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The Growing Imperative to Adopt "Flexibility" as an American Principle of War

Authored by Lieutenant Colonel Robert S. Frost.

February 5, 1999

64 Pages

Brief Synopsys

The author makes it clear that he is not interested in throwing out the old tried and true existing Principles of War, he only wants thought given to their expansion to include a principle of Flexibility. After all, the hallmark of the course of instruction at the U.S. Army War College is the new environment in which its graduates should expect to operate--an environment that we at the War College characterize as vague, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. In such an environment, the author argues, Flexibility must be an operating principle, and it would serve all the services well to recognize it as such.


With those six words, French author Jean de La Fontaine captures two compelling metaphors which should not be lost on any warfighter. Resistance to breaking—or, in essence, resistance to defeat—is so intuitively vital to success in war that little more needs to be said about the notion. The ability to bend, on the other hand, may not strike the American warrior’s intuition with the same immediacy. It should. For, as this author will show, flexibility—the ability to “bend”—is a foundational warfighting attribute which should be embraced and adopted by the U.S. military community as a principle of war (or operations). Further, due to both evolutionary and potentially revolutionary forces, the imperative to incorporate flexibility as a principle of war will only grow as the United States moves into the 21st century. Those points represent the thesis of this monograph.

One can rightly ask whether capturing the elusive list of “true” principles of war—an effort dating to antiquity—really matters. Some question the 20th century development of an almost prescriptive, “checklist approach” to dealing with what many believe to be the essentially unquantifiable art of winning wars. The answers to those provocative questions have been debated for decades. More pragmatically for this monograph’s purposes is this realization: Adopting and codifying principles of war in doctrine is a fully institutionalized U.S. military practice, yielding an attendant influence on American military Joint and Service cultures. The risk of misinterpreting or misapplying the principles is accepted by the institution, given the perceived benefits. Given this policy, however, two things become crucial. One, the collective list of principles must be free of any significant conceptual gaps. Two, the list should contain an inherent mechanism to ensure the principles are synthesized in a balanced and rational manner. Those two imperatives guided the author’s thesis formulation.

One could also counterargue that the concept of flexibility is sufficiently grounded within the existing nine principles (listed in Appendix I), particularly within the principle of maneuver, and needs no further elaboration. Such embedding, however, not only fails to give flexibility its full regard, but it can represent a subtle, cultural suppression of the idea. While the American warrior generally understands the need for flexibility (and its close cousin, adaptability), the degree to which the concept is appreciated, or measures up, relative to the existing principles represents an intellectual “gap” or “blind spot” in the author’s view. Adopting flexibility as a principle of war is the right solution—not only because it closes this gap, but because, within the current context, it is a fundamental principle.

One point needs emphasizing. This monograph does not challenge the nine existing American principles of war in any appreciable way; nor does it indorse them (compelling arguments may exist for change). Rather, it concludes this:

within the current framework created by the nine adopted principles of war, one of the most fundamental principles—flexibility—is missing from that structure.

If that structure were to change, the concept of flexibility must still be preserved. In the author’s view, a failure by the U.S. military community to codify flexibility as a principle of war is not just significant, it may become profound as military operations enter the highly uncertain and complex environment of the 21st century and the Information Age.

To make this case, principles of war are reviewed from both historical and contemporary perspectives. Notably, the concept of flexibility is not a complete stranger as a warfighting tenet or principle. Then, U.S. military basic doctrine is briefly examined with a focus on the recent renaissance of Joint capstone and keystone doctrine. Using a conceptual model, the author describes how this overarching doctrine lays the foundation for inculcating the principles in the U.S. military. This becomes the intellectual framework for the monograph’s thesis. Then, the English definitions of the word “flexibility” are reviewed, establishing the basis for its common understanding. This is followed by the author’s proposed doctrinal definition of flexibility as a principle of war. This definition is then used throughout the rest of the monograph, in which flexibility as a warfighting principle is developed and justified. By the end, it should become apparent the American principles—and the prospects for future military success—can be fundamentally improved by embracing flexibility as a principle of war. First, however, it is helpful to briefly review the bases for the American adopted principles.

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