Happy Birthday, Alice

Sun Tzu was a great fan of intelligence and spies in particular — check out Chapter 13 if you need a refresher —  because it’s much easier to operate inside opponents’ OODA loops if you already know what they’re going to do. As luck would have it, today is the birthday of Louise de Bettignies, AKA Alice Dubois, one of the greatest intelligence operatives of all time.

To explain why, a little historical perspective might prove useful. Although the German Schlieffen Plan failed to hook around Paris and end World War I in 1914, it left the Germans occupying a fair portion of northeastern France for the next 4 years. From January to September, 1915, this area provided the theater of operations for de Bettignies, whose network alerted the British to German plans and tactical movements  and almost took out the Kaiser himself. Among other feats of derring-do.

There are several bios of her, but historical fiction might be a good place to start. To this end, Kate Quinn has written a most readable — “page turner” wouldn’t be too strong — story of her operation, The Alice Network. I recommend it highly.

Happy Birthday, Louise.

Creating mission-oriented leaders

Don’t you want your organization to run better? Of course you do: Get rid of the office politics, cliques, backstabbing, passive aggression — morale goes up, blood pressure goes down, objectives are routinely exceeded, competitors / opponents get trounced. Hence, the size of modern CEO offices, which need to be that big to hold all the books on how to actually do it.

Among the many approaches, “agility” proposes to use time to shape the competitive environment, and, if necessary, react to changes before they become fatal. Nestled within the agile approaches, there is a school that insists the best way to do this is to fire up creativity and initiative throughout the organization and harmonize them to accomplish the objectives of the organization. Note that “throughout” includes everybody from new hires to the aforementioned CEO.

Boyd’s philosophy is obviously in this category. He proposed an organizational climate, often known by the acronym EBFAS,* whose purpose was to produce organizations that could shape, reorient to, and exploit rapidly changing situations.  Boyd regarded conflict as characterized by deception, surprise, ambiguity, stress and threat, which can lead to fear, mistrust, and a breakdown of cohesion. “Reorient to” is a way of saying that you understand such situations better than your opponents. “Rapidly” implies that given time, your opponents will figure these things out; don’t give them the time.

The “E” in EBFAS stands for Einheit, for which Boyd adopted the English “mutual trust.” It is fundamental, so organizational cultures that focus on building mutual trust are sometimes called “trust based.”  Of the other letters, perhaps the best known is “A” for another German word, Auftragstaktik, often translated as “mission command.”  It has become something of a sub-genre in management literature.**

Last month, I featured an article by Don Vandergriff on Auftragstaktik, where he described the origins of the concept and why high performing organizations use it.

Don has now followed up with a well-documented piece on how to train people for Auftragstaktik .  He describes an emerging methodology within the Army, Adaptive Leader Soldier Training and Education (ALSTE), and an implementation, the Army Reconnaissance Course, that have proven to develop leaders who can excel under the philosophy of mission command. These programs reflect initiatives Don has been working on for years and documented as far back as Raising the Bar (2006).

*I’ve done several posts on EBFAS — please use the search feature in the right column if you’re interested.

**For an in-depth look at Auftragstaktik, I can recommend Stephen Bungay’s The Art of Action and Don’s recent book on Mission Command.

Deep foundation for Auftragstaktik

Don Vandergriff has a nice piece at Small Wars Journal on how Auftragstaktik developed and why.  He makes what to me is an extremely important but generally overlooked point that mission orders, which is how most people explain the term, are not what defines Auftragstaktik but represent evidence that the underlying culture is alive and working.

As a culture, Auftragstaktik implies that those who can influence the organization — top leaders, board members, large shareholders, influential members of Congress, etc. — have given careful thought to and so evolved practices for selecting, training, retaining, and promoting people who embody the philosophy and separating those who do not.

If this happens, what we call “mission orders” (or something, perhaps, even better) will be the natural outcome.



Boyd’s personal papers, II

I’ve just posted the second part of the accession list for Boyd’s personal papers. You can find it under “John R. Boyd” on the Articles page (tab above).

I don’t have the first part. If any one does and would be so kind as to send me a PDF, I’d be happy to post it, too. In the meantime, the first part consists primarily of works on history and military topics.  Many of these, and virtually all of the ones he actually used, are included in the Sources section at the end of Patterns of Conflict.

Mobile Warfare for Africa

Before there was ISIS, before 9/11, and before Syria, Libya, Niger, etc., there was the Border War in Southern Africa (1966 – 1989).

Mobile Warfare For Africa

I’m very excited about this book. Unlike so many recent manuals on counterinsurgency warfare, this one was not written by the losers (to quote an observation by Martin van Creveld).  Drawing on their own experiences, tempered by the events of the intervening three decades, two of its participants have written a nearly 400 page examination of this conflict, which presaged many of our experiences in the Middle East. What we could have learned …

It is a weighty tome, though, so it will be a while before I can post a complete review.  In the meantime, from what I’ve seen skimming the volume and its accompanying atlas, and carefully reading the first three chapters, I can recommend it to readers of this blog. And there’s even an OODA loop.


Busy day in Savannah Harbor

As we were passing over the Talmadge Bridge from South Carolina this morning, Hapag-Lloyd’s Osaka Express was motoring serenely into port.

The ship has just passed by downtown, where a popular pastime is sitting in riverside cafes craning up at these beasts. The Osaka Express is not particularly gigantic for a modern container ship, but it is longer than three football fields.

Practitioner’s notebook, May 2018

Proponents of speed, such as “going through OODA loops faster,” can site some evidence from Boyd. Perhaps the chart that makes the strongest case is this one, from Strategic Game of ? and ? which Boyd began briefing in 1987:


Seems pretty clear: If you want to discombobulate your opponents, then just “operate at a faster tempo or rhythm.”

There are a couple of problems with this approach, though. First is that Boyd doesn’t say “Operate …”  He wrote “The ability to operate …”  At the risk of undue scholasticism, this is big deal. Boyd, like a poet, agonized over every word in these briefings. It wasn’t unusual for the phone to ring and it would be John, wanting to try out several new phrasings for some line you might dimly recall.

In other words, if he meant “Operating at a faster tempo or rhythm than an adversary enables …” that’s what he would have written. So, what’s the difference between “operating” and “the ability to operate”? How can an ability to do something, as contrasted with actually doing it, produce these effects?

Another point to ponder is what, exactly, does it mean to “operate at a faster tempo or rhythm” than an adversary?

Your answers are important. Your actions will flow from your orientation, and your answers will not only reveal something of your orientation, but grappling with these questions may also help shape it.

Boyd in South Africa?

As far as I know, Boyd never made it to South Africa, but a recent book describes how the ideas of maneuver warfare were used by its forces in their highly irregular “border war” (1966 – 1990).  I have not read the book, but here is a recommendation by a colleague who is familiar with some of its primary participants.

If any of you would like to write a review, please contact me.

Maneuver Warfare in Southern Africa
Book recommendation by Morgan Norval*

Speaking of maneuver war, I want to direct your attention to a recent book titled, Mobile Warfare For Africa: On The Successful Conduct Of Wars In Africa And Beyond–Lessons Learned From The South African Border War by Roland De Vries, Camille Burger and Willem Steenkamp. The book explores Lind’s 4th Generation War concept, Boyd’s OODA loop, and utilizing the indirect approach. In fact the book is basically a text on mobile/maneuver war based on its very successful use by the old South African Defense Force. The book also has over a dozen case studies on the subject. The book also comes with a separate atlas which provides maps, illustrations and photos–including three of mine–to help understand the concepts advocated by the book. Continue reading

Smart tactics

In the last post, I mentioned that the effort to change Marine Corps doctrine from attrition to maneuver took nearly 15 years before General Gray made it official in 1989.  An important component of this campaign was research into the history of warfare and publication of the results, particularly in the Marine Corps Gazette.

Here’s a good example, from some seven years before maneuver warfare was officially  adopted. It’s a letter to the editor of the Gazette by G. I. Wilson and one of his colleagues responding to a critique of articles on maneuver warfare:


LtCol Batchellor’s poignant uneasiness with maneuver warfare thinking (Apr82) may result from too casual a reading of the recent articles in the Marine Corps GAZETTE. Understanding the tenets of fluid/maneuver style of warfare requires careful, thoughtful reading and reflection.

Modern maneuver/fluid war took root at the small unit level with infiltration tactics developed in 1918 and conceptually has not changed since. It is applicable at every level from MAF to fire teams.

To understand maneuver warfare concepts, it is necessary to make the basic distinction between tactics and techniques. Techniques are those things that all armies must learn to do well in order to succeed, e.g., movement to contact, assault on a fortified position, and weapons proficiency. Tactics are the imaginative combination of those techniques allowing forces to move into unexpected places, at unexpected times, with unexpected speed, deception, and surprise. When a force continually strings techniques together in the same sequence, i.e., when it uses the same tactical doctrine, again and again, it becomes predictable and can be easily defeated. The “maneuverists” argue against tactical cookbook recipes because stereotype tactics lead to predictability and defeat. They do not reject battle drills that have proven successful, only the combining of such drills into dull, repetitious, and rote tactics. They do not advocate a policy of simply turning loose subordinate commanders on the battlefield. Such a command and control system, or rather the lack of it, would soon lead to total chaos and a possibility of defeat in detail.

Maximum flexibility and initiative can be given to subordinates by the senior commander clearly expressing his overall tactical intent, by tailoring mission-type orders to support that intent, and by designating a point of main effort for combat, combat service, and combat service support units. Through these command and control methods the senior commander can retain enough control to ensure a cohesive, coherent effort from his force.

Amphibious operations are not an end in themselves. They are merely a means of arriving on the battlefield. In order to be successful in any subsequent operations ashore, however, it is vital we possess a maneuver capability equal to or greater than our adversary. We do not fight decisive battles in the surf. This does not necessarily mean more mechanized vehicles (and all the attendant problems). Maneuver warfare advocates have never argued for increased mechanization as a means of increasing maneuverability. The maneuver they advocate is mobility in relationship to our enemy, and this is not something that is dependent upon mechanization or tied to machines.

The maneuver warfare advocates are attempting to institutionalize fighting smart. They believe that the Marine Corps’ potential adversaries will not give it time to rethink its tactical doctrine after the shooting starts. Marine officers owe it to themselves and their profession to discover as much as they can about the tenets of maneuver/fluid warfare before dismissing it as “good old flexibility and boldness.” It is so much more than that.


Fighting Smart

Col Mike Wyly*, USMC, ret., was one of the principle architects behind the Marine Corps’ doctrine of maneuver warfare. He and a group of advocates had written a number of articles in the Marine Corps Gazette and discussed and essentially sold the idea for a period of years between the end of the Vietnam War and the publication of the doctrine in FMFM-1, Warfighting, in 1989.

He recently recounted that one worry they all had was that once published and made official doctrine, it would stop evolving:

I alluded to it briefly in a response to a Gazette piece that was published, how I was in General Gray’s [Commandant of the Marine Corps] office along with John Boyd – just the three of us. General Gray had only days before signed FMFM-1. Boyd congratulated him but then got real serious and talked about how important it would be to keep the thinking – the “fighting smart” – alive and relevant. Were we ever to sit back and say “We did it”, we would lose it, Boyd warned. It would be our challenge to keep our minds open, too, in order that we stay relevant to the changing times.

The need to do so was always Boyd’s response when people asked him why he didn’t publish – even a book. Boyd worried that were he to ever do so, people would say “There it is! The answers are in the book!”, and stop thinking and lose relevance in the changing times.

Continue reading