First things first: I am not any sort of military expert. But most discussions or portrayals of war which I see among rationalists make me face-palm, especially discussions around the role of AI in future warfare or AI “takeover”. Seriously, guys, it’s not about autonomous drone swarms.
This post is just a brain-dump of some models/frames which I wish more people had. We’ll walk through a few different “use-cases” of war (defending an invasion, territory grab, takeover) and talk about grand-strategy principles relevant to each. If people find this interesting, I may write more brain-dumps like this on strategy, tactics, etc; the post quickly became far too long to fit it all in one.
Epistemic status: any particular claim is low-confidence, but I am more confident in the usefulness of the high-level frames.
Defending an Invasion
For concreteness, let’s think about Azerbaijan invading the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Armenia (though admittedly I did not follow that conflict closely so we’re not going to talk about real details too much). At a high level, how might Armenia go about defending against that invasion?
The obvious option is “kill invading troops until they leave, and kill them some more if they come back”. I claim this is wildly inefficient: it’s treating symptoms, not causes.
On the Azerbaijani side, the decision to invade was presumably a political decision. There were factions in favor, and factions against. If the anti-invasion factions gain control of government decision-making, then the invasion will likely end. Killing invading troops might help make that happen - making the war visibly costly may make it less popular. On the other hand, killing invading troops may just create martyrs and solidify the image of Armenians as Enemies. If that’s the case, then killing invading soldiers may only solidify the political faction pushing for war, and troops will just keep invading until one side runs out of people/resources. It could go either way.
So: how could Armenia fight in a way which destabilizes the pro-invasion faction’s control over Azerbaijan, rather than stabilizing it? Some possibilities:
- Directly attempt to kill key people in the pro-invasion faction, e.g. assassinations. Note that this could backfire in the same way as killing soldiers.
- Target the power base of people in the pro-invasion faction. For instance, in many third-world countries the military has a lot of control over decision-making, because they might realistically execute a coup if they don’t get their way. In that case, killing soldiers (and officers) directly reduces the military’s ability to execute a coup, and therefore directly reduces their influence over decision-making.
- Similarly, if the invasion is driven by a regional or religious faction with significant wealth/income, destroy their capital assets.
- If a particular faction/stakeholder has a “swing vote” or functional equivalent, try to focus the costs of the war on that stakeholder - i.e. whenever the Azerbaijani forces take some territory or kill some Armenian soldiers or destroy something, try to retaliate by destroying something valuable to the “swing vote” stakeholder.
Alternatively, the Armenians could try to directly change the political calculus of the pro-invasion faction:
- Whatever benefits the Azerbaijanis expect from invasion, reduce them. Organize resistance groups and weapons caches before an invasion happens. Rig explosives to destroy capital assets (i.e. bridges, roads, rails, power grid) remotely in case an area is lost. Make sure the Azerbaijanis know about all this, to dissuade invading in the first place.
- Increase the costs of invasion. Build second-strike capabilities - weapons that can be used to retaliate after an attack. Use proportional retaliation. Again, make sure the Azerbaijanis know about all this beforehand.
- Maybe it’s a populist war - i.e. the Azerbaijanis just really hate Armenians and will back any politician promising to attack them. In the long run, increasing the popularity of Armenians among the Azerbaijani populace is probably a good strategy, so “take the high road”: avoid civilian casualties, treat prisoners well, send aid (food, medical supplies) to the enemy populace, etc. And more importantly, make sure to loudly broadcast all those actions.
- In the short run, to deal with an Azerbaijani populace which really hates Armenians, try to shift the populace’ attention to domestic affairs. A recession could do this, so long as it’s obvious that defeating Armenia will not make the recession go away. Same with a famine, though that’s harder to induce while avoiding long-term blame. Maybe target the sort of economically-crucial companies that people love to hate, like banks.
- Also implicit in all of the above: propaganda, obviously.
- Taking a different tack: if the actual priority of Azerbaijani leadership is to generate popularity with a populace which hates Armenians, it may be possible to give them a symbolic victory without actually losing much. “Win-win”, in some sense.
One important thing to keep in mind: Armenia is no more a single unified agent than Azerbaijan; political considerations will inform their actual choices in much the same way. If the Armenian populace really hates Azerbaijanis, then the politically-popular choice will likely be to kill lots of soldiers and probably also lots of Azerbaijani civilians, destroy their stuff, etc, regardless of whether that is actually a smart strategy for winning the war.
Another important thing to keep in mind: war is not a zero-sum game. A war of attrition leaves both sides worse off, so there’s positive-sum gains in avoiding that outcome. That means that sharing information is sometimes a good move: if destroying our stuff will be costly to the enemy as well, then we want the enemy to know that. Also, from a politician’s perspective, a war can solidify the political position of leadership on both sides - a positive-sum outcome, in some sense, though probably not good for the citizenry or soldiers on either side.
Invasions have a lot more variety, depending on the objective. First, we’ll consider the Azerbaijani side of the previous example. Their goal, presumably, is to take political control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region. (Of course in practice this may not be the “real” goal - e.g. if it’s a populist war, the real function may just be to generate political support among the population by symbolically Punching Bad People In The Face.)
Broadly speaking, if the Azerbaijanis plan to absorb the new territory, then they generally want to not break it. Don’t blow holes in a ship you plan to steal. That means:
- Avoid civilian casualties
- Minimize damage to capital assets (i.e. infrastructure)
- Don’t piss off the local population: no pillaging, provide food and medical supplies, be very strict about discipline with Azerbaijani troops, etc.
- Broadcast how nicely Azerbaijan treats the locals. As usual, propaganda.
There are exceptions to all of these, depending on the objective and resources. If the plan is to wipe out the local population and resettle, obviously that changes things. If Azerbaijan has a lot more capital investment capacity than Armenia, then it could leverage that advantage by destroying local capital assets, which will be easier for Azerbaijan to replace than for Armenia to replace. If the plan is an iron-fisted occupation, then pissing off the locals once or twice may be useful in order to make a few public examples. But the general underlying principle is: don’t break what you intend to steal.
Beyond that, building governing infrastructure - courts, tax collection capabilities, regulatory enforcement, etc - takes a lot of work. An important strategic question for Azerbaijan is whether to take over the existing infrastructure or replace it. If the latter, then attacking existing government institutions may weaken Armenia during the war - but at the cost of Azerbaijan needing to rebuild from scratch once the war ends. More discussion of that trade-off in the next section.
In terms of combat priorities, Azerbaijan’s problem largely mirrors Armenia’s problem. Armenia’s decision to fight or negotiate a settlement is a political decision, and Azerbaijan can influence that decision in basically the same ways as the previous section, so long as they avoid damage to whatever they intend to take.
Now, we’ll think about the US invading Japan in WWII. (Or communists taking over China in the 1949 revolution; similar principles apply, and indeed I hear that Mao’s writing on the topic is quite similar to the discussion here.) The objective is to overthrow and replace the existing government.
This runs into the same tradeoff as the previous section, but to a much greater extent: whatever destruction the invader causes will be the invader’s problem to clean up, assuming they win. Destroying capital assets or undermining government institutions may make it much easier to win the war, but it will make the aftermath much more difficult.
First question: is it a strategic priority to preserve the existing enemy government? Wiping out leadership can make it a lot easier to invade, but it also leaves nobody who can surrender on behalf of the whole country. Probably lots of decentralized resistance. Also, if the plan is to force a surrender, then enemy leadership needs to be able to enforce the terms of surrender on their own people. Preserving the enemy government’s ability to do that is a strategic necessity, in that case.
Second question: is it a strategic priority to maintain the competence of the existing enemy government? Mao notes that incompetent bureaucrats or officers in the enemy hierarchy are an asset for the rebels, and guerilla fighters should avoid targeting them. Conversely, competent bureaucrats or officers should be targeted. (Besides the obvious benefit, this has a bonus effect: if the enemy leadership knows about such a policy, then they will trust their middle management less, which will further slow organizational information-passing and decision-making.) However, this is a short-term-oriented view; those same competent bureaucrats could become assets for the new administration after the war. Training and installing new people, en masse, is difficult and expensive.
In the case of a guerilla rebellion, the same question applies not only to competence but to hostility/abuse. Bureaucrats or officers who abuse their power will generally drive support for the rebellion, whereas bureaucrats or officers who are liked by the populace will generally drive support for the regime. On the other hand, once the war is over, regardless of who won, getting rid of abusive bureaucrats/officers is part of the reason for fighting the war in the first place.
Third question: which enemy institutions are to be kept? This is where the political considerations from earlier come in: within each institution, there will be a decision to cooperate with the takeover or not, there will be factions and key decision-makers, etc. If the top-level government structure is to be maintained, then the same considerations from earlier sections apply. But if only lower-level structures are to be maintained - e.g. courts, military, school system, road maintenance, government hospitals, etc - then high-level decision makers at each of those individual institutions must be persuaded, coerced or replaced. Furthermore, the ability of those high-level decision makers to enforce their decisions on the rest of the institution must be maintained.
A Continuum Between Politics and Warfare
When we open the black box of “enemy government” and start manipulating internal gears of decision-making - e.g. political factions, particular institutions - it becomes clear that war lives on a spectrum. There’s a lot of ways to control the decision-making process of a government.
At one end, there’s lobbying and advertising/propaganda, which are often completely legal and legitimate methods of influencing government decisions. Further down the spectrum are bribes, and then assassinations. Still further along is outright guerilla warfare - which is often really just a mix of propaganda, assassination and targetted destruction of capital assets. Finally, there’s outright invasion and occupation.
I don’t think there’s a clear dividing line between illegal manipulation of government decisions (bribes, assassination) vs outright guerilla warfare. To a large extent, it should be possible in principle to achieve the same sort of goals - i.e. government takeover - with relatively little, highly targeted illegal activity. This, however, would require very precise information and models. For instance, if one knew exactly where a particular senator’s funding came from, one could in-principle physically destroy the capital assets which provide that funding (assuming insurance did not cover the loss - ideally one would want access to the details of the insurance contract in order to fake a form of destruction not covered). Or, if one knew exactly which aid wrote the text of a thousand-page bill which nobody would ever read, a bribe or threat could create a subtle loophole or a structural change which made the actual effect quite different from the symbolic meaning of the bill. Or, one could directly target the bureaucrats in charge of implementing a particular law (this is already one of the main functions of lobbying, as I understand it).
This sort of strategy relies mainly on very precise information and models; it’s exactly the sort of area where I’d expect AI tools to convey a massive advantage.
The enemy is not a single unified agent or a black box. The internal gears of decision-making in an enemy organization can be manipulated.
War is not zero sum. Attrition is (usually) costly to both parties, therefore avoiding attrition is positive-sum. It is sometimes useful to share information with the enemy so that they know which actions will result in mutual attrition (e.g. credible threats).
Destroying the enemy’s organizational capacity - e.g. killing leadership, removing competent people, making leadership unable to enforce their decisions on others - can impair their ability to wage war. However, this also impairs their ability to enforce terms of surrender on their own people. Also, if the goal is to take over the enemy government, then any organizational capacity destroyed will have to be rebuilt after the war, which is expensive and difficult; don't destroy things you intend to take.