The Navalist

Informed thought on naval strategy, global power, and the maritime commons. By navalists, thinkers, strategists and citizens. Since 2016.

Chaos Becomes Complex

Chaos Becomes Complex

Often it is good to review the trajectory of a faded buzzword because it demonstrates the natural cycle of buzzword usage in the Department of Defense:

  1. first, adoption from the civilian world—often with limited understanding of its precise meaning
  2. the search for an application
  3. production of a myriad of think tank and military educational institute reports
  4. SECDEF or Chief of Staff enthusiasm
  5. entry into strategies and plans
  6. eventual growing awareness that its real world practical value may be limited; and
  7. subsumption or replacement by a newer buzzword.  One example is Chaos theory.    

Chaos theory—a mathematical argument that apparent randomness can be measured—was a surprisingly popular topic of discussion in the media in the late 1980s and 1990s.  Several mass media books were written about it, Chaos: The Making of a New Science by James Glieck (1987) being the most entertaining and popular, supposedly selling a million copies.  Many pundits wrote or nodded sagely about the term in the way that supposed experts do when they really don’t know the details about what they are discussing.  Business writers, always scouring for a hot buzzword that captures an analogy between investments and everyday life, jumped on it as if it could help predict the fluctuations of the Dow Jones index.  Corporate CEOs read those books on their air flights.  Flag and General officers and DoD appointees, wanting to be seen as the military equivalents of corporate CEOs, also read the books.  Pretty soon a few were asking how Chaos theory (proponents capitalize the Chaos) could apply to operational or research problems.  From the start, however, the original theorists admitted that Chaos theory had nothing to do with the word chaos as found in the dictionary; it was not about confusion, social disorder, or anarchy, just a “relatively new discipline in mathematics.”  

Yet, the initial attraction was the word “chaos” itself.  Battles are often described as chaotic, with good reason.  Forces clash and when two opposing sides are roughly equivalent in skill and power, a melee rather than a static front can form.  The results of individual melees have tipped the balance in famous battles.  Moreover, the fog of war—despite repeated claims that it is soon to be lifted—proved to be the persistent feature of all opposed military operations, retaining its position as the prime generator of chaos.  However, the popularity of the term Chaos theory created a perception that the chaos of battle can be penetrated if we could only find the right equation. 

Military operations researchers had long been searching for the right equations.  All of them know (and use) some modified form of Lanchester equations to calculate battle probabilities, but also know how inexact the results will be.  As Wikipedia puts it: “The Lanchester equations are differential equations describing the time dependence of two armies' strengths A and B as a function of time, with the function depending only on A and B.” (For a discussion on how Colonel Trevor Dupuy’s efforts to modify Lanchester equations inadvertently created the buzzword “force multiplier,” see Craig Koerner’s guest Emperor’s New Concept column of a year ago.)

Chaos theorists maintained that eventually—applying their methods (basically longer equations with more variables changing over time and more brain sweat) we could find the right algorithms for modeling everything… presumable random changes in radio signals, the weather, patterns of leaf structures, etc…  The Chaos theorists preached “non-linearity,” another term that grew popular in DoD.  Of course, everyone who studied differential equations in college (either because they wanted to, or at Service Academies where it was periodically mandatory) already knew, like the military operations researchers, that most problems were non-linear and that complex models created by linear equations were rarely exact.  But since most people do not study differential equations, “non-linearity” and “chaos theory” seemed to be novel, exciting and intellectually hip terms. 

Certain mathematically-minded military officers and defense civilians, latching on the principles of Chaos theory, were convinced they could demonstrate its military applicability--for example, then-Major Glenn E. James, U.S. Air Force, academically first in his class at the Air Force Academy and a math Ph.D., who wrote Chaos Theory: The Essentials for Military Application (Naval War College Newport Paper #10, October 1996).  The combination of hip academic buzzword, mathematics-geek enthusiasm, promises of “significant” military applications, and (mis)understanding of (social) chaos grasped the imaginations of Pentagon officials, particularly at the two- and three-star or assistant secretary levels, along with their staffs.  “Chaos theory” routinely crept into speeches, Power Point presentations, and other public remarks.

But what were these military applications? 

It turned out they were amazingly meager.  Yes, Chaos theory was somewhat useful in modeling pulsed power and computational fluid dynamics, where Chaos theorists insisted that phenomena once considered random could be modelled as a pattern.  Pulsed power and fluid dynamics are certainly factors in weapons design.  But the resulting more-comprehensive models were hardly revolutionary; they were simply better.  As for modeling of strategy, deterrence, combat, collateral damage and operational factors, Chaos theory had little to offer that was not already understood.

For example, James cites a “Chaos theory-based” acquisition study related to Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) policy that indicated that adding defensive weapons would be more destabilizing in an arms race between two superpowers than simply adding more offensive weapons—something we certainly figured out by 1991 in observing the crash of the Soviet Union.  When examining this particular acquisition study, it is hard to determine what Chaos theory—as opposed to simply more sophisticated modelling (along with some deductive reasoning)—actual contributed. 

Most other areas cited by James use the “may” word, as in “Chaos theory may also address other issues…”  Chaos theorists cite the need for greater feedback in assessments.  I recall Colonel John Boyd’s OODA loop was based on that premise long before Chaos theory.

The eventual result was the realization that Chaos theory added little to what was already being studied (or not) via war gaming, modeling and simulation, or simply arguing by analogy and metaphor.  Some holdouts believe that the use of big data and artificial intelligence may gain something from Chaos theory.  Yet, again, expected improvements seem likely derived from simply better (but never perfect) modeling.  As an adage cited by the JCS J5, Lieutenant General Frank McKenzie, USMC goes: “All models are wrong; some are useful.”  Big data and AI might make them a little more useful, Chaos theory or not.

Once the realization that no one could actually cite an effective military application of Chaos theory--and more obviously, that it had nothing to do with “chaos” as it is normally understood--the term dissipated completely from Pentagon corridors.

Or did it?

When discussing the lifespan of the military usage of the buzzword “Chaos theory,” a colleague observed that “it didn’t disappear, it was just subsumed by ‘complexity.’” 

Initial research seemed to indicate she was right; just as Chaos theory was fading, the term “complex operations” started gaining.

But exactly what are “complex operations”?  With that term we seem to become entangled in another misinterpretation—similar to Chaos theory--with a little bit of subterfuge added in.  Like assuming Chaos means chaos, many assume that complex operations are combined, complicated problems that require special techniques for problem-solving or perhaps the involvement of a variety of otherwise unassociated resources.  Complexity implies that there might be a little bit of chaos to the problem—at least enough to prevent use of the “usual way of doing things.”  

As to implying the use of otherwise unassociated resources, there is some validity; those using of the term “complex operations” generally assume that agencies other than DoD must be part of the solution.  However, “complex operations” is more of a code word than anything else, meaning stabilization, counterinsurgency, transition (e.g., nation-building) and irregular warfare.  If one goes to the National Defense University’s Center for Complex Operations (CCO) web site, the above words (less “nation-building”) are used to describe its focus. 

(CCO, by the way, is directed by a true scholar-warrior, Colonel Joseph J. Collins, USA (Ret.), co-editor of one of the best studies of policy making in the Afghan and Iraq wars, entitled Lessons Encountered: Learning for the Long War (NDU Press, September 2015).  Notice the title is Lessons Encountered, not “lessons learned.”)

Why use the term “complex operations” then?  The answer is simple, none of those words--stabilization, counterinsurgency, transition (e.g., nation-building) and irregular warfare—are popular with Congress or the public.  They conjure up mistaken decisions to intervene in “hopeless” countries with expectations that never can be fulfilled.  Better to study “complex operations” than the military’s role in nation-building.  Here is a buzzword that is more than mere sound—it avoids using terms that would otherwise cause instant debate.

So where is chaos in all this?  Well, it might be in the operations themselves, Syria being an example, where alliance shifts are truly chaotic, enemies never seem truly beaten, and friends don’t remain true friends for very long.  That is indeed complex; that is indeed chaos.  If there was anything we would hope Chaos theory would help with, it would be with such situations.  Of course, it can’t—at least not with any practical effect.

So was the Chaos theory buzzword subsumed by the complex operations buzzword or merely replaced at the Pentagon?  Despite initial appearance, perhaps replace is a better description than subsumed.  Chaos theory is indeed gone and complexity is in, but maybe it was just coincidental timing. 

One thing is for sure, however.  Chaos is complex.     

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