Best Defense

Essay contest (2): Say farewell to linearity and brace yourself for the dispersed mass

“Dispersion” is coming.


By John McRae
Best Defense essay contest entrant

“Dispersion” is coming.

In the well-circulated RAND piece about the rise of “swarm warfare” as the next stage in the “melee, massing, maneuver, and swarming” evolution, dispersed multilateral attacks are shown to impose significant challenges on the monolithic and slow to adapt adversary. The U.S. military doesn’t have to assume the role of the monolith if it can learn to defend against as well as employ the benefits of dispersion: lethality, flexibility, speed, and disruption among them. In order to move beyond the buzzword, the U.S. military must radically reset for the dispersed environment.

First, this will require a reconceptualization of the linear battlefield that has long served as the default planning template. This model is already outdated, and badly so. Think of the Greek phalanx as one extreme of the collection-dispersion continuum. As we evolve into the dispersion age, the swarmlike neo-phalanx will again press forward at the decisive moment with extreme audacity, although now it will emerge not along a continuous front, but from many sides: the air, sea, or cyberspace; even in the form of a laser-wielding cloud of semi-autonomous mini drones. On land, the U.S. Army will employ dispersed networks of opportunistic soldiers with high degrees of autonomy, emerging out of the shadows for a crippling blow, and then receding back before a counterattack can come together. Collectively, the joint force will present a confounding front for the adversary.

The reason that dispersed power proves so alluringly hard to defend is quite simple — the interference that a dispersed enemy imposes on the second “O” of John Boyd’s famous OODA loop: Orientation. A swarmed adversary quickly loses its ability to focus its attention and never regains the full use of its firepower. In effect, the dispersion of offensive combat power introduces many of the same challenges that characterize the counterinsurgency fight, wherein the conventional power must “be strong everywhere” to counter an opportunistic foe.

Should any doubt exist as to the rapidity with which this future is evolving, a survey of the contemporary operating environment confirms it is in fact already upon us. Recent incidents utilizing dispersed attacks are not hard to find, and include 69 separate assaults in the fourth quarter of 2015 on countries around the globe via Botnet attacks, a system of “zombifying” legions of unconnected computers to conduct simultaneous cyber-attacks. At sea, the world observed the much publicized Iranian training exercise in which a large swarm of independently operating speedboats attacked a proxy U.S. aircraft carrier.

In order to defend against dispersed approaches, and also to employ them, we must set about instilling the necessary tools. This will require radical alternations to our doctrinal, educational, materiel, and organizational structures. Although challenging for a perennially stovepiped military, with the proper leader education and training, U.S. leaders will too be able generate their own novel means of exploiting and combating dispersion.

Seeking to project power into a disputed maritime environment? We need leaders with the right control systems to project power by rapidly converging on the patrolling force along multiple axes of advance both above and below, never presenting a viable target to the enemy before swiftly disbanding. Want to elicit a peaceful political turnover of power in a Panama-like environment? The joint force must train to conduct a simultaneous assault in depth in both the cyber and physical spheres on the instruments of power keeping their ruler in power. Finances? Ideology? Missile defenses? Alliances? All are potentially susceptible to manipulation like never before if we are sufficiently prepared.

To be clear, Clausewitz’s concepts have not suddenly been rendered irrelevant. In the 21st century, mass will once again rule, though displaying the same characteristics packaged in a new form. Although some have mistaken the dispersed offense as a “new” form of warfare, it is merely a morphing of the approaches from which the Vietcong and Hezbollah have benefitted, along many others. Although it might seem as it these sorts of attacks are in contrast to the more traditionally accepted Clausewitzian wisdom of massing one’s power at the point of attack, the swarm merely replicates and exacerbates the overwhelming stress imposed on this pressure point. For the U.S. military, capitalizing on the benefits of the age of dispersion will first require contemplation on all facets of our operating model.

John McRae, an Army officer, is a founding member of the Military Writers Guild and blogs on economics and defense at The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Photo credit: JOHN HOLMES/Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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