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Reciprocity and Degenerate Strategies

Reciprocity and Degenerate Strategies

Defenders should always be aware of the possibility of the degenerate strategy, defined in gaming terms by Salen and Zimmerman as “a way of playing a game that ensures victory every time.” (Salen and Zimmerman, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, 2004, p. 241.) As a defender, there’s nothing you can do against a degenerate strategy; as long as the current game persists, the attacker will win regardless of what you do. It’s your red team’s job to find degenerate strategies (if they exist) and it’s your job as the defender to change the game (so they don’t).       

Degenerate strategies short-circuit or at least delay the reciprocity of conflict and competition. They also tend to be revolutionary rather than evolutionary. While they usually have a life span, they're typically not subject to the relatively brisk tit-for-tat iteration of workaday strategies.       

A great example of a degenerate strategy shop is Lockheed’s Skunk Works, documented in Ben Rich’s excellent account, Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed. (1998.) Rich narrates the history of the U-2, the SR-71, and the F-117 stealth fighter. Throughout, he emphasizes how each jet’s revolutionary design negated the adversaries’ defenses—excellent examples of degenerate strategies in the wild.       

A good degenerate strategy takes time to counter, and few if any strategies are degenerate forever. Rich notes, for example, how the U-2 sparked an immediate Soviet counter effort to bring down the high-flying airplane. It took a few years, but as Francis Gary Powers could attest, the U-2 eventually lost its invincibility.

How do you know when you’re facing a degenerate strategy? An obvious clue is that you can’t think of a method of countering a strategy your red team identifies. Another clue is the lack of immediate reciprocity. What if your adversary could somehow read your red team report? Would it change their attack preferences? If not, there’s a good chance they have a degenerate strategy. Finally, if your adversary can say “I will attack you there and then” and you’re helpless to do anything about it, then you most certainly are facing a degenerate strategy.       

What should you do (or not do) when faced with a degenerate strategy? If you think you’ve identified the strategy before your adversary, don’t rely on security through obscurity. If your adversary does know about the strategy, you’re in real trouble. If they don’t know about it, they might soon, so get to work immediately on designing a counter or changing the game so the strategy becomes meaningless.       

Degenerate strategies aren’t limited to attackers; they’re available to defenders as well. When reviewing a red team report, look for defensive counters that negate whole classes of possible attacks. In Skunk Works, for example, Rich mentions how Soviet look-down, shoot-down defenses potentially negated or significantly diminished the effectiveness of low-flying penetrating attacks on Soviet airspace. (Just as stealth significantly diminished the effectiveness of the massive Soviet investment in air defense.)       

Red teams can help you find your adversaries’ potential degenerate strategies, possibly (or rather, hopefully) before your adversaries themselves find them. Knowing them, you can work to counter them. Often, the best way to do this is to change the game entirely by discovering and applying your own degenerate strategy. Rich provides a great example: the introduction of stealth changed the game of air warfare forever, forcing defenders and attackers alike to rethink how they approached the game. That said, don't expect your red team to discover stealth, but do expect them to be aware of the concept of degenerate strategies and employ it wisely in their planning and execution.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

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