A Balkan Sun Tzu vs. the NATO Clausewitz:
A Tentative Interpretation of the Serbo - NATO War

April 4, 1999

Comment: #252

Discussion Thread:  #s 199, 244, 250, and 251

References:

[1] Roy Gutman, ATTACK ON YUGOSLAVIA: NATO Races With Milosevic," Long Island Newsday, March 30, 1999, Pg. 17.

[2]John Keegan, Defence Editor, "Are the air strikes working?" Electronic Telegraph (ISSUE 1405), 31 March 1999.

[3] Joel A Ruth, "Serbia: The lesson of Army Group E," Co 1999, WorldNetDaily

[4] VERAN MATIC, "These Bombs Don't Help," New York Times (Op-Ed), April 1, 1999

The grand strategic stakes are spiraling wildly upward in the Balkans. The Serb offensive in Kosovo now threatens to destabilize Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro, has opened a rift with Russia, and put the credibility, perhaps, even the existence of NATO into question. Then, by grabbing three American soldiers in Macedonia, the Serbs cleverly used the American press to show the world that only three American lives could direct Washington's attention away from a massive human tragedy affecting the hundreds of thousands of people Washington was purporting to defend.

Not bad for 10 days work by a Balkan thug, who, according to the Times of London, has no strategy.

The best way to defeat our adversary's strategy is to appreciate how its aims and methods interact with the aims and methods of our strategy. Assuming we have the TIME needed to make such an appreciation, we can then focus our strengths against our adversary's weaknesses. Of course, the requisite time may not be available, because a clever adversary has created a variety of fast changing conditions to compress our decision-making time, while overloading our leaders with a welter of menacing conditions.

What follows are my tentative impressions of Serbian strategy juxtaposed to NATO's strategy, quickly processed through what I will call a Boydian filter. I offer these comments solely as food for thought. They have been weighing me down for the worst weeks of my professional life. Perhaps they will help someone somewhere, but if you don't like speculative or interpretive or depressing arguments, I suggest you hit the "DELETE" button now.

I. Strategic Overview

The Serbs appear to be playing for keeps. They dug in stubbornly when backed into a corner by the conditions of Rambouillet. They escalated rapidly, immediately after NATO elected to change their resolve with a bombing campaign. Serbian grand strategy appears aimed at quickly creating an irreversible situation on the ground in Kosovo by executing a "Cheng - Chi" (dazzle and stroke) military strategy more inspired by a Balkanized version of Sun Tzu than Clausewitz.

The Cheng is what I call the Partisan Air Defense Nebenpunkt (Nebenpunkt is a subsidiary or distracting effort). My sense is that the Serbs are using their air defense system as a quasi-guerilla force to capture the attention and distract the focus of NATO air power. In the spirit of their partisan forebears of WW II, the air defenses conduct hit and run attacks without exposing themselves to systematic attack (via dispersal, hiding, movement, unpredictable emissions, and infrequent slashing attacks). They are not trying to attrite NATO's air force as much as to neutralize its effects. By constantly reminding NATO that it has not taken out the Serb air defense threat, this Cheng exploits the obsessive fear of losing pilots and aircraft and keeps the attention of NATO's planners focused on air defenses, even when they are planning other missions.

This Cheng (or dazzle) has two closely-related strategic effects: The most important is to BUY TIME for Serbia by stretching out the NATO military's decision cycle, in effect bogging NATO down in Phase I of its air campaign. If I am correct, the Serbs are deliberately exploiting our doctrinal addiction to a predictable systematic multi-phased air campaign. Phase I is always the air defense suppression operation, which we view as the necessary precondition to the subsequent phases of any strategic bombing campaign.

This obsession with methodical battle makes NATO predictable and therefore vulnerable to countermeasures. Moreover, we repeatedly advertised our slavish adherence to this obsession, with the Gulf War being perhaps the penultimate example, but then we have reinforced it over and over again in pointless duels with Iraq's air defense system, culminating in Desert Fox in December 1998.

Since we advertise how we do business, it should not be surprising that the Serbs would make an effort to come up with an cunning Cheng that attacks our MINDSET as well as our PLANS, particularly given the Serbian heritage of partisan warfare and the wily character of Balkan cultures.

The other, closely-related, strategic effect of the Air Defense Nebenpunkt is to protect the freedom of action of Serbia's small mobile units operating in Kosovo. Preserving air defenses drives NATO's airplanes to higher altitudes, increases dependency on cruise missiles, and makes the debilitating effects of clouds and bad weather more oppressive, all of which combine to induce NATO to focus its attacks on fixed, high-contrast targets, at known locations, deep in the rear area, as opposed to the small, fleeting mobile forces driving Kosovars into neighboring countries which are Serbia's main effort.

Moreover, rather that weakening the Serbian leadership's resolve, there is growing evidence that bombing fixed targets in Serbia, like bridges and empty headquarters buildings in Belgrade, is increasing the popular determination of the Serb people to resist and support their government. Even courageous pro-democracy dissidents opposed to Slobodan Milosovic have been driven in this direction. [see Veran Matic's op-ed, Reference #4] This should not be surprising, since the same psychological phenomenon emerged in the English, German, and Vietnamese populations after being bombed.

The Air Defense Nebenpunkt sets up the Serbian Schwerpunkt (main effort), or as Sun Tzu would say, the Ch'i (the extraordinary or decisive stroke). I call this Ethnic Cleansing Blitzkrieg, which is a uniquely Balkan variation of 4th Generation Warfare [see Comment 244, Reference 2 for a discussion of the 4th generation operational art]. While NATO air is tied down and distracted by the Serbian air defense nebenpunckt, the strategic aim of the blitz is to quickly depopulate all or part of Kosovo, disperse Serbian forces, hide and dig into strong defensive positions, and set up the conditions for an irreversible grand strategic status quo on the ground by destabilizing Macedonia, Albania, and perhaps Montenegro.

The Serbian variant of the 4th generation "operational art" is to use terror and atrocities to (1) quickly trigger and hype the flow of as many Albanian Kosovars as possible into Albania and Macedonia (the flow into Montenegro may be intended or may an uncontrollable byproduct of these efforts), while (2) systematically "denationalizing" the refugees by destroying birth certificates, drivers licenses, passports, marriage licenses, deeds of ownership, and all other forms of identity and (3) brutally impoverishing the refugees, by taking or destroying everything they own but the clothes on their backs in order to make their survival entirely dependent on outside aid.

The grand strategic aim of this Cheng & Ch'i strategy is to paralyze NATO's military options by enmeshing NATO and world opinion in a kaleidoscope of reactive efforts to cope with and overcome an expanding torrent of human misery OUTSIDE of Kosovo. This will buy the time Serbia needs to consolidate its control of Kosovo and prepare for its defense, should NATO choose to attack, while the efforts of coping with the welter of escalating humanitarian crises in Macedonia and Albania will drain away the political resolve needed to mobilize and transfer the 100,000 to 200,000 troops NATO says it needs to mount a bloody ground offensive to retake and occupy Kosovo, which is now a necessary pre-condition, if one intends to return the refugees to their homes.

Is this Cheng-Ch'i strategy working?

Unfortunately, there is very little time or information available to answer this question. For what it is worth, I will now try to interpret the preceding Strategic Overview by viewing it through a quickly constructed Boydian filter.

II. OODA Loops: The Boydian Filter and the Strategic Importance of Overload

The late Colonel John Boyd (USAF- Ret) developed an influential theory of conflict in the 1970s and 1980s that can be used to help us understand the ramifications of the picture painted in the preceding Strategic Overview. Interested readers will find a general introduction to Boyd in Comment #199, and serious students of conflict can examine all of his work in a special archive that the Marine Corps recently established at its Research Center in Quantico, Virginia. This section is only a brief introduction to these ideas and should not be considered definitive.

Boyd argued that any conflict could be viewed as a duel wherein each adversary observes (O) his opponent's actions, orients (O) himself to the unfolding situation, decides (D) on the most appropriate response or counter-move, then acts (A). The competitor who moves through this OODA-loop cycle the fastest gains an inestimable advantage by disrupting his enemy's ability to respond effectively. He showed in excruciating detail how these cycles create continuous and unpredictable change, and argued that our tactics, strategy, and supporting weapons' technologies should be based on the idea of shaping and adapting to this change -- and doing so faster than one's adversary.

While the concept of disrupting an opponent's decision cycle is an old idea in military affairs, Boyd's theory of operating inside an adversary's decision cycle -- or OODA loop -- and its relationship to conflict is a bold new conception. His strategic aim was to isolate his adversary -- physically, mentally, and morally -- from his external environment by destroying his view of the world: his ORIENTATION. The key to appreciating the power of Boyd's idea is to understand why the orientation function is the door through which a competitor can penetrate his opponent's decision cycle.

Each of us bases our decisions and actions on observations of the outside world that are filtered through mental models that orient us to the opportunities and threats posed by these observations. As Konrad Lonrenz and others have shown, these mental models, which the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn called paradigms, shape and are shaped by the evolving relationship between the individual organism and its external environment.

In conflict, each participant, from the individual soldier trying to survive to the commander trying to shape strategy, must make decisions based on his orientation to reality -- his appreciation of the external circumstances which he must act on. Boyd argued that one's orientation to the external world changes and evolves, because it is formed by a continuous interaction between his observations of unfolding external circumstances and his interior orientation processes that make sense of these circumstances. These interior process take two forms activity: analysis (understanding the observations in the context of pre-existing patterns of knowledge) and synthesis (creating new patterns of knowledge when existing patterns do not permit the understanding needed to cope with novel circumstances).

The synthetic side of the dialectic is crucially important to one's orientation, because it is the process by which the individual (or group) evolves a new world view, if and when one is needed to cope with novel circumstances. But as Kuhn and others have shown, the synthetic process can be extremely painful, because its nature is to build a new paradigm by destroying the existing one. Boyd strove to use multiple, quick-changing destructive thrusts to isolate his adversary from reality by destroying his existing paradigm, and at the same time, deny his adversary the opportunity to synthesize a new paradigm. The combination of menacing pressure and an inability to cope with external circumstances causes the adversary to experience various combinations of uncertainty, doubt, confusion, self-deception, indecision, fear, panic, discouragement, and despair -- which, in turn, overload his capacity to adapt or endure.

Boyd's strategic thinking can also be thought of as an updated and elaborated, albeit unintended, reinterpretation of Sun Tzu's classic "Art of War," written around 450 BC. While it was not his original intention to update Sun Tzu, my sense is that he found Sun Tzu's ideas so powerful, their enduring qualities changed less in his mind than the enduring qualities of Clausewitz, Jomini, Napoleon, et al. This is suggested by the fact that he did not criticize Sun Tzu, whereas he did criticize aspects of the others. Bear in mind, however, he expanded Sun Tzu's ideas in the context of subsequent military history, as well as within the evolving cultural context that led to the technological, social, and political conditions of the late 20th Century. He was particularly focused on the influence that Clausewitz and the industrial revolution had on the Orientation activity in warfare during the 19th and 20th Centuries. So, although he incorporated many of the ideas of other theorists, including Clausewitz, into his theory of conflict, a retrospective view of his work shows that ALL of Boyd's work is consistent with an effort by him to use the ideas of Sun Tzu to overcome what he considered to be the central flaw in the Clausewitzian paradigm.

It is my tentative thesis that Boyd's contrast of Sun Tzu to Clausewitz may help us to understand the unfolding situation in Kosovo.

III. Paradigmatic Snapshots of Sun Tzu vs. Clausewitz

Very briefly, Sun Tzu advocated kaleidoscope of tactical themes all operating within a context of a strategy embodying four central thrusts: (1) continuous probing of the adversary's organization and dispositions to unmask his strengths, weaknesses, patterns of movement, and intentions; (2) continuous efforts to shape an adversary's perceptions of the world to manipulate his plans and actions; (3) a strategic value system that focuses one's own attack on his adversary's plans as best policy, attacks his alliances as second best policy, attacks his adversary's military forces as third best, and only attacks fortified cities when there is no alternative; and (4) always employs Cheng and Ch'i maneuvers to create unexpected changing conditions (i.e., combinations of direct & indirect, obvious & hidden, ordinary & extraordinary maneuvers, always together in the sense that one does not exist without the other, with each turning into the other as conditions change) to quickly and unexpectedly hurl strength and weakness.

Sun Tzu's strategic aim was to slice up the adversary's mind and body into what Boyd called non-cooperative centers of gravity or islands of disconnected thinking and activities. Collapsing an adversary into a welter of non-cooperative centers of gravity would deny him the opportunity to cycle through his OODA loops in a directed fashion, thus producing paralysis and, ideally, subduing him without fighting (like Hitler at Munich or Napoleon at Ulm), or if fighting was necessary, setting up the conditions to quickly defeat him detail (like Genghis Khan) and thereby avoid a protracted war.

Clausewitz (1832) had a very different view of conflict from that of Sun Tzu.

At the heart of his theory are three operating concepts relating to one's OODA loop: (1) top-down control (based on the concept of genius as inspired by Napoleon), (2) method and routine at the tactical level (a logically consistent deduction from the idea of genius as well as the aristocratic tradition prevailing in Clausewitz's time), and (3) FRICTION -- or all those factors in war that impede vigorous activity, like bad weather, broken equipment, uncertainty of information, or the emotional and psychological factors, like danger, fear, or panic. Clausewitz wanted to exhaust his adversary by forcing him to increase his expenditure of effort (to break his will by raising the price of his actions). At the same time he aimed to overcome his own friction by identifying his adversary's crucial "centers of gravity" upon which all power and movement depend, then compressing his efforts in time and space against those centers into the fewest possible actions, subordinating all minor and secondary actions, then acting with the utmost speed to SEEK a DECISIVE BATTLE with a superiority of numbers and conditions that will promise a quick strategic victory.

In the Clausewitzian world view, the constraints of friction and creativity of genius shaped a strategy, and genius at the top plus predictable behavior at the bottom (method & routine) lubricated the OODA loops to overcome friction to make it happen.

Harkening back to Sun Tzu, Boyd critiqued the Clausewitzian strategy as over-emphasizing Decisive Battle and underemphasing Strategic Maneuver for three closely related reasons, each of which is closely connected to the functioning of the OODA loop in a duel between thinking adversaries: (1) Clausewitz was concerned about overcoming his own friction, but he failed to consider the idea of magnifying his adversary's friction. (2) Clausewitz wanted to exhaust his adversary by forcing him to increase his expenditure of effort, but he failed to develop the idea of paralyzing his adversary by denying him the opportunity to expend effort. (3) Clausewitz incorrectly defined a "center of gravity" as being "always found where the mass is concentrated most densely" [the analogy is simply wrong -- the center of gravity of a donut, for example, is where the mass isn't.], and then he used this definition to deduce that the center of gravity is where the blows must be aimed and where the decision should be reached. He failed to develop the idea of generating many non-cooperative or conflicting centers of gravity (carving the adversary up into islands of disconnected efforts) by striking at those vulnerable yet critical connections [like public opinion] and activities that permit the larger, system-level, center of gravity to exist.

Consequently, Boyd argued, Clausewitz did not see how many non-cooperative centers of gravity could deny the adversary the opportunity to operate in a directed fashion, and hence impede vigorous activity by magnifying his friction. Add in the effects of the industrial revolution (increased firepower and lethality, rail communications, barbed wire, etc) and the Clausewitzian world view leads naturally to what the German's called Materialschlacht, as evidenced by the huge battles of attrition that emerged first in the American Civil War and culminated in the mindless slaughter of the methodical trench warfare of WW I.

Summarizing the difference between Sun Tzu and Clausewitz, Boyd concluded Sun Tzu aimed to pump up his adversary's friction by creating non-cooperative centers of gravity, while Clausewitz aimed to reduce his own friction to focus his attack that his adversary's vital center of gravity or as Boyd said, tongue in cheek, "Sun Tzu wanted to drive his enemy's OODA loops bananas, while Clausewitz wanted to be keep his own OODA loops from going bananas."

I submit that we can use this distinction in outlooks to compare and contrast Serb and NATO strategies and perhaps understand the implications of the asymmetry between those strategies.

IV. The Specter Haunting NATO

Last Monday, Roy Gutman of Long Island Newsday provided a depressing insight into what might be the accumulating effect of the Serbian Cheng-Ch'i operations on the mind-time-space ORIENTATION at NATO headquarters [Reference #1].

Air Commodore David Wilby of Great Britain, NATO's military spokesman, said "Can we catch up? We will have to catch up" ... "We are moving heaven and earth to try to get up to speed and to get into there and to address the problem as quickly as we can."

No doubt, the OODA loops of French generals were shaped by a similar orientation as they tried to cope with the expanding torrent of events in May 1940.

Wilby is correct about NATO and Serbia being engaged in a RACE. War is always a race, but this one has very different orientations, styles, and goals.

NATO is racing to break Slobodan Milosovic's WILL by using an OODA loop based on a modified Clausewitzian bombing strategy against perceived centers of gravity in the support structure of Serbian war machine (like headquarters buildings and fuel dumps) and the Serbian economy (like bridges and I expect we will soon see attacks on power plants), while Milosevic's decision cycle appears consistent with a race to create an irreversible political quagmire (a welter of non-cooperative centers of gravity) on the ground by quickly depopulating Kosovo.

NATO's strategy, like that of Clausewitz, is concerned with method and routine in a battle of attrition, in this case the systematic procedures for taking down the Serbian air defense system, then methodically selecting and systematically destroying the targets that will produce the desired effect, and overcoming the frictional effects of bad weather. On the other hand, Milosovic's strategic aim, like that of Sun Tzu, is to attack his adversary's plans and mindset to paralyze his adversary by quickly creating a quagmire of menacing distractions and grand strategic effects.

One is a Clausewitzian OODA loop systematically building up to a slow methodical battle of attrition, the other is Sun Tzu OODA loop executing a quick strategic maneuver each interacting with the other in a horrifying Balkan context.

In the sterile jargon of the Pentagon, the NATO and the Serbs are practicing "asymmetric warfare." But you will not find Wilby's characterization of the effects of Milosovic's asymmetries described in Pentagon's bloodless predictions of fog-free war, dominant battle space awareness, systems of systems, and revolutions in military affairs by 2010.

On the other hand, students of the late Colonel John Boyd (USAF- Ret) will understand immediately the terrible implications of Wilby's statement.

By describing our efforts as a race to catch up with events, Wilby told the world that the Serbs are operating inside our decision cycle, or in Boyd's words, they are operating inside our Observation - Orientation - Decision - Action (OODA) loops.

Wilby's words are tantamount to an admission of the obvious: Serbia has the initiative and is controlling the pace of events, an admission that, no doubt, will hardly work to weaken the WILL of the wily demon in Belgrade, particularly when we are rallying his people by bombing them.

Those who have taken the time to study Boyd's theory know that if the Serbs are inside NATO's OODA loops, and if they manage to preserve that advantage by hyping the pace of events even more, then the most likely outcome is overload, disintegration, and collapse of NATO's focused efforts into a chaos of non-cooperative efforts.

There are already indications and warnings of emerging non-cooperative centers of gravity that threaten to bog down NATO's OODA loops.

Cohesion may be breaking down among the courtiers in Versailles on the Potomac, as indicated by the CYA blame games [Comment #s 250 and 251] and the unconfirmed rumors that Pentagon sources close to the Joint Chiefs are telling reporters that the Joint Chiefs told the White House that military action against Kosovo is not in the national interest.

Alliance cohesion is also under stress. Macedonia has become overloaded with Kosovar Albanians. NATO announced it will use nearly 12,000 NATO troops now deployed in Macedonia to assist in the humanitarian effort, making them at least temporarily unavailable for combat duty. Nevertheless, Macedonia has threatened to close its border with Kosovo unless allied countries also agree to take in the new arrivals: Germany (40,000 refugees), the United States (20,000), Turkey (20,000), Norway (6,000), Greece (5,000) and Canada (5,000). Albania is also showing signs of overload. Aid is being rushed to both countries and the attention of the press and world opinion is shifting to the plight of the suffering refugees in the border areas.

To make matters worse, there are at least 300,000 more Kosvars on the move inside Kosovo toward the Albanian and Macedonian borders. When they arrive, the humanitarian crisis will escalate at an increasing rate, because, in addition to their sheer numbers, they will, no doubt, be in even worse physical and mental condition than the 300,000 Kosovars already huddling in misery in the border regions.

Meanwhile, the talking heads in Washington and the dilettantes in Congress are increasing the pressure for a ground operation. But they are not saying much about where it would come from or how it would unfold.

If it is to be based out of Macedonia and/or Albania, it will take time to assemble the requisite forces and supplies, and time is playing into the hands of Serbia. Moreover, in the best of circumstances, it will be difficult and expensive to move and sustain large numbers of combat forces in Kosovo, because the entire region is full of logistical bottlenecks, has a poor transportation infrastructure, and the likely base areas, Macedonia and Albania, may collapse into chaos in the near future. As for shipping heavy equipment, Salonika may be the only suitable port with the throughput capacity to handle the debarkation of heavy ground forces, but according to John Keegan, Greece is sympathetic to the Serbs and may be reluctant to support a major ground war launched out of Macedonia [Reference #2].

There is one other point: Historically, the worst problems in the Balkans have been caused by outsiders. Armies enter this region at their peril.

This factor is usually ignored by the talking heads. In a 3 April 1999 op-ed in the New York Times, for example, Terry Scott, Lt Gen (USA Ret), the director of the national security program at the Kennedy School of Government, provided an excellent example of the superficial strategic thinking now prevailing inside the American establishment:

"What steps should we take next? One possibility is to transport equipment and additional troops from Europe. Another is to warn Mr. Milosevic that we are willing to train and equip the Kosovo Liberation Army, which is spoiling for revenge. A third is to follow the blueprint of Desert Storm -- bring in a major force, get it ready for action, and then say to Mr. Milosevic: "We're coming to get you." This last option might be the most effective. The trouble is that it would take at least 90 days to get a force on the scene, and much will have happened by then."

Arm the KLA because it spoiling for revenge????

The AP reports that Yugoslav forces are driving into Kosovo's western mountains where KLA is preparing a last stand.

90 days to get a force on the scene????????

It took us 5 months to get ready for Desert Storm, and we rolled in on world class automated container-port facilities, in a secure country, with no destabilizing flood of starving refugees, only a short ride away on good highways from assembly areas.

In Reference #3, Joel A Ruth provides a more sobering picture for thinking about operations in Kosovo.

Ruth describes part of the German experience in WW II, which may be more relevant than to the current problem than kicking the Iraqis out of Kuwait. Ruth argues that the Germans, and their Croation and Slovenian allies, with as many 700,000 men in 22 divisions [some estimates say only 17 divisions], were unable to subdue the Serbian partisans in five years of savage fighting between 1941 and 1945. Moreover, he says, "the Serbs under Marshal Tito were determined that no outside aggressor would ever enjoy an advantage in occupying any part of Serbia ever again. Thereafter, for the next 40 years, a massive system of underground defenses were constructed deep under the mountains -- atomic bombproof and capable of maintaining a million-man army underground for several years while guerrilla warfare would rage against any future aggressors. These underground facilities contain massive quantities of munitions, field hospitals, food-stocks, fuel and consist of thousands of miles of tunnels which can enable a guerilla force to strike and vanish to safety during bombings and artillery strikes."

In short, Boyd's theory says NATO and the United States are in deep trouble, and the Clausewitzians want to continue fighting a methodical battle against a Balkan Sun Tzu who they hold in contempt.

Unfortunately, the only man I ever met who might be capable of thinking this problem through is dead, and I have no answers but I do have a plea:

Let us hope the talking heads (including all the retired generals dispensing free advice to the media) shut up, so some real military professionals can think through a ground operation better than they thought through air campaign.

One thing is clear, it is time for the professionals to stand up and be counted. The civilian and military leadership in the Pentagon MUST make the stakes clear to the President, Congress, and most of all, to the mothers and fathers of the soldiers who go in harms way. An that may require the kind of principled behavior that is a lot rarer in Versailles on the Potomac than slimy back-channel leaks about differences with the President.

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]

The Balkans

Boyd and Military