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August 19, 2016

By Tim Foxley.


Complexity as a weapon?  Is it all just too difficult now?  It is becoming harder to resolve conflicts, according to Ban Ki Moon.  Increasing speed and complexity in modern conventional, asymmetric and hybrid warfare types are negatively impacting on analysis, decision-making and resolution in diplomatic and conflict situations.  Of particular interest is the idea that complexity itself can and is being deliberately induced or exploited to influence or achieve political or military objectives.

Too complicated…?


PPT slide briefed to Gen. Stanley McCrystal in Afghanistan.  His response: “When we can understand that, we’ve won the war…”

Globalisation seems an irresistible force.  In the first two decades of the 21st century, social, economic and technological change is of an unprecedented nature.  This is increasing the tempo and complexity of almost every aspect of human existence.  It is weaving together peoples, places, transactions and values across the world community in a myriad of shifting shapes and patterns, the implications and impact of which are yet to be understood and may not be fully grasped for decades.

The practices of situational awareness, analysis, decision-making, prosecuting conflict and conflict resolution are struggling to keep up.  In 2009, the UNHCR gave warning, highlighting social, economic and technological aspects of globalisation and the blurring of the lines between soldiers and civilians (Guterres: 2009).  The message from the International Crisis Group in October 2015 was similarly bleak (Guehenno: 2015):

In a world that is as much multi-layered as it is multipolar, conflict is also multilayered: most conflicts still have very local roots, but they are often manipulated by external powers or hijacked by transnational ideologies…

…in a more fragmented and more complex world, the prevention and resolution of conflict, like the new wars themselves, has to be multilayered…Our world has become less intelligible…[there is] the growing temptation of retrenchment, based on the perception that the world is just too complicated for any effective human intervention.”

In November 2015, United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, stressed the problems caused by the increasing complexity of modern conflicts:

“We are finding it harder to end conflicts and to sustain peace” (Ki-Moon: 2015).

Conflict (and conflict resolution) is subject to multiple and fluid agents of change, affecting from the grand strategic domain of the politicians and generals, down to the individual soldier’s “boots on the ground”.  Fundamental concepts are now open to challenge.  When does peace become war?  What is the scope of the battlefield?[1]  Who is a solder and who a civilian?  What rules of war apply?

Age-old problems…

Conflict has never been straightforward.  Carl von Clausewitz was at least a thousand years behind historic military experience when he coined the expression “fog of war” to try to capture the dilemma of military commanders everywhere: the difficulty of knowing what is going on and what decisions to make in a stressful 20151116, Ukraine trip (24)and fluid situation:

“…the general unreliability of all information presents a special problem in war: all action takes place, so to speak, in a kind of twilight, which, like fog or moonlight, often tends to make things seem grotesque and larger than they really are.  Whatever is hidden from full view in this feeble light has to be guessed at…for lack of objective knowledge one has to trust to talent or to luck.”[2]

Some forms of complexity in conflict have remained constant for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Recent reports from soldiers of all ranks of their experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq in the 21st century confirmed that closing with, and killing, an irregular soldier poses challenges and stresses that soldiers in the armies of Alexander the Great and the 19th century British Empire would recognise.  (Boot: 2013)

military equipment

So these problems have not arrived overnight.  A review of security literature over the last decades shows the new layers of complexity emerging and evolving while older forms – the “fog of war” – have remained.  The post-World War II period saw a significant reduction in the number of conventional wars but the emergence of multiple, smaller insurgencies, intrastate wars and increasing forms of asymmetric conflicts.

The 1960s saw anti-colonial waves of insurgencies (Algeria, Vietnam, Northern Ireland) challenging conventional armies to operate in ways for which they were not trained.  The 1970s saw growing interest in peace-keeping responsibilities, the economic and aid aspects of conflict, the growing problems of protracted intra-state conflicts and human rights and arms control issues.

In the 1980s there was growing interesting in the role of computer and communication technologies to solve complex issues and enhance command and control. The fall of the Soviet Union saw myriad small wars erupt and a new analytical vocabulary emerging: ethno-nationalism, world order, failed states, complex political/humanitarian emergencies (Goodhand and Hume: 1999).  Bosnian_War_1200862Mary Kaldor’s understanding of “new and old wars”, particularly in the context of the Balkans, was a significant contribution to the debate around modern conflict’s evolution. (Kaldor: 1999).

21st Century: compounding the problems

After Al Qaeda’s attacks on mainland United States in September 2001, multiple new difficulties presented themselves to political decision-making and war-fighting, with the emergence of truly global terrorism, intertwined with religious fundamentalism, international intervention, post- and mid-conflict reconstruction, counter-terrorism, hearts and minds and counter insurgency.  Small wonder military, political and reconstruction doctrines have all struggled to keep up.  The Afghanistan (2001 – present) and Iraq (2003 – 2011) conflicts are both still unresolved, despite the departure of most of the original international coalition forces.  The two countries stand as by-words for the hubristic failure of the West to understand and act effectively in highly complex environments.

In the 21st century, the world order is increasingly multi-polar, with diverse, fast-moving, adaptable and vociferous sets of actors.  Analytically there seems increasing uncertainty about what solutions might work for resolving conflict.  MccGwire doubted the international community’s ability to handle the range of global and local problems (MccGwire: 2001).  Rogers warned of losing control in a “violent peace”, (Rogers: 2001).  Drone-BiggestGovernment militaries and security bodies are asked to undertake a wider range of tasks against a wider range of interlinked opponents: insurgents, criminals, terrorists, cyber-hackers, “lone wolves” operating independently beyond identifiable networks and even information itself.  There appears no limit to the scope of the combat area: The term ”battlefield” seems to have been abandoned long ago by NATO armies, in favour of the all-embracing “battlespace”.  The emergence of drones as a weapon of war is a stark example of the way in which the playing field is increasingly level as advanced technology proliferates.

Vietnam-War-Hub-AOver the decades since World War II, the sheer firepower of industrial nations has pushed asymmetric tactics to the fore, which seek to reduce the advantages of a large conventional force.  Beyond this, hybrid warfare (altlittle green men, Crimeahough many other descriptors exist) seeks deliberately to blur the distinction between war and peace by merging political, military, information, economic and criminal assets (Freedman: 2014).  Hostile operations are, with increasing imagination and creativity, being pitched intentionally just below the level of conventional conflict.  Russia used social media, Special Forces and proxy militias in a largely bloodless land grab of Crimea and to generate confusion, suspicion and violence in a largely bloody destabilization of the Donbas. China is building artificial islands in the South China Sea in a direct challenge to the UN Convention of the Law Of the Sea. ISIS logo The Islamic State occupies yet another pole, fusing global terrorism with pretensions to statehood. Senator John McCain recently accused Russia of bombing civilians in Syria deliberately to create a flood of refugees to cause stresses in Western serbians like trumpEuropean unity.[3]  Serbian right wing movements are marching in Belgrade in 2016 wearing Donald Trump T-shirts.[4]


Wicked problems

Star trek

Star Trek’s own “wicked problem”: Starfleet Academy’s Kobayashi Maru no-win training scenario…

In the 1970s, in a paper about the general theory of planning, Horst Rittel suggested the notion of “wicked problems”: situations for which there is no correct solution.  “Every wicked problem is a symptom of another one” (Rittel: 1973).[5]

Modern information and media technologies lend themselves to those seeking to confuse and complicate: deepening and spreading roots of conflict and undermining conflict resolution.  Kelly Greenhill recently considered the way disinformation can be exploited in stressful and uncertain situations (Greenhill: 2014).  Russian state-controlled media propagated multiple explanations for the destruction of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 in an attempt to thwart investigations (Luhn: 2015).

How are we thinking about it?

Concepts and literature seeking to address and understand complexity and its relationship with conflict take us in a variety of directions and levels, including information management, technology, behavioural science, the functioning of business and administrative organisations, chaos theory, the workings of the human brain, decision-making theory and the evolution of modern warfare.

Antonovsky suggested that the greater the complexity (including the complexity of information), the greater the risk of conflict (Antonovsky: 1993). Complexity hinders understanding, decision-making and conflict resolution given the “…difficulties of effective action, in the face of complexity and uncertainty” (Dando and Bee: 1977).

Other work analyses the unique complexities of individual specific conflict situations, such as South Sudan (Pendle: 2014), the Baltic states and the Balkans (Clemens: 2010) and evolving terrorism forms (Toro: 2008).  Ledwidge highlights the self-inflicted structural complexity of UK government departments and military structures during its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan (Ledwidge: 2010).

There have been efforts to fuse complexity theory with conflict analysis: globalisation is contributing to ever more complex and fast-moving systems and situations (Eoyang and Yellowthunder: 2010).  Progress toward some greater fusion of disciplines appears to be slow, although, to Sword, complexity science may enhance the ability to observe and interpret complex dynamics (Sword: 2008).  Hanson and Sword advocated the need for new approaches to addressing conflict through the better integration of the principles of complexity science with conflict management, given the increasing complexity of society (Hanson and Sword: 2008).

Other writings project human organisms (from individuals, through commercial organisations, ethnic groups, nations or international NGOs) as Complex Adaptive Systems, working against traditional understandings of conflict. Here, conflict is in fact the “fuel” that drives system growth (Andrade, Plowman, Duchon: 2008).

Complexity is revealing itself around a 360 degree spectrum. Here are but two possible “types”:

Organically complex;

US troops in Afg2

Afghanistan. The country’s path through history has given it layer upon layer of complex social, military, political, cultural and economic issues at local, national and international levels.  These “natural” forms of complexity present major challenges of comprehension to a fast-reacting, broadly well-intentioned, international community with a limited – and often contradictory – understanding of the region and consequently a simplistic and very “Western” view of how to “solve” the problem.

astern_ukraine_624 - CopyArtificially complex; Ukraine. Here, a conflict looks to have been deliberately engineered and made more complex by the intelligent and effective application of propaganda, information, nationalism, myths and history.[6]  False flags, new flags or even no flags have concealed some protagonists, masked the true identities of others and introduced new ones.  Interpretations of historical issues—from medieval to World War Two—have been twisted to suit 21st century political and military ambitions.  The manipulation of information has been one of the significant features of the conflict (Darczewska: 2014).

Some complexity is self-inflicted, through cumbersome decision-making processes, structures or lack of awareness of political, military, social, cultural and historic factors. Technological issues have an impact: such as the speed of weapons and communications systems and the need to absorb large amounts of information.  The requirement to interact with a wide array of diverse actors and stakeholders compounds these problems.

Is it possible to advance a hypothesis that complexity itself is becoming a weapon; to be deliberately induced in ways that disrupt, confuse and paralyse, to complement or replace the direct use of force in support of political goals?


[1] Some years ago, the British Army officially adopted the term “battlespace” in formal recognition that warfare is no longer purely conducted on air, sea and land: information operations, cyber space and beyond the earth’s atmosphere, are all considered viable battle areas.

[2] Von Clausewitz, C., On War, (Oxford University Press: New York 2007)

[3] Jones, S., ‘Russia accused of weaponizing’ Syria refugees’, CNBC, 15 Feb. 2016,

[4] Sekularac, I., and Grulovic, F., ‘Serbian ultra-nationalists chant “vote for Trump” as Biden visits’, Reuters, 16 Aug. 2016,

[5] Hollywood echoed this dilemma.  In the “Star Trek” film series, we learn that the Starfleet Academy  employed a no-win training scenario “Kobayashi Maru”,

[6] Author’s discussions in Kiev with East European Security Research Initiative, StopFake, Razumkov Center and NATO Information and Documentation Center, Nov. 2015.


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Ki-Moon, B., Press Release, ‘Amid today’s complex conflicts, Ban outlines role for Security Council in strengthening peace operations’, UN News Centre, 20 Nov. 2015,

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MccGwire, M., The paradigm that lost its way’, International Affairs, Oct. 2001

Rittel, H., ‘Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning’, Policy Sciences 4 (1973), pp.155-169.

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Stake, R., The Art of Case Study Research, (Sage Publications: California, 2005).

UK Ministry of Defence, ‘The Future Character of Conflict’, DCDC Strategic Trends Programme, 2 Feb, 2010.

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