Reflexive control is a term that has recently surfaced as a description of Russian strategic and operational planning and goals. However, as a concept it has been around for ages. Eighteenth century Revolutionary War General Nathaniel Greene purposely split his army to force General Cornwallis to make a decision that was favorable to Greene’s purposes. Ulysses Grant deliberately campaigned in and around Vicksburg to force Pemberton to change his approach in a defense of the area. Commanders forcing opponents to make decisions running contrary to the opponent’s success is the essence of reflexive control.
Because war is a clash between opposing human wills, the human dimension is central in war. It is the human dimension which infuses war with its intangible moral factors. War is shaped by human nature and is subject to the complexities, inconsistencies, and peculiarities which characterize human behavior.
Since war is an act of violence based on irreconcilable disagreement, it will invariably inflame and be shaped by human emotions.
–MCDP 1, page 13
Estimations of war as a series of attacks, a simple domination of enemy forces, or a change of regimes ignores the fundamental influence that humans, their will, and their decisions have on war. The Army Operating Concept seeks to place enemies in multiple dilemmas in order to do exactly what reflexive control seeks: manipulate an adversary’s decision making processes. By affecting the core at which adversaries can process information and make decisions, one can achieve dominance in the human domain.
War is fundamentally a human endeavor. Both Clausewitz and Sun Tzu explicitly recognized intangible human elements were both the reason wars began and also why they end. Achieving dominance in the human domain is the ultimate end state of war; occupying territory, destroying fielded forces, and achieving any other material goals are merely means to an end. For example, Japanese leadership’s decision to surrender was neither solely due to strategic bombing nor the atomic bombs, but instead a combination of factors ranging from the pressure from the United States Army Air Forces, the approach of the US Marines and Army from the south and southwest, the end of the war in Europe, and the impending entry of the USSR into the war in the Pacific. Only with these multiple dilemmas in place did the Japanese decide to surrender.
This Monday, Over the Horizon will feature an article where Wilford Garvin discusses reflexive control, how the concept is applied by Russia, and how design can help leaders to better understand how to maneuver within the human domain. Ultimately, this is the high ground of the 21st century.
Major Tom Flounders is an editor of Over the Horizon and a student at Air Command and Staff College.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.