Overview of Military Conflict 

John R. Brinkerhoff
J. Rosser Bobbitt
Edmund L. DuBois
Charles F. Hawkins
John G. Honig
Wayne Hughes, Jr.
Richard Humphrey
Roger W. Mickelson
Clayton Newell
Greg Wilcox

February 1998


The Military Conflict Institute. TMCI is a non-profit educational organization whose purpose is to produce an integrated set of explanations, hypotheses, and theories that illuminate the many facets of military conflict. TMCI was founded in 1979 by a group of operations research analysts, military historians, and modelers who were dissatisfied with the state of the art of military models and combat simulations. Since that time, the members of TMCI have broadened the scope of their work to address additional aspects of military conflict in an integrated approach. TMCI seeks to develop an overarching theory of military conflict, a philosophy of war, an understanding of the art of military campaigns, and a theory of military combat. TMCI makes its findings available to military professionals, the community of defense intellectuals, and the general public by publication of a series of papers on particular aspects of military conflict. Publication of A Concise Theory of Military Combat in 1997 was the first step in fulfilling this commitment.

Purpose. This general overview of military conflict describes the way in which TMCI has decided to organize its work. A conceptual framework of the subject matter is necessary to decide upon the subjects, scopes, and topics of the papers that TMCI is preparing for publication. The TMCI conceptual framework of military conflict is not the only way to organize or explain this material, but it is reasonable and affords both a basis for pursuing the work and for improving the organizational scheme itself, leading to a better public understanding of military conflict.


The history of humankind is replete with accounts of social and military conflict, and archeological and anthropological research indicates that organized, armed conflict occurred well before the age in which there were written records. Military Conflict in various forms has occurred so often in the past that periods of peace are counted as notable exceptions to the normal state of affairs. War, military and naval campaigns, battles, combat, insurrections, terrorism, duels, and other forms of military conflict are mentioned frequently in most general histories recording social, economic, and political events and are the subject of many specialized histories. Military Conflict, it seems, is endemic to humankind and for thousands of years has had much to do with the rise and fall of tribes, cultures, empires, and nations.

Many explanations have been offered for this condition. Much effort and resources have gone into waging war, and substantial mental effort and research have gone into studying war. The strategy and tactics of war, campaigns, and battles have been the subjects of observation, generalization, speculation, and analysis ever since humans started fighting each other in an organized manner. Literature has many anecdotes, personal accounts, philosophical treatises, and prescriptive essays on military conflict. Many works are sufficiently general to be applied after the fact or ambiguous enough to rationalize whatever a particular commander wants to do. Some works, particularly those written by the victors, reflect significant biases. Other works are excellent descriptions but uncertain prescriptions. Still others present analytical or mathematical descriptions of military conflict that are definite, numerical, and often incompatible with experience. There are many explanations of military conflict but not very much agreement on the underlying principles and causative factors -- this underlies the work of TMCI.

One reason for lack of agreement about military conflict is that applying the scientific method of analysis is particularly difficult. Many natural phenomena can be observed and replicated in experiments to help establish cause and effect relationships. However, the most important military conflict phenomena cannot be replicated for experimental purposes, and data are available only from the historical record, which is intermittent and often inaccurate. Military conflict is a human endeavor - perhaps the most complex and challenging human endeavor - and it is therefore not entirely susceptible to the scientific method. One result of the uneven application of scientific method to military conflict has been an array of mathematical models that quantify and relate the physical aspects of conflict but imprecisely represent the human aspects. On the other hand, there is also a body of knowledge from history and the social sciences that describes conflict in human terms but tends to ignore or misinterpret the physical aspects.

A generally accepted conceptual framework, terminology, and approach for addressing Military Conflict is essential for understanding and dealing with this particular set of complex phenomena. Other fields of study, such as psychology, sociology, economics, political science, biochemistry, and physics, have generally accepted conceptual frameworks within which differences can be considered rationally and similarities appreciated. After five thousand years of human and military history, there ought to be a general theory or framework for the systematic, scientific, study of military conflict.

Theory. A theory is a codification of knowledge that aids in understanding; theory provides a set of expectations about a particular phenomenon and its processes.

The theories, philosophies, axioms, and principles being developed by TMCI are intended to be systematic, intellectual structures that explain fundamentals and the way that things work within specified boundaries of the phenomena. They are descriptive and explanatory; they are not intended to be predictive or prescriptive. Theories may incorporate quantitative measures and use mathematical notation to portray complex qualitative relationships, but they are not fundamentally mathematical in nature.

Knowledge codified in a theory evolves over time as observed phenomena change, research progresses, and understanding improves. The history of science suggests that continuing work to understand phenomena better and account for observed anomalies leads to evolution and sometimes revolution in the theory itself. Theory has to explain the total set of phenomena under consideration and is modified in accordance with increased knowledge. There can be no difference between theory and practice (as some assert) because theory must explain practice. Conversely, practice necessarily conforms to theory - although not perhaps all statements of theory. As Rear Admiral Henry Eccles noted in 1982:

"Theory provides discipline and a sense of relationship among the parts to make a coherent whole. It helps one to distinguish between the vital and the trivial. Theory does not 'solve' problems; it helps one to understand problems, and know what questions to ask. A theory in the field of military conflict should be comprehensive, coherent, consistent and simple-if it is to be useful. It is developed through a search for cause and effect principles that generally hold true, and for structural relationships among the substantive elements of military knowledge."

TMCI publications and internal working papers are intended to be organized knowledge presented as coherent, systematic statements of premises, principles, and procedures based on observation and reasoning to explain a set of phenomena. For TMCI, theory is not an individual view or notion, nor a particular view set forth to explain a set of facts, nor simply abstract knowledge, nor mere hypothesis, speculation, or conjecture - although these are ways in which the term is sometimes used. TMCI theories are intended to be comprehensive, coherent, simple, and universal - valid for all times, all locations, and all military forces. They are intended to be useful as a basis for military analysis, modeling, gaming, simulation, planning, programming, budgeting, and operations.

Conceptual Framework. One of the major problems facing TMCI since its inception has been in devising a conceptual framework to address and organize the myriad of phenomena that collectively constitute military conflict. Military conflict has many manifestations: war, combat, battles, duels, deterrence, guerrilla fighting, logistics, intelligence, weapons technology, and tactics. When military forces are employed or poised to act, some aspects of terrorism, economic warfare, and trade wars also fall under the general rubric of military conflict.

Explanations of military conflict have been offered frequently by authors who assert in books and articles their own particular theses or models. The consequence of this idiosyncratic method of addressing military conflict is that there are at least as many partial explanations, organizational approaches, taxonomies, and vocabularies as there are authors. This undisciplined approach, however, does not necessarily lead to better understanding.

The conceptual framework adopted by TMCI and explained below is, like all such devices, aimed at utility and practicality. The bulk of data to be organized into a conceptual framework fits without much difficulty. However, there are exceptions to all rules and anomalies in all taxonomies, including the TMCI taxonomy. Some ideas and data, usually near boundaries between categories, are always troublesome and have to be assigned to one category or the other arbitrarily

Terminology. One of the goals of TMCI is to establish a basic set of definitions, rules, and technical terms as a common language to which all practitioners can adhere if they choose. This kind of discipline will not provide understanding per se, but it is a prerequisite for clear communication and improved understanding.

Progress in any field of study, but particularly science, requires that all participants use the same word in exactly the same sense. A proton is a proton is a proton. Scientists who desire to explicate a new idea are obligated to invent a new term or terms to describe it. This results in some unlikely names, such as quark, but it also leads to clarity in explanatory prose as the new term gains legitimacy. In the field of military conflict, there has been little discipline over the use of words, perhaps because the tradition has been to consider military matters as art rather than as science. Lack of precision in terminology has caused a certain amount of confusion in the study of military conflict. For example, the word, "strategic" has several plausible but contradictory meanings.

In this overview paper and in the other publications of The Military Conflict Institute, the members have adopted the exact meaning of each term collectively. Official definitions are preferred, but where greater precision is needed, TMCI has applied a single or limited definition for a word or phrase, and used other terms for alternative meanings. TMCI will publish and update periodically a Glossary to assist other readers to understand how TMCI uses words in its work.

Human Conflict. All forms of human activity in any social, cultural, religious, economic, or political group (family, village, tribe, church, industry, association, or nation) include conflict. Human conflict may exist within or between a single individual's differing emotions and desires, putting one at odds with oneself, or in the clash of different persons' and different groups' interests or principles. Such feelings and desires often collide, causing opposition within and between individuals either covertly or openly, internally or externally.

All organisms appear to exhibit a number of fundamental drives that have been variously classified in a hierarchy of needs, usually in terms of their end object: food, sex, dominance, self-preservation, territory, independence, self-actualization, and society. Conflict arises when individuals or groups act to achieve the end desires of their own drives. In most cases, a hint of conflict triggers an escape mechanism rather than hostile action because a threat to self-preservation elicits fear that overcomes other needs. Among higher order species aggression leading to actual violence may be triggered by a combination of drives, with a quest for domination being one of the most prevalent.

Conflict is antagonistic, sometimes violent, and (except for some limitations in international law or tacit consent) relatively unconstrained. Competition, on the other hand, is less antagonistic, less violent, and usually governed and regulated better than conflict.

Many explanations have been offered for the existence of human conflict. The question of whether conflict is an inherent human characteristic or learned behavior has not been settled and is not critical to TMCI's work. Whether or not there is a human instinct for conflict, humans seeking wealth, glory, adventure, sexual partners, escape, power, and combinations of these goals have used conflict to achieve their goals. Groups of humans motivated by social pressures, mass psychology, charismatic leadership, or other reasons have used conflict to achieve group goals. The fact is that conflict does occur among biological organisms, from smallest and simplest to the largest and most complex. Conflict does occur among humans and groups of humans. Some human conflict involves the threat of or use of violence. Some part of violent conflict involves purposeful, organized action by armed groups, and it is that part of human conflict that TMCI seeks to explain.

Military Conflict. Military conflict is the part of human conflict that is usually expressed in terms of concerted, intentional action or the threat of action by organized groups, bands, or units, armed and equipped for the purpose of engaging in coercive or aggressive behavior against other armed groups, bands, or units.

Military conflict involves the implicit or explicit threat or the actual use of organized violence-fighting-among two or more opposed armed forces. It does not include fighting or violence between or among gangs and criminals seeking illegal gains, or rioting or unorganized, spontaneous violence between two groups of people in a riot, general uprising, or barroom brawl. It includes revolts, revolutions, insurrections, and para-military operations when at least one party to the conflict is organized and equipped by a government or political organization.

One key element that separates Military Conflict from other forms of violent conflict is that it is conducted by special groups of people formed, trained, and used to fight. These members of these groups are called military personnel, and they form military units, organizations, and forces.

A military force is a combined set of personnel, equipment, supplies, and services created for and applied to the conduct of military combat. The term "military" is used to denote navies and naval forces fighting at sea or in littorals, in aerospace, and on land. Military forces are distinguished from non-military groups (civilians) by open, public acknowledgement that they exist for the purpose of engaging in military combat. Military personnel are usually set apart by distinctive dress and cultures that indicate that their purpose is to conduct organized violence. Military equipment is often distinctive by function and by markings that indicate its military nature. Military units have distinctive designations that announce their military purpose. Military forces are usually, but not always, recognized as official arms of a nation-state or some other political entity. Autonomous machines acting under the general direction of combatants may carry out military conflict.

Military conflict may also be carried out by para-military organizations, including gendarmeries, border patrols, guerrilla units, terrorist groups, and police forces with a dual civil/military mission, such as the Carabinieri. However, most police forces established to keep the peace and enforce civil law are not involved in military conflict.

Military conflict differs from other forms of violent conflict in that it is purposeful and premeditated rather than incidental or spontaneous. The means for military combat are arranged beforehand and applied in accordance with pre-established rules to achieve specific ends-usually political goals.

Military conflict is an interactive and dynamic lethal process among two or more participants that takes place in finite limits of time and space. Participants use or threaten to use deadly weapons to kill or influence others and accept the risk of being killed or wounded themselves. Military conflict involves directed physical violence between military forces, each of which has to various degrees decisionmaking and self-directing capabilities. These forces are usually organized into a hierarchy, with smaller forces aggregating to form successively larger forces until all of the military forces of a political entity are included in the armed forces of the state or other polity.

Because military conflict is intentional, its participants are expected to have the will to fight, resist, and survive. They need not have a desire to fight, although that may exist also. Military conflict involves both a willingness to kill and a willingness to be killed, although these may be induced by coercion or threat of punishment. Military conflict always involves at the outset a conscious decision to fight, albeit a reluctant decision at times. Military conflict ends when one side or all sides make a conscious decision to quit fighting.

The Context of Military Conflict. Military Conflict exists in the intersection of the Human Conflict System and the Global Political-Economic System, as shown below.

Figure 1. The Context of Military Conflict (2.69K)

Figure 2. The Domains of Military Conflict (3.04K)

The Global Political-Economic System includes all political, economic, social, cultural, religious, and societal events that have, are, and will be taking place. This system includes relationships among major political units and within the various political units. In the old sense, this meant the balance of power and conditions of survival among tribes, cities, kingdoms, and empires. In the modern sense, this means the aspirations, aggression, and balance of power among nation-states, international and transnational organizations, and sub-state actors.

All military conflict occurs entirely within the intersection of the two larger systems. Many activities in The Global Political-Economic System, such as governance, finance, commerce, manufacturing, and education, do not necessarily involve military conflict, but some involve military conflict much of the time, and all of them involve military conflict some of the time. Some human conflict, such as interpersonal and family conflict, occurs outside of the Global Political-Economic System. The Human Conflict System provides the psychological propensity and the Global Political-Economic System provides the motivations and goals for engaging in military conflict.

The Domains of Military Conflict. As shown in Figure 2, TMCI organizes military conflict into three overlapping domains: war, military campaigns, and military combat. This is not a neat structure. There are exceptions and the boundaries are fuzzy. There is military conflict outside of war. Most military campaigns are conducted in war, but there are military campaigns outside war and non-military campaigns in war. Most military combat occurs in war, but some occurs outside of war, and there are aspects of war that do not involve military combat.

War. War is defined broadly to include political, economic, commercial, ideological, and military conflict between nation-states or groups of nation-states, civil wars, rebellions, insurrections, and insurgencies. War does not require a formal declaration or statement but can be recognized by its existence. Military combat is usually an inherent feature of war, for the object is to achieve ascendancy by the use or the threat of use of combat power. In war, however, many activities other than military combat are also involved either in military operations or in support of military operations. The non-military elements of war include political activities, diplomacy, economic warfare, psychological operations, and industrial mobilization.

Military Conflict. Military conflict may occur outside of war in the forms of terrorism, counter-terrorism, and the pacification or repression of local populations. Terrorism and crime are fundamentally and inherently different. Terrorism uses violence to achieve political ends. Crime uses violence in pursuit of personal gain. Crime is not military conflict, while terrorism may be.

Wars have occurred in great variety. They may be categorized by size (local, regional, world), by constraints (limited, total), and by form of fighting (guerrilla, conventional, nuclear). Many wars are waged between nation-states, but civil wars are waged within a nation-state, normally by two or more included national groups. Wars are sometimes characterized by the ferocity of the combat involved as low-, mid-, or high-intensity. There are long wars and short wars. Some wars consist almost entirely of fierce fighting from start to end; other wars consist of long periods of tension or hostility interspersed with short periods of combat.

Military Campaigns. Military campaigns are a major organizational approach for the conduct of war and the primary way of planning and conducting military operations within war. Military campaigns are a set of related military operations intended to accomplish a broad, but perhaps specific, mission. They are bounded by space, by allocation of an area of operations, and in time by a definite starting point and conditions for ending, though these are often indefinite and may be undefined at the outset of a campaign. Usually, a campaign is ended when its goals have been achieved.

Military campaigns are special cases of the broader meaning of the term, "campaigns" which can be applied generally to a set of related activities that seek to achieve broad political, economic, commercial, ideological, or even frivolous goals. Campaigns are carried out in defined geographic or functional areas under a single commander or manager. Campaigns within the domain of military conflict may be military or non-military in nature. Non-military campaigns are conducted in war to sustain civilian support, increase economic activity, or deny enemy access to materials. Non-war military campaigns intended to limit the drug trade, perform peacekeeping duties, or counter-terrorist activity may include military operations and military combat.

Military campaigns are focused on operations with military forces, including not only combat operations but also supporting and complementary efforts. Support includes provision of supplies and services for personnel and materiel. Complementary efforts include psychological operations, civil affairs, enemy prisoner of war operations, construction, transportation, manufacturing, and similar non-military activities that may be carried out by military personnel, civilians, or contractors in military organizations, other government agencies, or private organizations. Military campaigns are designed to apply military forces in military combat, but this is not necessary if the mission can be accomplished by the mere threat of the use of military forces.

Military Combat. Military combat is purposeful, controlled violence carried out by direct means of deadly force between opponents, each attempting to carry out a mission, the achievement of which has value to that side, and the achievement of which is opposed in some degree by the other side.

Military combat is the actual fighting - the transformation of combat potential into combat power that is applied to accomplish a mission. Military combat is of short duration. It usually occurs intermittently for a small military force but may occur frequently or continuously for larger forces. Combat is the output of a military force, and the actual or threatened application of military combat is the driving factor in war and military campaigns. Although narrow in scope and brief in application, its cumulative results over time and its aggregate results over space may be broad and long lasting in their consequences.

For the most part, military forces engage in military combat as part of military campaigns in war. Some military combat occurs outside of war (e.g., counter-terrorism, peace enforcement). Some military combat in war occurs outside of campaigns as part of separate battles, engagements, or skirmishes. The exceptions do not alter the nature of military combat itself. Despite drastic changes in weapons and tactics, military combat boils down to deadly interaction of human beings.

Military Conflict Functions. In the course of exploring the domains of military conflict, it became increasingly apparent that there are several functions that are included in all three domains of war, campaigns, and military combat. These functions operate similarly in each domain, albeit with major differences in focus, style, and scope. The links among the sub-functions of each function appear to be stronger than the relationships of the functions to the domains.

In order to present these crosscutting functions accurately, TMCI addresses them as separate topics. The military conflict functions identified by TMCI are command, operations, information, communications, civil-military affairs, personnel, logistics, and technology. As work proceeds, additional military conflict functions may be identified and added to the list.

The Military Command Function provides oversight and direction of military forces. This function is performed by appointed civilian officials, civilian employees, and military officers in the military chain of command and applies to military personnel, civilian employees, and contractors in military units and forces. Command involves seven vectors or processes: mission; situation; resources; organization; plan; control; and leadership. For war, the focus of the military command function is on creating and maintaining combat potential and allocating that combat potential to campaigns as appropriate to accomplish the military strategy. For campaigns, the military command function focuses on allocating available combat potential to subordinate commanders to accomplish their missions. For combat, the military command function focuses on transforming combat potential into combat power. All commanders are enjoined to maintain their allocated combat potential at or near the design levels intended by higher commanders.

The Military Operations Function organizes, moves, and utilizes military forces to maximize combat potential and combat power. For war, the military operations function is guided by strategy and focuses on training, organizing, deploying, and employing the armed forces of a polity. For campaigns, the military operations function focuses on task organizing and employing military forces in the theater to accomplish the mission. For military combat, the military operations function focuses on fire, maneuver, and deception to accomplish tactical missions. Military operations ascend in a hierarchy from small and short to large and long as follows: duel, skirmish, engagement, battle, campaign, and war.

The Military Information Function provides commanders and staffs at all levels knowledge of the environment, the friendly situation, and the enemy threat. The information function includes intelligence, scouting, reconnaissance, and similar activities. Information consists of three sub-functions that are carried out continuously as the situation and enemy change. Information acquisition is the deliberate and orderly collection and compilation of data. Analysis is the transformation of collected data into useful information by assessing its relevance and reliability. Dissemination is the distribution of appropriate and timely information to commanders and staffs. For war, information focuses on the intentions and latent combat potential of actual or possible adversaries and actual or possible theaters of war. For campaigns, information focuses on the situation within a theater and the actual or potential actions of regional adversaries. For military combat, information focuses on physical aspects of the battlefield and on enemy capabilities. Information is global and general at the level of war, regional and specific at the level of campaigns, and limited but detailed at the level of military combat.

The Military Communications Function transmits data and information from one military commander or entity to another. Control of military operations depends on information flowing among headquarters (commanders and staffs) to lower, higher, and lateral headquarters. For war, military communications focuses on communicating within the base and from the base to and from theaters of operations. For campaigns, military communications focuses on communicating with the base to subordinate and supporting headquarters in the theater of operations. For military combat, military communications focuses on communicating among headquarters, maneuver elements, fire support elements, and support elements.

The Civil-Military Affairs Function deals with relationships between military activities and civilian governments, institutions, and populations. Civilian organizations affect military conflict by providing support and assistance and/or by impeding military operations actively or passively. For war, civil-military affairs focus on defining the relationship between political and military goals. For campaigns, civil-military affairs focus on maximizing support and minimizing opposition within the theater of operations. For military combat, the focus is on minimizing the impact of civilians on military operations by moving them away from the battlefield or encouraging them to keep out of harms way.

The Military Personnel Function provides and maintains people to form and staff military units and forces. On the demand side, the manpower system transforms work to be done or combat potential to be available into authorized spaces (billets) that describe the numbers and types of personnel to be provided and funded. On the supply side, the personnel system tries to fill each authorized space with the appropriate numbers and types of people. For war, the military personnel function focuses on obtaining (by compulsion or voluntary means), training, and retaining the military personnel believed necessary to accomplish the military strategy. For campaigns, the focus is on making effective use of military personnel allocated to the theater of operations. For military combat, the personnel function focuses on maintaining sufficient numbers of trained and ready troops to do the actual fighting, and on replacing combat losses.

The Military Logistics Function obtains and distributes equipment, supplies, and services to military units and forces and for other people or groups involved in military operations. Logistics involves providing military forces with some internal organic support capability and arranging for additional support to be sent from bases or obtained locally from external sources. For war, logistics focuses on marshalling materiel to support the military strategy. For campaigns, logistics focuses on procuring, storing, allocating, and transporting goods and services to a theater of war. For military combat, logistics focuses on maintaining combat potential at or near design level to make combat power available to achieve tactical missions.

The Military Technology Function develops weapons, devices, machines, systems, equipment, and materiel that used in military conflict. For war, the military technology function focuses on application of science to develop technology, and transformation of technology into weapons and equipment. For campaigns, the focus of military technology is on making best use of available military technology accomplish the mission by countering or dominating the enemy's technology. For military combat, the focus is on using technology to maximize effective combat power.

TMCI Publications. The TMCI publication program intends to produce major papers for each of the military conflict domains, monographs for each of the military conflict functions, and a glossary. The ultimate goal is to integrate these documents into a unified theory of military conflict.

Major Papers A Theory of Military Conflict (to be completed)
A Philosophy of War (work in progress)
Military Campaigns (work in progress)
A Concise Theory of Combat (Version 1.0, NPS, 1997)

The Military Command Function
The Military Operations Function
The Military Information Function
The Military Communications Function
The Military Civil-Military Function
The Military Personnel Function
The Military Logistics Function
The Military Technology Function
Toward a Theory of Military Leadership

Glossary of Military Conflict Terms

Copyright � 1998 The Military Conflict Institute