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23 April 2023

Emegence & Complexity Science applied to Warfare [Recommended Innovation Articles (and Commentary) #20]

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Original post can be found here:

First, the recommended article for this series is the classic paper by P.W. Anderson in 1972 titled “More is Different.” Anderson was a Nobel Prize winning physicist, one of the original founders of the Santa Fe Institute on complexity science, so he is a serious primary source when we want to talk about complexity (in war). His article is 5x pages, but the font is small so I apologize up front for those that need reading glasses. Anderson makes a compelling argument that when we look at complexity (such as when our military doctrine claims war is complex, and then goes about applying reductionist, Newtonian styled constructs to freeze and slice it up for analysis), we simply cannot deconstruct and reconstruct them as such. The link to his article is here, and THERE IS NO PAYWALL:

Anderson essentially makes the point that most everything we in the military do concerning complex warfare is backwards, and likely irrelevant except in immediate, local, and linear forms of actions in simple or complicated systems (not complex ones!). Instead, at different levels of complexity, entirely new properties appear that require new thinking, new laws, and likely entirely dissimilar language and models to make sense of just that layer of complex reality. Now, this Medium post is a special 3x part one, so here is where the second shoe drops. Anderson makes the argument on levels of complexity and also how emergence transforms things so that whatever you were doing before likely is not going to work in the emergent consequences. We fail to grasp this in our doctrine, and our decision-making methodologies for strategic plans, operational design and campaigns, right down to most of the higher level tactical planning (think divisions, corps, wings, groups) so that we do short-term immediate activities marvelously, and utterly fail in anything beyond that.

More on that in a bit…

Those that have followed or subscribed to this series should have enjoyed the Fromm primer document on emergence in complex systems. This was the primer on emergence and it also has NO PAYWALL. If you missed it, grab it here and check out the commentary here as well; this primer is simply one of the best quick readings any reader might use (particularly in PME programs for military forces) to understand emergence in complexity science:

After reading the Anderson article first, dive into Fromm (or review it once more)- as Fromm makes a nice case to align a classification system for orders of complex emergence. So, simple emergence or “Type 1” is something our military can easily wrap our Newtonian planning approaches around without any disruption. If you had a mechanical wrist watch that had a date with day-month-year on it, the pieces would go on and on forever (with windings) but the emergent quality here at the lowest level is the parts collectively present an entirely new configuration (what time is it now?) in perpetuity. They cannot alter things, this is a machine function and the lowest form of emergence. **** I posit that most all of our military doctrine misinterprets complex emergence as this sort of phenomenon… in my opinion. Everyone has opinions but in this case mine is correct. : )

Another Type I explained by Fromm would be how sand in an hour glass causes random collapses that are non-repeating. Scientists can map every piece of sand and drop them precisely, but the sand pile collapses in an emergent, non-repeating way every single time, forever. Same with snowflake formation- but again, these are weak forms of emergence. The good stuff is over at the Type 3 and Type 4 levels- which is what Anderson is talking about in his article. We have complex emergence where there must be entirely new and distinct rules created as the emergent properties of the new system disrupt what was there previously… and all of this may be occurring at different levels that do not impact other levels in the same reality. A soldier killed in trench warfare in WW1 would be lost and immediately impact that squad or unit. Yet molecularly, his atoms will just exist and enter Earth’s slow phosphate cycle (assuming a burial or decomp).

At a higher level, 1x fatality in a WW1 battle is statistically insignificant to a division or corps attempting to gain territory where thousands of lives are unfortunately being lost. And now for the third shoe to drop: Given these two articles and my aforementioned comments on Newtonian oversimplification of complex warfare- why do we use Levels of War?

Some thoughts while drawing from these two articles: Below is a brief draft article (based on some other work I am doing in this exact area) proposing that how we currently frame the strategic, operational, and tactical is entirely inappropriate with respect to complexity science and how we might be going about framing complex warfare using an oversimplified model that continues to frustrate us. The below draft section of current research of mine draws heavily from Anderson and Fromm, while working in much of Fuller’s thesis on a scientific way of warfare that he wrote in 1925 and ultimately became the bedrock for 90% of what is in JP 3–0, 5–0 (and service versions) and throughout processes such as Army Design Methodology (ADM) today.

If we were not to use the hierarchical ‘strategic-operational-tactical’, what might we draw from that comes with complexity science and not from a natural science inspiration (we likely assumed the concept of hierarchical layers from geology in the 17th or 18th century while modernizing the military profession; it used to be “grand strategy, strategy, tactics” or some variation therein until Russian theory generated ‘operational’ in the 1920s). This is a frightening concept, as it pulls the rug out from one of the most foundational things we assume is “real and sound”. However- could we reconceptualize differently and break from this into a new direction that our adversaries would struggle to understand and adapt quickly?

Here is that third shoe dropping (if perhaps we had three legs, but the metaphor still stands…). This is a copy-paste of 4x pages from a project I am working on using all the aforementioned material and research. I will paste it below for readers interested in how one might incorporate this into changing how militaries think so that concepts such as emergence are used, instead of ignored or misapplied to support our older, outdated Newtonian frames:

Vauban illustration from his geometry of warfare book; image source:

Complexity Does Not Work in Newtonian Fixed Logics for Uniformity at Scale:

Until recently, war might be interpreted through a western, ancient Greek logic of natural ordering and heroic action to reach abstracted goals, or through an ancient Chinese alternative logic where non-action by anonymous or invisible war sages might usher in a natural flow of reality without fighting at all. War could be explained in rigid mathematical formulas and geometry such as Vauban and Jomini, where generals could manipulate their army and the enemy as if winding a watch. Clausewitz would combine natural science analysis with ancient Greek constructs of heroic action and desired ends but build upon this fusion the ideas of German Romanticism which would pontificate about complexity in war blending chemical and biological metaphors with nation states, armies, and populations. A wave of counter-capitalists led first by Marx and Engels and later a series of Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cuban, and other political revolutionaries would charter upon different war theory directions. Yet in all of these war theories generated over thousands of years in vastly different times and cultures, all of them placed the human decision-makers clearly in control of war.

The Newtonian stylization of warfare occurred over the last several centuries, beginning with attempts by military theorists such as Vauban and later Jomini to render warfare into mathematical precision and geometric modeling so that battles could be predicted and controlled as if it were a mechanical watch [1]. Military theorists from Scharnhorst to his most famous pupil Clausewitz and many others would ground their war theorization upon natural science inspiration and an ontology (what is real or is not) for war itself oriented toward objective universal laws that govern the universe [2]. Fuller, during the Interwar Period, would comprehensively integrate Clausewitzian, Jominian, and Westphalian concepts into a positivist explanation of war (breaking things into simpler parts and isolating core laws and rules to apply to reassembled wholes) in strict scientific terms and reasoning. J.F.C. Fuller would capture this dominant military view with:

If we understand the true reason for any single event, then we shall be able to work out the chain of cause and effect and, if we can do this, we shall foresee events and so be in a position to prepare ourselves to meet them… military power is controlled by similar laws to those which govern [physical laws of nature] force, consequently the aim of the soldier is to harmonize his mind to the workings of these laws [3].

Potentially, this mechanistic, Newtonian rendering of reality worked in parallel with the industrialization of societies and the collapse of Imperial Empires as Westphalian nation-states became the prominent form for populations of shared beliefs, histories, and language. If war could be appropriately termed ‘conventional’ in that many different nations would agree to the rules, behaviors, and norms as conflict unfolded, the industrialized warfare of the early nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries could be comprehended and articulated via these Newtonian ideas and terms. The modern military institution accepts at an ontological level that war is arranged hierarchically in a nested manner of linear causality where “three levels of war- strategic, operational, and tactical- model the relationship between national objectives and tactical actions… they help commanders visualize a logical arrangement of operations, allocate resources, and assign tasks to the appropriate command” [4]. Joint doctrine arranges this logic hierarchically so that “strategy develops an idea” and “military strategy, derived from national policy and strategy and informed by doctrine, provides a [subordinate] framework for conducting operations” [5]. The operational level in this hierarchical arrangement “links the tactical employment of forces to national and military strategies” and tactics is “the employment and ordered arrangement of forces in relation to each other. Joint doctrine focuses this term on planning and executing battles, engagements, and activities at the tactical level to achieve military objectives assigned to tactical units or task forces” [6].

Militaries logically nest all theoretical concepts, methodological processes, models, and a generic terminology to manifest uniformly from any level up or down. A tactical unit has a desired end-state and identified problem to solve that links directly to an operational level goal and problem set, that in turn is nested in a higher strategic level. This again reflects a Newtonian ontology adapted by the modern military institution where “the workings of our minds and bodies, and all the animate or inanimate matter of which we have any detailed knowledge, are assumed to be controlled by the same set of fundamental laws”[7]. Fuller’s declarations that “military power, like force, is a compound of mass (body) and energy (activity)… My military faith is based on an examination of the facts correlated by the scientific method” demonstrate this fixation on war being entirely contained within a natural science interpretation [8]. Whether they were sufficient at that time or not, complexity science does not support “the ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws” [9]. This is a profound tension between how reality exists from complexity theory and how modern militaries are only willing to explore complexity with centuries-old theories, models, and methodologies that are entrenched in what is a Newtonian and not a complexity science framing for reality.

A majority of the modern military profession assume this hierarchical ordering of ‘levels of war’ without question- it is an ontologically assumed fact that comes from not just the Newtonian stylization and natural science inspiration, but also from far earlier ideological and philosophical frameworks that emphasized a hierarchy where scale and complexity still held to universal, stable, and unchanging standards. Fuller again would articulate this by drawing upon earlier war theorist work and organizing these concepts with a scientific rationalizations built upon metaphors of individuals equaling nations [10], duels and fights equating to wars [11], multi-service operations akin to the joints and bones of a human skeleton [12], the commander as the “brain” of the army [13], military control at scale is the same as the human body [14], and that the cells of the body are that of individuals and groups unified as nations [15]. Fuller’s scientific interpretation of war rests upon his ontology that scale and complexity permit reductionist analysis and subsequent universal (positivist) re-application to entire campaigns and national war strategies without significant adjustment. His interwar period publications would deeply influence how World War II would unfold, and subsequently the institutionalized legacy of modern armed forces (Builder). Fuller would rely on Newtonian logic to provide systematic logic (input to output, A plus B leads to C) where complex warfare could be understood through this reductionist approach. “The aim of strategic action is… to direct an army so that the greatest tactical effort is obtainable… Strategic movement is, therefore, dependent on two important and extensive series of conditions, conditions which affect tactics- fighting- and those which affect maintenance- supplying” [16].

Fuller would offer similar universal scaling metaphors as Clausewitz and Jomini, so that principles of war and a ‘nature of war’ could seem appropriate. “The “will to win” is, therefore, first a duel between two brains, each controlling a weapon called an army; and, secondly, a struggle between two armies, each equipped with various means of waging war. If all the various weapons, each influencing in its own degree the mentality of the wielder and that of his opponent, can be reduced in numbers, the principle of determination becomes more simple of application” [17]. “Strategy cannot be divorced from tactics, for, in the battle itself, strategic movements are continued in the form of the approach [18], where Fuller posits that the principle governing strategic movement is indeed the very same one governing tactical actions.

Nobel prize winning physicist Anderson elaborates on how Newton himself likely wondered if the same matter in his hand “might obey the same laws as that up in the sky”, which would permeate across the natural sciences and then into military modernization that occurred in parallel to permit a scientific rationalization of reality via a reductionist and subsequent reconstructionist logic [19]. By freezing and isolating a complex system down to essential elements, one might reduce reality to simple fundamental laws. Yet Anderson argues that complexity science does not then permit one to reassemble complex reality by starting at those laws and expecting the laws from one level of reality to scale with increased complexity just as modern military Newtonian ‘levels of war’ suppose. Instead, complexity science finds at each level of scaled complexity entirely new properties emerging, and entirely different orderings and behaviors require different conceptualization of laws that may be irrelevant at other scales. This is easily observed in how general relativity is required to understand reality at the cosmological scale, while quantum mechanics applies at the atomic scale. Yet war is a decidedly human affair, and requires a deeper framing on emergence, complexity and scale.

In complex reality, the macroscopic level “is independent from the microscopic level, because there is a mesoscopic or intermediate level that protects and isolates one from the other” [20]. For example, humans conceptualize certain animals such as snakes to be scary, while others are considered ‘cute’ such as kittens. A snake’s digestion track, however, finds that kitten rich in nutrients if being eaten, while at the atomic level, those molecules of both the kitten and the snake exist regardless of whether one is dining on the other or not. How humans socially construct reality at another scale (where some animals are cuter than others) is independent from the quantum scale (and the obvious Schrödinger’s Cat pun insertion here), which also is independent from the cellular scale, or the biological scale (snakes and felines compete in overlapping food chains to survive). Just as complexity science makes it impossible to incorporate the behavior of biological organisms reliant on genes and proteins into the laws of particle physics [21], if war is a manifestation of human designed complexity, the hierarchical, Newtonian styled ‘levels of war’ appears oversimplified and potentially irrelevant to complex system behavior as a conceptual model for modern military decision-making.

The highest forms of emergence in complexity science directly impact how humans create socially contextual organized violence (war) and why modern military institutions likely are extending irrelevant and obsolete mental models such as ‘levels of war’ and a myriad other Newtonian styled concepts (centers of gravity, ends-ways-means, problem-solution, centralized hierarchies) where they are increasingly ineffective or fail to anticipate disruptive and transformative events likely on the horizon for humanity as it develops advanced technology to include artificial intelligence, genetic modification of the species, cybernetic enhancement, quantum technology, and celestial colonization and commercialization (becoming a multi-planetary species). Fromm proposes a classification on different types of emergence ranging from simple emergence (type I) to strong emergence (type IV). Type III emergence, associated with complex, adaptive systems and encompasses much of complex human behavior is considered chaotic and unpredictable [22]. Such emergence occurs with the appearance of new forms and functions and the elimination of obsolete ones, mirroring Thomas Kuhn’s theory of scientific paradigm shifts [23] when a new scientific theory overtakes and replaces an outdated, inferior one. Type IV emergence is considered by Fromm to be the strongest sort of phenomenon in complexity science. Such emergence is revolutionary and transformative on the greatest conceivable scale and cannot be predicted in principle due to the profound change it ushers in. The emergence of life is one such example, and the rise of sentient beings able to generate their own culture and a socialized construction of reality upon the natural order is another example of ‘strong emergence’ that open up previously unimagined and unachievable entire realms of possibility, and with this the requirement for entirely new rules, processes, and concepts. Universal principles, laws, and processes such as reductionism are irrelevant in such contexts- they only prosper in simple or complicated systems.

Thus far, readers have explored the overlapping concepts of emergence in complexity science, how complex systems do not permit principles or laws from one scale or realm to extend into others, and that modern militaries adhere to what is a Newtonian styled, natural science inspired frame for conceptualizing thought and action in war. These concepts converge so that the argument can be established for a phantasmal form of future war emerging today and over the coming decades. This phantasmal war construct requires entirely new theories, methods, models, and language concerning complex conflict, and while the phantasmal war frame might coexist with conventional and irregular war theories, none of these should retain the Newtonian styled ontological and epistemological beliefs currently unchallenged across the defense institutions worldwide. Such existing concepts might have limited value within certain highly conventional (perhaps total, high intensity or nuclear war conflicts between nation-states), they continue to show weak correlation to irregular warfare contexts and likely will be entirely irrelevant in most phantasmal war applications.

References and citations from above:

[2] Robert Chia and Andreas Rasche, “Epistemological Alternatives for Researching Strategy as Practice: Building and Dwelling Worldviews” (draft chapter provided to author, 2022), 5–8; Christopher Paparone, The Sociology of Military Science: Prospects for Postinstitutional Military Design (New York: Bloomsbury Academic Publishing, 2013), 20, 30–31, 79, 197–98; Peter Paret, Clausewitz and the State: The Man, His Theories, and His Times, 1985 Paperback (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1985), 8, 84.

[3] J.F.C., The Foundations of the Science of War, 94–95.

[4] U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication 3–0; Joint Operations, Incorporating Change 1 (Suffolk, Virginia: U.S. Department of Defense, 2018), I–12,

[5] U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, I–13.

[6] U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, I-13 to I — 14.

[7] Phillip Anderson, “More Is Different,” Science 177, no. 4047 (August 4, 1972): 393.

[8] J.F.C., The Foundations of the Science of War, 63–64.

[9] Anderson, “More Is Different,” 393.

[10] J.F.C., The Foundations of the Science of War, 64.

[11] J.F.C., 73.

[12] J.F.C., 79–80.

[13] J.F.C., 85.

[14] J.F.C., 89.

[15] J.F.C., 123.

[16] J.F.C., 235.

[17] J.F.C., 249.

[18] J.F.C., 250.

[19] Anderson, “More Is Different,” 393–94.

[20] Jochen Fromm, “Types and Forms of Emergence,” ArXiv: Adaptation and Self-Organizing Systems, June 13, 2005, 1–23.

[21] Fromm.

[22] Fromm.

[23] Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

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