News | Feb. 1, 2008

So Many Zebras, So Little Time: Ecological Models and Counterinsurgency Operations

By Mark D. Drapeau, Peyton C. Hurley, and Robert E. Armstrong Defense Horizons 62


Ecological Models and Counterinsurgency OperationsOverview 

Force ratios are an important variable in warfare and in nature. On the Serengeti, large zebra herds are constantly hunted by small prides of lions. But with their overwhelming majority, why don’t the zebras unite and attack the lions? Hooves can be as deadly as claws when used correctly. And conversely, if the lions are such effective predators, why are there so many zebras? 

Ecological interactions between predators and their prey are complex. Sometimes the few prey on the many; picture a whale devouring thousands of docile microorganisms. And sometimes the many prey on the few, as with killer bees attacking an unsuspecting person. During the past century, the mathematics underlying different types of survival strategies for attacker and evader have been worked out by ecologists, and we now have a fairly good understanding of such relationships. 

While not a perfect metaphor, it is striking that these quantitative ecology models greatly resemble behavioral interactions during counterinsurgency operations. While a predator-prey model alone may be too simplistic to fully describe counterinsurgency, there are more detailed ecological models of competition that better capture the essence of the problem. 

The purpose of this paper is not to provide definitive solutions, but to suggest a framework for other researchers to adapt and expand upon. Indeed, many of the models discussed are common to both ecologists and economists. The goals of both types of modeling are similar: maximizing profits in terms of food or money at the least risk—death or bankruptcy. 

From our preliminary work on the possible applications of ecology to counterinsurgency, we hope that others more adept at the use of these quantitative models will make significant contributions to the area of predictive ability in combating terrorism and understanding unconventional warfare.