Small Wars, Big Data: The Information Revolution in Modern Conflict

Eli Berman, Joseph H. Felter and Jacob N. Shapiro, Small Wars, Big Data: The Information Revolution in Modern Conflict. (Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2018)

Reviewed by Charles Davies


The study of Twenty-First Century asymmetric conflict has recently been given a significant boost by the work of three academics and their network of colleagues.  Eli Berman of the University of California, San Diego, Joseph Felter of Stanford, and Jacob Shapiro of Princeton are the authors of the ground breaking book Small Wars, Big Data: The Information Revolution in Modern Conflict, recently published by Princeton University Press.  They quite rightly caution that their research is still in relatively early days, and is ongoing.  Like any area of academic inquiry, others need to review and replicate their work and extend the collective knowledge and understanding of the dynamics at play.  That said, practitioners who have read the book believe that it provides important insights that will materially impact how many missions are conducted in the future.  It contains some necessary discussion of scientific method, but is written in language that keeps it accessible to the average reader.


The authors make a convincing case for, and then build upon, two important fundamental truths.  First, know the war you’re in.  Conflicts span a spectrum between symmetric warfare, where protagonists (state or non-state) of roughly equal capacity fight mostly over territorial control; and asymmetric warfare, where one side has a heavy advantage over the other in materiel and other capacities.  Here the struggle is not over territory but over people, because people have that most precious of assets – information.  The stronger party in an asymmetric conflict cannot make effective use of its superior capacities without information on where and when to target them, while the weaker party needs to deny that information to its opponent or face significant damage and potential destruction.


This leads to the second truth: insurgency and counterinsurgency are information-centric operations.  While both sides to varying degrees can use technology to acquire some information, fundamentally the operational environment is the “hearts and minds” of the local population, and in particular their motivation to either share or withhold critical information.  This is the arena of asymmetric warfare, the central focus of the book.


Small Wars, Big Data comprehensively explores this operational environment in a new way, exploiting the researchers’ unprecedented access to large volumes of precise data covering extended periods of asymmetric conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, the Philippines, and several other countries.  How they obtained this data access is a story itself, but it is their application of advanced computational and analytical tools to mine the data and reveal the mechanisms of information-centric operations that yields the real value in the book.  The authors also connect the macro and micro perspectives of these mechanisms by illustrating in a series of powerful vignettes how the scientific results of the data analysis align with the very personal dilemmas and anxieties of non-combatants caught in the middle of conflict.


The book goes on to examine how the traditional primary responses to insurgency – development assistance and suppression – and other elements such as economic conditions, introduction of governance improvements, and the impact of insurgent violence can influence events.  Some findings are illuminating, for example that mixed security force teams combining highly trained special operations troops and lower quality local forces familiar with the community achieve measurably greater success, with lower casualties among both security forces and civilians, than more traditional force groupings; and that intelligence-led task forces are even more effective.  The sometimes decisive role of acts as simple as restoring or extending cell phone coverage also stands out.  Other findings align well with many practitioners’ intuitions, for example that small-scale local aid initiatives undertaken in collaboration with the community can be effective in winning popular support.  However, it will come as an unwelcome shock to many to learn that the data also shows that unless such aid is made conditional on continuing support from the community it can actually increase violence against it.  Also, the assumed value of local projects designed to employ young men as an alternative to their joining an insurgency is comprehensively discredited as being disconnected from the actual dynamics of insurgent human resources requirements and strategies.  These are only a few of many valuable insights provided.


A key theme that emerges from Small Wars, Big Data is that counterinsurgency operations require security forces that are structured with information flow between them and the communities they are operating in or around firmly in mind.  Further, partners such as aid organizations (governmental and, where possible, non-governmental), communications providers and others need to be integral parts of the solution.  In practical terms, this means that governments need to move past talking about “Whole-of-Government” responses to asymmetric conflict and make serious efforts to operationalize the concept and improve its execution.


Small Wars, Big Data is a relatively small book, at less than 400 pages including extensive notes, but it introduces a major new avenue of empirical research into a field that has traditionally lacked a lot of objective and consistent data that can be studied in depth or that will reliably yield replicable results.  The subjective insights of practitioners and academics from professional experience, judgement and study will undoubtedly continue to be important in developing a better understanding of how to fight and win in Twenty-First Century asymmetric conflicts, but the addition of “Big Data” and its associated analytical tools and methodologies brings an important new, more objective, dimension to the effort.  As an introductory study of what is developing into an expanding field of research, the book is a must-read for anyone interested in fields of international defence and security, international aid, or conflict management.


Postscript:  An intriguing possibility worthy of separate inquiry would be determining whether these counterinsurgency-based insights and methods also have relevance to domestic security responses to criminal gang violence.  This too is a form of information-centric conflict that plays out within populations.

*Background image courtesy of THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick


Colonel Charles Davies (Retired) is a Research Fellow with the CDA Institute

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