Armed Forces Day: What can we learn from military decision-making?

This weekend saw the UK celebrate Armed Forces Day, when we recognise the contribution of our Armed Forces and raise awareness of their role. One of the goals of Armed Forces Day is to break down some of the perceived barriers between the military and the society they so ably serve. In support of this aim, I thought I would use the conflict in Ukraine to look at how military decision-making overlaps with (and teaches us about) decision-making in the civilian world.

Four months in, the war is locked in a stalemate. Despite significant advantages in materials and personnel, Russia has been unable to crush Ukrainian resistance. The invasion was expected to be ferocious, bloody—and quick. But it hasn’t gone that way. I wanted to try to understand why, and think about the wider lessons that can be learnt from Russia’s approach, particularly the adaptability and flexibility of its decision-making. It is easy to generate a simplistic narrative that points to Russian arrogance and incompetence as the primary causes, but doing so runs the risk of overlooking some important insights that might help us avoid similar miscalculations in our own lives. Most people already knows that incompetence and overconfidence should be avoided, yet military setbacks happen frequently during warfare.

One of the first things we can learn from Russia’s problems in Ukraine relates to the early stages of their campaign. Invading Ukraine centred on an airborne assault, aimed at eliminating Ukrainian air defence, and seizing airfields to enable the rapid airlift of reinforcements and supplies [1]. However in the opening salvos of the conflict, Ukrainian forces successfully repelled most of the airborne attacks, forcing Russia to change strategy, something the Kremlin’s commanders seemed unprepared for. Forced to move troops and equipment by land, northern Ukraine quickly turned into a log jam of Russian military vehicles. Chaos descended on the Russian advance, as vehicles struggled to move between the border and the front, preventing Russia from sustaining tactical gains [2]. Russia’s problems arose from constructing a plan that was majorly dependent on an ambitious and complex airborne assault. I think that this teaches us that while complexity is often necessary, it needs to be accompanied by measures that provide redundancy. We cannot predict how our plans will fare, but in a complex environment, it is likely that some aspects of our plan will go wrong. The key is to have thought through the consequences and to have also worked up a number of contingency plans. The D-Day landings was one of the most complex military operations ever staged, with joint air, naval and land operations on a scale not seen since. Numerous factors went wrong, from the weather conditions to bombs missing their targets. Yet success was possible because many of these things had been foreseen and priced into the overall plan.

Another lesson in decision-making comes from Russia’s apparent failure to fully understand the scale of the challenge. Initially, Ukraine was believed to be no match for Russia, both in terms of troop numbers and hardware [3]. However, this raw analysis does not stand up to deeper scrutiny. Any invasion of Ukraine would be fraught with difficulty. The country is the second largest in Europe, by land area, with strategic population and infrastructure centres spread evenly across the country. While significantly smaller than the Russian military, Ukraine’s armed forces are still sizable by world standards, and the 2014 Russian incursion into Crimea and eastern Ukraine provided the country with time to prepare and organise for a possible invasion.

Russia does not have to look far for reference points to hubristic, over-extended invasions. Napoleon and Hitler both had their cloaks of invincibility shredded by disastrous invasions of Russia. In 1939, outnumbered Finnish forces largely resisted Soviet attempts to seize their country. While Afghanistan has resisted invasion and occupation by Britain (four times), the Soviet Union, and the United States, during the past 200 years. As the invaded party, Ukrainians are facing an existential threat. It is their cities and communities being destroyed. Their motivation to fight is high. In contrast, Russian troops do not have the same vested interest, with reports suggesting morale is flagging in the face of significant casualties [4]. Hofstadter's law is the observation that things always take longer to complete than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s law. This doesn’t just refer to the amount of time a task takes, but also applies to the amount of effort required. Hostadter’s law seems particularly apposite in the context of conflict. It seems that Russia significantly underestimated the task and opponent in the case of its invasion of Ukraine. The same trap awaits in everyday life—whether it be a lawsuit, business takeover or simply a dispute with our neighbour. Conflict is always likely to be difficult and we should never think it will be straightforward.

The decision-making approach used by Russia also offers some valuable lessons in how to deal with dynamic, complex situations. Russia’s decision-making process is highly centralised, a stark contrast to the intent-based systems favoured by NATO nations. Within the Russian military, the senior commander acts as a grand chess master, using situational updates to rapidly issue orders on the tactical situation [5]. This highly reactive, centrally controlled approach requires a senior decision-maker to be close to the action to direct operations. This possibly accounts for the staggeringly high numbers of senior Russian officers (including those of general-rank) killed in action to date [6]. Ukrainian troops have deliberately targeted Russian commanders, knowing that by eliminating them, they will paralyse the Russian decision-making process [7]. In contrast, NATO militaries favour a method that analyses potential courses of action for its command. Any plan is vigorously tested by intelligence staff, who provide analysis on how an adversary would react to different scenarios. This process generates a campaign plan, with the focus being on the commander’s direction and intent to subordinate commanders, which they are able to apply to changing situations.

In a decentralised model, subordinate commanders are not doing simply what they want, they are following a clear direction, one that provides them with latitude to make decisions in reaction to the dynamic nature of the battlefield. The challenge for leaders is how to formulate a clear strategy that also gives subordinates the freedom to adapt and respond to dynamic situations. This challenge is a whole topic of study in its own right, but I think it is clear that a plan where subordinates are empowered to react to events on the ground is more likely to survive contact with a dynamic world. Ukraine’s response to Russia’s flagrant aggression has been impressive. It has proved flexible and nimble, providing optimism to the rest of the world that Russia’s flagrant aggression can continue to be thwarted and ultimately repelled.

Overall, the Ukraine conflict highlights the need for a strategy to be considered as a system of options, which are continually tweaked as a situation evolves. A plan is not an end state, it is an evolving, living blueprint under continual review. Plans operate within a known environment or situation—one that changes in reaction to the strategy’s actions. Whether it be warfare, business or sport, all plans have one great vulnerability—how will the adversary, opponent or competitor respond? Taking into account that the world and our competitors will not passively await the perfect execution of our plan, is an axiom that the history of warfare has demonstrated on countless occasions.

When thinking about our Armed Forces, I think it is important to remember that their world and their way of thinking is not so alien. They are people, just like us, who just happen to have high stakes calls to make, sometimes on a daily basis. Studying their successes and failures can teach us a lot about how to improve our own decision-making.