A simple plan

When does a phrase represent the genesis of a truly new concept and when is it just a phrase? The idea of “effects based operations” or EBO has been touted as a shortcut the grinding methods of historical warfare. One definition of EBO is:


The Joint Forces Command Glossary defines effects-based operations (EBO) as “a process for obtaining a desired strategic outcome or ‘effect’ on the enemy, through the synergistic, multiplicative, and cumulative application of the full range of military and nonmilitary capabilities at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels”. As such, all types of armed forces have performed EBO for centuries—albeit without the same dynamics as have appeared since the beginning of practical airpower in the early twentieth century.

The idea is to find the keystone of the enemy’s strength and with a precision push, take the whole of the enemy’s force down. The idea grew, over time, to encompass not just traditional force but a cocktail of methods, including economic, information and brutal. But the core idea remained the same: to concentrate on finding the Magic Bullet rather than wrassling it out with the enemy. The only problem has been to find a sure method of identifying the Magic Bullet in a given situation. General James Mattis, USMC has criticized the EBO method in the autumn edition of Parameters. Here’s what he has to say:

all operating environments are dynamic with an infinite number of variables; therefore, it is not scientifically possible to accurately predict the outcome of an action. To suggest otherwise runs contrary to historical experience and the nature of war. Fourth, we are in error when we think that what works (or does not work) in one theater is universally applicable to all theaters. Finally, to quote General Sherman, “Every attempt to make war easy and safe will result in humiliation and disaster.” History is replete with examples and further denies us any confidence that the acute predictability promised by EBO’s long assessment cycle can strengthen our doctrine.


In other words, many of the traditional disciplines of combat are part of the process of discovering the enemy’s key weaknesses. Mattis appears to reject the idea of standing back and, from a distance, engage in long assessment cycles which are expected to identify the magic spot against which the silver bullet will be fired. He cites Israel’s 2006 War with Hezbollah as an example of the failure of EBO.

The Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF’s) use of EBO during the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict in the summer of 2006 is informative. Although there are several reasons why the IDF performed poorly during the war, various postconflict assessments have concluded that overreliance on EBO concepts was one of the primary contributing factors for their defeat. After the war, one Israeli general observed that the new (EBO) doctrine was “in complete contradiction to the most important basic principles of operating an army in general . . . and is not based upon, and even ignores, the universal fundamentals of warfare. . . . This is not a concept that is better or worse. It is a completely mistaken concept that could not succeed and should never have been relied upon.”

Among Mattis’ criticisms of EBO are the following:

  • Assumes a level of unachievable predictability.
  • Cannot correctly anticipate reactions of complex systems (for example, leadership, societies, political systems, and so forth).
  • Calls for an unattainable level of
    knowledge of the enemy.
  • Is too prescriptive and overengineered.
  • Discounts the human dimensions of war for example, passion, imagination, willpower, and unpredictability).
  • Promotes centralization and leads to micromanagement from headquarters.
  • Is staff, not command, led.

But however cogent these objections might be EBO, whatever its actual merits, is probably going to remain a popular doctrine because of its tremendous political attractions. One related concept — the idea of an “exit strategy” is already enshrined in popular political wisdom. The modern general is expected, upon pain of excoriation by the press, to predict when and under what circumstances he will complete his mission, even before he undertakes it. Any commander in chief who hazards combat without guaranteeing its outcome is considered incompetent, or worse, a liar who misleads his nation into war. When a politician for example, promises to “bring the boys home” by a date certain whatever the circumstances, he is actually buying into the idea that warfare can be waged according to a Washington-determined schedule. But as Mattis points out, warfare is never this simple. The enemy can often throw a monkey wrench into the works because he too is striving for effects, very often the opposite of the EBO projections. The veto power of unforseen events and enemy action or adaptation is perhaps one reason why in very many examples of historical example of warfare, the preordained never happens.


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