July 22, 2024

While joint doctrine and most service-specific doctrines have banished EBO as a concept, effects remain one of the elements of operational design.

For a time, effects and Effects-Based Operations (EBO) were at the center of U.S. Joint Doctrine, promising an omniscient understanding of the adversary and how to produce its defeat. EBO advocates claimed it was possible to thoroughly comprehend the adversary as a system, or system of systems, target critical nodes throughout all levels of the adversary organization and create systemic failure and collapse. However, Israel’s poor performance in its 2006 war with Hezbollah and our own performance in the first five years of Iraq led to the growing conclusion that the complex, unpredictable environment of war cannot be sufficiently comprehended to practice EBO in the first place. While joint doctrine and most service-specific doctrines have banished EBO as a concept, effects remain one of the elements of operational design. Today effects are used to conceptualize the link between objectives and tasks and are used to formalize observation and consideration of the direct, indirect, intended, and unintended consequences of military actions on objective attainment. Effects-based thinking has enduring utility within operational design demonstrated by three World War I campaigns: The German 1914 Western Offensive, The German 1914 Eastern Offensive, and the British 1917 Palestine-Sinai Campaign.

This article uses the current joint doctrine definition that an effect is “a physical and/or behavioral state of a system that results from an action, a set of actions, or another effect.” As the consequence of tasks, effects are more complicated than just the achievement of a desired objective. They encompass the many conceivable changes—intended, unintended, positive, negative, direct, indirect—within a complex system that result from acts taken or not taken. It is only through a combination of effects that an objective is achieved.

Where EBO erred in U.S. doctrine was by insinuating that a precise combination of effects could be determined, controlled, and inflicted on an adversary with a sufficient knowledge of the operational environment to change his behavior within it. The adversary is always adapting to every act and competing to shape its effect. What remains useful, however, with effects thinking is to understand that the traditional strategy formulation model—means being employed through ways to achieve ends—is complicated by the imprecise causal relationship between ways and means producing desired ends. While joint doctrine provides tools for evaluating this gap and informing the commander’s operational assessment, such as indicators, the fundamental insight effects provide as an element of operational design is in war acts have many more consequences than those that are intended. We must carefully watch effects in order to adjust the operational approach effectively. Additionally, since all acts have effects—whether deliberate, accidental, or misbegotten—advantages can, at times, be developed from unintended consequences. Finally, although effects cannot be assured with the precision attributed to EBO, deliberately sought and confirmed effects can have a decisive impact in battle.

The German 1914 Western Offensive is an excellent example of strategists failing to recognize the complexity and multiplicity of effects resulting from military actions. The Schlieffen Plan—throughout its many iterations—consistently sought to draw an anticipated French offensive into Germany while simultaneously wheeling around north of France to envelop and destroy the French Army. By decisively crushing the French, German forces could then redeploy east to counter the expected massive Russian invasion. Thus, the clear and unambiguous—though ultimately unobtainable—objective was the destruction of the French Army through envelopment. The critical tasks for the envelopment were the First Army maneuver around Paris to achieve the envelopment, the Second Army engaging the Paris Garrison, the Third, Fourth and Fifth Armies wheeling around inside of Paris, and the Six and Seventh Armies drawing the French east and providing the anvil for the rest to strike against.

As the Germans advanced, two key effects were observed, including the near collapse of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the continual retreat of the French Army away from the German Army. In reality, several key effects of this assault occurred unobserved. First, the French understood the German’s envelopment strategy and created an ad hoc and unobserved army West of Paris to outflank the Germans. Second, the French retreat did occur under duress but was accomplished with a shrewd adjustment of field leadership by Marshal Joffre, reallocation of forces to enable an eventual counterassault, and the deliberate luring of the German right wing into an envelopment. Third, while the BEF was seriously tested by the German assault and struggled to establish trust and coordination with the French Army, the BEF regained strength and purpose through personal engagement by Marshall Joffre to regain the confidence of its commander, General John French, and effectively returned to the offensive against Germany. By failing to distinguish between the many effects that were occurring simultaneously during their enemy’s retreat, the Germans were unable to anticipate the combined French and BEF counteroffensive. Only General von Moltke’s intervention with his field commanders forcing their withdrawal north of the Marne saved German operational disaster. The lesson of the German 1914 Western Offensive for effects thinking is that effects are complex, simultaneous, often contradictory, and seldom completely observed.

The German 1914 Eastern Campaign reveals the next aspect of effects within operational design: unintended effects can sometimes be turned to an advantage. The Battle of Tannenberg, which opened the Eastern Campaign, is memorialized as a morale-saving, brilliantly executed maneuver, in which a single German Army masses to exploit favorable terrain and defeats two Russian armies sequentially, disintegrating the first in the south, then dislocating the second in the north. However, before this plan was executed by Generals von Hindenburg and von Ludendorff—the Commanding General and future President of The Weimar Republic and his Chief of Staff and future First Quartermaster General of the German Army—it would be attempted by the disgraced commander they would relieve. General von Prittwitz would attempt to execute the same plan in reverse, attacking the Russian First Army in the north while holding his southern forces to defend the flank against the delayed Second Army. When Prittwitz’s northern forces made a disjointed and ineffective stand at the German-Russian border—contrary to orders—he panicked and requested the retreat to the Vistula that got him replaced. The unintended effect of this early ham-fisted phase of Tannenberg is that the Germans had drawn the Russians into East Prussia, observed their slow rate of maneuver, and intercepted enough radio traffic to understand their adversary’s perception of the battlespace and objectives. This accident, although devastating to Prittwitz, provided the battlespace awareness Hindenburg and Ludendorff needed to try to defeat the Russian armies in sequence a second time. The Germans’ brilliant maneuver enveloping the Russian Second Army determined the outcome of the battle, but an unintended effect enabled this maneuver.

Despite how these three campaigns demonstrate the utility of effects, the risk remains of overestimating what can be accomplished through effects-based operations.

The British Sinai-Palestine campaign provides evidence that intended effects can be achieved; however, they require a deliberate assessment plan to evaluate their effectiveness before basing further action on their attainment. General Allenby’s campaign to wrest control of Palestine from the combined Ottoman/German armies was a highpoint for maneuver warfare in WWI. Two different examples from the campaign show that a careful attention to intended effects can demonstrate when they have, in fact, been achieved. The first occurred during the movement after the Battle of Gaza. Allenby’s forces successfully dislodged the enemy from the Beersheba-Gaza defensive line in southern Palestine and were pushing north in pursuit. The Ottoman forces regrouped in two masses, the larger group in the west defending the Jaffa-Jerusalem road and the smaller but more threatening group in the east defending the Hebron approach to Jerusalem. Here Allenby weighed the available intelligence to judge the true effect that his forces have had on the combat capability of the Hebron force, the number of casualties, the state of its resources, and the morale and effectiveness of its organization, and accurately determined that the force’s demonstrations were hollow and not worth shifting his own resources to cover.

The second example demonstrating the feasibility of deliberately pursued effects, occurred a year later, after Allenby had taken a strategic pause to consolidate control over Palestine south of the Jaffa-Jerusalem line and train replacement troops. During the pause, Allenby directed the majority of his limited offensive operations towards Amman, east of Palestine, while largely ceding control of the highlands north of Jerusalem to the Turks. The intended effect of this year-long campaign was to shape the adversary’s anticipation of future attacks in the east and distract from Allenby’s plan to launch an enveloping attack along the western coastal plain instead. Allenby’s report detailed the many steps taken to support the deception effort during the movements preceding the assault—and credits air supremacy with preventing enemy observation—but gives an uncharacteristically thin account of his own intelligence and reconnaissance efforts that were ongoing and described in great detail for previous operations. When Allenby’s troops encountered unreinforced Turkish forces on the coast, it confirmed Allenby’s desired effect and proved the shaping campaign’s effectiveness. Allenby demonstrated throughout his command that effects—physical and behavioral—can be induced through campaigning, confirmed through observation, and exploited by force.

Despite how these three campaigns demonstrate the utility of effects, the risk remains of overestimating what can be accomplished through effects-based operations. The complexity of operations in the German Western Offensive and the impossibility of directly observing adversary morale and the dynamic nature of decision-making processes makes estimating effects exceedingly ambitious in major combat operations. Complexity also leads to an environment where favorable effects—whether intended (Sinai-Palestine) or accidental (Tannenberg)—may be accurately observed, but nested within even more dangerous, but unknown circumstances (Marne). Chasing the unknown effects becomes the Achilles heel of effects-based thinking and leads to paralyzing analysis and impossibly complex models of the operating environment. Nevertheless, when used judiciously to evaluate the linkage between tasks and objectives, effects-based thinking adds nuance to the understanding of conditions, opportunities, and risks that can sometimes be lost in traditional ends, ways, means calculations.

Although EBO’s prominence has waned in U.S. military thought, the retention of effects as an element of operations design in Joint Doctrine is an important refinement to traditional war planning methodologies. Effects provide a way to communicate the complexity and uncertainty of the battlefield, even if they are incapable of the mathematical precision some practitioners once promised. Successful observation of effects occurring in and around the battlefield requires careful allocation of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance resources as well as critical analysis; however, effects can reward the commander with unexpected opportunities or evidence that tasks are leading to objective accomplishment. The evidence of World War I shows that effects are an enduring concept that enables strategists to more accurately communicate the complexity resulting from ways, and means acting to produce ends.

Michael Adams is a Lieutenant Colonel and an Air Battle Manager in the U.S. Air Force. He is also a graduate of the AY20 Resident Class of the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

Photo Description: General Paul Ludwig Hans Anton von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg (L) and General Erich Friedrich Wilhelm Ludendorff (R), After the Tannenberg battle. German infantry passes through a destroyed East Prussian village (C)

Photo Credit: Hindenberg photographed by Nicola Perscheid, Ludendorff and village photographer unknown

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