Black Swans and Pink Flamingos: Five Principles for Force Design


What key lessons should U.S. policymakers and defense planners take away from the last 14 years of conflict? How relevant is the recent past? What does our strategic and operational performance suggest we need to retain as core competencies? These are critical questions for the design of tomorrow’s U.S. military. Being rigorously critical about our campaigns is a healthy and necessary intellectual exercise. We should not deceive ourselves, nor should we hide from a painful evaluation about the last 14 years and deficiencies in the American way of strategy. Without looking critically at the past, our own wars and others, all of the arguments about AirSea Battle, disruptive technologies, and offset strategies will be largely premature, if not largely uninformed.

Drawing upon the last several wars for insights or major principles for force design is useful, but to draw the right insights requires more than merely thinking about the recent past.  We must look forward to a more complex world, one in which technological, social, and economic change produce new contexts.  In his most famous essay on the abuse of history, Michael Howard noted that the military must strive to explore history to acquire lessons, but also to be able to recognize when changes in context have made doctrine and past practice obsolete.

American policymakers and strategists would benefit from a longer-range view of history to better inform defense policy and joint force design. There are calls by some for limited interventions under ideal conditions of lower cost and scale, “more El Salvadors” than Vietnams or more short wars like Operation Desert Storm instead of the protracted Operation Iraqi Freedom. Certainly, this desire is understandable, but strategists cannot plan for ideal conditions or convenient enemies.  More importantly politicians cannot dictate the terms of future conflicts. The future does not bend to our illusions or our preferences.  History’s furies do not respond to presidential pronouncements about the tides of war.

Recent defense policy statements suggest that the “technology optimists” are alive and well again.  We must be wary of claims about disruptive breakthroughs, as a premature shift to autonomous robotic systems or unbalanced approach can generate a lot of risk without benefit. We should definitely seek advantages in all dimensions of war, and while we may be forced to consider offsets, we need not rush for silver bullets.

As former RAND analyst Russ Glenn once noted, lessons from the past are of value only if molded to the needs of the future.  A military that does not balance looking backward with constant glances at the future risks preparing only for the war last fought. We examine the past in order to illuminate the future, not to relive past success.

Richard Danzig’s widely cited CNAS paper, Driving in the Dark, recommended that the “defense community should also design processes, programs and equipment on the premise that predictions will often be incorrect. While trying better to illuminate the road, analysts should recognize that sudden twists and turns in areas of darkness demand special driving techniques.” Danzig’s driving metaphor is appropriate for steering into a future that, by its nature, is uncertain. From that metaphor I have derived a set of five force planning principles:

1. Force design and posture must embrace uncertainty. As noted by Charles Heller and William Stofft 30 years ago, “The record of Americans’ ability to predict the nature of the next war, not to mention its causes, location, time, adversary, and allies, has been uniformly dismal.”  This dismal record is not a criticism of American intellect as much as a realization of the persistence of uncertainty in strategic planning.

In this regard, Danzig was too optimistic. The strategy community does not drive U.S. force design looking forward, peering into a future road that is dimly illuminated by headlights. Rather we have to drive backwards into the future looking not into the windshield, which shows the road just travelled, but the small rear view window, steering haltingly into unknown terrain.

We cannot pierce the opaqueness of the future, nor can we simply stand pat and wait for the appearance of the “unknown unknowns” or tomorrow’s black swans. A black swan is an event or situation which is unpredictable and for which the consequences could not be measured.  This is not a useful risk construct for planners, as neither the probability nor the consequence of a black swan can be assessed. This is why risk analysts today focus on our gray swans, events that can be anticipated, but are considered so unlikely that they are ignored in analyzing or adapting to new threats.

Thinking historically about the future means dealing openly with those things we want to avoid or are in denial about. These are what I call our pink flamingoes. A pink flamingo is a predictable event that is ignored due to cognitive biases of a senior leader or a group of leaders trapped by powerful institutional forces.  These are the cases which are “known knowns,” often brightly lit, but remaining studiously ignored by policymakers.  Peter Schwartz called them our inevitable surprises. These could include nuclear use doctrines in Russia and South Asia, the potential use of biological toxins, chemical weapons usage in Syria, and Russia’s actions in Ukraine as representatives of such a bright and ugly bird.

Uncertainty is a reality to force planners, as Colin Gray has noted:

We will certainly be surprised in the future, so it is our task now to try to plan against the effects of some deeply unsettling surprises. The key to victory here is not the expensive creation of new conceptual, methodological, or electro-mechanical tools of prediction. Rather it is to pursue defense and security planning on the principles of minimum regrets and considerable flexibility and adaptability.

2. Force design must be strategically driven. Lawrence Freedman, in his well-regarded opus, Strategy: A History, said, “Having a strategy suggests an ability to look up from the short term and the trivial to view the long term and the essential, to address causes rather than symptoms, to see woods rather than trees.”  To that I might add, thinking strategically suggests an ability to define priorities and to make hard choices that shape the future.  These distinct choices should be rigorously tested, the way car manufacturers test their designs through wind tunnels and test tracks. The Defense Department’s recent wargaming initiative to reenergize the exploration of new capabilities at the Pentagon is a step forward in this regard.

But meeting the challenge of uncertainty mandates we think about and allocate a premium for a force design that can be applied in a wide range of scenarios, not just the ones we decide we like. In this regard, we should buy sports utility vehicles (hybrids, of course) and not two-seated sport cars with rag tops. Operational excellence at combined armed warfare remains the best preparation and posture for the array of threats we face today and tomorrow.

Of late, we have been succumbing almost sub-consciously, despite T.X. Hammes’ commentary, to buying fewer and fewer numbers of more expensive platforms. We have also cut general purpose forces to buy a broader range of capabilities. The end result is a kind of self-defeating approach in which we impose more costs on ourselves than on our adversary. This is what some might call an anti-strategy.

3. Force design must be risk-informed. Risk is inevitable in strategy. We would all prefer that the United States be able to cover all contingencies and still have a preponderance of power left over to deal with chance, friction, and a cunning enemy.  Risk in U.S. defense planning is poorly understood, and is usually discussed rhetorically in the context of missions or capabilities we want to spend money on, or avoid allocating resources towards.  Thus, when someone states, “I am buying down risk,” they mean they are simply spending more on it.

Embedded in the strategic planning and resource allocation processes of the Department of Defense is a “logic” and series of assumptions about future warfare that should be made more transparent to senior leaders including Congress.  To think there will not be large-scale conventional fights or protracted messy conflicts in our future is to harbor illusions.  The policy community today seems to have fallen for “easy wars” or been seduced by the “lure of strike.”  Technology cannot significantly offset the need for robust ground forces, nor can it guarantee short wars.

Yes, strategy is about matching ends with means, and risk and tradeoffs are fundamental to long-range planning; but the enemy does not have to respect U.S. planning assumptions and theories of victory, nor fight in an accommodating manner. As Conrad Crane has noted, we cannot count on stupid enemies.

Rather, as Gen. Martin Dempsey, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted in his Quadrennial Defense Review risk assessment almost two years ago, we need to prepare for more difficult conventional fights. Dempsey reinforced his assessment about risk in the National Military Strategy, warning that “We are more likely to face prolonged campaigns than conflicts that are resolved quickly … that control of escalation is becoming more difficult and more important.”

Shortfalls in defense investment have consequences. The risk assessment also noted a growing ends-means gap between America’s global responsibilities and its defense budget. Our obligations are outgrowing our willingness to adequately fund required force levels.

Returning to the “driving in the dark” metaphor, the United States military needs to wear seat belts and buy insurance.  Right now the Department of Defense is preparing to pay for a rather high deductible if there is an accident or miscalculation as we’ve not purchased enough coverage against simultaneous or protracted crises. Our country is not adequately insured. A crash in the real world is not subject to “no fault” rules; there truly are consequences to complacency and to faulty strategy.

4. Force design must emphasize versatility over adaptability. Versatility is based on a breadth of competencies, instead of a collection of specialized organizations or players.  It is very difficult for general purpose forces to achieve full spectrum coverage, but it is possible to have forces better prepared for the center mass of most conflicts, while having specialized services capable of being ready on day one for unique circumstances.

Versatility is dependent upon adequate training resources and the time to absorb a wide array of scenarios. It is also predicated on investments in education and flexible doctrine so that leaders are mentally prepared to apply best practices and the proper techniques for the scenarios they are expected to be prepared for.  Agility is a measure of how easily and how fast an organization can shift between competencies and execute them equally well. In the past, we measured agility across the conflict spectrum in increments of months. We cannot afford the luxury of months anymore.

Adaptability is based on the capacity to adjust current competencies or generate entirely new skills in reaction to an adversary or to unanticipated circumstances. Our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan show clear evidence of adaptation, but not at a level adequate to the strategic and operational challenges we faced. We think we know a lot about adaptability.  This reminds of the famous quote attributed to Admiral Ernie King, where he said, “I don’t know what the hell this ‘logistics’ is that Marshall is always talking about, but I want some of it.” Adaptability is our new logistics. We don’t know what it is, but we do know we want it.

There is more to adaptation than storing or being able to share operational or tactical lessons. Adaptability can be enhanced by leadership development, extensive educational programs with detailed campaign studies of successful and failed efforts to adapt, institutional mechanisms that assist commanders in recognizing problems or gaps in performance and equally, and mechanisms that develop and refine strategic, operational or tactical solutions to those gaps.  We should not depend entirely on adaptability to compensate for our limited grasp of what battles tomorrow will present.

Our forces have to cover a wide range of missions and forms of terrain; they have to be rugged and reliable, instead of exquisite and expensive. But rather than effectiveness over the long haul, defense planning since 2012 has been forced to seek near-term efficiency despite the broad uncertainty we face.

5. Force design must ensure a degree of balance. Keeping up with the driving metaphor, U.S. defense strategists should not buy cars with only three tires. One of the principal elements of a sound joint force design is a balanced force capable of generating options for decision-makers in many contexts, and at the operational level, being able to generate dilemmas for our opponents. Force reductions should keep this principle in mind.

We may no longer be able to afford the overall size of the force we need to execute our national strategy but we should be able to preserve a high-quality and balanced force as our hedge against uncertainty. We should avoid an unbalanced program force that attempts to sustain a large and costly structure that forces us to penny-pinch on training, readiness or even worse, education.

Equally of concern is the tendency to create an unbalanced force and to accept great risk in modernization accounts in order to preserve regiments and their flags.  The defense industrial base in a market-based economy is not forgiving, and special care must be taken to preserve design teams and production capacity for large-scale mobilization. Protecting key aspects of the industrial base, including research and design teams may be necessary, given the prospects of future defense budgets.

Getting Force Planning Right

Today’s force planning requirements are framed more by policy desires and fiscal constraints than a realistic view to the future. Ongoing events and anticipatable crises portend darkening trends. The unfamiliar and the uncomfortable do not equate to unlikely. Our force must be designed not just to respond to the most likely or those canonical scenarios that favor cherished hardware programs. U.S. force planning should hedge by providing general capabilities and organizational agility that allow adaptations to unanticipated developments.

Despite testimonies from some our senior intelligence officials, today’s world is not so complex that we cannot foresee trends. Nor are we experiencing the most dangerous era in our nation’s recent memory. But we are witnessing the slow erosion of global order. Arguably events in Europe and the Middle East show that Gen. Dempsey’s assessment was fair rather than dystopic. Accordingly, the administration has asked for the repeal of sequestration. Yet, the basic parameters of U.S. national security planning remain in place. This does not square with the stark realities we must face with greater rigor and imagination, and with far less illusion, if we are going to keep our proverbial car headed in the right direction.


Dr. Frank Hoffman is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research at National Defense University. These comments reflect his own views and do not represent the policy or position of the Department of Defense.


Photo credit: Joey Parsons