Complexity, Domains, and the End of the Rainbow
Two blogs recently caught my eye—although at a superficial glance they have little to do with each other.
First, Jack McDonald’s recent piece on complexity at KoW:
What, exactly, is a non-complex environment? Perhaps if we consider a pitched battle between two armies, we might approximate one. Even so, both those armies will have internal dynamics and external linkages. Napoleon had to think of France, even when in Russia. Furthermore, what is a non-complex group? It seems to me that the very concept of a complex group is dreamed up in contrast to a “simple” modern army. Simple modern armies don’t exist. The idea of them does, as a straw-man to the RMA et al, but any military historian worth their salt would point to the myriad intricacies of the functioning of any group. To return to simplesville Napoleon, take a look at the list of participants in the Seventh Coalition, and tell me that its operation was a simple affair.
Jack beats a drum I started whacking a little while ago in my piece with Crispin Burke and an article I published a little bit after a panel discussion at the Canadian Forces College. Interactive complexity, within the context of social science, is really inevitable whenever you write about a broadly human affair. So this really leaves talk of a hitherto more complex environment exposed as something of little practical utility. True, Afghanistan is complex. But so was the Civil War, which was solved without any concrete scientific understanding of the concrete nature of its strategic complexity. This is not to say that operational and strategic planning methods based on systems analysis cannot be useful—if anything they heighten our understanding that injecting force into a political and social system is an inherently risky endeavor.
Second, Sam Liles wrote a blog I’ve been flogging every now and then on Twitter:
United States doctrine and force structure is built around the domains of air, sea, land, space and now cyber. Domains as defined create cylinders of capability that can be merged and fought within. The domain construct is as much a historical artifact as it is an efficient categorical system. The military force structure to fight within these domains is an air force, army, and navy. The Marine Corps is an expeditionary force between the sea and land (and other tasks as designated). This structure as defined has inherently created a strategic blindness to the capacities, capabilities, and risks of conflict where they meet. This is especially true when dealing with cyberspace.
Hold up your left hand and look at your fingers. Each finger denotes a domain that United States doctrine defines. The palm of your hand represents the joint functions of these domains. When formed into a fist this meshing of national power assets represents a significant amount of power that is bent toward national strategic objectives. When you splay your hand fingers wide all of that space between your fingers is the vacuum of strategic blindness. Strategic blindness is always there but often hidden by might of the fist. Strategic blindness is the unknown unknowns you can’t define because you are not even looking for them. Strategic blindness is the hidden risks that weaken the whole of the military.
Liles echoes John Aquilla and David Ronfeldt’s original work on cyberwar, which, as David Betz argues, remains some of the most useful even nearly 15 years later. He goes onto to catalog a wide variety of weaknesses that exist not as a kind of Tron-like, virtual domain (the William Gibson image of cyber) that exists apart from everything else, but as the forgotten seams that hold together aspects of the global power projection platform from which the US operates. He also exposes the artificiality of the domain divisions as products of bureaucratic politics rather than military realities. Again, this also echoes the mid-to-late-90s William Libicki/Dorothy Denning writings about the use of IW as information to degrade, destroy, or alter information associated with command, control, data, cognition, and coordination. There is also, happily, an extended analogy to an alien invasion (no more Hunger Games or Game of Thrones for you! Back to Independence Day!)
So how do they relate? McDonald and Liles are calling out ideas that attempt to alter our ontological understanding of the reality of war. By either making war out to be more complex than it necessarily is, or creating a stovepiped system of domains, we harm our ability to respond simply because we cannot come to a clear understanding of the basic structure of the empirical material we are interacting with. The ontology of war is, like any other related subject, always going to remain in a state of constant contest. But Liles and McDonald should be commended for at least clearing a little bit of the conceptual rubble blocking a better view of the situation.