Clausewitz, Nonlinearity and the Unpredictability of War

Saturday, November 22nd, 2014

Classical mathematics concentrated on linear equations for a sound pragmatic reason, Ian Stewart noted: it couldn’t solve anything else. Modern chaos theorists like to emphasize this point.

James Clerk Maxwell noted another chaotic concept over a century ago:

When the state of things is such that an infinitely small variation of the present state will alter only by an infinitely small quantity the state at some future time, the condition of the system, whether at rest or in motion, is said to be stable; but when an infinitely small variation in the present state may bring about a finite difference in the state of the system in a finite time, the condition of the system is said to be unstable. It is manifest that the existence of unstable conditions renders impossible the prediction of future events, if our knowledge of the present state is only approximate, and not accurate…. it is a metaphysical doctrine that from the same antecedents follow the same consequents. No one can gainsay this. But it is not of much use in a world like this, in which the same antecedents never again concur, and nothing ever happens twice… The physical axiom which has a somewhat similar aspect is “That from like antecedents follow like consequents.” But here we have passed from sameness to likeness, from absolute accuracy to a more or less rough approximation.

In describing war, Clausewitz resorts to a striking metaphor of nonlinearity:

In the last section of Chapter 1, Book One, he claims that war is “a remarkable trinity” (eine wunderliche Dreifaltigkeit) composed of (a) the blind, natural force of violence, hatred, and enmity among the masses of people; (b) chance and probability, faced or generated by the commander and his army; and (c) war’s rational subordination to the policy of the government.(28) Clausewitz compares these three tendencies to three varying legal codes interacting with each other (the complexity of which would have been obvious to anyone who lived under the tangled web of superimposed legal systems in the German area before, during, and after the upheavals of the Napoleonic years). Then he concludes with a visual metaphor: “Our task therefore is to develop a theory that maintains a balance between these three tendencies, like an object suspended between three magnets.” (29) What better image could he have conjured to convey his insight into the profoundly interactive nature of war than this emblem of contemporary nonlinear science? (30)

Although the passage is usually taken to mean only that we should not overemphasize any one element in the trinity, Clausewitz’s metaphor also implicitly confronts us with the chaos inherent in a nonlinear system sensitive to initial conditions. The demonstration usually starts with a magnet pendulum hanging over one magnet; when the pendulum is pulled aside and let go, it comes to rest quickly. Positioned over two equally powerful magnets, the pendulum swings toward first one, then the other, and still settles into a rest position as it is captured by one of the points of attraction. But when a pendulum is released over three equidistant and equally powerful magnets, it moves irresolutely to and fro as it darts among the competing points of attraction, sometimes kicking out high to acquire added momentum that allows it to keep gyrating in a startlingly long and intricate pattern. Eventually, the energy dissipates under the influence of friction in the suspension mountings and the air, bringing the pendulum’s movement asymptotically to rest. The probability is vanishingly small that an attempt to repeat the process would produce exactly the same pattern. Even such a simple system is complex enough for the details of the trajectory of any actual “run” to be, effectively, irreproducible.

My claim here is not that Clausewitz somehow anticipated today’s “chaos theory,” but that he perceived and articulated the nature of war as an energy-consuming phenomenon involving competing and interactive factors, attention to which reveals a messy mix of order and unpredictability. His final metaphor of Chapter 1, Book One captures this understanding perfectly. The pendulum and magnets system is orderly, because it is a deterministic system that obeys Newton’s laws of motion; in the “pure theory” (with an idealized frictionless pendulum), we only need to know the relevant quantities accurately enough to know its future. But in the real world, “a world like this” in Maxwell’s phrase, it is not possible to measure the relevant initial conditions (such as position) accurately enough to replicate them in order to get the same pattern a second time, because all physical measurements are approximations limited by the instrument and standard of measurement. And what is needed is infinitely fine precision, for an immeasurably small change in the initial conditions can produce a significantly different pattern. Nor is it possible to isolate the system from all possible influences around it, and that environment will have changed since the measurements were taken. Anticipation of the overall kind of pattern is possible, but quantitative predictability of the actual trajectory is lost.

There are a number of interconnected reasons for the pendulum and magnets picture to be emblematic for Clausewitz, and all of them go to the heart of the problem of understanding what he meant by a “theory” of war. First of all, the image is not that of any kind of Euclidean triangle or triad, despite its understanding as such by many readers. Given his attacks on the formulation of rigidly “geometric” principles of war by some of his contemporaries, such an image would have been highly inapt. (31) Clausewitz’s message is not that there are three passive points, but three interactive points of attraction that are simultaneously pulling the object in different directions and forming complex interactions with each other. In fact, even the standard translation given above is too static, for the German original conveys a sense of on-going motion: “Die Aufgabe ist also, dass sich die Theorie zwischen diesen drei Tendenzen wie zwischen drei Anziehungspunkten schwebend erhalte.” (32) Literally: “The task is therefore that the theory would maintain itself floating among these three tendencies as among three points of attraction.” The connotations of schweben involve lighter-than-air, sensitive motion; a balloon or a ballerina “schwebt.” The image is no more static than that of wrestlers. The nature of war should not be conceived as a stationary point among the members of the trinity, but as a complex trajectory traced among them.

Secondly, Clausewitz’s employment of magnetism is a typical resort to “high-tech” imagery. The relationship of magnetism to electricity was just beginning to be clarified in a way that made it a cutting-edge concept for its time. It is quite possible that he actually observed a demonstration of a pendulum and three magnets as envisioned in the metaphor, for he was a man of considerable scientific literacy. (33) His famous incorporation of the notion of “friction,” also a high-technology concept for his day, is another example of this characteristic of his thought.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the metaphor offers us insight into a mind realistically willing to abandon the search for simplicity and analytical certainty where they are not obtainable. The use of this image displays an intuitive grasp of dynamic processes that can be isolated neither from their context nor from chance, and are thus characterized by inherent complexities and probabilities. It encodes Clausewitz’s sense of war in a realistic dynamical system, not an idealized analytical abstraction.

FPS Action Movies

Friday, November 21st, 2014

First-person-shooter games came out before the modern action-camera craze, but it turns out the GoPro footage of a practical-shooting stage looks just like a video game.

Now we’re getting first-person-shooter action movies:

He fired all six!

Friday, November 21st, 2014

For a long time, almost all cops carried revolvers. This is what happened when Illinois State Trooper Ken Kaas got into a shootout with a gunman armed with a semi-automatic shotgun:

Each was using his vehicle, successfully, for cover. Midway through the firefight, the gunman suddenly stood up and left his cover, rushing toward trooper Kaas with his shotgun up and a wolfish grin on his face. Ken shot him in the midriff and the criminal fell. It was over.

The suspect survived. In the “prison ward” of the hospital, guards overheard him talking with his appointed attorney. The exasperated lawyer asked him why he had left a position of safety to practically walk into the muzzle of the trooper’s waiting gun. “He fired six shots!” the recovering would-be cop-killer exclaimed. “I swear to God! He fired all six!”

As carefully as he kept count, the criminal didn’t know that Illinois troopers carried Smith & Wesson 9mm semi-automatics. Ken had shot him down with the seventh round in his Model 39, most certainly averting his own death, since the trooper could never have reloaded an empty six-shot revolver fast enough to stop the deadly charge.

In the late 1970s, Mas Ayoob did a study of shootings during the first decade in which Illinois troopers had semi-autos instead of revolvers:

I was able to identify 13 who had survived with those guns,when they probably would have died if they’d had the old six-guns. Most involved gun grabs where the troopers were saved because the bad guy couldn’t find the safety catch when he got control of the gun, or the trooper had pressed the magazine release during the struggle and deactivated the round in the chamber via the S&W Model 39’s magazine disconnector safety. But four of those saves were absolutely firepower based.

Viewshed

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

The Naval Research Lab has developed mission planning software for snipers:

By asking the questions, what can I see, and from where can I be seen, the tool graphically indicates areas visible to observers at known positions in a 3-dimensional scene, as well as positions from which these observers can be seen.

The software uses digital 3-dimensional terrain data to determine and display these locations. Additional features include custom range rings/grids, multiple viewpoints, limited field-of-view angles, threat coverage and protectee scenarios. This utility can also be used for geospatial intelligence and determining viewsheds (an area of land, water, or other environmental element that is visible to the human eye from a fixed vantage point) in architectural design.

Sniper-RT

The distinguishing feature of these software tools from currently available commercial line-of-sight (LOS) software applications is the true 3-dimensional line-of-sight capability inside buildings, through windows, doors, tunnels, towers, power lines, vehicles, ships, aircraft, etc. All surfaces are color-coded, including interiors, under bridges and overhangs, vertical surfaces, etc.

War at a Very Intimate Level

Monday, November 10th, 2014

Flying a remotely piloted aircraft presents you with war at a very intimate level:

Because of the length of time that you’re over any certain area you’re able to engage in lengthy communications with individuals on the ground. You build relationships. Things are a little more personal in an RPA than in an aircraft that’s up for just a few hours. When you’re talking to that twenty year old with the rifle for twenty-plus hours at a time, maybe for weeks, you build a relationship. And with that, there’s an emotional attachment to those individuals.

You see them on a screen. That can only happen because of the amount of time you’re on station. I have a buddy who was actually able to make contact with his son’s friend over in the AOR [area of responsibility]. If you don’t think that’s going to make you focus, then I don’t know what will.

[...]

This is a strange dynamic in RPA operations. I think it makes people more focused on the mission. Does it cause you to be more emotionally invested? Absolutely. That’s the human aspect of it. That is the man-in-the-loop aspect of it. In some ways drone use is more human from the pilot’s perspective, which is kind of ironic.

Flying an RPA, you start to understand people in other countries based on their day-to-day patterns of life. A person wakes up, they do this, they greet their friends this way, etc. You become immersed in their life. You feel like you’re a part of what they’re doing every single day. So, even if you’re not emotionally engaged with those individuals, you become a little bit attached. I’ve learned about Afghan culture this way. You see their interactions. You’re studying them. You see everything.

In a traditional manned aircraft you drop ordinance and leave. You know that there was a big bang, but that’s it. With an RPA, you see these individuals and their interactions with people prior to an engagement and after the engagement. We see the aftermath. We see what happens next. That more than anything draws an emotional response.

They are human beings, right? That is the bottom line, so it affects you to watch the impact of a kinetic strike. You have to provide the battle damage assessment. We do that quite often and it can take a long time. You might even watch the burial and see the ceremony. We’re not disconnected from what’s happening. We’re not playing videogames. With RPAs, you grasp your enormous level of responsibility. You witness it all.

Targeting with RPAs is more intimate. It is war at a very intimate level.

Libyan Troops Go Wild

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014

I don’t know why the British decided to train Libyan troops in England, but it was a bad decision — a very, very bad decision:

On Tuesday, however, the British Ministry of Defense announced that all 300 trainees would be sent home early after a string of sexual assaults were perpetrated against the residents of Cambridgeshire, culminating in the alleged gang rape of a young man.

Britain had pledged to train 2,000 Libyan recruits in total, but that commitment is now under review.

Libyan Army cadets stationed at Bassingbourn barracks are alleged to have left the military camp on raids into the nearby university town of Cambridge, where a spate of sexual attacks were reported on the cobbled streets around the ancient college buildings.

Two of the recruits have admitted to two sexual assaults and a bicycle theft in Market Square right at the center of the old town. They also pleaded guilty to threatening a police office. Another cadet, aged 18, has been charged with three sexual assaults.

In total, police have investigated reports of 11 sexual assaults in central Cambridge within nine days. The most serious of those took place on Christ’s Piece, which is between Jesus and Emmanuel colleges, on Sunday October 26. A man in his early 20s allegedly was approached by two Libyan soldiers who subjected him to a serious sexual assault. Moktar Ali Saad Mahmoud, 33, and Ibrahim Abogutila, 22, were charged with rape on Monday.

The allegations of sexual assault came after a third of the recruits had already withdrawn from the training program. It has been reported that up to 20 of the cadets have applied for asylum, although the Ministry of Defense and Home Office refuse to discuss those cases.

Wow. Just wow.

GoPro Tanks

Tuesday, November 4th, 2014

The Syrians have been attaching GoPro cameras to their Russian-built tanks and recording videos of their operations, where they use the tanks like close air support:

They operate out of a base (00:04 Assembling a column), like some sort of cheap terrestrial Apaches, and proceed to various missions like escorting teams of infantry in IFVs (04:55 Crossing enemy territory) or covering their “beachheads” in various built-up sites. (10:00 Dropping troops on the enemy’s rear).

Instead of Hellfire rockets, they have the 122 mm main gun, which is always moving to cover arcs of fire, like a rifleman on the advance.  The drivers seem to know their business, never hesitating to trundle down alleys, scoot past possible ambushes and roar over fields.

You may, like myself, have been somewhat astonished to see so little infantry in play.  That’s because the infantry is apparently not used for direct combat.  Rather they are used as spotters for the tanks.  You will note how the the tanks flit from spot to spot and fire directly on this window or that.  They are not shooting at random, but rather under the specific instruction of spotters.

For although Jobar seems empty,  it is full of eyes. From other GoPro videos it will be evident that the high risk buildings and ground level structures are infested with sniper hides, ATGM nests and roving bands of infantrymen with RPGs working on both sides of the fight. Possibly there may even be factions among the rebels.

It appears to be very difficult for unprotected to move openly along the roads.  Thus, the Syrian troops prefer to travel in IFVs escorted by tanks.  The tanks themselves are plated over with explosive reactive armor tiles (ERA) against the omnipresent danger of ATGMs, which in some other GoPro videos, hit the tanks and cook them off with spectacular results.

In the video above, the tanks are used to deploy spotters around a rebel pocket.  The IFVs are used like amtracs while the tanks are employed like gunfire support ships.  Then, when the infantry advance to contact, they radio the whereabouts of rebels to the tanks, which blast them with their main guns or shoot through the walls with their coax.

Playing The Star-Spangled Banner with a Gun

Thursday, October 30th, 2014

Do you hear that? It sounds like freedom!

The Canadian Parliament Active Killer

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

When the active killer in Canada turned active, events happened quickly:

Look at the surveillance video again.  Do you see how fast the killer is running?  The entire event including the assassination of Cpl. Cirillo, the carjacking of a government minister, the struggle with an unarmed security guard and exchanging shots with armed security staff and police likely took less than five minutes.  If your only plan is “wait for the police,” you won’t be a player in a scenario like this.  It is likely to be over by the time the cops arrive.

The RCMP witnessed the car jacking and were in pursuit of the killer as he entered the Parliament Building.  They still didn’t get there in time to protect the legislators!  You will be on your own for some time if you find yourself in the middle of something like this.

One other comment I should make is that the killer was running FAST.  If you are thinking “I’ll just run away,” you should probably rethink that plan as well.  Make an honest assessment of your abilities.  Could you outrun the killer?  I know I couldn’t.

New from TrackingPoint

Saturday, October 25th, 2014

TrackingPoint recently introduced the Shotglass:

The Shotglass can be used to aim and fire the weapon from complete concealment cover. It can record video. It’s most likely use in the real world, though, is as a way for the spotter to direct the sniper on target. We expect we will see more of these used with TrackingPoint’s long-range bolt action rifles than with its ARs, but time will tell.

Tracking Point Shotglass

The company now offers three ARs, including a .300 WinMag model:

Tracking Point AR in 300 WinMag

Lone Survivor

Friday, October 24th, 2014

When the Lone Survivor movie came out, I read up on Operation Red Wings, but I only just got around to watching the movie.

The original plan kicked off with a six-man team of Marine Scout Snipers walking in under cover of darkness, but, because SOF air elements were going to be involved in later stages, that turned into a four-man team of SEALs inserting by helicopter — something the original planners thought would compromise the mission by revealing coalition presence in this area.

The movie depicts all the SEALs as fully kitted out and visibly encumbered, but they’re not wearing helmets, and it’s not clear that they’re wearing body armor, either. Two are armed with suppressed sniper rifles, while the other two have carbines with grenade launchers.

They make their way to a decent vantage point from which they can spot and indentify their (surveillance) target, Ahmad Shah, and his surprisingly large “army” of fighters.

They’re just out of rifle range and aren’t on a mission to take out Shah themselves. One of the spotters asks, “You make that shot?” and the sniper replies, “Negative. Wouldn’t have authority anyway.”

(I couldn’t help but wonder, what could four designated marksmen, all armed with higher-caliber semi-auto rifles, do to a few dozen insurgents caught in the open like that, before they could respond?)

In the mountainous, wooded terrain, the SEALs have “comms” problems and can’t report back their findings, call in support, or request an extraction — but they came expecting comms problems, so they don’t panic. On the other hand, they don’t seem to have a solid plan for handling the local situation without support.

In particular, they don’t seem to have a solid plan for handling a few locals stumbling upon their position. No one on the team speaks the local language, and no one has a plan for dealing with semi-hostile locals. When you don’t have a plan, you don’t make good decisions. I’m not sure what a good decision would have been, but both shooting the locals and letting them go have obvious downsides. I suppose they didn’t bring zip-ties? Paracord? A few extra hours could have made a big difference. Letting the enemy know you’re there, and that there are only four of you, seems like something you should put off as long as possible.

By the time the pursuers catch up to them, the SEALs are deep in rough, wooded terrain — where they do not have clear lines of sight for long-range shots.

One thing the movie drives home is just how physical modern combat can be. The SEALs take a beating from scrambling through the rocky, wooded terrain, take some terrible falls, and then, on top of that, get cut to pieces by fragments from RPGs, mortar bombs, ricochets, etc. And then they actually get shot. The through-and-through shots to the arms and legs don’t seem to slow them down much, but it all adds up.

If the film starts to feel more “Hollywood” by the end, that’s because it diverges from the book — and reality.

If you “enjoyed” Black Hawk Down, you should see Lone Survivor, too.

Get There First

Friday, October 24th, 2014

It took five or six Shermans to take out a single Tiger tank — or did it?

Examining 98 engagements in the Ardennes, Army researchers discovered something rather interesting.

The study concluded that the single most important factor in tank-versus-tank fighting was which side spotted the enemy first, engaged first and hit first. This gave the defender a distinct advantage, since the defending tanks were typically stationary in a well-chosen ambush position. …

The side that saw first and hit first usually had the advantage in the first critical minute … the overall record suggests that the Sherman was 3.6 times more effective than the Panther … popular myths that that Panthers enjoyed a 5-to-1 kill ratio against Shermans or that it took five Shermans to knock out a Panther have no basis in historical records. The outcome of tank-versus-tank fighting was more often determined by the tactical situation than the technical situation.

Since the Shermans were more numerous and mechanically reliable, they typically got to the key terrain first. They kept going whereas the Panthers and Tigers could only road march short distances from their transporters and railheads. Thus, in most engagements the Shermans could get set up because there were so many of them and they tended to run reliably.

If there was a hill to be grabbed, a road to be blocked, the Shermans would get there first. By contrast, the German tanks were mechanically fragile. For all their power they were on average, late to the party. Therefore, on a fluid battlefield the Shermans would almost always arrive first on the key terrain and bushwhack the panzers.

It’s Impossible to Build on Failure

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

It’s impossible to build on failure, Tony Robbins says:

You build only on success. I turned around the United States Army pistol shooting program. I made certain that the first time someone shot a pistol, instead of shooting the .45 caliber pistol from 50 feet away — which is what they were starting these guys out at — I brought the target literally five feet in front of the students. I wouldn’t let them fire the gun until they had rehearsed over and over again the exact perfect shooting form for two hours. By the time they held the gun, they had every technique perfected, so when they fired, they succeeded. BAM!

At first the Army thought it was stupid, but it put ignition into the students’ brain — “WOW! I’ve succeeded!” — versus shooting bullets into the ceiling or floor the first few times. It created an initial sense of certainty.

I believe in setting people up to win. Many instructors believe in setting them up to fail so they stay humble and they are more motivated. I disagree radically. There is a time for that but not in the beginning. People’s actions are very limited when they think they have limited potential. If you have limited belief, you are going to use limited potential, and you are going to take limited action.

Projected Recoilless Improvised Grenade

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

The Projected Recoilless Improvised Grenade (PRIG) was a shoulder fired weapon developed by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) for use against lightly armored vehicles:

The launcher consisted of a length of steel tube adapted to accept a charge of black powder in the middle by way of a capped off perforated pipe welded in place. The charge is wired to a simple circuit, often utilizing a light bulb holder as an arming switch and fired by a long arm micro-switch which serves as a trigger.

PRIG Diagram

The warhead itself consists of a standard food tin filled with 600g of Semtex, complete with a frontal explosive lens to create an armor piercing shaped charge. This round was designed to explode on impact, being an adaption of an earlier used improvised stick-grenade known as a ‘drogue bomb’ which was sometimes fitted with a trash bag to act as a guide parachute.

PRIG Round

To the rear of the launcher was placed the ‘counter-shot’, incorporated to utilize the recoilless principle (Reduced to as little as a .22lr rifle’s, according to some!). This consisted of two packets of digestive tea biscuits, wrapped in j-cloth.

PRIG Counter-Shot Digestive Biscuits

Welcome to Our Reality

Friday, October 17th, 2014

How do the Swedes recruit soldiers? Like this: