Cite as:

Yaneer Bar-Yam, Complexity of military conflict: Multiscale complex systems analysis of littoral warfare, New England Complex Systems Institute (April 21, 2003).


In 1998 the Chief of Naval Operations Strategic Studies Group (SSG) XVII articulated a post Cold War need to focus on asymmetric warfare, specifically including information warfare, weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. Their central challenge was to develop the theme “Naval Campaign: Littorial Air/Land Challenges for the 21st Century.” In response, SSG XVII-XX have developed the concepts of Network Centric Warfare, Sea Power, Sea Strike, Naval Power Forward, and FORCEnet.

A recognition of the relevance of complex systems concepts to the challenges of 21st Century warfare led to the invitation of Yaneer Bar-Yam, president of the New England Complex Systems Institute, to lecture periodically at the SSG beginning in January 2000 and specifically to address the topic of littoral warfare. The following paper by Professor Bar-Yam discusses the relevance of Multiscale Complex Systems Analysis to a characterization of the differences between conventional and complex warfare challenges, with particular application to littoral warfare.

The conclusions suggest that littoral warfare cannot be readily incorporated into Navy operations without considering the specific organizational and technological requirements needed to perform effectively in this high complexity environment. The significance of organizational structure to meeting complex challenges is already apparent from the difference between the organization and training of the Navy and Marines. Beyond the organizational structure, there is a broad relevance of complexity to the selection of appropriate technology and of identifying military objectives in the context of littoral warfare.

This paper is presented as an aid both to conceiving of littoral warfare concepts, and more generally as an introduction to the use of the conceptual tools provided by multiscale analysis. Experience with complex warfare in Vietnam and Afghanistan illustrates the importance of these concepts. A more formal and quantitative application of multiscale methods, not undertaken here, is possible to extend its usefulness. This paper is part of a larger effort to apply multiscale complex systems analysis to military conflict.