Ant Warfare


According to Moffett, we might actually learn a thing or two from how ants wage war. For one, ant armies operate with precise organization despite a lack of central command. “We’re accustomed to being told what to do,” Moffett says. “I think there’s something to be said for fewer layers of control and oversight.”

Which, according to Moffett, is what can make human cyberwar and terrorist cells so effective. Battles waged on the web are often “downright ant-like,” with massive, networked groups engaging in strategic teamwork to rise up with little hierarchy. “Such ‘weak ties’ ­ wide-ranging connections that take us beyond the tight-knit groups we interact with regularly—are likely of special importance in organizing both ants and people,” Moffett notes in his book.

Posted on August 9, 2010 at 7:12 AM19 Comments


aaawww August 9, 2010 7:36 AM

you need a very precise training and lot of willing of sacrificing yourself for something like this to work.

the problem with today wars is that most of the soldiers are temporary interns.

you can’t expect them to work that way.

special corps, on the other hand, already have that kind of unstructured organization (within each operative team, not interteam, but that mostly because interteam communictaion in small team operations is useless)

uk visa August 9, 2010 8:04 AM

Whilst it’s de rigueur for old ants to sacrifice themselves on the front lines I can’t quite see humanity sending it’s older folk out to do battle; equally only sending women to the front might raise a few eyebrows!
Also it would be wise to take heed of the fact that two ant societies in California have been battling each other, on an almost daily basis, for a hundred years.

Grasshopper August 9, 2010 9:16 AM

I get a little tired of the articles and papers comparing humans with other species. With respect to warfare, even if your adversary behaves like an insect 99% of the time, it’s that 1% of the time behaving like a human you still have to consider.

Joe August 9, 2010 9:29 AM

Take a look at Ed Ruggero’s book: Combat Jump: The Young Men Who Led the Assault Into Fortress Europe, July 1943 (See The mission into Sicily had minimal command and control on the ground, however, the mission succeeded. The key was training; the airborne soldiers were trained to operate independently based on a basic understanding of the overall mission objectives. People, obviously, are not ants. The ants operate on some kind of ingrained instinct that gives them a singular focus (a pinhead sized brain will do that, I guess). People can achieve this through extensive training and a thorough understanding of what is expected of them. I think that the Roman army demonstrated this level of efficiency. I suspect that some, but not most, terror cells are not up to this level. It may not be expensive, but, it requires significant investment in time and organization.

66 August 9, 2010 11:44 AM

The scientific method was designed around mistakes. 99% of the time you are making mistakes and 1% of the time you are making something. If you are going to leak mistakes, make something. The secret to the magazine business is keeping your ammo stocked up and your whistle wet. Keep your powder dry.

We dust baby powder on our honey jar and sugar bowl, as well as the outside of the cats’ dish and it keeps the ants off.

66 August 9, 2010 11:55 AM

You can use chemical weapons.
Ants guide themselves with their scent. Vinegar has a natural chemical that alters ants’ scent and which ants avoid.

Davi Ottenheimer August 9, 2010 12:46 PM

“precise organization despite a lack of central command”

seems like an unfair comparison. orders are inborn instead of communicated, although the article waffles on this

“It’s unclear whether the ants learned this tactic, or are born with it”

i would thus say they lack reason and decision criteria but are good at executing simple pre-programmed instructions, which are centralized. the ants may be physically distributed but their aim is not.

“an ant would never go out of its way to save another ant”

that makes them distinctly unlike humans

mcb August 9, 2010 1:46 PM

“An ant would never go out of its way to save another ant,” Moffett says. “They go in to get the job done, not take care of one another.”

Sounds like the old school generals at the start of WWI, ordering their soldiers out of the trenches and into the teeth of the machineguns, except that they didn’t lead such charges from the front.

My reading of military history suggests the advantage goes to forces able to create a powerful bond between individuals at the small unit level AND empower small unit leaders to improvise on the fly. Of course it helps if they don’t get sick, have plenty of food and water, and don’t run out of ammo or batteries.

Vlad August 9, 2010 1:46 PM

“an ant would never go out of its way to save another ant”

It is actually not true.

“In a French laboratory, a team of ants is attempting a daring rescue. One of their colony-mates is trapped in a snare – a nylon thread that dastardly researchers have looped around its waist and half-buried in some sand. Thankfully, help is at hand. A crack squad of rescuers work together to dig away at the sand, expose the snare, and bite at the threads until their colleague is liberated. ”

“As early as 1874, biologists noted that ants will often dig out fellows that have sunk too deeply into sand and later studies showed that they’ll also drag others out by their legs.”

RH August 9, 2010 2:23 PM

@Vlad: that reminds me highly of the cynical argument “be sure to come home… you’re carrying a lot of expensive equipment Uncle Sam would like back.”

An ant would only save another ant if, evolutionarily, it was worth the calories and risk to dig compatriots out. If you live in an area where its easy to get lightly stuck, it may be worthwhile to get you free. live in a place with pine sap? I’d expect abandonment a lot more.

Clive Robinson August 9, 2010 3:26 PM

@ RH,

“If you live in an area where its easy to get lightly stuck, it may be worthwhile to get you free. live in a place with pine sap? I’d expect abandonment a lot more”

That might not be true.

If you believe that the ant’s response is pre-programed, then it will continue to try to rescue as long as it can irrespective of “calorie value”

Thus the pre programed response of different species of ants will be as a result of long term evolution not short term choice.

And there is some evidence from fossil records from around tar pits that sugest the response of spiecies was baased on hurd-v-hunter.

fusion August 9, 2010 5:55 PM

The Joint Tactical Information Distribution
System [a Tri-Service system which morphed into MIDS, a multi-national effort] was designed to enable each participant [aircraft, ships, ground stations] to broadcast its own-acquired tactical information. Participants then could use shared data to function individually or together in ad hoc groups under overlying [eg theatre-wide] tactical plans…

I’m long out of touch with all of this… but in one reference I’ve found it seemed far behind schedule…

Multifunctional Information Distribution System-Low Volume Terminal (MIDS-LVT)

Its cryptography, btw, was ferocious…

Wally August 10, 2010 2:19 PM

“…ant armies operate with precise organization despite a lack of central command.”

I’m disappointed to learn that “Ender’s Game” was wrong about communal insect warfare all along.

Chris S August 12, 2010 3:27 AM

Reminds me of Canadian strategy at Vimy Ridge (Wikipedia article linked in the sig) in 1917. Search on “platoon” in the article to find lots of references to pushing command and control down to the lowest level, along with the information needed for small units to assess their position and contribution to an overall goal.

An example reference – they were provided with 40,000 topographic maps of the battlefield. Although this seems obvious now, it was counter to much of Allied command structures at the time.

Leave a comment


Allowed HTML <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre> Markdown Extra syntax via

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.