Paralysis in Peer Conflict? The Material Versus the Mental in 100 Years of Military Thinking
Military history rarely offers simple, straightforward lessons, much to the frustration of those seeking to apply takeaways to today. The lesson that retains the strongest hold on U.S. military thinking may be how German blitzkrieg enabled the lightning defeat of France in the summer of 1940. Theorists like John Boyd subsequently suggested that these breakthroughs stunningly “soften[ed] and shatter[ed] the moral fiber of the political, economic and social structure” of the opponent, building on the promise of paralysis proposed by J.F.C. Fuller during and after World War I. Fuller had advocated incapacitating the army’s “brain,” or a military’s ability to command subordinate units. According to one of the foremost scholars writing about Boyd, Fuller “exerted an obvious influence on Boyd through his study of strategic theory.” In turn, Boyd and other U.S. military reformers after the Vietnam War reimagined how the nation should wage warfare.
But most campaigns held up as paragons of “paralysis” through maneuver often have depended on the attacker’s ability to inflict high levels of human and material attrition on the opposition as a means of attaining its goals. This is a far cry from Boyd’s idea of “shattering” the enemy’s nerve. Never validated through rigorous historical study, these untested ideas have been removed from context and sprinkled ahistorically throughout U.S. doctrine. Today, they continue to shape emerging multi-domain or joint all-domain operations doctrine, especially in those doctrines’ aim to inflict multiple dilemmas on an opponent. In short, U.S. military thinking is founded on unrealistic hopes and ahistorical examples that the enemy can be outsmarted and, ultimately, paralyzed as maneuver warfare morphs into joint all-domain operations.
The broad emphasis on operational paralysis accords with the U.S. military’s tendency to downplay the strategic level of war by stressing the military’s ability to win on the battlefield at the operational level. Indeed, the “elusive” and irresistible lure of the operational level is that it can produce “decisive results.” More specifically, blitzkrieg — a term on whose origins scholars still cannot agree — commonly translates to “lightning war.” Far from being unique to Germany, however, the concept can be understood as seeking a knockout blow. This idea dominated much Western military thinking during the interwar period. Militaries sought a “sudden, rapid strike” to undermine an opponent’s “ability to resist” in a “matter of hours or days” while “completely shattering” morale. Eminent West Point historian and Army officer Robert A. Doughty, for example, bluntly sought to undermine the entire “myth” of blitzkrieg in the first place.
Beyond the concept itself, other historians challenge the narrative of blitzkrieg in the specific historical context of the seemingly inevitable defeat of France. Renowned historian Ernest May, for example, argued that France’s defeat offered less clear-cut lessons about the operational brilliance of the Germans and more lessons about the failure of the future Allies to anticipate a German push through the Ardennes. The Germans won in part because Hitler ignored his generals and gambled and also because Allied imagination failed.
Boyd’s theoretical emphasis on blitzkrieg’s ability to succeed, then, largely ignores the larger context of the war, which tells a more nuanced and complex story of success and failure. The broad strokes of history are important because the emphasis on blitzkrieg has greatly influenced developments in maneuver warfare after the Vietnam War, which is the basis of much current U.S. military thinking. In preparing for great-power conflict, it is essential that the U.S. military revisit its deeply held assumptions about operational success by grounding them more strongly in historical realities rather than theoretical hopes.
Increasingly, service doctrine has integrated maneuver concepts in pursuing joint all-domain operations’ emphasis on creating “multiple dilemmas” for the adversary. Recent Air Force doctrine, for example, expresses this goal five times in less than two pages. The Army also pursues how to translate this idea into realistic employment. As the most recent version of Army Doctrine Publication 3-0 Operations explains, the Army aims to present “an enemy force multiple dilemmas across multiple domains,” in order that “commanders force that enemy to react continuously until driven into an untenable position.” This doctrine emphasizes making an enemy “react,” thus stressing warfare as more mental than material given how it seeks to back an enemy into a corner from which it cannot escape.
In essence, maneuver warfare and all-domain operations both seek to paralyze decision-making or weaken an opponent’s ability to react so much that an opponent need not be physically destroyed. Practitioners tend to view maneuver as a binary. Maneuver is good. Attrition, by contrast, is bad, in part due to its association with conflicts such as World War I. Forestalling and limiting strategic options because of cursory history, however, should be avoided.
Some strategic thinkers have identified problems with past thinking about maneuver warfare, and thus there is good reason to be concerned about its continuing influence. Lawrence Freedman, for example, suggests that Western military thinkers “oversold” maneuver warfare in preparing to fight the Soviet Union after the Vietnam War. Even worse, he argues they adopted an “essentially romantic and nostalgic view of strategy” that tends to be too divorced from larger social, political, and economic factors affecting warfare. More recently, Cathal Nolan has taken military thinkers to task for falling under the spell of the “quick fix: the sudden Blitzkrieg, the rapid war of maneuver, the sweeping brilliance of the great captain.” Examining historical operations, such as World War II and Operation Desert Storm, reveals that the historical evidence that paralysis offers the best explanation for military effectiveness is not convincing enough.
Today it is critical to reexamine maneuver warfare’s assumptions about how it affects one’s opponent, especially in light of the possibility of peer-to-peer confrontations, and how these assumptions shape emerging joint all-domain doctrine. Currently, the United States sees its advantages in capability slipping away and thus increasingly stresses its military personnel as a force multiplier. This line of thinking offers the prospect that there is an easier, cheaper way to fight if one just uses more brainpower. Sometimes, though, even the best minds cannot offer winning solutions because the world is a complex, messy place. An advantage in brainpower can also be difficult to translate into an advantage at the strategic level of war, not to mention it can be problematic because assuming intellectual superiority risks underestimating one’s opponent.
The Origins of Paralysis
Ideas about paralysis gained ground especially after World War I, although they continue to ebb and flow in current military thinking to varying extents. Army officer J.F.C. Fuller first developed modern paralysis theory, suggesting that tanks could induce moral shock. Rather than simply envisioning tanks as having a tactical effect on the battlefield, Fuller amplified the notion, hoping that a tank breakthrough could affect the war’s outcome by breaking trench warfare’s pattern of attrition. He suggested that one need only psychologically disarm opponents, not destroy them. In concert with airpower theorists, Fuller sought to make warfare not only more efficient but also more humane. The problem with making too much of this moral shock, however, is that it rarely endures. The enemy can adapt and develop countermeasures so the effects of tanks and airplanes become less potent. Fuller further developed his theory after the Germans launched the Ludendorff Offensives in the spring of 1918. The Allies, he concluded, had retreated primarily because those in leadership positions had become paralyzed. Thus he increasingly stressed waging “brain warfare” in which the opponent’s most vital center of gravity was not the enemy’s forces themselves but, more specifically, its leadership. Problematically, though, the offensives “did not impart sufficient psychological paralysis to create strategic success.” They also had other unanticipated and negative effects, such as crushing German morale and causing significant casualties, with the Germans enduring 239,000 casualties, only 9,000 less than the British and the French. As one historian argues, the Germans had played their “last card” and lost, the offensive’s seeming gains coming at the cost of “dangerously extend[ing]” the front and risking “flanking attacks.”
Regardless, some prominent Royal Air Force officers adopted this paralysis thinking by the late 1920s, arguing that an air force could most effectively target the enemy’s brain to make its body — the army — useless, primarily by making it unable to command and control various units. Thus a central idea — seeking paralysis rather than destruction — animated both ground and air thinking. In some ways, then, some interwar airpower theory diverged less from ground theory than can be seen in domain-centric scholarship focused either on the ground or the air. This emphasis on paralysis further accorded with the stress placed on having a psychological effect, the word “psychology” just coming into common use at the time. In many ways, officers simply continued stressing morale in accordance with Victorian thinking while operationalizing it with this new theory of paralysis.
Royal Air Force officer John Slessor best articulated this approach for airpower in the interwar period. Slessor differed from his American counterparts at the Air Corps Tactical School, who sought bottleneck targets in an opponent’s economy to defeat enemy production efficiently and precisely. Slessor insisted, by contrast, that — perhaps with the exception of London — one’s enemy probably had no “single” center to paralyze decisively. Rather than focus on strategic paralysis, Slessor thus returned largely to the battlefield, seeking to prevent the enemy from moving on and to the battlefield. He argued that the primary purpose of airpower in support of the land should be, first and foremost, the “paralysis of enemy troop movement.”
Like other advocates of paralysis, Slessor believed that one need not always seek out physical destruction of material or soldiers themselves as the desired effect. Rather, one could target carefully selected areas of railroads, for example, with the intended “effect” of “dislocation and disorganization of the railway system.” Ideally, one should also target them “as far back as possible” (emphasis in original), a point that — when taken to its logical extremes — resulted in interdiction and strategic bombardment differing in name only, to some degree.
In addition to interrupting the movement of things, Slessor wanted to preclude communications, explaining that:
if we can definitely destroy the head-quarters of an enemy army at a critical moment, we have gone a long way to ensuring the complete paralysis of that army as a fighting body. Moreover, if the head-quarters offices are the brain of an army, its nerves are the cable communications.
Thus Slessor, like Fuller, sought to avoid the “old and much abused principle of annihilation of the enemy’s army as the crowning achievement in battle.”
Testing Paralysis in the Italian Campaign
Slessor received an opportunity to test his paralysis theory in the last year of the war after he became deputy commander of the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces in early 1944. In late 1943, the Allies’ relatively efficient advance up the Italian peninsula had come to a halt at the Gustav Line, the Germans’ defensive network located south of Rome. Several ground offensives struggled to break through, epitomized by the well-known failure resulting in the massive bombardment of the monastery atop Monte Cassino. In its wake, airmen argued that the Germans could be defeated in Italy by denying them supplies and reinforcements. When the Germans did not melt into the ether, airmen complained that the ground component could not expect them to do everything. The ground forces had to attack.
Two months later, after countless interdiction attacks, the Allies launched a combined arms assault in May that resulted in the capture of Rome by June. They succeeded for various material reasons, including better weather and massive numbers of reinforcements. They also had learned lessons from the failed attack on Monte Cassino, such as the need for infantry immediately to follow up artillery barrages, a lesson one might have assumed had been learned once and for all during World War I. In other words, the Allies took practical steps to improve their offensive capabilities on the ground.
Airmen, however, took a narrower view of the latest offensive, insisting that they had virtually paralyzed the Germans. Rather than stress the use of airpower in a combined arms role, Slessor explained that airpower’s “job” was to “accentuate that confusion and muddle in the enemy’s army to a point where it gets beyond the capacity of anyone to control.” Airpower did paralyze the German army to some extent, but to stress that as the single causal factor for the Allies’ breakthrough of German defensive lines is problematic. Slow attrition rather than paralyzing maneuver better explains the course of World War II. What Richard Overy wrote of Normandy applies to Italy as well: “The victory in Normandy was secured in the grim, unglamorous erosion of German fighting power in June and July.”
Regardless, theorists continued to stress the more alluring concept of paralysis after the war. Basil H. Liddell Hart, for example, suggested that a “man killed is merely one man less, whereas a man unnerved is a highly infectious carrier of fear, capable of spreading an epidemic of panic.” While such sentiments sound compelling, they resemble the flawed logic of the father of the Royal Air Force, Lord Hugh Trenchard. Shortly after World War I, he had stated that the moral effect on civilians subjected to strategic bombardment “undoubtedly” was 20-to-1 over the material, with absolutely no supporting evidence to back up this claim.
Paralysis in Operation Desert Storm
In the wake of the Vietnam War, military thinkers in multiple services subsequently embraced maneuver warfare in response to what they viewed as the senseless attrition strategies of the Vietnam War. The U.S. Air Force applied this idea in executing Operation Desert Storm, drawing especially upon Col. John Warden’s ideas. Like Slessor, Warden sought to precisely and efficiently destroy key communication nodes to make an opposing army incapable of responding. He asserted that strategic bombing’s effect had been akin to pouring molasses over a nation, slowing everything down.
Airpower scholars have largely accepted that paralysis played an important role in victory, although they differ as to how. Some have argued that it worked in Baghdad as Warden had envisioned. Others believed that airpower worked tactically by paralyzing Iraqi troops in Kuwait, making it possible for coalition ground troops to practically roll over opposition once the war began.
Less air-centric studies, though, offer different insights. Daryl Press suggests that the coalition won in Desert Storm because of simple “overmatch,” with U.S. capabilities in peak form and number due to the Reagan buildup. If Press is correct, then the morale effect that airpower purportedly had on Iraqi troops in Kuwait should be viewed with caution.
Paralysis in Maneuver Warfare Thinking
The extent to which airpower had significant strategic effect upon morale is important because, while Warden’s insistence on the efficacy of strategic attack may have been limited to the Air Force, his ideas about paralysis were not. Indeed, paralysis is at the heart of modern thinking about maneuver warfare. As Marine Corps doctrine argues:
If the aim of maneuver warfare is to shatter the cohesion of the enemy system, the immediate object toward that end is to create a situation in which the enemy cannot function. … The enemy must be made to see the situation not only as deteriorating, but deteriorating at an ever-increasing rate. The ultimate goal is panic and paralysis, an enemy who has lost the ability to resist.
This line of reasoning also animates joint thinking. The problem is that these assumptions about mental effect have not been validated in peer conflicts. Doctrine such as Joint Publication 3-0 Joint Operations problematically seeks to use history to establish other precedents, though. Scattered historical vignettes lack all context, their purpose not being to illustrate doctrine but to validate it. This publication, updated as recently as 2018, continues to devote almost an entire page to Operation Just Cause, a relatively minor operation against Panama in 1989. The doctrine stresses how operations against “command and control facilities and key units … seized the initiative and paralyzed enemy decision making.” It also may express unrealistic expectations about what U.S. capabilities can achieve in terms of superiority.
The doctrine also fails to adequately reconcile one of the central reasons advocates seized upon maneuver warfare in the first place: to seek a force multiplier in the face of Soviet mass. For example, Joint Publication 3-0 suggests that “attacks may be decisive or may begin offensive operations throughout the enemy’s depth that can create dilemmas causing paralysis and destroying cohesion” but only if “sufficient friendly force capabilities are available.” Therein lies the rub, as one still needs enough forces to be successful.
Joint Publication 3-0 Joint Operations defines maneuver as the “employment of forces in the [operational area] through movement in combination with fires to achieve a position of advantage in respect to the enemy.” Maneuver seeks to provide for the “massing” of effects to “achieve surprise, shock, and momentum.” Another definition in Army Doctrine Publication Operations 3-0 referring to joint operations principles more vaguely defines maneuver at one point as seeking to “place the enemy in a position of disadvantage through the flexible application of combat power.”
In practice, portions of the U.S. military have begun seeking to apply these ideas to multi-domain warfare. Some of these efforts seek to get the enemy stuck between the “observe” and the “orient” phases of John Boyd’s well-loved “Observe–Orient–Decide–Act” loop through faster reaction cycles. As seen in the below graphic that accompanied a 2019 article analyzing a command post exercise, an Army unit sought to “present dilemmas” at the orient phase, thereby forcing the opponent back to the observation phase, effectively paralyzing its ability to respond.
Similarly, the Air Force has tried to articulate how this concept would work. Several years ago, for example, now-retired Gen. David Goldfein used a historical analogy of Paul Revere’s ride to ask:
But what if the British had been able to split their forces and advance from both land and sea? … Adapting the poem for modern-day warfare, he spelled out how that might work in the future:
“One if by land, two if by sea, three if by air, four if by space, five if by cyber—more when we converge effects from multiple domains to achieve military objectives,” he said. Adding dimensions adds complexities and stretches the enemy thinner with each potential option.
The analogy falls flat, though, by assuming that the opponent lacks the ability to draw on similar capabilities from multiple domains.
While Joint Publication 3-0 currently uses the term “multiple dilemmas” only once, it does so in a way that aligns somewhat with recent thinking. In the context of forcible entry operations, it states that the United States can:
create multiple dilemmas by creating threats that exceed the enemy’s capability to respond. Commanders will employ distributed, yet coherent, operations to attack the objective area or areas. The net result will be a coordinated attack that overwhelms the enemy before they have time to react. A well-positioned and networked force enables the defeat of any enemy reaction and facilitates follow-on operations, if required.
The emphasis continues to be on paralysis in overwhelming an enemy before it can react, a more mental than material effect. The difficulty, though, comes in the simultaneous emphasis on “distributed” operations, which challenges competing principles of joint operations, such as “simplicity” and “economy of force.” Joint Publication 3-0 seeks to take a conservative standpoint by warning that forcible entry tends to be “complex and risky and should, therefore, be kept as simple as possible.” The bolder intent of multi-domain operations and the more cautionary vision of joint operations doctrine still remain to be reconciled, especially when it comes to creating short-lived but synchronized “windows of opportunity.”
Whether seeking to create multiple dilemmas for an opponent at the tactical, operational, or strategic levels — or a combination of all three — the United States assumes it can make decisions faster (and, perhaps, better) than its opponents. This assumption may be faulty, and it runs the risk of becoming even more so in the future, especially if competitors more successfully integrate artificial intelligence into decision-making.
The seeming logic of paralysis affects various aspects of past and recent U.S. military doctrine without adequately assessing its embedded assumptions about how well it works in practice. Born even before World War I but nurtured by the possibility of improved airpower technology after World War I, for example, strategic airpower theory sought to avoid fielded forces by quickly shattering economies or even entire societies. Instead, airpower advocates brought attrition to the skies, devastating their own air crews as well as enemy populations even as they struggled to break totalitarian societies. With the emergence of newer domains, the same assumptions have been brought back to life, such as in considering how a strategic cyber attack or information warfare might paralyze a modern economy or society.
It would be inaccurate to claim that attrition offers a more correct path to pursue over maneuver — rather, both have a role to play depending on context. Unfortunately, though, attrition can dominate in direct conflicts between great powers because of the more existential nature of such wars, which is why coercion rarely works in these cases. The concept of paralysis has significantly influenced maneuver warfare’s assumptions, and it continues to underpin some assumptions of more recent multi-domain thinking. Getting into an opponent’s decision-making cycle is not only alluring but it has a certain theoretical and logical appeal. The extent to which it will work consistently and reliably, however, remains more dubious based on historical precedent. Opponents, moreover, have been studying U.S. military thinking carefully, especially since Desert Storm, working to make their ability to communicate harder to disrupt and more redundant. Paralysis certainly can contribute to defeating an opponent, but it is only a force multiplier that may or may not work. And thus, the ways in which it undergirds joint all-domain operations’ central “way” of fighting — creating multiple dilemmas — must be assessed critically, accepting that it offers few strategic shortcuts to the hard work of defeating a peer adversary.
One historical lesson above all continues to resonate with modern military thinking today: the myth of the blitzkrieg. Any current efforts to emphasize paralysis as a concept must reflect a more nuanced and contextualized understanding of the history that underpins doctrine. In effect, practitioners must wrestle far more with history’s multiple own dilemmas before seeking to impose them on opponents.
Dr. Heather Venable is an associate professor of military and security studies at the U.S. Air Command and Staff College and teaches in the Department of Airpower. She is the author of How the Few Became the Proud: Crafting the Marine Corps Mystique, 1874–1918. She also edits for The Strategy Bridge and The Field Grade Leader and is a non-resident fellow at Marine Corps University’s Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity. She is grateful to Dr. Sebastian Lukasik for comments on several drafts as well as David Alman.
Image: Master Sgt. Joshua Allmaras