Center for Strategic Communication

Yesterday, DC Twitter had fun at the expense of overly fantastic threat scenarios—and I mean they were mostly snarking at EMPs. This caused Abu M coblogger Dan Trombly to remark that national security analysis solely needed a “logistical Occam’s Razor.” Doing an hard analysis–complete with opportunity costs—would reveal that ceteris paribus, many present threat scenarios are grossly expensive relative to the damage they would inflict. Simpler and more mundane methods–or innovative uses of less exotic technology–would inflict as much or greater damage for less cost. 

This doesn’t mean that ineffective attacks don’t matter—Millett, Murray, Overy, Roche, and Watts all make an case for cumulative strategic effects of the Combined Air Offensive in combination with other factors. But if you are an al-Qaeda strategist looking to cause damage with an operations budget equivalent to a DoD rounding error, you are not going to aim for overly complex, inefficient, Pinky and the Brain-like schemes with a dizzying amount of failure points.

The style of thinking that Dan is talking about used to have a venerable place in defense analysis. The Cold War world featured massive, globally distributed armed forces, complex diplomatic alignments, military strategic competitions in the economic and industrial sector, and missile weapons with unprecedented reach. Strategy as practiced for most of human history had to be overhauled. Quantitatively gifted strategists like Herman Kahn, Bernard Brodie, and a young Andrew Marshall all plied their craft at trying to solve difficult technical defense problems with great strategic import. Such analysis built on World War II calculations—the mathematics of search theory were instrumental in the U-Boat fight.

But walk into your local (and walk fast, before the damn thing goes out of business) Barnes and Noble and you will likely see the “what if Robert E. Lee had nanomachine-equipped ninja assassins at Gettysburg” type military “history” books selling a heck of a lot faster than books on game theory.

Why? I don’t need to really explain why someone would rather read about nanomachine-equipped ninjas than Bayesian games. Come to think of it, if someone actually wrote a book about nanomachine-equipped ninjas I would risk Phil Arena‘s displeasure by putting down my game theory textbook and getting my ninja on. Particularly if it had illustrations of Confederate ninjas infiltrating DC to direct swarms of nanomachines to devour the White House, with only a grim Solid Snake standing between Lincoln and Grey Goo-induced doom.

One other reason (beyond the awesomeness of ninjas) is that people are more interested in possibilities than limits. It is more intuitively appealing to ask about what might have/what could be than realize the limitations inherent in a situation. This is the logic behind why tabloids always address celebrities by their first names. When you get into the habit of reading about “Justin” or “Angelina” you come to think that–at least theoretically–you could one day sit down at their private table in an ultra-pricey LA sushi bar and ask them about (for example) why Amanda Bynes is such a mess lately.

One of the foremost limitations in strategy is friction. Clausewitz uses the concept to distinguish “real war” from “war on paper.” Seen through the military equivalent of a frictionless plane, everything is possible. Tradeoffs are nonexistent. None of the incomplete information, randomness, and error produced by the extreme exertion of clashing military machines exists. While many use the concept of friction (along with fog) to argue against technical analysis of war, there is actually little conflict. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a man who wrote a sound book on randomness in everyday life, uses the mathematics of statistics and probability extensively in his (free) technical textbook. But Taleb and others (in keeping with the theme of limits) emphasize how people are often fooled by randomness and delusions of predictive capacity.

Now, let’s emphasize something two paragraphs previous again: people are more interested in possibilities than limits. And in a wealthy liberal democracy that does not face existential threats, the threshold of force that can be exerted relative to cost, risk, and complexity of effort imposes many, many limits. These limits in turn motivates a lot of creative efforts to sidestep the reality of the political and economic caps on the usage of force when contemplating future military courses of action.

You may recall the cliche that force is a blunt instrument. Well, it’s a cliche for a good reason. Force, both at macro and micro scales, is an exceedingly blunt instrument. T.E. Lawrence’s observation (and later the title of CNAS fellow John Nagl’s dissertation) that fighting wars is like eating soup with a knife is often ridiculed but also has great insight. Yes, small wars demand precision. But there is an inherent imprecision inherent in the fact that knives are not good instruments for eating soup with. Even expert knife-soup eaters are going to get their tongues accidentally cut a good deal of the time. And if small wars imply subtle knives, major wars imply trying to get that chicken soup into your mouth with a Ka-Bar tactical knife or even a socket bayonet as your primary kitchen utensil.  Better keep a doctor nearby if you want to try for that one, tough dude. It is for this reason that Nagl has often written about the undesirability of fighting counterinsurgencies although (as my analogy implies) such reasoning also holds for major war.

Good defense analysis–the kind that Kahn, Brodie, Schelling, Marshall, and others practiced–was so technically intensive because the act of soup-with-knife-eating demands a rigor appropriate for so blunt and dangerous an instrument. If you want to see some of this at its best, take David Maxwell’s recent analysis of pre-emptive strike options in North Korea. Through Maxwell’s detailed and elaborate analysis, we come to realize that a deceptively discrete measure with a potentially immense payoff entails rather extreme preparations and costs not only to the US-South Korean alliance but also to US objectives elsewhere. Billy Birdzell renders a similar service in his tactical analysis of a potential Benghazi response. Strategic manhunt historian Benjamin Runkle also looks at why it wasn’t really as simple as popularly believed to catch Bin Laden at Tora Bora.

And this nicely segues back into the wacky threat analysis Dan talked about yesterday. Movie plot threats and dreams of military operations on a frictionless plane are ultimately mirror images of each other. If one believes that they can act without limitation and face little to no friction, tradeoffs, transaction costs, etc than it would seem to follow that the enemy also is similarly unbound and free. It is not coincidental that many who famously undersold the risks and costs of intervening in Iraq also implied that Saddam Hussein had an almost superhuman power and freedom of action. So go with Clint Eastwood on this one—but don’t just think of your limitations. Think of the slings and arrows of fortune pelting the other man, even when he seems most terrifying.