“No plan survives first contact with the enemy.”
This sentiment has been attributed to Prussian Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke and is widely accepted as revealed truth by every military officer that I know. Anyone looking at U.S. military engagements in the past decade can’t help but acknowledge the wisdom of Moltke’s conclusion. It is worth noting, however, that the regimented and highly structured world of Moltke’s pre-World War I military experience was a very different place from the modern threat environment. And this reality shaped how Moltke internalized his axiom.
Basically, Moltke’s key take-away was that one of the main jobs of the military leader (and his staff) was to conduct extensive analyses of possible outcomes in the development of a comprehensive system of contingency plans that would create “options” on the battlefield as the action unfolded. Put another way, Moltke’s solution: if no plan survives first contact, have more plans in your back pocket.
Contingency planning in industrial age warfare was tough. Contingency planning in information ago warfare is obscenely difficult. Of course, this doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done. But it should be approached as more of a facilitation exercise that provides a framework for rapid decision-making as operational realities evolve than a prescriptive set of if-then scenarios.
Winning today’s conflicts is not about who has the better plan. It’s about who can learn (and by extension evolve) the quickest. The fitness function in modern warfare is not about speed and mass. It’s about adaptation. And if there’s one thing that the Pentagon hates it’s unconstrained adaptation, that is, adaptation that cannot be regulated, monitored, and controlled (i.e. planned). Such disruptive adaptation is what I call the Devil Vector. In biology, we refer to the same concept as mutation – the basis for natural selection. Mutation implies a constant dialogue between species and their external environments. Many mutations are biological dead ends. Others supply a competitive advantage that ensures a species’ competitive viability. The thing is – neither outcome can necessarily be predicted ahead of time. A priori reasoning (i.e. planning) doesn’t apply to the unprecedented.
Newton’s third law: to every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction. Newton seemed to have it right relative to the physical universe, but he’s way off the mark in socio-political universe of modern warfare. It seems to me that in the Pentagon to every action there is always an equal and opposite over reaction. “If ten Reaper orbits are good, fifty orbits must be better,” the logic goes. And for every threat variation innovated with $50 in parts ordered from the internet, you can expect a $10 million response (at the bare minimum) from our military industrial complex. Needless to say, the economics of this dynamic do not work in our favor… In today’s utterly complex military environments, this is what even the most sophisticated contingency planning gets you: more of the same, while the unknowable is hanging around out there ready to bite you in the ass.
The only way that DoD can change this state of affairs is to throw its self-imposed rule book out the window and embrace the Devil Vector. Make it a priority to institutionalize what the guys on the ground do every day: improvise. Do it carefully and methodically. Make small bets to limit risk. And – most importantly – do it in a way that enables the entire organization to benefit and learn from the winners and the losers.
Embrace change and feedback and the risk of failure, recognizing that these are the main ingredients of competitiveness in a world too complex to reduce to plans. Empower local decision makers with the tools to access and interpret the opportunities and challenges manifested by their immediate environments. And take the well considered opinions of technocrats and planners and programmers for what they are – a view from the cheap seats.