“Clausewitz always talks about this coup d’oeil,” Lt. Gen. Mike Groen told me, “this insight that some commanders have. Well, that insight comes from understanding your own capabilities, and understanding the enemy’s capabilities, and being able to simulate in your mind, ‘well if I move left, here’s what’s going to happen. Or, if I move right, here’s what’s going to happen.’
“You can use AI to do all those things,” Groen said. “It’s not going to turn everybody into a Napoleon. But at the speed that combat is going to be executed, you have to have that information. You have to have that fingertip feel, or things are going to go so fast that you will always be behind.”
Build The Virtual Hilltop
Two hundred years ago, a general like Napoleon could stand atop a strategically located hill and survey the entire battlefield with their eyes and make snap decisions based on their read of the situation – what the French called coup d’oeil. If the enemy was advancing on the flank, or hard-pressed troops were falling back, the commander could see it and dispatch an aide on horseback with verbal orders. The best generals developed an intuition the Prussians called fingerspitzengefühl, the “fingertip feeling” for the ever-changing shape of battle.
But as early as the US Civil War, battles like Gettysburg got too big for one commander to see everything. The Industrial Age solution was telegraphs, telephones, radios, and bureaucracy: legions of staff officers, organized in sections and sub-sections for intelligence, logistics, planning, personnel, and on and on, methodically reviewing reports and compiling them for the commander.
That mostly worked in World War II. But in a 21st century conflict of hypersonic missiles, anti-satellite weapons, and cyber attacks, the balance of battle can tip in minutes – while the staff officers are still filling out their newest PowerPoint.
“Today, you have a large command post,” Groen told me. “You have tents full of people who are on phones, who are on email, who are all reaching out and gathering information from across the force…. You might have dozens or hundreds of humans just watching all of that video [from drones and satellites] to try to detect targets.”
Then, using chat rooms, sticky notes, and old-fashioned yelling, staff officers have to share that information with each other, sort it, make sense of it, and briefing the commander. If the commander asks for data the staffers don’t have, they have to go back to their phones and computers. The cycle – what the late Col. John Boyd called the OODA loop, for Observe, Orient, Decide, & Act – can take hours or even days, and by the time the commander gets answers, the data may be out of date.
“It’s really hard on commanders to make good decisions, because you don’t know what data in there is actually good, what data is actually missing,” Groen said. “If you are using your manual processes… things like emails and text messaging, phone calls, to try to coordinate what’s going on and understand what’s going on around you…. the enemy will always have tempo advantage.”
In other words, by the time you respond to the Step One of the enemy’s plan, they may be already executing Step Three. That’s exactly what happened to the French high command in 1940, when their World War I-style staff processes couldn’t keep up with a German blitzkrieg powered by internal combustion engines and coordinated by radio from trucks, tanks and airplanes.
“If you lose that battle of tempo… you will just fall further and further…