23 January 2011

On Assumptions

The latest Joint Forces Quarterly has an interesting article from retired Brigadier General Jeffery E. Marshall regarding "assumptions" in military planning models, always seemingly poised to thwart even the best-laid plans.

I've long argued that discussion of the Military Decision-Making Process (MDMP) ought to be balanced with a case study of the inner workings of the German and French general staffs in the run-up to the First World War.  Fortunately, Brig. Gen. Marshall briefly touches upon the German Schlieffen Plan (though not covering its counterpart in the French Army, Plan XVII).  According to Brig. Gen. Marshall:
History is replete with examples of assumptions that were neither tested and validated nor balanced with a branch plan to execute if the assumptions proved incorrect.  For example, in World War I, the German Schlieffen Plan assumed that the British would not intervene and that the French could be defeated in 6 weeks. The Germans were wrong on both counts. The British intervened, the French held on, and a bloodbath ensued.
An interesting example, but certainly not the most foolhardy assumption on the part of Moltke and the German general staff.  The entire Schlieffen plan hinged on the assumption that German troops could overrun France and force a surrender before the Russian Empire could mobilize and strike at Germany.  Expecting a swift victory, as in the Franco-Prussian War of nearly forty years earlier, Schlieffen and his successor, Moltke the Younger, planned to first defeat France, and then swiftly divert their massive armies to the Eastern front to halt the Russian offensive.  

Unfortunately, the Russians did mobilize more quickly than anticipated, forcing  Moltke to divert two corps from the Belgium to Prussia.  Though the move allowed the Germans to halt the Russian offensive at Tannenburg, in East Prussia, it was not without ultimate failure at the Marne (might the two corps have turned the tide?), and the expedient ruin of the Austrian-Hungarian army.

While properly examining this assumption might have averted failure on the part of the Germans during the First World War, the chaos brought about by the intricacies of international politics, especially during wartime, makes proper planning all but impossible at the strategic level.  Neither side could have envisioned the turn of events which led to the Ottoman Empire's involvement on the side of the Axis Powers, made possible by the escape of two German capital ships into the Dardanelles during the first few days of the war.

Planning paradigms such as the Military Decision Making Process may work well when a desired end-state is certain, and within a relatively closed system (such as a large exercise at a combat training center, or for a movement of equipment from one point to the next), but it's hardly applicable at the strategic to grand strategic level.  Learn from the master, General James Mattis:
Staffs have been seen to often apply these processes mechanistically; as if progressing through a sequence of planning steps would produce a solution.  I would expect this habit to be common particularly in organizations reacts to these processes rather than leads them.  "Over-proceduralization" inhibits the commander and staff's critical thinking and creativity, which are essential for finding a timely solution to complex problems...our current doctrinal approach to fostering clear, careful thinking and creativity, particularly early in design and planning, is insufficient and ineffective.      


M.L. said...

Not to forget perhaps the biggest faulty assumption of all - that Britain would allow the invasion of neutral countries (Belgium, et al.). Of course, they did not, and the British Expeditionary Force significantly hindered the German right wing (upon which German success depended) at the Battle of the Frontiers.

zenpundit said...

"An interesting example, but certainly not the most foolhardy assumption on the part of Moltke and the German general staff. The entire Schlieffen plan hinged on the assumption that German troops could overrun France and force a surrender before the Russian Empire could mobilize and strike at Germany....."

The interesting thing about the younger von Moltke, who lacked the brainpower of the Elder, is that he was well aware that General von Schlieffen could not himself wargame his own plan to a victorious outcome. And he tried. For years.

Schlieffen had better results when the right wing had lopsided forces but it still did not work within the rigid timetables ( recall there were mathematically precise timetables related to railroad logistics, pioneered by von Roon before the Franco-Prussian War, that made the German Imperial Army the terror of Europe). Naturally, von Moltke and the Grossgeneralstab tweaked the plan over the years to weaken the right wing, making it *less* likely to succeed. The Germans ignored all this and proceeded anyway.

And the Russians were much faster but also far more inept than anyone realized (though the inane performance of the Tsarist War Ministry in the Russo-Japanese War ought to have been a clue of just how ill-prepared Russia was for modern warfare). The massive size of the Russian Army was so captivating that it disguised the fact that Russia had no ability to properly arm, train, feed or lead so many illiterate peasant recruits in battle.

JetAviator7 said...

Its always a good idea to learn from the past, but some people just never learn --- period!

The US seems to continue to get involved in conflicts all around the globe and takes a lot of criticism for it.

So, I just do my job, put on my original aviator sunglasses, climb into the cockpit and do my job.

Chris said...

Recently read Hew Strachan's _The First World War: Volume I To Arms._ Really recommend it, as long as you can get past that it's a 1100 page book pretty much focused on the war through the end of 1914. (As best as I can tell, the planned two later volumes were never published.)

He has a chapter on the war plans of every nation at the beginning of the war, with some pretty interesting thoughts, especially with respect to the Schlieffen Plan. I wrote up some of them, but was way over Blogger's 4096 character limit on a response. I tried to find your email address, but the best I could do was use my AKO account to find your AKO account. If you are interested, email me with your real email address and I'll send you what I wrote.

Smitten Eagle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Very good post. The USMC has a very similar counterpart to the MDMP, called MCPP (Marine Corps Planning Process), referred to in the vernacular of the Corps as "McPeePee."

At any rate, it is a highly derivative process--very reliant on the previous steps in the process being done correctly. They way they counter this derivative quality is by making IPB a constant, neverending companion to MCPP, but I'm not sure how well this integration is really done in practice.

Also, in MCPP, there is a step called "Course of Action Wargaming"-where the COAs is wargamed against the enemy. The only problem is that this step is done toward the end of the process, so the first opportunity the commander and staff have to evaluate their assumptions occurs only after significant energy has been expended, and probably, after a more than a few people have fallen in love with a given COA.