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Fog and Friction
Since time immemorial, when humans started waging war on each other, the ability to reduce and understand the unknowns of warfare has determined the victor in most cases. These unknowns of war, described by Karl von Clausewitz as the fog and friction of war, have ever been present in warfare. Until recently, there was little in a commander’s ability to reduce the unknowns on the battlefield.
However, with the development of the digital age and improved command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) and common operating picture (COP), the ability of the commander staff to have real time visualization of every aspect of the battlefield, including the enemy, is now at large.
Clausewitz gives the following definition of friction in his book On War:
Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction.
It continues to illustrate that this friction is all over with opportunity, resulting in effects whose determination may not be possible since they are caused by chance. Simply, “Friction is . the force that makes the apparently easy so difficult.”
It is the unknown of war, enemies and friends to which commanders must adapt, overcome, or alleviate. Clausewitz, who is considered an early strategist in the military and the first to offers description of warfare friction points out that it takes place when several small accidents make a combination to bring down the performance levels in such a way that ending down lower than intended is what one gets.”
There are many examples throughout history that depict warfare. For example, an historical account of air operations during Desert Storm showed that:
Aircrews had to cope with equipment malfunctions, inadequate mission-planning materials, lapses in intelligence on both targets and enemy defenses, coordination problems between strike and support aircraft, target and time-on-target (TOT) changes after takeoff, unanticipated changes in prewar tactics, adverse weather, the traditional lack of timely bomb damage assessment (BDA), and, in many wings, minimal understanding of what higher headquarters was trying to accomplish from one day to the next.
Watts asserts that “frictional impediments experienced by [Coalition Forces] were not appreciably different in scope or magnitude than they were for the Germans during their lightning conquest of France and the Low Countries in May 1940.”
Too Much Information
On the battlefield, commanders’ crave for information is always intensive. Whether it is about the enemy or friendly units, they want it badly. In the digital age, like never before in history, commanders will have near uninterrupted real-time pictures of conditions on the battlefield.
However, a new kind of friction may replace the old, where information saturation will confuse commanders and staff. A good, recent illustration is during the battle for Fallujah in late 2004 when army and Marine units found it difficult to communicate as a result of multiple communications and COP systems employed by both services in support of the battle.
Expanded battlefield, More with Less
One of the major accomplishments of technology in warfare is its ability to reduce the vulnerability of soldiers on the battlefield. Whether it is improved body armor, intelligent munitions, or analytical operating systems, all serve to quickly destroy the enemy and protect soldiers.
Ultimately, this results in fewer soldiers and the resulting misconception is that a few can always do more .This phenomenon occurred in 2002, when, according to Major Shelly Walker, force caps in the invasion of Afghanistan caused friction. This forced unresponsive, ad-hoc forces to engage Al-Qaeda during Operation Anaconda.
Information technology will increase the scope of the battlefield, causing an expansion of fog and friction on future battlefields. However, the addition of information will bring more systems for young leaders to master. This increases the responsibility to focus on automated systems. In their 2001 Military Review article, Jacob Kipp and LTC (ret) Lester Grau describe the following scenario:
The platoon leader . will soon have a portable computer to tell him what his situation really is. The platoon leader serves the technology by constantly monitoring and responding to his radio and inputting data into his computer, causing a clear struggle between controlling his platoon and serving technology’s demands. Both require his attention, but neither receives it fully.
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There is so much information, where the resultant tendency will be the replacement of the gap in the amount of what a commander can absorb and what he can decide upon with artificial technology. The only limitation in this is the omission of thinking, adapting enemies, constantly trying to “deceive the commander.”
In 2006, it was made clear in the National Strategy for counteracting Terrorism that by all means, America was indeed at war with an ideologically radical movement of terrorists purely motivated by passions of killings and hatred.” This enemy seldom uses conventional tactics, largely moving within civilian populace. Based on this information per se, friction would play a role on the asymmetric battlefield.
However, the friction that Clausewitz envisaged was from his view of warfare developed on the Napoleonic battlefields of Europe. Nevertheless, Clausewitz’s theory stands the test of time, in an age where a new enemy exists in addition to a complex asymmetrical warfare packed with fog and friction.
For a period of 175 years, Clausewitz’s theory on the fog and friction of war has been applicable. Currently, in what can be easily interpreted as total shift from the theory, some scholars in this digital age believe the theory is obsolete because of real time COP and extensive C4ISR capabilities.
The theory though will find some unavoidable applications on present and future battlefields. With new technology, commanders and staff will reach a point of information saturation, where the huge amount of information produces friction due to enemy adaptability and reduction of information systems usage. Eventually, asymmetric warfare will enhance the fog and friction. Therefore in the digital age, with a view of the future battlefield, Clausewitz’s theory on the fog and friction of warfare remains relevant, not obsolete.
Bush, G.W.(2006) National Strategy for Combating Terrorism. Washington D.C: Government Printing Office, 2006.
Clausewitz, C. V.(1984). On War. Edited by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1984.
Kipp, J. W., Lsester W. G.(2001). The Fog and Friction of Technology. Military Review, September-October 2001: 88-97.
Matthews, M. M(2004). Operation Al Fajr: A Study in Arm and Marine Corps Joint Operations. Occasional Paper, Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute, 2004.
Walker, S.(2003).Fog, Friction, and Force Caps. monograph, Fort Leavenworth, KS: School of Advanced Military Studies, 2003.
Watts, B. D.(1996).Clausewitzian Friction and Future Warfare. McNair Paper 52.Washington D.C: Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, 1996.
- Carl Von Clausewitz, C. On War. Ed. by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: University Press, 1984): 119.
- Ibid, 121.
- Ibid, 119.
- Ibid, 38.
- Ibid, 2.
- Matt M. Matthews, Operation Al Fajr: A Study in Arm and Marine Corps Joint Operations. Occasional Paper, (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute), 79.
- Shelly Walker, Fog, Friction, and Force Caps. Monograph, (Fort Leavenworth, KS: School of Advanced Military Studies, 2003), 1.
- Jacob W. Kipp and Lester W. Grau. “The Fog and Friction of Technology,” Military Review, (September-October 2001), 89.
- George W. Bush, National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, September 2006), 1.