Editor's Note: This short article touches on Clausewitz's still relevant conceptions of fog and friction and their impact on the conduct of warfare. I am posting this article as much for its content as for the prospect of debate in the comments section over the U.S. military's preparedness to deal with fog and friction on today's battlefield. While some suggest that modern technology offers the promise of information dominance, I think most readers will find that both information overload and information starvation can lead to fog, friction, and paralysis. How do we train and educate leaders to overcome the paralysis caused by the combination of an expectation of information dominance and the choking influence of risk-averse climates? In an environment of data overload, how do we educate commanders to step back from the numbers and matrices and see the whole picture and the details that can only be sensed, not quantified? In an operating environment where adversaries may be able to jam or otherwise compromise our communications and information systems, how do we ensure that our troops and leaders can continue the fight "unplugged" as we become more and more reliant on our technological advantages? These are questions I hope you are thinking about and I look forward to your comments.
Combat in today’s world is far different from that of Carl von Clausewitz’s era. Technology has changed the way we fight wars, and modern armies have come to rely on a grand array of Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems in combat. The technological tsunami that has saturated much of the globe has also created a “cyber flank” of war that Clausewitz likely never imagined. Yet, regardless of the decisive advantages offered by technology and the information dominance that it can offer, Clausewitz’s theories of “fog and friction” remain central and enduring characteristics in modern warfare, possibly now more than ever. Today, commanders at all levels of war must come to terms with the modern ambiguities that manifest not just on our defined battlefields, but also in our not- so-defined atmospheres of war.
Clausewitz employs the term “fog” to describe war’s haziness and to refer to the unreliability of information in war. Clausewitz noted that “war is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.” In describing friction, Clausewitz states; “We have identified danger, physical exertion, intelligence and friction as the elements that coalesce to form the atmosphere of war, and turn it to a medium that impedes activity. In their restrictive efforts they can be grouped into a single concept of friction.” Although the information age has significantly bridged the gap of uncertainty, the incessant desire for absolute certainty on the modern battlefield, itself, often casts a shadow of fog and friction. Modern fog and friction appears in today’s conflicts by: information overload; the phenomenon of real-time technology; and by cyberspace threats.
A warfighting Joint Operations Center (JOC) more than often contains the full gambit of intelligence systems, analysts, and the ever-popular Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) feeds, aka “Kill TV”. Raw data flows into the JOC like a fire hose, and information overload can often produce more uncertainty than actionable information. Moreover, the process of sifting, disseminating, and acting upon information is often delayed as a result of self-imposed “analysis paralysis”, where staffs and commanders alike desire every obtainable detail possible prior to reaching a decision. Where Clausewitz relied on messengers carrying handwritten notes to form a complete picture of the battlefield, modern commanders are faced with recognizing the important information in an information-rich environment.
Kill TV is one of the most significant phenomenons in modern warfare. The lure to commanders and staff of viewing the fighting as it unfolds can lead many to overlook the fog that those on the ground are still navigating. Just because the battle can be seen does not mean that one can see through the fog. A USA Today article published prior to the execution of Operation Iraqi Freedom stated; “Observers fear that top-ranking commanders far removed from the battle will horn in to make split-second decisions that should be made by those "smelling the gunpowder." Micromanagement is indeed an intangible modern drawback of real-time imagery capabilities, which certainly can add to today’s fog and friction.
Cyberspace is the game-changer that has expanded fog and friction far beyond the conventional battlefields of Clausewitz. Cyberspace is a distinct flank of the modern global battlefield, of which we have only begun to come to terms with. If Clausewitz was faced with the shadowy battlefield of Cyberspace, he may very well have described his concepts differently. The tenets of land, sea, air, and space warfare do not necessarily translate into cyber warfare. Cyberwar tactics, technologies, and capabilities that transcend the traditional battlespace and into the global atmosphere also give a new meaning to “armed” conflict, creating an entirely new and uncharted dimension of fog and friction.
Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullin claimed that cyberwar “changes not only how we fight, but also when, where, and whom we fight”. Our potential adversaries in cyberspace go well beyond state actors and terrorists, and include everyone from international criminal syndicates to 16-year-old computer hackers. The limits of our power and control in cyberspace, along with the ambiguities of the attackers and their objectives, further add to the uncertainties. Other factors such as measures of effectiveness, damage assessments, collateral damage, cyber defenses, and lack of cyber doctrine highlight the thick haze of fog created by the cyber threat. The troublesome friction is rooted in the struggle to agree on the nature of Cyber Warfare, who the key players are, and how we counter the threat. The result is the inability to develop governing doctrine, policies, and laws on cyberwar. Cyberwar is not just a government problem, as the threat extends to the corporate/private sector. The fog and friction associated with the threat of Cyber Warfare may be the only thing that is clear.
Clausewitz’s theories of fog and friction will remain inherent in military operations, and will inevitably remain a constant regardless of where the technological road may lead us. Information overload, real-time technology, and cyberspace threats remain a major source of haze on our modern battlefields. We will undoubtedly continue to work hard to innovatively reduce occurrences of ambiguity. However, as new means, venues, and concepts of warfare are being revealed, commanders and U.S. officials alike must come to terms with what we can and cannot master.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.