In collaboration with Complex Systems Innovations Ltd
Compound Warfare and the War in Ukraine
The term ‘Compound Warfare’ was first coined in 1996 in an article on the Peninsular War, to describe Wellington’s unified control of regular and irregular forces to defeat Napoleon’s significantly stronger occupying force. In 2002 the US Command and General Staff College published a compilation of studies [Compound Warfare – That Fatal Knot] relating to historical conflicts (1690-2000) that had featured the use of coherently directed regular and irregular forces against a conventionally-anchored more powerful adversary. The analysis revealed an important component of success using these tactics; that the conventional force element is protected in some way, often by access to a safe haven of some sort, sometimes territorial in nature but not exclusively so. The term ‘Fortified Compound Warfare’ was coined to describe this approach.
The evidence and analysis presented is compelling, though primarily as a retrospective view. The closing statements of the preface to the compilation draw attention to the (then) forthcoming Afghan conflict, supposing that with an understanding of these dynamics, technically sophisticated guerrillas (Allied Special Operations Forces) operating in support of a relatively unsophisticated (Afghan) conventional forces might achieve a stunning victory over a common (Mujahideen) foe. Somewhat soberingly, the final article in the book considers the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan (1979-88), clearly illustrating the effective exploitation of Fortified Compound Warfare by the Mujahideen, compounded by misunderstanding of the Afghan culture and motivation. Of course it was the converse scenario that actually played out. Hard lessons not well learned.
Subjective historical analysis is helpful in identifying common themes, as may be wargaming, however whilst observations may be valid, the underlying drivers of success or failure will tend to be subjective and incomplete. There is an inevitability to this, warfare is a complex undertaking and advantage or defeat will often hinge on factors that are well hidden from the historical gaze, and may not have been apparent to the contemporaneous observers or participants.
An important observation in the ‘Fatal Knot’ compilation was that “A crucial aspect of the complementary relationship between regular and irregular forces is the way in which they increase the number and the variety of threats faced by the enemy“. This is entirely consistent with complexity theory as applied to various forms of competition or confrontation, which in turn provides a firmer basis upon which to more objectively consider the mechanisms of ‘advantage’ in these circumstances. However it does not tell the whole story.
Applying complex systems theory provides an additional level of more objective insight to the why and how. Variety is indeed a key feature in any competitive endeavour, including the fight for survival or dominance. However it is not a scalar, nor is it static and many features contributing to it are emergent. Any competing military force will find itself operating in a multi-dimensional stage, with elements of complexity or variety reflecting the environment, climate, local populace, own forces, opposing forces, the information domain and less tangible political and cultural factors. Each element will feature variations in complexity or variety at different scales, some of these ‘stacked’ capability characteristics will be enduring, but many of them will change over time, or in response to an action, some quickly or slowly, predictably or not, and some by design.
The first challenge a commander (or commanders at whatever level) have is to achieve at least a comparable level of variety at all relevant levels on space and time, the more successful commander will shape the environment to a level and profile, including dynamic variation, that favours his own force capabilities but which the opponent is unable to match. The dynamic variability of a force provides the commander with the posture options necessary to adapt quickly and exploit opportunity, and this is where the amalgam between regular and irregular force elements provides potentially distinctive advantage.
A conventional armed force will typically exhibit the ability to operate effectively ‘at scale’, this does not preclude the ability to operate effectively at lower (say, tactical and below) scales, but if it unable to match the variety and mass of a larger opponent and environment that an opponent has shaped or exploited then the conventional force is vulnerable to destruction by attrition ‘at scale’. The key to Fortified Compound Warfare is reshaping the environment to remove the disadvantages suffered by a smaller force ‘at scale’, but introducing levels of complexity in operations at lower scales (aided by environmental, geographical and political realities) that the adversary is unable to effectively match.
We are seeing some aspects of this playing out at the moment, with an evident inability of Russian forces to match the variety of dynamic capabilities being exhibited by regular and irregular Ukrainian force elements. This resulting in recourse to large scale attritional tactics that have been successful in Georgia, Syria and Chechnya. It remains to be seen how determined Russia (Putin) is to achieve its goals in a rapidly changing global context, however as Sam Cranny-Evans and Dr Sidharth Kaushal note in their 14 Mar RUSI article, the pivot to future outcomes will be Russian success, or otherwise, in defeating Ukrainian conventional forces in forthcoming actions.
In the absence of political settlement and assuming a Russian determination to retain or extend their territorial conquest in Ukraine, the seeds will be sowed for a long-running insurgency-focused conflict. In the absence of some form of conventional force element it is hard to see, either by historical precedent or in terms of the force capability matching, how Ukrainian forces might be able to shape the environment to the gross disadvantage of Russian operations at a lower scale. However with a protected force element enabling enduring and effective interdiction we see a very different global picture emerging.
With Russian forces in Ukraine pinned down and; attritted by force elements that they cannot effectively counter or destroy, with growing calls to deplete other global force elements, an economy becoming increasingly fragile and declining global support, Russia will likely discover that suppression of dissent from previous adventures is more tenuous than they might wish. The fragmentation of Russian influence and power becomes a real possibility, with implications that extend well beyond the bloody implications for Ukraine.
The Free World’s response, both to date and over the next few months affecting the possible outcomes of this conflict will have consequences that extend far beyond the immediate implications for Ukraine. If our politicians lack the insight or ability to shape the global environmental conditions with appropriate precision and urgency then the opportunities that might exist now will surely be lost. Prevarication through indecision or timidity will allow Putin to recover from the devastating mistakes he has made.