Why do Militaries Fixate on Newtonian Constructs and Linear-Causal Oversimplifications of (Complex) Warfare: A Crowd-Sourcing Exercise (Part 2 of 5)by : Ben Zweibelson
Militaries over the last three centuries followed suit of most all other communities and professions by emulating the rise of classical (natural) science that was preoccupied with independent variables. The whole is nothing but the sum of the parts, and to understand any system, one must apply a scientific method to isolate, determine basic rules that govern those parts, and then reassemble the whole to gain increased stability, prediction and control of the entire system that must respond to these independent variables within. War philosophers of the ancient or Feudal Ages would rationalize upon war some natural orders, but these new scientific ones employed the scientific method to test and evaluate theories, create and sustain conceptual models, and render methodologies drawing from both to equip warfighters with a different way to rationalize reality.
In the 2011 edition of Joint Planning 5–0, operational art and planning is depicted above with the ill-defined qualities of a complex reality gradually becoming stabilized, ordered, or frozen in time and space just enough so that the detailed planning and execution can occur. Then, as time goes on and complexity demands deviation from plans being executed with adaptation and reflection, the ‘evolving problem’ shifts back into uncertainty and is ‘unfrozen.’ Sandberg and Tsoukas, in critiquing this Newtonian Styled ‘scientific rationalized worldview’ find three distinct problems with this frame:
In particular, there are three problems with scientific rationality: (1) it underestimates the meaningful totality into which practitioners are immersed, (2) it ignores the situational uniqueness that is characteristic of the taskspractitioners do, and (3) it abstracts away from time as experienced by practitioners.
Single-loop thinking as featured in nearly all military decision-making doctrine pursues analytical instead of systemic thinking, it seeks to universalize and converge the institution regardless of situational context (universal laws and principles), and it turns time into a linear-causal, forwards-backwards, objective phenomenon that operators can pause, rewind, fast-forward or play at normal speed in simulations, planning activities and as interpreted during organizational execution of these plans. This frame is institutionalized and mandatory for any operator participating in the organization, least they risk alienation or declaration of heresy.
Militaries continue to seek systematic rendering through Newtonian rationalization such as filtering a complex security challenge into formulaic analysis of ‘political, military, economic, social, informational and infrastructure’ or PMESII, and ‘areas, structures, capabilities, organizations, people and events’ or ASCOPE as depicted above in a recent U.S. Marine Corps training command graphical aid. Complex warfare is expected to be categorized within the rigid hierarchical, standardized, and mechanical framework found in a 2022 military training illustration.
Another way to think about our thinking is to consider the conceptualization of the above figure as depicted below:
This produces what is the modern ‘Newtonian Frame for Warfare Conceptualization’ that runs through all existing doctrine, terminology, shared conceptual models, methodologies, and permeates through all training and formal military education. We cannot escape the ‘gravitational pull’ (pun intended) of this Newtonian frame for understanding warfare. Indeed, where militaries seek to ‘understand, visualize, describe, and direct’- we begin with a particular limited way to understand warfare…our war paradigm that we need not question unless through design.
This graphic is from the 2020 version of Joint Planning doctrine published by the U.S. Department of Defense and a powerful influence on how NATO partners, allies and associated military forces curate their own military decision-making methodologies. While Joint doctrine states that “the planning process is a recursive, assessment-informed process and not linear,” this does not mean JPP is conducted in a non-linear or emergent fashion as design occurs. Instead, “not linear” suggests only that the systematic sequence of activities occurs as depicted in doctrine, and while the organization may gain new analysis or information and return to a prior step, each activity is isolated and positioned in the established order where once completed (or revisited), one moves in the same established direction forward to the next uncompleted or uninitiated step. This frames ‘linear/non-linear’ in a classical ‘Newtonian Physics’ metaphoric device instead of complexity theory where ‘non-linear’ means something entirely different. If anything, contemporary military doctrine infers ‘out of order’ instead of ‘not linear’ in terms of operational flexibility in planning activities, which again conforms the institution to a Newtonian worldview of causes and effects, inputs to outputs linking ways and means to preconceived ‘ends’.
The latest version of NATO planning doctrine published in 2021 even declares: “The process and templates presented in the COPD v3.0 are a capture of best practice; they suit well a timely and systematic movement through the process from one phase to another.” Both JPP and NATO-OPP position the commander as central to leading and shaping the entire decision-making process with staff analysis and expertise set within the centralized military hierarchical form of organizational expression. The institution again reinforces the traditional centralized hierarchy as the preferred organizational form, where the commander sits atop a clear structured entity that follows the linear-causal sequencing of activities illustrated above where one follows the recipe exactly in order to produce the desired meal. The greater the adherence to the recipe (NATO-OPP/JPP process informing the commander), the stronger the expectation that a successful outcome will be achieved by all.
Both JPP and NATO-OPP commence their decision-making process with strategic guidance, reinforcing the centralized hierarchical organization and the ‘top-down’ structure of nesting all conceptual activities within both decision-making methodologies within the Westphalian nation-state (and Clausewitzian explained) relationship of civilian-military dialogue that occurs simultaneously between senior civilian/governmental and military leaders at the national level for security affairs. The first planning function in JPP is termed ‘strategic guidance’ and groups the initial analysis of existing strategic guidance with whatever new or emergent strategic guidance might be occurring. Senior military leadership “crafts objectives that support national strategic objectives with the guidance and consent of [the U.S. Secretary of Defense]; if required, the [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] offers advice.” Strategic overarching objectives are identified first, and in a ‘reverse-engineering’ process that follows the above graphical sequence of synchronized, linear-causal activities, the military organization develops a plan or order for execution and assessment.
After the systematic linkage of desired future end states to strategic intent and recognizable ‘problems’ paired to existing institutional solutions, NATO-OPP and JPP processes continue operational design by directing staff to identify and analyze ‘centers of gravity’ or ‘COG.’ Joint planning defines a COG as: “the source of power or strength that enables a military force to achieve its objective and is what an opposing force can orient its actions against that will lead to enemy failure.” Joint planning expands what a COG might be from clear entities (a leader, a force, a capability or function) to abstract concepts such as national will, beliefs or ideas. NATO-OPP restrains their COG definition to something that “is always an entity” and must therefore remain identifiable and actionable through quantitative, analytical and objective constructs. The COG is a conceptual model employed in modern military decision-making methodologies such as NATO-OPP and JPP in order to apply military theory to how complex warfare in reality is occurring. COGs were first conceptualized by the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz and would in the last two centuries of warfare gradually entrench in Prussian, Russian, and later still Anglo-Saxon military doctrine and practices.
COGs are foundational models in all versions of modern military decision-making, applied to linking desired ‘endstates’ and objectives to desired effects of military tasks so that by targeting adversarial COGs and protecting friendly ones, a military force can systematically build elaborate ‘input-output’ formulas of missions, tasks and effects that should accomplish broader objectives. For such a powerful strategic tool for accomplishing desired outcomes in complex security contexts, one might see COGs as a conceptual model also move out of security affairs and into industry, academia, and other non-warfare applications. Yet this is hardly the case. Few of the popular military models as well as theories are used in any commercial or academic/scientific applications outside of military and security organizations, with ‘center of gravity’ itself being a Newtonian metaphor adapted from the theoretical work of Clausewitz and others. There appears to be institutional fixation by military forces alone in seeking COG modeling as the metaphoric device of choice in structuring decision-making in war that does not extend into fields of medicine, law, social sciences or finance. Only in the military sphere does this concept occupy such a prominent position. In NATO doctrine the COG becomes the ultimate warfighting device of convergence where virtually all other planning considerations are mapped to correlate in a linear-causal relationship over time and space.
Today, modern military doctrine features models and metaphors taken from biology, geology, physics, psychology, sociology, complexity theory, systems theory, astronomy, and elsewhere. Often, they are stripped of their origins, detached from the theoretical constructs or otherwise recycled into what is a ‘Newtonian Styled’ military frame for warfare understood objectively through physical domains and natural science modeling. Gibson, citing Kissinger, articulates this with:
Kissinger writes that since 1945, American foreign policy has been based “on the assumption that technology plus managerial skills gave us the ability to reshape the international system and bring domestic transformations on ‘emerging countries…’ ” The West, in Kissinger’s view, had been committed to this hard epistemological work since Sir Isaac Newton first formulated his laws of physics… The West is deeply committed to the notion that the real world is external to the observer, that knowledge consists of recording and classifying data- the more accurately the better. Cultures which have escaped the early impact of Newtonian thinking have retained the essentially pre-Newtonian view that the real world is almost entirely internal to the observer… [and] are therefore totally unlike the West and its leading country. Those who are totally unlike us and live in their own delusions are conceptualized as foreign Others. The foreign Other can be known only within the conceptual framework of technological development and production systems.
COGs are used today in modern military decision-making due to efforts to produce a modern scientific-based methodology to understanding and acting in warfare on behalf of Westphalian derived nation-states. Western European society, coming out of the significant ideological conflicts that had plagued Europe through the Seventeenth Century, established a Weberian World Order “with the rational-legal nation-state as the center of gravity.” Nation states would henceforth wage war between states, using formal military instruments of power while seeking formal declarations of war and strategic closure through some ceasefire and metric of victory against a framed enemy force. The ‘COG’, as defined by Clausewitz, inspired indirectly through Newton by Aristotle, thus these ideas have been part of western society for a very long time.
Both NATO-OPP and JPP methodology are linear, sequential arrangements of linking conceptualization to orchestrated and managed security actions. They were designed to synchronize and produce scaled and resourced ‘concept of operations’, campaign plans, operational orders, as well as all associated analytical and staff activities to support these activities. For purposes of this design deconstruction, we will not repeat presenting the entire NATO-OPP/JPP methodologies in detail and instead focus in on the primary areas where modification, editing or complete alteration might be warranted. Ample doctrinal publications exist that articulate in exhausting detail what NATO-OPP/JPP is and how one is directed to adhere to it. Organizations even make pocket ‘smart books’ and reference guides to show how to adhere (convergently) to the planning methods; to better follow the linear casual framework. The term ‘linear’ is frequently considered derogatory to military professionals that take pride in their work as well as the methodological underpinnings that justify some scientific soundness in why they function in the forms that they take. Yet this term is indeed the first critical step in deconstructing how NATO and Joint forces approach warfare.
By ‘linear’, we are saying that when a methodology expects some clear proportionality between identified causes and expected effects, it is considered linear. Linear patterns are smooth, gradual and when mapped out show clear relationships and an ability to plot and predict their future behavior. When there is a lack of proportionality between cause and effect, it is nonlinear and is often experienced as counterintuitive or surprising. Surprise occurs because when one choses a linear methodology to describe a system (or explain reality) and that explanation is violated, there are two options. One might repeat the linear method and expect reality to produce the expected outcome in another effort, or one can determine that the methodology used is insufficient to appropriately describe the system at hand. In the former, one is doing “the definition of insanity by doing the same things over and over while expecting different results”, while in the latter one employs reflective practice to break away from institutionally biased behaviors.
We often hesitate to realize the vastness of nonlinear patterns in complex security contexts because we do not feature the technical language of complexity theory in our decision-making methodologies. Additionally, we also approach such patterns expecting confirmation of our linear-casual belief system concerning how all modern warfare ought to function; when this fails in action, we are surprised that linear expectations did not result in linear results. Nonlinear systems abound in complex reality where one does not see a smoothed or gradual path “but punctuations or avalanches… during which new forms appear.” The pattern shows no recognizable relationship from cause to effect, input to output, or beginning phenomenon to delivered ‘end result’. We rarely get to our desired end states because they never existed except in our institutionally sanctioned fantasies that we project upon a complex reality. While doctrine writers have inserted some terms from complexity theory, these are often stripped of their original meaning and instead assimilated into the ‘Newtonian Style’ warfighter frame that supposes natural science rigidity and stability into all considerations for conflict and defense.
Dynamic, complex systems never properly line up with such fantastically simplistic military expectations outside of immediate, localized and tactical events. This links to ‘ends-ways-means’ logic that also will be explained later in this student guide. Linear causal relationships of course do exist, but only in simplistic contexts and rarely can be associated with broader complexity. This temptation to standardize military decision-making into linear causal constructs extends from human enterprises in general and, according to Lampeland Mintzberg: “is rooted in the wish to simplify the world and make our frameworks as general as possible.” We seek to tame the chaos of war just enough to permit our decision-making methodology to function.
This brings into focus a significant tension in how modern militaries seek to approach different types of systems that exercise within security contexts that a military force is directed to address by their nation’s political and/or societal desires. For this systemic design article, two primary distinguishable patterns of logic that militaries generally employ to think and act for security affairs are presented below. They are ‘systematic logic’ and ‘systemic logic’. Systematic logic breaks things down for analysis and subsequent reassembly into the whole for formulaic, linear-causal activities that denote a stable and uniform context. Systemic logic requires consideration of larger systems ‘up and out’ through increasing abstraction, where framing the future is divergent (multiple possible but different futures) instead of convergent (a single end-state), and the systematic approach to ‘reverse-engineer’ from an established goal is avoided. Systemic design thinking attempts to generate and accommodate “multiple inequivalent descriptions” within a vastly complex context. The figure above shows the boundaries of systematic and systemic logic paired with military activities within each type of system setting.
Systemic logic differs from systematic logic in how a military force thinks and acts in complex warfare. Again, systematic logicfunctions with inputs linked to clear outputs, and where linear-causal relationships work mathematically (A plus B leads to C), even mechanically to sequence discrete and reducible activities across time and space to lead toward overarching objectives and goals. Thus, systematic thinking implies there is some direct, causal and ‘input-output’ correlated relationship that is quantifiable and suitable for analytic optimization within the system one is attempting to act within. Systematic logic is valuable for analytical optimization and yields clear, repeatable results in simplistic and complicated systems. This is where programmatic management functions best and is found in disciplines such as engineering where mathematical formulas are used to express natural science concepts (physics, chemistry). Systematic logic is highly successful in predicting behaviors and the dynamics of simple as well as complicated systems but becomes increasingly fragile within complex and chaotic systems.
Military organizations that over-invest in systematic logic are dependent upon doctrine, standardization of best practices, and employ elaborate campaign plans to stabilize and install a sense of order and predictability to what are often complex (or chaotic) adaptive systems. Modern military forces today tend to under-invest in systemic logic, where the disciplines of complexity theory, systems theory, military design, postmodern philosophy and military sociology are considered outliers, or in the case of postmodernism, decidedly off-limits for most institutions. When concepts or terminology are taken from any of these fields into modern military practice, they are rendered into systematic logic so that the systemic qualities are broken or discarded. Examples of this include how ‘synthesis’, ‘emergence’, ‘dynamic’, ‘non-linear’, ‘holistic’, or ‘problematize’ are misapplied frequently in military doctrine and theory through assimilation of these concepts into what is still an overarching systematic logic.
This concludes Part 2 of this 5 Part series. This, part 1 and the very next section (posted each week) set up the position that existing campaign design at a war paradigmatic level is flawed, over-simplistic, dependent upon ‘pseudo-scientific’ conceptualizations lifted from natural sciences during the last 3 centuries of military professionalization, and much of how we conceptualize thoughts and action in time and space are fixated upon an illusion of an objective, mechanistic and reducible reality where sufficient time, resources and analysis ought to provide military forces with the ability to ‘win’. This may have been closer to some truth in past centuries, but in 2022 there is an extensive historical pattern of military failure to imagine, improvise, invent and reform beyond the accepted limits of our own institutional efforts to preserve, protect and ritualize.