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.

SMH 2018 and “Cross Functional” Officers

I’ve been distracted by the publication of Learning War and the warm welcome its received, so this follow-up post on the Society of Military History’s Annual Meeting (SMH 2018) is later than I intended. What strikes me as I review my notes from the meeting is how “cross-functional” U.S. naval officers of the early twentieth century were.

Cross-functionality is a common concept in software, but unusual in a military context. I’m using it here to refer to naval officers who developed experience and skill in many different specialties—surface ships, submarines, aviation, and politics—that together created an integrated fleet. Just as many development teams today encourage broad expertise across a variety of domains and technologies, the U.S. Navy of the early twentieth century encouraged officers to develop familiarity with different aspects of naval warfare.

This theme appeared in several papers. Scott Mobley used textual analysis of two different version of William Leahy’s diary (one recently discovered at the U.S. Naval Academy) to assess Leahy’s view of the American intervention in Nicaragua in 1912. Leahy was a Lieutenant Commander in the Pacific Fleet and served as chief of staff to the intervention’s commander, Rear Adm. William Southerland. Leahy also served as the military governor of Corinto, requiring him to employ both strategic acumen and political skill. Leahy was not the only U.S. officer with a political role in the early twentieth century. A talent for foreign relations—which I think of, with apologies to Clausewitz, as “war by other means”—was desirable. Even junior officers were encouraged to develop their political skill. It was essential when communication mechanisms were slow and small ships—like those in the Philippine archipelago—were the most visible local representation of the U.S. government. I believe it made officers better equipped to deal with the inherently political challenges of high command, which include not only collaboration with other nations, but the competing incentives of different services. “Jointness” is inherently political.

Ryan Wadle gave a valuable paper on “generalists vs. specialists” in the interwar (1919-1939) U.S. Navy, a fascinating topic with important ramifications for today. Wadle used Henry Yarnell as a vehicle for his analysis, charting the major developments of his career. He started as a surface warfare officer, became head of the Newport torpedo station, and then a staff officer. Later in his career, Yarnell was head of the Bureau of Engineering, commander of the battle force’s aircraft carriers, and commander of the Asiatic Fleet. Yarnell was a “triple threat” officer, with a rich experience commanding surface ships, submarines, and aircraft carriers. He and Ernest King—who went on to become the Navy’s commander-in-chief during World War II—are the most famous examples of this cross-functional skillset, but they are not the only ones. Our discussion afterwards focused on how culture was broadly cohesive across the Navy during this time and not divided into the factions (submarines, surface, and aviators) that we see today. We left wondering what specific mechanisms the Navy used to incentivize this broad familiarity and what it might take to create parallel incentives today. The current paradigm “channels” officers into specific specialties and inhibits them from developing experience in other arms of the service.

This is obviously undesirable, because without a broad understanding of how the various elements of the fleet can be used effectively together, it is difficult for teams of officers to self-organize to solve complex problems. Specialization—in military forces and in software teams—encourages the development of top-down control mechanisms that reduce the speed of decision-making and discourage individual initiative. This is true within a specific service, but also across them during “joint” operations. A century ago the Navy avoided this by encouraging officers to develop a richer set of skills. My time at SMH 2018 has me wondering how the Navy might address this challenge today as it attempts to encourage what the current Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. John Richardson, calls “high velocity learning.”

Strategy from “Inherently Erroneous” Conceptions

Fear of InvasionA brief review of David G. Morgan-Owen’s The Fear of Invasion: Strategy, Politics, and British War Planning, 1880-1914 (Oxford University Press, 2017)

I am very grateful for this book. David G. Morgan-Owen’s narrative provides much-needed clarity on one of the fundamental questions of World War I: How did the Royal Navy, the most dominant naval force of the day, come to adopt a passive strategy that ceded the initiative to their German opponents?

Morgan-Owen’s detailed analysis of strategic planning in the decades prior to the war provides a compelling answer. He does this by expanding the scope of the narrative, looking beyond the Royal Navy’s planning to consider its relationship with the British Army and the Government. What emerges is a pattern of decisions—each with a logical explanation in context—that gradually limited the Royal Navy’s freedom of action and left Admiral John R. Jellicoe in the unenviable position of being, in the words of Winston Churchill, “the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.”

Those words made sense to me over three decades ago when I first started looking into the naval history of World War I. They seemed to offer a useful explanation for Admiral Jellicoe’s defensive attitude in the war’s largest fleet action, the Battle of Jutland. As more recent scholarship emerged, however, I began to wonder. Andrew Gordon’s The Rules of the Game was an important step because it introduced the idea that perhaps the Royal Navy was insufficiently well-prepared to exercise command in a modern naval war.1

My study of U.S. Navy doctrine and tactics in the interwar period (1919-1939) provided another useful perspective. Although historians have repeatedly accused the U.S. Navy of “refighting” Jutland, U.S. Navy officers examined the battle as a learning tool, drawing out valuable lessons about the principles of naval warfare.2 One of the ideas repeatedly stressed in their analyses was the importance of offensive action, to seize the initiative and keep the enemy off-balance. Today, we would describe this as getting inside your opponent’s OODA (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act) Loop. In Learning War, I make the point that the U.S. Navy’s conception of the importance of the initiative expanded during the interwar period, so that it embraced not just the tactical level of warfare, but also the strategic. With this in mind, one U.S. officer described Jellicoe’s approach as “an inherently erroneous conception of naval warfare.”3 A rather damning critique which I’ve referenced in the title of this post.

I had that perspective in mind when I read Shawn T. Grimes’s Strategy and War Planning in the British Navy, 1887-1918. Grimes challenges many established assumptions about the Royal Navy’s approach to war, providing a thorough analysis of exercises, strategic thinking, and conceptualizations about a potential war in the North Sea. I highly recommend it. Before reading his monograph, I hypothesized that—as strange as it might seem—perhaps the Royal Navy had not performed the kind of large-scale exercises necessary to adequately assess how to handle a modern fleet in battle. Reading Grimes, I realized my hypothesis was incorrect. Exercises were performed, and they seemed to provide a reasonably accurate assessment of modern technologies and their capabilities. I began to wonder if something prevented the Royal Navy from learning effectively from their exercises.

I had several questions. Why did men like Jellicoe adopt a defensive strategic posture? How did they maintain it in light of their material superiority? What led them to remain passive in the home theater while pursuing aggressive actions elsewhere around the globe? How did they expect the Royal Navy to help win the war?

Morgan-Owen provides a compelling history that answers these questions. British war planning is described in its full complexity; the Empire’s strategy emerges from the interaction of three linked—but largely independent—organizations, the British Army, the Imperial Navy, and the Government. Morgan-Owen eschews simplistic explanations like personal failings or shortcomings within a single organization’s planning process. Instead we are told that the “lack of a meaningful vision of how to prosecute a war against Germany” prevented alignment.4 There was no coherent overall strategy.

Instead, there were a series of lower-level decisions made by each of the three major organizations involved. The Army focused on creating a large expeditionary force, first for India, and then later for the Continent. The Government (and the public) became aware of the potential threat of a German surprise attack on England’s East Coast. The swift Prussian victory in 1870 prompted fears that a rapid movement across the North Sea could land unopposed and force a decision while the main strength of the British Army was away. The Royal Navy could not allow this to occur, so it focused on countering the threat.

Taken together, these cascading decisions—the brief description in the paragraph above is a gross simplification—provide a clear explanation for Jellicoe’s defensive stance. The outcome is remarkable in hindsight, because it meant that the inherent flexibility offered by naval power—which the British had used repeatedly to their advantage in the past—was subordinated to the employment of a large army. One could argue that the British, by focusing on a continental commitment, played to German strengths, which is something strategic planning should avoid. This outcome was obviously not clear to decision-makers at the time, and Morgan-Owen does an excellent job of explaining their perspectives, assumptions, and context to illustrate how undesirable consequences can result from the actions of well-intentioned individuals.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in strategy, war planning, or naval history.


1. Gordon suggests that the Royal Navy’s dominant position through the nineteenth century led to ossified command structures that were insufficient for the demands of modern naval combat. Andrew Gordon, The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command (Annapolis, Md: Naval Institute Press, 1996).

2. David Kohnen argues that the U.S. Navy was the ultimate winner of Jutland. David Kohnen, “The U.S. Navy Won the Battle of Jutland”, Naval War College Review (Autumn 2016, Vol. 69, No. 4), 122-145.

3. Commander Holloway H. Frost, The Battle of Jutland (Annapolis, Md: U.S. Naval Institute, 1936), 517.

4. David G. Morgan-Owen, The Fear of Invasion: Strategy, Politics, and British War Planning, 1880-1914 (Oxford University Press, 2017), 215.