1. the Once and Future Problem of General Friction

By Watts, Barry D. | McNair Papers, October 1996 | Go to article overview

1. the Once and Future Problem of General Friction


Watts, Barry D., McNair Papers


Since the end of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, there has been growing discussion of the possibility that technological advances in the means of combat would produce ftmdamental changes in how future wars will be fought. A number of observers have suggested that the nature of war itself would be transformed. Some proponents of this view have gone so far as to predict that these changes would include great reductions in, if not the outright elimination of, the various impediments to timely and effective action in war for which the Prussian theorist and soldier Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) introduced the term "friction." Friction in war, of course, has a long historical lineage. It predates Clausewitz by centuries and has remained a stubbornly recurring factor in combat outcomes right down to the 1991 Gulf War. In looking to the future, a seminal question is whether Clausewitzian friction would succumb to the changes in leading-edge warfare that may lie ahead, or whether such impediments reflect more enduring aspects of war that technology can but marginally affect. It is this question that the present essay will examine.

Clausewitz's earliest known use of the term "friction" to "describe the effect of reality on ideas and intentions in war" occurred in a 29 September letter written to his future wife, Marie von Briihl, less than 3 weeks before France defeated Prussia at the twin battles of Jena and Auerstadt on 14 October 1806. (1) By the time Clausewitz died in 1831, his original insight regarding friction's debilitating effects on the campaign of 1806 had grown into a central theme of the unfinished manuscript that his widow published as Vom Kriege [On War]. (2)

American military officers today most often refer to Clausewitz's unified concept of a general friction (Gesamtbegriff einer allgemeinen Friktion) as the "fog and friction" of war. (3) The diverse difficulties and impediments to the effective use of military force that those possessing military experience instinctively associate with this phrase are generally acknowledged to have played significant roles in most, if not all, of the wars since Clausewitz's time. Even in a conflict as inundated with technically advanced weaponry as the 1991 Persian Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm), there was no shortage of friction at any level, tactical, operational, strategic, or even political. Indeed, close examination of Desert Storm suggests that frictional impediments experienced by the winning side were not appreciably different in scope or magnitude than they were for the Germans during their lightning conquest of France and the Low Countries in May 1940.

The historical persistence of friction, despite vast changes in the means of war since Clausewitz's time, suggests that his concept may reflect far more than a transitory or contingent feature of land warfare during the Napoleonic era. Yet, as we try to think about how war may change over the next couple decades in response to technological advances, nothing precludes us from wondering whether the scope or overall magnitude of Clausewitzian friction may change. Some U.S. military officers who have grappled with how future wars may be fought have suggested that foreseeable advances in surveillance and information technologies will sufficiently lift "the fog of war" to enable future American commanders to "see and understand everything on a battlefield." (4) Nor are visionary military officers alone in this speculation. In a 6-month assessment conducted by a Washington, DC, defense-policy institute on the prospects for a "Military Technical Revolution" (MTR), the participants concluded that "what the MTR promises, more than precision attacks or laser beams, is ... to imbue the information loop with near-perfect clarity and accuracy, to reduce its operation to a matter of minutes or seconds, and, perhaps most important of all, to deny it in its entirety to the enemy." (5)

These forecasts concerning conflict in the information age raise at least three first-order questions about Clausewitz's unified concept of a general friction. …

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