Synchronization and the Corps

by Capt Mark D Johnson

In recent issues a debate between two schools of thought on warfare has been ongoing. One school of thought as advocated by Maj John E. Schmitt, USMCR, is the theory of maneuver warfare, which all Marines are well versed in. The other school as advocated by Maj Kenneth F. McKenzie is the theory of synchronization, which most Marines are not familiar with. Having recently graduated from the Field Artillery Officers Advanced Course at Fort Sill, OK, where we were inundated with the “Army” way of planning, i.e., synchronization, I would like to add to the discussion by providing one company grade officer’s viewpoint. I believe that the integration of the synchronization process along with the concept of maneuver warfare will prove invaluable to the Marine Corps in future operations.

First, in its purest and most doctrinally correct form, the synchronization process is very time consuming and manpower intensive and thus very rigid. Maj Schmitt in his article “Out of Sync with Maneuver Warfare” (MCG, Aug94) mentioned this as one of the flaws of synchronization. He provides wire diagrams as examples of the theory’s rigidity. Furthermore, he concludes that this rigidity is not advantageous to the Marine Corps‘ concept of warfighting. This is a valid argument, but the rigidity that is applied in his examples is unrealistic. I submit that no American force would ever “lock” itself into such a narrow, fixed process outlined by Maj Schmitt. He gave us synchronization in its purest-most exaggerated-form. He further leads us to believe that synchronization is the determining factor in operation order preparation, that it is an end in itself. Simply put, that is not what synchronization is advertised or designed to do. What it can do is provide the best picture of the future battle as deduced by the staff. In reference to the resource problem-to time and manpower-the process can be modified if the situation warrants a more expeditious result, as normally is the case in rapid planning process which the Marine Corps embraces. By extracting pieces of the process that meet this goal, an acceptable end product can be reached, one that aids both planners and executors.

Second, if we accept that synchronization does not mean that the plan is inflexible and unchangeable, then we can also conclude that it does not require “central control” as Maj Schmitt believes. A well-synchronized plan provides the maneuver commander with a great tool to use in battle. This process provides the subordinate commanders with a base of support to help him in accomplishing the mission. Col Michael D. Wyly, USMC(Ret), in his article “Reestablishing What?” (MCG, Aug94) provides examples of his experiences of synchronization in Vietnam. He states that “synchronization consistently failed to optimize efforts because the enemy acted unpredictably and was seldom in preplanned target areas.” I would agree that if an enemy’s actions were unpredictable then synchronization is difficult. To add a side note to his comment, if a staff used synchronization to determine preplanned target engagements, disregarding targeted areas of interest or target acquisition feedback, then the process would most definitely fail. This does not mean that the process itself is flawed. It suggests that the staff did not understand how to use the process to optimized the results. Being able to predict the enemy’s every movement is not a prerequisite for synchronization. Knowing something about enemy capabilities and tendencies is required regardless of the process used, be it synchronization of maneuver warfare.

Third, with the preponderance of todays’s operations conducted in the joint or combined arena, the requirement for fully synchronizing Marine Corps assets, as well as those of other Services, could not be greater. This was evident in DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM, as well as in RESTORE HOPE in Somalia. It is imperative that the Marine Corps understand the theory of synchronization when working in the joint arena. I am not suggesting that we are obligated to adopt this process; but if we expect to benefit from its products, we must know how to “tap” into the system. Two examples will help to illustrate this point. One scenario is when the Marine Corps is the senior command. The subordinate elements of other Services expect information derived from the synchronization process and by virtue of the Corps‘ position it would have the responsibility to provide the requested information. The second scenario is when the Marine Corps is subordinate to another Service. In order to benefit from the results achieved through synchronization the Marine Corps needs to know how to extract the derived information or in some situations how to incorporate resources into the system to derive information that may be of particular importance to the Marine Corps.

An example will help illustrate the value of synchronization in the Marine Corps. A battalion receives a mission. The higher headquarters, which initiates the order, determines an initial plan for the support of that battalion. The battalion conducts initial planning after receiving the warning order. Simultaneously, the higher headquarters should be conducting synchronization. The staff, through the analysis of battlefield activities (what the Army calls operating systems), considers all activities and agencies throughout the area of operation, both friendly and foe. A “package” of support is determined and provided, dictated through the operation order, identifying the needed external support, i.e., artillery, air logistics, etc. The staff takes the process a step further by considering not only “what” is needed but “how” to position it if it is to be available when required. This is a very important step for the battalion as well as for the support agencies. For example, the reaction times for the various fire support assets are very diverse and require a great amount of planning and coordination in order to tie them together. Synchronization aids this process by providing the staff with a means of allocating these scarce resources to support the maneuverist’s plan, taking all the battlefield parts and making them into “a whole.” Without this process of ensuring that these assets are mutually supporting in time and space, the maneuverist could not operate as freely as his initiative desires. Although to a pure maneuverist support should come when requested, it is unrealistic to expect or assume that support can be automatic or always available without planning, preparation, or coordination with other commitments. In this instance the higher headquarters has considered all of the “moving parts” and therefore facilitated the executor’s mission not impeded it.

Some would argue that this is only coordination and planning, and I would agree; however, there is more to this process when the planning begins at the regimental level or above. These are the levels for which synchronization is designed. In synchronizing the battlefield, the staff evaluates both the enemy and friendly situations. The enemy’s disposition and possible courses of action (COA) are determined through intelligence preparation of the battlefield. The friendly disposition and COAs are determined through senior command orders and by analyzing the force composition. The staff then takes this information and conducts wargaming, using a synchronization matrix, in order to try and reduce the “fog of battle,” not eliminate it. Furthermore, the staff has not dictated to the subordinate commander the “how to fight,” only provided the means to do so. This is in direct opposition to Maj Schmitt’s opinion that synchronization leads to the stifling of initiative and a requirement for “centralized, detailed control.”

In conclusion, although the term synchronization, when taken in its purist context implies excessive planning by Marine Corps standards, we should not disallow it as a tool for staff planning at regimental levels and above. These level’s possess both the manpower and “braintrust” to make the synchronization process work and, more important, the common sense to allow the recipients of this information to use it as they see fit through their own initiative. Maj Schmitt’s closing comment regarding the relationship, or disrelationship, as he believes, between maneuver warfare and synchronization is incorrect. These two theories can be mutually supporting if used with proper discretion. I submit that through synchronization Marines who find themselves “close to the front” will be able to fight the battle without having to worry about the myriad external actions that the major command staffs are capable of controlling and monitoring.