by Maj Eric M. Walters

Before the Marine Corps brings synchronization techniques to the chaotic, fluid battlefields of tomorrow, it should examine the rich Soviet experience in this area. The danger of adapting a warfighting method that will not meet the stress of combat requires such inquiry.

To a former student of Soviet military doctrine, the similarities between past Soviet writings and current discussions in U.S. professional military journals are startling. One example of this is Maj Kenneth F. McKenzie’s “Fighting in the Real World,” which appeared in the March 1994 issue of the Gazette. McKenzie argues that his ideas of synchronization-which he says are different from the Army concept of the same name-are not inimical to maneuver warfare as some critics suggest, but actively support it.

McKenzie’s conception of synchronization parallels Soviet military doctrine from the 1960s through the end of the 1980s, doctrine that stresses optimizing the integration of combined arms during battle through centralized mmmand and control (C^sup 2^). If the similarities are more than superficial, the argument of whether synchronization aids or hinders maneuver warfare really depends on which control context, centralized or decentralized, frames the discussion.

What is most important for the Marine Corps, however, is that the Soviets realized that centralized control can no longer reliably work under actual conditions of war. This conclusion bankrupts any notion that a centralized-control philosophy can support maneuver warare. These findings bode ill for U.S. attempts to win using synchronization in the heat of battle.

The Conceptual Groundwork

While McKenzie attributes many meanings to the term “synchronization” in his article, the “techniques and procedures” connotation is the core of his piece. These techniques and procedures (intelligence preparation of the battlefield, battlefield activities, and battlefield geometry) are designed to assist the commander and his staff. Synchronization, in McKenzie’s view, is primarily meant to support C^sup 2^.

Maneuver warfare is a more slippery term. One can find many definitions, but the common thread among them is the drive to achieve a faster operating tempo. The use of speed as a weapon to disorient and shatter the enemy’s cohesion-as opposed to physically obliterating himis its distinguishing feature.

In his book, The Art of Maneuver (Presidio Press, 1991), Maj Robert Leonhard, USA, notes that the method of C^sup 2 ^is not mandated by maneuver warfare. Any C^sup 2^ style that creates a higher tempo than the enemy’s achieves the goal of maneuver warfare. Leonhard then distinguishes between the two schools of maneuver warfare theory-one German and one Soviet. Both schools sought to defeat the enemy through high tempo operations focused against enemy weakness rather than the brute application of strength against strength. What differentiates them is their dissimilar approaches to C^sup 2^; the Germans tended to work in a decentralizing directive or mission-control style, while the Soviets preferred the centralizing detailed-control style. As to which style is better in performing maneuver warfare, Leonhard states: Each form of command and controldirective [mission] and detailed-offers advantages over the other, and both have been employed to equal effect by maneuver oriented commanders in the past. The former method seeks a gap; the latter creates one. The former exploits opportunity; the latter exploits unity of effort…. In point of fact, both methods of command and control can be effective.

There is now room for doubt about this last point, as shall be seen.

The Quest for Optimization

At the foundation of both synchronization and Soviet military doctrine is the belief that the commander must always achieve efficiency in battle-both seek to constantly optimize application of force.

McKenzie states that: at the operational and tactical levels, commanders work within the construct of a coherent set of functions intended to optimize the interplay of the various elements of warfighting power.

The core function is the intelligence preparation of the battlefield (IPB), which McKenzie describes. As anyone familiar with it will attest, IPB is a very labor- and time-intensive process, yet the expected payoff in analytical power is supposed to be worth the cost. The Soviet planning effort also began with a time-consuming but formidable intelligence effort to reduce uncertainty to the lowest possible level. IPB decision aids (particularly the decision support template, or DST) are according to McKenzie, “designed to enable rapid adjustment of the commander’s vision of the unfolding battle, provided and organized quantitatively.”

McKenzie’s emphasis on quantitative comparison, analysis, and outputs, even during execution while in contact with the enemy, parallels the concept-algorithm-decision methodology of Soviet C^sup 2^-particularly their use of diagrammatic network process modeling in planning operations. It must be said that IPB facilitates analytical decisionmaking in a more interactive format than the purely mathematical models of the Soviets, providing a structure for action without prescribing specifically what that action will be. Commanders are free to adjust what they do based on what the enemy does; the framework is simply a medium which enables rapid optimization of improvisation.

Like McKenzie, the Soviets maintain the process could adequately cope with uncertainty. This was done by calculating unknowns based on probabilities or simply “worst-casing”; operational options were also “hedged” to allow for unforeseen circumstances and delays in execution. To assist in doing the analytical stubby-pencil work, manual and automated decision aids helped in comparing friendly options to each other and versus enemy capabilities.

Despite all this effort, Soviet rhetoric strongly stressed that the commander’s judgment was indispensable in correctly arriving at a decision. These tools were simply to assist him in doing so more quickly and accurately during both planning and execution. This neatly coincides with McKenzie’s admonition that IPB:

cannot be a substitute for the commander’s decision, reached through analysis and the spark of intuition, but it can help make his decision an informed and rapid one.

But, like McKenzie, the Soviets never adequately explained how to reconcile the “spark of intuition” with their analytical approach.

McKenzie’s synchronization does allow more flexibility than the Soviet methods-but only within the framework he says synchronization provides:

Through the medium of the commander’s intent, a plan’s ‘branches’ are developed during the planning and wargaming process, preparing units for possible rapid changes in situation, mission, and status. Concurrently, potential ‘sequels’ are identified that enable the staff and commander to coordinate battlefield activities for future operations. The entropic nature of combat will challenge all plans, but a planning and analysis structure that recognizes the inevitability of change will be able to accommodate these occurrences.This “built-in” illustrated by McKenzie’s quotation of capacity for change is illustrated by McKenzie’s quatation of the U.S. Army’s 1992 draft of FM 101-5, which maintains that synchronization constructs a “critical path of concentration and priorities.” Determination and monitoring of the critical path in an operation also lay at the heart of Soviet diagrammatic network process modeling. Through identification of the critical path in an operation, the Soviets attempted to avoid tying “all maneuver units to the pace of the slowest, like yoked oxen,” as McKenzie’s synchronization critics might claim.

The Soviet plan was highly articulated and flexible, being able to absorb a number of changes in the noncritical path processes (usually the majority of events) without slowing down the overall operation. In other words, slack to take delays into account was built in. The critical path in a network highlighted those events that, if delayed, imposed a corresponding delay on the entire operation. Events comprising the critical path indeed spelled out the main effort for the operation since they were its backbone; all measures were designed to ensure critical path processes were not delayed. Because both develop explicit critical path processes in an operational plan, U.S. Army synchronization matrices physically look extremely similar to Soviet diagrammatic network process models. This is important, because both of these command tools cannot help but script subordinate-unit actions to various degrees.

Soviet network-style planning provided a framework for a flow of events dependent on other events, facilitating quick adjustment of operational actions and associated schedules to the unfolding situation. This parallels McKenzie’s statement that synchronization is not timedriven, but event-driven and anticipatory.

McKenzie says that IPB “is particularly useful in wargaming potential courses of action, both enemy and friendly, during the development and execution of a plan. . . .” This emphasis on analysis during execution coincides exactly with the Soviet point of view.

It should be said here that analysis and optimization are not rejected wholesale by the decentralized school. Optimization and centralized control are not necessarily bad per se-what is at issue is when they are appropriate. They work best when variables are relatively few, are adequately definable, and can be anticipated. There should also be no time limitations to perform and communicate the analysis required to support them. Indeed, analysis and optimization have historically been very useful in planning for the first engagements in a campaign.

What is significant about synchronization and Soviet doctrine is that both maintain rigorous analysis and optimization can be accomplished even in the thick of the fight. This requires either a lot of information on the situation or a lot of wargaming and/or calculations to account for high degrees of uncertainly in order to hedge the plan.

The decentralized school rejects any attempt to do this no matter how seemingly flexible the method, since high fog and friction levels conspire to slow down the process. In other words, synchronization and Soviet doctrine work as long as events conform to plan or framework assumptions. If something happens that falls outside these assumptions, a lot of time is needed to rationalize the plan or framework to fit the new situation. And time is of the essence in maneuver warfare.

The Primacy of the Planning Process

The end product of both Soviet C^sup 2 ^doctrine and synchronization is a plan or framework that can deal with the anticipated chaos during execution-this through continuous analysis of the situation and subsequent adjustments to the plan to realize a new optimized solution even when in contact. While not explicitly stated, there is an underlying assumption here that the plan or framework is paramount.

To achieve the ideal in optimization requires total unity of effort in unit actions. Total unity of effort requires complete centralized, detailed control by headquarters. Since the holy grail of synchronization and Soviet doctrine is optimization, the tendency will be to centralize, not decentralize. Indeed, tolerating lesser degrees of control by headquarters means less unity of effort, which then forfeits the ultimate goal. This puts synchronization in the detailed-control school, whether McKenzie wants to admit to it or not. This parallel is reinforced by McKenzie’s comments on the importance of the IPB process over its products and the preeminence of the MAGTF command element. Planning and the entity that does the planning are of primary importance for both synchronization and Soviet military doctrine.

By way of contrast, mission control is satisfied with a “good enough” solution cobbled together by cooperating warfighters on the spot in accordance with the commander’s intent. In this view, once the overall intent is given, the headquarters and its planning process are less important than the people who are doing the actual fighting.

The Role of Initiative McKenzie’s statement that synchronization is conceptually “counterpoised against agility and initiative” is another indication of how synchronization primarily supports detailed control. The necessity for centralized decisionmaking is asserted as he maintains that the commander-armed with the synchronization framework-will himself make the decision when to use agility and initiative. In McKenzie’s words, “The ability to reconcile these concepts . . . varies from commander to commander, but ongoing synchronization makes it easier to define critical issues and expedite decisions.” This, of course, defeats the entire purpose of agility and initiative in the first place. These qualities allow subordinates to take immediate action without consulting the commander, especially in situations where there isn’t enough information to come up with an optimum course of action quickly-ongoing synchronization or not. One can readily see that synchronization will cause units to wait around in uncertain situations for permission to take the initiative.

McKenzie insists that his synchronization does not script or choreograph units; the implication being that this is what separates his concept of synchronization from that of the U.S. Army, French methodical battle, and the Soviet approach. But this separation is only rhetorical; underneath all these concepts is the familiar foundation of centralized control. When maximizing unity of effort, analytical decisionmaking, quantification, and subsequent optimization of combined arms application, it follows that executing units must always obey the detailed instructions of a single entity who blends their actions together. How can optimization-the stated goal of synchronization, French methodical battle, and Soviet doctrine-be achieved in any other way, without continuously centralized control?

Given the thrust of McKenzie’s discussion, his concept of synchronization does indeed support maneuver warfare, but only of the Soviet-style, detailedcontrol school. It cannot support mission control as advocated in FMFM 1 Warfighting and its brother publications. Yet these are the publications McKenzie says synchronization indeed supports. He does mention that “Commanders must recognize that fleeting opportunities will arise, requiring immediate and perhaps unanticipated action.” Unfortunately, nothing else in the article provides any insight as to how this would be done within the synchronization context. It has to be assumed, given the thrust of the article, that the commander would explicitly grant permission for units to take the initiative and then try to rationalize the framework to the new development. This will take much time-probably more time than is available.

Because the synchronization framework does have such analytical power, it will be difficult for people to free themselves of it when in an ambiguous situation, even when the situation demands rapid action. Since it comfortably organizes a frightening environment, the tendency will be to cling to it in case of doubt, not abandon it when necessary. One can easily envision people spending precious hours attempting to modify the framework to fit a situation it did not originally envision; isn’t this the idea behind ongoing synchronization? How much time is needed to perform such a process? Can we afford it?

Far more dangerous-and perhaps more likely-will be the temptation to rationalize an ambiguous situation to fit the framework. The human inclination will be to focus inward on the process, even though the process is designed to focus outward on the enemy. Means can very easily become ends despite the best of intentions, and synchronization processes make this very easy. Maj McKenzie flatly states that the Marine culture of maneuver warfare will prevent this, but how this would happen is hard to envision.

The Soviets were able to achieve high-tempo operations by massive hedging and tightly optimizing force application for critical path events and then ruthlessly sticking to the plan. Their liberal use of mass compensated for the shortcomings of their centralized-control systems in coping with the unexpected. They were slow in planning and preparation, but fast in execution, since they hardly ever deviated from the plan with success. Aware of their lack of flexibility, they developed automated decision aids to shorten the time needed to do analytical decisionmaking in the middle of combat. If we, like the Soviets, adopt such a centralized-control philosophy as McKenzie implies, could we similarly compensate with profligate doses of mass? Can “ongoing synchronization”perhaps also using automation-facilitate analytical decisionmaking fast enough?

Some Warnings

The U.S. Army, whose methods parallel Soviet C^sup 2^ processes to even greater fidelity than do McKenzie’s, is trying to do exactly this. Maj Leonhard writes that the Army conduct of Operation DESERT STORM was stringently controlled from the top down; yet Training and Doctrine Command’s official statements say that the Army was improving in its “mission tactics” and “mission orders.” Leonhard provides much evidence that the difference between Army written doctrine, which stresses decentralization, and Army choreographed operations in the field was never more blatant than in the Gulf War. Such centralized control of massive firepower appears to have worked, perhaps because the relatively inert Iraqis did not pose truly high levels of fog and friction. Another contributing factor was the ample amount of time to prepare a detailed plan before the ground war began. Yet, Leonhard asks, does this one success mean that centralized control is the preferred way to fight future wars?

Ironically enough, the Soviet school of maneuver warfare died even before the end of the Soviet Union. The Ministry of Defense began to realize in the early 1980s that the Soviet C^sup 2^ approach, while it worked in World War II and in subsequent military exercises, was found wanting when “fighting in the real world” in Afghanistan. By the latter half of the decade, combat experience had graphically demonstrated that only through individual initiative-giving up on analysis, optimization, and centralized C^sup 2^ in battle-could the Soviets hope to win against the insurgents.

If this were not enough, Soviet military academicians, bolstered by data gained from their own advanced technology-related testing, claimed that future largescale warfare would necessitate decentralization of C^sup 2^ far below the regimental level. They believed that a major war with the West would be conducted with long-range, precision-guided, conventional weapons of high lethality linked to deep-seeing sensors. These so-called “reconnaissance-fire” and “reconnaissance-strike” complexes would radically change the balance of combat power, and thus the situation, constantly across the breadth and depth of the entire theater. This would happen much faster than centralized C^sup 2 ^at any level could possibly cope with. Even with high-speed computers which analyzed and wargamed options, no optimized plan or concept could keep pace with real world events.

It should be noted that the Soviets originally adopted the detailed-control style because they knew they could not perform maneuver warfare using mission control. With their multilingual and multicultural conscript force, the necessary cohesion and training to achieve effective decentralized control could never be attained. If the Marine Corps ends up adopting such a centralized style of control, then it can only be because we, like the Soviets, could not expect to achieve the level of cohesion and training decentralization demands.

If the Marine Corps intends to use synchronization techniques in the chaotic and fluid medium of combat, we should closely examine the rich Soviet experience and open-source writings in this area. The danger of adopting warfighting methods that might not work in the stress of combat would warrant such inquiry.