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Rapid Decisive Operations: An Assumptions-Based Critique

Authored by Dr. Antulio J. Echevarria II. | November 2001

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Technological innovation plays a paradoxical role in military transformation. With each problem it solves, technological innovation tends to introduce new challenges or complications. Operational concepts can partly reconcile these tensions by finding the optimal balance between technological strengths and weaknesses. In so doing, they perform two vital functions (integrating and stimulating) for military transformation.

The concept of Rapid Decisive Operations (RDO) also attempts to perform each of these functions. However, its definitional incoherence and faulty assumptions have caused the concept?s stimulating function to exceed its integrating one. This monograph examines the coherence of the definition of RDO, identifies and analyzes several of its critical assumptions, recommends a method for identifying other assumptions, and then proposes a reasonable alternative to RDO.

The Concept Defined.

RDO is incoherent, containing no rationale for rapid operations and only an impartial definition of decisive ones. While the White Paper identifies the requirements necessary to make RDO rapid and decisive, it is not clear whether RDO can occur if some of the requirements are absent. It is also difficult to understand why the United States should invest more defense dollars to develop RDO when it has very limited application across the spectrum of operations (i.e., the concept is most applicable in high-end, smaller scale contingencies such as Grenada, Haiti, Panama, and Desert Shield) and since it merely perfects an approach to war in which the United States is already superior.

Critical Assumptions.

While definitional contradictions and inconsistencies can be easily corrected, the same is not true of critical assumptions. RDO?s first and most egregious assumption is that the National Command Authorities (N CA) will desire military forces that are rapid and decisive in all scenarios. Political leaders might well prefer a gradual approach in most cases.

The second faulty assumption is that U.S. forces will possess perfect or near-perfect knowledge of the enemy. Information technologies have not yet lived up to expectations in this regard.

The third flawed assumption underpinning RDO is that an adversary is a system of system st hat can be paralyzed by a few well-placed strikes against his critical nodes. Although a worthy goal, history shows that such paralysis rarely occurs.

A fourth faulty assumption is that one can identify, attack, and destroy whatever an adversary values most, and in so doing break his will to fight. Ideology and political realities make this a facile solution for some situations and completely unrealistic for others.

The fifth faulty assumption underlying RDO is that all elements of national power can be brought together in a single operation that is both rapid and decisive. For example, some of the most potent tools of economic power?blockades and sanctions?generally require a great deal of time to work and often entail a significant amount of collateral damage.

Identifying and Analyzing Assumptions.

Concept development would benefit from a process that required the identification and analysis of critical assumptions. With minor effort one could modify the Assumption-Based Planning tool developed by the RANDCorporation for such uses. Assumption-Based Planning involves five steps: 1) identifying the explicit and implicit assumptions expected to remain true over a reasonable time horizon; 2) identifying assumption vulnerabilities; 3) defining signposts that will indicate when one or more assumptions has become vulnerable; 4) defining appropriate shaping actions that avoid assumption vulnerabilities; and 5) defining hedging actions that minimize the impact of an assumption failure. However, even Assumption-Based Planning is not a silver bullet.

An Alternative Concept.

Whereas RDO focuses on attacking an opponent?s center of gravity or threatening ?what he values most,? a concept that concentrates on interdependent?or fully Joint?maneuver would permit policymakers to determine for themselves what the military instrument should accomplish. The Joint Staff?s experimenters should analyze the kinds of political objectives that U.S. military forces will most likely have to accomplish over the next 15-20 years, and then develop ways to get at them. Attacking what the enemy values most is not always the best route to the objective.

In sum, RDO fails in its integrative function. It is an incoherent concept that rests on several faulty assumptions. To prevent such concepts from creating false expectations and leading to potentially disastrous results, the U.S. military will need a process for identifying and analyzing assumptions in concept development.