Sep 20, 2018
Photo courtesy of Lithuanian Land Forces
In 2018, RAND published two reports for the U.S. Army describing will to fight. Arguably, will to fight is the single most important factor in war. Will to fight is the disposition and decision to fight, to keep fighting, and to win. The best technology in the world is useless without the force of will to use it and to keep using it even as casualties mount and unexpected calamities arise. Will to fight represents the indelibly human nature of warfare.
With very few exceptions, all wars and almost all battles are decided by matters of human will: Breaking the enemy's will to fight while sustaining one's own will to fight is the key to success in battle. But as focus on technology increases, the essentially human nature of war is all but ignored. Lack of focus on will to fight has created a dangerous gap in American military practice.
We must improve our understanding of will to fight.
The use of force demands that we should understand our own natures, for the most basic and the most complicated weapon system is man.
Brigadier General Shelford Bidwell, Modern Warfare: A Study of Men, Weapons and Theories — 1973
On the surface, the American military officially adopts the view of war as a contest of opposing, independent, and irreconcilable wills. But when it comes to practice — planning for and fighting wars — these theories often amount to little more than lip service. The integration of will to fight concepts into military education, training, planning, assessments, international engagement, and operations is glaringly sparse. In most cases, American and allied military professionals view war through the lens of technology and physical effects.
In 2016 the U.S. Joint Staff identified a yawning gap in the understanding of partner and adversary will to fight:
Recent failure to translate military gains into strategic success reflects, to some extent, the Joint Force's tendency to focus primarily on affecting the material capabilities — including hardware and personnel — of adversaries and friends, rather than their will to develop and employ capabilities. . . . A failure to grasp human aspects can, and often will, result in a prolonged struggle and an inability to achieve strategic goals.
Improving understanding of will to fight might not be a panacea; war is not won by silver bullets. But if will to fight is the most important factor in war — or just a very important factor that is routinely overlooked or misunderstood — then improvement is absolutely necessary. Ignoring will to fight can contribute to tactical or even strategic defeat.
Photo by Sgt. Demetrius L. Munnerlyn/U.S. Marine Corps
War is a human endeavor — a fundamentally human clash of wills often fought among populations. It is not a mechanical process that can be controlled precisely, or even mostly, by machines, statistics, or laws that cover operations in carefully controlled and predictable environments. Fundamentally, all war is about changing human behavior.
U.S. Army, Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 3-0, 2017
There is a pattern in the wavering emphasis on will to fight in military doctrine.
The U.S. Army and Marine Corps — the ground combat forces of the American military — have alternatively embraced and ignored the concept of will to fight for over a century. It has no stable, central place in doctrine or practice, and it is often defined in vague and impractical terms. The consequences of this erratic ebb and flow stand testament to the pressing need to improve and normalize the study of will to fight in American military practice and to make its lessons useful.
Whatever the cause — from the lack of credible assessment methods or even a widely agreed-on definition of will to fight — the military, political, economic, and social costs of a dissonance between accepted will-to-fight theory and practice have been extraordinary. The RAND reports on both the military and national will to fight offer historical cases that demonstrate the impact of will-to-fight misjudgment. A few historical examples:
|WW I (1916)||The French will break under fire at Verdun||The French continued to fight||France helped defeat Germany in 1918|
|WW II (1941)||Germany's Operation Barbarossa will destroy the Red Army||The Soviets retreated to Moscow but continued to fight||The Allies defeated Nazi Germany in 1945|
|First Indochina War (1946–1954)||The Viet Minh have a limit and will surrender||The Viet Minh mobilized tens of thousands from the population to help surround the French in Dien Bien Phu||The Viet Minh defeated France in 1954|
|Korean War (1950–1953)||The United States will liberate North Korea||North Korean and Chinese forces fought hard in the Third Phase Offensive at 38th Parallel||Stalemate between North and South Korea|
|India-Pakistan War (1965)||Indian soldiers will quickly retreat and reopen negotiations for Kashmir||India expanded the war||International actors forced a return to the pre-war status quo|
|Vietnam War (1965–1975)||The Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North) will break in 1967||The DRV persisted||The DRV won in 1975, and the United States was strategically defeated|
|First Chechen War (1994–1996)||Russian forces will take Grozny||Chechen rebels continued resistance||Stalemate between Russia and Chechen rebels through 1999|
|Islamic State incursions (2011–2014)||The Iraqi Army is ready to fight||The Islamic State defeated the Iraqi Army||A U.S. partner was soundly defeated; U.S. troops still deployed|
|Afghanistan conflict (2009–present)||The Taliban can be broken by 2011||The Taliban persisted against the Afghan government||U.S. forces remain in Afghanistan in 2019|
|Yemen Civil War (2015–present)||The Yemeni government can defend Sana'a||Houthi rebels defeated the Yemeni government||A U.S. partner was defeated|
Photo by Larry Burrows/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
The case of the Vietnam War shows that even accurate intelligence analyses of will to fight are meaningless if they are ignored by decisionmakers.
CIA-provided assessments of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV):
Despite the straightforward analytic conclusions that the DRV had a deep reservoir of will to fight, without a definition or model of will to fight the CIA assessments came across as subjective. As a result — despite persistent warning to policymakers — the United States and General William Westmoreland sought to break the will of DRV leaders through measured escalation and by inflicting casualties.
By 1968, U.S. troop levels began to plummet — from ~520,000 to only ~200 advisers by 1972 — and the DRV conquered the Republic of Vietnam (South) by 1975.
The life or death of a hundred, a thousand, tens of thousands of human beings, even our compatriots, means little. . . . Westmoreland was wrong to count on his superior firepower to grind us down.
President Ho Chi Minh, Democratic Republic of Vietnam — 1969
Photo by Department of Defense
Understanding will to fight at any level is hard, but much can be done.
There is no way to accurately quantify will to fight or delineate its precise value. But will to fight can be more clearly understood and practicably applied. RAND's research offers a starting point.
As a first step to understand will to fight, the RAND team undertook a literature review of more than 200 published works, reviewed U.S. and allied military doctrine, conducted 68 subject-matter expert (SME) interviews, and analyzed historical cases, war- gaming, and simulation.
Photo by Staff Sgt. Marcin Platek/U.S. Marine Corps
The RAND team found that there is no generally accepted American or allied definition, explanation, or model of will to fight. This means that the U.S. military and its allies have no central point of reference for understanding what is, according to joint doctrine, the most important factor in warfare.
The team's research took several steps to start the process of filing these gaps.
Definitions don't necessarily solve problems, but they are a useful and necessary starting point for mutual understanding. RAND offers definitions for both military and national will to fight.
Soldiers and the units they form develop the disposition to fight or not fight, and to act or not to act, when fearing death. Disposition is essentially likelihood: Soldiers are more or less likely to fight or run, to fight aggressively or passively, to follow orders or break, run, or surrender. Influenced by this disposition, soldiers make critical decisions on the frontline, or even while far removed from the battlefield, where dedication to the mission can be in question.
The purposes of the military will to fight report and the military unit-organizational model are to improve understanding of disposition to fight. While we cannot predict human behavior or decisions, we can significantly improve our understanding of will to fight by assessing and analyzing disposition, which allows for an estimation of overall military unit effectiveness and forecasting of behavior.
Wars rarely end simply because one military destroys another. Government leaders determine how and when wars end, and they may have to decide many times during a conflict whether their country should continue enduring risk and sacrifice or whether it is time to stop fighting. Tangible factors, such as remaining numbers of weapons and troops, are obviously part of the decision calculus, but it is often less-tangible political and economic variables that ultimately determine what might be called national will to fight.
Although the range of actors relevant to national will includes citizens, military leaders, media, and foreign officials, we focused on governments and, in the process, accounted for the interplay of these and other actors. Ultimately, governments make the decisions about war. Their will is reflected in the political decisions they make during a conflict to either continue or stop fighting. At the national level, we define fighting to include not only military force but also the use of all aspects of national power to achieve particular political objectives.
The nine-part multimethod research effort provided the foundation to develop two will-to-fight models that are explanatory, exploratory, and portable. They can explain and help forecast will to fight. They can be used to explore various aspects of will to fight, and in turn be improved through new learning. Portability means that the models must be applied using a unique approach for each case, providing for flexibility.
The will-to-fight models — described in more depth on pages 10–13 — are a starting point to provide military and civilian leaders, planners, advisers, and intelligence analysts with a common starting point for deeper understanding of military and national will to fight. The models are essentially a tool to open the door for better planning, operations, advising, intelligence, wargaming, simulation, and, with further research, improved training and education of U.S. and allied military forces.
The unit and national will-to-fight models can
Computer simulation, tabletop exercises, and wargames can help bring clarity to complex issues and concepts, such as will to fight. Results from our analysis of 62 existing wargames and simulations, interviews with designers and program managers, and game and simulation testing showed that will to fight is inadequately represented in official military models. If will to fight is one of the most important factors in war, and if it is absent or poorly represented in military gaming and simulation, then there is a dangerous gap in existing military games and simulations.
It is possible that results from official military games and simulations are misleading, and have been for quite some time. Existing commercial examples, experimental models, and the new RAND Arroyo Center model can help fill the gap in short order.
The team integrated the RAND military unit will-to-fight model and a trait-state psychological behavioral model into the U.S. Army's Infantry Warrior Simulation (IWARS) to give the computer simulated "supersoldiers" human traits. Instead of always obeying orders, and never feeling fear, hiding, or running, the supersoldiers now could experience anxiety, anger, and visceral reactions to gunfire.
The results were unsurprising. Sometimes soldiers fought hard, but sometimes they took cover or ran away. Adding will to fight in the simulations changed the odds of combat victory by at least 10%, and by as much as 1,100%. Human behavior went from unfailingly predictable to uncertain, bringing the simulation one step closer to reality.
Results from RAND's force-on-force combat simulation experiments suggest that adding a will-to-fight component always, and sometimes significantly, changes outcomes
Using IWARS, a military force-on-force simulation used to model soldier and small unit operations in contested environments, the RAND team was able to integrate the baseline will-to-fight model and use outcomes to help define and improve the model. The simulations also illuminated that any military game or simulation seeking to represent realistic force-on-force combat should include will to fight.
7,840 simulated combat runs showed major changes to outcomes when simulated soldiers, or "agents," had their also-simulated will to fight put to the test.
The graph below is an example simulation run depicting the state changes to a squad leader's traits when one or more stressors (e.g., continuous indirect fire or reduced visibility) were introduced. Marked increases in anxiety and anger, and fluctuations in stability, collectively resulted in behavioral changes over time.
The purpose of the military unit model is to inform understanding of will to fight from the squad through the division-levels. How can the United States and its allies break adversary will? How can the will to fight of partners be strengthened?
This model is a guide for analysis.
Until there is a broadly accepted physiological, psychological, neurological, and cultural model of humans, the best a model can do is to help reduce uncertainty, improve understanding, and identify strengths and weaknesses, surfaces and gaps.
The model can and should be used as a military analysis tool, whether as a quick-turn application by a military advisor in the field or a year-long intelligence effort by a team of analysts to understand adversary and allied disposition to fight.
What are the political, economic, and military variables that may strengthen or weaken national will to fight, and which are most important?
Will to fight is complex, dynamic, and difficult to predict. At the national level, this means that leaders must focus on understanding the variables that drive their wartime decisionmaking and that of their allies and adversaries while also remaining sensitive to war's horrific costs.
The RAND national model is portable and exploratory: Each of the 15 variables can be applied to a wide range of historical and future conflict scenarios. Some variables will be more relevant than others, depending on the particular scenario, and how the variables are tailored for the circumstances will vary, but this model provides a useful starting point for discussion and can drive a much-needed dialogue among analysts conducting threat assessments, contingency plans, wargames, and other efforts requiring conflict evaluation.
Will to fight has across-the-board importance in war. It is essential to building effective military teams, to designing effective tactics and strategies, to planning effective military operations, to assessing and engaging allies, to analyzing adversaries, to reducing risk, and to carrying out successful military operations. It matters most for force-on-force combat, but it also matters for routine military activities and national policy. The human will to fight, to act, and to drive through adversity is the central factor in war.
In light of growing tensions with countries such as Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran, it seems prudent to open a rigorous dialogue within the United States and with U.S. allies to better understand and influence the human factors in war. Incorporating the concept of will to fight in the analysis of potential future conflicts will help leaders, strategic thinkers, planners, combat advisers, and analysts improve their assessments of what may happen in various conflict scenarios and what to do about it.
The models presented in these reports provide a guide to assessment and analysis, not a mathematical formula. With our models and reports, we hope to stimulate the dialogue necessary to develop the concept of will to fight further and incorporate it into strategic decisionmaking and planning.