Reflexive Control By Design: Crafting Emergent Opportunity in Complex Systems

By Wilford L. Garvin

Success in military operations requires shaping the human domain. Leaders, therefore, seek fullest understanding of both friendly and adversary decision making to increase probability of effective planning and execution. Too often, however, analysis anchors to the information requirements of one’s own leadership. Reflexive control offers one theory to address this shortfall. Reflexive control is a unique form of offensive maneuver within the human mind, akin to infiltration within the physical domains. Its purpose is to alter the decision calculus of another actor within the system of an identified problem-set. The practitioner of reflexive control provokes others to change the environment voluntarily to suit the desires of the practitioner. This concept is not new; rather, it is an inherent part of human interaction. When understood, reflexive control theory encourages patterns of strategic thought that increase a leader’s ability to shape environments and defeat an adversary’s strategy whether through deterrence or decisive action. Military leaders need to understand several considerations. First, they need to understand the definition and theory of reflexive control. Next, it is important to understand how assumptions and associated risks drive reflexive control. Finally, military leaders need to develop a way of seeking to employ reflexive control within design methodology. While reflexive control does not offer a panacea for success in conflict, observations and tools will be offered that may better enable leaders to craft strategies and plans that might work rather than ones that will fail.

Vladimir A. Lefebvre defines reflexive control as “a means of conveying to a partner or an opponent specially prepared information to incline him to voluntarily make the predetermined decision desired by the initiator of the action.” While reflexive control theory enjoys a resurgence of interest in the renewed discussion of Russian “hybrid warfare,” theorists have long commented on the phenomenon. Clausewitz called the phenomenon “cunning,” it finds expression and use in Col Boyd’s OODA loop, and is extant in the writings of Sun Tzu. Perhaps the most relatable experience humans share in employing reflexive control is the trope of “managing your boss;” it is not an exaggeration that leaders in the US military intuitively employ reflexive control almost daily! In a sense, reflexive control seeks greater unity of effort with actors beyond the formal control of the practitioner, to include adversaries.

Note, however, that reflexive control is not synonymous with deception. The Russian model of reflexive control springs from a philosophical difference between lozh, a complete falsehood, and vranyo, an untruth based on reality. In contrast to mere deception, practitioners most effectively employ reflexive control not with falsehood, but rather manipulation of how an actor perceives truth. As such, an actor best communicates reflexive ideas by design after understanding when, why, and how another actor will or will not accept risk. As such, reflexive control requires intricate knowledge of other actors and their decision support processes to identify assumptions and associated risks that drive decision making.

By communicating ideas that create or confirm another’s assumptions, an actor can shape the environment by imposing a dilemma, provoking another to act in a desired manner. Conversely, by confounding another’s assumptions, an actor can disrupt the other’s decision-making process. Finally, by creating perception of an unanticipated threat or opportunity, an actor can force another to analyze hastily emerging observations designed to trigger specific assumptions reflexively. Figure 1, below, offers a way of visualizing this relation of assumptions and risk calculus into a usable framework to employ and defend against reflexive control.


Figure 1. Applying Reflexive Control Theory

Understanding this framework, however, is useless without understanding the context in which it will be employed. Consciously understanding risk calculus of other actors within complex systems depends on the ability to understand the environment, consider trends within that environment, consider effects of shocks to the environment, and identify the hidden assumptions that make up that understanding.

Soviet theorists V. A. Druzhinin and D.S. Kontorov noted, “Control of the enemy assumes the influencing of the enemy’s decisions by utilizing a profound knowledge of his politics, ideology, military doctrine, objectives, the state of his forces, organization, psychology, the personal qualities of his executive personnel, his mutual relations, and emotional state.” However, no leader, no matter how wise or experienced, holds perfect knowledge of his environment. Today’s global environment is too complex, the speed of human interaction too fast, and risks assumed by bad assumptions are too high to not seek and maintain the best systematic understanding of the environment possible. JP 5-0 inculcates this idea with the “systems perspective of the operational environment.” Armed with systematic understanding, commanders visualize and describe problems and solutions, and are better able to direct execution with well-informed decisions guiding the execution. If leaders wish to employ reflexive control to shape the environment at the operational and strategic levels, they require a methodology designed to identify the right problem in an uncertain environment.

Unlike detailed planning methodologies, design offers a method for framing problems across complex environments. Design is not a series of staff actions culminating in orders production; rather, it serves to bridge a gap between a commander’s vision and detailed planning that will govern execution. Commanders best employ design as a continuous, iterative process that occurs concurrently with detailed planning across the duration of operations. By employing design, commanders maintain their vision and intent as a living and evolving system that reacts to changes in the environment and consciously addresses reflexive control. Figure 2, below, offers a way to visualize this cognitive process while incorporating reflexive control within the design methodology.


Figure 2. Reflexive Control by Design

Understanding the operational environment is the most important portion of the design methodology. Here, organizations gain the systematic understanding of the environment by evolving the best possible understanding of the observed system. Inputs to develop this understanding of the human domain include history, culture, geography, climate, and trends. To address reflexive control, organizations challenge their own biases while separating facts and assumptions. This allows them to identify their macro-level assumptions about the environment. Analyzing the validity of these assumptions is paramount; failure to dispel these assumptions prohibits the effectiveness of any subsequent attempts at problem solving.

With an understanding of the environment that is, organizations also consider the environment from the perspectives of other actors to envision how they desire the system to be. When considering reflexive control in this analysis, leaders ask, “What assumptions are being made and how do they affect risk calculus?” In particular, determining the center of gravity for an actor is an immensely important assumption, as centers of gravity serve as a focal point for planning and resourcing. Armed with an understanding of the assumptions, the designs of other actors, and an intimate knowledge of their cognitive systems and risk calculus, organizations may better define problems that they might solve.

Defining the problem, the portion of design that logically summarizes the context of the environment to the mission, is more than a simple statement and definition of end-state conditions. Organizations must consider how reflexive control efforts by other actors create barriers to mission success. Additionally, understanding the problem may also reveal the potential of employing reflexive control to help solve the problem. Organizations consider whether to confirm, deny, or create assumptions in the minds of other actors as a means to create greater unity of effort, even against adversaries. An adequately defined problem should envision how reflexive control’s employment threatens and supports mission success.

Development of the operational approach evolves from the defined problem as the commander’s vision to solve the problem. This portion of design is the origin of and model for the commander’s intent. Commanders, assisted by staffs, consider end-state conditions, orient their design against the center of gravity of the problem, determine decisive points that attack the center of gravity directly or indirectly, and link those decisive points along lines of operation or effort that lead to the end-state conditions. Reflexive control provides one way of exposing critical vulnerabilities of an adversary’s center of gravity and gives further insight about how decisive points create marked advantages.

Within this iterative process, staffs enable the commander to employ and defend against reflexive control by evolving risk analysis and decision support tools. These tools must adapt with the changing understanding of the observed system; design is a continuous process within the mind of the commander and the collective consciousness of the organization. As such, all tools created to support the design and subsequent detailed planning are living documents. Organizations achieve this by constantly assessing validity of assumptions, collecting information to turn assumptions into facts, and questioning why assumptions were not confirmed or denied when expected. Importantly, organizations pay close attention to emerging assumptions, especially regarding unexpected risks or opportunities and consciously consider their effects on the risk calculus and decision-making of their commander as well as those of other actors within the system.

Whether actors communicate reflexive ideas through propaganda, military posturing, economic embargo, cyber attacks, nuclear saber rattling, or disrupting how an actor perceives his environment is less important than crafting ideas that the other actor will perceive as designed. As such, understanding other actor’s cognitive functions and systems that filter information, and therefore understanding how their filtered perception of the observed system affects their risk calculus, is the most important consideration. One of the United States’ main commentators on the subject, Lt Col (ret) Timothy L. Thomas, stresses, “The chief task of reflexive control is to locate the weak link of the filter, and exploit it [Emphasis original].”

The design methodology offers a way for organizations to understand complex environments, visualize observed systems as close to truth as possible, describe problems that can be solved, and assist the commander in directing courses of action to solve those problems. America faces challenges crafting strategies and planning military operations in a complex world connected instantly across multiple domains. Organizations, military and civil, require deep understanding if they will employ and defend against reflexive control to shape theaters and, if needed, transition to decisive action with a marked advantage. Global challenges and the lethality of modern warfare demand critical and creative thinking to solve such complex problem sets. Reflexive control by design offers leaders a way to employ patterns of strategic thought to craft and execute approaches that achieve strategic effect through tactical actions.

Major Wilford L. Garvin is a US Army armor officer with two combat deployments in support of Operations Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn. MAJ Garvin is currently a student at the Army Command and General Staff College’s School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He is a graduate of Air Command and Staff College’s Multi-Domain Operational Strategist program.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.



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