Is War Getting More Complex?

In a recent Modern War Institute series on Leadership in Future War, Dr. Cole Livieratos discussed the “changing context of war” and emphasized the importance of recognizing its complexity. The article is quite good; however, Livieratos’s emphasis on “increasing complexity” raised some hackles.

Subtweets, like the one below, led to an active Twitter discussion about whether it is appropriate to suggest that war is becoming “increasingly complex” or if war is inherently complex and always has been. These discussions are valuable because they illustrate the nature of the challenge that Dr. Livieratos is trying to overcome.

It is fundamentally an ontological problem. How do we come to understand the nature of something—war in this case—and then describe it in terms that are valuable for our audience? Perhaps more importantly, if that audience has a specific perspective, how can we work with them to change it? That is what Livieratos is trying to do.

He grounds his discussion in Anthony King’s Command. King argues that Western armies responded to the trench warfare on World War I’s Western Front by adopting a “complicated” approach to warfare. They assumed that battle was reducible; that it could be decomposed into component pieces and centrally managed. Division-level headquarters evolved to perform the associated management activities. King’s analysis is a valuable perspective.

In Mastering the Art of Command, I used King’s work to help illuminate how two World War II Pacific theaters—Admiral Chester Nimitz’s Pacific Ocean Areas and General Douglas MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific—approached command, control, and jointness differently. MacArthur’s GHQ reflected the U.S. Army’s view that war was “complicated.” It emphasized centralized management and delegated execution. Jointness resided at the GHQ level. Nimitz’s structure was different and reflected the U.S. Navy’s long-standing emphasis on independent action. Because he wanted his subordinates to be able to self-organize and respond quickly to emerging circumstances, Nimitz pushed jointness to low levels—even down to individual islands—and fostered decentralization. Nimitz’s approach assumed war in the Pacific was “complex.” I argue that Nimitz’s approach was better suited to the nature of war in the Pacific.

Like Livieratos, I think the Cynefin Framework is a useful frame to explore these concepts. It presents the essential difference between “complicated” and “complex” this way: in a “complicated” situation, the relationship between cause and effect can be known and accurately predicted; in a “complex” situation, the relationship between cause and effect only becomes clear in hindsight. This is an important distinction because the best way to approach a problem differs depending on circumstances. With a “complicated” problem, methodical analysis can identify the best course of action. With a “complex” problem, analysis is wasteful, especially if time is a crucial factor. Instead, it is best to experiment using multiple parallel probes.

I would argue that the core of Livieratos’s argument is not that war is becoming “increasingly complex.” Instead, it’s that war is “complex.” The problem is that his target audience has grown accustomed to using the term “complexity” inappropriately. Regardless of how often it appears in manuals and associated literature, there is a deeply embedded assumption within the U.S. Army—and the U.S. Defense establishment more broadly—that war is reducable, that crucial variables can be identified with sufficient up-front analysis, and that cause and effect can be predicted. The prevailing ontological frame is that war is “complicated” even if it is regularly described as “complex.” This leads to the belief that it can be effectively decomposed and centrally managed.

Because of that, Livieratos’s choice to emphasize the “increasingly complex” nature of war is, I think, a reasonable approach to reaching his audience and encouraging them to revisit their assumptions. It is a good way to smuggle new ideas in and challenge prevailing assumptions. However, I am not certain that this framing is strong enough. “Increasing complexity” suggests that there is a spectrum and that moving further along it is sufficient—if there are more variables, then all we need is greater analytical capacity to manage them.

However, what is really needed is an ontological shift. A phase transition is a better analogy than a spectrum. If we liken the Army’s current concept of war to water, it’s not enough just to heat it up; it must be transformed into steam, a new substance with different properties and greater potential. Army officers must recognize that many of their governing assumptions about the nature of war are flawed. War is not reducible; it cannot be centrally managed; and officers must continually encourage approaches that allow for coherent, decentralized, independent action with minimal guidance and instruction—in Cynefin terms, multiple parallel probes. Fortunately, there are numerous valuable examples from the nation’s history to draw from and build upon. Nimitz’s command organization is just one.