Holistic View of the Operating Environment
25 December 2021

Ghosts in the Modern Planning Machine: ‘Effects Based Operations’ After 2008

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Original blog can be found here:

This is an excerpt from a design monograph that addresses design, NATO operational planning and Joint planning methodologies (NATO-OPP, JPP, and various service-specific deviations therein). This monograph is pending publication and was produced through the Joint Special Operations University where the author is a design educator (contractor) for the U.S. Special Operations Command. The title of the monograph is: Disrupting Modern Military Decision-Making: Deconstructing Institutionalized Rituals through Design Synthesis.” 

This Newtonian style of quantifying complex warfare into oversimplified physics and math equations has become entrenched in modern military decision-making, even after several attempts to purge some military forces of the mindset. Taking complex, dynamic systems and rendering them into some formulaic modeling where, like the block stacking game ‘Jenga’ the cunning opponent able to pull the right piece out might collapse the enemy’s entire stack would spread across military forces and engrain within doctrine. Reductionist logic would go from context specific applications in aerial bombing efforts where one could collapse a bounded system through kinetic strikes to becoming institutionalized by entire military services. Eventually the U.S. Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM) would influence American joint forces as well as NATO and allies on how the totality of warfare could be reduced into nested diagrams of strengths, vulnerabilities, and hierarchical relationships capable of being mapped and manipulated through advanced technology, speed and knowledge curation.

This was ‘Effects Based Operations’ or ‘EBO’ and while debated and eventually banished from doctrine in 2009, EBO’s long shadow continues to influence contemporary military decision-making today in NATO, Joint Forces and military services alike. In the latest NATO strategic and operational planning doctrine, this linear-casual, systematic (input-output) logic of reverse-engineering preconfigured ends with military effects through sequences of deliberate action remain dominant. “Changing conditions from an unacceptable to an acceptable state will require the creation of effects that are necessary to achieve planned objectives and contribute to the achievement of the NATO end state [emphasis added].”[1] Effects-based military rationalization positions deliberate actions as a direct catalyst for controlling and predictively shifting the present ‘problematic situation’ away from an undesired future so that something more palatable is achieved.

EBO reached mainstream military utilization coinciding with the Persian Gulf War which itself was defined as the first ‘high-tech’, ‘smart bomb’ war that promised that the problems of the Vietnam Era strategic frustrations were now solved with advanced weapons, computers, and sophisticated management of military forces. EBO positioned the desired military end-state or strategic goal(s) as the centralized starting point for all conceptualization of thought and action. Everything must move in what was misunderstood as ‘systemically’ but rather would be orchestrated systematically, linking everything from security forces to politics, infrastructure, population, and resources from strategic levels down in quantitative, vertically nested formulations down to isolated tactical actions. Just as the complexity maxim of “a butterfly flapping its wings in Peking [can cause] rain in Central Park” is often misinterpreted,[2] EBO did the same with centralizing effects and causation to a centralized management of military action.

Later in this monograph, readers will explore complex systems and how concepts of emergence, nonlinearity and system sensitivity to initial conditions means that when considering decision-making and strategic goals within said complexity, multiple futures is far more useful than reverse-engineering from a single pre-established strategic end state. Yet in this section for deconstruction of contemporary military decision-making in NATO-OPP and JPP, what EBO attempted to do in the 1990s for air power in the Persian Gulf War would be misapplied across the Joint Forces and extended out of kinetic aerial strikes against hard targets (where CARVER targeting does feature greater suitability) into all warfare endeavors.

Complex systems do not permit analytical efforts, no matter how technologically sophisticated, resourced, or descriptive to grant the precision to map the air displacement of a butterfly to global weather patterns any more than a single bridge strike in a critical enemy location to the eventual capitulation of that nation in defeat. If scientists could capture every single butterfly and bird flap across an entire complex system, it still would only increase weather prediction just slightly due to how complexity expresses. Yet the entire epistemological outlook on warfare by EBO enthusiasts is that war could, through superior technology, science, and faster military communication and decision-making be made controllable, susceptible and even predictable for minimal use of highly skilled, well-resourced forces.

The rise and fall of EBO occurred in the late 1980s through the 2000s, with the U.S. Air Force advocating the targeting methodology as an overarching ‘cure-all’ of analytical reasoning for nearly all aspects of warfare. EBO is structured under the same beliefs and models of CARVER and overlap in many mutually supportive ways. EBO, MSHARPP, SWOT and CARVER all view criticality as “single points of failure, degrees of importance to the system” in a uni-minded systems view (systematic logic) that maps cause and effect in a sequential, linear, and directly proportional rational. CARVER uses a matrix prepared for each asset, and the assets are evaluated against a set criteria list. The criteria can be tailored, “and the relative values manipulated, based on mission or operational needs (as long as consistency is maintained throughout the matrix).”[3]

These models and methods illustrate the modern military’s fixation to shape military affairs into a closed system where one can perfectly model and control all relevant elements of violence. “Mathematical and logical models and simulations of warfare became fetishized for their promises of predictability and control…Convinced with often near-religious fervour of the superiority of their method, [defense intellectuals] were determined to apply scientific rationalism to the entire spectrum of war.”[4] That the U.S. Air Force would be the loudest advocates of EBO as well as help introduce CARVER through aerial bombing again reinforces the misapplication of air and sea domain-specific activities toward complex, dynamic systems more regularly encountered on the ground with populations.

General Mattis, the JFCOM Commander in 2009 would banish EBO as a method and lexicon from Joint Forces, attempting at that time to replace it with military design theory influenced by the Israeli Defense Forces. Mattis would state: “While I agreed then (and now) with the U.S. Air Force’s application of EBO in their targeting process, [Joint Forces Command]’s misapplication of USAF’s targeting doctrine was the fatal flaw. Basically, JFCOM’s misuse of the Air Forces tried to introduce an approach to warfighting at odds with war’s fundamental nature.”[5] CARVER as a cognitive tool is likely quite useful for clear, simplistic and local effects of a weapon payload against a physical target; the USAF using CARVER and Special Forces pairing it to bombing and demolitions activities in the Vietnam War showcase the right model and method paired to the proper context.

Yet just like EBO spread out from USAF targeting for kinetic strikes on physical ground targets, CARVER escaped its original use and since the 2000s has been misapplied to sensitive activities well beyond the original scope and intent. Bousquet posits that this happens because the “vision of a closed world, a chaotic and dangerous space rendered orderly and controllable by the powers of rationality and technology” was very appealing for military institutions where “the training of troops is designed to reduce the conduct of war to a set of rules and a system of procedures- and thereby make orderly and rational what is essentially chaotic and instinctive.”[6] In 2008, Mattis would state in a memorandum to USJFCOM the following:

I am convinced that the various interpretations of EBO have caused confusion throughout the joint force and amongst our multinational partners that we must correct. It is my view that EBO has been misapplied and overextended to the point that it actually hinders rather than helps joint operations… all operating environments are dynamic with an infinite number of variables; therefore, it is not scientifically possible to accurately predict the outcome of an action. To suggest otherwise runs contrary to historical experience and the nature of war.[7]

The U.S. Air Force would be criticized of overselling EBO in the 1990s-2000s (on the afterglow of the decisive Persian Gulf War results) with questionable science and a lack of academic rigor concerning military affairs. Lacking in demonstrated academic study, the USAF would instead promote military doctrine that lacked underpinning theories, models or sources and instead directed EBO practice on the centralized authority that formal military doctrine carried. While the Air Force embraced EBO concepts and in turn encumbered USJFCOM with it by the early 2000s, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps would be skeptical that the concepts could extend beyond simple kinetic actions in select domains. Lieutenant General Van Riper, reflecting on this period recalled in an interview: “U.S. Army. Brigadier General David Fastabend, the Deputy Director for Futures, wanted to avoid the negative reactions the Joint Forces Command had provoked with its unsupported assertions about the efficiency of EBO” when exploring alternative design theory experimentation in the 2000s for the Army and Marines. Advocates of CARVER, MSHARPP and other targeting models become guilty of the same unsupported assertions and overpromising of EBO and should be of concern for NATO and Joint Forces. They should reflect on how and why contemporary decision-making methodologies are so reliant upon models that tilt toward the same epistemological fixations.

Today, many stakeholders in that period of Department of Defense transformation from the 1990s through the initial ‘Post September 11th ‘War on Terror’ aftermath look back at how EBO surged in popularity only to eventually collapse. Former Commandant Colonel Kevin Benson (of the U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies) recalled of EBO opposition: “Mattis and [Lieutenant General William] Wallace were both bitterly oppose to Effects Based Operations. I had conversations with both of them…they were looking for something that had some theory, some substance, because both of those men viewed EBO as linear…[essentially] bomb until we get what we want.”[8] Meanwhile, CARVER advocate Labaj offers in his article on the methodology: “In my business, there was no problem that could not be solved with a large amount of high explosives. This thinking is also prevalent with al-Qaeda and other modern terrorist organizations.”[9]

Methodologically, CARVER (as well as MSHARPP) and EBO appear closely related in theoretical underpinnings, conceptual models, metaphoric devices, language and method. These overlaps indeed existed prior to formal adaptation of EBO into various service doctrines and decision-making methodologies,[10] and after the elimination of the term in 2008 those overlaps remain rigidly in place. This is important for NATO and Joint planners to consider in that many concepts become entrenched in methodologies through indoctrination, training and even institutional ritualization due to the alure of particular beliefs complimenting an overarching worldview on warfighting.

Whether considering CARVER, SWOT, COG analysis, ghosts of EBO’s former indoctrinated glory, or the most recently published NATO or Joint planning doctrines and the myriad analytical models and constructs within them, NATO and Joint Forces have several areas of deep concern. Current decision-making methodologies are saddled with too many concepts and ideas generated elsewhere that have been collected and assimilated into the institutionalized social collectivity that manifests in NATO-OPP, JPP and service-specific variations therein. Contemporary military decision-making is a clear victim of this issue in that strategists and operational planners likely are unwittingly (and in some ways, unwillingly) forced into socially conditioned responses to “a pre-established ordering of things” imposed by the modern (Western, Industrialized) military enterprise.[11] Often it becomes difficult to spot these problems because they exist beyond specific terms, steps, models or techniques within a methodology; Decision-making fallacies in modern warfare extend epistemologically from the theoretical to explicit practices within the entire socialized frame for making sense of warfare.

Whitehead created the term ‘Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness’ that described the tendency to “see physical objects and things as the natural units of analysis rather than, more properly, the relationships between them.”[12] Contemporary NATO-OPP and JPP have become a collective catch-all for too many ideas and concepts where they were originally conceived within “a different thought style [and were] easily assimilated into the dominant discourse in such a way as to neutralize claims which do not fit into the dominant order of things.”[13] CARVER in particular is a prime example of this; analysts promoting the utility and scientific soundness of the targeting method believe it can take qualitative data and render it mathematically into quantitative, objective outputs for clear analytical reasoning. Thus, CARVER ‘magically’ converts complex, dynamic social networks into neat bundles of linear-causal equations appropriate for a military planner or intelligence analysist to plan direct activities against. Kinetic strikes on hardened objects extend into complex social networks where the same formulaic reasoning turns terrorist networks into bridges, or airfields and infrastructure into social and cultural entities ready to be isolated and physically manipulated.

What occurs within CARVER, and as CARVER is one of several fallible or ‘weak science’ modeling within modern military decision-making, CARVER demonstrates a significant institutional barrier for NATO and Joint Forces toward reflective practice,[14] critical self-reflection, and the ability to transform away from outdated or irrelevant practices in warfare. In CARVER (and SWOT, COG analysis, MSHARPP and so-on), this analytical optimization and belief that complex social systems can be rendered into similar objectively stable models such as hardened site bombing activities or demolitions effects illustrates the following:

A process of selective appropriation frequently occurs whereby concepts and ideas generated within a different set of ontological commitments and intellectual priorities are systematically appropriated and intellectually subdued to fit the underlying organizational logic of the dominant thought style. In this way, an intellectual ‘drift’ occurs in which fresh and original ideas proposed within a different problematic are forcibly grafted and pressed into service within a context which neither framed nor generated them. This tendency to selectively abstract ideas, concretize them as essential aspects of reality and then to take them as appropriate units of analysis, whilst ignoring and forgetting this process of decontextualization, leads to what has been previously termed the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness.[15]

Thus, modern military decision-making presents several problematic issues for NATO and the Department of Defense in the underlying logic of the decision-making methodology, the origin of various models within NATO-OPP and JPP, the deeper theoretical and philosophical (ontological, epistemological) structures within western military warfighting constructs, and the fallacies shared by an entire generation of military analysts on how models such as CARVER function (or fail to function). EBO reasoning is rationalized so that models such as CARVER, SWOT, COGs and others make sense to strategists and planners employing the same warfighter frame.

The assumptions and biases that using CARVER for any application outside of kinetic strikes upon physical objects (whether bombs or demolitions) shows what Chia and others describe as how individuals are members of a thought collective with a particular thought style which, often without the individuals even realizing it, or indeed even the entire social collective realizing this influence, “exerts a compulsive force upon their thinking. When a particular conception permeates throughout the thought collective and influences everyday life and idiom, any contradiction, therefore, appears unthinkable and unimaginable.”[16] Thus, the deconstruction and decontextualization provided through cognitive models within NATO-OPP and JPP such as CARVER, SWOT and COG analysis may seem unthinkable and unimaginable to those that are under this compulsive influencing mindset rewarded by the institution.

This excerpt is part of a larger monograph pending publication in 2022.

For more, follow Ben Zweibelson, subscribe to ‘Think JSOU’ on YouTube, consider JSOU courses, research and educational outreach by visiting , and also connect with Ben on LinkedIn to learn more about this monograph and the planned publication in 2022.

[1] Supreme Headquarters, Allied Powers, “Allied Command Operations Comprehensive Operations Planning Directive COPD Version 3.0,” 1–2.

[2] Jeremy Deaton, “The Butterfly Effect Is Not What You Think It Is,” The Washington Post, February 2, 2020,

[3] Schnaubelt, Larson, and Boyer, Vulnerability Assessment Method (VAM) Pocket Guide: A Tool for Center of Gravity Analysis, 29–30.

[4] Bousquet, “Cyberneticizing the American War Machine: Science and Computers in the Cold War,” 83.

[5] James Mattis to Ben Zweibelson, “RE: Design for Defense Book PDF Manuscript,” September 16, 2021.

[6] Bousquet, “Cyberneticizing the American War Machine: Science and Computers in the Cold War,” 84; Chris Gray, Postmodern War: The New Politics of Conflict (New York: The Guilford Press, 1997), 95. Bousquet quotes Edwards and Gray.

[7] James Mattis, “Memorandum for U.S. Joint Forces Command” (U.S. Joint Forces Command, August 14, 2008),

[8] Kevin Benson, Interview of Colonel (retired) Kevin Benson, former SAMS Commandant, 04 AUG 2021 mp3 audio file, interview by Ben Zweibelson, mp3 Audio File, August 4, 2021.

[9] Labaj, “The CARVER Methodology: The Evolution of the CIA’s Offensive Targeting Methodology into the Security Industry’s Definitive Vulnerability Assessment Tool,” 46.

[10] For example, U.S. Army officers in the early 2000s advocated for the U.S. Army to inculcate EBO logic into all tactical activities and suggest that many EBO concepts already exist for quick integration in existing Army Doctrine. See: John Harris, “Effects-Based Operations: Tactical Utility” (U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 2004), 76,

[11] Robert Chia, “From Modern to Postmodern Organizational Analysis,” Organization Studies 16, no. 4 (1995): 582.

[12] Chia, 582.

[13] Chia, 583.

[14] John Gero and Udo Kannengiesser, “An Ontology of Donald Schön’s Reflection in Designing” (Key Centre of Design Computing and Cognition, University of Sydney, November 26, 2015).

[15] Chia, “From Modern to Postmodern Organizational Analysis,” 583.

[16] Chia, 583.

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