Military reform, now and then: Boyd and the ACW

The giant of military theory in our time was and is the late Air Force Col. John R. Boyd.

Boyd's revolutionary analysis of strategic and operational art are the basis of a large part of the reform movement active today (and which we'll look at in the next posts on this topic).

In his historical survey within "Patterns of Conflict," the Civil War gets little mention: it seems to be a way station between Napoleonic practice and the new style of war conceived by Erich Ludendorff (born 1865) at the end of WWI. The ACW experience is a mix of first and second generation warfare in Boyd's system, Ludendorff inaugurating the third. Some of his students summarize:

First generation warfare reflects tactics of the era of the smoothbore musket, the tactics of line and column. These tactics were developed partially in response to technological factors — the line maximized firepower, rigid drill was necessary to generate a high rate of fire, etc.— and partially in response to social conditions and ideas, e.g., the columns of the French revolutionary armies reflected both the √©lan of the revolution and the low training levels of conscripted troops…

Second generation warfare was a response to the rifled musket, breechloaders, barbed wire, the machinegun, and indirect fire. Tactics were based on fire and movement, and they remained essentially linear. The defense still attempted to prevent all penetrations, and in the attack a laterally dispersed line advanced by rushes in small groups. Perhaps the principal change from first generation tactics was heavy reliance on indirect fire; second generation tactics were summed up in the French maxim, "the artillery conquers, the infantry occupies." Massed firepower replaced massed manpower. Second generation tactics remained the basis of U.S. doctrine until the 1980s, and they are still practiced by most American units in the field.

In other words, most American units in the field do not yet practice Luddendorff or Hutier levels of art achieved in 1918. Applying this logic, the U.S. Army is operating in a continuum with the American Civil War. Can that be a good thing?

Consider this list describing second generation warfare. Compare it with recent history and ACW combat:

* Centralized control and the issuance of detailed orders.

* Limited ability to delegate authority without getting bad results.

* Heavy reliance on firepower, applying force on the enemy's strongest points.

* Heavy reliance on infantry occupying positions won by firepower.

* Avoidance of complex maneuver and other potentially chaotic activities.

* Attrition models.

* Emphasis on battles, especially won battles.

* Use of technology to generate more firepower and improved infantry safety.

* Use of technology to improve command and control centralization (decisionmaking, order giving).

This is my own list, based on reading Boyd, and it is not a list any ACW reader will find strange or unsettling. The response might be, "Well, these are eternal principles. What changes are technologies and the practices that apply them."

Boyd's disciples say no: that when you apply technology with a second generation mindset (I would say, ACW mindset), you merely solve second generation problems.

Boyd's third generation of warfare, crudely summarized from "Patterns of Conflict", involves a few senior officers with small staffs directing numbers of subordinate commands, each working at its own tempo on its own self-directed missions, for a harmonized outcome.

An example is one of the German Army's WWI rolling, non-linear breakthrough attacks against soft points in enemy lines, with large-scale infiltration in depth and minimum molestation of strongpoints. In WWII, the Germans mechanized Ludendorff and Hutier tacticts.

Boyd once asked the German General Gunther Blumentritt how he could harmonize outcomes from many units based only on implicit orders, very little direction, and little communication during battle. Blumentritt pointed to likemindedness produced by collegiality, similar training, a common conceptual vocabulary, and personal knowledge and trust.

Some authors – not Boyd - have seen this interaction working between Lee and his early war lieutenants, and then again fail between Lee and his late war lieutenants. (Below the level of Lee's lieutenants, Boyd's model kicks in with a vengenace, where we see wing commanders directing individual brigades about.)

Boyd also asked Blumentritt how computers might have helped the German Army in WWII. Blumentritt answered that they would have been a major hindrance to success.

I was reminded of this when one of Boyd's students recently wrote that the Army plans to put little video cameras on the helmets of individual combat soldiers so that generals and colonels can have a better feel of the battlefield and more usefully direct individual soldiers in their single tasks. (Here's one instance of that application.)

You might say that this represents a level of control Civil War era leaders could only dream of; but a third generation leader would answer, "That is exactly the problem."

More Boyd, Boyd students and Civil War tomorrow.