by Judith Curry
American strategists would benefit from a longer-range view of history to better inform force design. Thinking historically about the future means dealing openly with those things we want to avoid or are in denial about. – Frank Hoffman
The military are the masters at decision making under deep uncertainty. I recently spotted this article: On Vladimir Putin, Black Swans and Pink Flamingos. PINK FLAMINGOS — this was instant click bait for me. The article introduces a very interesting concept, with substantial relevance for climate science. Excerpts:
A few years back there was a popular concept in international affairs and intelligence analysis called the Black Swan Theory. The theory, popularized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, sought to explain the prevalence in human affairs of big but highly improbable events such as financial market collapses, the outbreaks of conflicts or scientific breakthroughs. According to Taleb, a Black Swan event has three characteristics:
- It is a surprise to governments, experts and outside observers.
- The event has a major impact.
- After the first instance of the event, it is rationalized by hindsight (which also is why a Black Swan event never happens the same way twice).
JC note: Black swans were discussed in this previous CE post [link]
For a while there was an effort on the part of government agencies and experts in various fields to use the Black Swan Theory as a basis for anticipating surprises. Just come up with a list of impossible scenarios and try and work backwards to find evidence to support one versus another. Of course, Taleb never suggests any such thing. He argued that it is not possible to predict Black Swans and hence the proper strategy is to increase the resilience to negative events and create a reserve capacity to exploit positive ones.
A noted U.S. defense expert, Frank Hoffman wrote recently about U.S. military strategy and how to deal with both Black Swans and Pink Flamingoes. The new concept, the Pink Flamingo, refers to “a predictable event that is ignored due to cognitive biases of a senior leader or a group of leaders trapped by powerful institutional forces.” Hoffman’s prescription for dealing with these two different species in the military domain is similar to what Taleb proposes: be aware both of your lack of predictive ability and your biases, and build in robustness and breadth to a military that will have to deal with unanticipated or just blindly ignored threats. Taleb and Hoffman both argue for preparedness and resilience.
Hoffman’s original article: Black swans and pink flamingos: five principles for force design. Excerpts:
What key lessons should U.S. policymakers and defense planners take away from the last 14 years of conflict? How relevant is the recent past? What does our strategic and operational performance suggest we need to retain as core competencies? Without looking critically at the past, our own wars and others, all of the arguments about AirSea Battle, disruptive technologies, and offset strategies will be largely premature, if not largely uninformed.
JC comment: The analogy I am trying to make here with climate change is that the focus on the period since 1950 for climate change attribution allows us to fool ourselves. Yes, there is a vigorous paleoclimate research community, but I am still waiting for a robust explanation for the substantial global warming from 1905-1945, why the globe has been warming overall for the past 400 years, and what caused the little ice age. Failing to even try to understand climate change during these periods in the recent past is a recipe for fooling ourselves about what has caused the recent warming, and how the future climate will evolve.
Drawing upon the last several wars for insights or major principles for force design is useful, but to draw the right insights requires more than merely thinking about the recent past. We must look forward to a more complex world, one in which technological, social, and economic change produce new contexts. In his most famous essay on the abuse of history, Michael Howard noted that the military must strive to explore history to acquire lessons, but also to be able to recognize when changes in context have made doctrine and past practice obsolete.
American policymakers and strategists would benefit from a longer-range view of history to better inform defense policy and joint force design.More importantly politicians cannot dictate the terms of future conflicts. The future does not bend to our illusions or our preferences. History’s furies do not respond to presidential pronouncements about the tides of war.
JC comment: And the climate will not change significantly as a result of the UNFCCC policies, even if they are actually agreed upon and successfully implemented.
Recent defense policy statements suggest that the “technology optimists” are alive and well again. We must be wary of claims about disruptive breakthroughs, as a premature shift to autonomous robotic systems or unbalanced approach can generate a lot of risk without benefit. We should definitely seek advantages in all dimensions of war, and while we may be forced to consider offsets, we need not rush for silver bullets.
JC comment: The climate-relevant analogy is that all of the proposed solutions have unintended (and possibly unforeseeable) negative consequences.
As former RAND analyst Russ Glenn once noted, lessons from the past are of value only if molded to the needs of the future. A military that does not balance looking backward with constant glances at the future risks preparing only for the war last fought. We examine the past in order to illuminate the future, not to relive past success.
Richard Danzig’s widely cited CNAS paper, Driving in the Dark, recommended that the “defense community should also design processes, programs and equipment on the premise that predictions will often be incorrect. While trying better to illuminate the road, analysts should recognize that sudden twists and turns in areas of darkness demand special driving techniques.” Danzig’s driving metaphor is appropriate for steering into a future that, by its nature, is uncertain.
JC comment: Driving in the Dark was discussed in this previous CE post [link]
From that metaphor I have derived a set of five force planning principles:
1. Force design and posture must embrace uncertainty. “The record of Americans’ ability to predict the nature of the next war, not to mention its causes, location, time, adversary, and allies, has been uniformly dismal.” This dismal record is not a criticism of American intellect as much as a realization of the persistence of uncertainty in strategic planning.
Thinking historically about the future means dealing openly with those things we want to avoid or are in denial about. These are what I call our pink flamingoes. A pink flamingo is a predictable event that is ignored due to cognitive biases of a senior leader or a group of leaders trapped by powerful institutional forces. These are the cases which are “known knowns,” often brightly lit, but remaining studiously ignored by policymakers.
JC comment: I have heard these also referred to ‘unknown knowns’. Intellectual fashions, and manufactured consensus, can lead us to forget what we already know: e.g. the TAR’s hockey stick obliterated the knowledge that we had developed about climate variability over the past several millennia.
Uncertainty is a reality to force planners, as Colin Gray has noted:
We will certainly be surprised in the future, so it is our task now to try to plan against the effects of some deeply unsettling surprises. The key to victory here is not the expensive creation of new conceptual, methodological, or electro-mechanical tools of prediction. Rather it is to pursue defense and security planning on the principles of minimum regrets and considerable flexibility and adaptability.
2. Force design must be strategically driven. Thinking strategically suggests an ability to define priorities and to make hard choices that shape the future. These distinct choices should be rigorously tested, the way car manufacturers test their designs through wind tunnels and test tracks.
JC comment: This brings to mind the attempt to usurp all of the UN millennial development goals in favor of futile attempts to change the climate by reducing global carbon emissions.
But meeting the challenge of uncertainty mandates we think about and allocate a premium for a force design that can be applied in a wide range of scenarios, not just the ones we decide we like.
JC comment: This is a very important point; we need a broader range of scenarios of future climate change, including possible cooling from the sun, volcanoes, and shift to the cold phase of the AMO.
3. Risk is inevitable in strategy. We would all prefer that the United States be able to cover all contingencies and still have a preponderance of power left over to deal with chance, friction, and a cunning enemy. Risk in U.S. defense planning is poorly understood, and is usually discussed rhetorically in the context of missions or capabilities we want to spend money on, or avoid allocating resources towards. Thus, when someone states, “I am buying down risk,” they mean they are simply spending more on it.
Yes, strategy is about matching ends with means, and risk and tradeoffs are fundamental to long-range planning; but the enemy does not have to respect U.S. planning assumptions and theories of victory.
Returning to the “driving in the dark” metaphor, the United States military needs to wear seat belts and buy insurance. Right now the Department of Defense is preparing to pay for a rather high deductible if there is an accident or miscalculation as we’ve not purchased enough coverage against simultaneous or protracted crises. Our country is not adequately insured. A crash in the real world is not subject to “no fault” rules; there truly are consequences to complacency and to faulty strategy.
4. Force design must emphasize versatility over adaptability. Versatility is based on a breadth of competencies, instead of a collection of specialized organizations or players.
Versatility is dependent upon adequate training resources and the time to absorb a wide array of scenarios. It is also predicated on investments in education and flexible doctrine so that leaders are mentally prepared to apply best practices and the proper techniques for the scenarios they are expected to be prepared for. Agility is a measure of how easily and how fast an organization can shift between competencies and execute them equally well.
Adaptability is based on the capacity to adjust current competencies or generate entirely new skills in reaction to an adversary or to unanticipated circumstances.
There is more to adaptation than storing or being able to share operational or tactical lessons. Adaptability can be enhanced by leadership development, extensive educational programs with detailed campaign studies of successful and failed efforts to adapt, institutional mechanisms that assist commanders in recognizing problems or gaps in performance and equally, and mechanisms that develop and refine strategic, operational or tactical solutions to those gaps. We should not depend entirely on adaptability to compensate for our limited grasp of what battles tomorrow will present.
Our forces have to cover a wide range of missions and forms of terrain; they have to be rugged and reliable, instead of exquisite and expensive. But rather than effectiveness over the long haul, defense planning since 2012 has been forced to seek near-term efficiency despite the broad uncertainty we face.
JC comment: In context of the climate policy response, this issue was addressed in the recent post Global Climate Agreements Could be Counterproductive.
5. Force design must ensure a degree of balance. Keeping up with the driving metaphor, U.S. defense strategists should not buy cars with only three tires. One of the principal elements of a sound joint force design is a balanced force capable of generating options for decision-makers in many contexts, and at the operational level, being able to generate dilemmas for our opponents. We should avoid an unbalanced program force that attempts to sustain a large and costly structure that forces us to penny-pinch on training, readiness or even worse, education.
JC comment: The ‘car with three tires’ is a good analogy for UNFCCC emissions reductions policies, that will be lucky to reduce warming by 0.2C by the end of the 21st century, implementing current wind and solar technologies that are not up to the task and so diverting investments from developing new technologies.
Today’s force planning requirements are framed more by policy desires and fiscal constraints than a realistic view to the future. The unfamiliar and the uncomfortable do not equate to unlikely. Our force must be designed not just to respond to the most likely or those canonical scenarios that favor cherished hardware programs. U.S. force planning should hedge by providing general capabilities and organizational agility that allow adaptations to unanticipated developments.
JC comment: Apart from different emissions scenarios, the only scenario of 21st century climate change is related to CO2 emissions. Failure to even consider the possibility of solar cooling, volcanic cooling and cooling associated multi-decadal and longer scale ocean oscillations fails the robustness test.
Thanks to Hubert Lamb and others, an evolving understanding of climate variability over the past millennia had evolved. Michael Mann arguably killed the climate pink flamingo with his hockey stick — arguing for trivial natural variability over the past millennia.
This understanding of natural variability was ignored, particularly in the TAR and AR4, “due to cognitive biases of a senior leader or a group of leaders trapped by powerful institutional forces.” — “known knowns,” often brightly lit, but remaining studiously ignored by policymakers.
Apart from the pink flamingo issue, Hoffman reiterates important principles for decision making under deep uncertaity, or driving in the dark.