Thoughts on 2040: An “Anti-fragile” Offset Strategy

Thoughts on 2040: An “Anti-fragile” Offset Strategy

Steven Rotkoff and Kevin Benson

At present Army musings on war and warfare in 2040 and beyond focus on a so called “Big 8.”  Not surprisingly our conceptual thinking seeks to take advantage of yet another “off-set” to presumed adversary advantage by seeking to retain a high technological advantage.  There is nothing wrong with seeking this advantage, as it is in keeping with American character and our “way of war.”  Technology indeed can change the character of war.  We believe there is another equally profound element which can also “change the character of war.” 

Sir Michael Howard is famously, and some aver over cited, on his view the particular doctrine an Army is working on at any time is wrong.  This fact does not matter however as long as the Army has the, “capacity to get it right quickly when the moment arrives…[I]t is the task of military science in an age of peace to prevent the doctrines from being too badly wrong."   In the same speech Howard also said something our Army must bear in mind.  He cautioned against people who supposed they could predict the future.  On this he said, “This is an aspect of military science which needs to be studied above all others in the Armed Forces: the capacity to adapt oneself to the utterly unpredictable, the entirely unknown.”   

We agree with Howard.  The future cannot be known with any accuracy.   No matter how hard we think about the future, nor how many different versions of the future we posit, the future in reality will be different than we prognosticate. Even if we were to be correct in our crystal ball gazing, we cannot know with any authority today that we will be accurate. Therefore we must build a system which values flexibility and rapid adaptation above all other attributes. A system able to thrive and perform best in an environment of disorder and uncertainty, a system which is “anti-fragile.” 

In his book Anti-fragile Things That Gain from Disorder, Nassim Nicholas Taleb defines the critical element of anti-fragility as the ability of a system to benefit from shocks; to thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors.  Taleb is very insistent on distinguishing antifragility from adaptability, resilience or robustness. Each of those, he characterized as simply creating the ability to survive stressors, while anti-fragile systems actually thrived and got better or stronger

Fortunately for America, we are a nation that is intrinsically “anti-fragile.” We have a microcosm of every culture on earth residing in our borders; we put a high value on innovation, newness, experimentation, and individuality. These characteristics enabled national anti-fragility, demonstrated during and after WWI and WWII where in a chaotic and rapidly changing world the US and our culture dominated. Even today, where our dominance is no longer as prevalent, our anti-fragility has enabled the growth of Silicon Valley, and our continued lead in technological innovation. We must build a military which recognizes and exploits the unique strengths of our nation.

The consequence of this reality is any technology we pursue as the cornerstone of our strategy will immediately become the object of a worldwide internet enabled effort to counter those same technologies. The real asymmetric advantage of the United States is our ability to adapt to uncertainty, and to take advantage of the opportunity extant in a crisis.  We need to systemically redesign our force to leverage our cultural advantages and anti-fragility.

Policy/Strategy/Future War

We assert warfare in the remainder of the 21st century while continuing to be an extension of policy and thus linked to policy, must also consider what we call persuasive and coercive force.  Coercive force is the demonstrated mastery of the application of violence upon which allies can rely and which future adversaries must incorporate into their calculus of challenging American interests.  Persuasive force is a similar mastery but of the application of narrative tied to the use of coercion which sustains homeland support for the use of force, conditions populations in contested regions of the rightness of our cause, and undermines support for the adversary.  This force will contest with adversaries’ similar use of persuasive force in the cyber and information domains.  It will be a battle for hearts and minds

Without being either overly bold or hypocritical about predicting the future, we believe there are some enduring characteristics we can count on.  First, our military campaigns and operations must provide a balance between the coercive and the persuasive force in any form of future warfare. In an era of ubiquitous and instantaneous video, the underlying narrative of the conflict must drive the use of force. Both US goals and the desired future state within the conflicted area must provide the overarching logic within which even tactical operations are conducted. The narrative in the public square must precede and serve as the connective tissue binding all operations.

Second, when called for, we believe physical and informational engagements will have to be “whole of government” efforts, the role of State and other departments must be integrated at the outset, vice secondary to military campaigns. Third, we see a trend in war which demands one integrated effort across the domains of land, space, air, sea and undersea.  All of which is overlaid by the electromagnetic/cyber/information domain. Space, air, sea and undersea are linked throughout the reconnaissance-strike complex and forces operating in this area must dominate across the all domains to achieve success. Fourth, with the growing sophistication of our adversaries there will be a lessening of differences between the combinations of regular, irregular forces as well as criminal and other malicious actors we will face along the range of military operations.  Finally, we believe as long as people live on land the Army-as principal provider of land power-plays a significant role in deterring, conducting and favorably concluding future conflict.

An ‘anti-Fragile’ DoD as the True “Third” Offset

The choice of the ‘offset’ analogy currently much discussed in the beltway is a conscious one and draws analogies to decisions made by the Eisenhower and Carter Administrations to offset Soviet military size and proximity to Europe. The threat to the nation today is fundamentally different than the threat the first two offsets were designed to combat. We now live in the “information age.”  Any such “off-set” must include consideration of the extension of warfare into the cyber and information domain, a battle for the hearts and minds so to speak.  Both narrative text and more powerfully evocative imagery (impetus for the so-called ‘Arab spring’) is both ubiquitous and instantaneously available almost anywhere on the planet. Weapons development is not the exclusive domain of nation states. The world is significantly more urban. Moore’s law has resulted in rapid technological obsolescence across a wide variety of technologies beyond simply C4ISR.  The intermarriage of insurgent and criminal networks has resulted in a lucrative black market for counter measures designed to defeat US technological capabilities.

Anti-Fragile Army and Department of Defense

An anti-fragile Army must have a balance of general purpose and SOF units, a redesigned/envisioned Army Reserve and National Guard, the ability to exploit “Big Data,” improved talent management, and a more inclusive culture.  The balance of general purpose and Special Operations units must all be joint combined arms capable.  The range of units within this force must include necessary supporting arms from air defense to cyber, information operations/robotics to logistics.  This Army must still go to the war, fight and win the war, sustain itself during war, and conclude the war with such military conditions which lead to sustainable political solutions, then transition the contested area to a national government or some other oversight force.  The reserve and National Guard also play a large role in this anti-fragile force.

Because the committed force must be able to adapt to the unpredictable and unknown, the structure of the reserve and National Guard must be re-envisioned/redesigned.  The Office, Chief of the Army Reserve and National Guard Bureau must have a capability to look across the entire structure to identify all skills from individual to specific, unique units.  These units must be available for use on some determined time line irrespective of the state in which they are based.  In essence the Total Army IS a total force so when skills are needed the Army can alert, mobilize, deploy and employ required abilities from one Soldier to small packets as opposed to entire units.  Assisting this effort is a supporting ability to enlist “Big Data.”

An anti-fragile Army must get better when facing the unpredictable and unknown.  War it is said always takes place at the intersection of four map sheets and in exotic places.  The Army must have at its disposal access to data bases of native speakers of any language on the planet. We must know where they live in the US, and where they lived in the country in question so we can optimally employ their local knowledge.  The Army must also be able to discern if these US citizens/persons are trustworthy.  The need for the persuasive narrative in addition to coercive force is paramount.  The ability to exploit “Big Data” in order to find trustworthy people with needed language skills exploits an American advantage and enables more rapidly developed cultural understanding and empathy by military forces for the people they will act with or upon.  Additionally, the Army should be able to reach across to academe to access expertise both technical and cultural to support evolving operations. Today at least three organizations are independently tackling this task. The Army War College is leading an effort to collect, vet and rate subject matter experts, the TRADOC G2 is doing the same and finally Army University is starting an effort as well. We recommend the Army take over and designate and empower a lead agent to reach out to academe, business, NGOs etc. and build a coherent catalogue of experts.   This will require careful crafting in order to remain aware of and not violate civil rights.  Use of “Big Data” will enable the Army to tap into the wealth of talent within our Republic.  Hand in hand with this is the need to make best use of the talent within the Army.

One aspect of anti-fragility the Army has already and must continue to invest in is the learning and growth that comes from adversity and failure.  Depriving a system of stressors or trying to ameliorate stressors is not good for the system and can actually be harmful.  Mission command embraces this concept by allowing junior leaders to fail and learn from it. The philosophy of mission command, which might be termed a stretch goal, will-we assert-establish conditions for an anti-fragile Army.  A climate that encourages subordinate initiative and accepts mistakes and failure leads to stronger leaders, Soldiers, and units and is extremely anti-fragile as a consequence.

“Fix talent management in the Army,” is a constant cry at present.  In a pragmatic sense reengineering how the Army makes best use of its talent is in the best interest of the Army as a corporate entity as well as the people of the Army.   This will mean the Army making best use of ALL skills possessed by all of its people as opposed to only “rock stars.”  This also means a change to the culture of the Army. The Army is in the throes of determining who can get what badge or device, who can serve in the combat arms and so on.  The shift in culture ought to be in determining how we ensure the very best, irrespective of badges and appurtenances, are placed in positions of authority to ensure the Army wins the nation’s wars.  This will also mean coming to appreciate the talents of the awkward tech-savvy person who can simultaneously manage multiple robots on a single screen but is incapable of leading others, and uninterested in “rucking it up.” This is easy to say and will be difficult to do.  This change might require implementation of a form of the NFL’s “Rooney rule.”  Changing the Army culture will require; directed guidance to promotion and selection boards, changes in assignment policies, and even changes to the curricula of the Command and General Staff and War College.  

Lastly, make yet another effort to redesign the equipment acquisition process. We recognize this may be an effort akin to a “forlorn hope,” but this does not mean it is not worth attempting.  We need to embrace rapid equipping and off the shelf technology as the norm, vice the exception. No longer requiring equipment which operates equally well in 127 degrees and 52 below zero, but rather requiring the system be tailor made for the required operating environment would be more efficient, would ensure we are getting modern “just in time” technology and could be cheaper in the long run (although admittedly we have not done the cost estimating needed to say this with any degree of confidence).  While a daunting task, we do have allies in Congress. A number of battles in recent years with Congress have centered on the tension between approved programs in progress being built to system specifications first articulated several years ago vice newly developed technologies on the commercial market today.  While not essentially “anti-fragile” more agile and rapid acquisition processes, akin to the not tongue in cheek replacement pistol solution offered by GEN Milley assists in reestablishing the starting conditions for an anti-fragile Army.  These changes we propose will also lead to a true offset strategy.


We believe that the CSA, CJCS and NSC would be better served figuring out how to change our systems and processes to build a more “anti-fragile” force than trying to predict the future and then investing in technologies designed against that ephemeral future threat.  Summing up, our recommendations for building anti-fragility are as follows: the force must seamlessly integrate coercive and persuasive capabilities, build integrated staffs at the Corps (normal building block of a JTF) that include representative leads from all elements of national power, exploit big data so we have a better understanding of where specialized talents exist both in the force but also the population as a whole, enable the military to access these talents selectively – pull specific individuals from the Guard and Reserve and or the population as a whole if needed, seriously revamp talent management in the Army. Ensure the truly best leaders are selected to lead Army units, irrespective of badge or gender, embrace direct entry, value what someone does more than what they look like in a gym uniform, make yet another effort to redesign the equipment acquisition process, and continue to invest in Mission command vice returning to command and control

As Howard said our task in strategy, concept, doctrine and force development is to ensure we are not too badly wrong.  We know there is a degree of difficulty in predicting the future.  Over the years many intelligent people have grappled with the concept of predicting the future and basing defense policy decisions on these predictions.  The insert below highlights this fact.  Then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sent it along with a note to President George W. Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney on 11 April 2001, writing, “I ran across this piece on the difficulty of predicting the future.  I thought you might find it interesting.”

Thoughts for the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review

  • If you had been a security policymaker in the world’s greatest power in 1900- you would have been a brit, looking warily at your age old enemy, France.
  • By 1910, you would be allied with France and your enemy would be Germany.
  • By 1920, WWI would have been fought and won, and you’d be engaged in a naval arms race with your erstwhile allies, the U.S and Japan.
  • By 1930, naval arms limitation treaties were in effect, the Great Depression was underway, and the defense planning standard said, “no war for ten years.”
  • Nine years later WWII had begun.
  • By 1950, Britain no longer was the world’s greatest power, the Atomic Age had dawned, and a ‘police action’ was underway in Korea
  • Ten years later the political focus was on the ‘missile gap’ the strategic paradigm was shifting from massive retaliation to flexible response, and a few people had heard of Vietnam.
  • By 1970, the peak of our involvement in Vietnam had come and gone, we were beginning détente’ with the Soviets, and we were anointing the shah as our protégé in the Gulf region.
  • By 1980, the Soviets were in Afghanistan, Iran was in the throes of revolution, there was talk of ‘hollow forces’ and a ‘window of vulnerability’ and the US was the greatest creditor the world had ever seen.
  • By 1990, the Soviet Union was within a year of dissolution. American forces in the Desert were on the verge of showing they were anything but hollow, the US had become the greatest debtor nation the world had ever known, and no one had heard of the internet.
  • Ten years later, Warsaw was the capital of a NATO nation, asymmetric threats transcended geography, and the parallel revolutions of information, biotechnology, robotics, nanotechnology, and high density energy sources foreshadowed changes almost beyond forecasting
  • All of which is to say that I’m not sure what 2010 will look like, but I’m sure that it will be very little like we expect so we should plan accordingly

An anti-fragile Army plays to unique American strengths and our national asymmetric advantage.  An anti-fragile Army is the land power component of an all-encompassing offset strategy for 2040 and beyond.


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While I would concur with the author's conclusion that we should focus more on the 'anti-fragility' in being able to adapt and change to whatever threat the future may hold, as opposed to creating systems now, based on what we perceive to be some future threat (as history has born out that we are terrible at forecasting), there lies some serious oversights that are either neglected or not mentioned in the above;

1. Inclusive societies not bound by some over arching nationalism, or sense of oneness, means they will never agree on some perceived threat...either now, or twenty years from now.

2. Globalism (or at least regionalism)will remove an individual nations' will to fight and replace it with whoever's agenda is atop the food chain.

3. Economics will drive this fight. If we think about what the threat is twenty years from now, we first must assume that our current financial system will not be the same thing it is now...because what we have now, is not sustainable. ADM Mullen's statement on this was correct in saying this is our greatest threat to national security.

4. Religion has got to play more of a role in our understanding of the world we live in. The military sloughs it as either an afterthought, or some minor nuance that can be discarded at will, but seeing as it drives a lot of our major conflicts in the world today, we grossly underestimate the political machinations it can be manipulated in contriving. IOW, we try and remain politically correct in addressing say Islam, because we don't want to offend anyone...yet, it is being used as a weapon against us, and until we understand that, and get back to the Jeffersonian toughness on it, we will never be victorious. We may win the battles, but we will lose the war.

I think the authors are generally correct when they assert, "we must build a system which values flexibility and rapid adaptation above all other attributes. A system able to thrive and perform best in an environment of disorder and uncertainty, a system which is “anti-fragile.”

Using Talib's definition of anti-fragile (as described in the article) would not only require the military to a be learning organization, but for its internal and external systems to enable learning to be put into practice. Internal systems include personnel, acquisition, doctrine and training, etc. External systems that influence us are of course political, financial, industrial, and so forth. One could argue many of these systems still cling to the Cold War Era, and have not been adapted for the information age.

Regarding speed of technological change and the 3d off-set strategy. I think it is imperative that we recognize (as the authors point out) that our adversaries will become aware of any new technology quickly, and collaborate with each other using information technology to develop the means and ways to counter it. In China's case, they will simply steal the technology and reverse engineer it, which will neglect our assumed technological advantage.

We can continue on this treadmill (the Red Queen Effect) indefinitely, or until we're broke, or we can put just as much effort in developing creative operational approaches that will enable us to fight more effectively with the forces we have.