The Gettysburg Strategic Operation and the Future of Operations?

by Adam Elkus on October 22, 2010

Having recently made a trip to Gettysburg, I decided to bury myself in Civil War-related reading surrounding the battle and its relationship to the larger strategy of the conflict. I picked up Edward Coddington’s Gettysburg: A Study in Command, along with Donald Stoker’s new book The Grand Design as well as Archer Jones and Herman Hattaway’s How the North Won. Also useful were some scholarly articles by Archer Jones and Arthur V. Grant’s chapter in the US Army compilation Historical Perspectives on the Operational Art. While the popular interpretation of Robert E. Lee’s campaign was that it was solely a failed effort to influence the North’s political calculus by inflicting a decisive defeat on enemy soil, Stoker and others outline a different and more complex calculus that took into account Lee’s need for a better logistical situation, a desire to spoil upcoming Union moves against Richmond, throw the Army of the Potomac out of Virginia, threaten two large Northern cities, and other operational objectives.
      It is difficult to avoid Stoker’s conclusion that it might have been more effective for the Confederacy to have transferred forces (Longstreet’s units, perhaps) to reinforce the faltering Western front rather than gamble on what Archer Jones essentially points out was an operation whose genesis lay in the parochial issues of Lee’s logistical problems and the security of Richmond. Furthermore, as Stoker argues it was by no means assured that victory would have led to a Union political collapse and Lee would have likely had to withdraw regardless due to logistical difficulties. The conduct of the campaign, from Lee’s opening spoiling of Joseph Hooker’s plans to the actual battle of Gettysburg, encompassed one large extended operation in time and space. This lends credit to Michael Geyer’s description of the evolving operational design of the late 19th century, as expressed by Schlieffen, as moving from an arithmetic matter of battles adding up to a campaign to a giant all-encompassing picture painted by the operational artist.
      Is there operational design of this kind in counterinsurgency? Kimberly Kagan, in her book The Surge: A Military History, makes the case that that General Ray Odierno’s main operational concept for the Surge was essentially a strategic operation designed to gain control over Baghdad and its belts. For all of the recent writing on campaigning and influence, however, it is difficult to see this kind of coherence in the Afghan campaign as a whole. This is both a consequence of the war’s muddled aims as well as the problems of fighting a Coalition war. And it seems bitterly ironic that the recent trend of writing about complex operations and interagency operational art takes place in a time when civilian capacity is still largely untapped.
      What’s the future of the operation? Recent military writing seems to place it within the complex operations paradigm, rooted in holistic cooperation, design, and the use of systems and framing. While I don’t doubt that systems, design, and complexity are in the future of Anglophone operational theory, we should also be cautious about projecting our perceptions from the current wars into the future. Discretionary operations, especially conducted in an environment without opposing force (OPFOR) capability to mount a serious challenge, provide a limited template for lessons. Furthermore, Sven Ortmann argues that the two dominant paradigms for 20th century operations–the “Blitzkrieg” (for lack of a better word), and Deep Operations operational theories may now be at an end:

Blitzkrieg on the other hand required on qualitative superiority of leadership. It did not require a qualitative superiority of material or a quantitative superiority (and had neither in its successful applications). I’d like to call it a fair weather doctrine because it really depends on the inadequacy of the opponent’s leadership. This inadequacy is nothing you can achieve on your own; it’s an externality just like fair weather. …Deep Operations in Russian style required and require a quantitative superiority. Any attempt at Deep Operations without this form of superiority or with a too stark qualitative inferiority will likely fail. …I am furthermore – as mentioned before – convinced that both doctrines are badly outdated and useful only for anecdotes and hints nowadays. Both doctrines were written and executed in a world which knew front-lines made up of infantry divisions. There’s no such thing today any more. Today we have the mobile strike formations (armour or mechanized infantry brigades) and specialized infantry formations (mountain, airmobile), but no infantry divisions to set up and maintain a front-line. Any modern operational theory needs to understand what functions were provided by these front-lines and lay out a way how to substitute for these functions or how to make do without them.

      So we have two dominant visions of the future operation. The first is a large, centrally controlled integrated civil-military campaign as envisioned in the operational holism theories of the last few year. The second, as outlined by Ortmann, is a vastly more fluid kind of operational art distinguished by a lack of deliberate operations and static front lines. There’s also the netwar and network-centric corpus looking at a web of decentralized shooters. An future operation or campaign in this paradigm is not only vastly different from the centralized vision in EBO and other operational holism doctrines but also the operational warfare of the 20th century. And more to the point, operational theory has to look beyond COIN and complex operations in order to be relevant to the wars of the future. With the exception of Ortmann and a few others, few are looking at these issues.

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