COIN, Complexity, and Full-Spectrum Warfare

COIN, Complexity, and Full-Spectrum Warfare:

Is it possible to have Center of Gravity given all the Fog and Friction?

by Grant M. Martin

Download the Full Article: COIN, Complexity, and Full-Spectrum Warfare

The United States Army uses a concept called the Center of Gravity (CoG) to help determine where the focus of efforts should be during warfare. For instance, during recent U.S. Army Command and General Staff College (CGSC) practical exercises, students many times identified an enemy's most powerful corps or armored division as the Operational CoG that must be defeated in order for U.S. forces to be successful in a conventional fight. In counterinsurgency exercises the CoG was usually identified as "the will of the people", in fact many instructors stifled debate by insinuating there was no alternative. Students took hours to debate CoGs and usually arrived at a consensual conclusion that was widely regarded as wrong by the students. This follows statements made by senior-ranking field grade guest instructors such as, "CoG analysis has never helped me understand a problem" and "getting the CoG right isn't important, doing the thinking is." The possibility that CoG analysis may offer no greater understanding of the true nature of a conflict should cause military professionals concern.

Download the Full Article: COIN, Complexity, and Full-Spectrum Warfare

MAJ Grant Martin is a U.S. Army Special Forces officer assigned to the NATO Training Mission- Afghanistan/Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan.

Editor's Note: This article first debuted in SWJ Vol 6, Issue 10.

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Comments

Still stand by my initial comment---the article was/is a breathe of fresh air---would like to see more SOF personnel writing on similar topics as they bring a different perspective to the discussion.

- All: thank-you very much for the compliments and criticism. I actually wrote this awhile back (don't have time here), but am just now getting around to getting it out there. Just now getting a chance to read the comments.

- M.L.: agree that it is more the way we apply CoG as opposed to an inherent weakness in Clausewitzs metaphor. Although, I think Clausewitz, as much as he wanted to come up with principles that would stand the test of time, was still bound by his context. The little I understand of Complexity Theory, etc. leads me to believe that the existence of a "center" of anything that can be targeted and capitalized on in a complex environment is probably very rare.

Anon: - The little reading Ive done on Open Source Warfare is very interesting and leads me to believe the way to operate in OSW environments is with dispersed teams of highly-independent, multi-disciplinary, super-adaptive, and hyper-anticipatory individuals that interact with the environment and operate within a broadly-defined set of parameters (with HQ that set those parameters, articulate a set of options to political leaders, and resource these teams).

- As for the term "wicked problems", although Im probably wrong, I got the sense that they referred to VERY complex problems, those that were impossible to define. Complex: 'decrease drug use in Leavenworth, KS. Wicked: 'decrease instability in Haiti.

- As for the "more complex- less complex" argument, I tend to believe that if complexity is defined by increasing connections between entities/nodes then things are more complex today. Humans are connected to more people than they were in the past, connected at a higher rate of physical and informational speed, and have access to much greater sources of information. Im not arguing that our ancestors didnt perceive that they were in as complex an environment, but I am arguing that in an objective sense things are more complex today: relationships today make effects more widespread, causality less linear, and conditions change much more rapidly than they did in the past.

- Alan: Thanks and I agree we have made the environment here more complex through our own actions and misunderstanding of our own interests, the regions, and the Afghans.

- Ken: That quote you included is interesting. I have read a lot of contradictory and/or confusing language about complex problems. What I thought made more sense was that well-defined problems were inherently not complex- but either simple or complicated. Complex were those problems that you couldn't define, either because of your own constraints or the nature of the problem itself and its true non-linearity. "Wicked" seems to be used when it is "really" complex...

v/r,
Grant Martin
MAJ, US Army

Oh. Guess we both forgot this part of the Pam:

"f. Throughout the remainder of this pamphlet, the complexity of a problem will refer to the presence or lack of structure: well-structured problems are the least complex; ill-structured problems are the most complex. Accordingly, this pamphlet will use the terms ill-structured problem or complex operational problem rather than the term wicked problem."

;)

Anonymous at 9:18:

From TRADOC Pam 525-5-500:

"(4) Ill-structured problems have no fixed set of potential solutions. Since each wicked problem is a one-of-a-kind situation, it requires a custom solution rather than a standard solution modified to fit circumstances. Tactical doctrine offers standard templates for action, standard ways of doing things that have to be adapted to specific circumstances. Strategists and operational artists have no similar kit of generic solutions. The dynamics that make an operational problem unique also demand the design of a custom solution. Additionally, there is no way to prove that "all solutions to a wicked problem have been identified and considered."15 Commanders may never consider some solutions, either because they are too exotic or because self-imposed constraints limit potential actions."(emphasis added /kw)

IOW, combat can be complex. Gee. Who knew...

The phrase 'wicked problem' is not discomforting to me, it is simply unnecessary. Problems exist, some are more complex than others. That was true long before 1972 or whenever the phrase really was first used and it'll be true when no one recalls it was ever in use.

I suggest with some knowledge of how staff bureaucracies work the items I placed in bold type above are or will be used by many as cop outs or excuses for inaction or failure. Which is what Robert C. Jones said upstream and with which I agreed and still agree, the good young Major General not withstanding.

Furthermore,if FORSCOM is for it or uses it, it MUST be wrong... ;)

As an aside, the Statement that "Tactical doctrine offers standard templates for action, standard ways of doing things that have to be adapted to specific circumstances." is itself scary. That peacetime cookie cutter approach doesn't work and gets people killed every time we go off to a new war...

Getting back to the CoG issue, it is interesting that MAJ Martin has the follow in his introductory paragraph:

During recent U.S. Army Command and General Staff College (CGSC) practical exercises, students many times identified an enemys most powerful corps or armored division as the Operational CoG that must be defeated in order for U.S. forces to be successful in a conventional fight. In counterinsurgency exercises the CoG was usually identified as "the will of the people", in fact many instructors stifled debate by insinuating there was no alternative. Students took hours to debate CoGs and usually arrived at a consensual conclusion that was widely regarded as wrong by the students.

Unfortunately, this led the author to believe that the CoG concept was flawed. I believe that a reading of Clausewitz would reveal his CoG to be valuable, however, the CGSC has twisted the CoG into something Clausewitz never intended.

One of the foremost proponents of the CGSC method is COL Dale C. Eikmeier, USA (Ret), an Assistant Professor at the CGSC. COL Eikmeier wrote several articles on CoG analysis. One article, published in JFQ, is found here: http://goo.gl/hdYp9

Here are some excerpts from the first few paragraphs:

It does not matter what Carl von Clausewitz said about the center of gravity (COG) in the 19th century. What matters is how we want to use the COG concept in the 21st century.

To meet its own intent, joint doctrine needs to break from Clausewitz and develop new definitions of the center of gravity and its critical factors based on the criteria of clarity, logic, precision, and testability. New definitions would then allow for selection and validation methods based on logic and objectivity. What is not useful is a continued sentimental devotion to 19th-century military theory.

However, because definitions are not clear, logical, precise, or testable, and a doctrine does not provide a practical identification method, planners lack the understanding and focus needed to meet the intent of the COG concept.

The problem is twofold. The first is definitional; the second is methodological. Because the current doctrinal definition of the center of gravity lacks precision, it generates confusion and endless debates that are distractions from critical planning tasks. Second, doctrine offers no practical method to identify the COG.

Stunning stuff. It's easy to see why and how far CGSC has deviated from Clausewitz. Essentially they have borrowed the words and disregarded everything else. All done in an attempt to reduce CoG to a checklist-like methodology, not unlike MDMP.

Of course, CGSC knows better than arguably the greatest military mind in history...

I understand MAJ Martin's frustration, however, the fault lies in the CGSC methodology, not Clausewitz's CoG.

For those that seemed to not understand "wicked problems" search Google for SOIC and then see if your comments are still valid. MG Flynn might have a few comments on what a number of you have stated here as the SOIC is his creation.

Check TRADOC Pam 525-5-500 as well and then review your previous comments on "wicked problems" as the SOIC rolls out of the thinking in this Pam.

Please people read and show some understanding (with a big U) before making comments---you all should be reading far more of what TRADOC/FORSCOM have be publishing lately.

This term then would not have been a major discomfort maker as it seems to be with a few of the Commenters here.

Do we have a mess or a wicked problem? Two Oregon State professors wrote an interesting piece fiftenn years ago about how to distinguish between a mess and a wicked problem. They opined that a mess is a very complex problem that gets resolved because the people involved share a set of values. That mess becomes a wicked problem when values are not shared. Applying that logic to our current involvment in Afghanistan, it is quite apparent that we are indeed facing a wicked problem. We don't share common values with the Govt of Afg, share little with the Afg people, don't have fully congruent values and aims with our NATO allies and on occasion aren't capable of sharing values or approaches within our own government. That said, attempting to develop doctrine for COIN/FID/FSA/STABOPS/ etc. that can assure a degree of shared values and an understanding of the problem set facing us is vital and is a prerequisite to ever hoping to move this wicked problem into the big damn mess (complex problem) category. My congratulations to MAJ Martin on a great, thought-provoking article.

People cause crimes and they cause wars. Always been that way and always will be as long as people are around. So IMO there are know wicked problems but there certainly are wicked people.

Sigh. Once again...

The Anon at 11:18 is me. :(

M.L.:

Fortunately, I am not CvC and thus am still alive and able to have my own opinions. While I respect his opinions, neither he or other theorists have the answers to all or even many questions concerning war, Wars or warfare. I suggest that all war, total or constrained, is as I said. Specific Wars may elide one or more of those factors -- or none but still be necessary. Specific forms of warfare may do the same but as the Actress said to the Bishop "When you're dead, Baby, it's total..."

Attempting to 'understand' war is, IMO, adding unneccessary complexity to the minor problems of how best to prevent it or if necessary to engage in it successfully. One can wander around in the complexity and confusion of all human endeavor for hours and learn little of merit. As war is among the most stupid of human endeavors, it seems particularly fruitless to attempt to understand it. Attempting to 'understand' it can lead to hubris and irrational decisions regarding participation in or instigation of wars.

As Chris Paparone said: ""Problems" only exist when humans invent them."" Possibly a trifle over simplified but still a great deal of merit in that succinct statement.

A better solution is to accept that war exists for unfathomable reasons, isn't really nice and then recall what the Marines say; "Nobody likes war but someone better know how to fight them."

Hopefully, you are correct in your statement that 'we' will never see war in its total form. Unfortunately, a slew of dead folks have seen war that was total enough for them. ;)

Ken White:

What is in fact easily understandable is war, lower case. It is an immoral, brutal and violent asault on humanity and the world in which we all live. That's not difficult to understand.

CvC would agree with you as a definition of "total war." However, CvC would also say that total war is a theoretical form of war. In reality, war is a political act, and therefore is always constrained somewhere short of total war. Thus, the understanding of war (lower case) as a phenomenon in the real world is always difficult because we will never see war in its "total" form.

Dayahun:

The assumption seems to be that our problems in managing these situations lies in our analytical processes. That overlooks the crucial reality that no analytical process will give useful results if the inputs and assumptions are inaccurate, incomplete, unsupported, or distorted by bias and preconception... and that, I think, is where our problem lies.

Understanding an insurgency, or any other conflict, is not about buzzwords, theories, or arcane processes. .... It's about dissecting the wheels within wheels and the layers upon layers of situation-specific context.

One of the useful things about complexity theory is that it rejects analytical processes and preconceived mental models, and embraces context.

I see your response as an embrace, rather than rejection of complexity (wicked problems). Perhaps I am misreading it?

Ken White:

I was referring specifically to Robert C. Jones' original comment, which read:

"Insurgency and its many variations are every bit as understandable and distilable as CvC's approach to traditional state v. state warfare." (Emphasis added)

I was wrong to add the word "easily"; apologies to all.

Hmmmm...semantics matter. "Wicked" signifies something unapproachable as we have nothing to characterize or define it with. The Army (and more recently the J7 JFCOM) have chosen another way to characterize situations as "unstructured problems."

I think we are searching for metaphors, whether borrowed from complexity science, chaos theory, or from Rittel's & Webber's wicked problem theory (http://www.metu.edu.tr/~baykan/arch467/Rittel+Webber+Dilemmas.pdf), to explain the unexplainable. Since the Enlightenment and Compte's expression of positivism, our culture has believed knowledge is progressive (cumulative) and positive (cause and effect relationships are definable).

Deborah Stone says, "difficult conditions only become problems to be solved once they are seen as amenable to human action" (http://www.uvm.edu/~dguber/POLS293/articles/stone.pdf). What she is saying is we can only conceive of messy situations as problems when we can see a solution that defines it. Also known as "garbage can decision making," (http://www.jstor.org/pss/2392088) solutions look for problems (a very different view from what positivist epistemology claims).

"Problems" only exist when humans invent them.

Too often we are so blinded by our knowledge that we cannot find the understanding we seek.

This is one of the main reasons I come to this site. It is hard to grow to certain in one's grasp of something, when that Idea is set on the table and guys like Bill Moore and Ken White and Dayuhan start poking their sticks into it.

Understanding is a journey rather than a destination, but like any journey, one is always someplace at any given time, and while it is not the place one seeks to end up at that does not mean that you one is lost (though one could be)

What makes governance "good" or what makes an individual "happy"? Depends. As Dayuhan states, every situation is unique. But that does not take away from the importance of those complex, bundled concepts. Nor does that complex nature make them byond understanding either.

The journey continues...

M.L.:

Leaping to incorrect conclusions might lead one to believe in wicked problems...

"The idea that war, in whatever form, is "easily understandable" or "distilable" is hubris at best. "

I don't believe anyone said or even implied that. Neither Robert C. Jones or I wrote there were no difficult problems or no complexities with which we must deal in many things. Can't speak for him but I merely asserted the phrase was sort of silly. My observation has been that those complex problems that must be solved generally can be and that reliance on a catch phrase and a checklist as potential excuses for non-action or inadequate performance are indeed a cop out. The phrase is silly simply because a problem is inanimate and thus cannot be evil or, really, even offensive. It can be complex or difficult, even exceedingly frustrating but not wicked. Having been stationed in Bahstahn in my misspent youth, I suspect that 'wicked' turn of phrase is a resdiual from the Pilgrims and witch hunts -- that whole area is conflicted over thoser legacies...

What is in fact easily understandable is war, lower case. It is an immoral, brutal and violent asault on humanity and the world in which we all live. That's not difficult to understand. If you meant that a War (upper case and specific) or warfare is complex and not easily understood, well, yes. However we fortunately do not have to solve all the problems involved in a particular War or type of warfare, we only have to understand what, if anything, is required of us individually to do our part in solving the problems presented as they occur or are likely to occur.

Bill M. makes the valid point that we want book answers without thought. That is a trait in bureaucracies and there's entirely too much truth in his statement. He OTOH, agrees there are wicked problems and believes the concept has merit. I rarely disagree with him but do on the wicked problem concept. Mostly for the reason he cites initially: "The point of the article was to challenge our assumptions and methods/models based on those assumptions, and how are thinking is limited by our vocabulary and current scientific concepts." The wicked problem concept is quasi scientific but it begins with assumptions and the initial assumption is, essentially "This is really difficult..." Bad starting point. While I agree with him that good governance is not the answer to everything, neither is self induced over complication the best start point for much of anything.

Neither Bob or I espoused reductionism though that is certainly one way to attempt solution of complex problems if it seems appropriate for the issues at hand -- as you show:

"Furthermore, two people may both be unhappy, but the reasons they are unhappy may have a great deal to do with the context in which they live. Therefore, solving the happiness problem is different for each person."

Dayuhan as usual sums it up neatly:

Part of our problem with so-called "wicked problems" is that all too often we're trying to solve the wrong problem."

Lot of that going around...

Part of our problem with so-called "wicked problems" is that all too often we're trying to solve the wrong problem. For example, instead of asking ourselves how we can conjure up a stable centralized government in Afghanistan, we might be better off asking ourselves how we can convince our own leaders to stop pursuing such absurd goals in the first place. If we pursue goals that we can't achieve with tools that are inappropriate to those tasks, we will create very wicked problems for ourselves. That situation doesn't create a need for better ways to solve wicked problems, it points to a need to be a lot more careful about what we want to bite off.

I think you're focused on the wrong take away from this great article if you narrow your focus to the author's use of "wicked problem". The point of the article was to challenge our assumptions and methods/models based on those assumptions, and how are thinking is limited by our vocabulary and current scientific concepts.

Getting back to wicked problems, they are very much a real concept and not a cop out, and the concept would have probably been incorporated by Clausewitz if he was exposed to it. I agree problems are no more complex today than they have ever been, but that doesn't negate the utility of the concept of wicked problems. I'm sorry Bob, but good governance is not the answer to everything.

MAJ Martin I also enjoyed your comments on learning organizations, and I agree we're far from being a learning organization. What have learned since 9/11? Let's see we defined our threat monlithically as a global insurgency and still blindly adhere to the belief that the COG is the will of the people. As an organization we want book answers that can be applied widely(doctrine, models, etc.) without much thought, and the answer to why we're that way may lead to enlightenment age for the Army.

I have to agree with RCJ here (unprecedented I know, but it happens). All the talk of wicked problems and open sources, complexity theory and systems thinking seems to me to be barking up the wrong tree altogether. The assumption seems to be that our problems in managing these situations lies in our analytical processes. That overlooks the crucial reality that no analytical process will give useful results if the inputs and assumptions are inaccurate, incomplete, unsupported, or distorted by bias and preconception... and that, I think, is where our problem lies.

Understanding an insurgency, or any other conflict, is not about buzzwords, theories, or arcane processes. It's about knowing the history, the languages, the cultures; about spending your years squatting in the dirt with village elders on all sides of the fence, about seeing beyond surface words and manipulative leaders who tell us want to hear. It's about dissecting the wheels within wheels and the layers upon layers of situation-specific context.

The great problem with theories is that we get attached to them. Some of us fall in love with them. When that happens, we're inclined to try and fit ground truth into our theory, instead of adjusting (or if necessary discarding) theories that are incompatible with ground truth. That's fatal. Certainly there are various pet theories and processes that are, in theory, meant to help develop this sort of context-based understanding. In practice, the theories all too often come to obstruct understanding.

Our problems are no more wicked, and our conflicts no more complicated, than those our ancestors managed, sometimes well, sometimes badly. None of this is new... though there's a huge payoff for analysts in slapping new phrases on it, especially if they are kinda cool in a geeky sort of way, like they have something vaguely to do with the innernet or 'puters.

Gents (Robert C. Jones and Ken White),

I hate to hone in on semantics, but the word "distilable" attracted my attention. To distill something is to either separate its component parts, or to purify it. I take this to mean that you believe all problems, including so-called "wicked" ones, can be understood through reductionism.

Reductionism is the classical and time-honored approach of science. Reduce the problem to dependent and independent variables, remove context to establish causal relationships, and off you go. It is easy to be seduced by reductionism, but unfortunately complex problems cannot be solved by breaking things down into their constituent parts:

1. Complex problems are composed of interdependent variables. Doing something to one variable affects them all. Isolating variables in an interdependent system gives false results.

2. Complex social problems cannot be separated from the context in which they happen. Classical science separates variables from context to isolate them, however, context is everything in social problems.

3. Complex problems display emergent properties which cannot be described by the variables or their relationships. Emergence is a property of all the interactions within the system.

Wicked problems are not necessarily "beyond understanding", however, they are more difficult to understand than say, fixing a car or performing surgery.

Wicked problems aren't limited to war. As an example, happiness is an emergent property of the human system. It cannot be described using a reductive analysis of the human body. If someone is unhappy, it may be difficult to figure out why (check out the self-help section of your local B&N). Furthermore, two people may both be unhappy, but the reasons they are unhappy may have a great deal to do with the context in which they live. Therefore, solving the happiness problem is different for each person.

Carl von Clausewitz characterized war as a realm of both uncertainty and chance. He also described a theory of war as a "pendulum" between the three "magnets" of the "paradoxical trinity" (people, nation, and military). When this experiment is actually done, the path of the pendulum is unpredictable, chaotic, and non-linear. The problem of determining the path of the pendulum cannot be solved by reductionism.

The idea that war, in whatever form, is "easily understandable" or "distilable" is hubris at best.

Robert C. Jones:

You, Sir. are a gentleman. Since I'm not, I can say "wicked problem" is not only a cop out, it's a really silly phrase.

Though women can occasionally be wicked -- and a problem. Most everything else pales into insignificance...

Just my 2 cents, but for my money (all 2 cents) the concept of "wicked problem" is just a snappy BS application of Boston slang to something that is generally not well understood, rather than something that is beyond understanding.

Insurgency and its many variations are every bit as understandable and distilable as CvC's approach to traditional state v. state warfare.

Wicked problem is a copout.

MAJ Martin---what a breathe of fresh air.

Welcome to the world of "open source warfare" which when coupled with "conflict ecosystems" gives you the framework for quantum research into the drivers of insurgencies--which by the way has been done in the last year.

It will be interesting to see how senior leadership views the article.

It is finally time to really truly look at complexity science which even Kilcullen wrote about in 2004 as part of his "conflict ecosystem" concepts.

This is the driving force behind MG Flynn's SOIC concept which was instituted after his SWJ article.

In 1972, Dr. Horst Rittel coined the phrase "wicked problem" to described the complex interplay of social, political, and cultural dynamics. Also known as interactive, complex and adaptive problems, wicked problems are exactly what "wars amongst the people" are. A quick review of the characteristics of wicked problems will help conceptualize the challenge:

1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse.
4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a "one-shot operation"; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly.
6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem's resolution.
10. The planner has no right to be wrong (planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).

What was being written about in 1972 is really now complexity science.

A very interesting article. I've wanted to revisit Clausewitz for quite a while. I wonder what concepts he would have "borrowed" to describe war had he the language of quantum physics, relativity, etc...

I believe Clausewitz was an early complexity theorist, but lacked the language to express his thoughts. His reference to a theory of war as a "pendulum" between the three "magnets" of the paradoxical trinity (people, nation, and military) is evidence enough. When this experiment is actually done, the path of the pendulum is unpredictable, chaotic, and non-linear.

Clausewitz implicitly understood what we call complexity. Yet, he was forced to use deterministic language and metaphors from the Newtonian Universe; quite a contradiction. Because of this, I don't think Clausewitz, the CoG concept, and chaos/complexity theory are incompatible. Rather, it should lead us to examine the CoG concept as we have (mis)interpreted it. We crave linear, reductionist, analytical thinking and methods. The method of teaching CoG at CGSC is exactly that (the publication that CGSC teaches from is Centers of Gravity and Critical Vulnerabilities by Dr. Joe Strange).

Complexity theory does not replace CoG. On the contrary, it should enhance our understanding of it. The author is correct in stating that our current CoG doctrine and methods seem to be insufficient to the task of helping us understand war. However, this is more an indictment of our interpretation of Clausewitz, not of the CoG concept as he envisioned it.

Well done. You are scratching at the assumption-level of the institution. This sort of deviant thinking is thought-provoking and absolutely necessary for the profession of arms.

It makes me wonder if the idea of doctrine is inapplicable to COIN/FID/FSA/STABOPS/nation-building (or whatever we call our present situation). If sociologists (and complexity scientists) are struggling with sensemaking, why should the military institution think it can reduce theories for action into a doctrine? Is it arrogance, mindlessness, or what?

You have started a worthy conversation here Grant.