Systems versus Classical Approach to Warfare

By Vego, Milan N. | Joint Force Quarterly, January 2009 | Go to article overview

Systems versus Classical Approach to Warfare


Vego, Milan N., Joint Force Quarterly


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Since the mid-1990s, a systems (or systemic) approach to warfare emerged gradually as the dominant school of thought in the U.S. military, most other Western militaries, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This was exemplified by the wide and almost uncritical acceptance, not only in the United States but also in other militaries, of the claims by numerous proponents of the need to adopt network-centric warfare (NCW), effects-based operations (EBO), and most recently a systemic operational design (SOD). Yet little if any attention was given to some rather serious flaws in the theoretical foundations of various systems approaches to warfare. Classical military thought was declared unable to satisfy the requirements of the new environment that emerged in the aftermath of the Cold War and the advent of advanced information technologies and increasingly lethal and precise long-range weapons. Carl von Clausewitz's (1780-1831) ideas on the nature of war were ignored. Yet U.S. and NATO experiences in the recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Israeli experience in the second Lebanon war in 2006, have revealed not only serious limitations but also important flaws in the practical application of the systems view of war. These conflicts have shown the timeless value of the Clausewitzian view of warfare. The future might well show that most efforts and resources spent on adopting a systems view of warfare were essentially wasted.

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The Roots

The military application of a systems (2) approach to planning can be traced to the 1930s when U.S. Army Air Corps planners at the Air Corps Tactical School in Langley, Virginia, developed the theory of strategic bombing. U.S. airpower theorists believed that the main threads of the enemy economy could be identified and evaluated prior to the outbreak of hostilities. This so-called industrial web theory focused on those critical industries upon which significant portions of an enemy war economy relied. (3) The intent was to use a systems approach to generate cascading effects that would lead to the collapse of the enemy's economy. The ultimate aim was to reduce the enemy's will to resist and force him to cease fighting. According to this view, the proper application of industrial web theory would ensure rapid and decisive victory. (4)

Industrial web theory was applied on a large scale during World War II in the strategic bombing of Germany, German-occupied Europe, and Japan. However, the actual results were far below expectations in terms of materiel and time expended. Germany's industrial infrastructure proved resilient and extremely adaptable, and civilian morale did not collapse, as widely anticipated by airpower proponents. Some 5 years of strategic bombing destroyed entire cities, killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, curtailed industrial output, and crippled transportation nodes. Yet despite the enormous effect, such effects-based operations failed to render a strategic decision. (5)

The impetus toward adopting an effects-based approach came in the aftermath of the Vietnam War (1965-1975). Then, the U.S. military emphasized the need to link objectives at all levels of war--from the national political level to the tactical--in a logical and causal chain. In their interpretation, this outcome-based or strategy-to-task approach became the basis for joint planning. The Air Force firmly believed that its targeteering approach to warfare could somehow be applied at all levels of war. The most vocal proponents of airpower claimed that advances in information technologies and the precision and lethality of weapons allowed the use of those weapons against complex systems and in a way that was more sophisticated than previously. Another reason for the reemergence of the effects-based approach was the political and social pressure to reduce the costs of military operations and wage war with the fewest losses of human lives for the friendly (and often the enemy) side. …

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