The Sad Story Of The Captured Iraqi DESERT STORM Documents

The fundamental building blocks of history are primary sources, i.e artifacts, documents, diaries and memoirs, manuscripts, or other contemporaneous sources of information. It has been the availability and accessibility of primary source documentation that allowed Trevor Dupuy and The Dupuy Institute to build the large historical combat databases that much of their analyses have drawn upon. It took uncounted man-hours of time-consuming, pain-staking research to collect and assemble two-sided data sufficiently detailed to analyze the complex phenomena of combat.

Going back to the Civil War, the United States has done a commendable job collecting and organizing captured military documentation and making that material available for historians, scholars, and professional military educators. TDI has made extensive use of captured German documentation from World War I and World War II held by the U.S. National Archives in its research, for example.

Unfortunately, that dedication faltered when it came to preserving documentation recovered from the battlefield during the 1990-1991 Gulf War. As related by Douglas Cox, an attorney and Law Library Professor at the City University of New York School of Law, millions of pages of Iraqi military paper documents collected during Operation DESERT STORM were destroyed by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in 2002 after they were contaminated by mold.

As described by the National Archives,

The documents date from 1978 up until Operation Desert Storm (1991). The collection includes Iraq operations plans and orders; maps and overlays; unit rosters (including photographs); manuals covering tactics, camouflage, equipment, and doctrine; equipment maintenance logs; ammunition inventories; unit punishment records; unit pay and leave records; handling of prisoners of war; detainee lists; lists of captured vehicles; and other military records. The collection also includes some manuals of foreign, non-Iraqi weapons systems. Some of Saddam Hussein’s Revolutionary Command Council records are in the captured material.

According to Cox, DIA began making digital copies of the documents shortly after the Gulf War ended. After the State Department requested copies, DIA subsequently determined that only 60% of the digital tapes the original scans had been stored on could be read. It was during an effort to rescan the lost 40% of the documents that it was discovered that the entire paper collection had been contaminated by mold.

DIA created a library of the scanned documents stored on 43 compact discs, which remain classified. It is not clear if DIA still has all of the CDs; none had been transferred to the National Archives as of 2012. A set of 725,000 declassifed pages was made available for a research effort at Harvard in 2000. That effort ended, however, and the declassified collection was sent to the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. The collection is closed to researchers, although Hoover has indicated it hopes to make it publicly available sometime in the future.

While the failure to preserve the original paper documents is bad enough, the possibility that any or all of the DIA’s digital collection might be permanently lost would constitute a grievous and baffling blunder. It also makes little sense for this collection to remain classified a quarter of a century after end of the Gulf War. Yet, it appears that failures to adequately collect and preserve U.S. military documents and records is becoming more common in the Information Age.

Predictions

We do like to claim we have predicted the casualty rates correctly in three wars (operations): 1) The 1991 Gulf War, 2) the 1995 Bosnia intervention, and 3) the Iraq insurgency.  Furthermore, these were predictions make of three very different types of operations, a conventional war, an “operation other than war” (OOTW) and an insurgency.

The Gulf War prediction was made in public testimony by Trevor Dupuy to Congress and published in his book If War Comes: How to Defeat Saddam Hussein. It is discussed in my book America’s Modern Wars (AMW) pages 51-52 and in some blog posts here.

The Bosnia intervention prediction is discussed in Appendix II of AMW and the Iraq casualty estimate is Chapter 1 and Appendix I.

We like to claim that we are three for three on these predictions. What does that really mean? If the odds of making a correct prediction are 50/50 (the same as a coin toss), then the odds of getting three correct predictions in a row is 12.5%. We may not be particularly clever, just a little lucky.

On the other hand, some might argue that these predictions were not that hard to make, and knowledgeable experts would certainly predict correctly at least two-thirds of the time. In that case the odds of getting three correct predictions in a row is more like 30%.

Still, one notes that there was a lot of predictions concerning the Gulf War that were higher than Trevor Dupuy’s. In the case of Bosnia, the Joint Staff was informed by a senior OR (Operations Research) office in the Army that there was no methodology for predicting losses in an “operation other than war” (AMW, page 309). In the case of the Iraq casualty estimate, we were informed by a director of an OR organization that our estimate was too high, and that the U.S. would suffer less than 2,000 killed and be withdrawn in a couple of years (Shawn was at that meeting). I think I left that out of my book in its more neutered final draft….my first draft was more detailed and maybe a little too “angry”. So maybe, predicting casualties in military operations is a little tricky. If the odds of a correct prediction was only one-in-three, then the odds of getting three correct predictions in a row is only 4%. For marketing purposes, we like this argument better 😉

Hard to say what are the odds of making a correct prediction are. The only war that had multiple public predictions (and of course, several private and classified ones) was the 1991 Gulf War. There were a number of predictions made and we believe most were pretty high. There was no other predictions we are aware of for Bosnia in 1995, other than the “it could turn into another Vietnam” ones. There are no other predictions we are aware of for Iraq in 2004, although lots of people were expressing opinions on the subject. So, it is hard to say how difficult it is to make a correct prediction in these cases.

P.S.: Yes, this post was inspired by my previous post on the Stanley Cup play-offs.

 

Estimating Combat Casualties II

Just a few comments on this article:

  1. One notes the claim of 30,000 killed for the 1991 Gulf War. This was typical of some of the discussion at the time. As we know, the real figure was much, much lower.
  2. Note that Jack Anderson is quoting some “3-to-1 Rule.” We are not big fans of “3-to-1 Rules.” Trevor Dupuy does briefly refute it.
  3. Trevor Dupuy does end the discussion by mentioning “combat power ratios.” This is not quite the same as “force ratios.”

Anyhow, interesting blast from the past, although some of this discussion we were also conducting a little over a week ago at a presentation we provided.

 

Estimating Combat Casualties I

Shawn Woodford was recently browsing in a used bookstore in Annapolis. He came across a copy of Genius for War. Tucked in the front cover was this clipping from the Washington Post. It is undated, but makes reference to a Jack Anderson article from 1 November, presumably 1990. So it must have been published sometime shortly thereafter.

19901100EstimatingCombatCasualties

 

Assessing the 1990-1991 Gulf War Forecasts

WargamesA number of forecasts of potential U.S. casualties in a war to evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait appeared in the media in the autumn of 1990. The question of the human costs became a political issue for the administration of George H. W. Bush and influenced strategic and military decision-making.

Almost immediately following President Bush’s decision to commit U.S. forces to the Middle East in August 1990, speculation appeared in the media about what a war between Iraq and a U.S.-led international coalition might entail. In early September, U.S. News & World Report reported “that the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and the National Security Council estimated that the United States would lose between 20,000 and 30,000 dead and wounded soldiers in a Gulf war.” The Bush administration declined official comment on these figures at the time, but the media indicated that they were derived from Defense Department computer models used to wargame possible conflict scenarios.[1] The numbers shocked the American public and became unofficial benchmarks in subsequent public discussion and debate.

A Defense Department wargame exploring U.S. options in Iraq had taken place on 25 August, the results of which allegedly led to “major changes” in military planning.[2] Although linking the wargame and the reported casualty estimate is circumstantial, the cited figures were very much in line with other contemporary U.S. military casualty estimates. A U.S. Army Personnel Command [PERSCOM] document that informed U.S. Central Command [USCENTCOM] troop replacement planning, likely based on pre-crisis plans for the defense of Saudi Arabia against possible Iraqi invasion, anticipated “about 40,000” total losses.[3]

These early estimates were very likely to have been based on a concept plan involving a frontal attack on Iraqi forces in Kuwait using a single U.S. Army corps and a U.S. Marine Expeditionary Force. In part due to concern about potential casualties from this course of action, the Bush administration approved USCENTCOM commander General Norman Schwarzkopf’s preferred concept for a flanking offensive using two U.S. Army corps and additional Marine forces.[4] Despite major reinforcements and a more imaginative battle plan, USCENTCOM medical personnel reportedly briefed Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell in December 1990 that they were anticipating 20,000 casualties, including 7,000 killed in action.[5] Even as late as mid-February 1991, PERSCOM was forecasting 20,000 U.S. casualties in the first five days of combat.[6]

The reported U.S. government casualty estimates prompted various public analysts to offer their own public forecasts. One anonymous “retired general” was quoted as saying “Everyone wants to have the number…Everyone wants to be able to say ‘he’s right or he’s wrong, or this is the way it will go, or this is the way it won’t go, or better yet, the senator or the higher-ranking official is wrong because so-and-so says that the number is this and such.’”[7]

Trevor Dupuy’s forecast was among the first to be cited by the media[8], and he presented it before a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee in December.

Other prominent public estimates were offered by political scientists Barry Posen and John J. Mearshimer, and military analyst Joshua Epstein. In November, Posen projected that the Coalition would initiate an air offensive that would quickly gain air superiority, followed by a frontal ground attack lasting approximately 20 days incurring 4,000 (with 1,000 dead) to 10,000 (worst case) casualties. He used the historical casualty rates experienced by Allied forces in Normandy in 1944 and the Israelis in 1967 and 1973 as a rough baseline for his prediction.[9]

Epstein’s prediction in December was similar to Posen’s. Coalition forces would begin with a campaign to obtain control of the air, followed by a ground attack that would succeed within 15-21 days, incurring between 3,000 and 16,000 U.S. casualties, with 1,049-4,136 killed. Like Dupuy, Epstein derived his forecast from a combat model, the Adaptive Dynamic Model.[10]

On the eve of the beginning of the air campaign in January 1991, Mearshimer estimated that Coalition forces would defeat the Iraqis in a week or less and that U.S. forces would suffer fewer than 1,000 killed in combat. Mearshimer’s forecast was based on a qualitative analysis of Coalition and Iraqi forces as opposed to a quantitative one. Although like everyone else he failed to foresee the extended air campaign and believed that successful air/land breakthrough battles in the heart of the Iraqi defenses would minimize casualties, he did fairly evaluate the disparity in quality between Coalition and Iraqi combat forces.[11]

In the aftermath of the rapid defeat of Iraqi forces in Kuwait, the media duly noted the singular accuracy of Mearshimer’s prediction.[12] The relatively disappointing performance of the quantitative models, especially the ones used by the Defense Department, punctuated debates within the U.S. military operations research community over the state of combat modeling. Dubbed “the base of sand problem” by RAND analysts Paul Davis and Donald Blumenthal, serious questions were raised about the accuracy and validity of the methodologies and constructs that underpinned the models.[13] Twenty-five years later, many of these questions remain unaddressed. Some of these will be explored in future posts.

NOTES

[1] “Potential War Casualties Put at 100,000; Gulf crisis: Fewer U.S. troops would be killed or wounded than Iraq soldiers, military experts predict,” Reuters, 5 September 1990; Benjamin Weiser, “Computer Simulations Attempting to Predict the Price of Victory,” Washington Post, 20 January 1991

[2] Brian Shellum, A Chronology of Defense Intelligence in the Gulf War: A Research Aid for Analysts (Washington, D.C.: DIA History Office, 1997), p. 20

[3] John Brinkerhoff and Theodore Silva, The United States Army Reserve in Operation Desert Storm: Personnel Services Support (Alexandria, VA: ANDRULIS Research Corporation, 1995), p. 9, cited in Brian L. Hollandsworth, “Personnel Replacement Operations during Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield” Master’s Thesis (Ft. Leavenworth, KS: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 2015), p. 15

[4] Richard M. Swain, “Lucky War”: Third Army in Desert Storm (Ft. Leavenworth, KS: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College Press, 1994)

[5] Bob Woodward, The Commanders (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991)

[6] Swain, “Lucky War”, p. 205

[7] Weiser, “Computer Simulations Attempting to Predict the Price of Victory”

[8] “Potential War Casualties Put at 100,000,” Reuters

[9] Barry R. Posen, “Political Objectives and Military Options in the Persian Gulf,” Defense and Arms Control Studies Working Paper, Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, November 1990)

[10] Joshua M. Epstein, “War with Iraq: What Price Victory?” Briefing Paper, Brookings Institution, December 1990, cited in Michael O’Hanlon, “Estimating Casualties in a War to Overthrow Saddam,” Orbis, Winter 2003; Weiser, “Computer Simulations Attempting to Predict the Price of Victory”

[11] John. J. Mearshimer, “A War the U.S. Can Win—Decisively,” Chicago Tribune, 15 January 1991

[12] Mike Royko, “Most Experts Really Blew It This Time,” Chicago Tribune, 28 February 1991

[13] Paul K. Davis and Donald Blumenthal, “The Base of Sand Problem: A White Paper on the State of Military Combat Modeling” (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1991)

Assessing the TNDA 1990-91 Gulf War Forecast

Map of ground operations of Operation Desert Storm starting invasion February 24-28th 1991. Shows allied and Iraqi forces. Special arrows indicate the American 101st Airborne division moved by air and where the French 6st light division and American 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment provided security. Image created by Jeff Dahl and reposted under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2.

Map of ground operations of Operation Desert Storm starting invasion February 24-28th 1991. Shows allied and Iraqi forces. Special arrows indicate the American 101st Airborne division moved by air and where the French 6st light division and American 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment provided security. Image created by Jeff Dahl and reposted under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2.

[NOTE: This post has been edited to more accurately characterize Trevor Dupuy’s public comments on TNDA’s estimates.]

Operation DESERT STORM began on 17 January 1991 with an extended aerial campaign that lasted 38 days. Ground combat operations were initiated on 24 February and concluded after four days and four hours, with U.S. and Coalition forces having routed the Iraqi Army in Kuwait and in position to annihilate surviving elements rapidly retreating northward. According to official accounting, U.S. forces suffered 148 killed in action and 467 wounded in action, for a total of 614 combat casualties. An additional 235 were killed in non-hostile circumstances.[1]

In retrospect, TNDA’s casualty forecasts turned out to be high, with the actual number of casualties falling below the lowest +/- 50% range of estimates. Forecasts, of course, are sensitive to the initial assumptions they are based upon. In public comments made after the air campaign had started but before the ground phase began, Trevor Dupuy forthrightly stated that TNDA’s estimates were likely to be too high.[2]

In a post-mortem on the forecast in March 1991, Dupuy identified three factors which TNDA’s estimates miscalculated:

  • an underestimation of the effects of the air campaign on Iraqi ground forces;
  • the apparent surprise of Iraqi forces; and
  • an underestimation of the combat effectiveness superiority of U.S. and Coalition forces.[3]

There were also factors that influenced the outcome that TNDA could not have known beforehand. Its estimates were based on an Iraqi Army force of 480,000, a figure derived from open source reports available at the time. However, the U.S. Air Force’s 1993 Gulf War Air Power Survey, using intelligence collected from U.S. government sources, calculated that there were only 336,000 Iraqi Army troops in and near Kuwait in January 1991 (out of a nominal 540,000) due to unit undermanning and troops on leave. The extended air campaign led a further 25-30% to desert and inflicted about 10% casualties, leaving only 200,000-220,000 depleted and demoralized Iraqi troops to face the U.S. and Coalition ground offensive.[4].

TNDA also underestimated the number of U.S. and Coalition ground troops, crediting them with a total of 435,000, when the actual number was approximately 540,000.[5] Instead of the Iraqi Army slightly outnumbering its opponents in Kuwait as TNDA approximated (480,000 to 435,000), U.S. and Coalition forces probably possessed a manpower advantage approaching 2 to 1 or more at the outset of the ground campaign.

There were some aspects of TNDA’s estimate that were remarkably accurate. Although no one foresaw the 38-day air campaign or the four-day ground battle, TNDA did come quite close to anticipating the overall duration of 42 days.

DESERT STORM as planned and executed also bore a striking resemblance to TNDA’s recommended course of action. The opening air campaign, followed by the “left hook” into the western desert by armored and airmobile forces, coupled with holding attacks and penetration of the Iraqi lines on the Kuwaiti-Saudi border were much like a combination of TNDA’s “Colorado Springs,” “Leavenworth,” and “Siege” scenarios. The only substantive difference was the absence of border raids and the use of U.S. airborne/airmobile forces to extend the depth of the “left hook” rather than seal off Kuwait from Iraq. The extended air campaign served much the same intent as TNDA’s “Siege” concept. TNDA even anticipated the potential benefit of the unprecedented effectiveness of the DESERT STORM aerial attack.

How effective “Colorado Springs” will be in damaging and destroying the military effectiveness of the Iraqi ground forces is debatable….On the other hand, the circumstances of this operation are different from past efforts of air forces to “go it alone.” The terrain and vegetation (or lack thereof) favor air attacks to an exceptional degree. And the air forces will be operating with weapons of hitherto unsuspected accuracy and effectiveness against fortified targets. Given these new circumstances, and considering recent historical examples in the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli Wars, the possibility that airpower alone can cause such devastation, destruction, and demoralization as to destroy totally the effectiveness of the Iraqi ground forces cannot be ignored. [6]

In actuality, the U.S. Central Command air planners specifically targeted Saddam’s government in the belief that air power alone might force regime change, which would lead the Iraqi Army to withdraw from Kuwait. Another objective of the air campaign was to reduce the effectiveness of the Iraqi Army by 50% before initiating the ground offensive.[7]

Dupuy and his TNDA colleagues did anticipate that a combination of extended siege-like assault on Iraqi forces in Kuwait could enable the execution of a quick ground attack coup de grace with minimized losses.

The potential of success for such an operation, in the wake of both air and ground efforts made to reduce the Iraqi capacity for offensive along the lines of either Operation “Leavenworth’…or the more elaborate and somewhat riskier “RazzleDazzle”…would produce significant results within a short time. In such a case, losses for these follow-on ground operations would almost certainly be lower than if they had been launched shortly after the war began.[8]

Unfortunately, TNDA did not hazard a casualty estimate for a potential “Colorado Springs/ Siege/Leavenworth/RazzleDazzle” combination scenario, a forecast for which might very well have come closer to the actual outcome.

Dupuy took quite a risk in making such a prominently public forecast, opening his theories and methodology to criticism and judgement. In my next post, I will examine how it stacked up with other predictions and estimates made at the time.

NOTES

[1] Nese F. DeBruyne and Anne Leland, “American War and Military Operations Casualties: Lists and Statistics,” (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, 2 January 2015), pp. 3, 11

[2] Christopher A. Lawrence, America’s Modern Wars: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam (Philadelphia, PA: Casemate, 2015) p. 52

[3] Trevor N. Dupuy, “Report on Pre-War Forecasting For Information and Comment: Accuracy of Pre-Kuwait War Forecasts by T.N. Dupuy and HERO-TNDA,” 18 March, 1991. This was published in the April 1991 edition of the online wargaming “fanzine” Simulations Online. The post-mortem also included a revised TNDM casualty calculation for U.S. forces in the ground war phase, using the revised assumptions, of 70 killed and 417 wounded, for a total of 496 casualties. The details used in this revised calculation were not provided in the post-mortem report, so its veracity cannot be currently assessed.

[4] Thomas A. Keaney and Eliot A. Cohen, Gulf War Airpower Survey Summary Report (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Air Force, 1993), pp. 7, 9-10, 107

[5] Keaney and Cohen, Gulf War Airpower Survey Summary Report, p. 7

[6] Trevor N. Dupuy, Curt Johnson, David L. Bongard, Arnold C. Dupuy, How To Defeat Saddam Hussein: Scenarios and Strategies for the Gulf War (New York: Warner Books, 1991), p. 58

[7] Gulf War Airpower Survey, Vol. I: Planning and Command and Control, Pt. 1 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Air Force, 1993), pp. 157, 162-165

[8] Dupuy, et al, How To Defeat Saddam Hussein, p. 114

Forecasting the 1990-1991 Gulf War

DoD photo by Regina Ali

DoD photo by Regina Ali

In my last post on the subject of prediction in security studies, I mentioned that TDI has a public forecasting track record. The first of these, and possibly the most well know, involves the 1990-1991 Gulf War.

On 13 December 1990, Trevor N. Dupuy, President of Trevor N. Dupuy & Associates (TNDA), testified before the House Armed Services Committee on the topic of the looming military confrontation between the military forces of the United States and United Nations Coalition allies and those of Iraq.[1] He offered TNDA’s assessment of the potential character of the forthcoming conflict, as well as estimates of the likely casualties that both sides would suffer. Dupuy published a refined and expanded version of TNDA’s analysis in January 1991.[2]

Based on a methodology derived from Dupuy’s combat models and synthesized data on historical personnel and material combat attrition, TNDA forecast a successful U.S. and Coalition air/ground offensive campaign into Kuwait.[3] Using publicly available sources, TNDA calculated that Iraqi forces in Iraq numbered 480,000, U.S. forces at 310,000, and Coalition allies at 125,000.

The estimated number of casualties varied based on a campaign anticipated to last from 10 to 40 days depending on five projected alternate operational scenarios:

  • Operation “Colorado Springs.” A 10-day air campaign aimed at achieving air superiority and attacking Iraq’s ground forces and war-making infrastructure. While TNDA believed an air campaign would proceed any ground offensive option, Dupuy suggested that it could potentially force an Iraqi surrender without the need for a land attack.
  • Operation “Bulldozer.” A frontal assault on Iraqi forces in Kuwait, lasting 10-20 days.
  • Operation “Leavenworth.” A double envelopment of Iraqi forces in Kuwait using an armored turning force in the west and a U.S. Marine amphibious landing in the east.
  • Operation “RazzleDazzle.” Similar to “Leavenworth,” but combined with an assault along the Iraq-Kuwait border by airborne/airmobile forces for a triple envelopment to encircle all Iraqi forces in Kuwait.
  • Operation “Siege.” A combination of an extended Operation “Colorado Springs” and ground force raids on all of Iraq’s borders. After 10-20 days, one of the three ground attack options (“Bulldozer,” “Leavenworth,” or “RazzleDazzle”) would be initiated to conclude the war.

Based on these assumptions, TNDA produced a range of casualty predictions for U.S. forces that TNDA asserted would probably be accurate to within +/- 50%. These ranged from a low of 380 for a 10-day “Colorado Springs” air-only campaign, to a top-end calculation of 16,645 for a 10-day “Colorado Springs” followed by a 20-day “Bulldozer” frontal assault.

TNDA’s Projection of Likely U.S. Casualties

Scenario Duration

Killed

Wounded

Total

+/-50%

Colorado Springs

10-40 days

190-315

190-315

380-630

Bulldozer*

10-20 days

1,858-2,068

8,332-9,222

10,190-11,290

5,335-16,645

Leavenworth*

10-20 days

1,454-1,664

6,309-7,199

7,763-8,863

4,122-12,995

RazzleDazzle*

10-20 days

1,319-1,529

5,534-6,524

6,853-8,053

3,717-11,790

Siege*

10-30 days

564-1,339

1,858-5,470

2,422-6,809

1,451-10,479

* Figures include air casualties

Based on these calculations, TNDA recommended the following course of action:

If the above figures are close to accurate (and history tells us they should should be), then the proper solution is to begin the war with the air campaign of Operation “Colorado Springs.” If this should result in an Iraqi surrender, so much the better. If not, then after about ten days of “Colorado Springs,“ to continue the air campaign for about ten more days while initiating Operation “Siege.” If this does not bring about an Iraqi surrender, the ground campaign should be concluded with Operation “RazzleDazzle.” If this has not brought about an Iraqi surrender, then an advance should be made through the desert to destroy any resisting Iraqi forces and to occupy Baghdad if necessary.[4]

In my next post, I will assess the accuracy of TNDA’s forecast and how it stacked up against others made at the time.

Notes

[1] Armed Services Committee, U.S. House of Representatives, Testimony of Col. T. N. Dupuy, USA, Ret. (Washington D.C.: 13 December 1990)

[2] Trevor N. Dupuy, Curt Johnson, David L. Bongard, Arnold C. Dupuy, If War Comes, How To Defeat Saddam Hussein (McLean, VA.: HERO Books, 1991); subsequently republished as How To Defeat Saddam Hussein: Scenarios and Strategies for the Gulf War (New York: Warner Books, 1991).

[3] These are the Quantified Judgement Model (QJM) and Tactical Numerical Deterministic Model (TNDM). Dupuy’s methodological approach and his first cut on a Gulf War estimate are described in Chapter 7 of Trevor N. Dupuy, Attrition: Forecasting Battle Casualties and Equipment Losses in Modern War (McLean, VA.: HERO Books, 1990).

[4] Dupuy, et al, How To Defeat Saddam Hussein, 126

Screw Theory! We Need More Prediction in Security Studies!

Johnny Carson as Carnac the Magnificent; taken from the January 24, 2005 broadcast of The Tonight Show.

Johnny Carson as Carnac the Magnificent; taken from the January 24, 2005 broadcast of The Tonight Show.

My previous post touched on the apparent analytical bankruptcy underlying the U.S. government’s approach to counterterrorism policy. While many fingers were pointed at the government for this state of affairs, at least one scholar admitted that “the leading [academic] terrorism research was mostly just political theory and anecdotes” which has “left policy makers to design counterterrorism strategies without the benefit of facts.”

So what can be done about this? Well, Michael D. Ward, a Professor of Political Science at Duke University, has suggested a radical solution: test the theories to see if they can accurately predict real world outcomes. Ward recently published an article in the Journal of Global Security Studies (read it now before it goes behind the paywall) arguing in favor of less theory and more prediction in the fields of international relations and security studies.

[W]e need less theory because most theory is an attempt to rescue or adapt extant theory. We need more predictions in order to keep track of how well we understand the world around us. They will tell us how good our theories are and where we need better explanations.

As Ward explained,

[P]rediction is deeply embedded in the philosophy of science… The argument is that if you can develop models that provide an understanding—without a teleology of why things happen—you should be able to generate predictions that will not only be accurate, but may also be useful in a larger societal context.

Ward argued that “until very recently, most of this thread of work in security studies had been lost, or if not lost, at least abandoned.” The reason for this was the existence of a longstanding epistemological disagreement: “Many social scientists see a sharp distinction between explanation on the one hand and prediction on the other. Indeed, this distinction is often sharp enough that it is argued that doing one of these things cuts you out of doing the other.”

For the most part, Ward asserted, the theorists have won out over the empiricists.

[M]any scholars (but few others) will tell you that we need more theory. Doubtless they are right. Few of them really mean “theory” in the sense that I reserve for the term. Few of them mean “theory” in the sense of analytical narratives. Many of them mean “detailed, plausible stories” about how stuff occurs.

In light of the uncomfortable conclusion that more detailed, plausible stories about how stuff occurs does not actually yield more insight, Ward has adopted a decidedly contrarian stance.

I am here to suggest that less is more. Thus, let me be the first to call for less theory in security studies. We should winnow the many, many such “theories” that occupy the world of security studies.

Instead, we need more predictions.

He went on to detail his argument.

We need these predictions for four reasons. First, we need these predictions to help us make relevant statements about the world around us. We also need these predictions to help us throw out the bad “theories” that continue to flourish. These predictions will help drive our research into new areas, away from moribund approaches that have been followed for many decades. Finally, and perhaps most important, predictions will force us to keep on track.

But making predictions is only part of the process. Tracking them and accounting for their accuracy is the vital corollary to improving both accuracy and theory. As Ward pointed out, “One reason that many hate predictions is that talking heads make many predictions in the media, but few of them ever keep track of how well they are doing.” Most, in fact, are wrong; few are held accountable for it.

Of course, the use of empirical methods to predict the outcomes of future events animated much of Trevor N. Dupuy’s approach to historical analysis and is at the heart of what The Dupuy Institute carries on doing today. Both have made well-documented predictions that have also been remarkably accurate. More about those in the next post.