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Look Closely At Network-Centric Warfare

January 2004
By Col. Alan D. Campen, USAF (Ret.)

Technology can both aid and dominate the warfighter.

Network-centric warfare is widely acclaimed to be the centerpiece of military transformation. It has been embraced enthusiastically by the United States and some allied armed forces. However, critics question whether this nascent philosophy is yet fully deserving of star billing. They urge more thoughtful analysis, extensive operational experimentation and testing, and firm budget and procurement commitments before its precepts become frozen into doctrine, organization and strategy.

Fortunately, an embryonic enterprise called joint warfare is evolving under the leadership of the recently empowered Joint Forces Command (JFC). Its initiatives—at least for the moment—are supported by military services that are uncharacteristically willing to break doctrinal china and explore issues inclusive of, but far beyond, the rush to digitize battlespace.

Operation Iraqi Freedom was unrivaled in military history for speed and precision. The enthusiastic embrace of new methods of collaboration on intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and information systems brought the combat phase of this unique war to an unexpectedly swift conclusion. Nonetheless, some military authorities contend that the victory in Iraq was less a validation of the new theory of network-centric warfare (NCW) than—as one critic noted—“[a] splendid little war … won by legacy forces, exploiting experimental information technology and material employed in transformational ways.” Commentators with this perspective argue that, while the Iraq War provides a seductive preview of a possible future, it falls far short of a blueprint for transforming the U.S. military machine.

Probing questions about NCW were raised as early as 1998 and are echoed today by other voices who contend that substantial technology-driven changes in force structure, organization and operational art should be founded on more substantive evidence than can be gained from selectively sampling the scenario-unique sands of the Iraq War. Fixation on battlefield experience in Iraq can mask issues that rival NCW in fueling the engine of military transformation. These factors are in play on the home front as well as on the battlefield. They concern the ability of humans, through technology-based processes, to usefully exploit information derived from the rapid and unimpeded flow of unanalyzed data.

To evaluate more thoroughly the impact that networking may have on military transformation, analysts must look beyond the battlefield. Analysis should focus inward to determine how effectively joint doctrine and operational art actually are being melded with emerging information technology (IT). Analysis also must look upward to determine if the really critical technologies—and most of these are the low-density, high-demand and vulnerable air- and space-based sensing and communications systems—have been identified, prioritized and purchased in robust qualities and quantities. Most critically, analysis must look ahead to ascertain if defense budgets, acquisition strategies, and research and development are forging an industrial base that will enable the United States to remain a military hyperpower, independent of any chosen military strategy.

That the assessment of NCW must reach beyond technology is advocated by U.S. Defense Department chief force transformation official Vice Adm. Arthur K. Cebrowski, USN (Ret.). Adm. Cebrowski states that the future of U.S. joint warfighting is not driven by weapons and communications, but by the military forces being persuaded to look less for organic capabilities and more at how to support each other in integrated joint operations. Such joint operations could range from expeditionary SWAT deployments, to counterterrorism, to guerrilla war, to forcible entry operations and, not to be overlooked, sustainable combat against near-peer opponents who may employ the tools of information warfare against U.S. forces. Critics want to know how well NCW matches this sweeping vision of potential future challenges to U.S. warriors.

The precepts of NCW, launched in a 1998 issue of Proceedings by Adm. Cebrowski and John J. Gartska, drew a swift and cautionary riposte from Naval War College Professor Thomas P.M. Barnett, who asked questions that are not well answered by lessons from the Iraq War. Barnett’s prescient “The Seven Deadly Sins of Network-Centric Warfare” inquired, among other things, about the effectiveness of NCW against near-peer opponents; its applicability to military operations other than war; the prospects of IT winning budget battles against weapons and platforms; the practical vulnerability of enemy centers of gravity; the need and ability to get inside an opponent’s decision cycle; and the potential for information overload that could produce hasty and faulty decisions.

In a Proceedings article titled “What Really Lies Behind the Screen?” Rear Adm. W.J. Holland Jr., USN (Ret.), describes NCW as “the philosophical overcoat for a collection of systems and organizations … [but] the importance of labor in the network has been understated.” By that, Adm. Holland is referring to the need for humans to comprehend exactly how IT systems generate, tabulate and display information. If they cannot see behind the screen, he concluded, “The fog of war does not go away—it will appear in new and different forms.” Or, as another commentator frames the same concern, “it isn’t difficult to see the fog of war being replaced by the fog of systems.”

Additional cautions are raised by Naval War College Professor Dr. Milan Vego, who sees “relatively few technological, tactical or operational lessons from Iraq” and who cautions that in “none of these cases did the loser have the capability to disrupt or even interfere with U.S. space-based and airborne sensors and computer networks, vulnerabilities that could easily be exploited by a more capable and resourceful adversary.”

Finally, critics caution that connecting all players horizontally and vertically through gigabit pipelines does not guarantee wise and rapid decision making, particularly if a common operating picture invites micromanagement and second-guessing of battlefield tactics or if the IT architecture remains dependent on the Internet and commercial software that is so vulnerable to disruption.

Two differing but instructive perspectives on network-centricity are found in the May 2003 issue of SIGNAL. Gartska heralds datalinks to be a new weapon offering decisive warfighting advantage. He contends that NCW seeks to exploit an order of magnitude change in the underlying source of power and cites evidence from “combat operations, training events, exercise and demonstrations,” and not necessarily from new platforms but from the networking of legacy systems.

Don’t get the cart before the horse, cautions Lt. Col. Edmund C. Blash, USAR, warning of a “technically codified concept” based on the unproved premise that machine intelligence and analysis are superior and can be substituted for the soldier in the loop. In a counterpoint article in the same issue, Col. Blash argues that, “tentative doctrine, warfare theory and defense management are being planned today as if the actual pieces of network-centric warfare are already developed and only an organization is needed to put the pieces into place.” He continues that, “Information and networking alone are not substitutes for combat maneuver and massing.”

Col. Blash criticizes an over-reliance on unproven commercial technology and enterprise practices—such as distributed data warehousing, interconnected communications suites and Internet technologies—and dependence on an information infrastructure—where the United States does not and arguably cannot ensure continued hegemony. These are “tenets,” he continues, “that remain undemonstrated and unproven to date and particularly so as regards asymmetric warfare.”

The fact that flawed combat doctrine often is jettisoned in the face of enemy fire is neither unusual nor surprising, but the alacrity with which the U.S. military services reached out for support from sister services in Iraq belies that old saw by B.H. Liddell Hart about the difficulty in clearing the military mind to make room for new ideas. Indeed, the eager embrace of NCW by the military has evoked concern by some critics that transformation is moving much too rapidly.

An unprecedented cultural migration indeed is underway within the military, with each of the armed services striving to incorporate NCW principles into their operations—at least at the joint task force level. The responsibility for bridging the gap between pessimists and optimists over the role of NCW falls into the lap of the JFC. War games, once service-mission-unique, are being co-sponsored by the JFC and expanded to confront many of the questions and uncertainties about NCW.

For example, the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command co-hosted its annual transformation war games with the JFC in UNIFIED QUEST 03 (SIGNAL, September 2003, page 29) testing integrated global operations, joint concept integration and battle command. That the services and the joint community are willingly assessing the broader aspects of NCW is reflected in these selected impressions of participants in exercise UNIFIED QUEST 03:

• Information superiority was reported as “not purely a technical or process issue, but a warfighting issue that involves more than just better collection and processing capabilities.”

• The complexity of the globally networked battlespace is accompanied by the challenge of a threat that is equally adept at working in that battlespace.

• Planners need to include all the elements of national power: diplomatic, informational, military and economic.

• Forces need to merge information from intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance platforms in a joint fashion, specifically at the joint-task-force level.

• Information warfare was more than just computer network attack and computer network defense.

• The need to know possessing information superiority is less important than the ability to prevent the enemy from having information superiority.

U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John P. Jumper, USAF, described the essence of military transformation as “leveraging the nation’s technology to create the maximum asymmetrical advantage,” a condition that seems to have been achieved in the direct combat phase of the Iraq War. The joint community, led by the JFC, is tasked to provide the secretary of defense with a transformation road map that will allow the U.S. military establishment to attain and sustain asymmetrical advantage across all mission areas.

The JFC may be aided in its studies, experiments, demonstrations and investigations if it addresses issues from academia, industry and the military that seem to coalesce around these themes:

• To what extent do lessons from Iraq provide a sound launching point for revolutionary change to forces that might be pitted against a more resourceful adversary?

• Are information systems that are built largely from fragile and unsecured commercial products the appropriate tools to equip a military force that advocates employing high-power microwave, laser guns, computer network attack and, possibly, nuclear weapons?

• What is the source of securable, unlimited bandwidth to support the notion of posting all data to the network for download and analysis by operational forces?

• Did well-connected forces in Iraq perform more effectively than others because of these connections?

• Can the human element in decision making be accorded due diligence in a theory that war has been reduced to science?

• Will horizontal and vertical networking encourage counterproductive micromanagement?

• Is the current tactical focus of NCW on target identification and engagement a sound basis for application with operational- or strategic-level planning?

• What network changes result from the shift from combat to guerrilla warfare, to occupation and stabilization missions that necessitate interconnection and interoperability with civil agencies?

• Is there a measurable correlation between communications (connections) and communication (content and understanding)?

And finally, the question to which the wrong answer would render most other issues moot:

• “Can you hear me now?”

Col. Alan D. Campen, USAF (Ret.), is a contributing editor to SIGNAL and the contributing editor of four books on information warfare and cyberwar.