Thinking to Deter

By Andrew Hoffmann

There are two sides to the strike equation. On the one side lay all of the inputs to joint strike: platforms, weapons, command and control arrangements and so on.

On the other side lay the outcomes of applying joint strike: weapons effects, impacted targets, degraded target systems, collateral effects and so forth.

The bulk of investment in joint strike occurs on the inputs side of the equation–comparatively little investment is made to ensure that joint strike capabilities achieve the right outcomes.

Our tendency to focus on the inputs means we will soon be able to strike more targets with greater precision than ever before; but how will we employ these capabilities against our adversaries?

What types of targets will these capabilities strike?

Will striking those targets actually bring us closer to winning the war?

In this post I argue that the investment in joint strike inputs needs to be matched by a commensurate investment in the thinking about how those capabilities are employed to generate desired outcomes. Without balancing this investment, our emerging fifth-generation force is at risk of being held back by our fourth-generation thinking about the targets we choose to strike.

This post will examine four areas of targeting effectiveness. Firstly, we will examine how we have gone about improving targeting effectiveness in the past.

Secondly, we will look at how better thinking could lead to improved targeting effectiveness in the future. Thirdly, we will look at a holistic approach to targeting systems. Finally, we will explore the concept of fragility and its impact on effective targeting.

Improving Targeting Effectiveness

Aviation and air power have always been technical ventures. It is little surprise then, that Western nations have turned to developments in technology as the primary means through which the effectiveness of targeting can be improved. The focus has been on the development of technologies around precision guided munitions (PGM). Increased precision improves the effectiveness of targeting by reducing the number of aircrew exposed to high threat environments, reducing the potential for collateral damage, and has allowed the Air Force to achieve more operational ‘bang’ for the tax-payer ‘buck’.

Improvements in precision have been phenomenal. Deptula illustrates this point: ‘…a single aircraft and one PGM during the Gulf War achieved the same result as a 1000-plane raid with over 9000 bombs in World War II’.[1] Since the Second World War, however, Western air forces have become trapped in a virtuous and self-reinforcing cycle of increasing precision (see Figure 1). As Lovett aptly describes it, the “…Western style of warfare…is hostage to the use of precision weapons.”[2]

Figure 1: Virtuous self-reinforcing cycle of increasing precision [Image credit: Author]

Figure 1: Virtuous self-reinforcing cycle of increasing precision

The phenomenal improvements in precision leads to an interesting question: Can further improvements in precision translate into more effective targeting? Or have we hit a natural limit to growth in precision?

Fortunately, increasing precision is not the only path leading to more effective targeting.

Better thinking in targeting

For an organisation excited by technology, the alternative path that leads to more effective targeting is somewhat dreary. The alternative path that I propose is to improve our thinking about how we understand enemy target systems and how we develop the strategies that drive the selection of targets for strike. Better thinking would lead to a better understanding of enemy systems. A better understanding of enemy systems would result in fewer–but better–targets being selected for strike. This would realise an improvement in targeting effectiveness similar to that which has been realised through increased precision: decreased risk to aircrew; reduced collateral damage; and better ‘bang’ for ‘buck’.

As well as Air Force investing in the efficiency of doing things right through increased precision, I believe that we need to make a commensurate investment in the thinking that underpins target selection to ensure that we are doing the right things to bring the enemy to a desired future state.

A holistic approach to targeting – doing the right things

The systems approach to targeting views the enemy holistically, as a system. The Target Systems Analysis (TSA) process used by the ADF goes a long way to achieving a holistic approach–but more can be done. Systems theorist Donella Meadows provides a theoretical construct for how to effect change within systems.

While she no doubt intended her metaphorical framework of ‘leverage points’ to be used to improve the operation of systems–it nevertheless provides a useful starting point when considering how to degrade an adversary system. Meadows defines leverage points as ‘…places in the system where a small change could lead to a large shift in behaviour’.[3]

She offers twelve levers to change a system (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Leverage Points in Systems (adapted from Meadows 2008, pp. 145-165) [Image credit: Author]

The framework is useful when considering how to most effectively bring about change within systems. For example, low points of leverage include entities that are easy to see and affect, but whose removal would cause little change within the overall system.[4]

In the context of joint strike, targeting fielded forces (numbers), a reserve force (buffer) or supply line (stock and flow structure) hit relatively low points of leverage within an adversary target system.

On the other hand, high points of leverage are often hard to see and difficult to affect, but when affected can transform the system.[5] In the context of joint strike, targeting the ideology (paradigm) of an adversary target system would be an example of high point of leverage.

Historically, Air Forces have been really good at targeting ‘things’–entities that typically yield low leverage within the overall target system. Our focus on precision has further reinforced this strength.

This leads to two important conclusions for targeting strategists. Firstly, we must realise that any single strike capability will not be able to directly affect all twelve of the system leverage points, and therefore must integrate with other capabilities to affect a system holistically.

Secondly, we must consider that targets within a complex system interact in a non-linear manner; desirable effects caused against a low point of leverage may cascadethrough the system and result in undesirable effects being caused against a high point of leverage–which would be unhelpful. To further explore the issue of cascading undesirable effects we need an understanding of systemic fragility.

Systemic Fragility

The concept of fragility emerges from the interdependencies within a complex system. In his seminal work Antifragile, Taleb argues that while some systems can be fragile and break under stress, other systems–antifragile systems–can benefit from shocks. Antifragile systems adapt and get stronger under the ‘right amount of stress,’ disorder, and volatility.[6]

In the context of military strike operations, antifragility can be observed when a system is struck, and it adapts–ultimately becoming stronger as a result. Military history is replete with examples of fragility and antifragility. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, while a tactical success, introduced a systemic stressor that ultimately mobilised and strengthened the US military.[7] The US was antifragile in 1941. In contrast, the 1991 ‘Gulf War’ targeted the highly centralised Iraqi military and occurred so quickly that it could not respond, let alone adapt.[8]The Iraqi military was fragile in 1991.

Targeting strategists often make an ill-informed assumption of fragility when selecting targets for strike.[9] An antifragile enemy grows stronger when fought, more resilient with chaos and more unpredictable when attempts are made to control it.[10] How, then, should antifragile systems be targeted?

There appear to be four options.

Firstly, avoid direct conflict with the antifragile components of the system to limit their improvement–for example, avoid engaging militarily and instead use an alternate form of national power.[11]

Secondly, exceed the ‘right amount of stress’ required for system adaptation–instead push the system into a state of irrecoverable shock so that it does not have the opportunity to adapt.[12]

Thirdly, increase the tempo of strikes so that the system is not afforded time to recover from a period of stress.[13]

Finally, the target system could be made more fragile by increasing the cost of learning, getting the enemy to standardise, building mistrust between mid-level leaders and strengthening the top leadership to make the system more rigid.[14]

Each of these targeting strategies could run counter to the prevailing conventional wisdom for Western targeting. Fragility theories suggests striking fewer targets when targeting cells are generally scrambling to develop more targets; bigger bombs when precision allows us to employ smaller bombs; and potentially strengthening adversary leadership rather than targeting them.


Modern joint strike capabilities bring all the technological wizardry that excites organisations like our Air Force.

But how will we use this wizardry?

Will we use it in much the same way as our fourth-generation platforms–by simply attriting the enemy ever more efficiently and with ever increasing precision?

Or will we invest in the thinking that is required to select more meaningful targets as part of a more effective targeting strategy?

In this blog I have argued that there is ample room to further develop the thinking that underpins how we link joint strike capabilities to outcomes in the battlespace. Our investment in doing things right needs to be matched with a commensurate investment in doing the right things.

One way to ensure that we are targeting effectively, is to take a holistic systems approach to targeting. Theoretical concepts such as ‘leverage points,’ understanding how effects cascade through systems, and accounting for systemic fragility, are all ways to improve the effectiveness of targeting through better thinking.

Better thinking about the adversary targets that we choose to strike is key to realising the full potential of our emerging fifth-generation joint strike capabilities.

Wing Commander Andrew Hoffmann, CSC is an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.

[1] Deptula, D. A., 2001. ‘Effects-Based Operations: Change in the Nature of Warfare’. Aerospace Education Foundation, Virginia, viewed 03 March 2018 <>, \p. 8.

[2] Lovett, D. J., 2012. Spacepower for Australia’s Security – Grand Strategy or Strategy of Grandeur. Canberra, Australia: Air Power Development Centre, p. 3.

[3] Meadows, D., 2008. Thinking in Systems: A Primer. London, UK: Earthscan, p. 145.

[4] Meadows 2008, p. 17.

[5] Meadows, D., 1999. Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. Hartland, VT: The Sustainability Institute, p. 18.

[6] Albino, D. K., Friedman, K., Bar-Yam, Y., Glenney W., 2016. Military strategy in a complex world. New England Complex Systems Institute, 18 February 2016, retrieved 06 February 2018 <>, p. 6; Taleb, N. N., 2012. Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder (Vol. 3). New York, NY: Random House Incorporated, pp 5 & 17.

[7] Albino, p. 12

[8] Deptula, p. 6

[9] Albino, p. 2

[10] Brafman, O. and Beckstrom, R., 2007. The Starfish and the Spider. New York, NY: Portfolio, p. 6

[11] Albino, p. 12

[12] Albino , p. 11

[13] Taleb, p. 58

[14] Albino , p. 17-18; Brafman & Beckstrom , p. 155

This article was first published by Central Blue on August 19, 2018 and is republished with their permission.