Mental Models - Part I - Rethinking the Peace-War Spectrum

(Photo credit: United States Studies Centre)

The term grey zone has been used over the last decade to describe multi-instrument statecraft operating below the threshold of war. Examples include Russian information campaigns combined with proxy force infiltration in Ukraine, and China’s strategic gradualism and use of multi-domain challenges, military coercion, economic inducement, information warfare and historical narratives in the South China Sea.

The term grey zone has riled many academics and security practitioners who point to similar conditions existing in the Cold War of the 20th Century as much as they did in the Peloponnesian Wars of the 5th Century BC. Acknowledging this is new term for an old condition, the grey zone debate does raise questions about whether our doctrinal peace-war spectrum is fit-for-purpose.

Figure 1: Peace War Spectrum, Australian Defence Doctrine Publication—Foundations of Australian Military Doctrine

The peace-war spectrum is the current framework used in Australian Defence Force doctrine. It is a polar framework with the level of violence differentiating the two ends. A variation of this appears as the peace-instability-war spectrum in Australian Army doctrine. These frameworks matter as they steer our thinking in a particular way. For example, the peace-war spectrum tends to bias our thinking to the dichotomies of peace and war, binary conditions of loss and victory, and gradual and linear escalation of violence.

Grey zone and hybrid warfare do not sit neatly within the linear peace-war spectrum, suggesting that this doctrine may be inhibiting our thinking rather than enabling it. It is also evident that other state and non-state actors have ignored this spectrum and, in doing so, have found ways to defeat or merely bypass our concepts and strategy by pursuing their goals aggressively, but not violently. General Joseph Dunford warned in 2018 that ‘our adversaries don’t abide by our doctrine, with its clear distinction between war and peace and its tidy phases of escalation’.

Mental models

Mental models and frameworks are used by military planners and commanders to help visualise our strategic outlook and operating environments. They provide a common reference for ‘how we see the world’. Common mental models include the peace-war spectrum and spectrums of conflict.

Mental models and frameworks are important as they provide a foundational perspective upon which concepts are proposed. In turn, these concepts help form theories of success in military strategy. For example, the grey zone framework provides the foundation for the concept of hybrid warfare, while in turn laying the foundation for a strategy of gradualism.

Concepts are tested through experimentation methods such as simulations, red-teaming and war-gaming, but we rarely test the mental models upon which these concepts are based (including the peace-war spectrum). While planners and strategists are not constrained to use specific mental models, they can be inescapable; ingrained in us through doctrine and training. Concepts and strategy risk irrelevance if they are founded on stale intellectual models that go unchallenged when context changes.

Mental models help our thinking for military planning, but conversely, they can inhibit our imagination for a broader range of military and whole-of-government actions by setting artificial boundaries. Mental models can limit our imagination to provide options to government. In time, this thinking may also lead to the misallocation of resources to build relevant military capability and capacity for the future. As described by Kelly McCoy:

'Mental models are not solutions, but the right mental model enables you to discover the best possible solution. Mental models, like the conflict continuum and phasing construct, help define and organize problems and create solutions. However, when things are no longer working and an organization begins to fail, one of the potential causes is an out-of-date mental model inhibiting progress.'

An alternative to the peace-war spectrum will be explored in Part II, but first we need to acknowledge that mental models are useful but fallible aides to planning, concept development and strategy. Any new mental model or framework that replaces the linear peace-war spectrum needs to pay attention to the following:

●    Mental models will inspire our strategic thinking, but they may also confine it. There is risk and reward.

●    Mental models need to be continuously tested and debated rather than used as dogma.

●    Mental models can be temporal. We need to be aware of the context in which they were designed. We need to evolve mental models against changing context while balancing against history’s continuity.

●    Mental models are a dynamic between the need to be simple, to be practically useful and the need to visualise complexity. The simpler a framework is, the more likely it will inadequately capture the intricacies or holism of complex, volatile, ambiguous and uncertain environments. The more detailed a framework is, the less likely it will be understood and used. When the balance is wrong, it has led to international headlines such as General Stanley McChrystal’s mental model for Afghanistan in 2010. Conversely, the simplicity of John Boyd’s OODA-loop has ensured wide-use by multiple audiences.

●    Never assume the mental model we use is the same framework used by other state and non-state actors. We need to test and experiment with an adversary’s framework as much as our own. How we see the world may not be how they see the world, and in a contest of wills, understanding their mental model will lead to better thinking for our concepts and strategy.

Overall, mental models help our thinking to creatively apply force and other deterrent or cooperative means to shape our environment and advance our national interests. Understanding our mental models is important because ‘if you want to think outside the box, you want to know how the box was made’. It is time to lift our thinking, and our doctrine, out of the peace-war intellectual legacy and into one that acknowledges constant competition and its temporal conditions of cooperation and conflict. This will be discussed in Part II. Grey zone challenges demand this change in order to craft durable and comprehensive strategies.  


About the author: Clare O’Neill is the Deputy Director the Chief of Army’s Initiatives Group. Clare has been the Chief of Army Scholar and Fulbright Professional Scholar in Australia-United States Alliance Studies at Georgetown University. Clare is the Founder of Grounded Curiosity and Defence Entrepreneurs Forum Australia, and Member of the Military Writers Guild.