We only know the past through the present and can only speculate as regards to the future from the present; and all our subjective knowledge in time is ultimately based on objective motion, or the relationship at any given moment between energy and mass.[i]
– Colonel J.F.C. Fuller, The Foundations of the Science of War, 1926
For centuries, military theorists, planners, and commanders alike have looked to the past for guidance. Whether it was Christine de Pizan’s medieval study of Hannibal’s struggle with Rome, or Carl Von Clausewitz and Baron de Jomini’s 19th century analysis of the Napoleonic wars, military theorists tend to be rearward facing, searching the past for bridges into the future. These bridges, the principles of war, are few and far between, highlighting the extent to which military theory is predominantly military history – more descriptive than prescriptive. But to the degree military theory is prescriptive, one should take caution. As J.F.C. Fuller observed, “The fundamental principles of war are neither very numerous nor in themselves very abstruse, but the application of them is difficult,” drawing into question the utility of military theory in practice.[ii] Or at least, as theory stands today.
Theoretical physicists faced a similar dilemma at the turn of the 20th century as they labored to reconcile Newtonian mechanics with strange observations in the lab. Light’s emergent property as both a particle and a wave failed to square neatly with more deterministic theoretical frameworks, but instead of forcing their results to fit theory, they went back to the drawing board. After years of experimentation and stubby-pencil work, the scientific community led by Niels Bohr, Max Planck and Albert Einstein determined their issue ultimately lied with classical physics and adopted a new framework by which to understand the world – quantum theory. By 1945, the power of the subatomic universe would be on full display over the skies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But what if quantum theory had something more profound to offer the battlefield? Not for its testimony of how to upend the status quo, but for its appraisal of how wars are fought?
If true, there are three broad implications military theorists should consider. First, perhaps the degree to which military theory is effective depends on its ability to express quantum realities. Second, perhaps the principles of war are difficult to apply because they discount these realities. And finally, perhaps quantum principles and concepts can be combined with the principles of war to reinvigorate their application in a more modern and technological operating environment. Three traditional principles of war, Simplicity, Economy of Force, and Objective, help draw our attention to these possibilities.
Quantum theory is anything but simple. Ironically, however, its central proposition that quantum entities behave as both a deterministic particle and probabilistic wave may hold the key to understanding the utility of this principle of war. According to U.S. Joint planners, “The purpose of simplicity is to increase the probability of success in execution by preparing clear, uncomplicated plans and concise orders.”[iii] In quantum terms, this definition treats a military’s operational approach as both a particle and a wave by using military orders to collapse a probabilistic future into a single, victorious result. An order can be observed, measured, and is bounded by the language used to communicate it. However, once published, one cannot with 100% certainty guarantee its result. Fuller notes that when an order is given, the “[general] is no longer in physical control, and, once his plan is issued, the mental structure of the command is enlarged to include a number of subordinates, who, if they are capable men, can, in an emergency, replace him.”[iv] The principle of simplicity, consequently, aims to increase the number of individuals capable of possessing a singular, unifying idea as a hedge against wartime attrition, coalescing a military’s mental impression into a common operating picture and reflecting quantum realities. Pinpointing the animating idea on a battlefield would be like identifying the position of an electron thought to be nowhere at once, but rather in a cloud around its nucleus as described by its quantum wave function. An order seems to exist in a Clausewitzian fog as well, common to all participants yet stimulating different responses while it orbits around the enemy’s center of gravity.
Developing a simple order is difficult. Commanders are mindful of what Jomini lamented as an “order misunderstood…throw[ing] into the hands of the enemy all the chances of success which a skillful general had prepared for himself by his maneuvers.”[v] Underlying this latent frustration is the implication that even simple orders may not be simple enough. As discussed, simplicity is effective because it treats the future as a probability statement. The past should be treated slightly different. Because it can be observed by historical account, there is a narrower set of possible outcomes, though in developing an operational approach, a common pitfall is treating the past perfectly deterministically, as if it can be fully known and understood. Specifically, one might presume if an event in the past is like the present, and the present is like the near future, then the past is predictive of the future. This is a highly classical interpretation summarized by the transitive property: If a = b, and b = c, then a = c, and can lead to poor decision-making.
In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson and his advisors artificially anchored, and thereby limited, their Vietnam strategy with presumed Korean War insights despite striking geopolitical dissimilarities. As historian Yuen Khong concluded, “The relationship between the lessons of history and policy has been that statesmen frequently turn to historical analogies for guidance when confronted with novel foreign policy problems, pick inappropriate analogies, and as a result, make bad policies.” Liddell Hart anticipated this result, stating that, “an intensive study of one campaign unless based on an extensive knowledge of the whole history of war is likely to lead us into pitfalls. But if a specific effect is seen to follow a specific cause in a score or more cases, in different epochs and diverse conditions, there is ground for regarding this cause as an integral part of any theory of war.”[vi] Validating a course of action without exhaustive precedence presumes omniscience and is tantamount to discounting the quantum realities of uncertainty.
Integrating quantum theory’s principle of wave-particle duality with simplicity sets a cloud over previous wars, not just future ones. Consequently, there is just as much to learn through visceral engagement with the future as there is through vicarious study of the past; a quantum intuition 21st century militaries can finally act upon. For example, pilots can test new tactics, techniques, and procedures, approximating real-world experience, without risk to life. In this way, flight simulators are where ideas now go to die so pilots don’t, and mirrors what the 19th century military genius could achieve only in his mind’s eye.[vii] Clausewitz called this the coup d’oeil, or “the quick recognition of a truth that the mind would ordinarily miss or would perceive only after long study and reflection.”[viii] In the blink of an eye, the military genius mentally compares a series of future scenarios, selects one optimized for simplicity and effect, validates it against precedence, and then submits a clear, unambiguous order in real time. Though simulation in its nascent form has not yet advanced past the tactical level, it represents an intermediate step between imagination and an advanced ability to model the near future. An order’s simplicity, then, may no longer need history for validation. But rather, through technology and imbued with a quantum intuition pointing toward the future, it might soon be affirmed by the lowest ranking member receiving it, and whose intelligent engagement with the future has already led them to the same conclusion.
Economy of Force
What physicists label as quantum entanglement, Clausewitz defines as the principle of polarity, or the relation that “positive and negative interests exactly cancel one another out…since the victory of one side excludes the victory of the other.”[ix] Clausewitz adeptly observed that “polarity lies not in the things but in their relationship” to one another.[x] In quantum theory, a similar relationship exists between electrons passed through a beam splitter, forever and indelibly connected. Despite being at great distances apart, measuring the spin of one electron will perfectly correlate with the spin of its entangled partner even though prior to measurement, or what Clausewitz terms decision, “each [quantum particle is] in a state of superposition, both ‘spin up’ and ‘spin down’ at the same time.”[xi] The principle of the Economy of Force overlays on these realities and is fundamentally the recognition that time management is a zero-sum game; every passing minute either benefits your future strategic advantage or that of the adversary’s. Therefore, it’s a principle of full employment, harassing the enemy around the clock or risk being harassed. “Always make sure that all forces are involved,” instructed Clausewitz in his definition of Economy of Force, “– always to ensure that no part of the whole force is idle…even the least appropriate task will occupy some of the enemy’s forces and reduce his overall strength while completely inactive troops are neutralized for the time being.”[xii] In reflecting this zero-sum quantum reality, Economy of Force finds its chief utility.
However, as its name suggests, economizing the force should not overemploy the force but rather optimize operations. Persistent engagement, unchecked, hastens decision but not necessarily to one’s own benefit, like making a bet on an entangled electrons spin prior to ensuring the collateral to back it up. Instead, participants have traditionally been regulated to an upside-down economy where hard work guarantees nothing, passing through Lewis Carroll’s looking glass into wonderland, ‘running as fast as they can just to stand still.’[xiii] To appreciate the magnitude of this error, one would need to look no further than the Franco-German frontier in the First World War.
Across a narrow 150-mile-long stretch, the Clausewitzian, “least appropriate task,” was conflated with his theory of unification, such that, “all forces intended and available for a strategic purpose [were] applied simultaneously.”[xiv] Full employment on the battlefield, like a free market, led to upward inflationary pressures with the price of victory measured in blood. Forcing decision in this brute force manner discounts a basic quantum reality. The spin of an electron will always be a matter of chance. A better approach would be to remain hidden in a superimposed state, forcing the adversary to make an impossible prediction as to what one may do, and then based of the threat of what you may do, be coerced to surrender. As Thomas Schelling argued, “To be coercive, violence has to be anticipated. And it has to be avoidable by accommodation. The power to hurt is bargaining power. To exploit it is diplomacy – vicious diplomacy, but diplomacy.”[xv]
A zero-sum quantum intuition, when paired with the principle of Economy of Force, reinvigorates peacetime readiness with a sense of urgency “to accelerate change, or lose,” as recently declared by U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, General Brown, in 2020.[xvi] The United States is entangled in a long-term, strategic competition with China, and though the two nations are not at war, the side that treats the prelude as a zero-sum event lays claim to the strategic advantage. The one that forces a decision without it, however, rolls the quantum dice. An asymmetric advantage in technology is but one mechanism by which to delay violent decision, supplanting brute force with a coercive show of force. “It is the difference between defense and deterrence,” highlighted Schelling, “between brute force and intimidation.” Consequently, to remain in a non-zero-sum state of strategic competition paradoxically requires a zero-sum deterrent posture. Expanding the military production-possibility frontier as a coercive deterrent, then, requires a rate of innovation commensurate with developments seen in actual war, such that the U.S. military-industrial complex allies itself with General Brown in his imperative to accelerate change.
Perhaps the most provocative concept in quantum theory is the observer effect, or the concept that a quantum particle’s position will behave according to its wave function, but when observed, appears to behave like a discrete particle, as if the presence of an observer collapses all probabilities to a definite result. Erwin Schrödinger was the first physicist to derive an equation able to calculate a system’s wave function and authored an equally famous thought experiment to help explain what it would mean for “a quantum system to stop existing as a superposition of states.”[xvii] Placed in a theoretical box, as the story goes, a cat’s fate depends on the path of an electron. Shot out of an electron gun, the particle either spins down and is absorbed by the system, or up, killing the cat.[xviii] Though many assume the odds are evenly split, as previously discussed, because of the wave-particle duality, the electron is in a superimposed state, both up and down simultaneously. Not until an observer investigates the contents of the box will reality snap into dramatic effect.
War is that box. The enemy’s will, the objective, is Schrödinger’s cat. The implication of this is that once a result is produced, or rather, once a war has concluded, the initial conditions were such that the result would always have occurred; initial conditions shaped by exogenous, political actors. The principle of objective in quantum terms, then, is a principle of focused, collective attention on the initial, political conditions. “If it is all a calculation of probabilities based on given individuals and conditions,” Clausewitz observed, “the political object, which was the original motive must become an essential factor in the equation.”[xix]
Regardless of the impetus, the military bears responsibility for collapsing a probabilistic future into a set of options for its political leadership. “Whatever the objective selected,” former Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Sir John Slessor, wrote, “we must concentrate upon it the highest possible proportion of our available strength and continue to do so for sufficient length of time to give a reasonable chance of decisive effect.”[xx] However noble and ubiquitous this conviction may be, it discounts the quantum reality that initial conditions play in achieving objectives.
For example, in 1965 the United States executed Operation Rolling Thunder, a bombing campaign over North Vietnam not so much intended to “achieve strategic objectives,” noted historian, Benjamin Lambeth, “as to send ‘signals’” in a vain effort to coerce Hanoi’s capitulation. [xxi] Frequent pauses in the bombing campaign were later attributed with providing North Vietnamese leaders “the time they needed to continue the buildup of their air defenses.”[xxii] And so, the cat lived to fight another day. However, a half century later, a U.S.-led NATO war with the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia once again executed infrequent bombing pauses to, as Dag Henriksen concluded, “let [Milošević] assess the situation” under threat of future damage.[xxiii] This time, the cat died, and with Milošević’s defeated will, the U.S.-led coalition was able to deliver their political leaders a negotiated peace settlement. As noted under simplicity, there are hidden variables at play with both of these historical accounts, but for all of their similarities, they are different in one key area: the political objectives shaping the initial conditions.
Combining objective as a principle of war with the observer effect produces military leaders of conviction, willing to engage with the political establishment in search of clear objectives through which they might shape more appropriate rules of engagement. As Iklé noted, “Many wars in this century have been started with only the most nebulous expectations regarding the outcome, on the strength of plans that paid little, if any, attention to the ending. Many began inadvertently, without any plans at all.”[xxiv] Vietnam epitomized this critique, prompting General Colin Powell, former United States Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to reflect, “As a corporate entity, the military failed to talk straight to its political superiors or to itself.”[xxv] Following his lead, the U.S. military needs to energize the same top-down political awareness of war, and should be reminded that it is to only remain nonpartisan, not apolitical. Marrying theory to practice through the principle of Objective is ultimately about converging a military’s situational awareness with political realities and the subatomic initial conditions they underpin.
Military theory should be continually reconciled with its practice, leaning full into war’s mysterious dual nature. Quantum theory, if nothing else, provides a new lens by which to consider the reasons why the principles of war are still employed around the world, despite their pre-industrial origins. Still further, since quantum theory purports to describe the physical world itself, it very well likely does interact with military theory, though determining definitively how may never fully be appreciated. What matters, however, is that the question continues to be asked not only of history, but as discussed, the future: How should wars best be fought? Though, perhaps the most important lesson of quantum theory is the enduring principle of chance, which is to say that the highest probability of achieving the political object initially desired, is to pursue it in peace. War, due to its erratic, quantum-like nature, may never provide the exact end state one seeks. Therefore, writes Hart, “The true aim is not so much to seek battle as to seek a strategic situation so advantageous that if it does not of itself produce the decision, its continuation by battle is sure to achieve this.”[xxvi] But if that sounds easier said than done, it’s probably because it is. As Einstein noted, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”[xxvii]
[i] J. F. C Fuller and Books Express Publishing, The Foundations of the Science of War, 2012, 49.
[ii] Fuller and Books Express Publishing, 13.
[iii] Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Joint Publication 3-0, Joint Operations” (Washington, DC: Joint Chiefs of Staff, June 18, 2022).
[iv] Fuller and Books Express Publishing, The Foundations of the Science of War, 233.
[v] Antoine Henri Jomini, The Art of War (El Paso, Tex.: El Paso Norte Press, 2005), 33.
[vi] Basil Henry Liddell Hart and Basil Henry Liddell Hart, Strategy, 2nd rev. ed (New York, N.Y., U.S.A: Meridian, 1991), 5.
[vii] “Alfred North Whitehead,” in Wikipedia, November 5, 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Alfred_North_Whitehead&oldid=1120201544.
[viii] Carl von Clausewitz et al., On War, First paperback printing (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1989), 102.
[ix] Clausewitz et al., 83.
[x] Clausewitz et al., 83.
[xi] “What Is Entanglement and Why Is It Important?,” Caltech Science Exchange, accessed November 23, 2022, http://scienceexchange.caltech.edu/topics/quantum-science-explained/entanglement.
[xii] Clausewitz et al., On War, 213.
[xiii] Lewis Carroll and Bassett Jennifer, Through the Looking-Glass (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 50.
[xiv] Clausewitz et al., On War, 209; “Casualties of World War I,” Facing History and Ourselves, accessed August 18, 2022, https://www.facinghistory.org/weimar-republic-fragility-democracy/politics/casualties-world-war-i-country-politics-world-war-i.
[xv] Thomas C. Schelling and Anne-Marie Slaughter, Arms and Influence, Veritas paperback edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020), 2.
[xvi] Gen. Charles Q Brown, “Accelerate Change or Lose” (United States Air Force, August 2020).
[xvii] “Collapsing Wavefunctions,” Chemistry LibreTexts, November 9, 2015, https://chem.libretexts.org/Bookshelves/Physical_and_Theoretical_Chemistry_Textbook_Maps/Supplemental_Modules_(Physical_and_Theoretical_Chemistry)/Quantum_Mechanics/03._The_Tools_of_Quantum_Mechanics/Collapsing_Wavefunctions.
[xviii] “What Did Schrodinger’s Cat Experiment Prove?,” Science Questions with Surprising Answers, accessed August 19, 2022, https://wtamu.edu/~cbaird/sq/2013/07/30/what-did-schrodingers-cat-experiment-prove/.
[xix] Clausewitz et al., On War, 80–81.
[xx] John Cotesworth Slessor, Air Power and Armies (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2009), 142.
[xxi] Benjamin S. Lambeth, The Transformation of American Air Power, Cornell Studies in Security Affairs (Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 2000), 31.
[xxii] Lambeth, 20.
[xxiii] Dag Henriksen, NATO’s Gamble: Combining Diplomacy and Airpower in the Kosovo Crisis, 1998-1999 (Annapolis, Md: Naval Institute Press, 2007), 60.
[xxiv] Fred Charles Iklé, Every War Must End, 2nd rev. ed (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 108.
[xxv] Henriksen, NATO’s Gamble, 70.
[xxvi] Liddell Hart and Liddell Hart, Strategy, 352.
[xxvii] “Everything Should Be Made as Simple as... Albert Einstein - Forbes Quotes,” accessed November 23, 2022, http://www.forbes.com/thoughts/.