Cover: Leveraging Complexity in Great-Power Competition and Warfare

Leveraging Complexity in Great-Power Competition and Warfare

Volume I, An Initial Exploration of How Complex Adaptive Systems Thinking Can Frame Opportunities and Challenges

Published Aug 26, 2021

by Sherrill Lingel, Matthew Sargent, Timothy R. Gulden, Tim McDonald, Parousia Rockstroh


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Research Questions

  1. What does complexity mean in an Air Force context?
  2. How can complexity be used as a method of attack?
  3. How can complexity be employed in an operational setting?
  4. How can research on the nature of complexity be used to understand what science and technology efforts might deliver in terms of complexity-informed capabilities?

The United States should aim to minimize the element of complexity for itself while maximizing it for its adversary in great-power competition and warfare. Multidomain actions are viewed as imposing complexity on the adversary's decision process. There is a current lack of understanding about how to impose complexity to maximize operational effects. Science and technology investments are not presently aligned to quantify complexity, measure its operational effects, or determine how to impose it and thus shape adversary behavior.

The research outlined in this report includes a literature review to ground the complexity characterization in warfare. Historical case studies of warfare and competition and workshops verify and validate the characterization. The complexity lens, developed by RAND Corporation researchers, can be applied to warfighting by leveraging emerging multidomain operations (MDO) concept of operations (CONOP) from recent wargames and surveying historical case studies. The authors also provide four concrete example vignettes to examine.

The U.S. Air Force should apply a complexity lens to review ongoing and future efforts to best leverage complexity to U.S. decision advantage. Efforts that can leverage complex adaptive systems thinking include the science and technology research agenda, MDOs planning, and MDO effectiveness evaluation. Pacific Air Forces and U.S. Air Forces in Europe should integrate complexity lens thinking into existing tabletop and command post exercises to help evaluate multidomain courses of action during operational planning.

Key Findings

  • To impose or exploit complexity is to take an action that increases an aspect of the complexity of the environment in a way that makes it more difficult for an adversary to make decisions or to operate, essentially shaping conditions to favor Blue. Thus, to conduct a complexity attack is to take an action that exploits characteristics of complex adaptive systems (CAS) in a way that will have a deliberate negative effect on the adversary.
  • Applying a CAS lens to warfare is useful to understand how a planner might leverage complexity to U.S. advantage.
  • Four general categories of U.S. actions benefit from the CAS's nature of adversary decision processes. These are degrading the operational picture, impairing adversary response, spanning organizational boundaries, and exploiting nonlinearities.
  • The difference between complexity exploitation and more-traditional actions are that a complexity-based response reshapes an adversary's decision calculus, while more-traditional options simply lower the probability associated with a given transition from one decision step to the next.
  • U.S. actions on the adversary's decision points in a military vignette can be represented by CAS characteristics that are represented in a Markov chain.
  • Understanding the underlying transition matrix structure (or associated directed graph) tells us some fundamental things about complexity (e.g., the creation of feedback loops).
  • Developing a model with defined probabilities, while challenging, may provide additional insights for warfighting.


  • The Air Force should apply a complexity lens through which to review ongoing and future efforts to best leverage complexity to U.S. decision advantage. The lens should take both offensive (opportunities for attack) and defensive (highlight and address vulnerabilities) looks at adversary and coalition systems, respectively. The efforts under review should span (1) science and technology needed to leverage complexity, (2) planning for multidomain operations, and (3) evaluation of MDO effectiveness.
  • The Air Force Research Lab should conduct game theory–informed wargames to populate probabilities in the mathematical representation of the adversary's complex decision process.
  • The Air Force should conduct workshops in support of joint all-domain operations concepts, leveraging the complexity lens to inform CONOP development.
  • Pacific Air Forces and U.S. Air Forces in Europe should integrate complexity lens thinking into their existing tabletop and command post exercises.

Research conducted by

This research was commissioned by the Air Force Research Laboratory and conducted within the Force Modernization and Employment Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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