29 December 2021

The Limits of Technical Rationalism: NATO-OPP/JPP’s Institutional Baggage

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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.” 

his brings us to the primary recommendations of this monograph and how military forces that currently follow NATO-OPP/JPP methodologies should benefit from critically reflecting and potentially changing how they arrange thoughts and actions in complex security contexts. To accomplish this, we need to cover some academic terminology that clearly frames how the modern military enterprise thinks, thinks about thinking, and links ideas to action in warfare as well as related activities. We also need to address the overemphasis of both NATO-OPP and JPP on analytical optimization and why this becomes a core theme epistemologically across most all the earlier methodologies examined here. The correct phrase for how militaries attempt to force all warfare understanding and activities into a scientific framework where technological advances promise greater precision and control is ‘technological rationalism.’

Modern militaries have increasingly become dependent upon, if not centralized around technological abilities at the expense of other capabilities in this regard.[1] The technical rationalist mindset operates within the modern war paradigm at beyond the theoretical, modular, and methodological levels… this is like religious conviction and thus becomes ‘epistemological’ concerning how western industrialized democracies expect war to function in complexity.[2] Gibson, in critiquing the American military’s systemic failure in the Vietnam War attributes much of it in his concluding chapter to this pseudo-scientific, potentially false rendering of war as a technological framing. This technological rationalism occurs where one can determine what knowledge is relevant to war, and filter out the rest:

A basic conceptualization of the relationships between knowledge and social stratification has been present throughout this analysis. War-managers are at the top of the stratification system. They think in instrumental categories taken from technology and production systems, and the business accounting rationales of debit and credit ledger. Those at the top of the stratification system had a virtual monopoly on socially accepted “scientific” knowledge. Conflict among different war-managers was quite common, yet those conflicts all occurred within the paradigm of Technowar and its technical knowledge about war. Never was the “otherness” of the foreign Other really questioned, nor was the social world of the Vietnamese peasantry examined, nor were the terrible contradictions and double-reality facing U.S. soldiers in the field ever confronted. Debates at the top were only debates and struggles concerning the direction of the Technowar, not a questioning of its basic assumptions.[3]

These academic terms are indeed critical for understanding beyond the methods that strategists, planners and analysts take for granted as sound and logical such as COG, SWOT, CARVER, stakeholder analysis, ‘Course of Action’ (COA) analysis as well as wargame activities in the selection of COAs. Even in the areas where military theory and doctrine offer ‘military artistry’ or ‘operational art’, the language, metaphoric devices, models and underlying theories are entirely scientific (or pseudo-scientific as Paparone and others argue).[4] This creates a systemic tension of military planners and technocrats seeking to unlock technologically induced ways of managing and manipulating everything measurable in war so that ultimately they can predict and control what matters to accomplish overarching strategic goals and objectives. Yet complexity theorists, systems theorists, certain groups of sociologists, designers, postmodernists and organizational theorists reject such efforts as futile and likely counterproductive for what security organizations really need to accomplish. Consensus and groupthink are discouraged in postmodern theory, where diversity of ideas inspires creativity and repetition of indoctrinated patterns anesthetize it.[5] Even the production of NATO and Joint doctrine can be deconstructed to demonstrate how modern militaries mimic scientific communities and knowledge curation in what often mutates into deeply flawed ways:

The way the US military doctrinal manuals are developed and published indicates autocratic power at work, providing more of an illusion of scientific progress…Publishing updated editions of the manuals gives the appearance of scientific-like progression, yet these texts neither require a citation system to buttress the efficacy of theoretical arguments nor are they subject to refereed reviews and other scholarly criticisms and mitigations afforded by other esoteric knowledge forms found, for example, in traditional professions, such as medicine and law. The publications become doctrine by virtue of a three- or four-star general or admiral signing them. Updates to doctrinal manuals can take 5–10 years or more, reflecting a rather shallow rehashing or reorganization of jargon, slogans, and buzzwords, while the underlying closed-world logic of systematicity remains further entrenched, contributing to the illusion of an engineering-like professional discipline of study.[6]

NATO and Joint Forces are institutionally compelled to follow formal doctrine on what military decision-making is and how to properly execute it. Yet even the mode of doctrinal production falls victim to an illusion of pseudo-science for framing warfare. NATO-OPP and JPP in turn become methodologies for decision-making that generate an institutionally desired illusion of complex reality for practitioners as Ackoff warns in this monograph’s opening quote. Commanders and staffs following doctrine and iteratively following each step of these indoctrinated methods are more often than not engaging in non-reflective practice. They are performing a rain dance because they were told that dancing well will ultimately deliver control of the weather. Regardless of how elaborate the rain dance is and how urgently the dancers believe in their ability to change the weather, complex systems are not susceptible to simplistic reasoning and linear-causal, mechanistic logic any more than rain dancing brings about a desired downpour. Analytical reasoning that prioritizes quantitative, objective findings is insufficient for complex, dynamic systems. War is perhaps the most complex and horrific context that humans create. We are capable of generating complex war through simplistic reasoning, yet we cannot influence or manage said war (or even comprehend it well) through the simplistic reasoning that likely led to war itself.

Design theorist Buchanan frames this tension between the scientific community (and as applied here, the military profession) using analytic logic and that of designers that will use a wide range of concepts that cannot be limited to systematic logic, analytic optimization, and technical rationalism. This presupposes for the scientists (and military scientists) a reductionist, positivist logic in framing reality that ‘solves’ complex problems through engineering, mathematics, and natural science enabled tech[7] alone. Critics of technical rationalism argue that there must also be art, subjectivity, creativity, paradox, irrationality, intuitiveness, and novelty. Buchanan observes: “This creates one of the central problems of communication between scientists and designers, because the problems addressed by designers seldom fall solely within the boundaries of any one of these subject matters.”[8] Modern military strategists, planners, and intelligence analysists tend to emulate scientific and pseudo-scientific practices, language, and methodological applications to warfare. Military designers approach complex security challenges differently due to appreciating alternative frames, and not adhering to institutionalized methodologies or doctrine that is unable to perform the emergent requirements that demand novel designs.

Militaries might consider revising NATO-OPP/JPP (and other variations) to acknowledge the legacy-system influences and contemplate what alternative sensemaking methods, models, language, and theories might be incorporated that previously were unable to gain entry. ‘Sensemaking’ differs from ‘making sense’ in that it involves “the retrospective development of plausible meanings that rationalize what people are doing” as a process of social construction throughout any ongoing activity.[9] A redesign of modern military decision-making methodologies could entertain this sort of experimentation, provided the military first acknowledge and act upon the modern synthetic frame that generates these methodologies. Supporting this notion, the importance of designers today able to view complex challenges from vastly different perspectives is also emphasized by Buchanan and articulated by Krippendorff below concerning design practice in general:

The understanding that designers need to have is an understanding of other users’ or other stakeholders’ understanding. This is an understanding of understanding, or second-order understanding for short. Second-order understanding assumes that others’ understanding is potentially different from one’s own….First-order understanding is mono-logic, second-order understanding radically breaks with the widely shared illusion that scientists could take a God’s-eye view of a world…Second-order understanding also is dynamic in that it accounts for the possibility that artifacts change their users’ meanings in use, that new artifacts always intervene in their user’s understanding, and that we too change our understanding in the process of designing artifacts with and for others.[10]

This ‘second-order understanding’ as articulated by Krippendorff is not conceivable throughout NATO-OPP and Joint Planning where essentially analysts only produce first-order understanding (also termed first-loop reasoning)[11] as explained earlier in this monograph. Closed system single-loop thinking is done through reductionist, single-paradigm constructed models like SWOT, CARVER and COG analysis, as well as epistemologically demonstrated through the formulaic language and linear sequences of modern military decision-making as expressed in doctrine.

This in turn illuminates the overarching ontological stance (what is and is not real) of most industrialized modern military forces for what they believe war is, and what war cannot be. Modern warfare must be expressed through state-centric relationships that do permit some non-state actors, but still channel and render non-state actors into state-similar or ‘state-adjacent’ dynamics that are ordered and standardized into obeying an ontological ‘nature of war’. This unchanging nature of war forms the ontology for which modern militaries can apply formulas, laws, principles, rules and then subscribe to a ‘technical rationalism’ of making sense of warfare as it occurs across time and space.[12] A characterization of warfare is enabled so that contextual changes might occur, just as evolutionary biology twists and turns as different species flourish or perish; yet an overarching natural order of war imposes a Newtonian Style of natural science inspired order and stability. This frames an epistemological pathway so that the modern military profession can employ a technical rationalist outlook on any future security challenge occurring in any place conceivable.

Next, the traditional analytic optimization and reductionism modes of modern military strategy pair directly with tactical planning; the complicated war tasks at the lowest level are expected to work just as effectively at the most abstract strategic levels of war.[13] Provided that enough technology and assets (capability, means to act), force projection through speed and movement (capacity) guided by sound military experience based upon historical reflection, the wise leader can over time gain and increase knowledge on the complex topic under examination in order to accomplish a military goal by ‘solving’ the problem.[14] First-order understanding, as Krippendorff offers, is “the kind of understanding that engineers need and the natural sciences have provided us, [and it] completely ignores the conceptualization that (other) humans bring to it. First-order understanding is mono-logic.”[15] This is how NATO forces, the U.S. Department of Defense as well as other allied equivalents view modern warfare, and how national leadership in turn believe that the military instrument of power can be wielded. One identifies a difference between current reality and a future desired reality, determines the ‘problem’ existing between the two, pairs a solution to that problem and then employs ‘ends-ways-means’ systematic rationalization to militarily change reality as if twisting a screwdriver to sink a screw. A visual example of this reasoning used in multiple contemporary doctrinal products, concept papers and ‘how-to’ military guides is provided below:

Note that the graphic is titled ‘Problem Solving: How to Think’ and offers a linear, casual, and direct sequence of linking problems to solutions (inputs to outputs) in systematic fashion. The wobbly doorknob requires a screw to be tightened, and the screwdriver is brought in for action. The problem is identified, and immediately the analyst seeks the optimal solution that pairs with the problem identified; internal validation is required with “does the solution answer the problem” which is a self-referential action that opens the door to cognitive bias, institutionalisms, and lack of critical reflection upon ‘why’ we think. Everything above is oriented not on why(requiring ontology, epistemology, paradigm), but how (methodology, rules, sequences) through adhering to formal doctrine so that whatcentric descriptive reasoning dominates. The ‘ends-ways-means’ modeling on the right side of the graphic links in linear, causal arrows to the conceptualized problem-solution, with each box being ‘what’-centric that is entirely descriptive (thus reductionist, analytical, closed-system thinking).

Descriptive thinking only leads to further description; one cannot perform descriptive processes and reach explanation. If NATO-OPP and JPP only use convergent, analytical and reductionist models such as SWOT, CARVER/MSHARPP, stakeholder analysis and COG analysis to attempt to explain and understand how a wide range of military activities occur (from peace-keeping and humanitarian missions up through global nuclear war) and impact complex security contexts, we likely will be institutionally limited on challenging whether such methods even accomplish what they intend or advocate. Relying upon them because they are entrenched in established military doctrine, planning methodologies and the intelligence community of practice again reinforces this technical rationalist position on how all wars (and war actions) ought to function regardless of context. War (to include security activities in contexts below the threshold of armed conflict) can be decoded into mathematical equations ultimately, and even wickedly complex ones need only be solved using sophisticated design means via technical rationalism.

The figure above is from the Joint Planning publication from 2020 and depicts how modern militaries can holistically view the ‘operational environment’ in a graphical model. Joint planning here attempts to describe the operational environment “in terms of its informational, physical, and human aspects” by using a geometric shape that combines physical domains, information and those mediums information can occupy, as well as the categorical structures for systematically describing human societies in military analytical processes.[16] Readers might see the suggestion of a Rubik’s Cube metaphor here as well, where a military analyst need only find the right combination of manipulations to “solve” complex security challenges framed in this form. This cube graphic is further bounded by a thin, gray line that indicates a formal boundary of reality, or perhaps that which is relevant to military examination and action. While the graphic claims this is ‘holistic’, it instead depicts a reductionist, mechanistic and systematic (not systemic) way of addressing reality. This depiction reveals not an adaptation of complexity or systems theory in JPP, but the dependency upon Newtonian styled natural science constructs alone.

Complexity theory defines ‘holistic’ and ‘systemic’ quite differently than how NATO and Joint Force doctrine does. Complex systems are open, meaning they are never bounded or static and cannot be broken down into parts and reassembled; the whole is greater than the parts and it is also in perpetual transformation where those parts and connections do not remain static. Complex systems do not operate at an equilibrium, thus the idea of fixed levels, layers or other nested frameworks prove oversimplistic or counterproductive in explaining complexity holistically. Complex systems feature many components, and the output of components is a function of their inputs, with some of these functions being non-linear (input does not lead to direct, clear output).[17]

These interactions are also dynamic, meaning they change over time and again cannot be stacked or vertically layered in some hierarchical, nested manner of stability and order. Most significant to the glaring error of the ‘holistic cube’ in Figure IV-2, modern military forces fail to appreciate emergence in complex systems that is essential to framing any holistic appreciation. Cilliers explains that “complex systems display behaviour that results from the interaction between components and not from characteristics inherent to the components themselves. This sometimes if called emergence.”[18] Figure IV-2 focuses on presenting a holistic view of complex reality entirely by arranging distinct components in an engineering and Newtonian physics framework where further analytical optimization should reveal some hidden order.

By reducing all wars down into finite, measurable “principles” or sequenced rules, the entirety of all conflicts can be reassembled into dynamic complexity yet still regulated and controlled like a complex engineering feat instead of a disruptive, irrational, and learning system of opposition and competition. The contemporary military decision-making methodologies of NATO and Joint Forces feature not just an emphasis on problem-solution orientation within a single paradigm but continue to demonstrate an ‘ends-ways-means’ logical construct[19] on how all cognitive activities in the application of security activities within the broader context of foreign policy and war. This demonstrates how NATO and Joint Forces are in turn prepositioned to reinforce all existing (modern) military doctrine and language; the institution perpetually reinforces a single belief system on war at the expense of any alternative forms of thinking and acting. Ultimately, the words and the underpinning metaphoric devices NATO and Joint Forces employ within the current methodologies become critical in understanding and why military decision-making succeeds and fails in complex reality.[20]

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] Malešević, “The Organization of Military Violence in the 21st Century,” 460.

[2] Malešević, The Sociology of War and Violence, 8–14; Naveh, Schneider, and Challans, The Structure of Operational Revolution: A Prolegomena, 26; Vagts, A History of Militarism: Civilian and Military (Revised Edition), 17–18.

[3] Gibson, The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam, 462.

[4] Paparone, The Sociology of Military Science: Prospects for Postinstitutional Military Design; Paparone, “How We Fight: A Critical Exploration of US Military Doctrine”; Sookermany, “On Developing (Post)Modern Soldiers”; Anders Sookermany, “Military Education Reconsidered: A Postmodern Update,” Journal of Philosophy of Education 51, no. 1 (2017): 310–30; Naveh, Schneider, and Challans, The Structure of Operational Revolution: A Prolegomena.

[5] Martin Kilduff and Ajay Mehra, “Postmodernism and Organizational Research,” Academy of Management Review 22, no. 2 (1997): 453–81.

[6] Paparone, “How We Fight: A Critical Exploration of US Military Doctrine,” 6.

[7] Monk, “End State: The Fallacy of Modern Military Planning,” 28; Chia and Holt, Strategy without Design: The Silent Efficacy of Indirect Action, 21–29; Meiser, “Ends + Ways + Means = (Bad) Strategy.”

[8] Buchanan, “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking,” 14.

[9] Sally Maitlis and Scott Sonenshein, “Sensemaking in Crisis and Change: Inspiration and Insights from Weick (1988),” Journal of Management Studies 47, no. 3 (May 2010): 551.

[10] Krippendorff, “Principles of Design and a Trajectory of Artificiality,” 417.

[11] Robert Flood and Norma Romm, “Contours of Diversity Management and Triple Loop Learning,” Kybernetes 25, no. 7/8 (1996): 154–63.

[12] Christopher Paparone, “Design and the Prospects of a Design Ethic,” Small Wars Journal, March 4, 2011, 7.

[13] Hatch, Organization Theory: Modern, Symbolic, and Postmodern Perspectives, 63; McFate, The New Rules of War, 233–37; Naveh, Schneider, and Challans, The Structure of Operational Revolution: A Prolegomena.

[14] Protzen and Harris, The Universe of Design: Horst Rittel’s Theories of Design and Planning, 151–61.

[15] Krippendorff, “Principles of Design and a Trajectory of Artificiality,” 417.

[16] Joint Publication 5–0: Joint Planning, IV–8.

[17] Cilliers, “Complexity, Deconstruction and Relativism,” 78–79.

[18] Cilliers, 79.

[19] Meiser, “Ends + Ways + Means = (Bad) Strategy,” 81–85.

[20] Paparone, “On Metaphors We Are Led By”; Paparone, “How We Fight: A Critical Exploration of US Military Doctrine.”

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