Image courtesy of AAII. Image courtesy of AAII.

By Captain Justin Lynch

Unpredictability plays an important role in every form of warfare.  It emerges during any attempt to anticipate the future, an endeavor that often yields inaccurate results, sometimes wildly so.  Given that many of these forecasts come from sound reasoning, experience, and deliberate attempts to gather empirical evidence, leaders can blame the resulting inaccuracies on an intrinsically unpredictable environment. Western militaries have tried to tackle this challenge. Technology has provided a vastly increased information flow to decision makers, creating the expectation that uncertainty and unpredictability will become less significant factors on the battlefield, and that military leaders can forsee the outcome of events. This attitude can lead to a dangerous, false sense of confidence. No matter what observation, communication or information systems militaries use, warfare will remain an inherently unpredictable endeavor. But if leaders attempt to comprehend its causes, structure and effects on operations, they can continue to try to minimize uncertainty while improving their ability to operate in an uncertain and unpredictable environment.

This paper will be part of a three part series about uncertainty and unpredictability in warfare. It will discuss them at the strategic level of war. The second paper will discuss the cause, structure, and effects of unpredictability at the operational level of counterinsurgencies by viewing states as complex adaptive systems. The third paper will discuss uncertainty and unpredictability at the platoon and company level, both for linear warfare and counterinsurgencies.

Before exploring the subject further, the relevant terms need definitions. The different levels of war are policy, the strategic level, the operational level and the tactical level. Policy is the overall aim of a state. General Zinni provided one of the best descriptions of the operational art and operational level of war. “An operational design is the conceptual approach that aims to achieve the political and strategic objectives on the ground. You define the problem and centers of gravity, and then analyze the objectives and other elements that frame the best way to understand and tackle the mission… After you structure the design… the planning begins. The result is an action program that will implement the elements of the design.”[i] The action program is the operational plan, or the operational level of war. Military Strategy lies between the operational level and policy as the way to use force to achieve political objectives, or the method of accomplishing the same. The strategic level is where the dialogue between military and political leaders about means, methods and objectives should take place. The tactical level of war is the actual fight, doctrinally conducted below brigade level in the American military.

Uncertainty and unpredictability also need to be defined. Uncertainty is a lack of comprehension of the operating environment, either due to a lack of precise knowledge, an inability to understand what data is relevant, or the possession of incorrect data. In reference to military strategy, unpredictability is an inability to forecast the outcome of actions, or weakly perceived causal links. None of the abovementioned definitions are universal standards. They should be used instead to facilitate conversation.

The Historical View of Chance

Scientists’ and philosophers’ understating of predictability and certainty have developed over time, providing war theorists a changing paradigm from which to view their subject. Even with a changing perspective, war theorists from classical modern to modern times have consistently warned of the impact of chance.  The sixth century Byzantine emperor Maurice cautioned his generals in Strategikon that pitched battle is “a demonstration more of luck than of bravery.”[ii] In the sixteenth century, Machiavelli stated in The Prince that “I think it may be the case that Fortune is the mistress of one half of our actions, and yet leaves the control of the other half, or a little less, to ourselves.  And I would liken her to one of those wild torrents which, when angry, overflow the plains, sweep away trees and houses, and carry off soil from one bank to throw it down upon the other.”[iii] The most famous philosopher of war, Clausewitz, said “War is the realm of chance. No other human activity gives it greater scope: no other has such incessant and varied dealings with this intruder. Chance makes everything uncertain and interferes with the whole course of events.” And that “War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.” [iv]

Moving later into the 19th and into the 20th centuries, physicists and mathematicians also had a great deal to say about chance. In the early 1800s, Laplace popularized scientific determinism, the belief that humanity could theoretically use a combination of comprehension of the laws of physics and knowledge of the complete state of the universe to determine everything that would ever happen.  In 1926, Werner Heisenberg refuted that concept with his uncertainty theory, stating that the more precisely the position of a particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa. Consequently, scientists cannot know every relevant thing about a particle, and therefore cannot perfectly predict its future. Heisenberg intended for the theory to apply to quantum mechanics, but the lesson holds true for war as well.

The mathematician and philosopher of science Poincare elaborated on the nature of chance, claiming that it takes three forms.  They are random events, or noise, similar to Brownian motion, that are part of the nature of the world; the magnification of miniscule events; and human caused error from sampling bias and analytical blindness.[v]

Further into the 20th century, as the American military used offset strategies to attempt to overcome Soviet numerical superiority, it became popular to attempt to reduce uncertainty and unpredictability in warfare. American doctrine spoke of ideas like information dominance, information superiority, decision superiority, and made claims to a Revolution in Military Affairs. The heart of the Revolution in Military Affairs was “tell me where I am, where my buddies are, and where the enemy is; if you provide me with this awareness of the battlefield along with precision weapons I will prevail even if outnumbered.[vi] After the Revolution in Military Affairs, information systems and an accompanying desire for highly informed decision making became part of the military’s culture. The Department of Defense provided an ever-growing number of unmanned aerial vehicles to provide as close to constant overwatch as possible, ground sensors, and networked information sharing systems like TIGR and the ubiquitous COF. The Director of the Defense Initiative Group, speaking in November 2014 about the developing American third offset strategy, stated that “the current US technological advantage comes from battlespace awareness, a detailed knowledge of friend and foe on the battlefield. Further advancing the gains in battlespace awareness achieved in the last three decades will be a critical enabler in both high-end conflicts… and in low-end conflicts.”[vii]

Concepts like information superiority and tools like networked intelligence are not necessarily bad, as long as they are not accompanied by the belief that uncertainty and unpredictability can be eliminated from the battlefield, or even reduced to where they do not have a major impact on war.  That sort of sophistry leaves commanders either overconfident about their predictions, or hesitant to make decisions without unrealistic amounts of information.

Causes of Uncertainty and Unpredictability

There are a huge number of sources for strategic uncertainty. Uncertainty at the tactical and operational levels of war can increase strategic uncertainty. The inherent limits of knowledge, such as the difficulty of proving a negative or the limitations of sensory apparatus, add their weight. There are many more. This article will not examine every cause of strategic uncertainty, or even most causes, but instead will be limited to examining the challenges of linking operational efforts to strategic outcomes.

Military strategy plans the use of force to achieve political objectives. Militaries reach their political objectives when their enemy decides to follow a desired outcome. Determining how much force to apply, and what method will convince their enemy to do as desired is difficult. To eliminate this type of uncertainty, planners have to know who will make the policy decision and what it will take to make them decide a particular way. This information is rarely available inside the bureaucracy of a state, much less to its enemies. Instead, military and political leaders must make educated guesses about their enemy’s decision making process. If they guess incorrectly, achieving the desired operational outcomes may not result in strategic victory.

Strategic Methods

Planners can choose between a variety of strategic methods to apply force. Destruction of the enemy military arose as the method of choice from Napoleonic and industrial warfare. Clausewitz defined war as “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.”[viii] Armies often try to force states to “do [their] will” by destroying their military, leaving them unable to resist, left with only the option to acquiesce to whatever demands were made of them. The belief in Clausewitz’s true aim of warfare makes sense from a military perspective. States resist force with their military. Bereft of this, their only option is to surrender or face the consequences of their enemy’s unopposed force. Napoleon targeted enemy militaries during the majority of his campaigns. Most states fighting in World War I focused on the destruction of enemy armies. But this oversimplifies the prosecution of war. Militaries are difficult to decisively destroy, and even if they are, that does not leave the state incapable of resistance. The population can resist, even without the power of a conventional military force.

States can also pursue strategic victory by punishing or threatening civilian populations. Medieval armies often avoided pitched battles that risked the destruction of expensive armies, and instead focused on razing and looting villages. In a more recent example, frustrated with his pursuit of Hood’s Army of Tennessee after the fall of Atlanta during the American Civil War, Sherman turned his focus towards Georgia’s civilian population and infrastructure. “If we can march a well-appointed Army right through [Jefferson Davis’s] territory…I can make the march, and make Georgia howl.” And “we are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make the old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.”[ix] Early air power theorists believed in this method as well. Douhet, who wrote during World War I and the interwar period, was convinced that strategic bombing would quickly break the will of the people, making it impossible for a state to continue pursuing war.[x]

States can attempt to create strategic victory by seizing their enemy’s capital. Napoleon and Hitler both attempted to seize Moscow. The Allies raced to Berlin to defeat the Nazis. The North Vietnamese Army seized Saigon. More recently, the United States attempted to defeat Iraq by racing to Baghdad. In a similar vein, armies can seize territory, either to claim as their own or to use as a bargaining chip.

Another option is Fabian warfare. This method is named after the Roman general Fabius Maximus, who repeatedly refused Hannibal battle in Italy while exhausting his supplies and Army. Fabius and his kindred spirits pursue victory through maneuver, trickery, and exhaustion while avoiding costly and unpredictable battles. The wars of maneuver in the 17th and early 18th centuries so lambasted by Clausewitz were examples of Fabian warfare.[xi]

Affecting Enemy Decision Makers

The strategic methods listed above are by no means a comprehensive list of the options available. But even with such a short list, choosing the method that will cause the relevant decision maker to acquiesce is difficult. Even if states know who to persuade, there is no reliable way to predict how an individual or a group will react to a particular stimulus. Prediction requires a rational actor with the same data and the same decision making process as those making the prediction, none of which are particularly likely to exist. Small inaccuracies about the enemy decision making process can result in gigantic changes to campaigns. Seizing the capital can cause the government to relocate and continue. Destroying the government can simply cause the population to rebel.

These changes have caused military expeditions trouble in the past. After Spain’s relationship with Napoleonic France deteriorated, Napoleon replaced the Spanish monarchy with his older brother Joseph in 1808. The Spanish people responded with la petite guerre, creating the Spanish Ulcer that sapped France’s strength and drew attention away from other pressing matters.[xii] Instead of a friendly government, Napoleon’s forces encountered a violent population.

During the Algerian War of Independence, the French paratroopers destroyed the National Liberation Front during an ugly counter-guerilla campaign. Their operational victory initially seemed like a strategic victory. But the French military had only destroyed their organized enemy, and had not convinced the Algerian population to stop fighting. The Algerians rose up again, turning an operational victory into a strategic defeat for the French as the French population, horrified by the techniques their military had used to defeat the FLN, decided not to support the war.[xiii]

A similar story played out decades later in Iraq. In 2003, the United States quickly destroyed the Iraqi military and seized Baghdad, in what was one of the most impressive conventional victories in recent times. It seemed like a recipe for strategic victory, and resulted in the famous mission accomplished moment. The population, unsatisfied and uncontrolled by the US occupation and interim government, gradually rose up in an insurgency. Those events, sometimes referred to as snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, instead show the difficulty of linking operational goals with strategic victory. The military accomplished its stated plan, but it was not a plan that convinced the key decision makers, in this case a combination of Sunni and Shia leaders, former Baathists, and the Iraqi population as a whole, to accept the desired American end state.


Uncertainty and unpredictability are intrinsic parts of war. They can be mitigated through intelligent, deliberate analysis, and the use of the right type of technology. But overestimating battlefield awareness can be tempting when so much information is at hand, resulting in poor planning, then unnecessarily make-shift execution when events go awry. Planners need to place an emphasis on flexibility over precise planning, allowing  a realistic assessment of their acknowledged level  of certainty to influence their plans. Understanding the cause and extent of uncertainty and unpredictability is just as important as not overestimating certainty. At the strategic level of war, this can mean deliberately targeting the enemy decision making process, not just planning the type of strategic method for which one’s forces are best suited. Once they understand unpredictability and uncertainty, leaders can understand where to acknowledge chance, how much chance to accept, when to be deterministic, and how to work effectively in an unavoidably unpredictable environment. When they can do this, they will be more successful in any type of warfare.

Captain Justin Lynch graduated the United States Military Academy with a B.S. in Military History and commissioned in the Army.  He has served as a platoon leader in Afghanistan, a company executive officer in Iraq, an assistant operations officer, a company commander, and is currently the training officer at the Northern Warfare Training Center.  He has written for InfantrySmall Wars Journal and War on the Rocks.

1. Tony Zinni, Before the First Shots are Fired (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014), 173.

2. Beatrice Heuser, The Evolution of Strategy (New York: Cambridge university Press, 2010), 90.

3. Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 119-120.

4. Carl Von Clausewitz, On War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 101.

5. Henri Poincare, The Value of Science Essential Writings of Henri Poincare (New York: Random house, 2001), 416-418.

6. Robert Tomes, US Defense Strategy from Vietnam to Operation Iraqi Freedom (Oxon: Routledge, 2007), 141-142.

7. Andrew Hunter, “The Role of Maritime and Air Power in DOD’s Third Offset Strategy” (statement, testimony before the US House of Representatives Committee on Armed Services, Washington D.C., December 2, 2014).

8. Carl Von Clausewitz, On War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 75.

9. James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 808-809.

10. Giulio Douhet, “The Command of the Air,” in Roots of Strategy Book 4, ed. David Jablonsky (Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 1999), 275-307.

11. Beatrice Heuser, The Evolution of Strategy (New York: Cambridge university Press, 2010), 89-91.

12. David Bell, The First Total War (Boston: Mariner Books, 2007), 250.

13. Alistain Horne, A Savage War of Peace (New York: New York Review of Books, 1977).