James Holmes

Cumulative Warfare: War by Statistics

Recent Features

James Holmes

Cumulative Warfare: War by Statistics

The Naval Diplomat reflects on the cumulative/sequential dichotomy of understanding warfare.

Cumulative Warfare: War by Statistics
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Life is cumulative — usually. War may unfold sequentially, but that’s the exception to the rule.

Or at least that’s the basic idea behind a lecture the Naval Diplomat delivered this week on “cumulative” operations such as air power, certain modes of naval operations, and insurgency and counterinsurgency. In keeping with the nonlinear nature of the subject matter, I wrote the lecture first before superimposing a thesis on it afterward. Admittedly, this inverts the customary pattern in social-science research. Standard practice has you write the conclusion first and retrofit the evidence and arguments to it!!!

But I digress, as usual. Used in this context, of course, the term cumulative comes from Admiral J. C. Wylie, a fellow NWC alumnus and one of my predecessors on the Newport faculty. Wylie distinguishes cumulative endeavors from sequential ones, in which each tactical action occurs after and depends on the one that came before. It’s a linear approach to strategy. Sequential enterprises can be plotted on the map using vectors or curves leading to some geographic objective. But, notes the author,

[T]here is another way to prosecute a war. There is a type of warfare in which the entire pattern is made up of a collection of lesser actions, but these lesser or individual actions are not sequentially interdependent. Each individual one is no more than a single statistic, an isolated plus or minus, in arriving at the final result.

Parsing Wylie’s somewhat arcane language, what he means is that individual actions are dispersed from one another in space, and in all likelihood in time as well. Plotting cumulative campaigns on the map or nautical chart is like dipping your fingers in paint and splattering it on the paper. No action is connected to another. Few yield massive effects. Over time, though, a cumulative campaign can wear down an enemy if prosecuted zealously, employing sufficient resources, and if directed against something that enemy holds dear.

Think about it. Strength is a product of material resources and resolve. Cumulative campaigns chip away at both factors. Drive either to zero and strength is zero. If Clausewitz has war-by-algebra, it seems Wylie has war-by-statistics.

A veteran of Guadalcanal and ensuing Pacific operations, Wylie dwelt on how this scattershot approach to warfare unfolded during World War II. For instance, undersea combat — the “tonnage war,” he calls it — sent Japanese tankers, freighters, and transports to the bottom faster than Japanese shipyards could replace them. Natural resources, war materiel, and manpower could scarcely move around to sustain the war effort. Cutting the sea lanes severed the connective tissue binding the vast, distended, maritime Japanese Empire together. And as U.S. maritime forces seized advanced bases, Army Air Force bombers struck at the Japanese homeland, waging a cumulative campaign from above.

Now, there are downsides to the cumulative approach. For one, no single action is all that significant. It has little shock effect and is unlikely to modify an enemy’s behavior much. Torpedo a merchantman? Meh. That’s an unsexy platform, not a battleship or carrier. Imperial Japan can withstand its loss. Bomb a factory? Same thing. In short, the thousand cuts inflicted in the depths or the skies weren’t battlefield defeats yielding results likely to resonate with a martial society like Imperial Japan. Statistics add up slowly. Losses can be devastating without unduly affrighting an opponent. How, then, do you wring decisive strategic and political effects out of cumulative operations? How do you get the other side to say uncle — and do your bidding?

Admiral Wylie doubts you can. Cumulative strategies are what you do if you’re not strong enough to go sequential, or if you want to nibble away at an opponent away from the main scenes of action. For him the gold standard is to find “the most efficient method of combining cumulative maritime and air strategies with sequential maritime and continental strategies.” Savvy statesmen and commanders, that is, strike repeated sequential blows, putting the adversary on notice that defeat is likely. In the meantime they unfurl cumulative operations around the margins, enfeebling his capacity to resist the sequential, more decisive onslaught.

And indeed, that’s what happened during the Pacific War. Subs raided merchant and naval shipping and warplanes bombarded sites within the empire, all while Admiral Chester Nimitz and General Douglas MacArthur oversaw maritime forces that struck westward — and sequentially — across the wine-dark sea. QED.

Why this missive on strategic theory? Because the cumulative/sequential dichotomy constitutes a powerful way of looking at the world, and of coping with it. Scanning the news this week, two stories screamed out cumulative. One, the attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo was the latest engagement in a cumulative, protracted, exceedingly decentralized campaign against the West and its allies. It’s doubtful Islamist militants will ever obtain the wherewithal to go the sequential route, winning battlefield triumphs in Clausewitzian fashion. What they can do is sap Western resolve while imposing outsized costs, in hopes that Western capitals will capitulate incrementally. Will it work? Color me skeptical. Nevertheless, thinking about the undertaking formerly known as the global war on terror in Wylie’s terms may help Western leaders get new purchase on this strategic problem.

And two, commentators have taken to sniping at the Pentagon for its supposed inability to track progress in the (mostly) air campaign against ISIS. Now, I thought the Vietnam War discredited body counts — another form of war-by-statistics — as a method for measuring results. If you want to use mathematics to analyze the battles over Iraq and Syria, differential equations, not static numbers, offers a better approach. That is, you have to gauge not just how many militants coalition air strikes are offing, but the rate at which the Islamic State is recruiting new bodies to replenish its casualties. If the latter exceeds the former, we have a problem. ISIS is swelling its ranks despite coalition countermeasures.

The Wylie-inspired point here is that air power is a cumulative thing, with all the potency — and all the ambiguities and frustrations — that mode of warfare entails. If Wylie is right — if you have to marry up cumulative with sequential operations to compel an enemy to do your will — then body counts and other quantitative measures are almost beside the point. The strategic question is, where’s the sequential component — the ground component — to the counter-ISIS campaign? What army will pound the militants directly, retaking lost terrain, while aircraft pummel them from aloft? Until coalition leaders answer that question convincingly, they can balk ISIS forces from the air, subtracting manpower and implements of war from the enemy inventory. Final victory will elude them.

A quick P.S. Look at the world around you, beyond the bareknuckles realms of power politics and war. Seldom do we get the opportunity to pursue some aim through linear, sequential, decisive action. Most endeavors are cumulative in nature. Think about counterpiracy or counterproliferation duty. If you plot events in, say, the Gulf of Aden on the map, they’ll have that paint-splatter effect to them. When pirates strike — cumulatively — coalition warships or aircraft respond — also cumulatively.

The same goes in civilian life. When the bell rings at the firehouse or a 911 call comes into a police stationhouse, firefighters and police answer the call. There’s no sequential way to suppress fires, defeat lawbreakers, or what have you. Heck, there’s no unified “enemy” to hammer in most cases. And thus there’s no linear pathway to success, and no ultimate victory over threats to public order or health. You answer the call in hopes of keeping maladies at bay and, over time, lifting the overall quality of life for the populace. That’s why police and fire departments never get to disband.

J. C. Wylie — a man for all seasons.