Shock and Awe hasn't worked.

Shock and Awe hasn't worked.

Shock and Awe hasn't worked.

Military analysis.
March 26 2003 7:31 PM

The Flaw in Shock and Awe

Rumsfeld's theory of warfare isn't working, at least so far.

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But what if the enemies are not shocked or surprised—or if they are at first, but then quickly recover and launch their own campaign of shock and surprise? "Effects-based" theorists talk of the modern U.S. military's "asymmetric" advantages: We have air power, precision weapons, and speedy data links while the enemy does not. However, the past few days of battle have shown that the Iraqis have their own "asymmetric" ploys: guerrilla militias, intimate knowledge of the terrain, and the willingness to use their own civilians as cover.


The late John Boyd, an Air Force colonel who devised some of the theories that inspired "transformation" doctrines, wrote that successful warfare involves surprise, deception, and the creation of confusion and disorder. In a legendary six-hour briefing called "Patterns of Conflict," Boyd said that the key was to get "inside an adversary's O-O-D-A loop." This loop entailed "observing" the enemy's actions, "orienting" one's own forces to the changing situation, "deciding" on a countermove, and then "acting" on it. The side that completes these cycles more quickly, he said, will win the war.

This is what the allied ground forces did in the final days of Desert Storm. Toward the end of that conflict, U.S. Central Command's deputy director of operations, Marine Brig. Gen. Richard Neal (the Marines were particularly influenced by Boyd's thinking), told reporters in Riyadh that the Iraqi army was in deep trouble because "we're inside his decision-making cycle … we're kind of out-thinking him … we can see what he's been doing, we can kind of anticipate what his next move is going to do, and we can adapt our tactics accordingly."

Boyd's ideas are still in circulation. The April 2001 "Transformation Study Report" described a campaign that "operates inside the adversary's decision cycles, [and] combine[s] precision and speed (controlling the tempo)."

The question in the coming days and weeks is not whether U.S. forces have the power to outgun the Iraqi army (that goes without saying), but whether they also have the flexibility to outmaneuver the guerrillas who are harassing the flanks and the rear. The issue isn't whether we win (again, that goes without saying) but what victory costs and how long it takes. Rumsfeld chose to deploy something less than the crushingly overwhelming ground force recommended by the old-school generals. The wisdom of the new-school transformers is now being put through the severest sort of test.