Antifragile Adversaries: How to Defeat Them? Samuel Zilincik - University of Defence, The Czech Republic
To cite this article:
Zilincik, Samuel, “Antifragile Adversaries: How to Defeat Them?”, Military Strategy Magazine, Volume 7, Issue 2, summer 2020, pages 32-38.
Samuel Zilincik is currently pursuing a doctorate in Security and Strategic Studies at Masaryk University and teaches at the University of Defence in the Czech Republic. He is interested in strategic theory, history and practice. His published works include the article “Setting the Categorical Hydra Ablaze: Applying Clausewitz to the Fallacies of War Categorisation” and the essay “Strategy and the Instrumental Role of Emotions”.
Most categorizations of adversaries are of little relevance to our understanding of strategy. The popular distinction between state and non-state actors has no bearing on the capacity of the respective actors to behave strategically. The labels of asymmetric or symmetric adversaries only convey that the two sides are somehow different from each other. Dividing adversaries into insurgents and counterinsurgents only reveals that the former fight to change governmental policies while the latter fight against the former. Similarly, the category of hybrid adversaries is hardly enlightening because every adversary can combine military and non-military instruments of power or regular and irregular troops on the battlefield. While the category of terrorists conveys the use of terrorism as a strategy, the label is inaccurate and misleading. Afterall, actors can use several strategies simultaneously or sequentially. Accordingly, those who use the terrorist label run the risk of confusing themselves about the actual capacity and effort of the adversary. Not all of these distinctions are useless. Nonetheless, they either do not reveal anything substantial about the particulars of strategy in practice or they confuse rather than clarify.
Any useful categorization of adversaries cuts to the essence of strategy, to the utility of violent interaction. Strategy is about the purposeful use made of violent engagements with the adversary. The purpose of strategy is to decrease the adversary’s military capabilities or his will to fight.[i] Strategic performance, in its consequences, determines whether the purpose is achieved. Therefore, the effects produced by strategic performance are what matters the most in strategy.[ii] These effects may vary in three directions. They can decrease the adversary’s capability/will to fight, leave these variables unchanged or increase them. A proper categorization of adversaries helps the strategist orient himself in the logic of these three scenarios.
The main goal here is to develop a new typology of adversaries and to zoom in on those who get stronger when engaged in strategic performance. The paper draws upon the concept of antifragility, popularized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book Anti-fragile: The Things That Gain from Disorder. I argue that depending on their reaction to strategic performance, adversaries can be put on a spectrum from fragile to resilient, to antifragile ones. To keep the scope of the investigation reasonably limited, the paper focuses on the effects of strategic performance on the adversary’s military capabilities rather on his will to fight. The first category describes the adversaries whose military capabilities shrink as a consequence of engaging in strategic performance. The second category is reserved for those adversaries who are able to replenish their military capabilities to the original position after engaging in strategic performance. The last category describes those adversaries whose military capabilities increase as a consequence of taking part in strategic performance. These are, of course, ideal types and their manifestations in strategic practice are less clear-cut.
Antifragile adversaries pose a particular, but not unsolvable, challenge. The challenge resides in the fact that attrition, the most common effect in strategic practice, strengthens these adversaries instead of weakening them. Nonetheless, there are four distinct ways to defeat antifragile adversaries. These include rapid sequential strategies, strategies of decisive battle, cumulative strategies of underwhelming attacks, and the deliberate uses of peace. The secondary argument of this paper is that antifragility in the context of strategy is as much a function of the adversary’s capacity to adapt as of strategist’s own conduct of strategy. Strategist is responsible for the character of the adversary, he shapes it by his own choices and performance. Antifragility is therefore not an inherent nor a stable characteristic but rather a quality which the adversary acquires temporarily and in an interactive relationship.
In the next section, I briefly discuss the concept of antifragility to distinguish it from fragility and resilience. The subsequent section develops a typology of adversaries, dividing them into the respective categories. Consequently, I move on to examine the options of defeating antifragile adversaries by drawing upon the inherent characteristics of antifragile objects. The conclusion summarizes the findings and discusses their implications for strategy-makers and scholarship.
The things that gain from disorder
Taleb coined the term antifragile in order to describe phenomena that are at the opposite spectrum of the fragile ones.[iii] When facing challenges, fragile objects get damaged or collapse completely. A typical example is anything made of regular glass. When thrown against the wall it breaks and is of no use for anyone. Then there are resilient objects, which can sustain challenges with no permanent damage taken. An inflatable ball thrown against the wall may slightly change its shape for a second only to return to the original form in the next moment, with no impact on its utility for the future.
Antifragile objects benefit from facing challenges. Bones have to be challenged regularly in order to get stronger and muscles only grow when repeatedly damaged. In fact, both bones and muscles get weak if unchallenged for longer periods of time.[iv] Two key requirements need to be present for the manifestation of the anti-fragile potential. First, the challenges have to be proportionate to the capacities of the object. Jumping from places that are too high may be an overwhelming challenge for bones and lifting stuff that is too heavy may irreversibly damage muscles. At the same time, challenges far below the capacity of the object may result in having no effect at all. A professional bodybuilder lifting weights of one kilogram every-day does not benefit from this exercise. Second, enough time has to pass between individual challenges to grant the object the space for improvement.[v] With no time to grow stronger, both bones and muscles deteriorate under constant pressure. Antifragility is therefore as much a function of the inherent predispositions of the object as it is of the character of the challenges the object faces.
Adversaries and the effects of strategic performance
The spectrum from fragility, to resilience to antifragility captures how strategic performance affects the three basic types of adversaries. The first ideal type is the fragile adversary. In this case, the strategist’s performance degrades the adversary’s military capabilities. Fragile adversaries are arguably the most common types across strategic history. The Greek king Pyrrhus and the Carthaginian general Hannibal in their respective wars against Rome come close to the ideal type of fragile adversaries. Roman strategic performance, though often flawed or even disastrous, gradually degraded military capabilities of both adversaries. More modern examples include the Swedish king Charles XII during his war against Russians and the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Both the Russian and the Union’s strategic performance destroyed their adversaries’ military capabilities despite suffering initial setbacks. The logic of defeating fragile adversaries is straightforward. If the strategist is less fragile than the adversary, he has a high chance to succeed with any strategy. Indeed, as the examples above illustrate, the strategist can even suffer a string of defeats and still be successful in the long term. Fragile adversaries do not pose any unique challenge for strategists.
The second ideal type is the resilient adversary. Strategic performance does not affect the capabilities of this adversary in either way. Actors who have access to large pools of military resources and adequate mobilization procedures fall into this category. Typical examples include the Roman republic or the Russians (Soviets), especially in the 20th century. The Romans suffered many defeats in their countless wars but they were always able to recover and deploy fresh troops to replace their losses. The Russians were able to recover from the initial shocks of the German impetus and to field overwhelming numbers of forces throughout the Second World War, first stopping and then reversing the German advance into their territory. Nonetheless, the logic of defeating the resilient adversary does not differ significantly from the previous case. Ultimately, military means are always a finite resource. Therefore, the strategist can defeat resilient adversaries by becoming more resilient himself. If he possesses more resources than the adversary, then in the end he will prevail through the simple process of attrition. Of course, not every strategist has easy access to additional military resources. For this reason, resilient adversaries may pose a considerable challenge for most strategists.
The third ideal type is the antifragile adversary. For this one, strategic performance serves as a stimulus for the growth in his military capabilities. This happens when the adversary with antifragile predispositions faces regular challenges appropriate to his current capabilities. Of course, what is “regular” and “appropriate” is context dependent. Antifragile adversaries are less common in strategic history. This is so because they manifest themselves only in instances when their predispositions match with the favourable character of the strategist’s attacks. One historical example that comes close to the ideal type were the Thebans in their wars against the Spartans (395-362 B.C.). The two polities fought each other regularly during the first half of the fourth century. The continual engagement in strategic performance made Theban forces stronger from one major battle to another. Though first suffering a defeat at Nemea (394 B.C.), Thebans fought Spartans to a standstill at Coronea (394 B.C.), routed them at Tegyra (375 B.C.), and slaughtered them at Leuctra (371 B.C.) and Mantinea (362 B.C.).[vi] Over the course of the wars, Thebans enjoyed gradually increasing morale, explored innovative echelon tactics and developed new kinds of military units. Therefore, by their own efforts as well by the repeated violent interaction with the Spartans, the Thebans fulfilled their anti-fragile potential. Seeing this development in practice, one Spartan sarcastically congratulated his own king that by the repeated attacks against Thebes, he had taught his adversary how to fight.[vii] Antifragile adversaries are not an artefact of a distant past. In fact, as David Betz and Hugo Stanford-Tuck argue in their recent piece, even the contemporary West has often pursued a way of war “which through one’s own efforts leaves the enemy stronger at the end than at the beginning.[viii]” Antifragile adversaries are universal and so is the unique challenge they pose.
The main challenge in facing antifragile adversaries is that what does not kill them makes them stronger. This is a bit of exaggeration, but in general it does apply. To start with, most strategies seeking to attrite that adversary do not work. Worse, these strategies work for the antifragile adversaries. Actively seeking out the antifragile adversary and trying to attrite his military capabilities by frequent engagements is a reliable receipt for making him stronger. This may not seem like a big deal when the other strategies are available. The problem is, most of the other strategies eventually turn into some sort of attrition contest as well. Strategists too often envision quick and decisive wars of annihilation and get prolonged wars of attrition instead. Others, who start out with terrorist attacks and guerrilla raids, turn to attrition once they develop sufficient military capabilities to have a reasonable chance of success. Not all the strategic options lead to attrition but too many of them do. It follows that most options for dealing with the antifragile adversaries convey high risks of failure. Still, strategists can defeat antifragile adversaries and the next section theorizes some ways in which this can be done.
How to defeat antifragile adversaries
The first step is to understand the kind of adversary at hand. To paraphrase Carl von Clausewitz, the first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesmen and commander have to make is to establish…the kind of adversary that they are fighting and not mistaking him for something alien to his nature.[ix] This is difficult as one can only achieve this understanding reliably after strategic performance takes place. However, there are some variables which might provide a basis for educated guesses beforehand. One can start by conducting a net assessment of the relative distribution of military means at each other’s disposal. The more the distribution of means favours the adversary, the more likely the strategic performance turns them less fragile and more resilient. At the same time, the numbers are not paramount to antifragility. After all, the Spartans outnumbered the Thebans in most of the battles and the former were exceptionally fragile while the latter came as close to antifragility as anyone. The numbers matter only so far as the adversaries are able to make effective use of them.
A glance at the history of the adversary’s conduct and adaptation in the past wars may provide some clues. For example, the Spartans could hardly ever be turned into resilient or antifragile adversaries. Everything in their society, including their traditions, their social norms and their military policies, contributed to their fragility. It would take a revolution to change the nature of that polity. Consequently, any strategist could safely bet on the Spartans remaining fragile in the wars to come. At the same time, not all adversaries are as conservative as the Spartans were. Many of them may evolve from one war to another. Some adversaries are able to learn from the past mistakes and change their military practice so as to become resilient or antifragile instead of fragile ones. Besides, one can be resilient against one kind of the adversary only to find himself fragile when facing a different one. After all, the Thebans of the Peloponnesian war were more resilient than antifragile. History, while useful, is therefore a slippery ground to base important judgements on.
Once the strategist correctly identifies the character of the adversary, he can change and defeat the latter. Antifragile adversaries may lose their potential if the strategic performance they face is inappropriate to their capabilities or if they lack the time to adapt. This does not just turn the antifragile adversaries into the resilient ones. The relationships between the specific characters of the adversary forms a triangle rather than a linear hierarchy. Therefore, one-time antifragility does not guarantee a safe landing in the resilient zone. Antifragile adversaries can be rendered fragile without becoming resilient ones. Strategists have several options to make this happen. These include sequential and cumulative strategies, as well as the strategy of annihilation, and the deliberate use of peace.
The first option includes rapidly executed sequential strategies to deny to the adversary the time to get stronger.[x] The theory of victory here relies on a quick sequential campaign, by which the strategist robs the adversary of the time to improve the latter’s military capability. The adversary can counter this by refusing to engage at all, but then he deliberately robs himself of the opportunity to improve his military capabilities through strategic performance. Sequential strategy can, therefore, force the adversary out of his antifragile mode by either denying him the time to adapt or by rendering him unable to engage in the kind of strategic performance that would increase his military capability. The critical requirement for this approach is to have logistics effective enough to support the continual and relentless push into the adversary’s territory. However, this strategy contains a high risk of morphing into attrition. The sequential strategy can be interrupted in any moment by the adversary as well as by friction and chance inherent to strategic practice. Any serious interruption gives the adversary the time to grow stronger and increase the probabilities of turning the strategy into attrition. Still, the rapid sequential strategy may be useful when trying to achieve limited territorial objectives rather than a regime change. This is so because the pursuit of limited objectives contains fewer opportunities for interruption. The suitability of the strategy therefore varies widely with the political objectives of the strategist.
The second option is the strategy of decisive battle which seeks to annihilate the adversary’s force in one engagement.[xi] The theory of victory behind this approach resides in the delivery of the overwhelming challenge to the adversary. Such strategic performance destroys the adversary’s military capability and the associated chance to grow stronger. To pull this off, the strategist needs the cooperation of the adversary and sufficient military capabilities of his own. The adversary must accept the time and the place of the decisive battle. The strategist then needs to be able to defeat him. The adversary may decline the battle but by this he again robs himself of the opportunity to become stronger through strategic performance. On the other hand, the failure to annihilate substantial forces of the adversary during the battle may result in the struggle of attrition. The Spartans were often able to force Thebans to accept battle but they failed to annihilate the latter. Consequently, their hopes of annihilation turned into the practice of attrition which benefited the Thebans. Another problem is that contemporary strategic practice seldom allows strategists to annihilate large portion of the adversary’s military capabilities in one engagement. This has to do as much with the size of the armies as with the ways in which these are deployed. Strategists may be able to pull decisive battle off against unskilfully employed smaller-sized armed forces but it is unlikely to happen in wars between superpowers or even mediumly sized armies. The suitability of this strategy therefore varies with the relative size of the adversary’s armed forces and the way in which they are employed.
The third option is to use cumulative strategy of underwhelming attacks to exhaust the adversary.[xii] The theory of victory in this case resides in the continual attacks conducted below the level of the adversary’s current capabilities. This approach gives the adversary’s military capability no opportunity to grow, because the latter is already above the level of the attacks. In the ideal case, cumulative strategy of this sort applies violence unilaterally in order to avoid the interaction with the adversary altogether. Terrorist attacks or raids are ideal examples of this approach, but occasional battle may also work. The key difference between this strategy and the search for attrition is that the former purposefully limits the frequency and the intensity of the violent interaction while the latter does the opposite. This strategy is unlikely to destroy the adversary’s military capability. But, by denying the adversary the opportunity to grow stronger, the strategist may be able to exhaust the adversary. The strategy is most likely to succeed if the strategist pursues limited objectives and if the adversary does not value these objectives very much. There are considerable limitations to the effectives of this strategy. The strategist may be unable to do enough damage over time to exhaust the adversary. This may happen because of the intentional weakness of the attacks or because the adversary is able to recover from them. More importantly, even this strategy can turn into detrimental attempts to attrite. The confidence elicited by the successful conduct of repeated attacks may boost the strategist’s confidence as well as increase the effort he is willing to put up with. Once he feels strong enough, he may recklessly escalate his endeavour into the struggle where the search for attrition replaces the more modest aim of exhaustion. The suitability of this strategy then varies with the political objectives of the strategist, with his own capacity to exercise restraint and with the value the adversary ascribes to the objectives.
The last option is to use peace, that is to deliberately abstain from the use of violence. In this scenario, the theory of victory relies on the detrimental consequences of peace on the adversary ‘s military capabilities as well as on the supplemental use of non-violent instruments of power. In general, peace tends to have a negative impact on the cohesion of society as well as on military capabilities in particular.[xiii] Conflict lines between different segments of society tends to grow and military forces face gradual capability degradation as a consequence of not facing appropriate challenges.[xiv] Governments seldom prioritize the development of military capabilities to the extent this happens in war. To put it simply, in peace most people care about things other than war. The great demobilisations that followed the Napoleonic wars, the First World War, the Second World War and the 1990s are good examples of this tendency. Furthermore, some non-violent instruments of power tend to be stronger in peace than in the times of war.[xv] Propaganda, for example, is more effective in peace than during the war, because it amplifies the already present conflict lines within a society. During war, societies tends to get more homogenous and united when facing a common adversary, leaving little space for the exacerbation of conflict lines.[xvi] However, this option is hard to sustain and its effectiveness varies widely. It is not easy to keep the adversary at peace, because any attempt to do so forcibly is likely to ignite war. Besides, the strategist has limited capacity to prevent the adversary from engaging in war with other actors. Additionally, not every peace has the same effects on all the actors. Some adversaries may understand peace to only constitute a preparation for war. Prussia after the Napoleonic wars, Germany in the interwar period as well as the US and the Soviet Union after the WWII all maintained strong military capabilities or considerably improved the existing ones. Arguably, these developments were of lesser quality than if they were stimulated by regular violent interactions with the adversary. Nonetheless, they still provided these actors with capable military instruments while their potential adversaries got weaker (except in the US vs USSR relationship). The effects of this option can therefore easily backfire if the adversary focuses substantial attention to the preparation for war. Above all, the suitability of this approach depends on the adversary’s own understanding of the peace at hand.
There is a room for combination of the above approaches. For example, the strategist can deliberately abstain from the use of violence and then crush the adversary within the framework of the annihilation strategy. Or he can use the cumulative strategy of underwhelming attacks to first numb the adversary and then to surprise the latter by a rapid sequential campaign. The suitability of any combination of options depends on the unique circumstances of each strategic relationship. By this I mean the political objectives of both actors, the strategist’s willingness to exercise restraint, and the adversary’s relative size and employment of armed forces as well as his understanding of the potential peace. Just as there is no single option to guarantee success against all adversaries, so there is no combination of strategies suitable for every situation.
The new typology is more useful than the others because it directs the attention of the strategist to what really matters – to the effects of strategic performance. The typology does not tell the whole story of strategic interaction but it explains the scheme. It outlines the character, the challenges and the options to deal with the specific adversaries. By this it provides strategic practitioners with essential lenses to understand and anticipate what happens in strategic practice. Above all it conveys the message that strategist has an active role to play in shaping the character of his own adversaries. The ways in which the strategist treats his adversary may alter the latter’s characteristics and profoundly improve the prospects of the strategist’s success. The typology therefore motivates statesmen to think as much about their own strategic performance as about the adversary.
The typology can provide guidance for contemporary as well as for future strategic practice. Some readers may consider the clear distinction between war and peace that underlines the proposed typology as a limiting factor in the utility of the typology. It has now become fashionable to speak about the so called “gray zone”. The term stands for a mysterious but ill-defined space between war and peace where most of the contemporary conflicts are supposed to take place. Such a line of thinking is inaccurate. War is a state of affairs in which organized violence is employed for political purposes in an interactive manner. Peace stands for every other situation. There is no room for any space in between the two states. What some consider gray zone activities are too often merely unilateral applications of violence or the uses of non-violent instruments of power.[xvii] In either case, since there is no violent confrontation with the adversary, these measures occur in peace. The distinction between war and peace as well as the typology itself are therefore as relevant to contemporary wars and peace as to every other age.
Besides being practically useful, the new typology sheds new light on our understanding of strategic history. For example, it is often argued that the Romans conquered the Greeks because the former’s units were tactically more flexible than the sturdy Greek phalanx. While that second assumption may be true, it does not necessarily explain much beyond what occurred at the battlefields. The new typology assumes that the consequences of the battle are more important than its progress. It therefore draws attention to the different effects the strategic performance had on the respective sides. In other words, resilient Romans defeated fragile Greeks because strategic performance had little effects on the former but it had devastating impact on the latter. The battlefield victories or defeats mattered much less than the overall capacity of the respective sides to absorb the effects of strategic performance. The new typology uniquely complements more traditional explanations.
This article constitutes only a brief introduction to the topic, leaving open several possible avenues for further research. The article zoomed on the adversary’s military capabilities and it left the issue of the will to fight largely untouched. However, it is easy to conceive of situations in which strategic performance increases the adversary’s will to fight. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 certainly fall into this category as much as the thousands of other provocations across strategic history. Sometimes it may be what the strategist desires, at other times it may be an undesired consequence of his strategic performance. If the second is the case, then we need to know how to prevent and counter these situations. Additionally, the mechanisms by which the strategist’s own forces can become antifragile in the future strategic performance warrants further exploration. The Theban example gives some clues, but these are unlikely to be exhaustive, not least because of the ever-changing character of war. Political, social and technological changes of the last few decades may convey new sources of antifragility and we need to know more about them. Exploration of all these research topics would benefit strategy-makers in practice.
[i] Antulio Echevarria, Military Strategy: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 1. [ii] Colin Gray, Theory of Strategy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 18. [iii] Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Anti-fragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, (New York: Random House 2012), 1. [iv] Taleb, Anti-fragile, 58. [v] Ibid. [vi] Xenophon, Hellenica, trans. Carleton L. Brownson (London: William Heinemann LTD, 1961). [vii] Plutarch, Plutarch lives V: Agesilaus and Pompey. Pelopidas and Marcellus, trans. Bernadotte Perrin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1917), 26. [viii] David Betz, and Hugo Stanford-Tuck, “Teaching your enemy to win,” Infinity Journal 6, no. 3 (2019): 19. url: https://www.infinityjournal.com/article/212/Teaching_Your_Enemy_to_Win/. [ix] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 88. [x] Joseph C. Wylie, Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control, (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1967), 22-25. [xi] Echevarria, Military Strategy, 9. [xii] Wyllie, Military Strategy, 22-25. [xiii] Michael C. Desch, “War and Strong States, Peace and Weak States?” International Organization 50, no. 2 (1996): 237-268. [xiv] Michael Howard, “Military Science in the Age of Peace,“ The RUSI Journal 119, no. 1 (1974): 4. doi: 10.1080/03071847409421160; Niccolo Machiavelli, Discourses on the first decade of Titus Livius. trans. Ninian H. Thomson. (New York: Wilder Publications, 2015), 123, 307. [xv] Lukas Milevski, Grand Strategy is Attrition: The Logic of Integrating Various Forms of Power in Conflict, (Carlisle: United States Army War College Press, 2019), 21-23. [xvi] Emile Durkheim, Suicide: A Study in Sociology, (Glencoe: The Free Press), 208. [xvii] For a more detailed critique of the gray zone concept, see Donald Stoker and Craig Whiteside, “Blurred Lines: Gray-Zone Conflict and Hybrid War—Two Failures of American Strategic Thinking,“ Naval War College Review 73, no. 1 (2020): 1–37. url: https://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/nwc-review/vol73/iss1/4/.