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Beware of Unintended Consequences

November 2003
By Vice Adm. Herbert A. Browne, USN (Ret.)

It is preaching to the choir to tell SIGNAL readers how information technology has improved military capabilities. The network-centric environment that defines the 21st-century force may be the most important military technology development since gunpowder. And, as with all innovation-driven changes, this one is spawning a host of side effects—some of which actually challenge the tactical force effectiveness that these technologies aim to empower.

The once well-defined lines between strategic, operational and tactical levels of warfare and planning have begun to blur, and this blurring primarily is a result of these new technologies. The collaboration tools used in planning and execution of warfare are unquestionably a blessing, and they allow visibility between the three levels of warfare to an unprecedented degree. This capability is remarkable, wonderful and powerful. It uses the might of the Free World’s industry against the enemies of peace and liberty.

However, a significant caveat looms over this rosy picture. As we take advantage of these new technologies, we are losing the separation of the three levels of warfare. In many ways this threatens the effectiveness of all three levels, but it especially threatens the tactical level. The blurring of distinctions is not all bad, but the potential disappearance of these separations offers major pitfalls.

For example, the concerns that occupy the strategic level are the rules of engagement and collateral damage. At the operational level, the focus is on mission accomplishment. These are important aspects of the two respective levels, but these are lower priorities for personnel at the tactical level.

At the true tactical level—not the command post, but the warfighter with a finger on a trigger—the person’s first priority is to stay alive. The next priorities—in descending order—are to keep your buddy alive, to accomplish the mission and to follow rules of engagement and avoid collateral damage.

With these priorities in mind—and with the nature of the tactical arena—the new technologies offer the potential for strategic and operational activities to more than just guide warfighting at the tactical level.

The new network-centric technologies that are revolutionizing our military have created the potential for strategic-level personnel to become involved at the tactical level. Theoretically, someone who should spend all of his or her time occupied with strategic-level concerns instead might actually direct an infantryman to pull a trigger.

We don’t need someone in a nation’s capital deciding when a squad moves into a compound. We don’t need someone in a joint task force headquarters deciding which rifleman should be on the point. These types of decisions are neither strategic nor operational. This is one illustration of how technology has allowed the execution of warfare to blur the distinctions between the levels—and it is an undesirable one.

It will require discipline to maintain the separation of the well-established tactical, operational and strategic levels. Government and industry first must acknowledge the blurring of distinctions between these levels of warfare. Then, the tactical warfighter must be allowed to do his or her job even though more mature strategic- and operational-level people may have different ideas.

Instead of hindering the tactical user, these technologies should be used to empower the warfighter. In addition to personal weapons, individual forces can be equipped with tools to make them better tactical warfighters. This will obviate the impulse to make decisions for the warfighters by increasing the confidence of commanders that their forces have the knowledge to make the right decisions on their own.

Unfortunately, we fall a little short in using technology to move knowledge tools and intelligence tools down to the individual Soldier, Sailor, Airman and Marine. We are not getting the information and the knowledge tools down to the trigger puller. Right now, these capabilities tend to stop at the corps, regimental or battalion level. Getting the tools all the way down to the individual is the key to winning the conflict.

Government and industry must focus on incorporating the technology, the information and the knowledge tools down to the tactical level. These two groups must operate under the guideline that, if they ask our young people to fight our nations’ wars, then they must understand that every one of them wants to come back alive. This is not to say that government and industry do not care about our warfighters—they do. However, the incorporation of technology into the tactical level must be enabled according to the priorities established by the warfighter; and these priorities must be understood and acknowledged by strategic- and operational-level leaders.

Since the discovery of fire, humans have experienced how innovation can be a double-edged sword. No one should have expected that the new information technologies that are enabling network-centric warfare would be an exception. Now, we have reached the point where we can see what one of the unintended—and negative—consequences would be. Now, we concurrently can take steps to halt that march and steer innovation in the right direction—back to the tactical warfighter.