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A matrix of conflict types

9 November 2018
A matrix of conflict types

The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to establish …(is) … the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive.

Clausewitz, On War

ADF doctrine currently describes the types of conflict in terms of a spectrum from ‘peace’ to ‘war’, where the level of violence discriminates between the two poles.

This polar-approach is no longer sufficient for doctrine. Actors today prosecute conflict and war using more than violence, although that feature remains central. It is more useful to discriminate among the types of conflict using the level of state involvement and the method of achieving the political objective as two axes on a matrix. The figure below shows these factors overlaid in a matrix of conflict types.

Spectrum of Conflict
FIGURE 1 - Spectrum of Conflict

The vertical axis describes the level of state involvement in the conflict. This feature is defining because state engagement is generally an indicator of the scale and intensity of violence that protagonists can apply in a conflict. States also have a certain level of legitimacy to use violence—in self-defence or for collective security, for instance—in ways non-state groups rarely can. At the other end, non-state actors operating without government support will generally be less organised and probably less dangerous to a state. This axis becomes a useful discriminator because states can support non-state groups to varying degrees; for instance, by providing major support to insurgents fighting in a foreign state, or by tolerating social media activists or computer hackers. Indeed, a state may co-opt such groups to achieve complementary ends.

Matrix of Conflict
FIGURE 2 - Matrix of Conflict

The horizontal axis describes the method used by an actor to achieve their objectives. On the far right-hand side, actors convince others to accept their will through persuasion. The methods used might range from attraction to logical argument to appeals to law and norms, but physical violence is not contemplated. On the far left-hand side, actors use coercion, up to extreme violence, to force an adversary to accept an outcome. In between the two poles, actors might use displays of military force, threats of military action and limited violence, such as drone strikes, to achieve their objectives.

This matrix of conflict types explains the range of situations that a military force might encounter. The matrix displays purely peaceful and collaborative activities alongside highly violent ones. It also shows how actors can use different approaches to conflict at the same time, using a mix of capabilities to achieve different effects on different audiences. For instance, it allows a particular conflict to include both state and non-state actors, who might use a mix of means to persuade some and coerce others to accept their political will. Termed hybrid approaches here, these methods of conflict are particularly powerful because they exploit the openness of democratic governments and the power of information. Hybrid approaches create ambiguity through deniable actions and remain below thresholds that might justify military responses. This type of approach creates uncertainty and encourages restraint among the target audiences.

This matrix is a flat plane, so it has limitations. Conflict rarely plays out at a single point, and we should not assume a linear progression along any axis. Actors might vary the level of violence used in a conflict, attempt to coerce and persuade simultaneously or move very quickly from competition to war. Moreover, it may be unhelpful to describe efforts to counter irregular activity like crime as war, even if state and non-state actors are involved in an armed conflict.

Nor does this matrix account for the major descriptive variable of duration. As recent experience shows, the likely duration of a conflict is difficult to predict and not uniform for particular types of actors or approaches. This makes the decision when to terminate an operation against an actor that cannot be militarily defeated an acutely political one. Despite these limitations, the matrix can help describe the type of conflict and accommodate variations between individual situations that are similar on the surface.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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