13 April 2011

No Frontline Fronts in Front of the Rear

Since the end of the Cold War there has been a trend, often addressed here and in other blogs/forums, of seeing "future war" as fundamentally different in a key aspect: symmetry. What symmetry means, of course, is up for debate. Is it a physical symmetry of forces? Well, Sun Tzu said the best battle is won before it is fought. So, attack with a great advantage of the best technology, the best troops, and best logistics. This seems to imply that the best way to fight a battle (i.e. a war) is against a weaker opponent...not much to do with symmetry. Then there is the metaphysical symmetry of engagement; the notion that we used to fight on a "front" that had a "rear". That the breakdown of this symmetry creates the a-symmetrical battlefield where the "front" is the "rear" and the "rear" is the "front". The idea, of course, that this is the new paradigm. Well then, what are we to do with Lybia then? In Lybia we have fronts, rears, cities cut off and under siege, forces retreating and advancing, all in an oddly familiar way. So too we have in Cote D'Ivoire as a faction advanced from its stronghold in the north on the capital and besieged its opponents. Again, the invasion of Iraq progressed along a front that moved rapidly from Kuwait to Mosul. Weird. Why do these exceptions to a paradigm exist? After all, if the point of a paradigm is to set the framework to understanding, then XXI century conflicts should fall under this new asymmetrical paradigm. Why do these other "things" exist? Perhaps the answer is best found in the one place where everything that has ever been tried can be found: history. These exceptions to the asymmetrical rule show us a couple of things. First, frontlines exist when opposing forces meet. As Fallujah was being cleared north to south, there was a front and a rear for both the coalition and the rebels. The continental fronts of WWI and WWII are historical oddities of the industrialized, multi-million man armies. The scale of the front is the important part. Second, and most important, is that the scale of the front is determined by the size of the weakest participant. For instance, when an infantry platoon engages a rebel squad, their front is 400 m wide and their rear extends 800m deep and the action lasts a few minutes to a few hours, thereafter closing the front. When a Division engages a Brigade, then the front could be 30 km wide and the rear extending 60 km deep. When an Army Group engages an Army then their AO (front + rear) can be 250km wide and 500 km deep and the action can last a few years, thereafter closing the front. A single war may have multiple fronts. TheUSSR was fond of naming their fronts in WWII, while the US likes to capture them with the term Campaigns (Italy campaign, Island Hopping, Normandie, North Africa etc). The front then is a point of engagement on a map. COIN, which is what Lybia is in the midst of (noting that their insurgents have serendipitously acquired an air force and a navy) has fronts too. Sometimes they are many and sometime few. Our intervention in Lybia has balanced the power of the insurgency with the government, allowing a front to stabilize. When the rebellion was weak it had multiple (nay, asymmetric) fronts, just as we have in OIF and OEF. As the rebellion grew in strength it was able to consolidate, allowing better territorial control and a more unified front. The concept of a front then, in the XXI century, is still valid. The problem with fighting a COIN fight is that the balance of power and distribution of forces of the participants create the possibility of something other than a continental front (remeber, it itself is an industrialized oddity, not the historic norm). So has a new paradigm in warfighting evolved since WWII that should force us to reimagine warfare? We shouldn't have to look much further than 500 yrs in the past to an astute observer of human nature for guidance. In The Prince, Machiavelli devoted some time to an interesting subject, the difficulty of conquering France vs. the ease of Alexander's conquest of Persia. I won't bore you with the details, but the conclusion was elegantly simple. A divided and poorly organized state is easier to conquer and harder to occupy. A united and well organized state is the opposite. I leave you with the thought that Afghanistan was always the former and until May 2003 (when we dissolved the organs of that organization) Iraq was the latter. In both there are fronts, and at those fronts scale is the determining factor, not an earth-shattering shift in the human condition necessitating a new paradigm.

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