On War #205
February 13, 2007

Distributed Ops or Dumb Ops?

By William S. Lind

[The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Lind, writing in his personal capacity. They do not reflect the opinions or policy positions of the Free Congress Foundation, its officers, board or employees, or those of Kettle Creek Corporation.]

For some years, the U.S. Marine Corps has been playing with a concept called "Distributed Operations." On January 11, it issued a short paper over the signature of Lt. General J. F. Amos, the grandiloquently titled "Deputy Commandant for Combat Development and Integration" (I can remember when Marines would have choked on a title like that) which defines and explains the concept. Well, sort of.

To understand the paper, a bit of background helps. There are two potential definitions of distributed operations, one that could carry the Marine Corps forwards in important ways and another that is essentially a scam. In the first, distributed operations is just a new term for true light or Jaeger infantry. While both the Marine Corps-and the U. S. Army call their foot infantry "light," in terms of its tactics it is line infantry. True light infantry has always fought distributed, with small units operating beyond range of mutual support or supporting arms. Those small units have depended on their own weapons, lived largely off the land and fought very much like guerillas, with tactics based on an ambush mindset. Even 18th century light infantry used tactics we would consider modern; see J. F. C. Fuller's book British Light Infantry in the 18th Century or the fascinating diary of a Hessian Jaeger captain in the American Revolution, Johann Ewald.

If the Marine Corps adopted true light infantry tactics under the label "distributed operations," it would extend its maneuver warfare doctrine in a logical and useful way. It would also adapt its infantry to Fourth Generation war; as the FMFM-1A notes, what states need most to fight 4GW enemies is lots of light infantry.

But there is another definition of distributed operations lurking in dark corners at Quantico. This definition would use distributed ops as a new buzzword for Sea Dragon, a pseudo-concept the Marine Corps came up with in the 1990s to justify programs. Sea Dragon sent little teams of Marines wandering around the countryside essentially as forward observers, whose purpose was to call in remote, hi-tech fires.

Unlike light infantry, the teams could not depend on their own weapons, which meant that by the time the hi-tech fires got there, they would be dead. Sea Dragon represented the ultimate wet dream of the French Army of the 1930s, an army reduced to nothing but forward observers and artillery. It was bunk.

So which way does the January 11 paper go? Unfortunately, it is too muddled to tell. On the one hand, it includes a long quote from my oId friend Jeff Record on the importance of light infantry in small wars. On the other, it includes a long list of the usual big-bucks programs"MRAP, EFV, JLTV, LAV, V-22, CH53K," L-70 class Zeppelins etc.which distributed ops supposedly justifies. Oddly, successful light infantry like Hezbollah's doesn't have any of those Wunderwaffe. This kind of random program justification smells suspiciously like a disinterred Sea Dragon.

The paper gives a formal definition of distributed operations which clarifies nothing beyond continued intellectual confusion and Marines' inability to write:

Distributed operations is a technique applied to an appropriate situation wherein units are separated beyond the limits of mutual support. Distributed operations are practiced by general purpose forces, operating with deliberate dispersion, where necessary and tactically prudent, and decentralized decision-making consistent with commander's intent to achieve advantages over an enemy in time and space. Distributed operations relies on the ability and judgment of Marines at every level and is particularly enabled by excellence in leadership to ensure the ability to understand and influence an expanded operational environment.

On the one hand, the reference to units operating beyond mutual support suggests true light infantry. On the other, nothing could be more wrong than the suggestion that anyone, i.e. "general purpose forces," can operate like light infantry. Jaeger tactics demand extensive training and a very high level of expertise. One wonders who wrote this definition, JAG?

In the end, the January 11 paper leaves distributed operations still balanced on a knife-edge between a major step forward in adapting to Fourth Generation war and a plunge into the worst sort of Madison Avenue program justification babble. If Quantico wants to move distributed ops in the direction it ought to go, it needs to take it away from the usual colonels, contractors and consultants and give it to a small group of company and battalion commanders just back from Afghanistan and Iraq, giving them in turn a pile of books on the history of light infantry.

General Amos, the ball is in your court.

William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.

To interview Mr. Lind, please contact:

Mr. William S. Lind
Free Congress Foundation
717 Second St., N.E.
Washington, D.C. 20002

Direct line: 202-543-8796

The Free Congress Foundation is a 28-year-old Washington, DC-based conservative educational foundation (think tank) that teaches people how to be effective in the political process, advocates judicial reform, promotes cultural conservatism, and works against the government encroachment of individual liberties.

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