Thursday, October 3, 2019

The Art of War According to the Science of Complex Systems: The Seneca Cliff as a strategic weapon

Music has always been part of the war effort: a way to build up network connections in such a way to make the fighting system more resilient and more effective. Here, an especially effective version: "The Sacred War" sung by Elena Vaenga. I wouldn't say that the Soviets defeated the Germans in ww2 because they had better music, but it surely it must have helped.

On military matters described in terms of system science, see also the post on drone warfare published last week on "Cassandra's Legacy" and also our study on the statistical patterns of conflicts in history

The science of complex systems turns out to be especially interesting and fascinating when applied to one of the most complex activities in which human beings engage: warfare. Below, you'll find a revised and condensed excerpt from my book "The Seneca Effect" (2017). A more detailed and in-depth discussion of how the concept of Seneca Collapse may affect war is part of my new book "Before Collapse: A Guide to the Other Side of Growth" that should appear in print and on the web before the end of the year.

From "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)
by Ugo Bardi
(revised and condensed)

Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting. (Sun Tzu, the Art of War)

The idea that collapse can be a tool to be used in warfare may go back to the Chinese historian and military theorist Sun Tzu in his “The Art of War” (5th century BCE), where he emphasizes the idea of winning battles by exploiting the enemy’s weakness rather than by brute force.

It is a normal feature of warfare that conflict ends with the collapse of one of the two sides but, in some cases, the collapse takes place without extensive fighting or even none at all. An especially impressive example is that of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that followed several decades of "cold war" that never erupted into open conflict. As Sun Tzu had already noted, the capability of triggering the collapse of the enemy’s military or socio-economic structure is possibly the most effective conflict-resolving strategy of all. But how to attain this result? The modern science of complex systems can tell us many things about the factors involved in the collapse of complex systems, although it cannot provide recipes good for all situations.

Collapse is a characteristic of systems kept together by a network of relationships involving feedback: societies, economies, groups, companies, armies, and more, systems that we call “complex.” Feedback enhances or dampens the effect of perturbations on the various elements of the system and it may generate the kind of collapse called “Seneca Collapse” or “Seneca Cliff.” This collapse occurs when several elements of the system act together in such a way to enhance a perturbation that, eventually, brings down the whole system.

Warfare is, after all, mostly a question of feedback between fighting entities. Armies maneuver, clash against each other, retreat or advance, but the final result is always the same: the struggle ends when feedbacks accumulate in such a way that one of the sides collapses. Then, the battle is over.

We can see armies as networks of soldiers, each one connected to the nearby soldiers. In a military struggle, the loss of a single node, that is of a single soldier, in itself has little effect on the performance of the system. But it may be devastating if the deadly feedback mechanism kicks in. One soldier runs away, another soldier sees him running he does the same. Others follow. That may cause the whole army to melt away – a typical example of feedback-generated collapse and the nightmare of commanders all over history. Of course, things are not so simple in real armies but it is true that ancient armies often had a poorly defined chain of command. That made them susceptible to abrupt collapse. For instance, at the battle of Manzikert, in 1071 AD the Byzantines were defeated by the Turks because - among other factors – some sections of the army panicked and ran away.

Once we start seeing see warfare in terms of complex systems interacting with each other, we can understand how the natural selection on the battlefield led to the evolution of armies into structures that made them resistant to collapse. In the 1800s, the Prussians had developed an army where each soldier was supposed to keep reloading and shooting, oblivious to what was happening around him. Ideally, he would keep shooting even if he was the last one left standing. Basically, the Prussians had severed the horizontal connections of the army network, leaving only the "vertical" ones connecting soldiers to their officers. It was the concept, attributed to Frederick the Great, that common soldiers should fear their own officers more than the enemy. That made the network resilient toward collapse: losing one node would not lead to an avalanche of node losses generated by feedback

The Prussian idea was successful and it is still the way modern armies are organized. But if it made "bottom-up" collapse more difficult, it increased the chances of a top-down" collapse. A vertically structured army is vulnerable to a “decapitation strike,” a concept already well known to those who, long ago, invented the game of chess. A modern occurrence of this kind of collapse took place in Italy in September 1943. After the earlier removal of the charismatic Italian leader, Benito Mussolini, Italy's armed forces virtually disintegrated when the King of Italy fled the capital, Rome, leaving the army without command and without clear instructions. In this way, he brought to real-life the concept of “checkmate” of chess. Other examples of decapitation collapse exist in history, one was the collapse of the Albanian forces against the Italian invasion in 1939. It was a hopeless fight in any case, but the flight of the king of Albany, Zog, led to the total cessation of all resistance -- another case of a chessmate in real life.

Other cases of decapitation strikes failed. An example is the attempt of some German officers to kill Adolf Hitler in 1944. They failed, so we will never know what would have happened had Hitler died that day. Another example was the strike against Iraq in 2003, which aimed at killing most of the members of the Iraqi government. Alalso that attempt failed.
The problem with the idea of destroying a military structure by decapitation is two-fold: the first is that the enemy knows that its leadership is a good target and therefore it works at hardening it as much as possible. One is reminded here of the kagemusha the “shadow warriors” of Japanese military history, whose task was to impersonate a military leader, having the enemy wasting their efforts on them rather than on the right target. Then, it is also true that in modern times armies have developed a less rigid structure in which small units can continue fighting even if they lose contact with their command center. It is a way of fighting that was pioneered by Edwin Rommel during the First World War and extensively used by Heinz Guderian during the Second. Another recent example of resilience in an armed conflict is the 2006 confrontation between Israel and the Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The Hezbollah’s fighting machine was far from being a traditional army: it was a highly resilient system based on small units weakly connected to each other. In the end, it was successful against a theoretically much more powerful adversary. Giving a certain degree of freedom to small units is risky, since the units may not behave the way the central control wants them to. But it seems to pay handsomely in modern times, also because of the development of modern propaganda techniques. Today, soldiers don’t normally fight for money, they are heavily conditioned by propaganda or by religious beliefs.

In the end, waging a war is mainly a question of command and control and there exist many possible interpretations of how to control an army in such a way to make it resilient against collapse. To this day, propaganda remains the main tool motivating soldiers to fight but, as I argued in a previous post, modern warfare seems to be more and more based on remote-controlled, or even autonomous, robotic weapons.

A concept related to the rise of military robots is that of “Network Centered Warfare” also called, sometimes, “Effect Based Operations.” The idea is to transform an army into a single weapon using sophisticated communication techniques. The question, then, is who controls that weapon? If there is a single central control system, the whole system becomes again vulnerable to a decapitation strike. An attack on its operational center that might leave it as useless as the chess pieces on the chessboard after that their king is checkmated.
But it is also perfectly possible to organize military robots in small, relatively independent units. It doesn't change the main question: who controls the military robots? It is a question that, so far, has found no simple answer. Obviously, the robots themselves are not sensitive to propaganda, but their controllers are still human beings. But propaganda is a tool developed to control infantrymen facing the enemy while stuck in a trench, now we need tools to control the robots' controllers who are specialized professionals operating from the safety of remote locations. Appropriate techniques have not been seveloped yet and we don't know what shape they could take and how they will affect the way warfare is conducted.

So, it is difficult to predict what the future of war will be but, clearly, nothing changes in its basic features: war is a struggle that can be fought in real space, in virtual space, or both. We'll probably see a remarkable shift to virtual war, but it is a tortuous path that we are following. As always, the future will be what it had to be.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)