Small Wars Journal

Modern Fog and Friction

Mon, 01/23/2012 - 6:09pm


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.


About the Author(s)

MAJ James Reed is a U.S. Army officer.  He has served in various staff and command billets.



Tue, 01/24/2012 - 8:33pm

In reply to by Jack Gander

There's a big difference between saying "we do not have the advantage" and saying that "China is cleaning our clocks". The asymmetry in the screaming about data theft is precisely what raises suspicion: based on public reports, you'd guess that the US public sector (and, more important, private sector) are doing absolutely nothing on their own part, which is hard to believe. Given that we know only what we're told, I'd be hesitant to reach any conclusion on the matter. Usually when public information suggests that we are falling behind some presumptive antagonist in some critical "race", a whacking great budget request is not far behind. All reports must be taken with numerous grains of salt, especially when they seem calculated to inspire fear.

How much "damage" did PFC Manning really do, on the broad scale? We seem to have survived. Not saying there isn't a problem, but overreaction can be a problem too.

The reality that a country feels the need to "inoculate" their populace against western ideas points to a clear asymmetry of fear. They worry about western ideas spreading; we do not worry and do not need to worry about Chinese ideas spreading. The Chinese popukace wants western ways, dreams of moving to America, sneaks money out to invest in real estate overseas... how many Americans dream of moving to China? How many people anywhere dream of moving to China?

Even if China has the upper hand in data theft, which again is impossible to accurately assess, they are likely at a disadvantage in terms of overall impact of a highly permissive information flow environment, simply because their system relies on keeping an increasingly restive populace under control (domestic dissent has always been the Chinese government's greatest security concern) and they are thus more threatened by the uncontrolled flow of information.

I've seen many assessments of China's "soft power strategy", as well as observing on the ground in SE Asia. It's not the grand success it's sometimes cracked up to be. Very much mixed outcomes, and not something the US needs to see as a threat.

Given the overwhelming dominance the US and "the West" hold in the media and entertainment industries, I think I'll leave my eyebrows firmly in place when hearing reports of Chinese investment, especially when the details of the investment and its capacity to influence content remain unreported. Chinese sovereign wealth funds are investing almost everywhere - that money has to be put someplace - and that needn't be seen as an effort to gain control or subvert.

It's always worth paying attention, and there's no cause for complacency. It's also always worth taking a solid pause when news seems calculated to inspire fear, especially fear of a foreign power. There are lots of people with lots to gain from getting us scared, and there's little benefit to the whole in playing along with that game.

Jack Gander

Tue, 01/24/2012 - 5:23am

Who exactly says that "China is already cleaning our clocks in the information environment"?

You’re correct I don’t have access to 100% of the information on US cyber activity but I can refer to assessments by the IC, US Commissions, defense experts, private industry, academics and think tanks that assess we do not have the advantage in the information domain. Again, I’m talking about the full spectrum of information based activities – including crime and espionage. If you think back to the Cold War era, there was near parity with the USSR in our espionage activities. The USG didn’t make public each time US information was accessed by a foreign government – just when a scum bag like John Walker was caught violating the public trust in him by selling our secrets (as a point of reference, look at how much more damage a single individual, PFC Manning, can do because of our dependence on information systems and the “need” to share). We now scream from the rooftops that our public and private sector data is being stolen by China. I find it difficult to believe that if we had an advantage in cyberspace, we would be taking our current approach – a grand strategy of deception? Doubt it. If you have data to prove otherwise, please present it; until then, I will go with the sources previously mentioned.

Who says that the Chinese are “effectively” inoculating the minds of their people against western influence? You did. I said they understood the importance of countering western influence and obviously it isn’t working all that well. But the Chinese are taking both an offensive and defensive approach to the threat by deploying counter-propaganda teams, we are not (and I am not suggesting we should). The US public is constantly bombarded with misinformation, not necessarily for nefarious purposes, that often goes unchallenged.

You are correct with your historical assessment of western influence but globally, how is it trending? Read the literature on China’s soft power strategy and the progress they’ve made over the past several years.

I’m not panicking either. However when you aware of Chinese efforts to take a more prominent role in the global media, this new interest in the US entertainment industry should raise some eyebrows.

As Major Reed mentions in his introduction, his intent was to stir debate on this important topic. My intent was to point out that the military is not the only dog in this virtual fight. If we don’t understand the new “battlespace” beyond the traditional C4ISR construct, it is difficult to make any credible advances in developing doctrine, etc to counter this new reality.


Tue, 01/24/2012 - 3:36am

In reply to by Jack Gander

Who exactly says that "China is already cleaning our clocks in the information environment"? Just because they don't hold a press conference every time they get hacked doesn't mean it's not happening, and just because the US doesn't announce everything they do doesn't mean they're doing nothing. I suspect there's a good deal going on there that we don't hear about.

Who says that the Chinese are effectively inoculating the minds of their people against western influence? Western influence is omnipresent in China, infinitely more than Chinese influence on Americans. It may not be spread by conscious action of the military or the government, but it's everywhere nonetheless.

As for Chinese money being invested in Hollywood, I decline to panic. Somehow I don't think Disney is going to have the kiddies turning Chinese.

If you look at the way western and particularly American cultural influence has spread globally it's hard to seriously contend that we're at a disadvantage in "influence warfare".

Jack Gander

Mon, 01/23/2012 - 9:28pm

Nice article and you raise some excellent points regarding information based threats as they pertain to the military and what we have traditionally considered warfare. Part of the challenge is we tend to force these new threats into a paradigm the military is comfortable using rather than looking at this threat through a fresh lens.

It is well documented in open source literature that China is already cleaning our clocks in the information environment. While they are masters of cyber attacks, espionage and crime, part of their cyber kit includes influence tactics. They desire to attack the cognitive domain as well as the cyber assets of an adversary in order to erode trust, create confusion and bollocks-up decision making cycles.

The problem is much greater than a military problem, however. Because of our dependence on information (both content and systems)– even to the point of physical addiction (consider excessive television viewing, online-gaming, internet surfing are recognized by the medical community as forms of addiction) – the US is vulnerable. It may be a bit presumptuous to assume the US military will be the primary target in an all out cyber war. The Chinese (and Russians to some extent) recognize the importance of “inoculating the minds” of their people to protect them from western influence. Because of our open society we are at a great disadvantage in influence warfare - it was used pretty efficiently on the US during Viet Nam. Influence operations –whether commercial marketing tactics, political campaigning, etc are being conducted on the American public everyday and has become accepted as a fact of life.

Part of China’s public diplomacy strategy is to establish news outlets around the world, particularly in developing nations. They see this as an opportunity to conduct shaping operations against targeted groups (an improved version of VOA). I found it particularly interesting that today FT reported the China “businessmen” were looking to invest in Hollywood.…

Are they just looking to make a few bucks or is this a veiled attempt at influencing a new market?