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Stigmergy

| 18 Comments
An interesting new-to-me blog, 'Global Guerillas.' by John Robb. Followed a link from DefenseTech, which led to an interesting post on the mechanisms of emergent action by ant colonies, bloggers, and (claims the writer) terrorists.
Stigmergy is a term used in biology (from the work of french biologist Pierre-Paul Grasse) to describe environmental mechanisms for coordinating the work of independent actors (for example, ants use pheromones to create trails and people use weblog links to establish information paths, for others to follow). The term is derived from the greek words stigma ("sign") and ergon ("to act"). Stigmergy can be used as a mechanism to understand underlying patterns in swarming activity. As such, it can be applied to the understanding of the swarming attacks of diverse global guerrilla groups.
I'm intrigued, but not yet completely sold on this, but it's definitely a writer worth reading, and a set of concepts worth pursuing.

UPDATE: As usual, our comments section kicks the discussion up another notch or two - esp. "Laocoon" and team member Robin Burke.

18 Comments

Joe,

Thanks. When I first starting writing about a new form of terrorism -- small groups of guerrillas that attack infrastructure to undermine states -- I thought it was 5 to 10 years out. Iraq has accelerated everything. Iraq is has been an amazing catalyst for the emergence of this form warfare.

Sincerely,

John Robb
PS. My personal site is http://jrobb.mindplex.org

The 'small groups' stuff was amply pioneered by Bill Lind in his 1989 article on 'Fourth Generation Warfare'. The basic idea of self-organizing systems is quite old - at least as old as 'the invisible hand of the market'.

On the other hand, most Americans denigrate anything old, and only pay attention to the new. Hence, ancient and tested concepts can only be revived under new names. Check out 'effects-based operations', which the originator (Deptula) openly states is just a new label to try to get people to pay attention to an ancient idea!

'stigmirgy' seems like just another fancy new term for old commonsense.

Laocoon misses the point, I think.

What is new in the last few years about effects-based operations is not the idea of it, but its integration into military doctrine, planning, assessment tools, operational tactics and training. I can speak to that personally, as I helped to write the software being used by Combined Task Force 180 in Afghanistan for assessment .....

Similarly, what is new in the study of emergent behavior is not the idea of small group interactions, but rather ways to identify and characterize the interactions and their resulting emergent behavior over time. The result has been actor-based simulations which often give a different insight into the potential value (or pitfalls) of particular weapons systems, tactics or doctrine. On the commercial side, this sort of simulation and analysis is beginning to inform things like electric power pricing in response to rapidly-fluctuating demand.

Perhaps another useful concept to tie in here is the flash mob.

Oh, and by the way, that is a pretty awesome blog.

Seems pretty tacky that the "flashmobs" blog doesn't mention anywhere on the front page the inventor of flash mobs: Larry Niven.

No, Gary, you've got it all wrong.

Niven was the inventor of flash crowds.

An entirely different phenomenon.

"An entirely different phenomenon."

I'd say "if you say so," but that might seem rude, which is not might intent. So I'll say: um, okay. I don't think that intentionality makes it "entirely different," but it's a subjective opinion.

joke.

Oh. Channel Emily Litella here, please.

Response to praktike ...

I, too, write from personal experience of helping the military integrate EBO into their operational stuff, as well as desiging and fielding a prototype tool for designing strikes that sought to acheive military goals via synergistic cascading effects rather than via massive force.

I certainly agree that implementing EBO concepts is new, and I know (by personal experience) that even modest conceptual advances - ACTUALLY implemented - can make a huge difference. I'm proud to say that I've helped nudge a few such modest ideas into operational use by both the military and intelligence communities.

And I am really glad to read comments from a knowledgable person like praktike who is actually fielding stuff and making a difference. We really need more people who are bringing good ideas down from the clouds and into practice.

I think the ideas now called EBO used to be taught to the military, but such thinking was largely removed after WWII, especially in the Vietnam era. Deptula made up the term because he'd seen so many effect-less operations in Vietnam. I, for one, am glad to see it revived - no matter what name it now carries.

Not a response ...

What I'd really like to see is a discussion, in morally neutral military terms, of how to use the small groups of high-tech guerillas American (as detailed in Lind's 1989 article) for offensive use, rather than just trying to defend against small groups of low-tech jihadi guerillas.

(I think that was for Robin)

Somewhat related computer science:

http://www.swarmintelligence.org/SIBook/SI.php

I, too, write from personal experience of helping the military integrate EBO into their operational stuff, as well as desiging and fielding a prototype tool for designing strikes that sought to acheive military goals via synergistic cascading effects rather than via massive force.

I certainly agree that implementing EBO concepts is new, and I know (by personal experience) that even modest conceptual advances - ACTUALLY implemented - can make a huge difference.

Yup. Good to have you on the team.

As I'm sure laocoon knows, EBO has a broader meaning than its use for strike planning in the Air Force, an early proponent. EBO takes the military beyond the traditional attrition objectives (kill enemy, control territory), to identify economic, political, social and other objectives as well. Commanders are given objectives which may touch on all these areas and flexibility in achieving them.

Example: the brigade commander is given the objective of controlling a sector of the country and preventing the enemy's army from moving south. The primary route would take that army along a highway that crosses several bridges. The enemy army is much bigger than our brigade and one possible tactic is to blow up those bridges to slow / complicate any advance.

But the theater commander also has the objective of restoring the economy of the country to normality as quickly as possible. Since that highway and those bridges are a key way for food to come north and manufactured goods to come south, the brigade commander might choose other ways to accomplish his military objective.

EBO works best when a detailed intel model can be built about the country as a whole: economic, geographic, political, social etc. as well as military. Such a model allows planners and commanders to predict likely outcomes from different actions they might take.

What distinguishes EBO from simple common sense is that it requires commanders and civilian leaders to a) clearly state all objectives, including the "soft" ones, b) assign relative priorities to each objective, c) define measures of evaluation for each objective - what exactly does "restore economy to normality" mean in this context? - and d) assess the results of actions taken, against those measures -- and change tactics, if necessary. Changing tactics in an EBO-based campaign does NOT mean the plan has failed -- it means that tactical actions aren't the heart of the plan. The objectives are, and tactics can change as needed.

This approach is theoretically well-rooted in decision analysis techniques (multiple objective DA, value modelling). As with DA techniques in general, EBO used in this broader sense can force commanders and civilian leaders to define what they want to accomplish -- and how they will know if they are succeeding, or not.

As an aside, I suspect that the extensive use of EBO in Iraq may be one reason the Vietnam-era reporters totally mis-understood how successful the thunder run to Baghdad was. Since it was never a key objective to control the entire south before proceeding towards the capital, it was not a failure on the part of the forces that there was resistance there. A similar dynamic may well be at work in Fallujah .....

Response to Robin ...

Excellent summary! I could not agree more, so it seem to me that the root of the issue is the following: to me, what Robin describes is common sense. I mean, how else could you possibly do it?

You can dress it up in fancy terms, and do detailed the mathematical derivations of MAUT, but it never loses its connection to common sense. Unless your theory seems like just a clear statement of common sense to you, then you do not really understand and believe your own theory. (BTW, I've granted more than one PhD in decision theoretic fields)

Robin's points are exactly what Deptula cites as being ancient knowledge (check out Sun Tzu) - dressed up in new terminology in order to get people to read it with fresh eyes. Once the bureaucratic, process-driven (not result-driven) mindset gets going, it takes dynamite to break it loose, and if new jargon is needed to get people back to clear, results-oriented common sense, then so be it.

For the summary of a discussion by professional military types on this, you might wish to check out http://www.mors.org/publications/phalanx/mar02/lead.htm

Alas, common sense in laocoon's terms isn't so very common. My experience in business as well as in military issues is that many leaders have a hard time articulating clear-cut objectives whose achievement can be measured. Many also have trouble identifying objectives that are in tension with one another.

Actually, successful high-level leaders do that well. Often their subordinate commanders / managers don't, however, so I do think there is value in pushing for clarity and explicit measures of effectiveness/evaluation.

Yeah and Amen re: blasting the process orientation out of bureaucracies, too. Preach it, Brother!!!

Robin: Brilliant! Like in AI, looking at optimizing models, the organic algorithms are always the most robust.:)

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