Sunday, June 28, 2009

The High Energy Physics of Warfighting: Infantry Officer’s Course, Gravity and other things.

Tonight I listened to a presentation on the universe and the way of things by Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s own legendary space exploration project manager, Tony Spear. He discussed the Mars Pathfinder Mission. Einstein. Darwin. Newton. Curiosity. Gravity. Human consciousness. Systems engineering and String Theory. Literally the “ups and downs” of things. We listened, awe struck, to explanations of those far away cosmic lights we so often gaze, half drunk, half amazed. It was a magical evening – the rare sort where different people gathered from different backgrounds to meet a differential calculus that left us agreeing: oh my, how small we are. And how much the very same.

As a final question, one astute listener asked of the electrical engineer: Why does the science of man evolve so wonderfully, and the morality of man so malevolently? The audience paused. And listened. Tony reminded us we are humans, mere mortals, composed of DNA and matter and particles tied to a universe and a universe beyond our own universe and that perhaps our violent nature, though chemical and natural, could be overcome by altruism, education, and science. And, as a group I think, we breathed that wonderful sort of exhale we remembered breathing as young students some time ago who sat before the rare professor that affected us so deeply. And we paused, reflected, learned, and walked off, better.

After the talk, I had the chance to speak with Tony Spear. We discussed important things like robotics, good family, the future of warfighting, fine scotch and curvy women. His mind worked much faster than mine, so I emphasized the fine scotch, and poured him another. In between his captivating thoughts on mathematics and the cosmos, we discussed the human element of combat, the nature of man, and moral philosophy. A two-piece band spun Woody Herman’s “Four Brothers” from the outside patio. And the universe around us chaotically expanded and violently contracted while we drank, and laughed and learned. And my mind went to where it always goes when Jameson grabs a hold of my heart…the Marine Corps.

As the band played, and the cocktails flowed, I related to Tony what I felt where the limitations of technology on the modern day battlefield. A complex computer system can hover at 15,000 feet and capture images of men and donkeys crossing the Syrian border into Iraq near the Sinjar Mountains…but only a trained sergeant behind a long scope in an uncomfortable hide site can observe those same men and report the human element. That they have sweat coming from their brow, not a physical sweat, but a nervous sweat. That their movements are erratic, unnatural, and anxious. The computer in the rover at 15,000 feet has told the commander that two men are crossing the border at 2 in the morning. The sergeant in the hide site has told that same commander that two men have crossed the border, and are “suspicious”…they’re marked…15 minutes later a CAAT team intercepts those men 4 miles outside of Sinjar City. They’re carrying weapons, maps, and Al Qaeda propaganda. The limits of science, for now anyway, are apparent: it takes a human process to identify a human process.

And so I think this much is true: one day we might just have an algorithm that will train a computer system to think like a fighter pilot, or a ship’s navigator…but until that day comes, we need the well-trained human fighter pilot in the dog fight, the human ship’s navigator in the sea’s violent storm…because combat, on land and sea, is a complex sequence of human emotions and human processes, the likes of which no super-computer can negotiate. And this is a part of the complex physics of warfare.

Second Lieutenants are taught these physics - the science, art and dynamic of war - deep in the hills of Quantico, Virginia: how to accomplish my mission, and survive. The Greeks called the method to accomplishing a goal techne, literally craftsmanship. The Marines call it knowing your stuff. Whatever you call it, this is how they distinguish themselves from the Army’s infantry schools: adherence to a flexible doctrine of speed and violence centered on Maneuver, not attrition.

The Infantry Officer Course is the world’s foremost graduate school of this form of combat: Maneuver Warfare. Headquartered in an unornamented brick building, discretely located beyond the larger halls of the Basic Officer Course, most basic students pass by the hall with a quiet reverence for the training that takes place here. The walls are made of concrete blocks, painted hospital white and filled with pictures of past graduates, heroes, reminding students of those who came before them. Quite literally the God’s and Generals of the infantry. Leave your Oprah culture sensitivities, self-help literature and coffee cups whose lids warn its contents are “hot” at the door - this is the church of violence.

Before students enter the hall for their indoctrination brief they pass a very appropriate adage written in ominous black script: Those are best who survive the severest of schools. In that hall, and in the forests beyond, the handpicked warrior cadre bring a human dimension to Thucydides’ meditation, and dedicate more than three months to imbue them with three simple tenets and instill in them an overarching warrior ethos: Shoot. Move. Communicate. All the rest is taking care of your Marines.

All the rest, students learn, is a matter of internalizing a violently seductive and explicitly necessary warrior ethos, an Elegant violence, while maintaining a moral commitment to mutually competing events, and emotions.

The Marine Corps infantry is tribal. It has to be. Tempering the violence, while maintaining aggressiveness means the junior commander must be grounded by an unteachable moral commitment that is exhausting, unrelenting, and absolutely imperative to his tribe. This is elegant violence. Between firing machine guns, guiding fire from close air support and hiking miles with a hundred pounds of gear in exhausting terrain, conversations among students turn to just this, the conversations of “all the rest.” All these things, and a million things in between, are what students learn at the graduate school of combat leadership. Nothing you’d ever see on Oprah, but that you always wish you would…here students become their own self-help mechanism. And there is something very pure about all this, conversations held behind camouflaged faces stuffed with Copenhagen in dirty utilities, starving, half way through the most tiring event of their life. This is the sort of informal curriculum offered by the graduate school of combat leadership.

But “all of rest” is only able to take place because of the school’s foundation of formal instruction. It is their common language, such a thing is a requirement for all professionals. The students at IOC quickly realize that every religion has a church, every church a tribe, every tribe a holy book – the religion was America, no one doubted that, but the church was violence, the tribe, the infantry, the scripture, maneuver, and their sacred trust was to the men whom they would soon serve. In an age when one so easily suffocates among the inane, the hyper-sensitive, the pessimistic, the cynical-self-loathing and weak-spirited critics, worshiping such things breathes life and adventure into their restless hearts.

This holy book, the professional literature behind the infantry skills and warrior tribalism taught at IOC, is Marine Corps Doctrine Publication 1, Warfighting. It teaches Maneuver, the lifeblood of the naval infantry: How friction, uncertainty, danger, fatigue, fear, complexity, disorder and violence can be overcome by fluidity, boldness, communication, initiative, responsiveness, creativity, and strong will. The application of our strength, it reads, against a selected enemy’s weakness in order to maximize advantage – this is the aim. To this end the maneuverist requires both speed and surprise.

MCDP-1 is very clear about this. The only problem is that in today’s counter-insurgency fight we require more than a science – more than even an art and a dynamic. We require more than “speed” in operation and more than “surprise” in the attack. The junior commander on today’s battlefield requires an understanding of physics. Fusion of art, science and dynamic is just this sort of physics and this is what is required - a complete incorporation of the principles of high energy physics: a theory of everything.

OIF I was a fantastic example of the art, science and dynamic of war unfolding to completion – and victoriously. Even OIF II, highlighted by sustained kinetic fights on the streets of Fallujah and the cemeteries of Najaf, carries a more conventional legacy. Counter-insurgency however, which has defined OIF III, and OIF IV, is less about killing the enemy, and more about, as historian Max Boot has said, identifying the enemy. The tactical complexities that the Marines of the Anbar daily find themselves in is one that transforms from ‘potential energy’ to fully kinetic to potential and back again within seconds. This situation requires more than artful leadership, scientific execution and dynamic planning by platoon commanders. This counter insurgency fight requires combat physicists who maintain the legacy of the artists and scientists of wars past who taught, rightfully so, that the 2-dimensional battlefield was now a 3-dimensional battlespace but who also implement and improve on tactics that reflect an appreciation for the contemporary counter insurgency paradigm, one that requires a 4-dimensional approach. Simply put, high energy physics is the new techne.

The “high energy physics” approach to battle would amend MCDP-1 to reflect such changes…because it not only applies to the counter-insurgency fight, but also to more conventional situations. The amendments, best highlighted in terms of the Six Warfighting Functions (Maneuver, Intelligence, Logistics, Command and Control, Fires, and Force Protection), would include the use of some real world physics: the theory of time/space, the use of mathematical models to reconstruct and predict the enemy’s planning cycle, and the application of velocity in combat, to name a few.

Take maneuver. As taught we fight in a left/right, up/down, front/back battlespace. Three dimensions. The reality is that we fight in a 4D battlespace. This is the understanding that the 3-D world unfolds within the framework of TIME. It is not enough to think about the enemy in a 3-D context, as we do, we have to arrive at our assumptions of his movement and his will in terms of the expiration of current time and the value he assigns to soon-to-come time. The counter-insurgency fight is a struggle against this time…the enemy’s time must become your time. Now you have the initiative. Each patrol, each checkpoint, each raid is more so a factor of the enemy’s own planning cycle, his own appreciation and measure of time. The science of war as applied from MCDP-1 teaches us a 3-D approach to warfare, the physics of warfare teaches a 4-D approach that is vital to success of small unit operations in theatre.

And intelligence? Intel literally drives the small unit leader’s operations in the world of counter-insurgency. MCDP-1 does not disagree, but teaches the value of intelligence is in our planning, incorporated to build OUR greater tactical and operational picture. A “high energy physics” approach favors intelligence that takes real form, as a scientific model or a tactical barometer or a re-usable equation – a mechanism used to predict the not-so unpredictable decision making cycles and planning processes of the enemy, thereby building THEIR greater tactical and operational picture for us by reconstructing the enemy’s intent allowing us to construct our plan accordingly. A “high energy physics” approach then, favors the design of an algorithm which puts us at the center of their planning meetings, not our own, which are usually really long and kind of boring anyway.

As for ‘command and control’, MCDP-1 preaches the importance of speed. Speed is certainly an essential element of warfighting and in a more kinetic, conventional fight, perhaps speed is decisive. But in a counter-insurgency fight speed can be dangerous. Speed here requires direction. Speed with direction is velocity. “Combat Velocity” is the speed of your decision making cycle, or the speed of your maneuver, or the speed of an infinitesimal amount of factors unfolding at an unprocessable rate layered by the direction of your order, or the direction of your squad’s position, or the direction you give the uncontrollable factor of time that is threatening to consume your initiative, and your 3-dimensional posture in an intolerant 4-dimensional moment in TIME. Combat velocity recognizes that counter-insurgency fast becomes the ‘combat infinity’ and can only be leveraged to a position of advantage if the speed of the environment and the speed of your decision making cycle is given an appropriate direction. Speed is no longer enough. Despite the chaos of the combat infinity, the small unit commander can affect any situation by bringing a degree of order in the form of combat velocity: facilitating speed and giving direction.

And of course there are “fires” – which are now kinetic (indirect or air support) and non-kinetic (psychological operations, media, etc) but all still a matter a physics: force (or desired effects) still equals mass X acceleration. Think about it. In a kinetic and non-kinetic world, “high energy physics” is changing how we should be interpreting the teachings of our holy book. Even the “logistics” warfighting function requires a look from a physics perspective…if you’ve ever tried to get a supply clerk to move quickly or watched a request chit meander up and around the chain of command, you’re familiar with a very Newtonian reality: an object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an external force, usually this looks a lot like the boot of a motivated staff non-commissioned officer on the behind of a not-so-motivated lance corporal.

A “high energy physics” approach to Maneuver Warfare is, ultimately, a fusion of the art, science, and dynamic of maneuver warfare beyond the kinetic and conventional world of small unit operation taught in MCDP-1. Since the Marine Corps is fundamentally an organization of mutually supporting small units with a rich history in unconventional small wars, it is time to amend our holy book – if such a thing can be done – to reflect what physics has always been telling us all along…that time is everything, that speed is nothing without direction, and that while we will never be able to define ‘infinity’ we can approach an understanding of it…oh yeah, and that the answers to all of these questions will never be found on Oprah, in a self-help book, or in an aimless and drunk harangue from a grumpy and cynical undergraduate, but rather in those conversations of “all the rest” in the infantry officer’s Church of Violence and soon empirically, in those faraway and unforgiving streets where the only peace was yesterday.

And I think men of science like Tony Spear would relate well to this view of things…that the world we know is ever-changing, and dynamic, and violent and requires men who stand before such change and demand missions to mars and close air support. Because at the end of the day such things as Einstein, Darwin, Nimitz, Halsey, Newton, Curiosity, Gravity, Courage, Human consciousness, Systems engineering, a fine Fleet, String Theory and Maneuver Warfare share one thing in common to both physicist and warrior…they are quite literally the “ups and downs” of things, and deserve a moment’s thought and well-deserved exhale. And while even Tony Spear could not answer why we evolve so wonderfully in our science and so slowly in our morality, he certainly affirmed the importance of the education of both scientist and warrior. And the physics we share.

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