but those are quite small, focused primarily in the Western hemisphere. When you talk about big conflicts outside of 1991, we are hurting for a big W, it seems, in many regards.
You are alluding to some of the reasons why that is the case. This is my last question, and maybe this is a hopeful question, perhaps showing my own bias. To what extent can the “death of manoeuvre warfare” and the prospect of a return to attrition and positional warfare into our lexicon incentivise leaders to look for solutions other than war?
If we start looking at the war in a more pragmatic and realistic way, in other words, war is ugly, as opposed to this idea that I can manoeuvre myself around a battle space and kill and capture the enemy in a rather clean and efficient way that doesn’t use many resources. If we start thinking about war in a more pragmatic way and have that infused in our doctrine so that it is inculcated in our training, exercises, and imagining of war, could that perhaps incentivise leaders to look for other solutions?
The biggest thing is if you accept the fact that what you have been taught and told your entire life may not necessarily be accurate or 100% true, you can start to analyse things more broadly and look for realistic solutions to problems. The problem is that, in many cases, when folks hear something that doesn’t match with their indoctrination, and I don’t mean that in a negative but the way that they have been educated over the course of their life or career. It almost strikes them as an insult to their self-identity.If you accept the fact that what you've been taught your entire life may not necessarily be 100% accurate, then you can really start to analyse things more broadly and look for realistic solutions to problems. Click To Tweet
If we are learning organisations, something that strikes at your self-identity and makes you question yourself is a good thing. It is not a bad thing. The people that make you think that about yourself and question your identity aren’t evil pariahs that don’t get it or don’t understand. Those are the people that are the most caring about the organisations in which they are assigned, working or operating in the big picture.
As we think about that and we hear or read things that make us uncomfortable, we can’t throw up our hands and be like, “This is wrong.” I saw some criticism of one of my papers on manoeuvre. It said, “Does he not understand doctrine?” My comment back was, “What if the doctrine is wrong?” The problem is if you hold the doctrine as a sacred cow, you are never going to be learning. If we want to be learning in organisations, we have to be willing to look at ourselves and say, “What we know is wrong.”
I don’t have any grandiose, “Here is the solution.” We need to come together and say, “We need to have these conversations.” Logically, a lot of things that are circulating in military thinking are illogical and based on hope and the idea that somehow there is going to be some silver bullet that is going to revolutionise war and make us win magically without having to kill people and break stuff. At the end of the day, unfortunately, you have to kill people and break stuff to win.
I’m going to step out from underneath your question or your answer. People will be like, “What is the definition of winning?” That is based on political considerations, the situation at the time, and a lot of other considerations. In the big picture, you can come up with a basic. If you are not willing to put your name on the line and say, “This is over-defining victory,” you are never going to get there anyway.
On that note, Amos, I appreciate what you are doing. To contextualise how I see what you’re doing and paraphrase something you said, you are identifying problems and suggesting solutions, not the solutions, but you are inviting us to wrestle with these ideas that are critical. As we have talked about throughout, the conduct of wars is an elusive concept. It shouldn’t be fixed. Therefore, we shouldn’t be fixed in our approach to fighting it. Thanks very much for your time and for everything you are doing. I wish you the best of luck with your PhD, and I look forward to reading your thinking on proxy wars.
Thanks a lot. I appreciate being invited here. You were doing specifically with your show, and a lot of your colleagues in the show’s doing is invaluable because it is expanding the space in which people’s minds are operating, hopefully. They are challenging some of their sacred cows, looking at themselves and asking, “Is what I’m thinking correct?” Thank you so much. I appreciate it. It has been great chatting with you. I have had a great time here. Thank you.
- Amos Fox – LinkedIn
- Black Hearts
- Rusi’s Western Way of War Podcast
- This Means War Podcast
- History HIT Podcast
- Manoeuvre is Dead?
- The Ghost of Napoleon
- Moving Beyond Mechanical Metaphors
- The Air War against the Islamic State
- Marc Garlasco – Past Episode
- Anthony King – Past Episode on the Western Way of War Podcast Series