Shaping and Adapting

While leading his company in Afghanistan, Marine Major Paul Tremblay was ordered to clear a much larger Taliban force that was defending an area of rugged terrain. Ordinarily, such terrain would favor the defense, not to mention the numbers problem.  Major Tremblay, however, fashioned a plan of attack based on the notion of “operating inside the OODA loop,” where relative numbers are much less relevant.

Chuck Spinney picks up the story:

Major Tremblay did not know Colonel Boyd but has been aware of his briefings since he was a 2nd Lieutenant at the Marine Corps Basic School. He is the only officer I know who has studied and applied Colonel Boyd’s ideas in a premeditated way in designing and leading a combat operation. His reinforced company level attack on the Taliban was a stunning success and based on radio intercepts, it became clear he penetrated his adversary’s OODA loops and collapsed the opposing units into confusion and disorder, exactly as Boyd predicted.  His thesis does not discuss this operation.

I’ve uploaded Major Tremblay’s recently completed master’s thesis (517 KB PDF). It’s a brilliant piece of work. Quoting Chuck, again:

P.J. Tremblay’s thesis aims to clarify what is perhaps the single most misunderstood aspect of Boyd’s theory of interacting OODA loops: the confusion of absolute speed with relative quickness, particularly as it applies to agility in Orientation and Re-Orientation. Tremblay’s aim is to improve the Marine Corps training curriculum by clarifying Boyd’s ideas and laying out a way to better incorporate them in progressively more comprehensive ways at each level in the Marine Corps’ educational system, from the lowest to the highest level.

PJ’s thesis is a case study in the kind of intellectual development and stimulation that John Boyd was trying to achieve by leaving the Marine Corps Research Center with the complete archive of his briefings and note. Boyd, an honorary Marine, would say, “Semper Fi, PJ.”

Chuck has posted the complete introduction to Maj. Tremblay’s thesis on his blog.

Centers of gravity — Do they still matter?

Decisively defeating al-Qa‘ida will involve neutralizing its CoG, but this will require the use of diplomatic and informational initiatives more than military action.  LTC Antulio J. Echevarria II, USA (ret.)1/

This most perceptive statement, written before our invasion of Iraq, raises the issue of whether the center of gravity concept offers anything for the types of conflicts we find ourselves engaged in today.

At least twice in the last week or so, I’ve seen “centers of gravity” in articles about US defense policy:

Zen Pundit on American Spartan

Mark Safranski has posted his review of American Spartan, Ann Scott Tyson’s story of US Army Special Forces Major Jim Gant in Afghanistan. Read it.

Here’s my review of Mark’s review.

As Mark notes, the strategy of supporting local insurgents goes way back, and it can be highly successful — the United States wouldn’t be here if the French hadn’t taken this approach. But it’s also true, as he notes, that if you create a monster to fight a monster, you have, in fact, created a monster. You’d think we might have learned this from our first Afghan adventure. So I certainly agree with Mark when he says that “It should only be done with eyes wide open as to the potential drawbacks (numerous) and it won’t always work but the militia option works often enough historically that it should be carefully considered,” but “eyes wide open” is easier after the fact. Even a mechanical system of three or more parts can become complex and therefore unpredictable. So we have, at the very least, the US forces, the various tribes and militias, and the government. You see where I’m going with this, and that’s before we consider that the players are hardly mechanical parts whose behavior can be predicted over any length of time. Continue reading

Tom Barnett endorses Romney

Unexpected, to say the least, because Tom usually describes himself as a Democrat. His reasoning is interesting:

The sad truth about a second Obama presidency

Tom is quite familiar with Boyd’s work, and I admit to being a big fan of what he’s trying to achieve. Where we differ is on method: He still supports large armies, talks about power projection, solves the problem of terrorism by “killing bad guys,” and thinks that economics is driven by how many sub-minimum wage workers you have.

On the other hand, he considers our level of strategic thinking as “pathetic.” Here’s a briefing that he gave last year.  Pay close attention to his strategy for dealing with Afghanistan and South Asia. You may not agree with it, but it is refreshingly out of the box.

All in all, we have much more in common than any points of disagreement, and I consider him as one of our best geopolitical strategists. I think that after watching this, you’ll understand why he isn’t a senior figure in the administration, the more the loss for the rest of us.



Count me in Tim Heffernan’s camp

With many thanks for the kind mention in his Politics Blog at, dated September 2, 2010:

Drones Do Not Win Wars

… Drones are just one of our tools. You can argue their practical merits and the morality of their use. But it is naked idiocy to trust them alone to “turn the tide” or “put the enemy on the run” or “bring our boys home” or justify any other jolly stock phrase. Count me in Chet Richards’s camp, instead: the power of drones is as likely to induce hubris in ourselves as acquiescence in terrorists. Regarding which, I’m reminded of an unjolly stock phrase that actually rings true: pride goeth before a fall.

Unfortunately, the link to my piece got gomered up in Tim’s original blog; the link above should work.

For want of a nail …

According to a story on, the radar observatory at Arecibo may have to cancel its mission to observe the asteroid Apophis.

Times are tough, I hear you say. And indeed they are.

But there’s significance here, over and above interesting data on a 300 meter wide rock, with a mass of 27 million tons, hurtling through space. The first is that Apophis stands a small chance of striking the earth. How small? Well, that’s what the mission is, or perhaps “was,” supposed to determine. And Arecibo, in Puerto Rico, is the only telescope that can make that determination.

What if Apophis does hit the earth? It’s only 300 m wide, after all. We can already calculate that it will come within 18,300 miles of us in 2036, but an uncertainty of only a few hundred meters could, given the complexities of gravitational mechanics, solar winds, and unknown objects in space, mean the difference between hitting or missing. That’s what Arecibo could determine when the asteroid makes a flyby in January 2013.

What if it hit? The object that caused the Tunguska event in 1908 has been estimated at a few tens of meters across. The resulting blast over Siberia was roughly equivalent to a decent sized nuke (10-15 megatons). An asteroid like Apophis would likely produce a much larger effect. It would obliterate any city it landed near and could cause tsunamis if it struck in the ocean.

Low probability stuff, no doubt, but possible. What would it cost to have Arecibo find out? Brace yourself: $2-3 million. That’s “million” with an “m,” roughly what we spend in 20 minutes in Iraq alone. Unfortunately, the National Science Foundation doesn’t have the money for the mission. In fact, it’s cutting Arecibo’s overall budget by about 25%, which leaves just enough to keep the observatory running.

Point is that actions have consequences, and this small incident shows how we are beginning to feel the consequences of spending $3-5 trillion (Bilmes-Stiglitz estimate) on eradicating non-existent WMDs in Iraq and hounding rag-tag Taliban light infantry in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan. May be worth doing, but as the late Milton Friedman loved to point out, there’s no free lunch. Actions have consequences, and costs.