On Friction In War – Carl von Clausewitz Expanded

Here I took observations of Carl von Clausewitz on friction (just reading through his book “On War”), and expanded on them.

War is simple, but the simplest thing is hardest. Various acters and factors in war produce other acters and factors, and also with their interaction produce friction. There are many things that cannot be predicted; things that should not happen but do; things that should have happened but did not. While each circumstance by itself may be too small to even consider, together they add up. Each level of authority adds another layer of friction, and confusion and dangers of war only increase probability of it happening. Most effects of friction cannot be predicted; effects of weather, disease, confusion, mechanical failures; they all cause friction of some kind. Organization itself causes friction: differing doctrines and culture can cause friction when operating with allies. Because of these various types of friction, any undertaking in war is like moving in a fog or a deep mud. Further, each war is full of individual characteristics and events which change its nature; one of primary qualities of a general is recognizing that friction.

The main way to overcome various types of friction is experience and habit. Improvements can be organizational, educational and practical. Last one is primarily in training: while not a perfect facsimile of war by any means, realistic training can approximate many of the difficulties faced in the war, and is thus primary factor in military effectiveness. Soldier must not first see in war the difficulties of war, and by the time the war begins, he must be capable of semi-automatically overcoming many of them. Of course, realistic training may cause casualties; but if choice is between safety in war and safety in peace, it is better to sacrifice some of what there is plenty of. Lastly, military must always observe trends and events in active war zones, up to and including sending officers as observers to these areas. While few, such officers have crucial role in preparing the military for wars to come.

Organizational friction can be reduced through decentralization. Internal friction is a consequence of organizational complexity and interaction of various parts which comprise the system. Greater complexity and greater number of organizational levels lead to increased friction. Increased independence and responsibility of low-level component parts lead to reduced communications/decision traffic and reduced interaction with higher levels and with each other. This in turn leads to improved response time, improved view of local matters, and increased speed of adaptation. Reduced communication between component parts also reduces the probability that chance – disruption in communications network, local conditions etc. – will prevent fulfillment of necessary tasks.

Since warfare is inherently chaotic, higher-level commanders cannot know the situation on terrain better than lower-level ones – by the time information had reached them, situation had changed, or else important details had been lost in the mass of information received. Any centralization of decision-making and/or information-gathering process results in an overwhelming amount of clutter, as noise (“fog of war”) increases with removal from immediate area. Consequently, any communications networks should be used for coordination and compartmentalization, but by no means centralization, of decision-making process. Duty of higher-level commanders is primarily to coordinate efforts between lower-level units and provide relevant information; only in extreme cases should they assume control. It is subordinates who are tasked with exploiting fleeting and unpredictable opportunities within the superiors’ overall intent.

Speed is crucial factor, the crucial factor, and one from which all others stem. Speed allows forces to be concentrated and dispersed as necessary – and quick enough action may dispense with need for concentration of force alltogether. Speed and randomness of action can be utilized to cause confusion in enemy’s decision-making process, to keep him responding to actions that have already become irrelevant, to keep him “dancing to the tune” or else completely paralyze him. Friction increases with speed; our own, but also the enemy’s. Thus the primary goal in reducing friction is to speed up our own rate of action; the primary goal in increasing enemy’s friction is to slow him down. Decentralization, mentioned before, is important precisely because – by keeping most important decisions low-level – it increases speed of action. This means that strategically offense, or at least active action, is the dominant form in war – side that is reacting is always slower, because it first has to process what the enemy is doing, and only then formulate and carry out a response; by that time, a quick enough opponent will have already moved ahead and made response irrelevant by creating new situation. Whether this will hold in practice depends on specifics of the situation, but it does suggest that active action can be used to induce additional friction into enemy’s system.

Mission command is one of ways that speed can be increased through reducing friction: it is a technique of transferring decision responsibility to lower levels (a good decision now is better than perfect decision ten minutes later). Commanders who know why something is being done are not limited to going “by the letter” of the orders given, but are rather free to adapt and improvise as situation demands. They are consequently less reliant on oversight from “up high”, significantly reducing friction simply through increased independence; they are also less likely to succumb to shock of surprise enemy action and more likely to take timely countermeasures. Orders should thus be brief and centered on commander’s intent – higher command level should only assign tasks (what and why), but commander of the unit carrying out the task should be completely free to decide how to perform the mission. Proper decentralization however requires both motivation and capability, as well as willingness by higher command levels to relinquish (part of) responsibility and accept the reality that mistakes will be made. If this responsibility is not relinquished, the end result is “zombie army”, trodding mindlessly along a predetermined path until getting shredded by more capable opponents capable of seizing initiative. If responsibility is relinquished, but is not supported by training, subordinates will be unable to choose the most effective course of action. In such conditions, detailed orders and rigid control are a superior choice.

Further, low-level and high-level commanders alike should have sufficient information to act. But too much information can lead to paralysis as easily as too little; therefore lower-level commanders have the responsibility to filter important information for use by higher levels. Information superiority alone is worthless if dissemination and utilization of information is lacking. Therefore, their superiors should be capable of judging what information is relevant and should be forwarded onto the lower levels, and units should be equipped with adequate reconnaissance and scouting capabilities. Information gathering and processing has to be decentralized, as volume of information gained through modern sensors and information networks is too much for a higher-level commander to gather and process on his own, and centralized C4ISR networks are inherently incompatible with tight decision loops. And since last parts of decision loop – analysis and utilization of information – are a function of training, it is training and competence that should be emphasized, even at the cost of technology. Training and experience reduce friction in all aspects of human activity by eliminating waste as well as teaching acters how to recognize important patterns – it lets person think without actually thinking (intuition). Important factor in this is sharing of war stories across departments – and generations. Pattern recognition is likewise an important skill that develops through training and experience – requiring strategic-level leaders to be intimately familiar with history of warfare.

Decentralization is also important for reliability of information and quality of decision. Humans have evolved to trust their senses (even if they don’t do even that all the time), but as information becomes more and more removed from said senses, capacity for filtering out incorrect or malignant information decreases. This means that centralized decision-making systems are inherently more vulnerable to deception, interruption and obscuration (this holds true for all systems, not just military ones). Overall, in terms of speed of processing, quality of information and quality od decision, local networks are inherently superior to global ones. Further, decision-making may result in groupthink if a group of like-minded people is making decisions. Distributing decision-making process reduces harmfull effects of groupthink and isolation from contrary opinions that groups tend to promote.

However, warfare is a competitive affair, and victory is achieved by outcompeting the enemy. It is not only necessary to reduce friction in one’s own troops, but also to increase the friction the enemy is experiencing. This can be done through a mix of ambiguity (in troop disposition, movement, and public statements), deception (tactical, strategic, political-diplomatic), distribution (physical distribution of assets, organizational distribution of authority – decentralization) and propaganda. This also means that routine should be avoided – while routine on tactical and strategic level may reduce one’s own friction, it also reduces enemy’s friction because it enables him to draw correct conclusions on our own behaviour through only few samples. If enemy’s friction is sufficiently increased, such that the enemy has been placed in a state of operational paralysis, his forces can be rendered operationally irrelevant – and thus victory achieved – without necessitating physical destruction of the enemy.

In order to successfully do this, enemy’s psychology, organization, doctrine and culture must be familiarized with. Adversary should be probed and tested to unmask his strengths, weaknesses, thought processes, intentions and maneuvers (military, diplomatic etc.). Decision-making process is highly depenant on biological, psychological, cultural and educational background, but also on personal experiences and thought processes as well as other environmental interactions. Therefore, while enemy’s thought process can be approximated and, to an extent, decisions and behaviour predicted, this is never perfect or fault-free. Because much of thought process is unknown to and outside of active control of even the person doing the thinking, enemy commander’s decision may vary based on things as banal as whether he had had his cup of coffee that morning. This also means that framework for reaching correct decisions must be set well in advance.

Ambiguity is crucial first step in defeating the enemy because it prevents the enemy from determining our goals and therefore from formulating a proper response. It also causes crucial psychological instability – victory is achieved generally when enemy is psychologically overwhelmed; when that is not the case, physical destruction of the enemy is necessary. Ambiguity is then expanded upon and complemented by deception. Ambiguity and deception are facilitated, complemented and increased through decentralization and dispersion – units should operate separately and in small groups, yet be capable of supporting each other and gathering in mass as necessary. This characteristic will then be used not only to facilitate war of maneuver, but also to induce uncertainty and confusion in enemy’s decision-making process. Large mass and concentration of forces can be used to effectively distract enemy attention from physically smaller, but strategically much more important, efforts. It can also – possibly at the same time – be used for intimidation purposes. If possible, officers and even soldiers within enemy militaries should be bought or otherwise bribed; if not, false evidence of such bribery, corruption and/or other types of subversion should be planted in order to induce mistrust within enemy structures, or at least increase internal friction due to increased security measures. Officers may also be assassinated to reduce enemy’s cohesion.

Ambiguity can also be induced by just speed and randomness of action. Increased speed of action leaves less time for the enemy to determine, prioritize and process (integrate) the information gained, increasing confusion and leaving less time for response. This is again facilitated by measures noted above – namely, decentralization and dispersion of forces.

Deception includes masking of effort or intent, and is thus closely connected to ambiguity. This includes various intelligence and special operations forces actions. Unlike ambiguity, which aims at keeping the enemy guessing, deception is based around convincing the enemy that things are happening which in fact are not happening. Just like ambiguity, deception should be used to induce disorientation and uncertainty, to cause friction in adversary’s decision-making process. Responses should be the least expected ones. Internal friction within the adversary’s system should be exploited and, where possible, increased. Enemy focal points, which coordinate his efforts, should be disrupted and/or misguided to disrupt cohesion of effort and decision-making process. Events should also be shaped to draw in potential allies.

Ideally, ambiguity and deception will prevent the enemy from forming a correct mental image and thus developing a response before the action he is supposed to be responding against has already been carried out. Enemy thus overmatched will be incapable of either understanding or responding to the events, and will be forced to give up. This psychological “capitulation” may be expressed through “blanking out”, micromanagement or knee-jerk decisions, but in either case the enemy will be at significant psychological disadvantage. Surprise and shock greatly increase friction the enemy is experiencing.

In order to facilitate deception and prevent being decieved, strategist must never rely on a single, straightforward strategic plan. Instead, a variety of strategic initiatives should be explored, keeping the enemy guessing where the focal point of the effort is until the very last moment. Focus of the strategy should itself be mutable, with strategy changing focus and direction as it adapts to developing circumstances. Specific strategy plans, especially long-term ones, should be discarded in favour of short-term endeavours that are functionally independent from each other, yet focus on an overall goal or an idea.

4 thoughts on “On Friction In War – Carl von Clausewitz Expanded

  1. In many ways, Boyd expanded on Clausewitz’s ideas and the idea that you can use friction to cause an enemy to collapse.

    It’s also a good argument why you should not rely on a hyper-centralized top-down command structure as well. It makes friction far more difficult to deal with and increases your OODA loop.


    1. Indeed. In fact, when I was writing this I noticed that Clausewitz did not in fact address utilizing friction to cause the enemy to collapse; that is what prompted me to post this. That I think is a big mistake of his, seeing how Napoleon, Caesar, etc. all used friction to collapse opponent’s decision loops.


  2. The book Apache by Ed Macy describes the battle of Jugroom Fort in Afghanistan, in 2007 I think. The account of this battle is a good example of centralised command paralyzing an operation. Not that a commentary on the centralization of command was the authors intent. It’s a book worth a read. Interestingly one of your previous articles links to another account of the battle by an A10 pilot that took part.


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