How much longer for the “long war”? Who will win?

Summary:  In this first of a multi-author series about the next decade of our long war, Chet Richards gives some provocative answers about its next phase. The long war is the key geopolitical issue for America. It will affect our affairs, both domestic and foreign. Post your thoughts in the comments.  {1st of 2 posts today.}

Seeing the future
Ron Chapple/Getty Images

What is the future of the “long war”? Here are a few guesses for the next 10 years. By “long war,” I mean our attempt to eliminate large-scale political violence by non-state groups, originating in other countries but presumably directed at us, if not now then sometime in the future.  Just call it the “LW.”  So here goes:

My big guess: Our attempts to eliminate international political violence will be as successful as any other attempt to eliminate such violence since 1945 or so. (Shocking, I know) Groups come, groups go.

Despite this, the LW will continue because it serves useful domestic political purposes. If we suddenly stopped funding those parts of our national security apparatus (not just DoD) that do not contribute to the defense of the United States, I estimate that we would cut roughly 3/4 of a trillion dollars per year from the inertia provided by the federal budget.  Cost, in other words, is not a deterrent to the LW but a strong reason to continue it. At least for a while.

In the meantime, the Darwinian ratchet will continue to operate, producing ever more capable non-state groups in the Middle East, South Asia, and Central America.  My guess: After a sorting out process, new states will form in these areas.

Read more


Advice from Sun Tzu and John Boyd on winning at cyberwar

Summary: While we’re enmeshed in 4th generation wars we don’t know how to fight, (let alone win) a new form of conflict arrives. Least we repeat our feckless habit of fighting then thinking, let’s develop strategies before serious clashes begin. Chet Richards helps us decide if the military classics can help us, or has new tech made them obsolete?  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”
— Sun Tzu in The Art of War.

The Art of War
Available at Amazon.


Chet Richards comments on

InfoSec, Sun Tzu & the Art of Whore
by Steve Tornio and Brian Martin.
Posted At Attrition, 2 July 2010.

The authors did a great job. I found nothing to argue with in their article. But they appear to have underestimated the power of Sun Tzu’s advice, even in the unique realm of cyberwar.

I can’t argue with their observation that if you try to follow the specific prescriptions of of The Art of War,  you’re either going to be playing with analogies or you must find an opponent willing to act like a Chinese army of the Warring States Period (475-221 BC).

However, when viewed from another perspective it’s possible to see beyond the specifics of long-ago technology for deeper insights. These insights are rooted in human nature and so may prove as useful to cyber war as to any form of conflict.

Their criticism, for example, of how people tend to apply Master Sun’s advice also applies to the works of the late John Boyd (Colonel, USAF), whose major briefing, Patterns of Conflict, appears to be all about war, and mostly about the German Blitzkrieg. But to find deeper meanings, let’s start with what Boyd said about Sun Tzu’s Art of War, on Patterns of Conflict chart 13. First, he talks about some of the “themes” he finds in the work:
Read more

Are we at war with ISIS? Does it make a difference what you call it?

Summary:  Today Chet Richards (Colonel, USAF, retired) looks at our conflict with the Islamic State. What kind of conflict is this? What is the nature of our foe? Victory becomes a matter of luck without answers to these questions.  {2nd of 2 posts today}.

What's in a name?

Does it make any difference what you call it? Yes, because what you call it affects how you think about it. Here’s just one example, from John Basil Utley’ “12 Reasons America Doesn’t Win Its Wars” in The American Conservative: “During wartime who dares question almost any Pentagon cost ‘to defend America’?”

Sun Tzu suggested, in the opening lines of The Art of War, that “War is a matter of vital importance to the state, the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin.” (Griffith trans., p. 63.)

It follows, then, that if what you’re looking at isn’t a matter of survival of the state, it isn’t war. Can you, with a straight face, claim that the United States is engaged with an existential enemy outside of its own borders? 

So if it isn’t war, how should we deal with it? Well, let’s look at what one of our opponents is doing (one can have “opponents” in many fields other than war). The title of this article from today’s New York Times pretty much tells the story: “Offering Services, ISIS Ensconces Itself in Seized Territories.”

Read more

Do America’s leaders say “Apres moi, le deluge”?

Summary:  Today Chet Richards looks a recent Stratfor post about the crisis of the middle class, and from there explores some of the challenges facing 21st century America.



George Friedman, Founder and CEO of Stratfor, is always worth reading for the same reason that, say, James Kilpatrick was: You might not have agreed with much that he wrote, but there were usually a few nuggets amidst the infuriation, and he wrote so amazingly well. In fact, in his later years, his columns on writing were all I remember.

Friedman has an important column  in Stratfor, The Crisis of the Middle Class and American Power. He opens with:

I received a great deal of feedback, with Europeans agreeing that this is the core problem and Americans arguing that the United States has the same problem, asserting that U.S. unemployment is twice as high as the government’s official unemployment rate. My counterargument is that unemployment in the United States is not a problem in the same sense that it is in Europe because it does not pose a geopolitical threat. The United States does not face political disintegration from unemployment, whatever the number is. Europe might.

And proceeds to argue most eloquently that the United States faces exactly that. This was also something the late John Boyd (Colonel, USAF) worried about. For examples, here’s part of his discussion of the prerequisites for an insurrection.  From his presentation Patterns of Conflict, slide 94:

Read more

Is 4th generation warfare dead?

Summary:  Today Chet Richards takes us into the heart of modern conflict, the 4GW techniques that will play a large role in shaping the 21st century (as 2nd generation warfare shaped the 19th century and 3GW shaped the 20th century.  He shows us them in practice, as used by Venezuela.

4GW drives 21st conflicts


While we write clever pieces of sophistry proving that there is no such thing as 4GW (“Fourth-Generation War and Other Myths“, Antulio J. Echevarria II), our less discerning opponents go right on applying it. And calling it by name.

You may have read GI Wilson’s latest on 4GW here at Fabius Maximus. If not, I strongly recommend it. He makes the point that leaders of al-Qa’ida, far from mocking the concept, studied it, unfortunately applied it, and may be continuing to develop it:

An article entitled “Fourth-Generation Wars” by Abu ‘Ubeid Al-Qurashi, appeared in the now defunct al-Qaeda affiliated Internet magazine Al-Ansar acknowledged that 4GW forms the foundation of al-Qaeda’s combat doctrine.

And now, hot off the press, we have a study from the US Army War College detailing how Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela has picked up on the idea of 4GW, is studying it, and is most definitely pursuing its implementation:

Excerpt from “Venezuela as an Exporter of 4th Generation Warfare Instability
By Max G. Manwaring (Prof of Military Strategy, US Army War College)
Published by the Strategic Studies Institute, 19 December 2012

Read more

Wither war? The View from the Mindshaft

Is this America’s future, endless war?

Steven Metz, Chairman of the Regional Strategy Department of the Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, noted in a tweet a few days ago that “Ten plus years and people are still trying to pound the round peg of terrorism into the square hole of war.”

Which got me thinking, again, and this is a discussion Fabius and I have been having for many years: Are we at war with anybody? Is there any chance we will ever be at war with anybody? And the collateral issue, which makes all this more than just a philosophical discussion on the futility of names: What sort of military forces will be useful for us in the first half of the 21st century?

As way of background, strategists have typically reserved the word “war” for something serious. Here are a couple of the best known examples:

  • War is a matter of vital importance to the state; the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin. (Sun Tzu’s Art of War, Griffith trans. 63)
  • War is an act of violence pushed to its utmost bounds. (Clausewitz, Penguin edition, 1987, p. 103)

Some have noted that in the era of nuclear weapons, Clausewitz’s conception must be modified:

  • Thus the effect of nuclear weapons, unforeseen and perhaps unforeseeable, has been to push conventional war into the nooks and crannies of the international system. (Martin van Creveld, The Transformation of War, p. 11)
  • State-on-state war has gone the way of the dinosaur thanks to America’s willingness to remind everyone on a regular basis that we are the last superpower standing. (Thomas P. M. Barnett, The Pentagon’s New Map, p. 271)
  • War as a massive deciding event in a dispute in international affairs; such war no longer exists. (Sir Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force, p.1)

Note that none of these rule out war, per se, just a replay of WWII or at least one of its major battles. Are they right? Doug Macgregor doesn’t think so, as he wrote in an earlier post:

Read more

How OODA loops break

Summary: Analysis of America on the FM website talk about broken Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action (OODA) Loops. But what does this description mean? What are the consequences? Here’s the second of a series by Chet Richards (Colonel, USAF, retired) explaining this important subject.

Once broken, they’re difficult to reassemble.


In the last post, I ruminated on what a broken OODA loop is. But what is it that breaks?

A working OODA loop needs things like (see the OODA loop sketch at the end of this post):

  • A repertoire of actions that can flow implicitly from orientation, that is, you need to be (physically) able to do them and do them intuitively as Boyd would say
  • Implicit guidance and control links that can initiate these actions, that is, you can act when you intend to act
  • Orientation that can trigger appropriate actions, that is, you have made the process of selecting actions intuitive (that does not mean mindless, by the way)
  • A functioning conceptual spiral, that is, the “continuing whirl” of reorientation, mismatches, analyses and synthesis that does a couple of things. First, it keeps our orientation process aligned with reality, the unfolding situation. Think of this as allowing us to deal with the novelty that is flowing “around and over us,” much of it generated by our opponents. Second, it allows us to generate novelty of our own. I go into interminable detail on this in “John Boyd, Conceptual Spiral, and the Meaning of Life.”

If any one of these is absent, if it “breaks,” then the OODA loop is broken.  Just from looking at the length of the descriptions on this list, you can probably guess where most problems arise: Orientation. To come to grips with this, you have to keep in mind that although we often talk about orientation as a picture, as our impression of reality at some point in time, it really refers to the process of keeping those pictures up to date and projecting them into the future so we can use them as decision models.

Or, as Boyd once told me, an orientation is simply a pattern of ideas and actions.

Read more