Military Studies Magazine
The agility imperative:
a revelation in military affairs
by Dr William Mitchell
Photo: Danish Defence
ISSUE 01, VOLUME 01, 2013
Subcribe at fak.dk/eng/magazine
The agility imperative: a revelation in military affairs
War fi ghting in the 21 st century and the information age is more about the speed of learning than it is about the
speed of reloading. Granted, this simplistic understanding of modern warfare is enticingly suggestive in that
it appears to focus on something more than just destruction. The notion that the number of tanks or warships
you have matters less than your ability to think network rather than linearly is comforting. But gone is also
the physical certainty of winning or losing decisive battles and formal surrenders of state actors. The security
environment is driven by an unparalleled explosion in information transfer that has affected how humans fundamentally
organise and develop ideas. The military cannot avoid the impact of these developments and the
challenges they present. By the end of 2013 the agility imperative will likely stand out as one of the defi ning
characteristics necessary for military organisations to fi ght wars in the 21 st century.
By Dr William Mitchell
The military legacy of learning – or not
Military history is full of moments where military organisations learned the hard way that maintaining organisations,
technologies and doctrine for war fighting based on tradition and routine rather than environment can
have terrible consequences. Few to none of these have been celebrated as victors or heroes, most pitied as the
unfortunate victims of modernisation. And like other significant times in military history driven by technological
breakthroughs, there is a period of transition within both the physical and cognitive dimensions of the
war fighting environment. From the spear to the armed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), from the romantic
idealism of chivalry to the legal rationality of the Law of Armed Conflicts, the environment in which we fight
is constantly evolving and always has. However, the information age is more than a physical attribute of the
modern war fighting environment; its impact is on the dynamic of change itself. There is no doubt that the
onset of the information age has affected every aspect of human life: how we think, how we manage information,
how we use the information, how we communicate with each other. It has also set in motion a pace
of learning, development and change that is perpetually accelerating. The faster we learn from each other, the
faster we adapt, innovate, develop and respond. We are exploiting knowledge faster and over greater distances
than at any other point in history.
The context of military operations is not a separate universe from the one all humans are expected to operate
in. It is this environment of information hyper drive that the 20 th -century military has found itself struggling to
adapt to. Struggling with retaining, discovering and recreating its own identity and history. Struggling to fit a
fast changing world that only a short 30 years ago was still slow enough to provide a rock solid raison d’étre
for continuing the way the military has generally organised itself since the time of Napoleon.
Military history is full of significant leaps forward in military organisation, doctrine and technology. Examples
are many: the invention and employment of chariots, flex bows, longbows, gunpowder, cannons and, more
recently, machine guns, aircraft, the tank by the British, its effective use by the Germans. There are many.
However, despite being significant leaps, sometimes heralded as revolutions in military affairs (RMAs), they
have all had limited periods of dominating success, mainly because human opponents do what human opponents
do best when faced with annihilation – learn quickly how to survive.
The agility imperative: a revelation in military affairs
But this time the change is different. This time it is not a technological development in itself or a new way
of using technology in terms of doctrine or organisation providing the fortunate commander complete battlespace
domination. This time it is a much deeper and fundamental change. This time it does not resemble a
revolution in military affairs as much as it resembles a revelation.
The war fighter may not like to use the word ‘ontology’, but war fighting organisations are already planning
and fighting ontologically. For those not familiar with the word ontology, it simply refers to the study of categories
of realities. Today’s military is working operationally with two ‘reality’ categories of ontology, the
cognitive and the physical. And though the cognitive reality consisting of subjective beliefs, understandings,
perceptions, identities and norms has always been there, the information age has significantly amplified its importance
to military operations. As of 2013, the armies, navies, air forces and marines throughout the Alliance
can be found discussing the merits of narrative lead operations, lines of operations for social media and the
importance of culture to situational understanding. What must sound even more bizarre to some traditionalists
are military discussions on the harmonisation and synchronisation of kinetics and non-kinetics for the destruction
or construction of things and/or ideas, understandings or narratives.
Pragmatism and enlightenment
Over the last five years the military has engaged the cognitive and physical realities of the battlespace through
complex ‘system of systems analysis’ known (somewhat lovingly) to some as SoSA. These networked-defined
understandings of battlespaces such as ‘PMESII’, representing the interaction between the Political, Military,
Economic, Social, Infrastructure and Information domains of a battlespace, attempt to delineate and describe
and synthesise the two realities of the battlespace. This understanding is then combined with an effects-based
thinking (EBT) philosophy that attempts to manage the interaction between the PMESII domains or, if you
wish, between the two realities, the cognitive and the physical. Light-heartedly translated as ‘blow something
up at the right time and place to create a perception – or if you wish – at the right time and place destroy a
perception by not blowing something up’.
And despite the echoes of ‘common sense’ ringing somewhere in the background of this perpetual interaction
between the cognitive and the physical dimensions, from a scientific perspective it is a complex ontological
relationship between two categories of realities. Now, imagine what the Internet or social media has done to
the speed of those interactions, and you will understand how the speed of learning and adaptation in the battlespace
itself has taken a quantum leap.
So the military has realised that its battlespace is a nexus – a sort of smelting pot – for net sum interactions
of the physical and cognitive realities of the battlespace. The adage ‘actions speak louder than words’ is not
really a cry for kinetics but rather a cry for physical confirmation of a socially defined cognitive understanding.
If you do it – you must mean it. So what are the key characteristics of a 21 st -century battlespace in my view?
1. Actions in modern warfare acquire meanings and understandings, while meanings and understandings
require actions in modern warfare.
In this regard the information age has expanded and speeded up the ‘meanings and understandings’
part beyond anything seen before in history. Roughly stated it is not just what you blow up that is important;
it is its effect on the systems of systems context surrounding the why, how, when, where that
determines the end value of the kinetic action. The action must be encased in the appropriate narrative
perceived to be to your advantage. If not, though a certain physical action in the battlespace might be
desired from a military standpoint, you might actually be shooting yourself in the foot politically, economically
or socially with regard to perceptions of the action. The net worth of the action is therefore
determined by the sum of effects in both the physical and cognitive realities of the battlespace.
2. The greater part of complexity and uncertainty in the modern battlespace comes from the interaction
of multiple subjective contexts in one time and space.
Or stated another way, if all belligerent parties in the battlespace had the same culture, norms, values
and narrative histories – managing warfare in the information age would still likely be a relatively
straightforward test of physical strength.
So, there it is. Note the absence of any discussion as to conventionality versus unconventionality. As inferred
earlier, this revelation is far deeper than competing (and somewhat deterministic) taxonomies of doctrine.
As the chances of everyone suddenly enjoying each other’s company in a common constructed narrative of
‘mankind’ are not high for the foreseeable future, military efforts must focus on managing the challenges
found in the first principle. It is based primarily on the need for speed and precision in knowledge development.
It depicts a battlespace that is dynamic, subject to rapid transformations in time and space due to the
speed of information flow. Action and perception can be as instantaneous as the streaming video or tweeting
technology in use on the day will allow. It depicts a battlespace that demands agility.
‘Battlespace agility’ is a war fighting concept that is simply defined as the speed at which the war fi ghting
organisation is able to transform knowledge into actions for desired effects in a battlespace. It stems from a
decade of NATO agility research and the application of conventional constructivist understandings in intelligence
analysis and operational planning. At its very heart is the call for developing both the human and tech-
nical capabilities to learn and exploit knowledge of the battlespace faster than an opponent, the objective being
to outpace, deceive, disrupt and if possible destroy the enemy’s Observe, Orient, Decide and Act (OODA)
loop. If you destroy their OODA loop, you have effectively destroyed their ability to manage the interaction
between the physical and the cognitive realities of the battlespace. When they take action, it will be perceived
as the wrong one; when they decide on actions based on their perceptions, they will be based on the wrong
As battlespace agility is itself a function of knowledge over time and space and in an age of split-second
knowledge development, the onus of being agile starts with a competent military intelligence capacity continuously
developing and presenting the commander with opportunities to exploit knowledge. It also requires a
completely synthesised working relationship between operational planners and intelligence providers in order
to be agile and responsive to the war fighting environment. And this agility must be trained so that the process
of discovery and learning about the environment one finds oneself in (the Observe and Orient phases of
OODA) is not lost through the constant hand feeding of scenarios for validation of existing organisation and
doctrine. Battlespace agility requires that we stop trying to make the situation fit existing organisation and doctrine
and focus on our ability to adapt the organisation and doctrine to the situation. Instead we should focus
on building a military intelligence organisation that can observe and orient complex war fighting environments
with good speed and precision. Instead we should train for the validation of the military organisation’s ability
to observe, learn, adapt, innovate, respond, and change to exploit the situation. Agility is the imperative for
war fighting in the 21 st century, and training to be agile is training to fight and win.
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