Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Past writings about swarming and the future of conflict (plus a closing comment about the bombing in Boston)

To my knowledge, John Arquilla and I were the first to identify swarming as an emerging mode of information-age conflict, in the late 1990s. Yet, while our work is well known in some circles, it has spread slowly (even unclearly) into other circles. Several times a year I’m contacted by someone, usually in the military, who has just come across one of our past writings about swarming and wants to know more. Or else I learn about someone, usually a social activist or academic scholar, who says something about swarming in a blog post or an article, and I want to make sure that he or she knows about our past work.

Part of my response is to send a list of bibliographic references. And I usually have to go digging around to find and list them once again, often tailoring the list to whether the interest is mainly in military or social swarming. This has happened enough times now that I might as well put it all mostly in one spot — this blog post — so that I can easily mention just one URL in a short email or blog comment, rather than lots in a long one.

List of past writings

So, for the sake of easing future reference, here’s a list of our key writings. All the RAND writings are available as free .pdf downloads at RAND’s website, though Amazon may offer them as well.

Our fullest statement is Swarming and the Future of Conflict (2000), available at
We expanded, especially on non-military swarming, in our volume on Networks & Netwars: The Future of Crime, Terror, and Militancy (2001), esp. in the last chapter, available at
The best short military-oriented article we did was “Swarming — The Next Face of Battle,” in Aviation Week & Space Technology (September 29, 2003), available at
Before that, our first writing to make barely passing reference to swarming, without yet realizing its potency as a concept, was The Zapatista “Social Netwar” in Mexico (1998), available at
The first time we deliberately wrote a section about swarming, after coming up with the term/concept, was in “Preparing for information-age conflict: Part 2 doctrinal and strategic dimensions,” in the journal Information, Communication & Society (1998), available at
RAND colleague Sean Edwards did two parallel historical reports on military aspects when he was at RAND as a student. His first, for one of John’s and my projects, was Swarming on the Battlefield: Past, Present, and Future (2000), available at
Sean later published his RAND Ph.D. dissertation on Swarming and the Future of Warfare (2005), available at
[UPDATE — September 26, 2013: As an analyst with the U.S. military, Sean has done several briefings about swarming. An early one (2003) is located here, in Section C, pp. 1-11, in a large conference proceedings that also contains other interesting takes on swarming: ]
Since our RAND work, John elaborated more in his book Worst Enemy: The Reluctant Transformation of the American Military (2008), available at
John also wrote, among other items, an op-ed on “The Coming Swarm” in the New York Times (February 15, 2009), and an article on “The New Rules of War” in Foreign Policy (March / April 2010), available respectively at
More recently, John’s posts for his column “Rational Security” at Foreign Policy deal with swarming occasionally, available via
[UPDATE: An especially notable column is on “Killer Swarms” (November 2012), available via ]
[UPDATE: John has published a new article about network-building that also makes points about swarming, past and present. The article — “To build a network,” PRISM, vol. 5, no. 1, 2014, pp. 23-33 — can be downloaded here.]

[UPDATE: John’s short piece titled “Countering and Exploiting Swarms” (April 2015?) at a U.S. Navy website about innovation offers some additional new observations.]

Since retiring, I have occasionally briefly discussed swarming and provided pointers (mostly just to writings listed above) somewhere in posts at my blog and in scattered comments at other receptive blogs when I spot relevant posts, e.g.,
That’s what I have for a basic list of our writings. But, long as I’m doing this post, I might as well include a few more points.

Additional background about our concept of swarming

Our key definition of swarming — the excerpt most quoted and cited by others — continues to stand the test of time:
“Swarming is a seemingly amorphous, but deliberately structured, co-ordinated, strategic way to strike from all directions at a particular point or points, by means of a sustainable pulsing of force and/or fire, close-in as well as from stand-off positions. This notion of “force and/or fire” may be literal in the case of military or police operations, but metaphorical in the case of NGO activists, who may, for example, be blocking city intersections or emitting volleys of emails and faxes. Swarming will work best — perhaps it will only work — if it is designed mainly around the deployment of myriad, small, dispersed, networked maneuver units. Swarming occurs when the dispersed units of a network of small (and perhaps some large) forces converge on a target from multiple directions. The overall aim is sustainable pulsing — swarm networks must be able to coalesce rapidly and stealthily on a target, then dissever and redisperse, immediately ready to re-combine for a new pulse.” (2000, p. 12)
Our concept arose entirely from wondering how networked actors would form up and fight in the information-age. In a view we have elaborated before, the history of military and, to a lesser extent, social conflict is largely a history of the progressive development of four basic forms of engagement: the melee, massing, maneuver, and swarming. Briefly, conflict has evolved from chaotic melees in which every man fought on his own, to the design of massed but often rigidly-shaped formations, and then to the adoption of maneuver. Swarming has appeared at times in this history, but its major advances as a doctrine will occur in the coming decades. What our past write-ups do not show, except in a passing footnote, is that this formulation derives from a view of social evolution — a theory I term TIMN — which holds that, across the ages, societies have come up with only four major forms of organization: tribes, hierarchical institutions, markets, and networks. Thus, early tribes are associated with melees, hierarchical institutions with the rise of massed formations, market-oriented societies with the turn to maneuver doctrines, and now the new age of networks with swarming.

Two rival views of swarming remain deficient in our view: One emerged around observations about “swarm intelligence” in nature (e.g., birds, bees, ants, fish, as in Eric Bonabeau's early writings). It’s interesting, but it is more about decentralized flocking without any central command and control, rather than coordinated swarming as we understand it. Another view has grown around the notion of “network-centric warfare” (not to be confused with our notion of netwar). This view has moved swarming in a high-tech command-and-control direction having mainly to do with UAVs/drones, leading to lots of corporate interest. Drones are important, but we'd rather see advances at the soldiers’ operational and tactical levels. In any case, these two other schools of thought about swarming keep evolving in our direction.

Most interested parties have viewed swarming as (and often only as) tactics. But I continue to think that something much more than tactics is emerging.

A few personal points and pointers

Because I’m retired and for other reasons, I refrain from commenting on military swarming. I leave that to John, since he remains actively concerned with it and its potentials. But I’m still interested in it. My main interest is in non-military swarming by civil- and uncivil-society actors — for example, as it arose at times in the context of Occupy! movements here in the United States, and in police responses to them.

This post is about John’s and my writings, but whoever is interested in swarming should also search around for others’ writings. By now, I see, my holdings on the topic have grown quite large and diverse. This is not the place to list them extensively, but I would point to two sites that have carried lots of posts about swarming, including our work: from a social activist perspective, the blog and other pages at The P2P Foundation (; and from a policing perspective, the blog at Law Enforcement and Security Consulting ( [UPDATE — January 7, 2015: And from a military perspective, keep an eye on the War on the Rocks blog (]

In addition, new books on swarming have started to appear. I’m particularly curious to see two forthcoming books: Richard Falkvinge’s Swarmwise — The Tactical Manual to Changing the World (in 2013), and Marcia Stepanek’s Swarms: The Rise of the Digital Anti-Establishment (in 2013). Judging from their preliminary blog posts, neither recognizes our work. But both will surely serve to expand attention to all variants of the swarming concept.
[UPDATE — February 16, 2014:  Falkvinge's book is available online here, and some review comments are here.]
[UPDATE — October 30, 2014: The new book by Molly Sauter, The Coming Swarm: DDOS Actions, Hacktivism, and Civil Disobedience on the Internet (2014) relates to swarming and looks expertly written. But from what I can see so far, the term appears only in the title. See discussion here.]
[UPDATE — January 7, 2015: While I’ve refrained from listing military resources in this post, a must-mention now is Paul Scharre’s Robotics on the Battlefield Part II: The Coming Swarm (2014), available for download at CNAS here.]

Closing comment: apropos Boston

The two-man bombing attack in Boston, by itself, was not a case of swarming. It might be considered such only if it can be viewed as a step in a vast slow-motion global strategy by militant jihadists. (See Arquilla’s remarks about al-Suri here.)

However, the quick response to the bombing embodied two kinds of swarming: One was the multi-agency police response — indeed, swarming has long been a standard response mode for police, particularly in their deployment patterns. The other is a new kind of cyber-swarming (others would call it smart-mobbing or crowd-sourcing, using “big data”) whereby photographic data was collected from myriad sources and then processed and distributed in ways the led to the identification of the perpetrators. All quite impressive and yet to be fully reported and assessed. I just hope that aspects of such a response do not end up meaning America is headed for a kind of future cyberocracy that will be far less democratic than I’d like to see, as occasionally discussed elsewhere at this blog.


Clay Spinuzzi said...

Great resource. I just had my seniors read your Zapatista book in preparation for their final project examining networked organizations. We're focusing on the argumentation aspect, which is described so well in that book, and comparing your insights from 15 years ago with large and small current examples. It's been very instructive!

David Ronfeldt said...

many thanks, clay. good to hear.

polizeros said...

I heard you and Arquilla discuss Networks and Netwars quite a few years ago at the Midnight Special bookstore. Didn't quite understand what you were saying then, you were way ahead of the curve.

Boston was unusual in that everyone, law enforcement and citizens, worked together towards a common goal. It was so successful we really should try this approach again sometime soon.

David Ronfeldt said...

many thanks, polizeros. and i’m delighted to be reminded of the midnight special bookstore in santa monica. a great place, sadly gone now.

a quick story about it: i first went there with a visiting scholar who was also at rand at the time, in the mid 80s. on the walk there, he chided me, deservedly, for not already knowing about the bookstore. once there, it was immediately evident that it was indeed a great bookstore, full of classic and contemporary writings (and this was before it was expanded and remodeled). it was also evident that it was decidedly left-wing, with activist posters and marxist writings on display. on the way out, i noticed two guys exiting a few paces in front who were clearly american workers, with tools dangling from their belts, maybe from nearby construction jobs. they too must have just visited the store for the first time, with a very different kind of consciousness, for one remarked to the other, “can you believe it? they don’t have any books about trucks!”

i still chuckle at that. and i almost told the story in my intro remarks at our talk at the midnight special. but i shied away from doing so, concerned that the store staff might not chuckle as well. at least i get to tell the story decades later to someone who was there.