Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Swarming, Open-Source Warfare and the Black Block

Swarming is an ancient military tactic—in fact, Alexander the Great pioneered the first effective counter-swarming maneuver over 2,000 years ago. However, it is also one of the most contemporary of military topics: how to defeat asymmetrical swarming tactics in counter-insurgency operations, how to effectively employ swarming in a modern military, etc. In the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, the anarchist “Black Block” pioneered a new form of swarming technique by using text-messaging and cell phones. Swarming has been at the cutting edge of military theory of millennia, but what is it? I hope to answer that question, and explain why it is the most compatible tactic for rhizome and open-source warfare. I will also examine how swarming works, what factors are critical to its success, and how it may be employed in the future by non-hierarchal forces to effectively confront the modern, hierarchal military.


Masked protester at the Seattle WTO Protests in 1999

What is Swarming?

Swarming is the tactical (or, in some cases, operational) maneuver of converging of highly distributed forces at a single point to leverage the military principle of mass. That is, you don’t need to have more powerful forces than your opponent, you just need more powerful forces than they have at the point of conflict. For example, the anarchist “Black Block” in Seattle consisted of a relatively small number of individuals prepared to use violence amongst a sea of peaceful protesters. From this highly dispersed position, using their superior communications capability (in the form of text-messaging), they were able to quickly converge on a single place, overwhelm the localized police presence with brief but intensely violent protest, and then disburse and blend back into the crowds before the police could reallocate forces. They repeated this pulsing nature of swarming forces over and over again, and the police were never able to adapt.

Alexander and the Scythians at Eschate: Defeating Swarming

While fighting to gain control of the province of Bactria, Alexander the Great was confronted by the swarming tactics of Scythian horse-archers. His primary unit—the Macedonian Phalanx—could not cope with the mobile, pulsing, ranged attacks of these units, which would swarm around his fixed formations like wasps, darting in, firing arrows from a standoff range and quickly retreating. Alexander pioneered what remains today the US Army’s counter-swarm (though normally labeled counter-guerrilla) tactic: Find, Fix and Defeat. Initially Alexander used fixed geographical obstacles to corner, or Fix, the Scythian cavalry. But at the battle of Eschate, with characteristic tactical genius, Alexander adapted to the lack of terrain by using a formation of his own forces as an artificial terrain against which to Fix and Defeat the Scythian swarm (see tactical graphic below):




Principles of Swarming and Counter-Swarming

Swarming depends on a few very simple principles: achieve them, and it will succeed, but deny these principles to a swarming force and it will be defeated:

1. Elusiveness, in the form of mobility or concealment
2. Standoff Firepower, relative to the opposing force
3. Situational awareness of the local environment, relative to the opposing force

No swarming force has even been defeated if it has achieved these three principles. In several instances, swarming has succeeded even without one or more of these principles. However, swarm tacticians should aim to ensure all three principles, while those hoping to defeat a swarming force must be concerned if they cannot deny all three.

NYC Police Obviously Learned from Alexander

Anarchists, among other protesters, had great hopes that the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York would be another repeat of their success in Seattle. Their efforts largely failed, as they were unable to secure any of the three principles of swarming. In particular, the NYC police were able to deny the protesters their principle strength of elusiveness/mobility. Borrowing directly from the playbook of Alexander the Great, police rolled out mobile plastic-mesh fences to quickly create artificial terrain obstacles, trapping large groups of more violent protesters before they could blend away into the city masses. Anarchists and other protesters, for their part, facilitated this successful tactic by advertising the locations of their actions well in advance (by reacting to convention events they forfeited the initiative), eliminating the need for police to Find them, and facilitating the staging of the forces required to Fix and Defeat.

The Potential Synergy of Swarming and Rhizome

Swarming is not a perfect tactic: It can win battles, and it can be defeated. However swarming forces are currently enjoying great success in confrontation with the traditionally hierarchal US military in Iraq. Iraqi insurgents have clearly achieved the three key principles of swarming—if the US military cannot deny at least one of these principles, they appear to have no chance of gaining the upper hand:

1. Elusiveness through Concealment & Mobility: Insurgents are in their native environment. They can blend in at will and have a robust support infrastructure.
2. Standoff Firepower: Sniping, rocket propelled grenades, roadside bombs and truck bombs, combined with suicide tactics represent a clear edge in standoff firepower over US forces.
3. Situational Awareness: Again, the insurgents are fighting in their backyard, and clearly have the advantage in situational awareness.

Training videos from al-Qa’ida and a new push to prepare for asymmetrical warfare by Iran are also revealing interesting developments in swarm warfare. Both groups are preparing to use small, highly-mobile (usually via motorbike), independent squads or pairs of soldiers armed with standoff weaponry (MANPADS, long-range rifles, RPGs, etc.) to confront larger, hierarchal militaries. This is, in effect, the creation of a network, a rhizome military. Rhizome has the potential to be a very effective military force, provided that it does not ignore the three principles outlined above.

A rhizomatic, swarming method of defense is probably the most practical, effective means of defense for the postulated rhizome civilization of Netopia. It provides a means to defend a rhizome network against the tendency of external hierarchies to intensify and expand. And, most importantly, it provides a means to do this without adopting a hierarchal form (see “The Problem of Physical Power” and the tendency for rhizome to become a hierarchy itself in its defense against hierarchy in A Theory of Power).

Open Source Warfare and Communication in Swarming

The success of a rhizome swarm depends in large part on its ability to communicate and affect the “pulse” of swarm operations coherently. Hierarchal forces that utilize swarm tactics (i.e. most historical examples) utilize hierarchal command and control to decide and communicate when and where to swarm, to mass forces. However, dependence on such hierarchal methods presents a great risk to any rhizomatic structure: the potential to involuntarily transition to hierarchy. Even the clearly rhizomatic Black Block in Seattle relied upon the hierarchy of cellular phone networks to affect their rhizome command and control. Word of mouth networking and other rhizome means of communication are effective, but potentially too slow and exposed for use in swarm warfare. The dependence on existing hierarchal communications systems is, at present, the Achilles ’ heel of any rhizome swarm—I know from personal experience just how easy it is for hierarchal militaries to deny such communications networks at will. In fact, it may not be an exaggeration to state that the future potential of rhizome militaries will rest on the need to identify and utilize a non-hierarchal communications vehicle… However, this need also represents an opportunity: due to the nature of swarm warfare, it is an ideal candidate for using a completely open communications network. It doesn’t matter if a hierarchal force intercepts the communications that result in the pulse of a swarming opponent—they will neither be able to process the rhizomatic nature of the information (i.e. flash mobs), nor will they be able to react fast enough to counter the pulse before it has disbursed.

This is the future of warfare: rhizome, swarm and open source.

16 comments:

Jeff Vail said...

Interesting news bite related to this story: On New Year's Eve, a critical mass bike ride was held in NYC without incident or arrest. This comes after recent efforts (especially during the RNC) by NYPD to shut down the critical mass rides with mass arrests.

Critical Mass bike rides are an excellent example of swarming, but, like the RNC protests, have recently been so publicized that they haven't met Principle #1: elusiveness. This latest success, however, capitalized on the confusion and distractions of New Years Eve (namely Time's Square events), ensuring that the ride would meet the principle of elusiveness, in the form of both mobility and concealment. This is an example of successful swarming: one that swarms both geographically and temporally...

weev said...

I found this post paticularly astute and inspired.

Good enough to convince me to buy your book.

Don't stop blogging.

Anonymous said...

There are several fallacies at work here because they misunderstand both the nature of the Black Bloc and the difference between military and police actions. I find comparisons between the Iraq insugency and the Black Bloc to be not only misplaced, but harmful when it comes to a proper understanding of either.

First off, the Black Bloc is hardly a movement (because it isn't really an organization) given to comparable strategies. The Black Bloc do not come to demonstrations to achieve strategic objectives in order to hold territory or seize assets. They don't have any "firepower" at all. The Black Bloc movement exists to challenge the legitimacy of state authorities seking to control the course of a demonstration, and to toss some directed vandalism into the mix. These tactics came of age in anti-Klan demonstrations in the 1990s, which is also where police pioneered things like "free speech zones." In fact, they wear what they wear to convey that challenge and cannot really be compared to insurgents for that reason, among others.

The police, for their part, cannot react without undermining common civil values (and, in fact, the Blac Bloc is a bit of situationist theatre about how the police supposedly *don't* care about them, and will use the opportunity they present to "let their hair down"), so even when the Black Bloc is somehow constrainted from going anywhere, they still achieve something (this is something that is applicable to Iraq, granted).

Basically, applying a military metaphor to a group with no desire to win through proactive violence against persons is kind of wrongheaded. I'm sure it plays well, though; people are fond of looking at the Bloc as a subset of those spooky, generic agitators who somehow include al Qeada. It simply has no basis in the reality of the Black Bloc itself, and seems more informed by hype than reliable informants. I'd also say that it conforms to a pretty hoary myth about politics: that war is the esential model of political discourse, thanks to Von Clauswitz and Sun Tzu's dead hands. This dovetails into the now-popular use of the word "violence" to include everything from breaking a window to letting loose with a bomb -- a muddying of the waters that also plays well in certain circles, I hear.

Amazingly, sometimes folks who aren't bombing and killing people are not much like those who are, even if authority figures don't like either of 'em. Go figure.

Malcolm Sheppard (dharma_bomb @ hotmail.com)

Anonymous said...

I agree with the above poster: calling black bloc a military tactic and framing the whole conflict in military terms is perhaps missing the point, though i guess it can function similarly.

And, unfortunately, it may be a matter of safety, as the police/FBI/Secret Service, etc. may be viewing it in military terms.

Agent provocateurs sparking things up among the crowd and acting against police also complicate things.

Other differences:
Tactically, organizers in the northwest come out of a tradition of tree sits and anti-logging lockdowns; new yorkers are more media/message-oriented.

Nothing substantial is decided at the RNC (unlike a WTO ministerial) so there wasn't as great a strategic value to stopping the convention, although the media event was disrupted several times.

Also, the main march of 200k-500k people wasn't allowed during the convention, but took place the sunday before; again, the incentive for disruption was limited.

Jeff Vail said...

My thoughts on Malcolm Sheppard's comment above:

Malcolm stated that "The Black Bloc do not come to demonstrations to achieve strategic objectives". However, he then stated that "The Black Bloc movement exists to challenge the legitimacy of state". I would say that the Black Block doesn't do a very good job working towards strategic objectives (in fact, I'm writing right now about how much of anarchist/ELF action serves primarily to fulfill individual psychological needs), but they certainly do have--at least superficially--strategic objectives that they hope to achieve through protest. All human action pursues some form of objective--even if subconscious. As Malcolm's phrase of "directed vandalism" suggests, he realizes that the Block's actions are directed--I am guessing that he does not like the connotations of my comparison to insurgencies (although I maintain that these two are clearly linked by a swarming methodology). The "military metaphor" of swarming is no more military than it is social: it is merely an observation of a pattern of power that emerges in a variety of environments.

Despite Malcolm's objections, the Black Block most certainly does employ their own version of "Firepower". Aside from the more literal equivalents of rocks, ball bearings and Molotov cocktails (which provide 'standoff' capability against police batons & shields), their longest-range "standoff firepower" is the imagery and media coverage of their actions.

Malcolm also states that "It [applying a military metaphor to the Black Block] simply has no basis in the reality of the Black Bloc itself, and seems more informed by hype than reliable informants." If Malcolm thinks that he has a better understanding of the "reality of the Black Block", despite failing to recognize any straegic objective to its actions, or its equivalent of "firepower", I would question his comprehension of the phenomenon. The vast majority of Alexander's foot soldiers at Eschate had no understanding of Alexander's greater motives, nor of his use of swarming tactics...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your reply. I'll take it in steps:

"I would say that the Black Block doesn't do a very good job working towards strategic objectives (in fact, I'm writing right now about how much of anarchist/ELF action serves primarily to fulfill individual psychological needs), but they certainly do have--at least superficially--strategic objectives that they hope to achieve through protest."

People do pretty much everything for psychological reasons. Certainly, you can't have an ideological interest without a psychological commitment. This isn't really a barrier to getting things done, though, except insofar as there may be a behaviour code that prevents adherents from relying on dominant strategies. But the objectives of one side are not always clear to the other. I'm reminded here of Robert McNamara's comments in _The Fog of War_ where he admits he misunderstood what the Vietnamese actually wanted out of the conflict -- that the Vietnamese insurgency did not act like stereotypical Communist clients because they acted on a traditional patriotic ideology, to boot.

The Black Bloc does not constitute real swarming, in my view, because they are aware of and reject aspects of it for ideological reasons. More in a bit.

"All human action pursues some form of objective--even if subconscious. As Malcolm's phrase of "directed vandalism" suggests, he realizes that the Block's actions are directed--I am guessing that he does not like the connotations of my comparison to insurgencies (although I maintain that these two are clearly linked by a swarming methodology). The "military metaphor" of swarming is no more military than it is social: it is merely an observation of a pattern of power that emerges in a variety of environments."

The question, then is whether such broad characterizations are actually useful. The litmus test might be: Can we apply this absurdly without making more leasp than the comparison above? Modern door to door comission salespeople come to mind, since they rely on diffuse but networked tactics to achive a goal. Or spammers, if we allow a virtual application of the idea.

The trouble is that once the metaphor gets big enough, it loses specific, case-based utility. This is one of the problems with contemporary policing. The military metaphor has certainly worked to create more adversarial relationships with the protest culture as a whole, including poor differentiation between actors in that culture.This was really a problem that arose after the Rodney King riots that manifested in Seattle (because Black Bloc-style activism existed long before Seattle) and mnifested in 1999 with police offensives against traditionally law-abiding members of the protest culture, like unions.

As you can see then, choice of metaphor is both important and loaded. It can affect our understanding of things in ways that reduce the utility of outcomes.

"Despite Malcolm's objections, the Black Block most certainly does employ their own version of "Firepower". Aside from the more literal equivalents of rocks, ball bearings and Molotov cocktails (which provide 'standoff' capability against police batons & shields), their longest-range "standoff firepower" is the imagery and media coverage of their actions."

That doesn't really jibe with actual Black Bloc practice, though, which categorically rejects media appeal as a matter of course. Given what you said earlier, you might be thinking, "They're trying t do it but do it badly." I'm saying that they really aren't trying to do it at all.

"Malcolm also states that "It [applying a military metaphor to the Black Block] simply has no basis in the reality of the Black Bloc itself, and seems more informed by hype than reliable informants." If Malcolm thinks that he has a better understanding of the "reality of the Black Block", despite failing to recognize any straegic objective to its actions, or its equivalent of "firepower", I would question his comprehension of the phenomenon. The vast majority of Alexander's foot soldiers at Eschate had no understanding of Alexander's greater motives, nor of his use of swarming tactics..."

I'm saying that the military metaphor is to broad -- and when I say "informants," I mean actual people who participate in these kinds of actions. I suppose it's lowbrow to suggest that people trying t kill other people and sieze land aren't realy doing the same things as people who aren't, but there you have it.

I say this because, though there's a certain appeal in applying a subtext where the Black Bloc Knows Not What They Do because of their individual psychological needs, the fact is that they *also* read history and draw these parallels. But in my experience, they make a conscious decision not to follow that path.

Compare and contrast with radical groups that have, like some of the radical groups in the 1970s and 1980s. That's where you get things very close to what we see in the Iraqi insurgency, from elements of target selection (Iraqi insurgents use native social networks to get "loyalists" out of the way; the Weather Underground issued warnings) to operations (armory and police station raids/armored car robberies) to acquire resources.

Certainly the Black Bloc movement has coherent objectives, but these aren't really as crude as seizing territory as an end in of itself, and don't have much to do with mass media (which most anarchists see as a writeoff anyway). It has to do with forcing what they see as the state's position to erupt from its subtext and demonstrate its flaws forcefully, primarily for the benefit of people who are physically there. It's more theatrical than military. Getting the police to act as a paramilitary actor, though, certainly doesn't hurt them.

Certainly interesting, no matter where you go with it.

Regards,

M. S.

reddest said...

I just want to point out one concrete thing that a black bloc does often achieve: un-arresting. I have taken part in black blocs where protesters outside the bloc have been thrown down and arrested, only to be set free and moved to safety when the bloc swarms the arresting officers.

Jeff Vail said...

Malcolm,

You make several good points, especially about the theatrical aspects (and value) of such protest actions. As you said, all action is based on psychological motivation--however, I'm concerned that some action in the protest community (although I think the specific groups we're talking about don't fall into this as much) takes place to meet participants internal need for rebellion and identity more than for their internal desire to see the ostensible goals of their movements fulfilled...

Anonymous said...

Is there a meaningful difference between the two, though?

-A Nonymous.

Anonymous said...

Thank-you Jeff for the clear explanation, in historical context, of the swarming technique and countermeasure. Any potential black blockers out there should know they will be met with overwhelming force to insure the protection of property and their arrest.

Anonymous said...

At one time, I believe a website named globalsecurity.org or com had a very lengthy and excellent article which was headed, "CIA Coup D'etat machine. It integrated RAND studies into it, and postulated that the CIA, through intermediaries, cutouts, fronts, had developed a template that had been applied to coup d'etats in the Ukraine, Belurusse, George, one of the "stans," Macedonia, and, as far as I could tell, Lebanon's "Cedar Revolution," and the coup that was tried for a second time in the Ukraine. It seems to me that such coups were delivered at the hands of the "CIA coup machine" against Russia when Putin refused to support Bush's plan to go to war against Iran.
The prickliness which has occurred between Bush and Putin of late, appears to be in response to these coups around the periphery of Russia. And, as far as I could discern, the break came when Putin's soul was no longer discernible when Bush looked into it!!
Do you know what happened to that website and the information which was posted there? I fed that to my son, who had been in several major anti-war demonstrations in Washington, D.C. and New York City.
He indicated that the police in both cities confiscated cell phones, which were used to text messages to other demonstrators, of where a "swarm" would move next. He also indicated that people with video cameras had the memories taken from them (same for still cameras), which seemed to be a counter swarming tactic designed to minimize instanteous messaging and video capture of police actions which were illegal, or at least embarrassing, as we witnessed in LA several weeks ago.
I know that Newsweek magazine, this week, with Clintons on the front, has an article which states that in Estonia, Putin apparently has put his security services to work, mimicing the techniques used against Russian interests in these Baltic states, and in other former Soviet bloc states. Putin's response, if Newsweek is correct, has been to establish a cadre of youth "troops" who are trained to instigate civil and/or political unrest.
It also appears that there is a coup d'etat attempt underway right now, in Venezuela, which had seen an earlier such attempt by CIA coup organizers.
Make no mistake: these CIA coup d'etat "corps" would have been trained by front organizations. There may be many demonstrators who are unwitting agents in these exercises.
I am curious what counter-tactics have been developed to maintain swarming actions of a political nature when the government is actively energizing it's own anti-swarming tactics. I guess that would be counter-counter swarming.
I realize this may not be a direct application of your own theories, but was curious, when I went on line, to attempt to find this material, my various Googles came up empty.

Anonymous said...

As with all things, knowledge will assist in your survival. The powers know this stuff, they're practicing it regularly. They're trying to find ways to defeat it and use it.

If one doesn't keep up, they will eventually take advantage of their superiority.

To add my bit, cell-phones are a dangerous means of communication. The providers have done everything they can to allow the powers remote access to the devices, and they're thoroughly logged.

Learn more about steganography.

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Anonymous said...

HI there, good article and good debate with Malcom.

I personally don't think what happens in Iraq is swarming although some of them guerrilla tactics would include some degree or form of it.

Totally agree with MAlcom that using such metaphors might serve another agenda as when opposition and dissent are considered domestic terrorisms, the idea is planted and the consequences are, well we know...

Also I do not totally agree with the elusiveness principle, I would change it for #the surprise factor, (before hand) because if the swarming is succesfull, no need to be elusive (afterwards)this is also the case of the other comment of swarming of black bloc avoiding arrests, pigs, ooops sorry, police are swarmed and they let go of the arrested and retreat, and only after that the black bloc mixes again or disapears but not as a principle for the swarming, the principle would be their unpredictability.

My 2cents.