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Location: Montgomery Area, Alabama, United States

Former BUFF driver; self-styled military historian; paid (a lot) to write about beating plowshares into swords; NOT Foamy the Squirrel, contrary to all appearances. Wesleyan Jihadi Name: Sibling Railgun of Reasoned Discourse

Monday, November 06, 2006

Blue Dart 1

A number of those in my profession have been requested to produce "think pieces" for the Air Force on any topic that might provoke further thought, research, etc., in the field of military affairs and/or the theory of conflict. I have produced one so far and am working on two more, but this one is unlikely to see the light of day in its current form (my boss has already said, "it needs to be more closely tied to operations and/or planners" -- so much for free thought), I will publish it and its like here, so at least they are recorded somewhere besides my hard drive and backup. So here goes:

Cause and Effect – Implications for Operations

For centuries, Western science has assumed for the sake of logic and convenience in performing experiments, that cause and effect are easily separable things: that “independent variables” represent those items outside the experiment that don’t change and that “dependent” variable are the items changed by the experiment. We have assumed for the sake of experimental ease that variables are easily separable and mutually independent, giving us the ability to clearly and neatly determine cause and effect relationships. This phenomenon affects social sciences like economics every bit as much as physical sciences like meteorology.

Unfortunately, this is not how cause and effect work in the real world. A generation of new scientific thinking has revealed much more clearly how systems change over time and how “independence” and “dependence” among variables in experiments are mutually dependent – that is, how changes in “dependent” variables often change macro-level behaviors of “independent” variables, and how interactions of the two create emergent behaviors that the variables would not have produced if isolated and that are not always easily predictable.

This new scientific approach has become known by a variety of names: catastrophe, chaos (perhaps the lease enlightening), complexity, emergence, and complex adaptive systems theories, among others. Each of these deals with a slightly different aspect of system behavior, but all contain important insights and all have several crucial aspects in common:

They all focus on the macro level of systems as a whole – how they interact with surrounding systems, rather than on the reductionist behavior of system components themselves

They all focus on non-linear aspects of system behaviors and their components, which have pronounced implications for how systems behave

All agree that both within and among systems, that the behavior of the whole system or system-of-systems far exceeds the sum of the component parts functioning in isolation (“the whole is grater than the sum of the parts”).

All agree that new behaviors emerge from the interactions of systems, many of which are hard to predict, but which may replicate structures or behaviors present at lower levels

So…what are practical implications for commanders and other war practitioners today? Plenty, since many of our officers are still educated in the traditions of the physical sciences and engineering of the last four centuries. Here as some of the biggest implications:

First, that cause and effect are non-linear, not proportional. Proportionality assumes small input equals small output, and vice versa

Implication: In reality, very small inputs can yield very big macro emergent behaviors as time passes.

Example: Doolittle’s raid did insignificant tactical damage, but had huge operational and strategic consequences; four years of WW I’s industrial meat-grinder produced millions of casualties for a few miles of ground

Second, that the whole equals the sum of the parts, In systems theory, the whole always exceed the sum of its parts.

Example: A disciplined unit is always better than a mob

Third, that, as in a lab experiment, a given input always yields the same output. Due to the non-linear nature of many system behaviors, no form of analysis is “predictive (claims to the contrary); they are at best anticipatory and estimative. They can give statistical probabilities that a given COA will perform as intended, but not eliminate risk

Implication: “Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn’t” – Chief Dan George

Fourth, it is easy to ignore the effect of time. Many effects take an unpredictable amount of time to work their way through a targeted system. Anticipated effects may not happen on schedule, because system effects are non-linear.

Implication: Commanders and their staffs must counsel patience to superiors to allow time for effects to work their way through targeted systems

Fifth, as a corollary of four, there may not be good, objective or quantifiable assessment measures of effectiveness available as one awaits a desired emergent behavior.

Example: No one knew Milosevic was about to give up until he did so.

Sixth, and perhaps most important, one’s adversary, friends, neutrals, and all actors in a given operation are all complex adaptive systems. They respond adaptively to our actions and force changes of COA and continuous re-examination of strategy

Implication: Robust wargaming of blue, gray, and red COAs should start iteratively in planning and continue throughout operations

Armed with a more sophisticated understanding of what emerging scientific thought is bringing to many disciplines and how indeterminate cause and effect can be may aid commanders in making operational decisions based on more realistic expectations, thus saving valuable lives, resources, time, and opportunities


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