war on the rocks

Why We Must Train Our Forces for Fog and Friction

December 1, 2015

There is great disorder under heaven, and the situation is excellent.

— Mao Tse-Tung


Damn, that was close. The young captain peeked out from underneath a table in the Wing Operations Center (WOC), hand atop his helmet. Aside from the noise, you could tell the close ones by the dust dancing in the beams of the emergency lighting. A good shock brought out the fine particles from every nook and cranny. Nothing’s on fire, that’s good. Lets see what’s left. Gingerly, the rest of the staff emerged from where they had taken cover when the sirens wailed. Alan knew that nobody was really aiming at him, but it felt personal. He much preferred the days when he was flying instead of running the mission planning cell. At least in a fighter he was a moving target.

The WOC was a dark, hot cave that smelled faintly of burned electrical insulation, which was quite close enough to brimstone, thank you. They had been on generator power for three days, and the fuel was being conserved to run minimal lights and keep the mission planning computers and radios from overheating. Personal comfort was a poor second. Master Sgt. Will Sullivan, checklist in hand, had a status within minutes. “No casualties here. Alternate MPC reports functional. The local landlines are still up. Power still good, diesel tanks intact, radios functioning, and voice SATCOM as congested as usual.” Not strictly in the checklist order, but Will always liked to start on a high note. “Commercial SATCOM and long distance landlines still down. No heartbeat signal from the Air Operations Center, but that’s been iffy anyway. No internet connection but the base LAN is still up.” We have about an hour before we crack the safe again; the next designated plan is Charlie Four.”

“Thanks, Will.” They were still in business. Their connections with the AOC hadn’t been able to support the bandwidth necessary to move the air tasking order around and anyway, the AOC had been hit pretty hard and the backups were pulling most of the load. Every airbase in theater had a series of contingency plans that provided a 24-hour slice of an air tasking order. The instructions on which slice to use came by any means necessary. At the moment that was short broadcast on UHF SATCOM, but that wouldn’t last. He’d seen the plans, and if necessary the messages would be delivered by motorcycle courier, for Pete’s sake. But so far, the machine was still working, and the wing hadn’t lost a single sortie because of a missed tanker or screwed-up strike plan. Damage, yes. Command and control interruptions, not so much. It wasn’t optimum, but they were still hitting targets. No doubt the enemy wasn’t expecting this result when they hammered C2 with cyber and kinetics. A lot of good people were hurt and communications were practically down to smoke signals and skywriting, but they had trained for this situation. The wing could execute their portion of the war, and so far so could everybody else. Apparently the enemy hadn’t understood the difference between the C2 necessary to fight and the C2 necessary to optimize the effort. They had the first (if not the second), and the key word in the phrase “winning ugly” was still “winning.”


A number of the newer defense concepts are actually written in plain language, using vignettes like the one above to make them more interesting and involve the reader in a story they are trying to tell. The vignette above is one you won’t see, because it doesn’t highlight the benefits of advanced technology, and isn’t written from the point of view of an officer sipping coffee in air-conditioned comfort while enmeshed in a spider web of advanced communications providing every conceivable information need. No official illustrative tale will illustrate what happens when things go wrong, because in the modern defense concept, nothing goes wrong except for the enemy. The defeat of an adversary is rapid, relatively painless, and above all an outcome of the advanced technology fielded by U.S. forces. In other words, official U.S. thinking about future battles is mired in fantasy.

This vignette is equally imaginary, but hardly fantasy. It is based on dimly remembered exercises from early in my career, which never actually involved loud bangs (those came later) but did involve the threat of massed Soviet fire, complete with nerve gas and bad communications. We in the 52nd Fighter Wing often claimed that we could execute a mission under intense communications deprivation, where the first radio call made in the flight was also the last: “Spangdahlem tower, Badger Three One, gear down, full stop.” We were prepared to receive a mission briefing on the landline telephone in the shelter with an armed and fueled Phantom II, shelter doors closed, and gas masks ready to hand. We could execute our squadron’s part of the war plan without anybody outside the wing knowing anything more than whether we had taken off on time. And we were a better fighting force for it.

Today’s future warfighting concepts have trended away from the reality of combat operations, into a sanitized, technology-enhanced utopia where communications always have a backup, where T-shirt-wearing geniuses in dark rooms keep hackers out of our networks, and where words like “seamless integration,” “information superiority,” and “superior decision speed” purport to represent the real world. Unfortunately, the real world is a whole lot messier, and in our pursuit of questionable concepts we are not preparing our people to deal with it. Future operating concepts, while often showcasing genuine advances in military art, are laden with “aspirational” language that dilutes the concept into incoherence. A sensible concept held aloft by aspirational fantasy that discounts the fog and friction prevalent in warfare isn’t a sensible concept at all — it’s a figure of conceptual smoke with feet of virtual clay, and it’s just as useful.

If leadership in the Department of Defense thinks they can research their way into a fog-free, frictionless battlefield where enemy action is ineffective against our command, control, and communications, they’re mistaken. There are fundamentally two choices here: trying to spend our way out of fog and friction by building hardware, or training our people to deal with fog and friction when it occurs. The former is a huge gamble, betting that we will always be able to see what we want when we want, move information without restriction, and do away with the effects of enemy action. The latter choice offers an unappealing level of uncertainty, and requires humans to make decisions on limited information — exactly as commanders have done throughout history. If we fail in the former, we can always fall back on well-trained people. However, if we don’t have the people trained to deal with uncertainty under pressure, they won’t be able to fall back on hardware when things go badly. And in combat, things often go very badly indeed. We should be planning for reality and not trying to wish it away.


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.