Implications of the Black Swan

Predicting Future Military Threats: Implications of the Black Swan


COL Bob Toguchi, US Army
26 September 2008
Special to Defense and the National Interest

[Robert M. Toguchi is an active duty Army colonel in the Initiatives Group, Army Capabilities Integration Center, US Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), Fort Monroe, Virginia. In his previous assignment, he served as the Chief, Strategic Plans, at the U.S. Pacific Command. He is a former instructor at the National War College and has a PhD in History from Duke University.]

In his best-selling book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, author Nassim Nicholas Taleb introduces a compelling thesis that we often predict the wrong future, miss the Black Swans of our time, and rationalize their existence to make it appear that these events were predictable.

The roots of the Black Swan term can be found in the 17th Century folklore that “all swans are white.” From Taleb’s perspective, “Black Swan” phenomena have three distinct features. They are 1) outliers, and generally outside the realm of normal expectations; 2) carry potential for an extreme impact; and 3) despite outlier status, our “human behavior causes us to concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.” The events of September 11, precipitous demise of the Soviet Union, and rapid spread of the Internet are examples provided. He contends that Black Swan logic makes what you don’t know far more relevant than what you do know. Additionally, and not comforting, Nassim Taleb argues that the occurrences of “Black Swan” phenomena have been increasing and accelerating during this century.

The Black Swan piece has value for defense planners in any organization. Threats are abounding in the 21st Century. The rise of Al Qaeda and Hezbollah in the last decade with high-tech military capabilities comparable to those of nation-states are to some degree, compelling. The potential proliferation of nuclear weapons to second world countries, non-state actors, and terrorist groups underpin a more dangerous security environment. The nascent expansion of threats into areas such as cyber, biogenetics and space complicate the spectrum of conflict. The advent of information technologies and the composite effects of leveling the playing field for rogue entities have implications for advanced nation-states due to the ubiquitous access to global information. With the burgeoning development of threats across a wider spectrum of conflict, the fundamental question becomes “how does a U.S. military organization prepare for the next generation of threats?”

Here are three ways the Black Swan framework can help:

First, the Black Swan provides a useful analytical framework for military planners. To a certain degree, some within the defense community place great credibility behind the various analytical studies which predict specific trends for selected time horizons. With the validation of strategic drivers and the thorough professional and peer staffing of fundamental assumptions to cope with the real world, there is a certain confidence associated with study results. And yet, the advice from Taleb, Clausewitz, and Thucydides reveal a different outcome. To a certain extent, the historical record portrays a future security environment that is to a large degree — uncertain. Hence, despite the numerous hours of effort devoted to predicting future threats, environments, trends, and methods of employment; the fundamental truth is that we can potentially get it wrong.

Second, the Black Swan phenomenon highlights the fact that when specific normative events are predicted for the future, they fail to occur. This tendency is similar to the “butterfly” effect” in which we realize that by trying to observe selected phenomena, the very presence of the “butterfly” in the observation process tangibly and directly affects the outcome of the event so that the future is in fact – different. Without doubt, there is a parallel effect with competing military organizations. During interwar periods, competitive adversaries are keenly aware of what their opponents are preparing for. Note that during the European interwar period, 1919 through 1940, the German military closely studied the French Maginot Line. When World War II commenced, the Wehrmacht outflanked, bypassed, and marginalized, the expensive and glorified positions of the French defensive fortifications. Hence, military organizations purposefully prepare for a disproportional advantage during interwar periods so that the technological high ground is achieved prior to any war. Thus, in many cases, the specific conventional wars that we thoroughly prepare for, are rarely the ones that we actually fight.

Third, Taleb notes that Black Swan phenomena have not only occurred with increasing frequency during the 21st Century, they are indeed accelerating. In particular, changes are occurring at an exponential rate within the technology sector. As Kip Nygren describes the latter phenomenon, he states “In the last decade of the 20th Century, more technological progress occurred than was experienced in the entire first nine decades of the century … By 2010, technology will have doubled again to become 2,000 times more advanced than in 1900, which means that we will experience the same level of technological change in the first decade of the 21st Century than we experienced in all of the 20th Century.” The implications for planners are profound.

With these pessimistic predictions about being unable to know the future, the question then becomes “what can be done?” From the military perspective, there is some comfort in the sense that defense planners generally expect to be surprised in war. Clausewitz’s dictum that “war is inherently unpredictable” has been taught at several levels of schooling for most military officers. Armed with this understanding, the military has managed to cope with a strategic environment fraught with uncertainty. There are at least four ways in which military planners can overcome the difficulties of predicting the future. They include: Wargaming for the unlikely outliers, Red teaming to generate contrarian viewpoints, using John Boyd’s concepts to regain the initiative, and providing strategic hedges for the unlikely and catastrophic possibilities.

Wargaming prepares military leaders for the unexpected. It is as old as warfare itself. Wei Hei, one of the earliest wargames created in the 5th Century BC, has been linked to military practitioner and theorist Sun Tzu. Prussian military victories of the 19th Century have been attributed to the officer corps use of Kriegspiel. Wargaming has been instituted into US Army exercises at several levels. Rotations through the National Training Center (NTC), Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) and Battle Command Training Program (BCTP) emphasize and demand rigorous wargaming and executing potential responses to opponents that employ asymmetrical tactics. In a wargame, the opponent is allowed the flexibility to employ innovative methods, tactics, and capabilities to achieve a decisive advantage. Through this process, the range of potential unexpected options can be explored and to some degree countered.

Red teaming is another means to explore unexpected options. In recent times, the exploits of Lieutenant General Paul K. Van Riper during the 2002 Milllennium Challenge event confounded the U.S. military with a full suite of asymmetric tactics and technologies. In this exercise, Van Riper employed courier messengers, a fleet of small boats, and cruise missile weaponry in such an unexpected manner that it overwhelmed conventional U.S. Navy capabilities. His surprise tactics were so effective that the game needed to be reset. Without doubt, Red teaming by experienced leaders can serve to uncover the least expected option.

John Boyd’s theory provides a thought process on how to deal with unexpected events. Based on his combat experiences in the Korean War, Colonel John R. Boyd introduced the theory of Observe, Orient, Decide and Act (OODA) loop to the U.S. defense community. In his mind, the key to combat victory was to regain the initiative by getting inside of the threat’s OODA loop. In the case of responding to a Black Swan initiative, Boyd recommended several approaches to buy time and to regain the strategic initiative. They include: divert attention, use a multiplicity of options, create strategic depth, use rapidity, gain internal harmony, and magnify the adversary’s friction while streamlining one’s own. Using historical examples, Boyd demonstrated how these methods have great applicability to throw any adversary off of his game and to provide the breathing space for the U.S. to employ strategic options.

While unexpected military options can be discovered through Wargaming, Red teaming and counter OODA loop efforts, military decisionmakers also have the opportunity to develop strategic hedges. Such hedges are measures taken to mitigate or potentially eliminate a significant threat. Over time, these hedges can improve in capability so that, at some point, the potential surprise element is matched. Recent developments in defensive ballistic missile technology can be viewed as an example of how long term military investments can provide a limited hedge against an unannounced nuclear or conventional missile strike.

In summary, the Black Swan is a provocative book that provides us a rare glimpse of our limited capacity to predict future events. Long term trends, while comforting, are not as reliable as we would like them to be. As a result, we, particularly in the military, must think through a meaningful approach to prepare for a complicated and dangerous strategic environment, fraught with uncertainty. In coping with the Black Swan thesis, Sir Michael Howard’s advice is particularly noteworthy when he stated “Still, it is the task of military science in an age of peace to prevent it from being too badly wrong.”

[Editor’s note:  For a look at Taleb’s book from a non-defense perspective, please see business consultant Robert Brown’s review on]

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