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Metaheuristics of War

Monday, December 23rd, 2013

(by Adam Elkus)

I have been thinking about the problem of the “principles of war,” and various military authors’ differing takes on the viability of the concept. This is perhaps the best way to respond to the thought-provoking post Lynn Rees fashioned out of fragments of our gchat conversations.

Principles of war remain part of military manuals the world over, despite the fact that historical work has exposed substantial variance in their content. Principles of war evolve in time. John Alger’s work in particular is very interesting on this question. The basic pattern was, as one reviewer of Alger’s book argued, a canonization of Napoleonic principles followed by a grafting of midcentury combined arms warfare onto those already canonized Napoleonic principles. However, this element of relative consensus proved to be short-lived.

There has been widespread debate over whether “principles of war” are still valid for the so-called information age or irregular warfare. Military theorist William F. Owen‘s praise for Robert Leonhard’s late 1990s information-age update of the principles caused me to read it in college, and I found it very enlightening if overly optimistic about Transformation-era technologies. The principles of war are also being perpetually re-defined in countless books, articles, military college student monographs, and PowerPoint slides.

The way principles of war became proxies for principles of Napoleonic warfare leads us to question if there can be principles of war that generalize.  If we take Clausewitz’s injunction about politics seriously, then we realize while war may have a underlying logic everything else will vary. Hence the problem with Basil Liddell-Hart’s book On Strategy — it tortures every historical example so thoroughly until it yields to supporting the indirect approach. A recent criticism of John Boyd recently elucidated this point as well. Boyd indulges in the conceptual equivalent of German attrition strategy at Verdun to force military history to conform to his PowerPoint magnum opus. Not surprisingly, Boyd inflicts grave losses on his opponent but is unable to extract too much strategic advantage relative to his own costs.

To seek time-invariant principles of war  risks indulging in a John Yoo approach to military history . Indeed, books like Liddell-Hart’s own Great Captains Unveiled waterboard great military personages like Subotai and De Saxe until they cry “I’ll talk! I’ll talk! I won because I used the indirect approach! Just make the pain stop!”  Torture is immoral and ineffectual in public policy, so why apply it to military history?

So what to do? One solution is try to boil principles of war down to pithy nubs stripped of unnecessary detail that express timeless truths about the “best practices” of warfighting — and build a doctrinal scaffolding around them. It would prune even highly abstract principles of war seen in doctrine down to more defensible levels of abstraction. But this idea suffers from several problems.

First, we dramatically overstate our current ability to tell what is “timeless.” That is the core of Rees’ recent entry – we are far more confused than we believe. And if the current, aphoristic principles of war were enough, would we see such a frenzy to re-define the terminology? It strikes me that what defense professionals often seek is a way to take principles down from the 747 jet flight level to the granular world of practice. As a result, they often turn to vulgar novelty over tradition when they are really searching for a process that might help them navigate the mismatch between supposed timeless principles and the actual problems they face.

Traditionalists (often correctly) believe this desire for novelty stems from fads, pressure to conform to political or bureaucratic directives, and personal empire-building. But in the last 12 years there has been a sincere outpouring of angst from soldiers, intelligence analysts, and civilian policy analysts in the government sector who find that principle of war aphorisms are not enough. One might not agree with Emile Simpson’s contentious take on war and politics, but he wrote the book because so-called timeless truths obviously did not help Simpson do his military job in Afghanistan. And I have often seen Mark Safranski argue here over the years that the concept of Fourth Generation Warfare was necessary as a forcing mechanism to get the US military to adapt to challenges it faced in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is tempting to respond to this by saying “they need to read ___ old strategy master  I like and study military history in the subjective way I like until they can understand strategy.” But this is a recipe for indoctrination since “understanding” = agreeing with old strategy master + the aforementioned fuzzy and didactic approach to extracting timeless or eternal ideas from military history. Instead, we might introduce metaheuristics of war as a complementary concept to the principles of war:

Metaheuristics is a rather unfortunate term often used to describe a major subfield, indeed the primary subfield, of stochastic optimization. Stochastic optimization is the general class of algorithms and techniques which employ some degree of randomness to find optimal (or as optimal as possible) solutions to hard problems. Metaheuristics are the most general of these kinds of algorithms, and are applied to a very wide range of problems.

What kinds of problems? In Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964, regarding obscenity), the United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote,

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.

Metaheuristics are applied to I know it when I see it problems. They’re algorithms used to find answers to problems when you have very little to help you: you don’t know what the optimal solution looks like, you don’t know how to go about finding it in a principled way, you have very little heuristic information to go on, and brute-force search is out of the question because the space is too large. But if you’re given a candidate solution to your problem, you can test it and assess how good it is. That is, you know a good one when you see it.

Sean Luke, Essentials of Metaheuristics, (self-published lecture notes), 2013, 7.

Metaheuristics are not heuristics of heuristics, as Luke notes in a parenthetical comment. Rather, they are algorithms that select useful solutions for problems under the difficult conditions Luke specifies in the above quote. Let’s see an example:

For example: imagine if you’re trying to find an optimal set of robot behaviors for a soccer goalie robot. You have a simulator for the robot and can test any given robot behavior set and assign it a quality (you know a good one when you see it). And you’ve come up with a definition for what robot behavior sets look like in general. But you have no idea what the optimal behavior set is, nor even how to go about finding it.

The simplest thing you could do in this situation is Random Search: just try random behavior sets as long as you have time, and return the best one you discovered. But before you give up and start doing random search, consider the following alternative, known as Hill-Climbing. Start with a random behavior set. Then make a small, random modification to it and try the new version. If the new version is better, throw the old one away. Else throw the new version away. Now make another small, random modification to your current version (which ever one you didn’t throw away). If this newest version is better, throw away your current version, else throw away the newest version. Repeat as long as you can.

Hill-climbing is a simple metaheuristic algorithm. It exploits a heuristic belief about your space of candidate solutions which is usually true for many problems: that similar solutions tend to behave similarly (and tend to have similar quality), so small modifications will generally result in small, well-behaved changes in quality, allowing us to “climb the hill” of quality up to good solutions. This heuristic belief is one of the central defining features of metaheuristics: indeed, nearly all metaheuristics are essentially elaborate combinations of hill-climbing and random search.

One must use caution. When Clausewitz uses a metaphor, he does so because it helps us understand some dimension of the problem being discussed — not because a Center of Gravity in war maps exactly onto the meaning of the Center of Gravity in physics. Boyd does not make this distinction, and thus is vulnerable to criticisms from those that accurately point out that his interpretation of scientific concepts do not match their original usage. The level of abstraction I am discussing with in this post must be qualified in this respect, as I hope to avoid repeating Boyd’s mistake.

However, the following aspects of metaheuristics are still appealing in abstract. In many real-world problems, we do not know what an optimal solution looks like. We don’t know how to find it. We have a nub of information we can use, but not much more. Most importantly, the space of possible solutions is too large for us to just use brute force search for an answer:

A brute-force approach for the eight queens puzzle would examine all possible arrangements of 8 pieces on the 64-square chessboard, and, for each arrangement, check whether each (queen) piece can attack any other.

While hill-climbing and random-search are inherent in most metaheuristics, there are different types of metaheuristic algorithms for different problems with varying performance in climbing the “hill of quality.” Hence it is customizable and recognizes variation in performance of methods. Some methods will perform well on some problems, but will get stuck at a local optima instead of a peak when faced with others.

One gigantic caveat: the idea of peaks and valleys in the solution space is derived from the assumption of a static, not dynamically evolving, landscape of candidate solutions. A perfect example is the application of the Ant Colony Optimization method to the notoriously hard Traveling Salesman Problem or the use of genetic algorithms to optimize the Starcraft tech tree’s build orders. When the solution space you are searching and climbing evolves in time, algorithms that assume a static landscape run into problems.

However, this is also why (in more mathematically dense language) nailing down principles of war is so perilous.  A solution that you might have used a principle of war to get to is  fine at time T. But it loses validity as we shift to T+1 and tick upwards towards T+k. And should you use a principle that better fits war’s grammar in 1830 than 2013, then you are even more screwed.

The advantage of metaheuristics of war compared to principles of war is that, while both consider solutions to problems with discrete (not continuously shifting) solution landscapes, metaheuristics are about how you find solutions. Hill-climbing is (oversimplified) method of moving through solutions that exploits heuristic information, and random search is  (also oversimplified) “try and see what happens.” The process of a metaheuristic involves a combination of both.

In contrast, principles of war are not really a process as much as a set of general guidelines designed to dramatically and a priori shrink the possible space of solutions to be considered in ways far more sweeping than hill-climbing. They imply a very, very restricted set of solutions while still being too vague to help a practitioner think about how the solutions fit the problem. Principles of war generally say to the practitioner, “generally, you do ___ but how you apply this is up to your specific situation and needs.” It has a broad set of do’s and don’ts that — by definition — foreclose consideration of possible solutions when they conflict with a given principle.

Yes, they are suggestions not guidelines, but the burden of proof is on the principle-violating solution, not the principle of war.  It may be that many problems will require flagrantly violating a given principle. The Royal Navy’s idea about distributing its forces to deal with the strategic problem posed by early 20th century imperial geopolitics potentially runs afoul of several principles of war, but it still worked. Finally, many principles of war as incorporated in military instruction are shaped more by cultural bias than timeless warfighting ideas.

As noted previously, metaheuristic algorithms are flexible. Different metaheuristics can be specified for differing problems. Additionally, when we consider past military problems (which the didactic teaching of principles of war concerns), metaheuristics can serve as alternative method for thinking about canonical historical military problems. Algorithms are measured against benchmark problems. One can consider abstract “benchmark” military problems and more specific classes of problems. By doing so, we may shed light on conditions impacting the usefulness of various principles of war on various problems of interest.

I will stress again that the loose notion of metaheuristics of war and the the principles of war should be complementary, not an either-or. And they can be combined with methods that are more interpretive and frame-based, since you will not be able to use a metaheuristic without having the “I know it when I see it” understanding Luke referenced in the beginning of his quoted text. On a similar note, I’ll also stress that an algorithm makes up only one part of a software program’s design pattern. A strategy or strategic concept is a larger architecture (e.g. a “strategy bridge“) that cannot simply be reduced to some narrow subcomponent — which is how the principles of war have always been understood within the context of strategic thought.

That being said…….what about war in real time, the dynamic and nonlinear contest of wills that Clausewitz describes? Note the distinction between the idea of principles of war that reasonably explain a past collection of military problems/offer guidance to understanding reasonably well-known military problems and the conceptual ability to understand the underlying dynamics of a specific present or future military contest.

The principle of objective, unity of command, or mass will not tell you much about the context of the strategic dilemma Robert E. Lee faced as a Confederate commander because geography, technology, ideology, state policy, the choices of neutral states, etc all structured his decision. They are much better when applied to the general class of problem that Lee’s dilemma could be abstracted into.

This is the difference between Clausewitz’s “ideal” and “real” war. Ideal war lacks the constraints and context of real war, and real war is something more than the sum of its parts. For example, maneuverists often argued that the US should implement an German-style elastic defense to defeat the Soviets in Central Europe. But such an solution, while perhaps valid in the abstract, would not be tolerated by European coalition partners that sought to avoid another spate of WWII-like demolition of their homelands.

Principles of war tell us very little about the Trinity’s notion of passion, reason, and chance, or the very political, economic, geographic, and technological conditions that might allow us to understand how Clausewitz’s two interacting “duel” partners move from the start of the match to conclusion. We need to think about how the duel plays out in time. And for reasons already explained metaheuristics also have some big limitations of their own with respect to dynamically evolving solution spaces.

An entirely different set of conceptual tools is needed, but that’s a problem for another post. For now, I leave you with a NetLogo implementation of Particle Swarm Optimization. Look at those NetLogo turtles go!!

Recommended Reading

Saturday, December 21st, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Top billing! Adam Elkus Is Failure an Option? (I),  Is Failure an Option? (II),  Is Failure an Option? (III) 

….The idea of implementing a massive and complex venture rapidly and decisively (with little room for error) is essentially just a rephrasing of the familiar the pre-World War I fear of losing a mobilization race. Under some circumstances, a nuclear balance could also degenerate into a “use them or lose them” dilemma in which a state risks the entire annihilation of its strategic forces and decision nodes in one murderous enemy salvo. There also seems to be — from Niccolo Machiavelli to Nathan Bedford Forrest – a general competitive heuristic that if you are to crush your enemies, you must strike as powerfully as you can and as quickly as you can. The heuristic is even repeated in the animal kingdom: queen bees famously kill their rivals upon emergence. But as the Germans discovered after the Schlieffen Plan and The Wire‘s Omar taunted, rapid execution and massive risk only pays off when it pays off. Fail and you run the risk of embroiling yourself in a quagmire that might have been avoided with more gradual and less rigidly planned execution

SWJ El Centro – Sullivan, Bunker & Bunker Film Review: Narco Cultura – A Tale of Three Cities 

Narcocultura is on the ascendency. Narcocorridos are not new.  This genre of music has its roots in folk music and norteño ballads.  Like Pancho Villa, who was venerated in song during the revolution, these ballads extol the virtues of those who rebel against the corrupt state.  The poor and powerless look for symbols of power and rebellion.  Yet the narcocorrido is more than Hip Hop or gangster rap south of the border.  It is not only a form of cross-border musical social commentary; it is a means of cartel information operations and a vehicle of social-environmental modification. In this film, we see bands and singers in the orbit of Sinaloa (El Komander and the BuKnas de Culicán). Their songs are a form of information operations for the Sinaloa Federation. The Movimiento Alterado (altered movement) is the business name of the narcocorrido or corridos alterados movement in Los Angeles.  The movement and songs are sanctioned by the Sinaloa Cartel.  The narcocorridos are banned in parts of Mexico so they are produced in Los Angeles, home to a large immigrant community and numerous gangs.

John Hagel – The Dark side of Technology 

….But here’s the kicker.  This digital technology infrastructure is not stabilizing.  We’ve had plenty of technology disruptions throughout history – the steam engine, electricity, the telephone, just to name some.  But, asCarlotta Perez has shown, all of these disruptions followed a common pattern.  They began with a burst of innovation at the technology level, but then quickly stabilized with only incremental performance improvements afterwards.  That in turn led to a burst of innovation at the infrastructure level, figuring out how to most effectively organize and deliver the value of this technology to business and society. But then that too rapidly stabilized so we could then figure out how to most effectively harness this technology.

Our digital technology infrastructure is unprecedented in human history.  It’s not stabilizing.  The core technology components – computing, storage and bandwidth – are continuing to improve in price/performance at accelerating rates and the best scientists and technologists suggest that this exponential pace will not slow down in the foreseeable future.

RUSI – Afghanistan after 2014: What Roles for China and India? 

The Scholar’s Stage – Things those Chinese Think ( + What we think Back)

War on the Rocks – Japan’s New Defense Strategy

Dan Drezner has left the building

Slightly East of New –Vandergriff: Selfless vs. Selfish Service 

CORRECTION Fred Leland’s LESC blog  ( by Louis Hayes The Doctor in SWAT School (and What His Performance Says About Police Culture)

AeonEndless Fun and Creepypasta 

DemocracyJournalPaine and Burke Now 

That’s it

The United States of Strategy

Thursday, December 19th, 2013

[by Lynn C. Rees, under the inspiration of Adam Elkus]

Strategy is not a rigorous field of study. Even given how any field of study is quickly revealed to be vomit of selective half-truths, wishful thinking, political compromises, poorly sourced anecdotes, random trivia, maternal homilies, typographical errors, outright lies, innocent omissions, and clerical tidying if picked at too closely, strategy is burning hot radioactive waste.

It’s main focus of inquiry is what undermines it. Most study strategy in search of what Aleksandr Suvorov titled his own inquiry: The Science of Victory. Most want to go one step beyond Suvorov: they want the book that has never been written (though many aspired to write it): The Checklist of Victory. This motive is understandable. As the Swun Dz stated 2,500 years ago:

Warfare is a great matter to a nation;

it is the ground of death and of life;

it is the way of survival and of destruction, and must be examined.

Unluckily, this urgency has condemned strategy to anachronism. Pre-empirical literature invariably flew straight from what is to what should be without apology or even the awareness that there was something to apologize for. Many fields of inquiry since have reached a way station where, even if perfunctorily, its adherents perform the correct liturgical motions to acknowledge what is before they leap to what should be. Strategy is not one of them. It has never developed that clear wall of separation between description and prescription that many other disciplines reached.

Behavior that ever capricious contemporary norms label as strategic is a constant of observed human experience. Yet much dissection of this behavior is a dangerously thin veneer over Potter Stewart‘s “I know it when I see it“.  Adopting Stewart’s ever evolving sensibility is a fatal laziness. It dooms the study of strategy to an endless clash between proponents of an evergreen living strategy who appeal to novelty and originalists who appeal to the authority or tradition of their favorite textual hair splitter. Both sides end shoot blanks past each other since they’re often not even arguing their case before the same venue since they can’t agree on what the battlefield is. Hitting ’em where they ain’t is a time-honored tactical rule of thumb but it doesn’t make for a healthy field of study.

A rigorous field of strategy should at least be able to describe two aspects of strategy:

  • traits that that uniformly classify a specific something as strategic and a specific something else as not
  • the state of the traits so classified at any particular point in space and time

It could then contemplate a further leap:

  • describing and classifying traits of a strategic participant’s desired strategic state at any given point in time

Perhaps then the study of strategy would have the luxury of pontificating on strategic prescriptions. However, strategy as a field is far away from accurately prescribing what strategy should be since it’s almost equally far away from accurately describing what strategy is.


Tuesday, December 17th, 2013

[approached by Lynn C. Rees]

Scott’s comment gets me thinking:

Truly two main paths present: passive (deter and encourage) and active (conquer, convert, capture, or contain) [via Jeremy and Hans Delbruck]…

The strategist needs cognitive elasticity (Boyd would call “adaptability” and Eccles/Rosinski would call “strategic flexibility”), as the world/circumstances are ever-changing.

By reflex, modernity sees mind as a tug of war. To software extremists, mind is fluid, its course shifted constantly by the unfolding environment. To hardware extremists, mind is solid, its granite face reinforced by inheritance at a glacial pace. Risking fallacy, it seems reality is found somewhere in the mud puddle between tugs: firmware. Confounding software extremists, mind is not fluid. It’s not even rubbery: much of mind is solidified by inheritance. Confounding hardware extremists, mind is not solid. It’s not even doomed by age to irrevocable rigidity: mind can be bent, given time and constancy. Mind is plastic: it knows when to hold ’em and knows when to fold’em.

A connected view argues that mind’s right conjures ad hoc responses to new things while its left turns the ad hoc into routine responses. Predictably, this means that, as mind ages, its center of gravity leans left. To the infant, everything is new, to the elder, many things are eerily familiar. Focus follows time.

Swun Dz thought describes strategy as shr shifted between jeng and chi. Ralph Sawyer translates shr as “strategic configuration of power”, jeng as “orthodox”, and chi as “unorthodox”. The shr path of PMI thought agrees:

What is a project?

In A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Third Edition, the Project Management Institute defines a project as a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product or service. As simple as this definition may seem, there are a few key points that define a project as distinct from ongoing operations. Again, from the PMBOK® Guide:

Operations and projects differ primarily in that operations are ongoing and repetitive while projects are temporary and unique. A project can thus be defined in terms of its distinctive characteristics. Temporary means that every project has a definite beginning and a definite end. Unique means that the product or service is different in some distinguishing way from all similar products or services.

Poor Swun Dz. Born too early for his PMP®.

Fear not. The news is good. While the far future can look forward with gladness to finding bamboo fragments of the fabled PMBOK® Guide – Fourth Edition clutched tightly in skeletal fists when the tombs of the heroic project managers of old are opened, we get a few blessed scraps of future ancient PMI wisdom for today:

  • jeng == hardware ==  routine == left brain
  • chi == software == project == right brain

America swoons for Swun Dz  and the Swun Dz America swoons for is chi to the bone. For today’s America, jeng is a great sin while chi is a great virtue. The root fear of the age is being overtaken by the dread trope of the age: “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” In a jungle subject to the law of the instrument, the last thing you want to be accused of is jeng gray in nail and hammer. The sneer of “same old, same old” will not kill you, but it may serve as your hipness epitaph.

Now, as with all tropes too far, chi has fought the good fight for so long that it’s become what it professes to abominate: a hammer gone abroad in search of routines to pound. America is mired in routine appeals to chi. Yet Master Swun taught differently:

What enable[s] an army to withstand the enemy’s attack and not be defeated are uncommon [chi] and common [jeng] maneuvers.

The army will be like throwing a stone against an egg;

it is a matter of weakness and strength.

Generally, in battle, use the common [jeng] to engage the enemy and the uncommon [chi] to gain victory.

Those skilled at uncommon [chi] maneuvers are as endless as the heavens and earth, and as inexhaustible as the rivers and seas.

Like the sun and the moon, they set and rise again.

Like the four seasons, they pass and return again.

There are no more than five musical notes, yet the variations in the five notes cannot all be heard.

There are no more than five basic colors, yet the variations in the five colors cannot all be seen.

There are no more than five basic flavors, yet the variations in the five flavors cannot all be tasted.

In battle, there are no more than two types of attacks:

Uncommon [chi] and common [jeng], yet the variations of the uncommon [chi] and common [jeng] cannot all be comprehended.

The uncommon [chi] and the common [jeng] produce each other, like an endless circle.

Who can comprehend them?

I’d amend a few items in Scott’s excellent formulation. By my reckoning, strength is one unbroken spectrum. The more active and more passive, which it is not unreasonable to identify with chi and jeng, are not two distinct paths. They are two spectrum bookends. All flavors of strength, spoken, physical, wealth, and so forth, fall some place between them. Chi and jeng are swallowed up in the spectrum of strength, reduced to reference points scattered across its face.

Intensity of strength varies, and is measured, by shr, its strategic configuration of strength. And what aspects of strength are configurable?

  • reach: certainty of means
  • drive: certainty of motive
  • grip: certainty of opportunity

From where chi sits, this configurability looks like:

  • reach: flexibility of means
  • drive: flexibility of motive
  • grip: flexibility of opportunity

From where jeng sits, configurability looks more like:

  • reach: solidity of means
  • drive: solidity of motive
  • grip: solidity of opportunity

A more balanced approach looks like:

  • reach: plasticity of means
  • drive: plasticity of motive
  • grip: plasticity of opportunity

These three will vary in their plasticity. Reach will be fluid and then rigid. Drive will be rigid now and later more fluid. Grip will be more solid before and more flexible after.

Politics is the division (and dividing) of strength. Strategy is its continuation and instrument. Strategy is the configuration (and configuring) of strength, the balance (and balancing), the plasticity (and plasticizing) of strength’s reach, drive, and grip. It will solidify and liquidate its strategic configuration of strength as the wider political configuration of the division of power is anticipated and reacted to by those balanced within.

Three variations, drive, reach, and grip, yet the variations of the three cannot all be comprehended.

They produce each other, like an endless plastic circle.

Who can comprehend them?

Peter O’Toole, RIP — & that goes for TE Lawrence and OB Laden, too

Monday, December 16th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — farewell to a great actor, also some curious related videos ]

So Peter O’Toole is no longer among us. Film-makers and actors routinely bring three dimensions out of the two-dimensional silver screen, but O’Toole had the gift to show us more dimensions than most, so I thought a small tribute might be in place.

As a Brit with an interest in the local strain of theology, O’Toole’s role as King Henry II in Peter Glenville‘s film adaptation of Jean Anouilh‘s Becket was an obvious choice…

But then, you know, there’s also TE Lawrence, who ties into the fascination hereabouts with strategy, and with the Middle East, and my being a Brit again — so I went looking for a decent clip from David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia”, and found…

I mean, why?

Lawrence of Arabia didn’t look at all like that, we all know what he looked like, he looked like this:


I’ve been posting about these exceedingly curious YouTube videos meshing bin Laden imagery with great classical music for a while now [see here and here], and wondering what on earth they might mean. I ran across some more of them recently — if the topic is still of interest, let me know, and I’ll post something on my more recent finds.

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