Uncertainty in Battle: Fog and Friction Part I

August 19th, 2009 in Military History by

“The great uncertainty of all data in war is a peculiar difficulty, because all action must, to a certain extent, be planned in a mere twilight, which in addition not infrequently – like the effect of a fog or moonshine – gives to things exaggerated dimensions and unnatural appearance.”
- Carl von Clausewitz, On War, 1832

War is man’s oldest profession. Soldiers and armies have clashed since time immemorial, although the manner in which they fight has changed dramatically. On occasion, a warrior emerges that captures the very essence of combat in writing. The great Prussian soldier Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) is one of those pivotal writers whose work has become a foundation in military training. In his most famous work, On War, Clausewitz describes the uncertainty that commanders face in battle – and aptly termed it the fog and friction of war.

Combat in today’s world is far different from that of Clausewitz’s era. Modern Western armies utilize an impressive array of Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems in combat. Some military tacticians believe that today’s C4ISR systems are capable of removing Clausewitz’s fog and friction of war from the battlefield; in reality, his two concepts are more valid than ever.

C4ISR systems allow rapid information exchange, data sharing and virtually instantaneous global communication. Unfortunately, the speed and scope of information available to commanders and staff are overwhelming and counter the advances gained through current C4ISR platforms and likely will counter those of the future.

Today’s battlefields are immense in size, encompassing entire nations or global regions. Consider the “average” battle space for the Army’s basic tactical maneuver unit known as the brigade combat team (BCT). The 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division had a battle space that “covered roughly 400 square kilometers and encompassed 2 of the 9 major districts in Baghdad” with a population of “700,000 to a million citizens.” This problem of scope and size exists at the strategic/operational levels as well. Each of the United States Combatant Commanders (COCOMs) is responsible for entire continents and wide swaths of the globe. The US Pacific Command (PACOM) Commander alone is responsible for 39 countries covering an area of 105 million square miles and nearly 60% of the world’s population. No C4ISR system, or system of systems, can possibly cover an area of responsibility of that size. At least not effectively.

In Clausewitz’s era, armies fought on a two-dimensional battlefield and still faced significant uncertainty and doubt – the very fog and friction of war. By necessity, today’s battlespace is comprised of land, sea, air, space and cyberspace. C4ISR systems cannot keep pace with our enemy’s ability to adapt, change and overcome technology advances. For example, it is generally agreed that computer technology changes every six months, but our enemy’s IED tactics change every 30 days.

Part II will look at fog and friction in modern warfare.

MAJ Heatherly is an active duty U.S. Army military intelligence officer with two tours in Iraq. He is currently assigned to the School of Advanced Military Studies in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of the United States government, the Department of Defense or the United States Army.

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2 Responses to “Uncertainty in Battle: Fog and Friction Part I”

  1. Peter Culos said:

    Interesting article! I’m looking forward to second piece as well as I work for a C4ISR program – Blue Force Tracking (FBCB2). I’m curious about your thoughts on that particular program.

  2. Chris Heatherly said:

    Glad you liked the article. I did not specifically address FBCB2 in my article, so here are my thoughts. First, like all the new C4ISR systems, I appreciate the benefits FBCB2 brings to the soldier. However, I am concerned over the lack of “fall back” skills that newer and future soldiers have due to over reliance upon these systems. I am speaking of critical skills like compass use, map reading, urban/rural orienterring, etc. Of course, the pikemen of old probably said the same thing about the new fangled muskets… Thanks for the feedback!

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