Attacking antifragility

It doesn’t appear that the mainstream strategists have figured out an effective approach to attacking antifragile opponents, if this article in Military Strategy Magazine is any guide:

Antifragile adversaries may lose their potential if the strategic performance they face is inappropriate to their capabilities or if they lack the time to adapt. This does not just turn the antifragile adversaries into the resilient ones. The relationships between the specific characters of the adversary forms a triangle rather than a linear hierarchy. Therefore, one-time antifragility does not guarantee a safe landing in the resilient zone. Antifragile adversaries can be rendered fragile without becoming resilient ones. Strategists have several options to make this happen. These include sequential and cumulative strategies, as well as the strategy of annihilation, and the deliberate use of peace.

The first option includes rapidly executed sequential strategies to deny to the adversary the time to get stronger. The theory of victory here relies on a quick sequential campaign, by which the strategist robs the adversary of the time to improve the latter’s military capability. The adversary can counter this by refusing to engage at all, but then he deliberately robs himself of the opportunity to improve his military capabilities through strategic performance. Sequential strategy can, therefore, force the adversary out of his antifragile mode by either denying him the time to adapt or by rendering him unable to engage in the kind of strategic performance that would increase his military capability. The critical requirement for this approach is to have logistics effective enough to support the continual and relentless push into the adversary’s territory. However, this strategy contains a high risk of morphing into attrition. The sequential strategy can be interrupted in any moment by the adversary as well as by friction and chance inherent to strategic practice. Any serious interruption gives the adversary the time to grow stronger and increase the probabilities of turning the strategy into attrition. Still, the rapid sequential strategy may be useful when trying to achieve limited territorial objectives rather than a regime change. This is so because the pursuit of limited objectives contains fewer opportunities for interruption. The suitability of the strategy therefore varies widely with the political objectives of the strategist.

The second option is the strategy of decisive battle which seeks to annihilate the adversary’s force in one engagement. The theory of victory behind this approach resides in the delivery of the overwhelming challenge to the adversary. Such strategic performance destroys the adversary’s military capability and the associated chance to grow stronger. To pull this off, the strategist needs the cooperation of the adversary and sufficient military capabilities of his own. The adversary must accept the time and the place of the decisive battle. The strategist then needs to be able to defeat him. The adversary may decline the battle but by this he again robs himself of the opportunity to become stronger through strategic performance. On the other hand, the failure to annihilate substantial forces of the adversary during the battle may result in the struggle of attrition. The Spartans were often able to force Thebans to accept battle but they failed to annihilate the latter. Consequently, their hopes of annihilation turned into the practice of attrition which benefited the Thebans. Another problem is that contemporary strategic practice seldom allows strategists to annihilate large portion of the adversary’s military capabilities in one engagement. This has to do as much with the size of the armies as with the ways in which these are deployed. Strategists may be able to pull decisive battle off against unskilfully employed smaller-sized armed forces but it is unlikely to happen in wars between superpowers or even mediumly sized armies. The suitability of this strategy therefore varies with the relative size of the adversary’s armed forces and the way in which they are employed.

The third option is to use cumulative strategy of underwhelming attacks to exhaust the adversary. The theory of victory in this case resides in the continual attacks conducted below the level of the adversary’s current capabilities. This approach gives the adversary’s military capability no opportunity to grow, because the latter is already above the level of the attacks. In the ideal case, cumulative strategy of this sort applies violence unilaterally in order to avoid the interaction with the adversary altogether. Terrorist attacks or raids are ideal examples of this approach, but occasional battle may also work. The key difference between this strategy and the search for attrition is that the former purposefully limits the frequency and the intensity of the violent interaction while the latter does the opposite. This strategy is unlikely to destroy the adversary’s military capability. But, by denying the adversary the opportunity to grow stronger, the strategist may be able to exhaust the adversary. The strategy is most likely to succeed if the strategist pursues limited objectives and if the adversary does not value these objectives very much. There are considerable limitations to the effectives of this strategy. The strategist may be unable to do enough damage over time to exhaust the adversary. This may happen because of the intentional weakness of the attacks or because the adversary is able to recover from them. More importantly, even this strategy can turn into detrimental attempts to attrite. The confidence elicited by the successful conduct of repeated attacks may boost the strategist’s confidence as well as increase the effort he is willing to put up with. Once he feels strong enough, he may recklessly escalate his endeavour into the struggle where the search for attrition replaces the more modest aim of exhaustion. The suitability of this strategy then varies with the political objectives of the strategist, with his own capacity to exercise restraint and with the value the adversary ascribes to the objectives.

The last option is to use peace, that is to deliberately abstain from the use of violence. In this scenario, the theory of victory relies on the detrimental consequences of peace on the adversary ‘s military capabilities as well as on the supplemental use of non-violent instruments of power. In general, peace tends to have a negative impact on the cohesion of society as well as on military capabilities in particular. Conflict lines between different segments of society tends to grow and military forces face gradual capability degradation as a consequence of not facing appropriate challenges. Governments seldom prioritize the development of military capabilities to the extent this happens in war. To put it simply, in peace most people care about things other than war. The great demobilisations that followed the Napoleonic wars, the First World War, the Second World War and the 1990s are good examples of this tendency. Furthermore, some non-violent instruments of power tend to be stronger in peace than in the times of war. Propaganda, for example, is more effective in peace than during the war, because it amplifies the already present conflict lines within a society. During war, societies tends to get more homogenous and united when facing a common adversary, leaving little space for the exacerbation of conflict lines.

I will critique these four strategies in my next post on the subject. In the meantime, feel free to discuss their strengths and weaknesses, and guess which of the four I find to be a) so typical and b) amusingly wrong.