Is Warfighting Enough?

by Col Chet Richards, USAF(Ret) & MAJ Donald Vandergriff, USA(Ret)

What are military forces going to be doing in the 21st century? Marines and the other members of America’s Armed Forces train to go to war. This seemingly bland statement actually holds the key to resolving practically all of the arguments about doctrine, training, counterinsurgency, and stability operations that we have all been reading about recently. The reason is that it is not immediately obvious that there is going to be much need for fighting wars or even deterring them in the future.

The great strategists, from Sun Tzu to Clausewitz, may not have agreed on much, but the one opinion that they held in common was that “war” is something special: “War is a matter of vital importance to the State; the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin.”1 Clausewitz insisted that one of the defining characteristics of war is that it “is an act of violence pushed to its utmost bounds,” restrained only by one’s intelligence and the counterproductive nature of too much violence. So if what you’re engaged in doesn’t look like this, it is at the very least a strange form of war.

Is It War?

A Clausewitzian conflict among nuclear powers is likely to achieve not only the age-old dream of every pacifist-the elimination of war-but unfortunately, also the elimination of the human race. And as a range of strategists from Thomas P.M. Barnett to Martin van Creveld has observed, real “province of life and death” wars have ceased even among minor powers, once the antagonists acquired nuclear weapons.

Although it may not be entirely obvious from looking at the defense budget and, in particular, the vast sums still spent on weapons to fight large-scale conventional war, American military doctrine is beginning to accept this fact. As the new counterinsurgency manual, Field Manual 3-24 (FM 324)/Marine Corps Warfighting Publication 3-33.5 (MCWP 3-33.5), Counterinsurgency, puts it, “Sometimes, the more force is used, the less effective it is,”2 which is a statement that would have puzzled Clausewitz to no end. In the types of conflicts we are likely to be engaged in, however, the struggle is not to defeat another military force but to reestablish a government that the vast majority of people will regard as “legitimate.”3 Once such a government is in place, it can use its own resources to mobilize the people to put an end to insurgencies of either the domestic or the transnationalfourth generational-variety. Tactical success by U.S. forces on the battlefield, the manual explains, guarantees nothing.4

This is all very strange. One is tempted to believe that Clausewitz would have concluded that what we’re engaged in is not war at all and then launched off to write another 500-page treatise on legitimacy or whatever. It is already starting to happen. The recently retired British officer, Sir Rupert Smith, like Clausewitz a successful commander of his day, begins his exploration of the utility of military force by observing that such forces are often used nowadays for purposes for which they were not originally intended.5 Even a casual reading of Sir Rupert’s book strongly suggests that the further away from their original purpose, the less successful the application.

Boyd and the nonwars of the 21st century. What all this means is that for the first time since the founding of the Republic, there is no way to tell what American military forces will be used for and, therefore, should be trained for in the future. For that reason, late U.S. Air Force Col John R. Boyd may turn out to be the most influential strategist of the 21st century. Marines know Boyd primarily through the orientation, observation, decision, action (OODA) loop concept and from his influence on maneuver warfare. But Boyd’s impact on the Corps runs much deeper, and when Boyd died in 1997, then-Commandant Charles C. Krulak wrote, “I, and his Corps of Marines, will miss our counselor terribly.”

Fortunately, for all members of the U.S. Armed Forces, Boyd’s concept of strategy offers ideas for resolving 21st century conflict that might prove useful to avoiding future impasses like Iraq. Probably every Marine understands that the essence of maneuver warfare is to create chaos and exploit it faster than the other side can sort it out. These Boyd-type strategies will have not only physical but also mental and moral effects on opponents, degrading their abilities to function as harmonious teams. Physical effects are things like surfaces and gaps; mental effects are related to confusion, disorientation, surprise, deception, and ambiguity; moral effects are the strongest of all because they govern whether the opponent will even retain the will to continue the fight.

In creating his theory Boyd was able to incorporate ideas from an enormous body of science unavailable to Clausewitz, particularly the second law of thermodynamics, relativity, quantum mechanics, the “new sciences” of chaos and complexity, and advances in the biological and social sciences, such as the theory of evolution by natural selection, experimental psychology, genetics, neurophysiology, and the epistemology of science. The result is a truly new and original synthesis that is based as much on destroying the other side’s ability to function as a coherent system as on improving our own capacity to work effectively under conditions of stress and uncertainty.

The destructive side-the OODA loop. Fundamental to applying Boyd’s concepts is the realization that the OODA loop isn’t really a loop at all. Boyd, in fact, never drew it that way. Instead, the loop is better considered as a way of thinking about conflict based upon the concept of keeping our orientations better matched to reality than our opponents’. Boyd demonstrated, by combining examples both from military history and modern science, that the side that can do this will not only respond to changes more quickly, but can also shape the situation to its liking and then exploit it before the opponent can react. Another key is, through training and experience, to assemble an arsenal of potentially effective actions that will flow intuitively, smoothly, and quickly from orientation. The end result is, as Boyd called it, to “operate inside an opponent’s OODA ‘loop'” and thus produce rapid, jarring changes that disorient and demoralize the opposition.

The constructive side-attracting the uncommitted. This is all well and good, but it sounds like a better way to fight wars, which we may not be doing that much of in the future. The other, lesser appreciated, half of Boyd’s work provides tools and concepts more suited to such nonwar purposes as restoring legitimacy. First, it is important to recognize, as the new counterinsurgency manual emphatically does, that there is a limit to what military forces can be expected to accomplish. As the manual notes, “Military action can address the symptoms of a loss of legitimacy” and only the symptoms because “political factors are primary.” The important point, as Boyd insisted, is that the “good guy” military force-our coalition, for example-must operate in such a way as to:

* Support our national goals.

* Pump up our resolve, drain away adversary’s resolve, and attract the uncommitted.

* End the conflict on favorable terms.

* Ensure that the conflict and peace terms do not provide seeds for (unfavorable) future conflict.6

By operating inside the opponent’s OODA loops, we:

. . . permit real leadership to avoid high attrition, avoid widespread destruction, and gain a quick victory. This combined with shattered cohesion, paralysis, and rapid collapse demonstrated by the existing adversary regime makes it appear corrupt, incompetent, and unfit to govern.7

The same is true if we can quickly and efficiently eliminate the military component of an outside or illegitimate organization. In other words, by operating according to the principles that underlie maneuver warfare, we not only win the armed conflict, but we make it more likely that we, and the affected population, win the subsequent peace. Boyd’s analysis, by the way, suggests that the coalition military did exactly what militaries are supposed to do by quickly occupying Baghdad, with relatively few casualties on either side, and thoroughly discrediting the Ba’athist regime. What happened next provides yet another argument for considering occupations and perhaps even counterinsurgencies as something other than war.

But Carry an Effective Stick

Perhaps Boyd’s most powerful contribution to the 21st century lies not in better ways to fight, even ways to fight that don’t make the political situation worse, but in putting the focus on the positive elements of conflict. Thus his magnum opus, Patterns of Conflict, ends not with the OODA loop and sowing deception, ambiguity, and chaos, but with the “theme for vitality and growth.” In other words, our focus should always be on attracting people around the world to engage peacefully with us and our way of life, while we, in partnership with our allies, retain the capability to deal quickly and elegantly with those who would use force to gain their objectives.

Perhaps the strongest reason for recommending Boyd to those who must deal with the strangeness of the 21st century is the equally strange fact that Boyd was not primarily concerned with warfare. Although he is recognized as a father of maneuver warfare, nowhere in the 300 or so pages that he left does he use the term. He would certainly have agreed with both Sun Tzu and Clausewitz that warfare must serve a higher purpose or it is just brutal savagery. So throughout his work, he emphasized destruction and creation, coercion and attraction, chaos and harmony, isolation and interaction. These principles apply to the rifle squad just as they do to national policy, which, if you stop to think about it, is what Gen Krulak’s notion of the “strategic corporal” is all about.

Creating strategic corporals (and strategic colonels). So, how do we create strategic corporals, strategic lieutenants, strategic majors, and strategic colonels? The trick is to instill a culture like the one embodied in Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1 (MCDP1), Warfighting, and MCDP 6, Command and Control. Boyd once called it the “principles of the blitzkrieg,” but dropped that description in favor of “an operational climate for organizational success.” The essence of this approach is to ensure that we lead through auftragstaktik, a German word that implies that once everyone understands the commanders’ intent (two levels up), then people are free to, and indeed dutybound to, use their creativity and initiative to accomplish their missions within the intent. Within such an environment, teams will largely self-organize within the doctrinal framework to accomplish the mission. Marine Maj Gen James M. “Mike” Myatt once summarized this command philosophy as not being “centralized decision and decentralized execution. It’s centralized vision and decentralized decision making.” It is the climate that enables “strategic” soldiers at every level.

It is the mission of every military organization to create leaders and units that can operate under this concept. As one speaker at a recent Boyd conference at Quantico noted, in the 21st century, the other side has to operate this way. Centralized control isn’t an option for them.

Adaptive leadership is key. How do we create cultures and leaders capable of auftragstaktik, or as Boyd called it, “operat[ing] inside opponents’ OODA loops”? Some interesting work is now taking place. In its adaptive leaders course (ALC), for example, the Army is experimenting with bold new techniques in some of its precommissioning and junior officer training programs. One of the elements in this approach to developing adaptive leaders is the innovative use of tactical decision games (TDGs), a technique popularized by LtCol John F. Schmitt, USMC(Ret). The ALC combines TDGs with other approaches through experiential learning, scenario-based education, 360-degree evaluations and, most importantly, outstanding teachers.

The essence of the ALC is not to arrive at the school solution, or even to teach the students to go down a prescribed checklist of steps. For an era where we cannot predict what leaders will be doing-or even if it should be called war at all-the checklist mentality is irrelevant at best. Instead, the method requires instructors to put students into increasingly complex and disorganized scenarios. A good scenario employing TDGs gives students a tactical problem and then puts them under stress-often a time constraint-but there are other means limited only by the instructor’s imagination. The students must present not only their solutions but also explain why they did what they did. The instructor and the other students will critique, pro and con, the solution as well as the explanation and the technique for solving the problem. Did the students, for example, use an effective balance of written and verbal instructions? Why did they micromanage their noncommissioned officers? Did the local population think better of the coalition as a result, or did the “favorable” body count just help recruit more insurgents?

The impact of the training can be magnified by combining TDGs with the study of military history (the best TDGs are based on historical examples) and intensive fieldwork that includes free play exercises. To be most effective, these teaching approaches must take place under the cultural umbrella of what is called a “learning organization.” In contrast, today’s approach to developing leaders is still focused on a top-down memorization of processes, which is not going to help future leaders achieve mastery of Boyd-type principles.

Training adaptive groups. Recent research out of the Royal Norwegian Naval Academy (RNoNA), where many of their graduates will serve in the Third World under conditions of transnational or fourth-generation warfare, reinforces the ALC philosophy. In particular, the Norwegians, who briefed their findings at the Boyd conference, emphasized that if we want to develop leaders who can be effective in unstructured, politically charged environments, then instructors must provide such environments to the students as part of their training. In other words, to learn to use OODA loops (they use that terminology), you have to be in an environment where OODA loops make a difference.

In all of the Boyd-like approaches to training, students are continually observed, evaluated, and forced to analyze how they arrived at their decisions under stress. Uniquely, the RNoNA has developed and statistically validated ways to quantify the “maturity” of groups, which defines their readiness to operate in fourth-generation-type environments. The academy can then apply the appropriate “interventions” to help those groups that are lagging in their development.


OODA loops are still the answer. From the standpoint of Boyd’s strategic concepts, the 21st century is moving in a favorable direction. Although large-scale warfare among developed states is increasingly unlikely, conflict, the real subject of Boyd’s investigations, is eternal. As the world approaches 9 billion people by the end of the century, competition for increasingly scarce resources is going to make conflict, including the use of large-scale armed forces in the developing world, even more likely.

As Boyd insisted, successfully resolving future conflicts so that we don’t again become bogged down in multiyear insurgencies will very much be a “carrot and stick” affair, where the emphasis is not so much on “unconditional surrender,” or other 19th and 20th century notions, as on persuading people not to offer support to dangerous groups. A component of this approach may be that we have to discredit those who would use organized violence to achieve their ends. When this becomes necessary, Boyd’s timeless concept of operating inside their OODA loops provides the mechanism for achieving this goal rapidly and with minimum damage to our coalition, to enemy forces, and to friendly and uncommitted populations.

Providentially, as the 21st century breaks, we and our likely allies are developing training and leadership development methods that can be proven to achieve the level of proficiency needed to make Boyd’s concepts live. So operating inside the OODA loop can be as realistic a concept for ending the tragic conflicts of the developing world as it was for achieving victory in the skies over Europe, Korea, and Iraq.


1. Sun Tzu, The Art of War, translated by Samuel B. Griffith, Oxford University Press, Oxford, NJ, 1963, p. 63.

2. FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5, Counterinsurgency, Headquarters Marine Corps, Washington, DC, 2006, p. 127.

3. Ibid., p. 128.

4. Ibid., p. 122.

5. Smith, GEN Sir Robert, British Army (Ret), The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World, Penguin, London, 2005, p. xii.

6. Boyd, Col John R., USAF(Ret), Patterns of Conflict, unpublished briefing, December 1986, p. 139.

7. Ibid., p. 142.