Monday, April 29, 2013

How militaries learn and adapt: An interview with Major General H. R. McMaster


I think this statement from MG McMaster should be read by every senior leader and every student in a professional military education course:

H. R. McMaster: I think the study of military history has been the most important preparation for every position I’ve had in the last 12 years or so. It’s important to study and understand your responsibilities within any profession, but it’s particularly important for military officers to read, think, discuss, and write about the problem of war and warfare so they can understand not just the changes in the character of warfare but also the continuities. That type of understanding is what helps you adapt. 
I think the American tendency—and I’m sure this is often the case in business as well—is to emphasize change over continuity. We’re so enamored of technological advancements that we fail to think about how to best apply those technologies to what we’re trying to achieve. This can mask some very important continuities in the nature of war and their implications for our responsibilities as officers. 
The study of military history helps identify not only these continuities but also their application to the current and future problems of war and warfare. This type of study helps us make a grounded projection into the future based on an understanding of the past. It helps us reason by historical analogy while also understanding the complexity and uniqueness of historical events and circumstances. This is what Carl von Clausewitz believed: that military theory will serve its purpose when it allows us to take what seems fused and break it down into its constituent elements. 
As one of my favorite military historians, Sir Michael Howard, suggested, you have to study history to get its analytic power in width, in depth, and in context: in width, to see change over time; in depth, by looking at specific campaigns and battles to understand the complex causality of events that created them; and then in the context of politics, policy, and diplomacy. Studying history is invaluable in preparing our officers for their future responsibilities.
V/R
Dave 



When Maj. Gen. H.R. McMaster offers a criticism of the Army's counterinsurgency doctrine, you know he's not just riding intellectual fashion. This is a guy who has done well both in conventional warfare (see 73 Easting) and counterinsurgency (see Tell Afar).

In a new publication by McKinsey and Company called McKinsey on Defense, McMaster tells Andrew Erdmann  that "our doctrine is still catching up" with how we need to fight. He explains:
We have the counterinsurgency manual, the stability operations manual, and the security-force assistance manual, but I don't think we have put the politics at the center of those manuals. So, for example, we assume in our doctrine that the challenges associated with developing indigenous security forces are mainly about building capacity, when, in fact, they're about trying to develop institutions that can survive and that will operate in a way that is at least congruent with our interests.

McMaster also says that, "We need leaders who have physical and moral courage on the battlefield, of course, but also the courage to speak their minds and offer respectful and candid feedback to their superiors. Our leaders can't feel compelled to tell their bosses what they want to hear."


Interview
How militaries learn and adapt: An interview with Major General H. R. McMaster
An experienced combat commander and leading expert on training and doctrine assesses recent military history and its implications for the future.

April 2013 | byAndrew Erdmann

Major General Herbert Raymond (H. R.) McMaster is the commander of the US Army Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Georgia. A facility for military training, doctrine, and leadership development, the center works with forces that specialize in defeating enemies through a combination of fire, maneuver, and combat and then conducting security operations to consolidate those gains. In a December 2012 interview with McKinsey’s Andrew Erdmann, General McMaster talks about how the US Army has evolved, how war itself has—or hasn’t—changed, what we have learned from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and what the Army must do to prepare the next generation of leaders and soldiers for warfare in the future.

Sidebar

Biography of Major General H. R. McMaster

McKinsey on Government: Your experience in combat has ranged from the last great tank battle of the 20th century—the Battle of 73 Easting in February 1991—to counterinsurgency in Tal Afar, Iraq, to fighting corruption in Afghanistan with Combined Joint Interagency Task Force Shafafiyat from 2010 to 2012. Looking back on nearly 30 years in the military, what has changed, and how have you adapted?

H. R. McMaster: I think the biggest surprise has been the broadening of the range of conflicts we’ve found ourselves in since I first entered the Army in the 1980s. Obviously, there was a lot of instability during the Cold War, but there was also a certain degree of predictability. The primary mission of our armed forces at that time was to deter aggression by the Soviet Union and its allies. Today, that’s no longer the case. We now need a much wider range of capabilities, including the ability to operate in complex conflicts that require the close integration of military, political, and economic-development efforts.

One great feature of the Army is that it gives us the opportunity not only to have very intense formative experiences but also, consistent with the adult-learning model, to reflect on those experiences and prepare for the next level of responsibility. This type of learning is what helps us gain the breadth and depth of knowledge that allows us to adapt to unforeseen challenges and circumstances.

McKinsey on Government: You are a scholar of military history. How has your study of military history influenced your career?

H. R. McMaster: I think the study of military history has been the most important preparation for every position I’ve had in the last 12 years or so. It’s important to study and understand your responsibilities within any profession, but it’s particularly important for military officers to read, think, discuss, and write about the problem of war and warfare so they can understand not just the changes in the character of warfare but also the continuities. That type of understanding is what helps you adapt.

I think the American tendency—and I’m sure this is often the case in business as well—is to emphasize change over continuity. We’re so enamored of technological advancements that we fail to think about how to best apply those technologies to what we’re trying to achieve. This can mask some very important continuities in the nature of war and their implications for our responsibilities as officers.
The study of military history helps identify not only these continuities but also their application to the current and future problems of war and warfare. This type of study helps us make a grounded projection into the future based on an understanding of the past. It helps us reason by historical analogy while also understanding the complexity and uniqueness of historical events and circumstances. This is what Carl von Clausewitz believed: that military theory will serve its purpose when it allows us to take what seems fused and break it down into its constituent elements.

As one of my favorite military historians, Sir Michael Howard, suggested, you have to study history to get its analytic power in width, in depth, and in context: in width, to see change over time; in depth, by looking at specific campaigns and battles to understand the complex causality of events that created them; and then in the context of politics, policy, and diplomacy. Studying history is invaluable in preparing our officers for their future responsibilities.

McKinsey on Government: You mentioned the continuities of war. What are some examples of things that remain unchanged?

H. R. McMaster: First, war is still an extension of politics and policy. I think we saw that both in Iraq and Afghanistan; we initially failed to think through a sustainable political outcome that would be consistent with our vital interests, and it complicated both of those wars.

Second, war is an inherently human endeavor. In the 1990s, everyone was quoting Moore’s law and thought it would revolutionize war. We saw this in some of the language associated with the “revolution in military affairs” and “defense transformation.” We assumed that advances in information, surveillance technology, technical-intelligence collection, automated decision-making tools, and so on were going to make war fast, cheap, efficient, and relatively risk free—that technology would lift the fog of war and make warfare essentially a targeting exercise, in which we gain visibility on enemy organizations and strike those organizations from a safe distance. But that’s not true, of course.

This links closely to another continuity of war—war is not linear, and chance plays a large role.
One other continuity is that war is a contest of wills between determined enemies. We often operate effectively on the physical battleground but not on the psychological battleground. We fail to communicate our resolve. I think, for example, the reason the Taliban regime collapsed in 2001 is largely because every Afghan was convinced it was inevitable. But much of what we have done since then—at least, as perceived by Afghans—raises doubts about our long-term intentions. This is not a criticism of policy. Rather, it highlights the need for us to be cognizant that war is a contest of wills.
Finally, we often start by determining the resources we want to commit or what is palatable from a political standpoint. We confuse activity with progress, and that’s always dangerous, especially in war. In reality, we should first define the objective, compare it with the current state, and then work backward: what is the nature of this conflict? What are the obstacles to progress, and how do we overcome them? What are the opportunities, and how do we exploit them? What resources do we need to accomplish our goals? The confusion of activity with progress is one final continuity in the nature of warfare that we must always remember.
(Continued at the link below)

1 comment:

  1. As a former jarhead, I can empathize with the OP's opening Gen. McMaster quote. "Do more with less," "if it aint broke...," and the KISS acronym immediately spring to mind.

    The problem though is structural, stems from institutional incentives, and consequently is not likely to be solved. For instance, fitness reports and promotion boards place a premium on things like innovation and affecting positive lasting changes. That's the bar to which career military officers all aspire. Unfortunately, a lot of those changes are change for the sake of change, often at the expense of sound, time-tested fundamentals. Moreover, the skill and professionalism of today's enlisted personnel often ensures some modicum of success to these command directives, so these careerist "entrepreneurs" face little to no accountability for their command decisions.

    External institutional pressures are perhaps even stronger because they are rooted in our national economy. Liberal arguments fling around Eisenhower's notion about the military-industrial complex-- and not without reason. The defense sector is a multi-billion dollar industry, provides thousands of jobs, and allows career officers to stake their claim to innovation and disruptive change by backing the latest tech fads. If/when these defense projects fail, again, the officers and decision-makers responsible for their inception and management face little to no accountability.

    Moreover, "continuity" is a dangerous thing to preach for institutions often condemned for organizational inertia. It would likely be interpreted by many as a license-to-status quo.

    So until some of these incentive structures change, this bit of McMaster's wisdom will be words in the wind.

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