So Many Zebras, So Little Time: Ecological Models and Counterinsurgency Operations

By Drapeau, Mark D.; Hurley, Peyton C. et al. | Defense Horizons, February 2008 | Go to article overview

So Many Zebras, So Little Time: Ecological Models and Counterinsurgency Operations


Drapeau, Mark D., Hurley, Peyton C., Armstrong, Robert E., Defense Horizons


Overview

Force ratios are an important variable in warfare and in nature. On the Serengeti, large zebra herds are constantly hunted by small prides of lions. But with their overwhelming majority, why don't the zebras unite and attack the lions? Hooves can be as deadly as claws when used correctly. And conversely, if the lions are such effective predators, why are there so many zebras?

Ecological interactions between predators and their prey are complex. Sometimes the few prey on the many; picture a whale devouring thousands of docile microorganisms. And sometimes the many prey on the few, as with killer bees attacking an unsuspecting person. During the past century, the mathematics underlying different types of survival strategies for attacker and evader have been worked out by ecologists, and we now have a fairly good understanding of such relationships.

While not a perfect metaphor, it is striking that these quantitative ecology models greatly resemble behavioral interactions during counterinsurgency operations. While a predator-prey model alone may be too simplistic to fully describe counterinsurgency, there are more detailed ecological models of competition that better capture the essence of the problem.

The purpose of this paper is not to provide definitive solutions, but to suggest a framework for other researchers to adapt and expand upon. Indeed, many of the models discussed are common to both ecologists and economists. The goals of both types of modeling are similar: maximizing profits in terms of food or money at the least risk--death or bankruptcy.

From our preliminary work on the possible applications of ecology to counterinsurgency, we hope that others more adept at the use of these quantitative models will make significant contributions to the area of predictive ability in combating terrorism and understanding unconventional warfare.

Ecology and Counterinsurgency

The climate of conflict during the early 21st century has caused a reexamination of techniques and tactics used in counterinsurgency (COIN). The complexity inherent in warfare and other (seemingly different) complex systems can be modeled in similar ways. The interaction of competing and cooperating groups with differing goals, tendencies, and talents lends itself to mathematical analyses, which often result in predictions of ways to perturb systems to reach desired outcomes. Occasionally, these predictions are not intuitive.

We explored the notion that ecological modeling of species interactions might approximate the interactions found in counterinsurgency. First, we found that models describing the relatively simple interaction of two animal species in a predator-prey relationship (what ecologists call predation) and similar models (for example, viral infection of a host) were inappropriate because of oversimplicity, violation of critical assumptions, or both. Second, we discovered that models of between-species competition for resources approximated the struggle between insurgents and counterinsurgents for military and political control over a host nation's population. Third, we concluded that this set of models implies that various aspects of a counterinsurgency campaign--fighting insurgents, controlling crime, and winning popular support--are probably inseparable.

This paper is intended to stimulate thought and further work in using biological models and metaphors for predictive purposes in warfare. It is important to note that modeling of this kind can only provide insight, not answers. Using the initial framework outlined here, more extensive analysis, modeling, and simulation could be used to derive historical insights about past COIN campaigns and aid in planning future ones.

Biology as a Mindset. Biology is more than a laboratory science; it is a way of thinking about the natural world. Biological metaphors provide powerful ideas about how the natural world functions, and many parallels between natural and manmade systems have been drawn in technical, policy, and popular literature. …

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