A New Plan: Using Complexity In the Modern World

Eisenhower’s sentiment that “in preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable”[1] is remarkably similar to that of Von Moltke the Elder that “no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.”[2] If this was true in the 19th and 20th centuries, surely it is worth reflecting on in contemporary times, especially when we consider the importance placed on planning processes within our defense institutions.

In an earlier article, I argued that due to the fissures within the strategic environment Australia and other western democracies needed to adopt a political warfare approach to achieve their desired political objectives. My remedies focused on implementing institutional, structural, and cultural proposals at the so-called strategic level. I called for a “strategy of long term sustainable warfare through integrating government’s capabilities into a wider strategy rather than focusing on war itself.”

But if we need to incorporate other elements of national power into our strategic approach, we might need to review how we design military plans. Or at least, we need to redesign planning tools and processes for integrating military operations into broader national efforts. Few tools exist for coordinating elements of national power; in fact, it is usually the military who has the only complex planning capacity within government. This makes it more appealing for governments to look at military processes with some level of confidence. Militaries prepare for operations through the application of operational art, "linking resources (means) and tactical actions (ways) to the attainment of national and military strategic end states and objectives (ends), while taking into account possible costs (risk)."[3]

The modern way of applying this art is through operational design—a schematic that represents the commander’s method of prosecuting a campaign. "Operational design must help the commander provide enough structure to an ill-structured problem so that planning can lead to effective action toward strategic objectives."[4]

Australian doctrine notes that military operations have always been structurally complexmade up of a system of many parts interacting in a predictable and usually linear way.[5] But contemporary military operations are also interactively complex, made up of many parts interacting with the environment in many possible ways and changing their form significantly over time. Often called complex adaptive systems, they are difficult to predict, and effects of actions cannot be taken for granted. But the 'directing staff' solution to resolving the interactive complexity is to deal with these as a traditional structural problem.

To force a linear structural approach to a complex adaptive problem, doctrine requires "first developing a detailed situational understanding, which includes developing an awareness not only of the components of the system, but also of their interactions with one another and of the functioning of the system as an integrated whole."[6]  Then a problem frame assures that the right problem has been accurately identified within the ill-structured problem. Planners then define an end state as "the political and/or military situation to be attained" before plotting tangible military elements of the end state as operational objectives to be achieved along the way.[7]

Example of Operational Design. ADDP 5.0, 2-1

This approach takes the traditional ends/ways/means strategy of the industrial era and attempts to contend with the modern environment by obtaining information dominance through understanding an ill-structured problem. But as good as your intelligence might be, if you receive an assessment that predicts the unpredictable, you would be wise to question the sourcing. While one might sympathize with Eisenhower's notion that planning has its own virtues divorced of the result, the reliance on the predictability of inputs and outputs of a linear equation are erroneous. With complexity, outcomes become disproportionate and hence non-linear approaches are required.[8]

If war is a continuation of politics, war must have the same randomness and individuality as the human condition. Wang and Qiao, the authors of Unrestricted Warfare, suggest that planning which seeks to "tie a war to a set of ideas within a predetermined plan is little short of absurdity or naïveté." They instead recommend a circular process, with feedback loops and revisions, to keep the initiative.[9] This approach may appear counter-productive. instead of marching linearly toward an end state, a circular schematic looks as if it achieves nothing and is perpetual. But war is less a march than a dance. Western strategy should therefore be slowed down, and only needs to be ahead of the enemy’s decision making ability. As Henry Kissinger explained:

We must never forget that henceforth the purpose of strategy must be to affect the will of the enemy, not to destroy him, and that war can be limited only by presenting the enemy with an unfavorable calculus of risks. This requires pauses for calculation. Every campaign should be conceived as a series of self-contained phases, each of which implies a particular political objective, and with a sufficient interval between them to permit the application of political and psychological pressures.[10]

Whereas our approach to operational planning is linear, and masses resources for a set period towards an end state that may or may not be achievable, we need to find a model of planning that can deal with ongoing conflict that is "minimally intrusive and affordable over the very long term."[11]

Colonel John Boyd, a fighter pilot cum strategic scholar, saw that trying to understand a rapidly changing environment was important, but secondary to generating a rapidly changing environment that disorientates the enemy. Boyd explained that success in conflict was achieved by the party that could handle the quickest rate of change, but as no one is hostage to the environment, one can understand the environment best by manipulating it themselves. In other words, if you create the complexity on the battlefield, you will understand the environment more than the adversary.

The problem is that linear structural processes lend our minds to dogma—doctrine and the existing plan—and therefore we become isolated from the unfolding dynamic world. This division grows wider as events unfold further. Boyd showed why this was a natural process and why the only alternative is to undertake destructive deduction or thinking outside the box, to constantly rebuild inner mental images to correspond to the new reality.[12]

A mechanical depiction of the OODA Loop

Boyd famously demonstrated this concept through his heuristic OODA Loop—Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. Unfortunately, many saw this in a linear, formulaic way where one observes the enemy, orientates to enemy action, makes a decision, and then acts accordingly. Cycling around the OODA Loop as fast as possible is not the aim, it is not designed for swift decisive action. Rather, the idea is to execute OODA in a way that distracts the enemy from their purpose. This mental masquerading gets one outside normative behaviour and into the enemy’s decision cycle.[13] Speed is relative, you only need to be faster than the adversary.[14]

While the information age might be dynamic, all events are ultimately the result of humanity. Humans act in diverse and at at times illogical ways, and therefore the OODA Loop can be more unpredictable than a shallow analysis would reveal. Boyd includes an Implicit Guidance and Control function with Orient, Observe, and Act. This ensures the proper fingerspitzengefuhl, as the Germans would describe a fingertip feeling, for a changing situation. With this consistency, when the tempo picks up and "it seems one is then able to bypass the explicit Orientation and Decision parts of the loop, to Observe and Act almost instantaneously."[15]

The "Real" OODA Loop

Slowing, misaligning or disrupting the enemy’s OODA Loop hastens your comparative advantage. Clausewitz described the enemy’s center of gravity as the "the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends. That is the point against which all our energies should be directed."[16] Joseph L. Strange and Richard Iron offered a refined understanding of this concept that has been integrated into Australian Defence Force operational planning.[17] Doctrine therefore treats the concept of center of gravity thus:

Once COG have been identified, the commander and planning staff determine how to undermine adversary COG while protecting friendly COG and influencing other actor COG in the desired manner. Understanding the relationship between COG not only permits but also compels greater precision in thought and expression in operational design. Planners should analyse COG within a framework of three critical factors—capabilities, requirements, and vulnerabilities—to aid in this understanding.[18]

However, Boyd contends that instead of identifying a single center of gravity, many non-cooperative or conflicting centers of gravity would deny the adversary to operate in a strategic fashion.[19] Clausewitz described this dynamism in warfare using friction as a metaphor, a condition to overcome, but did not see how his theories could magnify the enemy’s friction and therefore use it to advantage.

The fathers of modern COG analysis, Strange and Iron, also submit that multiple COGs might exist and may change from phase to phase. "It is acknowledged that multiple [COGs] may exist at a given level of war; that they may change from phase to phase within a campaign; and that they can change unexpectedly when an enemy shifts the weight of its attack, thus uncovering or relying on a previously unforeseen center of gravity."

Taking Boyd’s lead in analyzing the natural world, we see that living organisms such as an enemy force like Rupert Smith’s rhizomatic weeds do not have one center of gravity.[20] An organism can be killed through the defeat of different centers of gravity—heart, lungs, brain—and therefore a threat to multiple systems can deny the adversary the ability to fight. Each organ is vital for life, and unlike Warden’s approach, defeating the heart is just as effective as defeating the brain. The problem with center of gravity analysis is it identifies the main enemy and friendly strength or weakness. If both parties protect their perceived weakness, while targeting the enemy strength, war degenerates into a stalemate like the First World War. Multiple avenues of approach target the adversary’s weakness, but the enemy cannot afford to adequately protect their primary strength.[21]

While processes such as operational design try to find the right problem or add a risk/cost/value to the traditional ends-ways-means construct, the value of the unpredictable cannot be quantified.[22] While processes allow us to efficiently execute tasks within a predictable system, they can also stifle. There exists an intangible line where the procedures we rely on begin to dilute both individual cognitive agility and collective organizational adaptability. Team members take fewer risks and stop fighting for new insight when they have processes to protect them. It’s not intentional, it’s a function of our innate propensity to seek homeostasis—a comfortable, predictable environment.

Strategy has been constructed by the elements of ends, ways and means at least in the modern world since Colonel Arthur F. Lykke’s article in Military Review in 1989

Strategy = (Ends + Ways + Means).

But missing from this equation is an 𝒳 value that cannot be quantified through any predictive analysis, except perhaps through the fingerspitzengefuhl of a commander. Each value within Lykke’s model can be quantified by a planner: a capability, a scheme of maneuver and an objective. But this planning approach does not take into account the unpredictable of interactively complex problems. Therefore instead of the traditional formulation of strategy the equation should be posed as

Strategy = (Ends + Ways + Means)𝒳

in the modern world.[23]

But if we build on this by taking the Boyd approach we can apply the complexity of the

Strategy = (Ends + Ways + Means)𝒳

representation to the adversary. We should design our plans around creating multiple dilemmas for the adversity through exponentiation. A successful commander should give his opponent more 𝒳 values than the friendly force has to deal with—the adversary should face an equation of

Strategy = (Ends + Ways + Means)𝒳ͯ

with multiple factors of the unknown distracting the enemy.

Stanley McChrystal suggests that "being effective in today’s world is less a question of optimizing for a known (and relatively stable) set of variables than responsiveness to a constantly shifting environment. Adaptability, not efficiency, must become our central competency."[24] It is time we adopted adaptability, by considering the slides of an old fighter pilot like Boyd.

Craig Beutel joined the Australian Department of Defence in 2006. He has deployed to Afghanistan and is a graduate of Australian Command and Staff College. His views do not represent the Department, or the Australian Government.

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Header Image: A complex adaptive system is smarter as a collective, with the potential for more unexpected behavioral responses, than individual elements. A bird swarm. (Niels Castillon)


[1] Attributed to Eisenhower by Richard Nixon, Six Crises, 1962; quote reproduced in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, 6th ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 298.

[2] "On Strategy" (1871), as translated in Moltke on the Art of War: Selected Writings (1993) by Daniel J. Hughes and Harry Bell, p. 92

[3] Australian Defence Doctrine Publication (ADDP) 5.0, Joint Planning, Edition 2 (Canberra: Department of Defence, February 2014), 2-2.

[4]  James N. Mattis, Memorandum for US Joint Forces Command: Vision for a Joint Approach to Operational Design, dated 6 October 2009, Attachment (1), pp. 7-8.

[5] ADDP 5.0, Joint Planning, 2-5.

[6] ADDP 5.0, Joint Planning, 2-4.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Lawrence Freedman, Strategy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 198.

[9] Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, Unrestricted Warfare (Beijing: PLA Literature and Arts Publishing House, 1999), 215.

[10] Henry Kissinger, "Strategy and Organization," Foreign Affairs Vol. 35, No. 3, April 1957, 388-9.

[11] David Kilcullen, "Blood Year—Terror and the Islamic State," Quarterly Essay Issue 58 2015, 86.

[12] Robert Coram, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (New York: Back Bay Books, 2002), 326

[13] Coram, Boyd, 334-5

[14] See John Boyd, "Patterns of Conflict" Lecture, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nPcF0OYK1zw; and the slides at http://www.dnipogo.org/boyd/patterns_ppt.pdf

[15] Coram, Boyd, 334.

[16] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, eds./trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976),  pp. 595-6.

[17]  Dr Joseph L. Strange and Colonel Richard Iron, "Centre of Gravity: What Clausewitz Really Meant," Joint Force Quarterly, 35 (October 2004), pp. 20-27. Strange and Iron submit that multiple COGs might exist and may change from phase to phase. "It is acknowledged that multiple CGs may exist at a given level of war; that they may change from phase to phase within a campaign; and that they can change unexpectedly when an enemy shifts the weight of its attack, thus uncovering or relying on a previously unforeseen center of gravity."

[18] ADDP 5.0, Joint Planning, 2-11, 2-12.

[19] Boyd, "Patterns of Conflict" Lecture, http://www.dnipogo.org/boyd/patterns_ppt.pdf, slide 42

[20] Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (London: Penguin Books, 2006),329-30

[21] See BH Liddell Hart, "War, Limited," Harper’s Magazine (Vol. 192, No. 1150), March 1946

[22] See ADDP 5.0, Joint Planning, 2-6. "The problem frame aims to ensure that when facing an interactively complex, ill-structured problem, the ‘right’ problem has been accurately identified."

[23] Colonel Joel Smith USA, TF China: 3rd Battalion 15th Infantry Regiment 2013 Deployment to Wardak," Presentation to the Strategic Policy Division Australian Department of Defence, 2015.

[24]  Stanley McChrystal, Tantum Collins, David Silverman, and Chris Fussell, Team of Teams:  New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World (New York: Penguin, 2015), 53