In short, this is a technical undertaking that unfolds in the topsy-turvy demesne of strategy. That’s one reason the ODU coauthors’ findings appeal to me. They don’t go quite so far as to urge system-of-systems engineers to bring the social sciences and the liberal arts into this endeavor—but it’s reasonable to extrapolate such a recommendation from their praise of the transdisciplinary outlook. The coauthors acknowledge the technical dimensions, which are inescapable, but maintain that “just as important are the contextual, human, organizational, policy, and political system dimensions.”
Huzzah! They testify that systems engineering tends to neglect the context in which systems-of-systems must function, and they pay tribute to the ambiguity and complexity pervading that context. Hence they castigate the “linear pattern” of thought whereby engineers design systems for optimal performance in predictable surroundings. Clausewitz—the father of nonlinear thinking about armed combat, and a founder of complexity theory in mathematics—could only applaud. The ODU team observes that system-of-systems operations demand the willingness to “satisfice” rather than work toward optimal performance, and to improvise on the fly when circumstances change. That may be heresy from a STEM standpoint, but it’s the nature of operations in surroundings where science meets art.
Let’s bring this inquiry back toward the operational realm in closing. What can American and allied strategists and tacticians learn about themselves and the potential PLA adversary by applying system-of-systems thinking? First and foremost, that we should firm up whatever interweaves our systems-of-systems together while hunting for ways to unravel PLA metasystems to our advantage. When you look at U.S. diagrams of complex metasystems you often see lightning bolts connecting the nodes in the array. That signifies that information technology—electromagnetic emissions, GPS position data, whatever—is what binds together the system-of-systems. Loosening or breaking those bonds impairs the network.
Sage PLA strategists will craft tactics to disrupt those information links or disable them altogether. Fragment the enemy network and you can fall on the fragments and eradicate them one by one. Or, better yet, if the PLA can sow paralysis in an enemy system-of-systems for long enough to accomplish its goals, then it may not need to bother trying to annihilate individual units. Why risk major combat over, say, a Taiwan contingency if you can slow down the U.S. Pacific Fleet and associated joint forces long enough to conquer the island, and hand the U.S. Navy a fait accompli when its task forces arrive on scene?
American and allied strategists must repay the favor, searching out ways to cripple or destroy PLA systems-of-systems. That might mean launching strikes against some node in the metasystem in hopes of creating disproportionate impact on the metasystem’s workings. But systems warfare need not involve seeking a hard kill against an enemy platform. It could also mean interrupting connectivity between the nodes and, in the bargain, reducing those nodes to isolated clots of combat power that can be overpowered one by one until PLA commanders say uncle.
Devising methods for disabling enemy systems-of-systems is nothing new. The German Army pulled it off vis-à-vis the French Army along the Meuse River in 1940. German tactics in effect decomposed the French Army, cutting units off from mutual support from fellow units. The French Army remained mostly intact in a material sense, suffering light casualties and equipment losses. But it ceased to exist as a fighting force—much as Clausewitz defines destruction or annihilation of an enemy force not as wholesale slaughter but as destruction of that force’s capacity to resist our will.
Or if you prefer sci-fi warfare, my go-to example is Cylon tactics against the Colonial Fleet of battlestars in the reboot of Battlestar Galactica. Cyborg information warriors insinuate computer viruses into the human fleet, cutting off capital ships and fighters from one another while disabling navigation, sensors and weapons. Colonial Fleet pilots are more than a match for the Cylons in one-on-one fights. Incapacitate their instruments of war and the command-and-control system that unites them, though, and you set their battle advantage at nought. Since the Cylons are intent on genocide, they crush individual Colonial Fleet units at their leisure—annihilating the fleet except for a rabble of fugitive vessels that escape through happenstance or sound network defenses. But they could have imposed their will on the vanquished short of a wholesale massacre.
That’s systems-destruction warfare to a tee, isn’t it? If indeed PLA strategists and their political overseers are serious about implementing the concept—and there’s little reason to doubt them—then their writings open a window into their thinking that could help China’s foes derive methods and hardware for hardening their own systems-of-systems while assailing PLA metasystems. Revisiting Western engineers’ musings about complex systems could bestow strategic advantage on allied forces in future contingencies—repaying the effort.
Make it so.
This article first appeared in September 2018.