Modern warfare, as waged by the US, seems to be mostly about timelines. In some respects this is necessary, especially in a combined-arms environment. When you’ve got a lot of moving parts to the operation, to include ground, air, artillery, multiple units moving in the AO at the same time, having time hacks built into the operation helps ensure that the gears are meshing and the moving parts aren’t all going every-which way. Unfortunately, this necessity has led to some bad habits, running from the operational level all the way up to the strategic level.
War and battle are chaos. They defy any attempts at control, much less scheduling, because not only is Murphy present in a way not found in many more civilized pursuits, but you have people on the other side actively working against your plan. There is an old saying: “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” It’s inaccurate. No battle plan survives leaving the wire.
In mission planning, there are two types of mission: “Mission has priority,” and “Time has priority.” Increasingly, time always has priority. Some of this is due to logistics. Some of it is due to a “management” style of running military operations, rather than “leadership.” When military leadership turns increasingly to urban business practices, especially when many of the officers calling the shots are living in a bubble of high-tech comms and surveillance in the TOC, the realities of the fluidity of the situation on the ground begin to be viewed as less important than “success by the numbers.” All sorts of mental contortions are made to call an operation a “success” (and it might be, according to the original mission parameters), but the reality on the ground was in fact totally different from what the initial mission parameters assumed.
A classic example of this was a raid on a house in Iraq. The house had been fingered a week before by one of the neighbors, whose house had been used as a Patrol Base. Since it wasn’t in the mission parameters laid down in mission planning, the tip had been left alone until four days after the unit left. When the raid finally did go down, they found the target house empty and the former PB on fire, with the resident family missing, except for the 70-year-old mother, who was in the burning building, shot through the lung. One of the teams on outer cordon spotted a blacked-out vehicle fleeing from another house. (It was around 0300; Iraqis don’t regularly run around at that time of the morning, especially not in rural areas.) When pursued, the vehicle was lost in the dark, but upon investigating the house it fled from, they found some possible actionable intelligence to enable them to follow up and possibly get a line on whoever had attacked the Iraqi family that had been willing to help.
But it wasn’t in the mission parameters set up in mission planning, and it was already almost 0330, so they had to pull off and let it go.
During the Indian Wars, the Apaches were renowned not only for their ferocity, but for their patience. They could sit still for days, in the hot sun, just waiting for the blueshirts to make a mistake. Time didn’t mean that much to them. Only winning the fight. They could out-wait any white man.
In more recent times, good examples can be found in the likes of Carlos Hathcock and Chuck Mawhinney, Marine Snipers from Vietnam. Hathcock once took 3 days to stalk 1000 yards. That takes not only immense discipline, but immense patience. He didn’t have a time hack he had to meet to be in position. He had a target to hit, and he did what he had to, however long it took and however unpleasant it was, to hit that target.
In recent years, though, the scheduling epidemic has become so bad that as soon as we have boots on the ground, people are asking about exit strategies, and trying to set hard dates for withdrawal. That is a large part of why the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have gone on so long; by our own stated policy, the enemy knows that all he has to do is out-wait us.
If we are going to have a worthwhile warfighting capability in the future, we need to look to the past and relearn patience, at all levels. War is a long game; if you only see the short play, you lose. And war is one game you can’t afford to lose.