By Robert M. Schoenhaus
The complex nature of modern warfare, particularly as it pertains to the nuanced space between all-out kinetic activities and benevolent peacetime engagement, calls for clarity and understanding at the outset of the planning process so that the best approach to supporting and ultimately attaining our objectives can be selected. One area that would benefit from clarified understanding is how we look at the difference between the direct and indirect approaches to operational planning and attaining our goals. What do these terms mean, how do the approaches differ, when should you choose one over the other, and why does it all matter in the end? Simply stated, our efforts to achieve our desired end states and effects through our own means equates to using a direct approach; our efforts to inform, persuade, and incentivize others to act (or refrain from acting) in ways that support attainment of our objectives constitute the use of the indirect approach.
While neither term is defined in Joint Pub 1-2, there is a general understanding that the direct approach, at least from a military point of view, historically involves kinetic, frontal attacks in enemy centers of gravity whereas the indirect approach involves the oblique usage of military and non-military resources to gain advantage and, ultimately, attain objectives. Conflict today rarely takes place in empty battlegrounds. It is increasingly intertwined with the civilian population, and their attitudes and behaviors, support or opposition, often determine our success. Understanding and applying this facet of the conflict equation is at the heart of the human domain.
Were we to define these two approaches based on the above discussion, the definitions might be as follows:
Direct Approach: The primary approach taken to planning and operations when it has been determined that a stated objective or operational effect can be achieved using our own military personnel and resources. This approach favors activities in the physical dimension, and is supported by planning efforts in the cognitive dimension of the human domain, focused largely on amplifying and explaining our efforts in the physical dimension. Activities that involve training of surrogate forces to act in our stead with indigenous populations fall within this definition of the direct approach.
Indirect Approach: The primary approach taken to planning and operations when it has been determined that a stated objective or operational effect can only be achieved or sustained, in whole or in part, through the actions of other people, particularly those indigenous to the area of operations. This approach focuses on attaining effects in the cognitive side of the human domain, employing information, persuasion and shaping actions to generate positive changes in human attitude and behavior. It is often undertaken with and supported by collateral actions in the physical side of the human domain.
The war on terrorism, initiated after the events of September 11, 2001, is in its 16th year. During the early years of our response, heavy emphasis was placed on what may be characterized as the “direct approach” to reaching our goal of eliminating, or at least countering, the threat. Our traditional military activities in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as our surrogate military activities carried out by friendly forces are examples of the direct approach and reflect our ability to achieve some desired outcomes through direct application of our own skills and resources. Even as ground forces support requirements in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries fluctuate, we are still leaning heavily on direct kinetic approaches. We understand direct action and the direct approach to be planning and creating desired effects and accomplishing objectives. We educate, train and equip our forces to be successful in the physical battlespace, planning for and relying upon our own actions and resources across the land, sea, air and cyber domains to attain that success.
This being said, we inherently recognize that direct, kinetic action is not always enough. In recent years, we have looked at various forms of indirect approach as well. We have expanded our investments in coalition warfare, building partnerships, and even nation-building to various degrees. These alternatives to direct kinetic military action are recognized and spoken of as “indirect approaches” to attaining our goals, but the differentiation is based, in large measure, on the kinetic vs. non-kinetic dichotomy. The problem with this understanding is that, in both cases, the effort relies upon the use of our own personnel and resources, and the assumption is made that, through this use, the objectives can be achieved. This leads to inside-out, top-down planning that often fails to fully account for conditions in the operational area.
Our current understanding of the indirect approach, based initially on the writings of Basil Liddell Hart, espouses a coordinated, whole-of-government approach at the level of grand strategy with military applications that feature movement, surprise, deception and flexibility. What began on the battlefield as embellishments on the theory of maneuver warfare has moved by interpretation into the realm of the intra- and inter-government attack on alliances, resources and finances. The various ways of obliquely attacking the enemy’s ability to act have been drawn within the indirect approach methodology. While this methodology does not attack an enemy’s strength directly, it is still undertaken with the expectation that we will be able to attain our objectives through a combination of actions that we, ourselves, take. Under this view of what constitutes an indirect approach, efforts are not primarily directed at causing others to take action. Although other actors are present in the battle space, they are mere witnesses to our actions.
There is, however, another way to look at the distinction between the direct and indirect approaches, one that takes into account not only opposing forces, but also the beliefs and actions of indigenous populations as part of the planning process. This view would expand the distinction between the terms beyond whether our personnel and resources are applied to kinetic or non-kinetic activities. It would take into account the very real issue of whether a given objective can be achieved using our own resources or, as is often the case, can only be accomplished through the actions of segments within the indigenous population. Stated another way, it is the difference between asking what we can do ourselves to reach the objective and what it is going to take, holistically, to get it done.
Activities that lean toward what most observers consider “traditional” or kinetic-based efforts are planned, executed, and evaluated largely in the realm of the physical. They tend to be inside-out in their focus, seeking to reach external results and operational end states through the application of available means. Human beings in this operational space are considered, but generally in terms of their physical presence and needs. Sometimes, they are seen as potential surrogates who, when properly trained and equipped, could replace our own forces for a variety of purposes and even act in our stead. However, when we rely on our own resources and efforts to achieve results, even with the help of trained surrogates and others along the way, we are still operating in ways that may be characterized as the direct approach. Military planning and execution over the years has largely taken place in this physical world where, through our direct efforts and use of our own capabilities, we have sought to achieve our objectives. The direct approach in this realm involves the use of planned and controlled activities, executed either directly or using trained surrogates, to attain stated objectives or outcomes through the direct application of personnel and resources.
In contrast, a revised understanding of the indirect approach involves the realization that in many situations the objectives or desired outcomes we wish to achieve can only be accomplished, in whole or in part, though the actions of other, usually local, people. It is the need for local, human actions that makes the difference. This approach goes beyond awareness of the cumulative effects of our other actions on the opposing population and their collective will to resist. It recognizes the need to engender some form of attitudinal or activity change within the opposing population to attain or sustain operational success.
Whether we should choose one approach over another, or a combination of the two approaches, must be determined during the initial planning process and should be based on a thorough analysis and strategic appreciation of the physical, socio-cultural, and societal dynamics that exist in the area of operations. If we can go it alone, the direct approach and its associated planning process will suffice. If, however, we must depend on the actions or inactions of others to achieve operational success, we will need, to incorporate elements of the indirect approach into our planning process. Currently, our human influence capabilities reside in the Military Information Support Operations (MISO), Information Operations (IO), Civil Affairs (CA), and Public Affairs (PA) communities. For these communities, words have meaning and actions have consequences. Marrying meaningful words with consequential actions to achieve desired outcomes is the essence of human domain influence planning, particularly when viewed from the perspective (narrative) of the persons we hope to influence.
The indirect approach to military planning is more outside-in, bottom-up, and focused on developing influence plans that reflect a thorough understanding of the people we are trying to affect. It takes into account their society and narrative view of the world as well as what information, persuasive appeals and shaping activities might be necessary to cause attitudinal and behavioral shifts. It reinforces the need for bringing human influence planners into the initial discussions of any military endeavor, from large-scale actions such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the development and execution of peacetime engagement strategies at the COCOM and country levels. Better planning usually results from having the right understanding and adopting the right premises at the outset. Once clear objectives have been established, the next step is to determine if the objectives can be attained – and maintained – by our own actions. If so, the main thrust of the planning effort will be in the realm of the direct approach, with adjunct support and amplification from the indirect planning community. However, if we must acknowledge up front that attaining our objectives for a particular military effort are dependent upon foreign populations and their actions or inactions, then the lead planning effort should be in the realm of the indirect approach, with physical planners and information operations facilitators in support.
Recognizing the importance of exerting influence in the human domain as part of the operational planning process does not make it easy. Human influence will never be easy. But, if it is necessary to our success, then we need to recognize that fact and develop the expertise required. That requires an investment in a human influence planning architecture that is as robust as our physical dimension planning capability. Specifically, we need to develop and maintain a source of information, both classified and unclassified, on foreign populations that will allow globally-dispersed influence planners rapid access to social intelligence. Ideally, such a repository would be collaboratively developed with the Services intelligence community augmented by social science and information operations professionals, both military and civilian, who could provide depth and linkage to otherwise unrelated facts.
The term “social intelligence” is introduced here to connote validated information about individuals, groups and populations that is related to their societal structure, interactions, norms, values, and ways of receiving and processing information. It is similar to physical intelligence in that it is attainable and observable. It differs from human intelligence, which generally is reported rather than observed. Social intelligence is the ground water that feeds the successful cultivation of new ideas and alternative courses of action. If we do not understand what makes a society work, we will struggle to identify the target sets that have the ability to act in ways that support the attainment of our given objectives. Likewise, the lack of cultural competence often results in influence efforts that are out of line with target audience beliefs and values, thus doing more harm than good.
In conclusion, military planning across all domains would benefit from some up-front introspection. Can we go it alone on an objective or are we dependent on elements within an indigenous population to support – or at least to not resist – the attainment of a particular objective or set of objectives? How this question is answered should determine the composition and direction of the operational planning team, and should highlight the importance of planners who are trained in multi-domain operation, with emphasis on human domain influence planning considerations.
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Robert M. Schoenhaus is a former 7th Psychological Operations Group Commander with over 31 years of military service, active and reserve. In addition to multiple assignments, both military and civilian with USSOCOM, he has working on the staffs of both the Army Peacekeeping Institute and the US Institute for Peace, publishing two Peaceworks volumes on Conflict Management Training and Training for Peace and Humanitarian Relief Operations.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the US government.