NEOCORTICAL WARFARE? THE ACME OF SKILL: By Col. Richard Szafranski (1994)

NEOCORTICAL WARFARE? THE ACME OF SKILL by Col. Richard Szafranski, Military Review, RAND, U.S. Army Command, and General Staff College, Nov. 1994

Neocortical Warfare? The Acme of Skill

Neocortical Warfare? The Acme of Skill

Quotes From Neocortical Warfare:

“ 1. The target of all human conflict, the battleground of all conflict resolution, is the human mind. In reframing all conflict as one form of warfare or another, neocortical warfare rejects the notion that warfare is an aberration. It accepts that conflict will never end and that we must invest resources to win its endless engagements.”

— Richard Szafranski

2) Neocortical Warfare/RAND analyst Richard Szafranski proposed in 1997 the term ‘neocortical warfare’ to describe a new paradigm of war. Szafranski criticized the Clausewitzian paradigm for being overly focused on the need for violence as the main instrument of coercion. Szafranski suggests “the intellectual energy consumed by devising newer and better ways to kill and destroy distracts us from the real object of war: subduing hostile will. Lopping the limbs off an enemy’s body, or even precisely excising muscles from it, undoubtedly sends a message to the enemy’s brain. Might there not be other ways to communicate with hostile brains?”89 He goes on to further delineate neocortical warfare from the older paradigm:

“Neocortical warfare is warfare that strives to control or shape the behavior of enemy organisms, but without destroying the organisms. It does this by influencing, even to the point of regulating, the consciousness, perceptions and will of the adversary’s leadership: the enemy’s neocortical system. In simple ways, neocortical warfare attempts to penetrate adversaries’ recurring and simultaneous cycles of ‘observation, orientation, decision and action.’ In complex ways, it strives to present the adversary’s leaders—its collective brain— with perceptions, sensory and cognitive data designed to result in a narrow and controlled (or an overwhelmingly large and disorienting) range of calculations and evaluations. The product of these evaluations and calculations are adversary choices that correspond to our desired choices. 89

Richard Szafranski, “Neocortical Warfare: The Acme of Skill,” in David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla, In Athena’s Camp: Warfare in the Information Age(Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1997), p. 398.


Richard Szafranski

This is the key point: the effective employment of air and spacepower has to do not so much with airplanes and missiles and engi-neering as with thinking and attitude and imagination.1

—General Merrill A. McPeak, Chief of Staff, United States Air Force

If General McPeak is correct, and I believe he is, the opposite proposition should also be true. That is, if our country employs air and space power thoughtlessly or unimaginatively, this power will be less effective or even disastrously impotent. To help avoid such grave risks in the future, the thesis of this article takes us at least one stop beyond. McPeak’s already powerful insight. This article argues that military power resides in the domain of the mind and the will; the provinces of choice, “thinking,” valuing or “attitude,” and insight or “imagination.”

Further, it argues that, because of this, military power can increase in effectiveness even as it decreases in violence. As a consequence, the article necessarily infers that air and space operations help establish the essential preconditions for meeting national security political objectives without force, or what I call neocortical warfare.

Some warnings: to me, “super” power is the capability that emerges from superior minds— the mental dimension and superior values,* the moral domain. As you will see, military power, like air and space power, also takes on a different meaning.

Consequently, “employment” ultimately attaches more importance to communi-cating with other minds than to targeting objects. Even so, I do not argue that we should beat our swords into fiber-optic cables or satellites. Rather, I argue that we transform our sword into a viciously sharp stiletto and that we develop, refine and continually employ other, and ultimately more useful, weapons to influence adversary choices.

Last, and most important, this is a work in progress. As such, the conclusions reached are both tentative and speculative, hopefully providing some signposts to un- or under- explored areas.


In their grand synthesis, The Lessons of History, Will and Ariel Durantassert that “the laws of biology are the fundamental lessons of history.” They describe nations or states as biological organisms, human organisms, ourselves multiplied, our good and evil natures writ large.2 Some states have the same flaws as humans— avarice, pugnacity, pride, the selfish desire for resources and mastery— and, like humans, compete and engage in misbehavior. Historically, war has been a necessity, the biological nation’s way of eating, and a recurring form of misbehavior to the Durants.3

Analogies suggesting that states are like biological organisms are convenient, simplistic and, of course, flawed. States or nations are organized groups of people. States do not act— compete, misbehave, conduct raids, execute airstrikes, wage war— it is people within the group who sanction or compel these, or who act in the name of others. Hence, to Martinvan Creveld, “War . . . is a social activity resting upon some kind of organization.”4. Society is and segmented societies are the workplace of warfare, and social change is both a cause and outcome of human conflict.

People are the essential element in all of this. John G. Stoessinger’s study of seven wars concludes that the “human element,” including“ personalities and misperceptions,” constitutes the final and critical link in the chain of events that culminates in war.5 Just as there are “disorganized personalities” among individuals, there may also be, in a lay person’s terms, crazy leaders and, because of them, crazy states. War, aggressive or defensive, occurs as a consequence of human “conation,” of will. Whether the people willing or choosing are sick or healthy, pugnacious or passive, war is a distinctly human activity. Politics is also a human activity. “Politics” is the pursuit and exercise of power, and “power” is the ability to influence people who otherwise might not choose to be influenced.6

To many, this ability to influence is seen as coercive, so much so that the “other means”. Clausewitz describes as being added to the process of political dialogue in war are most often violent means. Consequently, among all the mammalian species on the planet, ours is the only one that engages in deliberate, intentional interspecific killing.7 Today war is understood as violent conflict, an activity that resides at the high end of the spectrum of coercion. Warfare or war emerges when human sand human organizations choose to oppose their wills, to employ destructive means in an organized way.

The object of war is, quite simply, to force or encourage the enemy to make what you assert is a better choice, or to choose what you desire the enemy to choose. Said another way, the object of war is to subdue the hostile will of the enemy. We cannot meet the immediate objective of war until or unless we subdue hostile will. So far, we are on familiar ground. It is not difficult to understand “destructive means.”

They are the more or less brute force mechanisms and methods employed to imperil the life of biological organisms (individuals) and organic entities (states, nation-states, nations or groups of people) either directly or indirectly. We have no difficulty understanding that living organisms and organic entities are organized as systems. It also may be unremarkable to conclude that the methodical orchestration and application of destructive means against these systems are superior to disorderly or less orderly ones.8.

It is, however, somewhat more difficult to realize that, if the object of war truly is to subdue hostile will or to make the opponent comply with our will, then we must consider enemies not just as systems, but as organisms with will. Likewise, if weapons are means used to coerce an adversary’s will, then even our understanding of weapons must go beyond things, implements or tools. Yet, we have concentrated our attention on the concrete means and material ways used to subdue hostile will’s host, rather than on the nature of will itself. We have been unimaginative. As a result, we have been approaching the study of the art of war from a dangerously wrongheaded perspective.This is forgivable and, until recently, a flaw we could afford. It is alsoa flaw we can choose, or will, to correct.It is pardonable because the notion of will is an abstruse one. Will isas difficult to understand as concepts of mind, consciousness, cog-nition and creativity. Ideas of psyche, spirit, transcendence and soulare even more contentious, more difficult to comprehend. Becausewe believe that the entity “will” is existential and brain-centered, weconcentrate our attention on the existence of brains, not on the na-ture of will. In so doing we may have mistakenly identified the craftof war as the art of war. By that I mean that our science of war is notso much the study of subduing will as it is the study of devising andapplying progressively more elaborate means and methods for de-stroying brains. Destroy enough brains, or the correct brains, ourstudies seem to encourage us, and “will” necessarily dies along withthe organism. Thus, we meet the real object of war—subduing will—if we meet it at all, indirectly by the application of physical force.At least three shortcomings to this approach are emerging. First,killing appliances and destruction machines are usually and neces-sarily expensive. The more ambitious the objectives of this appara-tus, the greater the expense. Every penny spent to acquire the abilityto destroy is a penny that cannot be spent to build. Second, in theabsence of any clear and present threat to national survival that pos-session of such tools can reasonably be expected to counter, our citi-zens and their elected representatives have advocated other plans forour pennies. Last, the intellectual energy consumed by devisingnewer and better ways to kill and destroy distracts us from the realobject of war: subduing hostile will. Lopping the limbs off an ene-my’s body, or even precisely excising muscles from it, undoubtedlysends a message to the enemy’s brain. Might there not be other waysto communicate with hostile brains?The architect of the 1929 “strategy of the indirect approach,” B. H.Liddell Hart, advocated a more economical approach to meeting theaim of war. Yet, even he saw the “dislocation of the enemy’s psycho-logical and physical balance” only as “the vital prelude to a success-ful attempt” to overthrow the enemy. Psychological dislocation oc-curred when one gained a favorable “strategic situation,” but eventhen, it took a “strategic operation” to meet the military aim. Hart

Krishnan / Neurowars16and the outcomes we desire. Influencing leaders to not fight is paramount.90What Szafranski is calling neocortical warfare is referred hereinas neurowarfare: the manipulation of enemy brains for the goal of subduing their will. Similarly, Australian defense analysts Chloe Diggins and Clint Arizmendi have argued that neurowarfare is “about involuntarilypenetrating, shaping, and coercing the mind in the ultimate realization of Clausewitz’s definition of war: compelling an adversary to submit to one’s will.”91This goes clearly beyond PSYOPS and can be aimed at degrading mental capacity, altering mental states, altering emotions, and potentiallyimpacting higher cognitive functions of perception, thinking, memory, and learning (Fig. 1). Neurowarfare is also culturally agnostic in the sense that people can be influenced at a level of the brain, potentially bypassing cultural factors and peculiarities.The Human DomainIn recent years the U.S. military adopted the concept ‘human domain’, which is added as a sixth domain of war apart from land, sea, air, outer space, and cyberspace. The human domain comprises ‘human factors’ and the ‘human terrain’.Human factors deal with aspects of human nature and human capability that are difficult to measure but that are critically important in war and its conduct, namely,culture, motivation, morale, emotions, training, leadership, and so on. The ‘human terrain’ is “the human population in the operational environment … as defined and characterized by sociocultural, anthropologic and ethnographic data and other non-geographical information.”92The U.S. Army continues to develop HTS by combining it better with geographic information systems so that everybody and all activities can be tracked and referenced to a geographic location for better situational awareness in the human domain. 90Ibid.: 404.91Diggins and Arizmendi, “Hacking the Brain.”92J. Kipp, L. Grau, K. Prinslow,andD. Smith, “The Human Terrain System: A CORDS for the 21stCentury,”Military Review(September-October2006):9.A 2012 DoD white paper on ‘Strategic Landpower’ declared the central importance of the human domain to all warfare and argued “[w]hat we know and project about the future operating environment tells us that the significance of the ‘human domain’ in future conflict is growing, not diminished.”93The paper emphasizes the continued importance of landpower and the growing importance of conflicts short of war, where lethal power may not be the most effective way to meet U.S. strategic goals. It clearly hints at possibly covert methods of influencing other societies so that actual warfare becomes unnecessary. A subsection of the human domain that could emerge in the future could be called ‘neurospace’: the technical interface at which brains and minds interact with their environment.