Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Strategic Analysis of Irregular Warfare

One of the presentations made at the last NDU roundtable on Innovations in Strategic Gaming addressed the work done by the (US) Office of the Secretary of Defense on modelling/simulation of irregular warfare. I’ll admit to having voiced doubts at the time that any computational model could adequately capture the complex relationships between social variables involved in counterinsurgency and stabilization operations, or that any model that attempted to do so would be robust enough to serve as a guide for planning and policy decisions.

Apparently, the OSD thought so too, according to a recent Master’s thesis by Colonel Mark W. Lukens at the US Army War College. According to Lukens’ account:

The 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) states: “Irregular warfare has emerged as the dominant form of warfare confronting the United States.” Terrorism and insurgency, and counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, are all subsets of irregular warfare. Conventional warfare models are often used at the strategic level to inform programmatic decisions. The modeling and dynamics of irregular warfare are not well established. An attempt to model an irregular warfare scenario took place in 2007 to 2009 within the Office of the Secretary of Defense. This process, however, failed to produce insights that could inform program decisions. As a result, the Secretary of Defense is making programmatic decisions without a cogent modeling paradigm for terrorism and insurgency.

The purpose of  Lukens thesis is to propose “a new computational model to replicate the dynamics of irregular warfare.” I remain unconvinced that this is either possible or desirable, however. My skepticism rests of two grounds.

First, I suspect that the relationships between key social and political variables in fragile and war-affected countries themselves vary widely across cases. Take, for example, the relationship between unemployment and support for armed violence. In some countries, the relationship is clearly positive. In others, it may be negative—indeed, higher employment might actually facilitate insurgent fund-rasining. In still others, there may be little or no relationship between socio-economic variables and militancy.

Second, I think it is enormously difficult to quantify some of the key variables. Take for example good governance—a key focus of contemporary counterinsurgency doctrine. What is this? Is it the same across societies and time periods? Certainly we know “bad governance” when we see it. However, there is often little correlation between governance as outsiders define it, and the popularity, legitimacy, or stability of local governments.

In short, context matters enormously. A quantitative one-size-fits-all model of failing states based on a few recent experiences seems unlikely to describe many other future situations, let alone constituting a firm foundation upon which to plan future defense programs.

One response to “Strategic Analysis of Irregular Warfare

  1. Brian Train 18/09/2010 at 11:28 pm

    I agree with you completely Rex; I don’t think there will ever be an adequate computational model for this slippery subject, and I am not sure why OSD and other parts of the military-industrial research complex keep trying (except that, for now at least, there’s money in the trying for it). Haven’t read COL Lukens’ paper yet though.

    Military planners always look for the one-size-fits-all solution first, because that’s the one that will solve the problem fastest, or so they think. That more or less worked with things like the F-111 (or choose some other example, if you think it didn’t) but it won’t work with irregular warfare. You mentioned quantification of variables as one area where it would always fail; there are certainly many others.

    You know that OSD people were using my Algeria game in 2007, both as a framework for play of a fictional scenario and as the basis for building a model of the Iraqi insurgency. I think in the end the former approach was probably the better one, since the game was played out as a BOGSAT exercise with laptop computer support. The value of the game lay not in the game mechanics but in the discussions that came afterward – yes, even the discussion of the limitations of the game mechanics.

    This approach does not give the magic-bullet answer, but I think it gives a better quality to the discussions.

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