Highlighting contingency lies at the center of red teaming theory and practice. Differing forms of red teaming ranging from a classic tactical red cell penetration exercise to alternative geosocial futures emphasize not only flaws in assumptions but possible tactical, operational, and strategic alternatives that arise from the fundamental nonlinearity of conflict. It is important to emphasize that this nonlinearity is not necessarily a new problem: Clausewitz addressed it (although in language limited by the science of his time) nearly two hundred years ago. Despite a popular bias towards ideas such as the concept of the “right side of history,” academic historians have also long been aware of the less than orderly movement of human events.
To use a rather simplistic definition, contingency means that supposedly ironclad events and trends could have easily gone the other way. While this is common to most human endeavors, war is a highly contingent type of activity because of the complexity produced by human struggle. Alan Beyerchen quotes Clausewitz as noting this:
“The essential difference is that war is not an exercise of the will directed at inanimate matter, as is the case with the mechanical arts, or at matter which is animate but passive and yielding, as is the case with the human mind and emotions in the fine arts. In war, the will is directed at an animate object that reacts. …The second attribute of military action is that it must expect positive reactions, and the process of interaction that results. Here we are not concerned with the problem of calculating such reactions—that is really part of the already mentioned problem of calculating psychological forces—but rather with the fact that the very nature of interaction is bound to make it unpredictable.”
The importance of such an understanding is often seen in the somewhat controversial practice of historical counterfactuals. Good and realistic counterfactuals (as opposed to more fanciful, “What if Lee had automatic weapons/ninjas/Harriers at Gettysburg” type popular counterfactuals) identify the essential political and military factors in a given engagement or campaign and look at how they might have been plausibly altered, the effect on the overall situation, and the probability such an turnaround could have happened at the time. Often such analysis raises uncomfortable questions for those committed to pat understandings of strategic outcomes.
One popular example is the May 1940 German campaign in France. Military historians such as Robert Doughty, Williamson Murray, and Karl Freiser have all emphasized how it could have gone differently. The original plan, which emphasized more of a re-run of the Schlieffen operational concept, would probably been vastly less successful in adopted. Fitting a common German pattern, the operational campaign was the result of “strategic desperation” arising from the often opportunistic policy and strategic designs devised at the higher level. Finally, on the tactical level there were numerous points at which the German advance could have been stymied–the tenacious resistance that ensued during the crossing of the Meuse River by the German XIXth Corps and the vulnerability of the Sedan bridgehead being cases in point.
This is not solely an issue that applies to conventional military operations–it is also relevant to internal political struggles as well. Revolutions are perhaps some of the most contingent events because they depend so much on public demonstration of power and feasibility. When people perceive regime weaknesses, momentum increases as people not normally inclined to protest join the caravan. Outcomes also depend on calculations made by political-military elites within the regime structure as to their own stake in future outcomes as El Presidente calls for the rabble protesting outside the palace to be introduced to T-72 tank treads.
Of course, sometimes counterfactuals tend to reveal fundamental inevitabilities set by strategic decisions. The Soviet Union absorbed the destruction of armies and industry in 1941 and effectively regenerated its forces while preserving its military capacity beyond the Urals. If the Germans had succeeded in taking Moscow it is difficult to see how it could have led to a Soviet collapse. A similar analysis points to the fact that the German campaign in Northern Africa was an economy of force mission that was always secondary to the massive push East–if Erwin Rommel had been more successful it is similarly difficult to imagine how he could have sustained and expanded these gains. Such analysis, however, does not invalidate the role of contingency–it only points out that events are not completely chaotic–larger strategic factors do set the stage for operational and tactical events.
Red teaming recognizes contingencies and brings them to the forefront of analysis by questioning inevitability as embodied in underlying assumptions. The RAND Corporation’s Assumptions-Based Planning (ABP) model, for example, forces planners to unearth structural assumptions that may not be immediately apparent in strategic futures and the results if those assumptions fail. In this light, red teaming–fundamentally future-oriented and optimized for the commander or policymaker–shares many important similarities to the process of historical analysis. A red teamer examining the matchup between Libyan Army loyalists and rebels and a historian looking at the Falklands War will begin by delineating the important political and military factors of the engagement and think about how the interactions between respective actors could alter the outcome in ways not predicted by standard analysis.