War and Power Laws and Journalism
October 15th, 2005 by Tom Johnson

The concept of Power Law distributions
is attracting growing interest, especially among folks in the
Complexity and Complex Adaptive Systems communities.  For
journalists, some of the math involved is somewhat more complex than
the elementary descriptive statistics we deal with, but it's not that
tough to grasp the implications of research probing Power Laws as they
apply to various phenomena.

Here's a perspective on global warfare that might prompt some deep contemplation for journalists.

Original source:


technology, particularly in information based systems, advances can
occur almost overnight. This likely applies to warfare as it becomes
more information-based. As in technology, patterns and methods of
warfare tend to stay within bounded equilibria depending on the type of
war being fought. When an improvement arrives, the equilibrium point
changes and warfare undergoes a rapid shift.

One of the ways to measure a equilibrium point was first demonstrated
by Lewis Richardson over 50 years ago. He calculated that the
distribution of casualties in conventional wars follow a power law
distribution. Updates to his work show that this pattern of
distribution continues to hold.

In a new paper by Johnson, Spagat, and others called “From Old Wars to New Wars and Global Terrorism,” (
) — — the authors demonstrate that a new pattern of war is emerging. To do
this, they analyzed the frequency-intensity distributions of wars
(including terrorism) and examined their power law curves. They found
that conventional wars had a power law exponent of 1.8. An analysis of
terrorism since 1968 found that the exponents were 1.71 (for G7
countries) and 2.5 (for non-G7 countries). This makes sense,
conventional wars and G7 terrorism are both characterized by periods of
relative non-activity followed by high casualty events (highly
orchestrated battles). Non-G7 terrorism is a more decentralized and ad
hoc type of warfare characterized by numerous small engagements and
fewer large casualty events.


where the analysis gets interesting. When the author's examined the
data from Colombia and Iraq, they found that both wars evolved towards
the coefficient for non-G7 terrorism (although from different
directions). This finding doesn't fit the prevailing theories of
warfare. A conventional understanding of fourth generation warfare
, such the one posited by Thomas Hammes in the Sling and the Stone
posit that 4th generation warfare began in earnest with Mao. However, within
Mao's formulation

(and Ho Chi Minh's variant), guerrilla wars are but a prelude to
conventional war to seize control of the state. The power law for these
wars should, based on this theory, tend towards the coefficient we see
for conventional wars. In fact, we see the opposite. Guerrilla wars in
both Colombia and Iraq have stabilized at a coefficient far from
conventional warfare.

This has broad implications for 4th
generation warfare theory — which clearly dominated the types of wars
we saw in the latter half of the twentieth century. The patterns of
conflict we see today in Colombia and Iraq are a break from the
previous framework (which may be an example of punctuated equilibrium).
Unlike the previous models of guerrilla wars which sought to replace
the state, these new wars have moved to a level of decentralization
that makes them both unable to replace the state and extremely hard to
eliminate. Is this new evolutionary equilibrium a fifth generation of
warfare? It is extremely likely. This new form of warfare, or what I
call open source warfare, is what this site (and my book) is dedicated
to understanding.”

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