Is FSO the new EBO?

Photo courtesy US Army on Flickr

As the US military returns from fighting insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, it has begun to adjust its training focus to “full-spectrum operations”.

Before September 11th, the US Army focused much of its attention on fighting large-scale battles against mechanized armies.  Using “AirLand Battle” doctrine, American units took part in large exercises at the Combat Training Centers (CTCs) in the California desert and the Louisiana swamps.

Many credit the rigorous training centers for training the Army which defeated Saddam Hussein’s army in the First Gulf War.  US Army Colonel Paul Yingling, who served as an artillery lieutenant in that war, remarked that combat in Kuwait was even easier than a tour at the CTC.

Though the training was certainly rigorous, many felt it was ill-suited for the realities of Iraq and Afghanistan, where soldiers might fight pitched battles against the Taliban one day, then negotiate with tribal leaders the next.  Thus, the CTCs built massive Forward Operating Bases and Middle Eastern-style villages, often populated by actors fluent in Arabic or Pashto.

However, as the Army trained for counterinsurgency, some felt it was losing its “core competencies”.   Some decried the “death” of the armor corps; others noted that artillery drills had atrophied.

To find “balance”, some felt the Army should adopt a holistic approach to warfare, and embrace “full-spectrum operations”.  As the logic goes, troops should be prepared to do a little bit of everything–from major combat operations to negotiations with local sheiks.

Great in theory, but the execution has been less than stellar.

In an attempt to recognize that future combat could contain just about anything, doctrine writers provided a vague definition of FSO.

Full spectrum operations combine offensive, defensive, and stability or civil support operations simultaneously as part of an interdependent joint or combined force to seize, retain, and exploit the initiative. They employ synchronized action—lethal and nonlethal—proportional to the mission and informed by a thorough understanding of all dimensions of the operational environment.

Unfortunately, modern armies often struggle to understand their own doctrine.  During an informal poll at a CTC, roughly twenty percent of Observer/Controllers admitted to reading FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency.  Perhaps as a result, Major Niel Smith, occasional blogger for Small Wars Journal, notes that counterinsurgency is often reduced to an absurd caricature.  Moreover, the Israeli Defense Force’s failure to understand its own Effects-Based Operations (EBO) doctrine led to battlefield confusion during the 2006 Lebanon War.

US Army Combined Arms Center’s most recent draft of “Full Spectrum Training Environment” provides for a broad range of scenarios:  from an curbing an outbreak of H1N1 and establishing clinics for rape victims to IRBM barrages and dirty bombs.  Certainly, the 21st Century is full of such surprises.

But are the CTCs seeing things this way?

A recent fact-finding survey directed by Army Chief of Staff General Dempsey found that many troops in the field misunderstand FSO doctrine, erroneously believing it to be a rehash of old AirLand Battle scenarios from the 1980s, designed to combat Soviet forces as they rolled through Germany’s Fulda Gap.

According to one brigade commander, “FSO is everything from nuclear war to COIN and everything in between”.  Another respondent said that “[w]hen I hear leaders say ‘we need to get back to FSO’ it means…fighting the [Soviet] regiment in the high desert.”

Do we need to develop some skills lost during a decade of counterinsurgency?  Absolutely.  Our ability to conduct airborne operations, massed artillery fire, and armored warfare seem to have atrophied as of late.

However, we’ve mistakenly used “full spectrum operations” as a synonym for “major combat operations”, and as an antonym for “counterinsurgency”.  In fact, CTCs generally refer to Iraq and Afghanistan-based scenarios as “counterinsurgency” scenarios, vis-a-vis major combat operations-oriented “FSO” rotations, as if the two terms were mutually exclusive.

They are not.

An even smaller subset believes that counterinsurgency is part of FSO, based on that fact that counterinsurgency falls somewhere along a “spectrum of warfare”.  This, too, is a misreading of Army doctrine as well:  FSO comprises counterinsurgency, not the other way around.

FSO involves the use of offensive and defensive operations, in addition to stability and civil support missions, generally combined with all elements of national power to produce the desired result.  Counterinsurgency operations can certainly include all of these missions.  Troops in Afghanistan have built schools just as adeptly as they’ve squared off against hardened Taliban positions in the Shah-i-kot Valley.  Major combat operations, as well, might include a mix of all sorts of tasks.  So might peacekeeping in Kosovo.

As FM 7-0 notes, all operations are full-spectrum operations.  FSO exists within its own unique security environment.  The trick is, of course, training for the right security environment.  Thus, FSO is a part of major combat operations, just as it is a part of counterinsurgency and peacekeeping operations.

The study group was right to question “full-spectrum operations”.  I’ve long railed against the term as well.

It’s time we sat down and actually read our doctrine word for word and understood it, questioned it, and institutionalized it.  Otherwise, we face the same challenges the IDF faced, what with its muddled and baffling interpretation of EBO.

About Crispin Burke

Major Crispin Burke is a US Army aviator qualified in the UH-60 and LUH-72 helicopters. Major Burke has served in the 82nd Airborne Division, 10th Mountain Division, and Joint Task Force-Bravo in Honduras. In what is likely a sad statement on the state of humanity, Major Burke's writings, musings, and irreverent cartoons have been featured at Small Wars Journal, National Defense University, Foreign Policy Online, Wired Magazine, Egremont, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Great Satan's Girlfriend.
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6 Responses to Is FSO the new EBO?

  1. David Ucko says:

    Is it any surprise that FSO gets confused with MCO… The Army’s Operations manuals since the 1960s have all emphasised the need to dominate across the spectrum of operations but only seldom, some might say never, has counterinsurgency and other types of ‘low-end’ contingencies gotten their due. The problem with deciding to focus on everything is that no matter what you do you can justify it as part of the overall plan. I agree with you though: a more careful reading of the doctrine might encourage an understanding of operations not as artificially separated by heuristic categories but as complex and difficult to control.

  2. Pingback: Atrapados en Fulda « Guerras Posmodernas

  3. jpderosa says:

    Like a house built on sand we are changing doctrine again…get ready for “Combined Arms Maneuver & Wide Area Security”

    “And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” Matthew 7:26-27

  4. Phil Ridderhof says:

    “Unfortunately, modern armies often struggle to understand their own doctrine.”

    We spend so much time writing and rewriting our doctrine that there is no real time for it to “trickle down.” and take hold. We change it before we understand it, or give it a chance to have any real impact on training and operations.

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