Rubik’s Cubes and Contemporary Warfighting

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

One of the most important parts of being a strategist is understanding the environment.  To have a grasp on the zeitgeist sharpens analysis and focuses the mind on what “is” and what might come. My contribution to this is the assessment that the contemporary warfighting environment is dominated by what I call “Rubik’s Cube” conflicts.  This is an adaptation of Emile Simpson’s reference to Iraq as a “mosaic” conflict (see War from the Ground Up, p. 95). The term “mosaic” is not quite right as it indicates a static environment, whereas I see a more dynamic environment. My definition of a Rubik’s Cube conflict:

Any conflict or war which features at least one belligerent cohort fighting for common military objectives while motivated by multiple and (potentially) shifting social, ethnic, cultural, religious, or political causes.

Some will see this is similar to Frank Hoffman’s (great) work on hybrid warfare, particularly owing to one big commonality: defining a multifaceted enemy.  Hoffman’s definition of a “hybrid threat”:

Any adversary that simultaneously and adaptively employs a fused mix of conventional weapons, irregular tactics, terrorism, and criminal behavior in the battle space to obtain their political objectives.

These are two separate attempts to define the contemporary warfighting environment. Hoffman defines the ways in which hybrid threats employ force – modes of warfare.  My effort is to define what appears to be a shift in the ends – the disaggregation of battlefield actors motivations for war.  For example, during the Cold War, the vast majority of battlefield actors motivations could be traced directly to either Uncle Sam (the U.S.) or Uncle Joe (the U.S.S.R.).  The catalyst often came from Washington or Moscow. 

This is not the case today.  Moreover, this disaggregation has led to a corresponding increase in the number of armed groups.  So instead of fighting the monolithic Soviets, a well-traveled American military officer might recently have faced: Sunni insurgents, Shia militias, international terror organizations (not to mention Al Qaeda affiliates), the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, as well as a Regionally Aligned Forces mission to train African military forces to hunt Joseph Kony.  All these actors have different motivations for fighting; all could be considered a different colored tile (while on the same face) of these Rubik’s Cube conflicts.

Which raises an important question – how well has the U.S. done in this paradigm?

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