On Operational Unpredictability

By Captain Justin Lynch, US Army

Series Introduction

            This paper is the second of a three part discussion of uncertainty and unpredictability in warfare. The first reviewed strategic unpredictability caused by an opaque enemy decision making process. The third will discuss uncertainty and unpredictability at the platoon and company level, both for linear warfare and counterinsurgencies. This one will discuss uncertainty and unpredictability at the operational level of war, particularly for counterinsurgencies. 

 Unpredictability at the Operational Level of War

            The last 14 years of warfare have seen a shift in the American military’s focus. Instead of confronting traditional state actors, most fighting has been an attempt to establish order in lawless areas. These conflicts have and will continue to pit militaries with a preponderance of combat power against elusive forces that use a strategy of exhaustion. The military’s greatest challenge is not their enemy’s tactical virtuosity. It is an uncertain and unpredictable environment.

The Creation of Extremes

            Warfare lends itself to the creation of extremes. One extreme is the desire for information. Planning creates a reciprocal action between planners and intelligence personnel. Planners want more information. Their intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets provide what information they can, but never enough to sate the planner. Lack of satisfaction drives demand for more information, and the development of new systems and technology to provide it. The new systems and technology create information abundance, establishing a new standard for the minimum amount of information required for operations. Taken to its logical extreme, the reciprocal action leads to absolute knowledge of the operating environment.

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On Strategic Unpredictability

By Captain Justin Lynch

Unpredictability plays an important role in every form of warfare.  It emerges during any attempt to anticipate the future, an endeavor that often yields inaccurate results, sometimes wildly so.  Given that many of these forecasts come from sound reasoning, experience, and deliberate attempts to gather empirical evidence, leaders can blame the resulting inaccuracies on an intrinsically unpredictable environment. Western militaries have tried to tackle this challenge. Technology has provided a vastly increased information flow to decision makers, creating the expectation that uncertainty and unpredictability will become less significant factors on the battlefield, and that military leaders can forsee the outcome of events. This attitude can lead to a dangerous, false sense of confidence. No matter what observation, communication or information systems militaries use, warfare will remain an inherently unpredictable endeavor. But if leaders attempt to comprehend its causes, structure and effects on operations, they can continue to try to minimize uncertainty while improving their ability to operate in an uncertain and unpredictable environment.

This paper will be part of a three part series about uncertainty and unpredictability in warfare. It will discuss them at the strategic level of war. The second paper will discuss the cause, structure, and effects of unpredictability at the operational level of counterinsurgencies by viewing states as complex adaptive systems. The third paper will discuss uncertainty and unpredictability at the platoon and company level, both for linear warfare and counterinsurgencies.

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