The Scientific Way of Warfare

DNI Review of The Scientific Way of Warfare by Antoine Bousquet (Columbia U. Press, 2009; 244 pp.)  Amazon : $28.

by Chet Richards

Ordinarily I wouldn’t feel qualified to review a work that has 20 references to Clausewitz in its index while mentioning Sun Tzu only in relation to business strategy and that in a single footnote.  Antoine Bousquet’s new book, however, presents a clear case for an exception.  As its title suggests, The Scientific Way of Warfare concentrates on how science has influenced the practice of war since the time of Newton, and Clausewitz was a major figure in the application of classical mechanics to warfare.

Bousquet opens with and ultimately answers the question of “does network-centric warfare (NCW) work?”  To reach his conclusion, he proposes four “regimes” in the application of science to modern warfare:

  1. Mechanism, whose “key technology” was the clock, whose scientific framework was Newtonian, and whose military format was what we’d call first generation warfare — line, column, conformance, regularity
  2. Thermodynamics, characterized by engines, whose framework included entropy, energy, and probability, and whose military paradigm was 2GW (Bousquet does not use the generations of war model)
  3. Cybernetics — computers — whose scientific concepts included “negentropy,” negative feedback, homeostasis and whose military model would be modern 2GW, with heavy top-down, real time command and control
  4. Chaoplexity, where networks reign, whose framework is built upon the new sciences of non-linearity, complexity, chaos,  and self-organization, and where warfare is conducted by decentralized cells, teams, or swarms — what we would call both 3GW and 4GW (p. 30)

Subsequent chapters take the reader on a tour of these ideas in turn, exploring their evolution as scientific patterns and their influence on the warfare of their, and subsequent, eras.  So the chapter on mechanistic warfare introduces Vauban, close-order drill, and culminates in Frederick the Great’s Clockwork Army.  The next chapter, Thermodynamic Warfare, concludes with Clausewitz, which is a stretch, of course, since the great Prussian died in 1831, some 20 years before the first publications in that discipline.  But with liberal interpretation of the massive text of On War, passages can be found that seem like  precursors of the Second Law.  Bousquet does point out that these interpretations were not made in Clausewitz’s day but were retrofitted by later analysts and generals, including as he also notes, John Boyd.

For me, the most interesting chapters are those that deal with how warfare was largely viewed when I got into the business.  We’re talking systems analysis (my first position was in the Office of Systems Analysis, where lots of folks still remembered McNamara and his Whiz Kids), modeling and simulation, and the general belief that with enough mathematical sophistication and sufficient computing power, we could obtain an information advantage over our opponents so great that the remaining uncertainties would be irrelevant or indeed, favor us.  This section concludes, fittingly enough, with “Vietnam and the Failure of Cybernetic Warfare.”

Finally, Bousquet takes us into science since the mid-20th century.  For those not familiar with notions such as fractals, self-organization, bifurcation diagrams, and so on, Bousquet provides an approachable introduction.  Here’s where we meet John Boyd in one of the few synopses of his work that remains true to Boyd’s concept of the OODA “loop,” and in particular, what it means to “operate inside an opponent’s OODA ‘loop.'”  He avoids the simplistic notion of dueling, circular “loops,” with victory going to the loop that’s spinning faster.  This was probably Boyd’s original idea, but one that he realized very early on would not capture the kernel that led, time after time, to victory in human conflict.

Bousquet correctly notes that Boyd emphasized implicit guidance, communication, and control, which makes the “loop” decidedly non-linear, but he fails to make the final connection.  Boyd is all about initiative — creating it throughout the organization, stoking it up, harmonizing it, and focusing it to accomplish the objective.  This links Boyd, as Bousquet indicates, to the concept of “emergence” and self-organization.  Boyd’s concept of emergence, however, doesn’t rely just upon shared information but derives from the broader concept of Einheit, which Boyd translated as an “overall mind-time-space scheme,” common outlook, or common implicit orientation.

A rough description of a Boyd-type organization might be “harmonized, focused swarming.”   Oddly, the section on swarming, although quite well done, fails to mention Boyd at all — although it does cite Linda Beckerman, whose seminal 1999 paper, “The Non-Linear Dynamics of War,” rests solidly on Boyd’s ideas.  It should be noted that the notion of firing up initiative in the ranks appears nowhere in Clausewitz.

The book ends by answering the NCW question with a blistering critique.  While sinfully delicious, such a debasing might seem like piling on in this the year 2009, with the concept of NCW discredited among all but a small cadre of true believers.  But as Bousquet shows, the idea of NCW is a mis-application (“complete contradiction”) of modern science to warfare and resulted from shallow understanding of ideas ranging from thermodynamics to the OODA loop.  The clear implication is that such misunderstandings are possible again in the future.

I recommend this book most highly, although one should be cautious of turning Clausewitz into the Nostradamus of strategy.  Bousquet’s grand tour of ideas makes a fascinating read and offers another interpretation of the development of warfare in the modern era.  Not coincidentally, Newton was born a mere five years after the starting point of the generations of war model.

[As an aside, I corresponded with Bousquet during the preparation of the manuscript and trust that this did not bias my review.]

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4 Responses to “The Scientific Way of Warfare”

  1. Duncan C Kinderon 20 Apr 2009 at 7:34 pm 1

    Let me present a not only nonscientific but decidedly interpretation< of OODA loops, which I set forth more fully in my own new blog, The Huguenot Corsair.

    In Homer’s Take on OODA Loops, I suggest that Boyd’s OODA loops provide new insight into the meaning of a widely discussed Greek word, “polutropon,” which occurs in the first line of the Odyssey. To say that Odysseus was “polutropon,” literally means he was a man of many turns, but what the heck was that? People have debated this for 2500 years.

    Taking Boyd’s theory into account, I suggest it means Odysseus was inside everyone’s OODA loops. Thereby he could pull off the Trojan horse, escape from the Cyclops’ cave, or surprise the suitors.

    Insofar as my thesis is correct, then it rests Boyd theory in the basic fabric of Western civilization and, insofar as Homer explores human nature, the very fabric of the human psyche itself.

    [CR: Thanks! Excellent observation.

    It’s likely that The Odyssey predates the Sun Tzu by several hundred years, so this would be an even earlier reference to what we now call “operating inside an opponent’s OODA loops.” Odysseus is often referred to as “wily” or “great tactician,” so it does seem to fit well.

    Readers interested in more speculation along these lines might look into Jonathan Shay’s Odysseus in America and the introductions to Robert Fagel’s translations of both The Odyssey and The Iliad.

    And by all means, check out Duncan’s blog. Speaking of Somalia, I’ve visited the site of Fort Caroline, and his story of what happened there and what lessons it offers for today rings true.]

  2. Ed Beakleyon 23 Apr 2009 at 1:06 pm 2

    Chet, Have ordered this book and am most interested in the critique of NCW. To date, the books by noted authors Grey and Kaplan have completely missed the mark, getting caught in the concept only after the name was applied and people started throwing around the “lifting the fog of war” phrase as to what NCW was promising.

    Both authors don’t go back to the beginnings of use of emerging info technology as pure technical evolution related to smart weapons, particularly in regard to Tomahawk and Over-The-Horizon-Targeting, which in reality is the grandaddy of NCW. Also missed is that NCW comes out of the Navy which by in large was net centric with the older NTDS. Extrapolation has been debatable, particularly to Army and FCS.

    If one looks at much of the earlier work you find 3GW precepts, most in align with Arquilla’s NETWAR, which most 4GW’ers acknowledge. The eventual “sales pitch” NCW, that Donald Rumsfeld bought into is something else, and no argument that NCW as be-all-end-all for war is fatally flawed. But in general, because of this aspect, the core concepts have received little appropriate attention… Point has been turned into an either/or which badly misses much good that is indeed on line and working. One should look at how “connected” our troops are today and the value, before completely buying “NCW discredited.”

    Consider this from David Cooper, member of SAS 21 until 2000 and writer for INTERSEC:
    “… is impossible to conceive a Special Forces (SF) anti-terrorist op having any possible chance of success without input from a wide variety of sources, each contributing essential intelligence to the successful outcome of the operation – some of them from considerable distances. The essential nature of intelligence to the success of any SF operation has ensured that the widest possible range of intelligence sources must be used – and not only be used, but made available to the operators on the ground and disseminated to ground forces in the shortest time possible. The fast changing nature of anti-terrorist operations, particularly when the targeting of specific individuals is involved, ensures that two-way communications between the boots on the ground and more distant headquarters has to be effective and reliable, with alternate means readily available. ”;

    [CR: Ed — thanks. It wouldn’t be the first time that a basically good idea became corrupted when money started to flow. I knew we were in serious trouble when a noted author on maneuver warfare begin writing how technology was finally going to dissipate the fog of war — because we would now know the location of every friendly and enemy element on the battlefield.

    Anything that helps create an accurate common outlook/common implicit orientation is good — this may be one of life’s few absolutes.

    And obviously good intel is critical to SF ops.

    Perhaps we should tell our readers who are not military types that intel rarely has the pristine view of the situation that the user wants and that the provider sometimes claims. The data we’re seeing out of Pakistan suggests this is still the case. As always, most of what you get from human sources in the field must be, shall we say, carefully evaluated before it becomes actionable. Passing along garbage to the boots on the ground, even at high bandwidth, may not be of much use.]

  3. Maxon 24 Apr 2009 at 7:56 am 3

    “The data we’re seeing out of Pakistan suggests this is still the case. As always, most of what you get from human sources in the field must be, shall we say, carefully evaluated before it becomes actionable. ”

    As an outsider myself, this explanation sounds
    suspiciously like the same stupidity that was packaged
    and sold to get the US commited to Iraq.

    And on, and on, and on, it goes.

    I hate to be the one to break this ti everyone,
    (sarc) but the US ain’t leaving Iraq.


    Sixty die in deadliest Iraq bombing since June

    BAGHDAD (Reuters) – In a second day of major bloodshed, two suicide bombers wearing explosive vests blew themselves up at the gates of a Shi’ite Muslim shrine in Baghdad on Friday, killing 60 people, Iraqi police said.

    The attack was the deadliest single incident in Iraq since 63 people died in a truck bomb blast in Baghdad on June 17 last year, and came amid growing concerns that a recent drop in violence might turn out to have been just a temporary lull.


  4. Ed Beakleyon 24 Apr 2009 at 9:05 am 4

    “as Bousquet shows, the idea of NCW is a mis-application (”complete contradiction”) of modern science to warfare and resulted from shallow understanding of ideas ranging from thermodynamics to the OODA loop”

    Chet, repeat haven’t read, but this is gonna take some doing to convince me that this verty heavy handed statement can be proved.

    I’ll start with your point “garbage at high bandwith.” Excellent point BUT NCW at it’s core must be phrased differently.(Again I repeat as do you “good idea getting corrupted.” but mislabeling or throwing baby out with wash or moving forward on flawed analysis not appropriate either) NCW at its Navy core was verified, acurate, timely targeting caple information at a tactically usable level (meaning classification level and weapon linked) So here’s your scenario:

    4GW, Taliban, 9-11, GWOT long in the future in early 1970s, while history shows we over sized some Soviet capability, their surface Navy was a real threat if real war broke out. Our main offensive weapon was the CV/Airwing and it thus was major target. Our surface Navy was defensive oriented. What Tomahawk and over-the-horizon-targeting brought to the equation was a return to an offensive surface ship and surface action groups that could operate independently of air power or aircraft surveillance.

    Sensor systems already existed to ID ships based on “signatures” of their systems. Problem was it was highly classified, not fused with other sources and required going into vault for fusion then sent out at “only the gods and spooks can read” classification levels. Project Outlaw Shark, first experimented then demonstrated that this “process” – an OODA looping if you will – could be “worked down” to tactical level of classification, passed in timely manner, with sufficient accuracy to actually target Soviet surface action groups far beyond radar range. Now the Soviet Navy needed not only concern themselves with carriers, the US surface Navy was back to WWII days – a real threat, And OBTW the submarine, overtly standing off at 200 plus miles was also a third War-At-Sea threat. (And, this was a network and allowed swarming in every sense of Arquilla, and 3GW principles)

    This then is NCW herritage, it was well tested, and it would have worked had the Cold War ever gone hot. “Lifting the fog of war?” Well, if the term applies to going from “WOXOF” (meaning radar range of 25 NM) to say 300 and 1 or maybe even 1000/5 (signifying 200 plus as engagement range, which was mostly outside Russian targeting capability), then indeed the fog might not be gone, but it was certainly cleared enough to fight “on your own terms.”

    Given that the threat the War At Sea now presented jumped from 1 – the carrier- to three, I find it hard to say this cannot be judged correct application of technology to warfare.

    NCW was a Navy thing. How it became “transformation,” how it figures in land power (naval warfare and land warfare just aren’t the same),technology over people is another story. Grouping all under one term and ignoring the real story is never a good basis for analysis. (Kagan in “Finding the Target” barely mentioned Tomahawk. Noted author Norman Friedman from Naval Proceedings personaaly agreed with my “grandfather” context)

    [CR: Ed — good points all, but we need to distinguish between what NCW originally was or might have become and what it turned into.]