Incoming: Information-Based Warfare Demands Change Now

November 1, 2016
By Lt. Gen. Mike Basla, USAF (Ret.)

Several years ago, I served as a director of communications and information in a major U.S. Air Force command. The director of operations called me in one day to discuss some of the actions we were taking within my directorate. While the general appreciated my proactivity, he told me I was crossing the line between my support role and his operational business. That was hard for me to understand because I always had believed communications and information were operations. Today’s thinking seems to bear that out, and today’s requirements demand that we do things differently.

When that same command was generating requirements for a new airborne platform, I recommended a network-enabled aircraft to serve as a communications node in the sky. I argued that the proposed changes would greatly benefit forward-deployed forces both on the ground and in the air. My suggestion was set aside in large measure because of added program costs and schedule delays. But more disappointingly, I could not persuade the commander to accept an expanded role for his platform, despite my conviction that augmenting it would generate significant operational advantages throughout the force. I believed then—and I am certain today—that those advantages would have far outweighed his program considerations. If we decide to retrofit those platforms now, the cost will be significantly greater than the initial outlay. I was learning firsthand that moving from industrial age- to information age-based warfare was going to be hard for many reasons.

Fortunately, thinking at the top has changed. Senior military leaders now regularly articulate their visions for information-based warfare. The last chief of staff of the Air Force called information the “coin of the realm.” Our current Air Force senior combat leader proposes a “Combat Cloud” where information is the center of gravity for operations. And the recently published Marine Corps Operating Concept identifies “information as a weapon” as one of the key drivers for expeditionary operations in 2025. U.S. Army and Navy leadership hold similar positions. Further, the deputy secretary of defense’s Third Offset Strategy relies heavily on smart systems to access, share and leverage information for competitive, technological and operational advantage over adversaries. 

Conceiving, shaping and giving voice to a vision is a first step. But actually realizing that vision will be extremely difficult unless the services move out smartly, address numerous formidable challenges and bring about this new paradigm differently than what they have done before. This is a major change, and implementing it will be one of the greatest challenges they face. Change, done right, can bring huge rewards. Managing that change correctly, however, is much easier said than done, and most organizations struggle to get it right. The military is no exception.

Successfully rolling out the vision of information-centered operations requires a transformation in how capabilities are viewed and developed. Acquirers must move consciously to an effects-based collaboration model that leverages the Internet of Things. Creating cross-functional development teams that agree on desired effects and collaborate to deliver those effects through an integrated information environment will help ensure that broader capabilities are considered from the process outset.

With information regarded as the coin of the realm, who better to serve as members of the collaboration development teams than empowered digital natives? These individuals are less likely to be encumbered by traditional capabilities development processes, and they are best prepared to recognize information age opportunities. 

To succeed fully, protectionist attitudes must go, and existing platforms, systems and applications must be looked at in a new light. If these capabilities do not support the new information-based way of doing business, they should be modernized or retired quickly. A clear methodology must be identified and used to support these decisions. If this does not occur, the owners of existing capabilities and processes will resist change, and the likelihood of transforming operations will be greatly diminished. This is where leaders must draw uncompromising lines.

Because the power of this new operational paradigm hinges on shared information, mandatory policies governing publishing and subscribing to data must be established. Access to all related information coupled with common, effects-based goals and objectives will support a move toward information-based warfare across the board. It also will keep everyone committed to the central premise that information is the center of gravity for operations, and it will help ensure that all share in the successes or take some ownership for shortfalls. This approach likely will lead to new capabilities as different parts of the organizations involved gain access to new information. Importantly, this model can scale, offering growth opportunities beyond a single agency and further enhancing opportunities for operational efficiencies. 

Decades into the information age, great progress has been made in leveraging information within individual functional communities, including communities with a common mission set. Still, the notion of making information the central focus of all operations is relatively new. This paradigm cannot be achieved by conducting business as usual. It requires a new acquisition strategy, a delivery cycle not seen since World War II and a change in culture. The Defense Department must sprint, not walk. Our adversaries are out there, and they are sprinting.


Lt. Gen. Mike Basla, USAF (Ret.), the former chief of information dominance and chief information officer of the U.S. Air Force, is a senior vice president and Air Force client executive for CACI. The views expressed here are his alone.

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