Clausewitz, On War, Book 1: Into a cavern to find the darkness of cyber space

Can “On War” as a book from the dustbin of history reach out and touch the technologically sophisticated future of modern warfare? Where warfare is moving from monumental armies into a post nuclear age of niggling little conflicts is a dusty tome the literature of success? In a world populated with empowered non-state actors who take enthusiastic glee in creating tottering nation states, restrained in ability to react, can a passage from some chapter bring enlightenment? Given the growing reliance of society on technology can a book from so long ago even possibly give us insight into conflicts we are only now are beginning to perceive? Where cyber warfare is not even a fully understood concept of operation and has but yet to be implemented fully can Clausewitz possibly help us define a path through a new strategic operational environment of cyber warfare? Like all truly difficult and worthwhile activities best left to the dens of moldering bar rooms filled with veterans of many conflicts and tables spattered by concoctions and spirits this is but a taste of the hangover known as Clausewitz.

If action in war is compelling an adversary to do our will in cyber warfare there must be an act of force to compel the adversary to do our will also (p. 75). That action in war may be kinetic munitions but is it possible that any act of force that compels the adversary to do our will is viable? That would bring us to first defining an act of force, and thereby also defining whether it is a compunction to be performed that belies the force. If integrating into the adversaries command and control system allows us to compel a change in the enemies behavior it may not stand to reason as a traditional war like effort, but it is likely fully functional as strategy and tactics.

Clausewitz considers this when he says the opposing general uses the total means at his disposal (p. 77). Total means does not mean the largest most kinetic weapon, but can mean the smartest most directed weapon such as a sniper. There is an inherent spectrum when you consider the “total” means not just the most lethal or most kinetic. A spectrum opens the idea of cyber warfare as a possible element of the conflict as we consider it today. How that war in cyber space might be waged is further from the problem at hand but we might come back to that in later chapters. We can say that forcing the enemy to move is an abstraction of cyber warfare (p. 81) that Clausewitz might understand. The wherewithal of the cause of that movement not being necessary to say that it occurred.

Speaking of cyber warfare Clausewitz introduces the heart of information operations with his idea of polarity (p. 83) between opposing force commanders. That inherent contest of commander’s wills is the space that information operations exist within the sub-disciplines of psychological operations and various communications strategies. In that steel willed contest of commanders the inherent risk to command and control rises from the fog of war to act as a counter to the commander’s decision capabilities.

Clausewitz describes the thinking and cognitive processes as what only can be called an observe, orient, decide, act loop (OODA loop) (p.83-85) and the slowing of the decision process and making decisions with imperfect actions and periods of reflection and inactivity the specter of thinking processes and cognitive attrition rise. When you add this cognitive effort to his later statement that war as a pulsation of violence (p. 87) there begins to be a glimmer for the Boydians of the inherent value of cognitive tools in the decision cycles of warfare. In pondering and reflecting towards that in the world of today the cyber warfare component can inject itself into the cognitive cycle when dealing with specific attributes of commanders intent. This of course may not be possible in a conflict space populated by large differentials in technology between western nation-states and tribal war leaders. Where smoke signals are one way to the trunked and encrypted communications of the other. Yet in just such a scenario Usama bin Ladin ran an effective terrorism campaign by intention against the United States of America. He was inside our decision loop.

If war is merely the continuation of policy by other means (p.87) it likely describes what could be considered the diplomacy, intelligence, military, economic (DIME) model as a spectrum rather than cohesive if interrelated parts. War takes on a sort of algebra that is vertical in consideration of intensity of conflict, and breadth in consideration of societal impact. In governing the action of policy creation would rarely be considered an act of war, but it is exactly that activity in nation-state conflict that can create true wars. In some part we can say the Japanese entry into World War 2 is a result of United States failed diplomacy and leadership. Similarly it might be suggested that similar failures in diplomacy and leadership may be the causal elements to the first fully enflamed cyber warfare. Though simply defining cyber warfare may still elude us, like numerous weapons systems of World War 2, they were unknown at the beginning of a war they helped end.

We are told that war is a chameleon changing and adapting (p. 89) and in these words it is assured that perhaps cyber warfare can exist. In the confined mental basket, of the mythic warrior kings in our own time, we may find the totalitarian thinking of maneuver warfare versus small wars. Yet neither side is correct or wrong. It is likely that war will continue to change as the adaption and practices of adversaries change. In the wholesale abandonment of maneuver warfare and armor quite honestly will be sewn the seeds of the next conflict we are not prepared for. In that same breath we know that abandoning the schooling and prosecution of small wars our Army will surely fail current campaigns. The answer of course is in building cross-functional capability. In the golden age of cyber warfare and the lingering age of veterans from prior campaigns a harvest of inadequacy will be served to any who are not prepared for flexible and deep campaigns of the entire conflict spectrum.

Clausewitz even hints at an insurgency option or even more poignantly cyber warfare from enemies not bent on winning (p.91). This form of conflict between states of unequal strength gives us some impending consideration of non-state versus nation-state actors in the sphere of conflict. The table setting is starting to take shape for a tasty understanding of cyber warfare from the Clausewitz perspective. Perhaps we might not have all the answers, but maybe a few. As he states nothing obliges us to limit the destruction of enemy forces to the physical force (p.97), and the door opens fully to reveal a bountiful meal prepared for our repast. If Clausewitz states physical force is not a requirement than cyber means can be expanded from simple kinetic results to cyber means as a wide breadth of strategies and tactics.

The consideration of the differing emotional reactions as forces for conflict (p. 106) is another opening and explanatory salvo in the information operations spectrum. More important though is that Clausewitz explains the issues with leaders understanding and we can include cyber warfare. Cyber is likely hard for leaders because a certain amount of imagination is required (p. 110) and that imagination is difficult to find when they may be only peripherally aware of the technologies around them. Ubiquity can be a strategic and cognitive risk. Even if cyber is the grist for the friction of war (p. 119) leaders have a hard time understanding the concepts of something they cannot see.
Did we answer all of the questions? Not yet. A flurry of criticisms will float that my understanding of Clausewitz is flawed or that a long dead Prussian could never understand conflict in cyber space.

However, I suggest that the models and patterns of conflict between humans remain fairly consistent regardless of the technologies involved, and regardless of the terrain. In adaption through conflict various technologies go through specific cycles of acceptance and rejection by spectrums of users. In many ways all I am doing is trying to identify how in a hundred years from now somebody might write “of course” and be thinking about adapting to some new unheard of technology to us. Like Clausewitz said we have to allow a little imagination into the analysis process if we want to understand.

4 thoughts on “Clausewitz, On War, Book 1: Into a cavern to find the darkness of cyber space”

  1. “In governing the action of policy creation would rarely be considered an act of war, but it is exactly that activity in nation-state conflict that can create true wars. In some part we can say the Japanese entry into World War 2 is a result of United States failed diplomacy and leadership.”

    Very interesting Sam.

    The United States had an exceptionally able ambassador in Joseph Grew who was fluent in Japanese and culture but his ability to explain the highly convoluted strategic decision-making process of the Japanese Imperial Cabinet, War Ministry, the Emperor and the Army high command to his superiors in Washington was exceedingly limited. It was simply not a POV that was easily comprehensible to an old Southerner and Progressive like Cordell Hull or even to FDR or Marshall. The Japanese were actively threatening American interests and violating diplomatic agreements regarding China going back to the adminitration of Teddy Roosevelt while being totally dependent upon American shipments of scrap metal and oil.

    Such behavior must have seemed incredibly brazen to FDR -and it was but it was also a result of a dysfunctional dynamic on the Japanese side.

  2. “However, I suggest that the models and patterns of conflict between humans remain fairly consistent regardless of the technologies involved … .”

    While of course Clausewitz had no conception of cyber-warfare, the basic ideas of cyber-warfare — destroying the enemies ability to control his forces, sending him false information, etc., would all fall into general categories of deception and ruses and sowing of confusion that are as old as warfare itself.

    The point for the expert on cyberwarfare to bear in mind (I am no such expert, so I merely speculate) may be that whatever the technical novelty of what he is doing, it ultimately meets the tangible world, and has real world effects. And those effects, by analogy, are akin to practices and events in the past. And that may in turn suggest places to look to better understand what cyberwarfare is and might be, how to wage it, and how to defend against it.

    Or maybe not … .

    I do not really know what cyberwarfare is … .

  3. Lexington Green wisely says “I do not really know what cyberwarfare is … .”

    Like many forms of conflict there those who stridently gather cyber warfare into specifics, create silos, define, and differentiate until the term nears upon meaningless. Through the sifting though it appears the cyber warfare is just the expansion of conflict using new tools not unlike bullets and bombs. If the kinetic end is the same as with other tools what is the difference? A 1000 men slinging sledge hammers can destroy a building. A JDAM dropped by one man in a bomber can destroy a building. A computer network operation causing a furnace to blow up can destroy a building.

    The tools of conflict all have their place. The Marine scout/sniper provides intelligence and reconnaissance of an adversary. A satellite can provide instant understanding of troop movements by visual observation of what is happening. A computer network attack can provide understanding of why a movement is happening and what is going to happen into the future.

    Is cyber warfare the be-all-end-all of conflict? Absolutely not. Armor in deep swamps are an inappropriate implementation of a fine tactical tool. Air-cavalry in a sand storm is a poor use of helicopters. Every weapon, tactic, and strategy has a place in the spectrum of conflict and the terrain contested. In some ways the cyber terrain is also the weapon. A new paradigm in many ways for consideration of conflict.

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