As the famous saying goes, no plan survives contact with the enemy. And everything takes longer than it takes.

One of the most important concepts in war is what Clausewitz called “friction.” Planning bias leads many to assume any imperfection is due to bad planning or incompetence. Clausewitz warns us that due to “the influence of an infinity of petty circumstances, which cannot properly be described on paper, things disappoint us, and we fall short of the mark.”

Here’s Clausewitz’s famous passage:

“As long as we have no personal knowledge of war, we cannot conceive where those difficulties lie of which so much is said, and what that genius, and those extraordinary mental powers required in a general have really to do. All appears so simple, all the requisite branches of knowledge appear so plain, all the combinations so unimportant, that, in comparison with them, the easiest problem in higher mathematics impresses us with a certain scientific dignity. But if we have seen war, all becomes intelligible; and still, after all, it is extremely difficult to describe what it is which brings about this change, to specify this invisible and completely efficient Factor.

Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult. These difficulties accumulate and produce a friction, which no man can imagine exactly who has not seen war.”

Many claim that solving the world’s problems are so simple. This shows the shallowness of their ideas.

Friction is a product of a nonlinear dynamical system. There are many components to the system, each with simple operations, and they interact with a large number of other components. This produces emergence. Small changes in the inputs by one or two components can drastically change the outputs.

Friction is the result of a large number of variables emerging from a few unnoticed and seemingly minor inputs. It provides vital information about reality. In this fashion, fricton is very similar to price theory in economics and just as useful.

Clausewitz compared this social force to the force of friction in classical mechanics. The law of inertia states that an object will remain at constant velocity unless acted upon by an outside force. In war, plans encounter this form of friction because “activity in war is movement in a resistant medium.” Clausewitz compares real war to swimming in water, while theorists speak of walking on land.

Weather is a classic example of friction. Fog limits sight, dampness affects gunpowder, mud slows transports, etc. Friction from individuals, logistics, the environment and random chance combine in a reinforcing loop, so tiny inputs amount to major effects (ie the butterfly effect). On top of all this? The enemy interacts with you in a competitive game. We operate in a realm of deeply limited knowledge – yet the unspoken facts still exist. Rather than creating idealist plans, our goal should be to discover the knowledge of reality.

The Trinity
War combines elements of the Irrational, the Rational, and Fortune. Clausewitz calls this the “Trinity.

“War is, therefore, not only a true chameleon, because it changes its nature in some degree in each particular case, but it is also, as a whole, in relation to the predominant tendencies which are in it, a wonderful trinity, composed of the original violence of its elements, hatred and animosity, which may be looked upon as blind instinct; of the play of probabilities and chance, which make it a free activity of the soul; and of the subordniate nature of a political instrument, by which it belongs purely to the reason.”

These three elements interact in such a way as to create a degree of uncertainty. All war is rational, but elements of it go beyond reason.

War is a “wicked problem.” Interacting with a complex social system changes its nature; any attempt to enact a solution changes the problem. Rittel and Webber outline this problem:

  • You don’t understand the problem until you have developed a solution.
  • Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  • Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong, simply “better,” “worse,” “good enough,” or “not good enough.”
  • Every wicked problem is essentially unique and novel.
  • Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”
  • Wicked problems have no given alternative solution

In other words, even the simplest thing is impossibly difficult. Here’s a way forward. When dealing with wicked problems, we must gather and analyze data, then formulate and implement solutions in an incremental way.John Boyd’s OODA loop decision cycle (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) is the military description of this decision-making strategy. The commanders closest to the action observe friction before anyone else and take initiative. Command power moves down the chain of command to accommodate resources and reaction time. At the tactical level, American soldiers’ OODA reaction is faster than the enemies, allowing them to get multiple decision cycles ahead of their enemy. Tactical superiority of lieutenants and NCOs accumulates to strategic superiority in both military and political fields (e.g. the “Strategic Corporal”). In this way, we discover reality and adapt more efficiently.

On the strategic level, warfare is the economics of destruction. Wars consist of incremental tradeoffs with no solutions. Enemies fight, learn and adapt to each other in a dynamic environment. Whoever adapts better gains an advantage. This continues until one side reaches a breaking point where morale, material, or political will is unsustainable. We can transfer much of our economic knowledge to the competitive arena of military affairs.

Muddling Through
Leaders must prepare for the unknown and rapidly respond to changes in the system. Attempts to plan and control a chaotic society encounter severe friction leading to failure. Why does planning fail? Plans are not reality. It “solves” a mathematics problem when one does not know the formula or variables, but wants a certain answer and is determined to get it no matter what. Idealist plans result in a flood of unintended consequences that nullify the intended action. What is desirable is not feasible or stable.

So how do societies wage war? We muddle through. Incrementalism outperforms master plans. So how can we build strategies? The Army theory of strategy uses “Ends, Ways, and Means.” You set the objection, the way to achieve the objective, and prepare resources for the task. Commanders prepare material for thing they directly control, but getting from point A to point B cannot be planned. At any rate, the enemy moved to point C since you last looked. You approach the enemy incrementally and update your approach as you go.

Militaries must use friction the way businessmen use prices. Price allows us to rationally respond to innumerable changes in economics. Our personal feelings about high or low prices are irrelevant, and so are our feelings about friction. It is bottom-up information from millions of silent sources that self-organize and speak to us. Friction and price both collect information from the weather, logistical delays, morale, technical malfunctions, competitor behavior, capricious politicians and other uncountable variables. Price and Friction are the truth of reality – the desire to change or control these efficient factors represents delusion.

Typically, micro-planning at the lowest level receives more immediate feedback allowing us to better adapt. This higher up the commander, the more removed he is from the reality of Earth. So it follows that Congress exists on a different planet.

Critics, such as Senators from Massachusetts, frequently blame the military for not having plans. Planning bias by political and media elites cause considerable harm to strategic operations. They demand that reality conform to a perfect ideal rather than the other way around.