Small Wars Journal

Towards Post-Strategy? The Hard Intervention of Artificial Intelligence on Military Thought

Fri, 12/28/2018 - 6:08pm

Towards Post-Strategy?  The Hard Intervention of Artificial Intelligence on Military Thought

Bulend Ozen

This essay considers the influence of artificial intelligence (AI) on the future of strategic thought.  Specifically, it assesses the prospects of a new ‘post-strategy’ era dominated by AI and new technologies.


Considering the adage “the rational answer is hidden in the right question,” there are critical questions that need to be answered by security and military experts and theorists — Is strategy transforming to post-strategy?  Will long-established doctrines of the war surrender to the big data of artificial intelligence (AI)?  Will the businesses use the accepted principles of military thinkers of ‘classical war’ better than the military?

The great and rapid change of civilization caused by the 19th century industrial revolution in Europe and the discovery of oil created both destructive effects along with opportunities in the military and security spheres.  The strategy, tactics, and doctrinal literature that evolved  over centuries of war have been threatened by rapid change in security parameters from the 20th century onwards, as exemplified by the devastating effects of nuclear weapons.

Moreover, the threat of nuclear weapons disrupted the harmony between (political) ends, (strategic) ways and (military) means in strategic efforts.[1]  While states and armies had not yet fully adapted to this situation in the 20th century, and with the half-life of their systems and equipment not yet reached, the security and military world entered a new uncontrollable era in the 21st century with the introduction of ‘super’ advanced technology and AI.  Soon, the destructive capacity of military technological capabilities powered by AI could be much bigger than the total destructive effect from all previous capacities combined. The question: “In what direction is strategy and tactics evolving in such an unpredictable security environment” must be the focus of security and military experts.[2]

In that sense, it should be noted that there is no general awareness that modern strategic thought does not seek to pursue or appreciate current developments. This is a phenomenon that has been repeated for centuries.[3]

Awakening to New Era

The triple-design that produces, maintains and develops strategy and tactics in war has not changed for centuries: namely; military organization, weapons-vehicles-equipment (materiel), and doctrine (MO-WVE-D).  The strategic culture that every country’s army possesses also provides a characteristic contribution and difference to this triple design.  The synergistic design that often-brought victory to countries and armies for centuries resembles that of a master chef — with his own style and secrets — in a perfect kitchen.  However, in the coming period, computer software, coding, algorithms, big data, machine learning (ML), robotic task forces and AI have the potential to constrain and shape ‘organic’ strategy and the synergistic triple-design MO-WVE-D.

The laser weapon, which is accepted as typical for today's commanders, would have been a miracle for Prussian king and commander Friedrich the Great in the 18th century when scientists discovered electricity.  If the same timeline is adapted to today, it is not possible to predict what ‘miracles’ will be seen 200 years down the road.  In the recent past, an artificial muscle was transferred to a human and a human muscle transferred to a robot in labs.  All this hopeful, but uncontrollable, positive developments show that not only the body of soldier but perhaps also his reasoning, his judgement, his strategic and tactic thinking processes will be influenced or under the control of algorithms in the future.

Despite technological advances in recent decades, generals and commanders of armies still continue to practice strategic and tactical maneuvers under camouflage, in command and control vehicles, and using traditional military maps (essentially a continuation of the classical era).  Although this tradition of centuries has a mystical and traditional characteristic, the commanders of the future will have to revise their purposes — think Hans Delbrück’s ‘Niederwerfungsstrategie’ (destruction strategy)[4] or Clausewitz’s “Destruction of Military Power and Removal of Enemy Wills”[5] — because they will find fewer enemy units, weapons systems and ammunition depots to take under fire on the battlefield.  The human factor that generates strategy and tactics shifts from the battlefield to offices and from soldiers to software developers and operators.  Here, the type, ability, and task design of warfare weapons are shaped more by the enemy’s technological threat capabilities than by soldiers’ professional warrior abilities.  Soldiers must approach this subject critically, without entering fanatic proposals such as “soldiers wage the war and commanders decide” or “civilians do not understand war” and must increase their endeavors towards cooperation with expert civilians for making correct predictions and, in turn, receiving scientific advice.

Organic Strategy or Artificial Strategy

It is possible to summarize the situation in the following two points where AI and information technology can transform the ‘strategy’ and its field workers tactics to a ‘post-strategy’ under the threat of advanced technology:

*  The “thinking, producing and decision-making mechanism” required for the emergence of strategy, tactics and doctrine is shifting from the commanders’ minds to machine-based AI systems,

* The human (soldier) factor, which can negatively impact the shooting hit ratio of any weapon, leaves its place to more sensitive control and decision-making mechanisms controlled by AI.

When these two points are evaluated together, it is seen that today’s “thinking, deciding and acting” chain carried out by the commanders and their troops will be fulfilled more and more by the decision of AI and its mixed (human, robot, cybernetic organisms) troops. Considering the decrease in error factors, the soldiers will gladly accept these algorithmic-systems that potentially reduce human loss on the battlefield, which in turn makes the commanders’ jobs easier, and at least helps them make no ‘logical’ mistakes.  But on the other hand it might be expected that they will complain about this development’s killing professionalism.

In the near future, the AI systems might appear to influence the organic ties among strategy, tactics, and doctrine with their advantages and disadvantages.  For the AI that directly affects these organic ties, the experts offer a three-stage development period in general: Narrow artificial intelligence, general artificial intelligence and super artificial intelligence.[6]  In the narrow period that we have just entered, it is possible to make some predictions about the coming ‘general AI’ period, but it is not yet known what the ‘super AI’ period will bring. It can be assumed this three-stage period are acceptable periods for military artificial intelligence [(M)AI] too.

The main problem with the future of the war is who will take the initiative and control of military judgement and decision-making processes.  As ‘general AI’ continues to penetrate to military weapons, vehicles and equipment (MO-WVE) with an increasing speed leading to the inception of ‘military artificial intelligence’ [(M)AI].  These developments have been anticipated since ‘Deep Blue’ beat Kasparov in chess in 1997.

The ability of staff officers to “offer a decision not to leave options other than accepting or refusing to the commander” will be a natural function of the (M)AI in the future and especially on the tactical/operational field, which will force the commanders to choose “the most strongly recommended algorithmic option.”  This situation can create long-term negative effects on tactics and doctrine.

Since the speed of AI that cannot be compared with the human decision-making mechanism, ‘(intelligent) speed’ will become the prerequisite fundamental tactical principle in the battlefields for determining victory for attacker and survival for defender.  Moreover it seems that the responsibility will rely on the AI systems more than human minds. In this context, the AI versions, which will be as successful as the commanders in tactical and operative operations, will the subject of curiosity and imitation in the military circles of the future. By the way, it is important to note that the late French theorist Paul Virilio predicted in the early 1980s that the ‘speed’ factor would become one of the basic parameters of future war.[7]

AI operating at tactical level will give consequences that will harm the thinking and decision making processes of commander by offering the orders automatically which the commander must give quickly during an operation. Recently, many international laboratory tests have confirmed the hypothesis that learning machines can carry out battlefield analysis that cannot be distinguished from the analyses of subject matter experts (SMEs).[8]  This demonstrate that AI can develop its own ‘doctrine’ and data in the strategy and tactics arena that promulgate ‘loyal’ algorithms[9] as in simple chess game.  In other words, the organic mind of a human, who plays with force, time, and space for the emergence of strategy and tactics, has begun to share this task with AI.  It is therefore imperative that the military thinkers/SMEs and professional soldiers working in national security must explore and inform the development of new technological developments including artificial intelligence, data mining, machine learning and deep learning.

Considering these above-mentioned considerations, the effect of AI on strategy, tactics, doctrine, and the military decision-making process in the future is described in the following figure figure.



Figure 1 - The Effect of Artificial Intelligence on Strategy, Tactics, Doctrine and Military Decision Making Process


Considering the possible effects of AI in the field of operations in the future, it is still difficult to argue that a ‘post-strategy’ situation has emerged in place of strategy; but we can argue that its symptoms have begun to appear.  More data and practice are required in order to defend this claim.  The fact that AI is in the introductory (narrow) phase in the security arena also affects this situation.  However, it is clear that the ‘organic minds’ that produce strategy, tactics, and doctrine do so day-by-day as strategy and tactics are more digitized in AI algorithms.  The fact that today's professional soldiers, security workers and military theorists are still ignoring this issue does not change the situation.

There is no indication that the digitization of strategy and tactics varies by land, sea and air forces operations.  It is also likely that AI and integrated robotics technology develops simultaneously according to land, sea, air, special operations, and joint operational needs.  These needs simultaneously influence the emergence of doctrine.  The clearest studies on this subject today are the conceptual studies that address operations and the doctrine together in order to recognize requirements of human-machine interface in reconnaissance and attacks by drone swarms. [10]

The human factor, in other words the military command, gives the greatest flexibility, aesthetic, and unpredictability to strategy and tactics at war.  Commanders are continuously faced with thinking and decision-making processes (i.e. MDMP) while leading their troops.  The commanders in this decision-making process can make rational, emotional, intuitive, autocratic, dependent, and immediate decisions or postpone decision-making, especially if these decisions have potentially lethal consequences.[11]  In the future, despite the predictable decisions of AI and learning machines, it seems possible that existence of ‘organic’ strategy will continue thanks to the unpredictable decisions of commanders who use these decision-making styles.  However, in any case, because of the decrease in decision-making times, commanders will be more dependent on data screens and algorithms dictated by AI and will be forced (and constrained) by these factors when making a tactical decision.

Today, the low and middle level military leaders still rely on command and control (C2) vehicles, camouflage, and on traditional maps along with map with great motivation to perform their duties.  But in the near future, it can be expected that they might handle and manage the operations remotely, away from battlefronts, in comfortable offices, and perhaps in casual clothing, with their teammates, informatics and operators together while eating pizza.  There is no doubt that this situation will create differentiation in the perceptions about strategy, tactics, doctrine, and military leadership, with both destructive and ethical problems.

With introduction of the AI into the battlefield, the number of ‘civilianized’ soldiers and ‘militarized’ civilians will increase.  With the emerging of this heterogeneous structure, it should be expected that the ‘civilian’ generals who ‘understand’ strategy and tactics should increase.

All of the issues mentioned above explain the situation of AI for conventional army units and their role in conflict. The issues facing professional terrorist organizations and the benefits from AI and other 21st century technological developments should be considered in another article because of their different dimensions and parameters.  At this point, its sufficient to consider Max Boot's warning: “Technology in guerrilla warfare is not as important as conventional warfare, but this may change... A terrorist cell capable of reaching to chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons may be capable of killing more than the Armed Forces of Brazil and Egypt, which do not possess nuclear weapons.”[12]  This reality is enough to overturn all the accumulation of strategy, tactics, and doctrine.

It is now seen that some thinkers working on strategy focus more on political strategies and avoid the unpredictability of developing technology.  However, strategy and its representative element (military strategy) in the national security arena have been nearly abandoned since the end of the Cold War period.  This gap is being filled by the great enthusiasm of business management science, which is in quest of new philosophies in its field. Many different ideas, such as marketing strategy, branding strategy, growth strategy, guerilla strategy, competitive strategy, are born and conceptualized under the heading of business management strategies. The business world pays more attention than the national and global security arena to the strategic and tactical principles of the military thinkers and commanders such as Sun Tzu and Napoleon. As a result of these developments, those who study the art and science of strategy are now drowned in the bibliography of the business world and consequently they are confused.  The way of preventing this confusion and preserving strategy-tactics-doctrine is through adoption of the triple design (organization, weapon/equipment, doctrine) of the operational area with a classical, philosophical, and holistic sense, while searching for new ways to develop a contemporary understanding of strategy and tactics that minimizes intellectual competition with AI.

As Gray has pointed out, strategy is an important part of political solutions and is a story with no permanent result;[13] based on this idea, it seems that strategy is a phenomenon that will never be over.  However, the potential that strategy will transform into a ‘post-strategy’ model and the corresponding role of the human (politician, security specialist, and soldier) factor in the strategy remains to be seen in the ‘super AI’ period.  The risk of human isolation from strategy cannot be underestimated in an age when we are so close to cybernetic (human-machine mix) organisms.

End Notes

[1] Colin S. Gray, The Future of Strategy. New York: Polity, 2015, Kindle Edition.

[2] See for example Michael Horowitz and Casey Mahoney, “Artificial Intelligence and the Military: Technology is Only Half the Battle.” War on the Rocks, 25 December 2018,

[3] See for example Lukas Milevski, The Evolution of Modern Grand Strategic Thought. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016 and Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, and Martin van Creveld, A History of Strategy: From Sun Tzu to William S. Lind. Kouvola, Finland: Castalia House, 2015.

[4] Lawrence Freedman, Strateji [Strategy]. Istanbul: Alfa Publishing, 2017, p. 201.

[5] Carl von Clausewitz, Savaş Üzerine  [On War]. Istanbul: Eris Publishing, 2003, p. 34.

[6] Stephan De Spiegeleire, Matthijs Maas and Tim Sweijs. Artificial Intelligence And The Future Of Defense: Strategic Implications For Small- And Medium-Sized Force Providers.  The Hague: The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies (HCSS), p. 100,

[7] See Paul Virilio, Speed and Politics. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2006 (first published in France in 1977) and Paul Virilio and Sylvère Lotringer. Pure War, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 1998 for insights on speed in conflict.  Virilio recently passed away in September 2018.

[8] Deepak Kumar Gupta, “Military Applications Of Artificial Intelligence,” CLAWS Articles #1878. New Delhi: The Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), 17 March 2018,

[9] Michael C. Horowitz, “The Promise and Peril Of Military Applications Of Artificial Intelligence.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 23 April 2018,

[10] Sean M. Williams, “Swarm Weapons: Demonstrating a Swarm Intelligent Algorithm for Parallel Attack.” OTH (Over the Horizon), 13 August 2018,

[11] Bulend Ozen, “A Study on the Effects of Strategic, Critical, and Creative Thinking Skills on Decision Making Styles.” (Doctorate Thesis). Istanbul: Halic University, 2017, p. 152.

[12] Max Boot, Görünmeyen Ordular – Gerilla Tarihi [Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present]. Istanbul: Inkilap Publishing, 2014, p. 500.

[13] Colin S. Gray, The Future of Strategy (see note 1).


About the Author(s)

Dr. Bülend Özen served in Turkish Army for 20 years in various command and staff positions. His B.S. is in System Engineering from the Turkish Army Academy, his M.A. is in International Security and Leadership from the Turkish Army War College and his Ph.D. is in Business Administration from Halic University. He worked 5 years as an instructor in the Turkish Army War College. He also served in Kosovo, Georgia and Afghanistan and as chairman and panelist in various scientific events in the United States and Norway. He studied the great (military) leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and published a book titled "I Envied Him (Imrendim)". Follow him on Twitter @BulendOzen.