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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