war on the rocks

America’s Victory Disease Has Left it Dangerously Deluded

November 18, 2015

VICTORY DISEASE. The affliction that is caught by most armies and nations after they have won a war. The disease is characterized by arrogance, a tendency to believe myths as to the underlying reasons for the victory, and a firm conviction that future conflicts should be fought the same way.

— James Dunnigan and Raymond Macedonia in Getting it Right

If there is anything worse than an acute case of Victory Disease derived by winning a war, it should be Victory Disease caught after losing one — or perhaps two. Yet this affliction permeates American defense thinking and is in danger of crippling our preparation for war by channeling defense spending, innovation, and concept development along unproductive paths. Indeed, if belief in American exceptionalism can be expanded into the realm of military conflict, then future U.S. military operations are on firm ground. The current crop of defense concepts leans heavily on “aspirational” capabilities that often minimize the nature of military challenges in warfare and effectively wish away the unpredictability inherent to combat operations. The future operating concepts of the Army, Air Force, and Navy all describe capabilities that we “must” or “will” have in order to achieve dominance over an enemy force. The adversary (if it exists at all) is never mentioned, but can be inferred from the writing — technologically inferior, insufficiently agile, culturally disadvantaged, and mentally deficient. This uniquely American version of the Victory Disease postures an entire defense establishment for beating up on the little guy.

The problem with this approach is that while there are plenty of little guys around, none really poses a major security threat to the United States. Even virulent neo-barbarian movements like the self-proclaimed Islamic State, the Taliban, or the Lord’s Resistance Army can only nibble around the edges of vital U.S. interests. As far as the nation is concerned, their bark is worse than their bite — and their bark is made artificially outsized by an effective propaganda machine and a sensationalizing global journalistic enterprise. On the other hand, major defense challenges that could actually threaten the international status quo are smaller in number (Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran), but large in the operational challenges they pose. These are the potential or actual adversaries that drive our defense hardware purchases, and they are also the adversaries that should shape our defense concepts. These are the actors that have the potential to hand us a battlefield defeat on day one. They are not broadly technologically inferior or mentally deficient, and their cultural differences often prove more vexing to us than crippling to their own forces. And having been forced to live in the shadow of U.S. military superiority for decades, they’re hungry.

No defense establishment should expect to have magical capabilities in place that relieve it of uncertainty, fog, and friction or render it immune to the effects of enemy action. The uniquely American way of war has little to do with technology and a great deal to do with mass and logistics. But more than anything else, it has been based upon the individual capabilities of American personnel: their resilience, persistence, and flexibility. What we should aspire to is a defense enterprise that prepares our personnel to succeed in an environment in which they are critically disadvantaged — outnumbered, outmaneuvered, cut off from support, and without an effective command and control system. Our concepts should be oriented towards capitalizing on the cultural strengths of our personnel rather than our presumed advantage in technology. These concepts should focus on training our people to thrive in an uncertain environment: to execute on woefully incomplete information, operate independently, and exercise initiative when disconnected from communications. Warfare is an art, not a science, and we would be best served by reliance on artists over technologists. Our aspirational fantasies are not a ticket to advantage, but rather exactly the opposite — we are aspiring to lose.

Arrogance: The False Narrative

No good decision was ever made in a swivel chair.

— Gen. George S. Patton

The prevailing symptom of our current affliction is an arrogance that manifests itself in the expectation that we will not only be able to resist attacks by the enemy, but that we will have banished fog and friction from the battlefield. According to our own defense documents, our forces will have the benefits of “information dominance,” “operational agility,” “superior decision speed,” and the hip-pocket ability to employ an “integrated, seamless kill chain.” Enabling this will be “assured command and control, which provides commanders the ability to maintain robust, resilient, and agile networks for the command and control of forces in contested environments.” The Air Force Future Operating Concept and A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower explain that air and naval forces will enjoy unassailable advantages that will provide the Joint Force a guaranteed path to victory. By contrast, the Army’s future operating concept Win in a Complex World, is more circumspect in asserting that Army forces will have decisive technological advantage, but nevertheless retains an inbuilt expectation of mobility, simultaneity, and “situational understanding through action.” Win in a Complex World reserves its wild fantasies for a much broader aspiration: “Army forces are prepared to do more than fight and defeat enemies; they must possess the capability to translate military objectives into enduring political outcomes.”

Given such inbuilt advantages, defeating even a complex, adaptive enemy like China will be relatively simple as long as we invest in the overwhelming technological superiority required to achieve these goals. After all, we have the “right to win.” The logic behind this kind of aspirational writing within the Department of Defense is simple — Americans are simply better than anybody else. Better at technology development, better at adapting to conditions, better at making things, and certainly better at fighting. If we just properly utilize our overwhelming technological advantage, then military actions are easily controllable and the results of military actions are easily predictable. If this assertion doesn’t sound correct to you, then you’re not a technologist or a concept writer. You might be a student of history, a strategist, a planner, or a veteran with actual combat experience, but you’re not a technologist. And you’re in the peanut gallery.

Myths: Decision Superiority

Many intelligence reports in war are contradictory; even more are false, and most are uncertain.

— Carl von Clausewitz

Meanwhile, we have built ourselves an information superiority myth, and spawned its evil twin, decision superiority. After all, information dominance will allow “unmatched knowledge of the battlespace.” It was an unfortunate outcome of the Cold War that when the unwieldy and inflexible political, economic, and military construct that was the Soviet Union folded, we immediately adopted the command and control practices of our vanquished enemy. Instead of the core airpower tenet of “centralized command, decentralized execution,” we devolved to a centralized control model. Under conditions in which sortie rates are low and uncontested satellite communications enable the illusion of control, air operations centers often cede tactical decisions to distant senior commanders. The proliferation of full-motion video from drones in uncontested airspace (“Predator porn”) provides information in seemingly vast quantities to command echelons that never before had access to that level of detail.

This has bred an entire generation of commanders who believe that having complete information was always just a sortie away. The difference between the information needed to execute a tactical action, such as a Hellfire shot, and the information needed to execute at the operational level — which is what an air operations center ought to be focused on — was lost in the glow of the video screen. Sure, we had information superiority over fielded Iraqi forces in Desert Storm, whose command and control architecture could be described as a rutted, single-lane dirt road leading to the cabin of a known serial killer. But we in no way established information superiority in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, or elsewhere. In other words, for the past decade or two we could not effectively establish information superiority in environments wherein our control of the air, strategic mobility, access to space, communications and ISR were uncontested. Why then would we expect to have it under adverse conditions?

The Army future operating concept at least realizes that information alone is not necessarily an advantage:

Because of limitations associated with human cognition and because much of the information obtained in war is contradictory or false, more information will not equate to better understanding.

It’s not clear that military experience backed by actual historical data will lead to “information superiority” and its offspring being eradicated from the vernacular. Instead, the Air Force future operating concept has latched onto something called “Superior Decision Speed” as its new variation of cognitive advantage. It promises:

Human-machine interfaces will be engineered to deliver the right information and level of detail to the right person at the right time to make the right decision. This construct will balance speed with accuracy to deliver the ability to make risk-appropriate actionable decisions. Together, these elements will increase the speed and quality of decision-making to allow superior responsiveness.

This construct postulates a truly amazing web of human and machine interactions enabled by an intact communications network. It throws a bone to effects generated by fog and friction, but then goes on to ignore them entirely even while discounting the fact that the enemy will be affecting the process. It is bitterly ironic that a service that still believes in inflicting strategic paralysis on an enemy should so readily champion a concept that sets its own decision-making processes up for catastrophic failure when the promised information flows are disrupted, distorted, and deceived.

The Air Force construct sets up the logical question: superior to what? Superior to an adversary, presumably — a symmetrical adversary who lacks the same tech-enabled capabilities. This blithely ignores the reality of any wartime operation, since the decision requirements of opposing sides are never symmetrical. Combat is not a game of chess, in which both sides start with identical pieces, identical objectives, and symmetrical opposing positions. An adversary executing a preplanned operation has no decision speed to be superior to, as the decisions were made in advance. A commander who likewise has a simple, limited set of options in her plan can make decisions very quickly based on her understanding of the conditions, whereas a commander with more complex plans might find rapid decision-making more difficult. The objectives of the enemy are likely to be unknown, his dispositions uncertain, and his condition unclear. At the tactical level, decisions must be often made in seconds, while operational decisions that take hours may or may not come too late. It is possible to postulate a decision speed that is both very rapid and yet still inferior to an adversary who holds the initiative and can execute a well-planned operation.

One of the benefits of realistic training is to provide personnel with the conditions driving tactical and operational decisions in a relatively benign environment, so that if similar conditions arrive in combat, the challenge is not entirely new. The issue is not the technological ability to gather information; it is the trained response of individuals who have had the benefit of complex, realistic training. The actual decision speed is irrelevant so long as the decisions enable successful completion of the mission. Decision-making is not a race, and decisions do not necessarily need to be fast. They only need to be fast enough. We can go one of two ways: We can expect our people to execute rapidly, if uncomfortably, based on incomplete information, or we can train them to be dependent on a system that promises to deliver them all of the information they could ever want to make a comfortable decision. Which scenario will our forces most likely encounter?

The Next War

The first aspect of the Third Offset Strategy is to win a guided munitions salvo competition.

— Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work

The next war in which the United States is involved (keeping in mind that we are still embroiled in two) will be predictable only if we predict that we’re going to be surprised. That is not a common entry condition in our current defense planning environment. Normally, we presume that we have enough strategic and tactical warning to avoid an initial defeat. That presumption has never been a good one; since the Spanish–American War in 1898, we have been especially poor at predicting when and where we would be required to use military force. The most obvious example remains Pearl Harbor, where the Pacific fleet lost five of its eight operational battleships in a span of 90 minutes, with the remaining three damaged. Three days later, when British battleships HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales went down to air attack off the coast of Malaya, there was not a single combat-ready U.S. or allied capital ship in either the Indian or Pacific Oceans. Seven months after this unambiguous defeat, Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown hosted the strike force that defeated the Japanese First Air Fleet at Midway with nary a U.S. battleship in sight.

We had better expect that our adversaries will not initiate a conflict on U.S. terms. The American path to victory has been assiduously studied by potential adversaries, who have not only the advantage but also the necessity of knowing who they plan to fight. All of our potential adversaries are in close proximity to nations with either formal defense treaties or long-standing defense relationships with the United States, making an American response inevitable and therefore predictable. The Gulf War, which we often view as occurring at a time of our choosing, was in reality born in the confusion and surprise surrounding the unexpected occupation of a friendly country and the imminent threat of further incursions to follow. The reason that the next war will not look like the last successful one is that the enemy has a vested interest in making sure that it doesn’t. Not only does the enemy get a vote, but an adversary with the initiative gets a veto.

The Cure

Our armament must be adequate to the needs, but our faith is not primarily in these machines of defense but in ourselves.

— Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz

However the next war develops, it is dangerously myopic to assume that the deck will be stacked in our favor. Certainly, we should attempt to stack the deck in our favor as much as possible, but technology is not our only trump card and we should stop behaving as if it is — or believing that the enemy lacks the same chance of success. We must also beware the urge to plan on a symmetrical approach in which we are already at a substantial disadvantage. Engaging in a salvo competition with a country that has thousands of theater ballistic missiles while we have precisely zero would be pure folly. We should boycott a Salvo Olympics in favor of matching strength against weakness instead of strength against strength. This is a particularly important concept to consider for air and naval power, two areas in which we do have built-in asymmetries in experience. Our strengths will only come to the fore if we can avoid succumbing to future operating concept hubris and squander our forces chasing unlikely outcomes simply because that’s what we structured them for. We need instead to train like we did in the 1980s, when we expected to start from a disadvantage against a massive conventional threat with the threadbare security blanket of the NATO alliance as cold comfort.

The Air Force needs a “Future Airman Concept” in which we lay out all of the efforts we will undertake so our future airmen are trained realistically and take a stand against using readiness and training resources to pay for expensive hardware. In this concept, “fight like you train, train like you fight” would become an actual guiding philosophy rather than a tired mantra we recite to remind ourselves that we actually did that once. In this concept, airmen and those that command them will be comfortable with making rapid decisions on incomplete information and relying on the initiative and flexibility of those at the pointy end of the spear instead of allowing senior leadership to interfere with a 5,000-mile screwdriver. Under this concept, squadron commanders could fight for days without command and control because we prepared and trained to a backup plan rather than expecting “assured” command and control. After all, we fought Operation Desert Storm with landline telephones, teletype machines, and fax machines.

The next war will not start with U.S. commanders casually sipping coffee in a well-lit, air conditioned room, viewing a complete and current “common operating picture” while slapping a chess timer to measure their decision speed. It will start in the chaos, the blood, the pain, and the smoke that has always characterized warfare. It will start with frantic damage control teams trying to keep their ships afloat, medical personnel triaging those they hope to save, rescuers plunging into burning vehicles to rescue their comrades, and individuals at the pointy end of the spear listening to the hiss and pop of static in their headsets while they inventory their loadout for the third time and come up short — again. It will start with a commander committing a force to battle knowing that she will lose most of it to give the rest of her command a fighting chance to complete the mission.

Fog and friction will be not just minor impediments or theoretical constructs, but living, breathing monsters that dominate the battlefield. If we are to succeed in this environment, we should dispense with our aspirational mirages, enforce some reality in our concept development, and stop trying to find the magical Jominian formula that guarantees our success. Our personnel matter most, and it’s up to us to ensure that future warfighters are prepared by leaders who understand warfare rather than rely on technology. Americans succeed at warfare not because we enter every fight with an overwhelming advantage, but because we have people who treat defeat as a waypoint on the way to victory, who think on their feet even when they have been knocked off them, and who never, ever give up. Let us keep it that way.


Col. Mike “Starbaby” Pietrucha was an instructor electronic warfare officer in the F-4G Wild Weasel and the F-15E Strike Eagle, amassing 156 combat missions and taking part in 2.5 SAM kills over 10 combat deployments. As an irregular warfare operations officer, Colonel Pietrucha has two additional combat deployments in the company of U.S. Army infantry, combat engineer, and military police units in Iraq and Afghanistan. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. government.