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Swarming Attacks Challenge Western Way of War

April 2001
By Col. Alan D. Campen, USAF (Ret.)

Asymmetric tactics and network-centric warfare demand a new look at command and control. Information now is a weapon of choice; software, radio frequencies and bandwidth are critical commodities; networks are essential delivery platforms; and access controls are mandatory. All must be melded into operational art. The foremost challenge for commanders and staffs in this new battlespace environment may be the command and control (C2) of the infostructure.

The acronym C2 will be useful in 21st century warfare only if it is redefined to reflect realities of asymmetric warfare against unconventional foes on an information-rich battlefield. Each of the armed forces will field nimble and powerful formations equipped with cutting-edge technologies that will be useless unless matched with fundamental changes in organization, training, doctrine and command and control processes.

Terms such as consultation, collaboration, cooperation and coordination express the vital relationships that must be established among disparate yet richly interconnected fighting units. These relationships are essential if their individual skills and initiatives are to conjoin to achieve common joint and coalition goals.

“Slaves to technology in their thinking” is how two Chinese authors describe the U.S. penchant to seek quick and easy technical solutions to new operational problems. History is replete with examples of information technology that induced changes in the doctrine, organization and employment of land, sea and air formations. Rail, telegraph, telephone and radio each inspired, enabled and, in some instances, mandated substantial change in methods of control of the battleground. But, until now, these changes have been gradual and evolutionary and have enhanced centralized control—satisfying, in the words of one commentator, the desire of “commanders to command and staffs to staff.”

However, the arrival of digital information age technology heralds a true revolution in military affairs. This revolution demands substantial changes not only in organization and doctrine but also in the exercise of centralized command and the management of information systems over which control is exercised. Seminal research by Kevin Kelly, John Arquilla, David Ronfeldt, Sean Edwards and Martin Libicki, to name a few, provides a useful guide to trace and understand the flows and forces that information technologies have impressed on warfare in the past. These analysts discuss the evolution of the following flows and forces:

•Melee—the primeval state of war with no discernible organization, no need for C2 and no technologies beyond the visual and the aural acuity of the combatants. Aerial dogfights in both world wars are examples.

•Massing—where written messages and primitive signaling enabled a hierarchically organized central authority to command and control dispersed mass forces, achieving maximum shock and firepower. These tactics were last seen in attrition war on the linear battlegrounds of World War I, World War II and Korea.

•Maneuver—exploiting electronic communication and sensing technologies for command and control of complex, synchronized, multilinear operations that surprised, penetrated and flanked, and focused on the decisive point. These have been described as two-way technologies that turned armed forces into sensing as well as fighting units and were most recently seen as AirLand doctrine in operation Desert Storm.

•Swarming—“a seemingly amorphous, but deliberately structured, coordinated, strategic way to perform military strikes from all directions … sustainable pulsing of force or fire … from a myriad of small, dispersed, networked maneuver units,” as noted by Arquilla, among others, and where information and sensing technologies empower lower-level units to function more effectively without hierarchical command levels.

Swarming is an ancient form of asymmetric warfare that has resurfaced under new colors. Without using that term, Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales, Jr., USA, writing in the Joint Force Quarterly, describes a counterstrategy in which an adversary seeks to gain an objective then quickly disperses to avoid the killing effect of firepower. He writes that this is a way for “adaptive enemies [to] achieve victory by avoiding defeat.” It is one, Gen. Scales continues, that can be an effective challenge to the Western way of war established through a “characteristic arrogance” that presumes that threats must be symmetrical or must mimic Western war methods.

Gen. Scales and other analysts, such as Sean Edwards in Swarming on the Battlefield, provide examples of various asymmetric tactics: China in 1946-49 and the Chosin Reservoir in Korea; the destruction of the German submarine fleet in the North Atlantic in World War II; the defeat of the U.S. Army at St. Clair in 1791 and in Somalia in 1993; tactics by both sides and the public at home during the Vietnam conflict; the “swarm of bees” that forced British regulars to run a 16-mile gauntlet from Concord to Charlestown in 1776; the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan and the Russian stalemate in Chechnya; and most recently, the Serbian army in Kosovo.

Swarming engagements are characterized by pulsing attacks from all quarters by an often inferior but elusive opponent. They are successful because of tactical elements such as limited objectives, adequate weaponry and communications, terrain-tailored tactics and superior situational awareness. This enables defeat, in detail, of forces that never could have been overcome by mass or maneuver. The synergy of these elements is held by some analysts to be a consistent factor in both the tactical and the strategic application of swarming—past, present and our post-Cold-War future as well.

None of these elements necessarily demands cutting-edge technology. Any can be synthesized into a particularly effective tactic to confront a modern mechanized army in low-intensity conflict and unconventional warfare. These conflicts are widely predicted to dominate U.S. security concerns in the immediate future. This is outlined in Recommendation 33 in Road Map for National Security: Imperative for Change, by the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, January 31, 2001.

“The information revolution and advances in information operations in particular are giving swarming an opportunity to diffuse across much of the spectrum of conflict. … The phenomenon of swarming is likely to have overarching effects on military affairs in coming years,” Arquilla and others note. Scenarios as diverse as the “shock and awe” effect exhorted in the concept of parallel attacks by Col. John Warden, USAF, and distributed denial of service attacks on the Internet both possess the essential attributes of swarming.

Some analysts find a musical metaphor useful in grasping the ever-changing role of and increasing dependence on information under different warfighting scenarios and in assessing the demands that network technology will make on organization, training, doctrine and operations. A current U.S. Defense Department lecture on information operations describes the necessary symphonic integration of a myriad of separate elements that must effectively link and integrate for a common objective—as in, for example, AirLand doctrine. The Chinese also find that metaphor useful, as Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui write in their 1999 book Unrestricted Warfare. “The situation of loud solo parts is in the process of being replaced by a multipart chorus,” they state.

But, decentralized, self-synchronized network-centric warfare with sophisticated sensing and striking capabilities at the very tip of the combat spear demands far more of command and control than does the orchestration of a symphony with its centralized direction and well-rehearsed score. Widely dispersed combat units, which must necessarily act as one, will not benefit from centralized orchestration. Instead, they require the integrated flexibility described by musician Wynton Marsalis in explaining how innovative and individualistic jazz artists “negotiate their agendas” in real-time pursuit of a common theme—in this case, commander’s intent.

Some essential attributes must be included in the redefined C2 in support of decentralized and self-synchronized, multidimensional orchestration of military operations:

•Networks must function securely and be resistant to all forms of malicious attack, including electromagnetic disruption. This requires a new architecture providing diversity in both transmission media and operating systems, positive network access control, node hardening and path redundancy.

•Senior officials who share situational awareness with combat units must refrain from interfering. One author describes this as a command element with “topsight” that knows a great deal but that devolves control to lower echelons and intervenes sparingly.

•Junior-level officers must be trained to think in high-level ways because their actions likely will have immediate effect at the operational or strategic levels. Cmdr. Paul Murdock, USN (Ret.), describes this as “diffused implementation” or operational art that requires tactical operations officers to “know how to think at the operational level.”

•Personnel must be trained to function in an information-rich environment, quickly sifting knowledge from a deluge of data yet able to perform when information systems fail or data are corrupted.

•Doctrine should integrate the data gathering of all services and provide methods to share essential operational information with coalition partners when necessary.

•Inexpensive, disposable, “dumb” user terminals are needed to link, over virtual private networks, to secure, protected and redundant battlefield servers that issue software applications as ordered.


Col. Alan D. Campen, USAF (Ret.), is manager, AFCEA International Press; contributing editor to SIGNAL; a member of the adjunct faculty, School of Information Warfare and Strategy, National Defense University; and contributing co-editor of the latest AFCEA International Press book, Cyberwar 3.0: Human Factors in Information Operations and Future Conflict.