Chaos Theory and U.S. Military Strategy:
A ‘Leapfrog’ Strategy for U.S. Defense Policy

Michael J. Mazarr

Applying chaos theory to U.S. military strategy and force structure is a perilous business. Some would doubt whether the theory has much meaningful application in social science at all. What, after all, are its recommendations? That rapid and discontinuous change is inevitable, the product of "sensitive dependence on initial conditions"? That we must be prepared for surprises? That we must be agile and flexible and quick on our feet?

If chaos theory is not to degenerate into an annoying repetition of the same themes, its practitioners must begin offering its practical lessons in a manner that can be understood by military planners. And its lesson is not, I should make clear, that the U.S. military needs to be ready for peacekeeping and other operations other than war in a "chaotic" post-cold war world; such short-term political chaos has very little to do with the vastly more profound and fundamental insights of chaos theory. No, if the theory is to make a real contribution to defense policy, it must do something more: without being determinative, it must point us in the direction of a coherent planning framework for U.S. military forces. I believe that it can do so, and in this paper I will explain how.

At the same time, at this point in its emerging application to the social sciences, chaos or complexity theory certainly cannot provide comprehensive answers. As Dr. Murray Gell-Mann stressed on the conference’s first day, chaos theory remains in its formative stages; it is useful mostly as a spur to reconsider old ways of doing business and take seriously rapid and unpredictable change. My recommendations for force structure, for example, stem as much from an appreciation of accelerating change as from "complexity"—but chaos theory can help advocates of change make their case.

The Knowledge Era and International Relations

To begin with, it is noteworthy that the social and economic context of the post-cold war world parallels in important ways the kind of world described by chaos theory. In large measure this has to do with the emergence of a knowledge-based society, a transformation of social and economic life that is overturning the institutions and patterns and assumptions of the industrial era and substituting those of a new age.

There is a vast literature on the information or knowledge era, and I will not attempt to summarize its conclusions in any detail. Professor James Rosenau said a few words about this kind of world on the first day of the conference, and there are few better introductions to its character and implications than his own Turbulence in World Politics.1 In brief, it involves the establishment of information and knowledge—their production, dissemination, storage, and use—as the fundamental social and economic activity, rather than the cultivation of agriculture or the production of manufactured goods. Perhaps the most powerful single measurement of the information sector’s dominance is that service industries now represent something like 70 percent of the U.S. economy, both as a percentage of GNP and in terms of employment; manufacturing has declined to just over 20 percent. Not all services are knowledge-based, of course—but then, some manufacturing industries (computers, televisions) are tied to the knowledge sector. Estimates of the knowledge sector’s component of the U.S. economy run in excess of 60 percent.

The knowledge era has a number of key hallmarks. As we have seen, it favors the transition from industrial manufacturing economies to service ones. In corporate organization, it allows and encourages decentralization, task and product teams, and ultimately new levels of "virtuality"; in management theory it points toward empowerment of workers and, again, democratization of decision making. It is global and local in scope at the same time—global in its reach, local in its focus, a paradox symbolized by multinational corporations with activities all over the world who nonetheless tailor their products to niche markets within individual countries. It is a world in which finance becomes more powerful than ever, challenging national central banks and international multilateral development banks for influence. It is an era in which old authorities are challenged and decay, and new or changed ones arise to take their place.

The knowledge era is therefore a time of rapid change, when old ways of doing business and the institutions that did that business fall to the side, in which new innovations can cascade very rapidly throughout an economy and society and create transformative change almost overnight. It is a time of rapid and discontinuous change, of small initial actions or innovations having dramatic and unforeseen implications. It is a time, in other words, in which chaotic models of social evolution come to the fore.

Responding to Chaos: Business Strategy

A number of thoughtful management experts have recent turned their attention to the implications of this new era for business. As one of the few avenues of productive strategic thinking in a chaotic mode, their advice is directly relevant to military planners trying to come to grips with the same currents of social change. Two writers in particular have done an especially good job of showing what the knowledge era, and its accompanying chaotic effects, mean for strategy: Richard D’Aveni and Gary Hamel. It seems to me that their ideas, while not explicitly intended for such a purpose, serve as a useful summary of the kinds of strategies required in a complex era.

This new era in business, much like the new era in international relations, is not simply one in which competition gives way to cooperation. These new forms of economic activity will hardly put an end to business competition. Indeed, they may be in the process of creating an unprecedented era of "hypercompetition," a phenomenon that mirrors many elements of complex systems and is examined in depth by Dartmouth Business School Professor Richard D’Aveni.2

Hypercompetition, D’Aveni contends, is "a condition of rapidly escalating competition based on price-quality positioning, competition to create new know-how and establish first-mover advantage, competition to protect or invade established product or geographic markets." The "frequency, boldness, and aggressiveness of dynamic movement by the players accelerates to create a condition of constant disequilibrium and change." D’Aveni’s model is on display in the computer software industry, whose basic mode of operations has become a series of rapid competitive moves and countermoves that seek to create a series of temporary advantages. "Product life cycles and design cycles have been compressed," he writes, "and the pace of technological innovation has increased." So "instead of seeking sustainable advantage, strategy.. . now focuses on developing a series of temporary advantages. Instead of trying to create stability and equilibrium, the goal of strategy is to disrupt the status quo."

Later D’Aveni contends that "disrupting the status quo" should be the top corporate goal. In a hypercompetitive world, he writes, there will only be two kinds of companies: "the disruptive and the dead." D’Aveni’s insightful approach has a number of powerful implications:

Another recent model of business strategy—London Business School professor Gary Hamel’s notion of "strategy as revolution"—makes a very similar case. Hamel argues that true business strategy "is revolution; everything else is tactics." Many firms, he argues, "are reaching the limits of incrementalism"; pursuing "incremental improvements while rivals reinvent the industry is like fiddling while Rome burns." Companies like IKEA, the Body Shop, Dell Computer, and Swatch are "shackled neither by convention nor by respect for precedent" and are "intent on overturning the industrial order." Never before, Hamel writes, "has the world been more hospitable to industry revolutionaries and more hostile to industry incumbents. The fortifications that protected the industrial oligarchy are crumbling under the weight of deregulation, technological upheaval, globalization, and social change."3

One implication is that ideas that seem unusual should get perhaps the best hearing of all. "Senior managers should be less worried about getting off-the-wall suggestions," Hamel advises, "and more concerned about failing to unearth the ideas that will allow their company to escape the curse of incrementalism."4 Another lesson of Hamel’s perspective: rigid dividing lines between industries are rapidly becoming obsolete. "Industry revolutionaries don’t ask what industry they are in. They know that an industry’s boundaries today are about as meaningful as borders in the Balkans."5 Finally, Hamel’s principles of strategy suggest the need to empower workers. "Strategy making must be democratic," he writes, in part because the "capacity to think creatively about strategy is distributed widely in an enterprise. It is impossible to predict exactly where a revolutionary idea is forming; thus the net must be cast wide." Hamel refers to the need to "supplement the hierarchy of experience with a hierarchy of imagination."6

In sum, then, what advice does this new line of business thinking have for other social institutions in a complex, chaotic, fast-moving era? Strategies of the future will seek to disrupt the status quo and thrive in the resulting chaos. They will emphasize unpredictable moves. Incrementalism is a recipe for disaster. Authority must be decentralized and won by imagination and skill rather than seniority. Boundaries between disciplines will collapse. Managers must value new, unusual, what seem at first glance to be irrational suggestions.

Military Strategy: The Need for Revolutionary Thinking

To get a sense of how far the U.S. military is from a truly revolutionary response to the knowledge and information era, one need only hold D’Aveni and Hamel’s advice up against the reality of military planning as we do it today. However much fast-paced, over-the-horizon, anti-traditional thinking—the kind demanded by the knowledge era—is going on in the military, that sort of mindset is clearly not guiding U.S. force structure planning today. In our quaint notion of a "hedge" against a Soviet Union that does not exist and our unreal (though undeniably comfortable) planning guide of "two (nearly) simultaneous regional contingencies," we are about as far away from out-of-the-box thinking as could be imagined.

Take, for example, our current approach to the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). In its true form, this concept represents the introduction of knowledge-era concepts and structures into warfare. And yet the existing DoD plan, at least in the medium-term, is not to achieve an RMA at all, but to graft elements of that revolution onto a military force still representative of industrial-era, attrition-style warfare.

Examples of this practice are easy to come by. A modern tank equipped with the global positioning system (GPS) and advanced cellular communications systems is not revolutionary, any more than an unstealthy attack aircraft with laser-guided bombs. A stealthy bomber raining cluster bombs on an advancing tank division is not revolutionary. Nor is an aircraft carrier equipped with fancy electronic countermeasures and radar detection systems. All of these capabilities—the capabilities on display in the Gulf War—represent evolutionary advances within the same mode of fighting that has prevailed, in some senses, since about 1940, and in others for hundreds of years.

Part of the confusion arises from the use of the term "information warfare," the term of art that attempts to capture the knowledge era’s influence on war. Mastery and use of information is indeed at the core of the RMA. But this mastery does not simply involve adding one last bit of detail into a World War II-style tank outfit—as if, had Patton’s tanks been equipped with the GPS, his divisions would have embodied the RMA. Rather, the true RMA represents an entirely new manner of warfare, using information, long-range precision strike, and other tools to destroy an enemy’s ability and will to fight without closing on the battlefield and exchanging tank fire; without sending vulnerable aircraft deep into hostile airspace; and without deploying aircraft carriers close to an enemy coast.

The incrementalist notion of the RMA is ultimately self-defeating. It violates Gell-Mann’s injunction that a period of rapid change is the time when it is most important to think comprehensively rather than narrowly. It indefinitely postpones the day when the U.S. military will truly depart from deeply-entrenched doctrines and routines and embrace the truly revolutionary elements of the new era in warfare. It guarantees that the lion’s share of procurement and research and development funds will be devoted to slightly modified versions of weapons in regular use for almost a century. Incrementalism—the time-honored planning approach of every major bureaucracy everywhere—constitutes a mortal threat to our achievement of a true revolution in military affairs: If it is pursued bit by bit, added on to existing pre-RMA systems in appliqué fashion,7 it will not be revolutionary at all. It will instead perpetuate old ways of conducting warfare and delay the time when the U.S. military enjoys the full advantages of the RMA.

The potential for a mortal threat to the RMA exists in part because of our budgetary predicament. As most U.S. military planners are now well aware, a crisis of defense policy is upon us, a crisis stemming from a simple, but lethal, mismatch between budgets, force structure, and modernization. The United States today has a small and steadily shrinking defense budget supporting a large force designed to fight two simultaneous regional wars. As a result, only modest amounts of long-term research and development or modernization are taking place. Not only does this situation make it impossible for the United States to implement the RMA in the coming decades; it makes it unlikely that we will maintain a high-quality, modern military force of any sort.

The numbers alone are startling—and for the most part, they are undisputed. No one denies the reality of the budget shortfall.8 The force outlined in the Bottom-Up Review of Defense Priorities is underfunded by between $50 billion and $300 billion over five years. Put another way, to fully fund the BUR force, the United States ought to be spending in the neighborhood of 4 percent of GNP, while currently planned budgets will fall below 3 percent. This shortfall could manifest itself in three places: in force structure; in readiness; or in modernization. Because of the Clinton administration’s military strategy of twin regional contingencies, it has felt unable to reduce force structure much beyond that of the Bush years. And because of the political and military costs of allowing combat readiness or training to slip, the administration has refused cutbacks in those areas as well.

As is now well-known, the result of these decisions has been to focus the effect of the budget shortfall on the third area of military spending: the United States has gutted modernization and research and development to pay for a relatively large, very ready force-in-being. Acquisition spending is down by 60 percent between 1987 and 1995. Research and development budgets will fall 40 percent from 1987 through 1999, and what is left focuses mainly on modifications and upgrades of existing systems rather than on developing new ones. The obvious consequence of slowed modernization is a military with aging equipment. By the year 2010, the average age of tanks in the U.S. military will be 21 years; of utility helicopters, nearly 30 years; of navy fighter aircraft, 15 years; of attack submarines and surface ships, 16 years; of air force fighter-attack aircraft, 20 years; and of air force bombers and transport planes, 35 years.9

These statistics tell a simple tale: the United States government has decided to mortgage the future of the military to its present. Slashing modernization in favor of force structure and readiness means a stronger military today in exchange for a weaker military tomorrow. "Modernization," General John Shalikashvili has said, "is tomorrow’s readiness"10 —and it is the only route to the RMA. Without R&D and procurement, without new investments in tomorrow’s military in addition to mortgage payments on today’s, the RMA will never become a reality.

This kind of strategy would make sense if the United States faced immediate and serious threats that mandated a very large, very ready military. But this is not the case; the United States does not now face a major global rival, and will not face one for at least several years. Regional predators like Iran and North Korea will succumb to a much smaller U.S. force, and the threat they pose is blatant enough and far enough outside the mainstream of world politics that we can expect to assemble coalition efforts to defeat these aggressors. On the other hand, ten years from now we might face much more serious military threats. The predators, if they still exist in their present, hostile form, may be stronger, with new weapons and larger militaries. And one or another major power may undertake a path toward regional aggression. "Our most serious" threats, says Columbia professor Richard Betts, "will come down the road rather than tomorrow morning."11 There is much to be said for constraining existing capabilities to invest in modernization that would produce a stronger military ten years hence.

The Need for a Leapfrog Strategy

Such an approach is available through what this essay will term the "leapfrog strategy." Its core idea is simple: the United States should free up additional money for investments in future defense capabilities, by reducing its force structure and continuing to budget the planned increase in modernization funds beginning in FY1997; and it should invest that money, as well as the lion’s share of existing procurement budgets, in RMA technologies, skipping one generation of advanced weapons systems now slated for procurement. In the process it should take the advice of D’Aveni and Hamel and treat strategy and force structure as revolutionary notions; in the fast-moving knowledge era, standing still invites disaster. By abandoning the idea of incremental modernization and striking out toward a truly new generation of weapons, the leapfrog strategy forces U.S. defense planners to abandon their appliqué model of the RMA and rethink doctrine, organization, and strategy from the ground up.

Currently, the Defense Department intends to purchase weapons over the next ten years that represent largely evolutionary advances over existing systems. Thus DoD will spend, in 1996 and 1997 alone, a billion and a half dollars to upgrade the M1 tank and the Bradley fighting vehicle; nearly half a billion dollars on a new artillery piece and its supply vehicle; and $400 million on a light, direct-fire tank. It will spend $500 million on the Comanche helicopter; $2 billion on the V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft; billions of dollars on new aircraft carriers and frigates; over $2 billion on various new models of the F/A-18 fighter-bomber; and roughly another $2 billion on new or upgraded F-15 and F-16 aircraft and the roots of a new generation of tactical combat planes.12

Yet, in the context of the RMA, many of these systems are doomed to obsolescence. Stealthy aircraft are of course an element of the RMA. But large surface ships, heavy armored vehicles, and non-stealthy aircraft will in coming years simply serve as magnets for advanced precision-guided weapons—and, perhaps, weapons of mass destruction as well. The truly advanced warfare of the twenty-first century will not be fought by aircraft carriers, tanks, and fighters as we now understand them, but by a very different sort of military force based around the principles of the RMA—speed, agility, synergy, information dominance, and lethal, long-range precision strike.

In many ways, the traditional systems can be thought of as a provisional generation of military technology, trapped between the highest expressions of pre-RMA military systems and the RMA itself. They might be called the Neanderthal Generation because, in an evolutionary sense, they are akin to Neanderthal Man: highly advanced, extremely intelligent, but doomed to extinction as a truncated line on the evolutionary tree. Recognizing these facts, the leapfrog strategy would skip this generation of technology in favor of a research and development and procurement strategy designed to bring the Revolution in Military Affairs into being by the year 2010.

This is not to suggest that the Defense Department is ignoring all the technologies relevant to the RMA. Nor is the argument here that none of the systems planned for deployment in the decade represent the nature of the RMA—a number of advanced munitions and pilotless drone aircraft now under development are well within the emerging style of warfare. The argument is simply that the balances are out of proportion: too much money is being spent on force structure and readiness rather than modernization at a time of reduced danger; and too many of our limited procurement dollars are being invested in the systems that symbolize a declining era in warfare.

What are the declining systems? If it committed itself to a leapfrog strategy, the United States would decide today that it had built its last heavy main-battle tank. It would have purchased its last unstealthy fighter or bomber aircraft; and perhaps, if we are especially bold, its last manned combat aircraft as well. With the C-17, it would have designed its last large transport aircraft. And the vessels now in dry-dock would represent the last aircraft carriers and other large surface combat ships built for the U.S. military. All of these systems belong to the Neanderthal Generation of military technology.

What new weapons and combat systems would take their place? The full answer to this question will only emerge over time, as research and development proceeds, and as the result of a careful process of evaluation within the Department of Defense—or, perhaps better for bureaucratic reasons, by a blue-ribbon commission outside the Pentagon. Nonetheless, some obvious areas of emphasis in the RMA include the following: the full range of information warfare capabilities, including computer hacker operations; long-range, precision-guided munitions; stealthy aircraft; stealthy naval vessels, including both submarines and small, cheap, low radar cross-section, PGM-firing surface ships; all-weather sensors and targeting systems; drone observation aircraft and robotic ground fighting vehicles; a whole range of non-lethal weapons; and others.

The leapfrog strategy is therefore a simple idea drawn from the unavoidable situation which U.S. defense policy makers confront. Faced with a rapidly-changing world whose evolution is more and more resembling elements of chaos theory, the enormous potential advantages of the RMA, budgets insufficient to pay for even current forces, and barren modernization plans devoted largely to an improvement over pre-RMA ways of doing business—faced with this unprecedented conjunction of factors—the choice for the United States is obvious. Scrap the Neanderthal Generation; reduce force structure by perhaps 25 percent to free additional resources; and design an investment strategy to bring the Revolution in Military Affairs into being by the year 2010.

Questions and Risks

Obviously, any approach as brazen as this will have its share of risks and uncertainties. Understanding and appreciating those risks will be a critical element to implementing the leapfrog strategy in a sound manner. It would be nice, of course, to do both, but the realities of our budgetary predicament will not allow us that luxury.

Initially, U.S. military planners will need to inventory the capabilities they will be surrendering by scrapping the Neanderthal Generation of systems. If we stop building aircraft carriers today, for example, when would the U.S. carrier inventory drop to a level that would make it unable to maintain forward presence coverage in key regions of the world? If we cease buying tanks, roughly at what point would U.S. M-1s become unserviceable? The concept at issue is that of a window of vulnerability. Would the leapfrog strategy leave the United States with a decrepit force for two or three years, or five or ten, before the RMA systems actually came on line? Would our carriers become unusable before we possessed the intercontinental precision-strike capabilities to substitute for them?

Of course, the idea of a window of vulnerability is hardly unique to a leapfrog strategy. Current U.S. defense policy, and in particular its small procurement budgets, are already creating one. The only question is whether we address that risk by waiting until the last moment and then rushing a new set of Neanderthal Generation weapons into production, thus wasting resources and energy on a doomed class of combat systems; or whether we lay out a careful plan to close the window of vulnerability by realizing the RMA before it opens.

Moreover, the leapfrog strategy as I have outlined it does contain a substantial insurance policy against the transition. This insurance comes in the form of the modified Neanderthal Generation systems—stealthy aircraft, stealthy robotic ships, unmanned aircraft—that were included in my list of RMA technologies. It is highly likely that, within our lifetimes, the process we now understand as the RMA will ultimately lead us to wars that have even outstripped those space-age weapons. In purchasing them, however, we would preserve some degree of ability to fight "traditional" major wars, an ability reassuring to U.S. friends and allies and cautioning to potential U.S. adversaries.

A second risk involves our level of certainty that we can bring operational RMA systems into the force in the next fifteen years. Is it possible to overcome the technological hurdles in these areas and produce systems that work in that time frame? Or would we risk rushing into the force a series of ill-tested weapons prone to breakdown and failure? The state of technology, and its rapid advance, suggest that the technological bridges can be crossed; none of the RMA systems contemplated here requires any profound new scientific breakthroughs. The marriage of an intercontinental-range missile and a precision-guided warhead is a matter of engineering rather than scientific research. Nonetheless, U.S. defense planners must take careful stock of RMA systems and determine if they could be deployed in a sound manner by the year 2010.

Third, there is what might be called the "dreadnought fallacy": when a militarily dominant nation deploys a new generation of technology that renders previous ones obsolete, it can wipe away its advantage and begin a new arms race from scratch in an area where others can suddenly pull ahead. Some argue that this happened to Great Britain in the early twentieth century—the dreadnought trumped all previous fighting ships, and when others began building the huge new armored vessels, Britain’s century-old dominance at sea came to a rapid end.

The obvious response to this argument is that no nation-state, not even one that is militarily dominant, can stop the progress of technology. If it chooses not to pursue a new generation of weapons, it will only be left further behind when others begin to exploit them. Had Britain chosen not to deploy dreadnoughts, other nations would without question have eventually deployed similar ships that would have rendered Britain’s aging fleet useless. And the same is true today: the technologies that make up the RMA do exist; they will be developed, especially because so many of them overlap with emerging civilian applications; and nations will begin integrating these capabilities into their armed forces. The only question is whether the United States moves first to master them or is left behind.

Fourth and perhaps most fundamentally, leaders of U.S. defense and foreign policy must discuss the implications of an RMA force very carefully with our friends, allies, and potential adversaries. U.S. officials will need to reaffirm to all of them the effects of the RMA—most fundamentally, by reiterating that the purpose of the leapfrog strategy is to lay the foundation for another century of American leadership abroad; and to remind allies that, without such a strategy, the gradual decay of U.S. military capabilities is inevitable—just as, in the manner that business strategists understand, corporations that stand still in the global marketplace face inevitable decline.

Chaos Theory and a Stronger Military in 2010

The leapfrog strategy proposed here is not a radical, reckless approach to U.S. defense planning over the next ten to fifteen years. Given doctrinal barriers and budgetary shortfalls, a leapfrog strategy is simply the only way—short of a major upsurge in the defense budget—to make the RMA a reality in the foreseeable future. Circumstances and past defense decisions have left us with two clear, stark alternatives: leave the long-term defense program the way it is, and be witness to the steady erosion of U.S. military power; or adopt something like the leapfrog strategy and restore U.S. leadership for the better part of another century. If we take seriously the implications of chaos theory, there can be no other choice.

The leapfrog strategy is not without its risks and pitfalls. No approach to the large, complex issue of U.S. defense policy will be. But it is the one policy that recognizes the true value of the RMA and takes the steps necessary to bring it into being. As such, the leapfrog strategy is the single most fundamental organizational and strategic concept necessary to realize the RMA’s full potential.

We have no time to waste. Every passing year exacerbates the deficit in defense modernization we are accumulating. If we are to avoid a serious window of vulnerability and bring the RMA into the force before our existing combat systems simply stop working, we must act rapidly and implement the leapfrog strategy before it is too late.

End Notes

1. James N. Rosenau, Turbulence in World Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990).

2. These citations are drawn from Richard D’Aveni, Hypercompetition: Managing the Dynamics of Strategic Maneuvering (New York: The Free Press, 1994), pages xiii-xiv, 4-11, 18, 99-100, 225-28, 341-42, 349; his analysis of antitrust is on pp. 357-90.

3. Gary Hamel, "Strategy as Revolution," Harvard Business Review, Vol. 74, No. 4 (July-August 1996), pp. 69-71.

4. Ibid. p. 82.

5. Ibid., p. 73.

6. Ibid., pp. 75-76.

7. I am indebted to Dr. Dan Gouré of CSIS for this phrase.

8. These figures are drawn from Don M. Snider, Daniel Gouré, and Stephen Cambone, Project Directors, Defense in the Late 1990s: Avoiding the Train Wreck (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1995), pp. 9-15; and Dov Zakheim, "A Top-Down Plan for the Pentagon," Orbis, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Spring 1995), pp. 173-180.

9. The Defense Department has planned a 47-percent increase in procurement funds starting in FY1997, but this plan assumes savings through base closures and management reforms that may never materialize. Nor will this money be enough to offset the substantial cuts already made. And I will argue below that the new funds would be better invested in a truly new generation of military capabilities than the upgrade-level technologies for which it is slated.

10. Cited in David C. Morrison, "Ready for What?" National Journal, Vol. 27, No. 20 (May 20, 1995), p. 1218.

11. Cited in Ibid., p. 1219.

12. These figures are drawn from the relevant modernization sections of William J. Perry, Annual Report to the President and Congress (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Defense, February 1995).

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