Enemy-Oriented Operations, What Makes Them Hard?

by LtCol Gary W. Anderson

In the previous article in this series (MCG, Apr89) the concept of enemyoriented operations was introduced. The heart of the concept is the R-E cycle of recognizing and exploiting enemy weaknesses, mistakes, and vulnerabilities. The best commanders throughout history have proven adept at maintaining a short R-E cycle. The battles and campaigns of Alexander the Great were replete with instances of timely completion of the R-E cycle. Caesar, Gustavus Adolphus, Napoleon, and Lee each showed the ability to rapidly complete the R-E cycle in their best battles. Lee and Napoleon only lost when they allowed their foes to dictate an attrition style of conflict. Bad commanders, through skill of good subordinates, have occasionally won battles by a rapid completion of the R-E cycle; conversely, good commanders have lost by misreading perceived enemy weaknesses. Despite these variations one of the marks of truly good commanders has been the ability to complete the R-E cycle more rapidly than their opponents.

In the days prior to the American Civil War, the completion of the R-E cycle was relatively uncomplicated. A commander could generally see the entire battlefield. Once he spotted a key enemy mistake or vulnerability, the commander could act himself or send a subordinate to exploit the opportunity. The Napoleonic era complicated the situation greatly. The French revolution ushered in modern mass armies, and Napoleon’s innovation of marching by corps began the evolution of an operational level of war to fill the gap between tactics and strategy. The introduction of telegraph and wireless radio further expanded the battlefield far beyond the physical control of the individual commander.

Ironically, these very innovations made the R-E cycle much harder to complete in a timely manner. In most cases today, a key enemy weakness may be spotted by a subordinate many miles and several layers of command removed from the only leader capable of exploiting the mistake or vulnerability. This situation has lengthened the R-E cycle.

This lengthening of the R-E cycle creates opportunities for maneuver warfare in conventional operations. A commander who must depend on fragile communications and the observations of others to form a picture of the battlefield will be much more likely to have his observation-orientation-decision-action cycle disrupted. This lengthening of the R-E cycle is illustrated very well in Harold Coyle’s excellent novel Team Yankee. In this speculative account of World War III’s first days, a U.S. Army tank-heavy combat team captures a key bridge in Germany due to a Soviet mistake. The U.S. commander encounters tremendous difficulty in getting his superiors to recognize that he has uncovered a key enemy weakness. It is obvious that Maj Coyle has encountered similar problems in his military career. Many Marine readers will be able to recount similar experiences in their own backgrounds in peacetime military exercises. There is no guarantee that our peacetime exercise experience will not be repeated in war; we really do tend to fight the way we train.

The Zero Defects Mentality and the Self Syndrome

It would be too easy to write off the problems associated with the lengthening R-E cycle to technology alone. In truth, we have exacerbated the problem in many ways. The U.S. military has fallen prey to the twin curses of the zero defects mentality and the Von Schlieffen or “self syndrome.”

The zero defects mentality is in part a natural outgrowth of a human attempt to deal with the more threatening aspects of technology, and it is not all bad. I always want the pilot of the aircraft that I’m flying in to be a zero defects kind of guy; I want him to follow every checklist to the letter. There are certain situations, however, where a zero defects mindset is inappropriate. Tactical and operational planning are two such areas. War is the realm of chaos and mistakes; to deny or ignore this is a major mistake.

In all too many instances in the sixties and seventies, avoiding mistakes replaced the pursuit of military excellence as a goal in the U.S. military; the Marine Corps was no exception. The Marine Corps is making a heroic effort to eliminate the zero defects mentality. There are two very clear dangers in a zero defects philosophy. The first danger is that we don’t learn from our mistakes because we refuse to admit to the mistakes in the first place. The second danger is that in a world where all mistakes are considered fatal, we fail to recognize the really key ones. The proverbial story about the platoon commander who becomes so obsessed with properly dug fighting holes that he fails to recognize an open flank is a case in point.

The “self syndrome” is a phrase that identifies the tendency of modern military decisionmakers to become so absorbed with what is happening to their own plans that they ignore what is happening to the enemy. It is the attempt to press on with one’s own plans despite annoying actions on the part of the enemy that suggest the need for change. The Schlieffen Plan of World War I disrepute is an example of this syndrome. The Schlieffen Plan was designed to be blindly implemented despite annoying political or strategic changes that might occur. Thus, the Germans were drawn into a war they should not have fought. Such preoccupation with your own planning can only occur at the expense of a focus on the enemy, which is the legitimate target of any military operation. A military force can only afford such self-absorption if it has such a clear superiority in men and material that enemy actions are rendered irrelevant-certainly not the case in most potential U.S. operations plans.

Even Robert E. Lee was not immune to this syndrome. In his superb novel The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara described one such incident at Gettysburg where Confederate Gen James Longstreet saw a chance to make an end run around the Union left flank and destroy its forces from the rear. Lee stubbornly refuses to change his battle plan of an assault on the union left flank; his mind is made up, and the plan has assumed a life of its own.

Historians, such as Douglas Southall Freeman, have castigated Longstreet as an insubordinate obstructionist at Gettysburg, but anyone who has studied the character of the man will recognize that he was an early proponent of enemyoriented operations. One can only speculate how different history might have been if Lee had emulated Longstreet’s desire to combine the operational offense with a tactical defense in the Pennsylvania campaign. Gen Meade almost certainly would have been forced to attack if Lee had chosen a strong defensive position in the Gettysburg area. Instead, Lee gave the opportunity to his northern opponent Good subordinates allowed Meade to capitalize on his enemy‘s mistake.

EnemyOriented Operations and the Center of Gravity

Shortly after the first article in this series was published (MCG Apr89), a regimental commander whose opinion I respect, complained that it did not sufficiently address the concept of center of gravity, which he considered to be a key maneuver warfare concept. He felt that center of gravity is such a key concept in maneuver warfare that to ignore it in the greater context of enemyoriented operations is a fatal flaw in the argument. In retrospect, he is right.

The concept of center of gravity is the most elusive concept in all maneuver warfare. In my own mind, I used to think of it as the key enemy weakness, but that does not fully grasp the essence of the concept. The enemy‘s center of gravity is the point where, if proper pressure is applied at a given time and place, we can achieve decisive results against him. The same obviously holds true for our own situation.

Centers of gravity can shift. At one point in time, it may be a key enemy weakness, such as a slow observation-orientation-decision-action cycle. At another time the center of gravity may be a strong enemy commander such as Rommel in North Africa. In such situations, the key weakness or vulnerability may be an unguarded approach to the commander’s location. Because the center of gravity can shift, our actions can influence the enemy‘s center of gravity. In this respect, war is like a wrestling match where each participant is constantly looking for a shift in his opponent’s center of gravity and an opening to exploit that point A good wrestler will often make moves designed to confuse his opponent enough to open up opportunities. The wrestler doesn’t necessarily know how his opponent will react; he is looking for mistakes or vulnerabilities that will lead to an opening that exposes the other guy’s center of gravity.

The enemy‘s center of gravity is seldom self-evident. If he knows himself well, he will hide it and protect it; obviously, we should do likewise. The enemy will have many weaknesses, mistakes, and vulnerabilities. Each is a window to his internal workings, but it is like looking into the window of a building containing a merry-go-round; the center of gravity will only be visible for a limited time. That time will be determined by the poverbial speed of the merry-go-round. The essence of enemyoriented operations is to find potential windows, look through all of them, identify the one that contains the center of gravity, and attack it with sufficient combat power before the merry-go-round moves on. This process was a lot easier before the Civil War than it is today, and that is what this article has been all about. (Figure 1 illustrates this concept.) All of this is complicated by the fact that these windows can be created by our own actions.

Ideally, a commander begins an operation with a perception of his enemy‘s center of gravity. If that center of gravity is also his key weakness, it is particularly desirable. If he is correct, the commander can consider that he has completed the recognition portion of the R-E cycle and can go onto the exploitation portion. In some situations, the commander may not believe he has a feel for the enemy‘s center of gravity or that he knows how to get at it. In this case, his initial point of main effort may be his reconnaissance/intelligence force. The early Mongols were masters of this concept as were the Boers of South Africa and the North Vietnamese/Viet Cong in the late war in Indochina.

The great commanders in history have been those who have been able to constantly seek and create windows to their enemy‘s center of gravity and determine which windows led to the actual prize. Once the key windows were discovered, these commanders were capable of exploiting the enemy‘s center of gravity in a timely manner. This is true art Many windows lead to false objectives; the enemy may create false windows as part of his deception plan. A platoon’s center of gravity may be irrelevant to battalion or, alternatively, it may lead the way to the essential center of gravity. The ability to exploit an enemy‘s center of gravity through a key window of vulnerability or weakness is the toughest military nut to crack; hence the title of this article.

It takes an extraordinary soldier to consistently complete the R-E cycle with any success. Frankly, in the last 20 years the Marine Corps as an institution has done a pretty miserable job of creating an atmosphere where such soldiers can flourish. Most of us have grown up in an atmosphere of mindnumbing conformity to directives and orders that stifle initiative and risktaking at all levels. Good people are trying to change that, but it’s still an uphill battle. For every Commandant who tries to create a thinking warrior mentality and every commanding general who allows a free play force-on-force atmosphere in training, there are other seniors hell-bent on returning us to mindless obedience. Enemyoriented operations are not about techniques and tactics as much as they are about mindset. That is really what makes enemyoriented operations hard.

EnemyOriented Operations Needed Today More Than Ever

The importance of enemyoriented operations becomes particularly important in this era of rapid change. The need to overcome the difficulties outlined above and achieve excellence in this area is more critical than ever. The apparent disintegration of civil order in many parts of the world has provided a series of challenges that transcend purely military considerations. South Lebanon may well serve as a model for the complexity of future conflict situations that U.S. military forces could face in the future.

The failure of the Israeli use of maneuver warfare in South Lebanon is not a result of misunderstanding the maneuver warfare concept. It occurred because maneuver warfare was not relevant in that situation. There are many more Lebanons on the horizon. The seeds of the combination of social disintegration, drugs, terrorism, religious chaos, and racial hatred that mark South Lebanon have been sown in many locations in the Third World. South Lebanon may be the face of things to come in the 21st century.

In many cases, the key vulnerability or weakness of an enemy may not be in areas that can be exploited by military action. Let’s take the case of the Iran-Iraq War as an example. One can only speculate how much earlier the war might have ended if the Iraqis had elected to introduce a competing Shiite sect capable of challenging Ayatollah Khomeini for leadership. Would the old man in Qom have been forced to divert forces from the war front to internal security duties, thus ending the war much earlier? We can only speculate on the potential outcome, but the result would certainly have been worth a try considering the alternative in casualties that were actually sustained. This is just one example of how a nonmilitary solution might be applied to an area that normally would be considered a purely military matter.