Paper # 27. Aggregates, Supply Chains & Influence Maneuvers: Synthesis for Competition and Warfare

  • Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.
  • All Analysis and Planning, Asia-Pacific, Commercial, Cyber, Middle East & North Africa, Strategy
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Synthesis combines separate reactants into a new whole, releasing energy. In our highly interactive information environment, this process ranges from rules-based competition to totalitarian warfare.

Let’s explore three reactants—aggregates, supply chains, and influence maneuvers.


We use aggregates in JMark Services‘ advanced courses (Information Environment Advanced Analysis, Senior Leader Information Environment) to track emergent characteristics of complex environments. Participants learn to create “an aggregation of objects connecting in a ‘whole’ with one another via links” (72-73). This type of learning involves small group collaboration, lots of whiteboards, and human-directed machine-learning (SavantX). Aggregates help us to in two major ways: (1) understand what is going on in a complex IE; and (2) design effective and strategic operations.

To do that, this model frames various sources and consequences of aggregates. We define aggregates broadly in terms of any cognitive or physical network (people, things, ideas). Then we understand how the networks develop in simple terms—glue, propellants, and igniters:

Mapping and tracking aggregates is necessary, but we need to anticipate their emergence so we can influence them. To illustrate how, consider the so-called Arab Spring movement of 2011.

Commonalities. The historical context includes a variety of disillusioned groups throughout North Africa and the Middle East. They share some commonalities, such as beliefs in reversing authoritarian rule. Our aggregation model describes these as glue. In a virtual and real world of social media, glue might take the form of a chat room–a shared experience despite differences.

Grievances. In that chat room, commonalities and differences can produce grievances…opportunities for change. These can be incited by provocateurs into a volatile propellant. The simmering outrage against decades of oppression from Ben Ali (Tunisia) and Hosni Mubarak (Egypt) presented such a set of grievances. How volatile? One way to measure the volatility of a propellant (good or bad), is its virality. The following viral coefficient is a ratio: customers’ referrals that generate new users, divided by the total number of customers:

Igniters. Incidents that combine with propellants to cause combustion are igniters. Once this reaction occurs, groups with common ideas and/or complementary causes tend to aggregate. On December 17, 2010, a street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi publicly burned himself to death after being harassed and humiliated by local Tunisian authorities. That sparked demonstrations across North Africa into the Levant and Arabian Gulf. Within weeks the aggregate included marginalized youth and labor unions, secular and religious groups, peaceful protestors and criminal rioters, arch-rival soccer fans, and Google engineers and hacktivists.

These “customers” aggregated in cyber and physical space, magnifying the numerator in the equation above. Virtual “referrals“ exploded, abetted by Twitter and Facebook retweets and hashtags. International media coverage amplified the total quantity. Government attempts to block all of that resulted in substantial blowback. In retrospect (193), brutality against protests in Egypt on January 25, 2011 marks another ignition point of further battles and uprisings. Connectivity via social media, radio and television maintained social awareness that propelled more violence.

Aggregation can also explain the proliferation of protests triggered by the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020. All of the commonalities and grievances in the model apply, plus the coronavirus pandemic and a polarized political landscape. With these pieces in place, how can we anticipate conditions that ignite a viral effect? And how will aggregates actually interact? Our aggregation model does not predict what will happen, but it does identify aggregates and interactions otherwise overlooked.

What about deliberately organized aggregates designed to produce desired interactions? Web designers (Social Igniter) and leading manufacturers (Unilever) arrange functions to supply goods and services. Can we identify and anticipate what those supply chains do?

Supply Chains

A supply chain for goods or services is an end-to-end concept, from development to marketing to procurement to fulfillment to customer service. The broad scope includes buyers and suppliers, infrastructure and rules, all of which we expect to be competitive. Business models of supply chain processes, such as this one from Michael Porter, tend to focus the competitive advantage from higher prices/lower costs:

The chief limitation of this diagram is its focus on profit margin. As strategic value chains, supply chains are supposed to add increments of distinctive value, at least compared to rivals. Being aware of this assumption matters so that we avoid self-inflicted surprises. If we loosen the assumption that our distinctive value is financial, we can see more supply chains and contexts. Prosperity may indeed be a universal human value, but there are other types of advantage being pursued, too.

China’s authoritarian capitalism weaponizes supply chain activities to produce effective advantages. More than profits, the combined effects include increasing market share, weakening competitors’ political influence, expanding the domestic control of the Communist Party of China, and improving the geo-strategic positioning of the People’s Liberation Army. How?

Activities blend legitimate competition with illiberal violations of international standards. The latter include: granting, de granting and buying favors via illegal investment (undisclosed and un-audited by third parties); setting import quotas and high tariffs (China started the trade war; the US responded); concealing and stealing information (intellectual property.); dumping and re-routing dumped exports; rejecting diversification and reforms while benefiting from liberal economic institutions (World Trade Organization, World Bank); and erecting alternative institutions with opaque rules (New Development Bank, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank).

What kind of supply chain do these activities create?

  • Development: low cost products exploit slave labor in Xinjiang, the purposes of which are social as well as economic; massive state-sponsored theft and R&D increases (20% per year since 2000) leverage science and technology (such as artificial intelligence) to achieve superpower status
  • Marketing: a massive mal-, mis-, and dis-information campaign portrays China as a benevolent model of global cooperation; see it tracked here
  • Procurement: state-owned enterprises (COSCO) and Party-controlled private corporations (Huawei) acquire assets while directly or indirectly aided by discriminatory practices such as preferential loans/utility rates, cyber-espionage/theft, and constraints on foreign ownership/licensing
  • Fulfillment: illegal inventory includes 2/3 of the world’s counterfeit and pirated goods and 80% of US-seized counterfeit goods
  • Service: Party-monitored internet + personalized app payment (Alipay, WeChat Pay) shape info-captured customers’ loyalty = Customer Relationship Management service (Central Bank Digital Currency integration appears imminent)

Linked end-to-end, the activities constitute totalitarian supply chain warfare, not rules-based supply chain competition:

Exploitative development of technology marketed by disinformation, procured with discriminatory practices, and criminalized to fulfill domestic and global demand shaped by social control & diplomatic-military-economic coercion.

Totalitarian Supply Chain Warfare

What to do?

Influence Maneuvers

An influence maneuver is any activity that affects the will and/or capability of a target to achieve desired effects. This maneuver part of this concept may be described in inexhaustible ways, more than a generic “attack.” Maneuvers include three parts: (1) type of activity; (2) how the activity influences will and/or capability; (3) the combined effects (intended or not). As in narrative strategies, each effect is a potential cause of further effects, but opportunities to influence are contested and often fleeting. Activities are fundamentally, information.

With these distinctions in mind, we can specify many “offensive” and “defensive” attacks/counterattacks” as maneuvers. Maneuvers vary with respect to how direct-indirect, cognitive-physical, causative-preventive, cooperative-confrontational, population centric-adversary centric, conventional-hybrid, denial oriented-inducement oriented, etc., they are. By detailing maneuvers and counter/preemptive maneuvers, we can better anticipate how they are likely to interact.

To clarify what an influence maneuver is, consider the well-studied case of Kodak. Kodak’s decline suggests what could have been (Ch 4) a successful transition to digital photography. Instead, Kodak retrenched and lost the opportunity to dominate the movie industry.

To succeed in the photography business in the mid-90’s, required technologies were to produce an image, be able to replicate and project the image in ways customers want, with audio. Kodak faced internal and external competitors in all four areas, and more. Mike Sekora, a physicist hired by Kodak to develop a technology strategy, came up with maneuvers to influence the will and capability of Kodak and its competitors. The plan would aggregate emerging technologies into a dominant supply chain system.

The types of activities that Sekora proposed included alliances to expand relationships, satellite access to enhance transmission capability; algorithm development to increase digital storage capacity, and encryption acquisition to integrate security technology. Unfortunately for Kodak, its leadership demurred as its competitors maneuvered to reduce Kodak’s technological capabilities.

The how of these maneuvers varied with respect to what was targeted:

  • Kodak’s vulnerabilities
  • Kodak’s strengths
  • Kodak’s future technologies

Target Vulnerabilities for Combined Effects. Kodak’s main vulnerability was the will of its leadership to invest in technological capabilities. Sekora had proposed viability studies of current technology, positioning with partnerships, and re-directing funds to dominate the Digital Theatrical Motion Imaging Systems market. Doing this required decisions to acquire and utilize cinema-grade projectors, digital displays and audio, and satellite networks. Knowing that Kodak’s leadership was split, competitors exploited the paralysis. They targeted movie studios to monitor the technologies used. Before Kodak could (or would) act, competitors integrated a variety of their own technologies into that dynamic industry.

Target Strengths for Combined Effects. Kodak’s key strength was the quality of its film-making. Instead of investing more in fiber optics, broadcasting, satellite transmission and projector acuity, Kodak’s focused on short-term profit margins. Finance experts prevailed over technology experts. Competitors targeted Kodak’s technology and out-paced it with the same technologies under consideration. Customers flocked to the superior tech-combo of instantly available images and superior sound with sharper acuity and able to be conveniently stored and accessed.

Target Future Technologies for Combined Effects. Kodak eliminated much of its future-tech by rejecting Sekora’s plan. Kodak declared bankruptcy in 2012. The added effect was to be out-competed in multiple dimensions of technology space by a long list of competitors that includes AT&T, Pioneer, Hewlett-Packard, Hughes, JVC, Mitsubishi, Time Warner, Sony, Toshiba, Matsushita, Philips, and Hitachi.

Kodak’s decline illustrates how influence maneuvers that target vulnerable will and strong capabilities can sustain superior combined effects:
(a) short-term integration of high fidelity, storable audio-video; and (b) intermediate to long-term end-to-end products and alliances.


  • Aggregates: networks that form from common ideas or experiences (glue), become volatile (propellant) and go viral (igniter)
    • We can track and envision emergence of aggregates to see what is happening and anticipate what could happen
  • Supply Chains: constructed functions for developing, marketing, procuring, fulfilling and servicing all types of goods and services
    • We can analyze activities and information as supply chain aggregates to compete and wage complex warfare
  • Influence Maneuvers: activity (includes information) that affects the will and/or capability of a target to achieve desired effects
    • We can arrange activities & information to influence will and/or capability to create superior combinations of effects (combined effects)


  • Identify and anticipate formation of aggregates and interactions; include supply chains and distinctive value advantages
  • Develop, anticipate and conduct combined-effects influence maneuvers against vulnerabilities and strengths
  • Get answers to key questions:
    • What’s happening in your and your competitors’ chat rooms? What are the complaints and grievances? What potential igniters exist?
    • What are you and your competitors doing to develop, market, procure, fulfill and service goods & services? For what effects?
    • What are your and your competitors’ vulnerabilities, strengths and future technologies?
      Express these in terms of will and capability.
    • How are you developing strategically superior combinations of effects, not just operationally superior capabilities?

Note: a special thanks to members of the Colorado Springs Cybersecurity community, whose discussion provided synergistic insights

Author: Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.

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