If Not Synchronization, What?

by Maj John F. Schmitt, USMCR

There are two basic, rather compelling reasons why most Marines believe synchronization is not a valid approach for implementing maneuver warfare. First, synchronization is thoroughly systematic, linear, and quantifiable in its approach. These conditions make it incompatible with Marines’ view of the frictional, chaotic, and fluid battlefield. Second, the Soviet experience has shown that synchronization simply does not work well in practice.

So where does this leave us? We have reaffirmed the importance of coordination, cooperation, preparation, and planning to successful operations, but not to the extreme and inhibitive degree advocated by the synchronization enthusiasts-war simply does not work that way. Marines at all levels, however, continue to grapple with how to implement maneuver warfare theory. Just how do we put these concepts into practice? We are learning that this is something apparently more easily said than done. What practical form should maneuver warfare operations take? The purpose of this article is to pose an initial, partial answer to those questions.

Asynchronous Operations

In general, not only do we not want to move toward synchronized operations, we actually want to move in the opposite direction. We want to move toward asynchronous operations. Let me make it perfectly clear that I do not propose a new buzzphrase, “asynchronous operations,” to replace the old buzzword “synchronization.” The last thing we need to do is to make “asynchronous operations” an official term. I simply use the adjective “asynchronous” to describe one aspect of the operations we should conduct in order to implement maneuver warfare concepts:

Maneuver warfare operations are generally asynchronous. What does this mean? The American Heritage Dictionary states that to “synchronize” means “to cause to occur at the same time . . . to operate in unison . . to cause to agree exactly in time or rate.” An asynchronous operation, then, is an operation in which the different tasks that make up the operation do not need to occur at the same time, the various units do not need to operate in unison, and the various components of the operation to not need to agree in time or rate. Notice that I have described the operations as asynchronous rather than antisynchronous. Antisynchronous (if there were such a word) would mean that the operations are intentionally discoordinated or out of phase, whereas asynchronous means that the operations do not require synchronization to work. In an asynchronous operation, the timing of one unit’s actions does not depend on the timing of another’s. One unit’s accomplishment of its mission does not depend on another unit accomplishing its mission first. In short, an operation is asynchronous when each component of the operation-each “moving part,” each subordinate unit pursuing its assigned mission-can act independently, operating without constraint imposed by the requirement for close coordination with other components.

Asynchronicity Emergent

Actually, rather than say we want to move away from synchronized operations, it might be more accurate to say that we want to move past synchronized operations to asynchronous operations. As a concept, synchronization is already passe. Experts and researchers in a growing variety of fields-from computer programming to electrical engineering to genetics to economics-are recognizing the significant advantages of asynchronicity. Computer scientist David Gelernter, for example, talks of “asynchronous ensembles” as complex computer programs consisting of multiple, simpler programs that actually run independently of one another, yet in cooperation. Likewise, the telephone answering machine and E-mail have facilitated asynchronous communications: The receiving parties do not actually have to be present to receive your message and can respond (or ignore you) at their own convenience.

Or consider an example from everyday life. The inherent advantages of asynchronicity explain the boom in the video rental business and the corresponding decline of the television movie. With a video you do not have to make it a point to be sitting in front of the television precisely at the scheduled time for 2 uninterrupted hours (along with everybody else in America who is going to watch the movie). With a video you do not have to synchronize your trips to the refrigerator to correspond with the commercial breaks in the broadcast. A video gives you complete asynchronous freedom and convenience. You watch the video exactly when you want. You pause it when you want. You replay the good parts. The videotape is asynchronous; the broadcast is synchronous.

The basic appeal of synchronization is the unity of effort that it is designed to create. But we are beginning to learn that we can achieve effective unity with asynchronous systems, and we can do so without the loss of flexibility that synchronization invariably involves. Synchronization is based on the underlying assumption that the various moving parts of a system are “dumb”-meaning that they lack the internal intelligence necessary to allow them to act independently or in cooperation with one another. Synchronization assumes that each moving part will move only as the result of a force acting on it from the outside. In such a system, synchronization is in fact necessary to achieve coordinated action. The “logic” of the system must be imparted from the outside. However, a military operation, or a military unit, is hardly a dumb system. Rather, it has innate intelligence built into each moving part that is composed of numerous humans. The “logic” of the system builds up from the bottom.

Military units and military operations exhibit the characteristics of what scientists have come to call self-organizing, adaptive systems. The world around us is filled with self-organizing, adaptive systems (also known as complex systems). Examples include economies, many computer programs, ecologies, families, evolution, food chains, all living things (plant or animal), stock markets, the Internet, jazz bands, soccer teams. Consider the soccer team-Il players, each with assigned responsibilities but acting independently in relation to the situation on the field as it pertains to him. There is a team captain, but he rarely tries to move the other players around during the course of the game. The team plays according to certain offensive and defensive strategies, but rarely uses set plays. Yes, the team uses set plays off a penalty kick or corner kick-these equate to what we would call “deliberate” operations. But most of soccer and most of war (unlike American gridiron football) consists of what we would call “hasty” operations. The players react individually to the ball, and yet somehow the result is that they manage to work together as a team. The logic of the team’s play is innate in each player and not imparted by a coach maneuvering players from the sideline. Individual players may cooperate closely-as in demonstrating pinpoint passing and timing while mounting an attack against the enemy’s goal. But it is important to recognize that the cooperation is improvised and “local.” It occurs spontaneously between the individual players involved and is not the result of instructions from the captain or coach. A key feature of any self-organizing, adaptive system is that it is asynchronous; the moving parts do not act according to the instructions of some central “synchronizer,” but each acts independently, according to its own local situation. And yet, the parts somehow work together as a cohesive system.

The Critical Consideration: Harmony

The critical issue with regard to asynchronous operations is how to create focus of effort or cohesion if all the moving parts act independently. We know that synchronization seeks to achieve cohesion through close, coordinated control-that is, regulation-of each component in the execution of the operation. But with asynchronous operations, focus takes a different form. Focus is not imparted on the system from the outside. As with the soccer team, the logic (or “intent”) of the whole system is programmed into each part of the system so that the parts will cooperate spontaneously. Harmony is thus perhaps a better word than focus. The parts will operate in harmony, and the ultimate result will be what FMFM 1, Warfighting, calls “harmonious initiative.”

It is all well and good to talk about harmonious initiative, but what does this mean in practical terms? It means that units cooperate indirectly rather than directly, implicitly rather than explicitly, by the effects they achieve rather than by the way they operate in relation to one another. For example, Alfa Company supports the main effort, while Bravo Company keeps the enemy occupied north of the river however it can rather than by launching a supporting attack against a specified objective, at a specified time, after a scheduled preparation fire. In other words, the parts of the operation fit together, but “loosely” rather than “tightly.” (More about this later.)

The Advantages of Asynchronous Operations

Now, in reality we know that truly asynchronous operations are no more possible to conduct than are truly synchronized ones. It is important to recognize that we are talking about matters of degree. No commander can operate with complete autonomy, without the need for any coordination whatsoever with others. But we can say that a given operation is more asynchronous than synchronous, or vice versa. As a general principle, we want to conduct operations that tend to be more asynchronous than synchronous. Why?

First, asynchronous operations facilitate tempo. The synchronizationists argue that synchronization does not mean timetables and a lock-step mentality. But in practical reality we know better. Let us say that three companies are going to participate in a synchronized attack in which their actions are closely coordinated. In order to do this, each must arrive at the designated place at the prescribed time, ready to execute its assigned task. We know what will happen: One of the companies will arrive first at its designated place and will be waiting on the others. To avoid this problem higher headquarters may try to closely regulate the progress of each company to ensure that all three arrive at their designated places at the same time. Or else, as often happens, higher headquarters will establish a time of attack which is sufficiently delayed to ensure that all three companies have more than enough time to get into position-and all three end up waiting. In any case, we surrender tempo. No matter how we look at it, in practice synchronization involves waiting around to get all the assets marshaled so that we can carefully integrate them. Instead, the object should be to devise an asynchronous operation that allows each moving part to operate at its own best speed and without having to wait or slow down for others. A unit does not have to wait at a phase line for adjacent units to come abreast, but instead protects its own flanks and charges ahead. A unit does not have to hold up its advance for a scheduled air strike, but continues to advance and employs on-call air when needed. Bravo Company does not have to be standing by ready to fall in directly in trace of Alfa and directly in front of Charlie in the march column, but instead all three move separately to the common destination.

Second, asynchronous operations minimize the effects of friction, that bane of all military operations. Synchronization means that components are closely integrated, whether in space or in time; this is precisely how synchronization seeks to achieve optimal effect. In other words, the components are in close contact. In a military operation as in any physical system, where there is close contact between moving parts there is friction. The closer the contact, the greater the friction. The greater the friction, the greater the coordination required to make things work. The more coordination required, the slower the operating tempo. Asynchronous operations in effect minimize the direct contact between moving parts and therefore minimize the friction and increase the tempo.

Third, asynchronous operations maximize the opportunities for initiative. This is important since we recognize that the ability to exploit fleeting opportunities is vital to success. In synchronized operations, commanders are constrained by the requirement to maintain a certain relationship (spatial, temporal, or otherwise) with other units-to keep abreast of another unit, to guide off or maintain contact with another unit, to remain within supporting distance of another unit, or to wait for another unit to accomplish a given task before acting oneself. In other words, synchronization promotes an inward focus and limits freedom of action; commanders cannot act in any manner that could throw the other parts of the system out of whack. Less freedom of action means less variety of action, and less variety of action means greater predictability. Commanders not limited by the constraints of synchronization have greater freedom. They are more concerned with the requirements of the situation than with maintaining the proper relationship with other units. Not concerned with being at the designated place at the specified time, they have time to actually look at the situation and consider what needs to be done. Greater freedom of action implies the freedom to be unpredictable-obviously a good thing when it comes to dealing with the enemy. We want our commanders to act primarily in relationship to the enemy rather than in relationship to friendly units.

A Simple Example: Targeting

The synchronizationists have argued that opponents reject any sort of planning or preparation-that those opposed to synchronization insist on always “winging it.” This is untrue. We can clear up this point and also illustrate the distinction between synchronized and asynchronous operations using targeting as a very simple example. Prearranged targets and targets of opportunity are the two basic types of targets. Prearranged targets are planned in advance. These targets are given designators known both to firing units and the maneuver units that may request fire support. The firing data for these targets is calculated in advance, and the targets may even be registered by adjusting rounds to ensure the accuracy of the data. By contrast, targets of opportunity are targets that appear during combat and against which fires have not been prearranged. Opportunity targets clearly are not synchronized, but are done “on the fly.” To refuse to do any target planning and to rely only on targets of opportunity would definitely be to “wing it.” But opponents of synchronization are not opposed to target planning (or any other kind of reasonable planning), and target planning does not necessarily equate to synchronization. Prearranged targets may or may not be synchronized, as we will discuss.

There are also two basic types of prearranged targets-scheduled targets and oncall targets. This is where the distinction between synchronized and asynchronous comes in. Scheduled targets are those prearranged targets fired according to a predetermined timetable or schedule. The idea behind scheduled fires is to ensure that the fires occur at precisely the proper time to support another scheduled event, such as a deliberate attack scheduled to kick off at a specific time. In other words, the intent is to synchronize the two events through scheduling to achieve the optimal cooperative effect. But scheduled fires by their nature lack flexibility. In theory, if the attack is delayed, we can also delay the fires; or if the situation develops differently than we expected, we can change the fires but in practice, as we all know, these things are more easily said than done. On the other hand, on-call targets are planned in advance but are fired only when requested. The firing data is calculated in advance to ensure that the fires can be provided quickly when needed, and if the target is a priority target the firing unit may even lay its guns on that target, awaiting only the command to fire. But the firing of the mission is triggered by a request and not a predetermined schedule or causal event. Despite the fact that they are prearranged, on-call targets are by definition asynchronous. They are designed to be fired at any time for any reason, independent of any schedules or other events. Their execution is not linked to, and therefore not constrained by, any other action or event. They are not fired according to a synchronization matrix. On-call fires are thus inherently more flexible than scheduled fires. But this is not to say that they are necessarily any less coordinated. A unit can use on-call fires quite effectively to support an attack-hasty or deliberate. But the point is that the fires are not linked directly to the attack, so as the situation changes we can change the fires without disrupting the attack or can alter the attack without disrupting the fires. The fires and the attack are asynchronous.

This is not to say that all scheduled fires are bad. There will be some situations, namely the occasional deliberate operation (like the occasional corner kick in soccer), in which some scheduled fires can be useful. This is simply to make the point that in typical, fluid operations, we would do better to rely more on flexible, on-call targets than on scheduled targets. This is also to recognize that we cannot possibly anticipate all our fire support needs and must have the additional flexibility to engage targets of opportunity-sometimes we will have no choice but to wing it.

“Tight” and “Loose” Coupling

Another way to compare synchronized and asynchronous operations is by a discussion of “tight” and “loose” coupling. Coupling refers to how the components or moving parts of a system come together. Synchronized systems tend to have “tight” coupling, meaning that the various moving parts mesh together precisely. When they are working properly, tightly coupled systems are efficient and precise; there is little wasted energy. But tightly coupled systems also have little or no tolerance for deviation or friction. A tightly coupled system runs like a Swiss watch, an apt simile since we are talking about synchronization. The gears in a Swiss watch mesh with a jeweler’s precision. But a watch is a closed system that has no interaction with the outside environment. What happens to the Swiss watch when a piece of grit or sand gets inside the mechanism? The gears grind to a halt. The obvious problem is that war, unlike the Swiss watch, is hardly a closed system. It is an open system susceptible to countless outside forces-the enemy, the terrain, the weather, to name the most obvious-that will get in among and screw up the gears of a tightly coupled military operation.

Tightly coupled systems have difficulty compensating for problems. In fact, tightly coupled systems tend to compound those problems. Even a minor problem in one component of the system can cause a ripple effect that eventually leads to the catastrophic failure of the system – just as a driver who merely taps his brakes on a rush-hour interstate can bring all traffic to a sudden stop a couple miles back.

The more tightly coupled and complex a system is, that is, the more moving parts it has and the more tightly they mesh-the greater the potential for friction. Compare this with a system with “loose” coupling, in which the components fit together loosely. Loosely coupled systems have “slop” or “wobble” built into them. Consequently, they are generally less efficient than tightly coupled systems-efficiency defined as smooth internal functioning-but they have a greater capacity to cope with friction, and they have greater room for deviation and variation (initiative, in military terms). Loosely coupled military operations do not depend on precise timing, phasing, or close coordination. They allow commanders greater latitude to deviate from the original plan without fear of throwing the rest of the plan “out of whack.” Loosely coupled systems also tend to be selfcorrecting. When the above driver taps his brakes on a lightly traveled interstate (on which the following distance-“coupling”-between cars is much greater), it does not cause a traffic problem at all. The flow of traffic absorbs the momentary deviation in speed.

Or, let me give a military example. Consider the Blue Angels precision aerobatics team. The Blue Angles fly in a tightly coupled formation and execute closely synchronized maneuvers. The pilots must guide off the flight leader precisely; they have no freedom of action whatsoever. The flight leader is equally constrained: any improvisation or deviation on his part will upset the entire formation. The pilots’ entire focus is inward, on maintaining the proper relationship with the other planes. And, of course, it has to be this way: the smallest error can cause a disastrous midair collision. The Blue Angels do not have to worry about being shot down by enemy fighters-they constitute a closed system. But do we apply this approach to air-to-air combat? Of course not. For combat we adopt a combat spread that is more loosely coupled and therefore gives the pilots greater freedom of action and allows them to focus outward on the hostile situation rather than inward on maintaining the formation.

A Musical Analogy

As a further analogy, let us compare the music of an orchestra with that of a jazz band. The music of the orchestra is synchronized or, as the very name indicates, orchestrated. Each member plays his or her music exactly as scored on the music sheets (a sort of musical synchronization matrix) and in precise synchronization with the other members. The members answer to the precise, positive direction of the single, all-important conductor, often called maestro because of his preeminence and his ability to synchronize all the various instruments. Synchronization is absolutely essential. There is no room for improvisation, or any kind of variance at all for that matter. Each musician plays each note as composed. The orchestra must exactly rehearse each piece of music numerous times to gain the level of synchronization necessary to perform the difficult, refined, and complex symphony with any sort of competence. The orchestra plays in an acoustically designed concert hall under optimal conditions to achieve the optimal effect-the perfect sound. The audience listens in reverential silence. Without argument, when done well, the results can be spectacular-a finely meshed, delicate, and exact performance.

Now consider the jazz band, such as the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in New Orleans. Preservation Hall is a cramped storefront joint off Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. It is dark, dingy, smoke-filled, and noisy from both the crowd inside and the bustle outside. Not only does the audience not listen silently; it will sway to the beat, stamp its feet, clap and sing along, and the musicians will interact with and feed off that atmosphere. The band members will change from one performance to the next-a different piano player, a different sax player-never the same band. Although the band will play the same standards from one set to another, no two performances are remotely the same. Any given number will have a simple beat or baseline (or bassline, if you will), but the musicians will depart from it freely to improvise and experiment creatively, relying on their intuitive “feel” for one another rather than the music sheets to hold the sound together. The sound is anything but orchestrated; it is “loose” and “rough” and sometimes disjointed. Yet the results can be every bit as spectacular as with the orchestra in a raw, rather than polished, sort of way. The result comes not from the precise and refined synchronization of different musicians in the performance of a masterfully orchestrated symphony. Hardly. Rather, it comes from the soul (in military language we would call it coup d’oeil) and the improvisational skill of the members and the intuitive harmony they share with each other and with the audience.

I am not suggesting that one form of music is inherently superior to the other. That is a question of aesthetics. Each, in its own vastly different way, can achieve virtuosity. Each, in its own way, requires a high level of skill from its performers. Rather, the question that concerns us is which approach to music more resembles the reality of military operations and the battlefield? Do we want to adopt an approach that requires detailed and centralized orchestration and repeated exacting rehearsal to achieve a precise, synchronized, and optimal result performed without variation under optimal conditions? Or do we prefer a flexible approach specifically designed to work under far less than optimal conditions with continuously changing members-one that relies on improvisational skills and maintains its harmony through the shared understanding of its members?

Clearly, given the chaotic, frictional, uncertain, random, and unpredictable nature of war (as described in FMFM 1 and other places), we definitely want to be more like the jazz band than the orchestra. To carry the analogy further, the reality is that there will be very few situations (Operation DESERT STORM is an example) in which we will have the opportunity to compose, rehearse, refine, and perform an intricate military symphony. Rather, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the requirement will be for a comeas-you-are military jam session.

How Do We Devise Asynchronous Operations?

It is one thing to talk about asynchronous operations in theory; it is another to describe how to put them into practice. There are no simple techniques or procedures that make it easy. There is no process called “asynchronization.” You cannot “asynchronize” something. The ability to devise plans that are “loosely” coupled and that allow subordinates freedom of action while at the same time providing them with adequate focus is no mean ability. It is largely a matter of judgment and experience and falls under the heading of the art rather than the science of war. But several related techniques can help:

The first suggestion is to make extensive use of mission tactics or mission control. In mission tactics, the senior tells the subordinate what to accomplish but leaves the subordinate broad latitude in the manner of accomplishment. We all know the importance of commander’s intent to effective mission tactics. By explaining the intent behind his designs, the commander provides subordinates the essential logic on how to act as the situation begins to develop and change. Commander’s intent is a device designed specifically to enhance the broader quality that computer scientist Gelernter has called “topsight”-the ability to understand the big picture and to see how all the pieces fit. Topsight allows us to act with initiative yet in harmony with the other components of the operation. Mission tactics involve far more than simply assigning a mission with an “in order to” statement tacked on the end. If we subsequently issue lots of control measures, detailed coordinating instructions, and other restrictions, we have defeated the whole purpose.

The second suggestion is an organizational one that we can call the “unit principle.” If a senior is going to give a subordinate broad latitude in the accomplishment of a mission and is going to hold that subordinate responsible for the accomplishment of the mission, then he is obligated to provide the subordinate with the assets needed to accomplish that mission. By providing each “moving part” with all the assets it needs to perform its task, we create self-contained task forces (or “asynchronous ensembles” as Gelernter would say). In so doing, we minimize the need to coordinate and request support from external sources. In other words, we make each “moving part” as self-reliant as possible-because self-reliance allows independence of action.

The third suggestion is to simplify operations by minimizing the number of moving parts in each operation. The more moving parts a plan has, the more contact points it has-that is, the more points where parts contact one another. The more contact points a plan has, the greater the requirement for coordination. The greater the requirement for continuous coordination, the less the independence of action and the more time spent coordinating instead of executing.

The fourth suggestion is to minimize the number of control measures we need and use. We should seek to minimize the use of limits of advance, phase lines, coordinating points, contact points, restricted fire lines, “on-order” missions, and so on. In short, we should avoid any measure that requires a commander to stop and request permission to continue or to coordinate before continuing. This is not to suggest that we simply eliminate the use of control measures because control measures wisely used serve an important purpose. However, we should eliminate the widespread overuse of restrictive control measures. We sometimes have a tendency to draw boundaries or phase lines where they serve no purpose other than to allow the commander to delude himself into believing that he is really in control. But there is more to this than just that. Rather, the object is to devise tactics and operations in which such control measures are not necessary. Given the choice between a scheme of maneuver that would require two units to coordinate closely to avoid interfering with each other or one in which the two units move in such a way that there would be little risk of interference, we should chose the latter, all other things being equal.

The fifth suggestion is to consciously design operations that allow each “moving part” to focus first and foremost on the enemy. As I have discussed earlier, synchronized operations are by their nature inwardly focused; the emphasis is on being in the designated place, in the proper sequence, at the prescribed time in relation to other friendly units. That is precisely what it means to be synchronized. What does it mean in practice to devise enemy-oriented operations? It means that as a rule we express the mission, intent, tasks, concept of operations, and other guidance and instructions in terms of the enemy rather than in terms of other friendly units. We minimize the use of tactics that require instructions such as “guide off 1st Platoon on your right,” “follow in trace of Echo Company but in advance of Golf,” or “Keep contact with 1st Squad on your left flank and 3d Squad on your right.”

The final suggestion is that we should leave many details of coordination unspecified. This goes against our training. We are trained that a good order provides instructions for every possible requirement and covers every conceivable detail. If the concept of operations creates the requirement for two subordinate units to coordinate, then higher headquarters will slap down a control measure between them-a boundary, contact point, whatever. That control measure then often becomes an imposition for both subordinate units. Higher headquarters are like big government in this respect. Getting the Federal Government involved is rarely the best way to work out local issues, yet the Federal Government seems to think that any worthwhile program should be a Federal program. In general it is not a bad idea to leave the details of coordination to the parties involved: “Bravo, remember you’ve got Charlie operating on your right flank; make sure you coordinate.” Consider again the pinpoint passing between the soccer players mentioned earlier. How effective could it be if the coach tried to synchronize the passes from the sideline? Trained subordinates gifted with topsight will see where the “moving parts” meet and, if they are one of those “moving parts,” will recognize the need to coordinate and will effect that coordination in the most expeditious manner.