Saturday, September 18, 2004

" The vertical shock generates an outflow of horizontal waves while cascading effects can cross sectoral boundaries, actually growing with time"
-- Dr. Thomas P.M. Barnett

Now that we have some understanding of what System Perturbation is, how do we as a society and a Core deal with the possibility – in the case of catastrophic terrorism, the probability – of wrenching changes of this magnitude ? What are the possible " Rules" or principles that govern System Perturbations ?

With a concept like System Perturbations it’s helpful to try and get your mind in the same groove as that of other systemic thinkers like physicists and economists. We can’t do the same level of predictive quantification with PNM theory as in those fields because we can’t correctly anticipate the parameters or the intensity of the effects of a System Perturbation until an event like 9-11 actually happens. Afterwards the damage is quite measurable. We can however try to think in terms of constructing a model that has some analogous validity with the far more complex real world.

Here are some major principles or the " Rule Set" of System Perturbation as I see it at the present time:

THE RULE OF ASYMMETRY: We have been hearing a lot in the last decade regarding Asymmetric Warfare both in terms of state vs. state strategy ( China vs. the United States is the favored example both here and in China) and states vs. non-state actors like terrorists and guerillas. Asymmetry as a general principle in warfare exists whenever two opponents are relatively unequal and I highly, highly recommend brushing up on Asymmetry's ancient master strategist, Sun-Tzu and the more modern literature on the subject is quite large.

Asymmetry in terms of System Perturbation has to do not merely with size or resources but the degree of connectivity that each opponent possesses. The greater the connectivity, the more damaging a System Perturbation attack is likely to be and the less likely that opponent will care to risk making such a strike. Being in the Core is usually great but " Blowback " has it's costs and this acts as a form of deterrence reminiscent of MAD to inhibit connected states from making such strikes. Teheran's ayatollahs, because Iran's economy is more connected and dependent upon globalized trade, are less reckless in their scale of Terror than were Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden. The potential consequences for Iran are extremely high were they to replicate a 9/11 type action so they stick to car bombs, assassinations and supporting low-rent unconventional warfare jihadism.

A disconnected, non-integrating Gap opponent like al Qaida or more fearsomely, Kim Jong-Il, has greater incentives to launch a System Perturbation because their organization or state will weather the unpredictable " cascading " effects more easily than a Core state. When you live in a cave or an underground bunker and your enemies are more numerous, richer, better organized and better armed, a System Perturbation or two will help level the playing field.

THE RULE OF THE MULTIPLIER EFFECT: To continue the above point, setting off several System Perturbations at once or in short succession is potentially far more effective at rendering an opponent prostrate than trying only one. Recall 9/11. Now Imagine the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania had instead hit the Capitol building and killed a significant portion of the national legislature. The degree of chaos that would have ensued would have been several orders of magnitude greater than it was. Now imagine al Qaida had coupled their suicide hijackings with a massive cyberattack on internet communications and DoD computers.

Multiple System Perturbations will interact to reinforce each other's most destructive, centrifugal effects in terms of deconstructing or " de-integrating" the system, setting off yet other perturbations. Authority to respond to the crisis would shift to the local level away from the paralyzed national government and you would have local officials of limited experience and perspective energizing the governmental machinery but setting it to work in a host of different directions, inevitably aggravating problems or diverting resources whose use would be critical elsewhere.

THE RULE OF CHOKE POINTS: Most systems, whether we are discussing computer networks, power grids or governmental decision making have built-in " choke points" that act to self-regulate or rationalize the efficiency of the system as a whole. In terms of air travel, we have for example, airports like O'Hare in Chicago that serve as a major " hub" with destinations radiating out like spokes on a wheel. The discussion of intelligence reform in the last few months showcased a different kind of choke point, " the stovepipe" which centralizes and narrows many strands from different directions into one.

A System Perturbations attack that hits a choke point not only ensures systemic paralysis but makes certain that the effects of the attack are maximized to reach all the origin points that feed into the targeted choke point. This is a devastating attack but difficult to pull off. Not only does it require specialized systems knowledge but a fair amount of skill and luck. The Allies attempted to disable key, " limiting factor", German war industries like synthetic fuels and rubber production during WWII. But the subsequent Strategic Bombing Survey and Military Intelligence interviews with captured Nazis like Albert Speer revealed that German production actually increased each month up to the defeat of the Third Reich even as Allied bomber payloads grew heavier.

THE RULE OF REDUNDANCY: This rule is really quite simple. Systems that have built in layers of Redundancy are decentralized enough to shrug off Systems Perturbation attacks by bypassing localized damage. The internet you are reading this blog post on was made possible originally by DoD scientists seeking to prevent a Soviet nuclear first strike from destroying our defense computer communications. Redundancy needs to be built into all our financial and communication networks on a global scale so there is no " central " target presented to would be attackers.

THE RULE OF DIMINISHING RETURNS: In terms of both offense and defense when dealing with systems level operations the initial investment yields the greatest return. September 11 cost al Qaida roughly $ 500,000 to pull off yet caused enormous damage to the world economy. Attempting to defend every vulnerable point is particularly wasteful and self-defeating. The entire system has to be retooled to resist System Perturbations, not merely guarded.

These rules represent a modest beginning in terms of looking at the strategic implications of System Perturbations but the greater the degree to which globalization advances the more validity such principles are apt to have in warfare.
I started thinking about these kind of concepts some time ago after reading the works of Alvin Toffler. After the first Gulf War, he made the observation that ours was a 3rd wave army fighting a 2nd wave army and the results were obvious. However, he was wrong on one count. He hypothesized that in the future the contest would not be so one-sided and that the fight would be more equal. I disagreed. I felt that it wouldn't be between more and less advanced 3rd wave armies, but between 3rd wave and 1st wave societies. I never knew why I believed this, but the concepts of the Core and the Gap highlight my conclusions (which were reached probably as a matter of pure luck and chance) beautifully.
Was the Toffler statement from _War and Anti-War_ or the slim _New Civilization_ book ? Or an interview ? In any case Alvin Toffler is someone whose ideas have a lot of resonance with me too.

Nemesis. wrote:

"However, he was wrong on one count. He hypothesized that in the future the contest would not be so one-sided and that the fight would be more equal. I disagreed. I felt that it wouldn't be between more and less advanced 3rd wave armies, but between 3rd wave and 1st wave societies."

Good call. That contest is also the end of the old Geneva Convention rule set ( not that most of these regimes adhered to Geneva even when fighting opponents on their own level) because when facing lopsided odds opponents of the United States will seek to change the rules in their favor.

Some of our European friends will support them too by trying to impose highly restrictive police model rules on U.S. forces while giving our unconventional foes a blank check to commit war crimes. This is their version of Containment ( or more accurately, Cordon Sanitaire)since it is less important to Berlin and Paris that their own states advance than the gap between American and European power not widen further.
Yes, it was War and Anti-War that I pulled that synopsis from. I like your analysis of the Europeans' motives and actions. Makes a lot of sense.
Excellent and original blog. I will comeback.
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