Information Changes the Relationship Between Tactical and Strategic

November 2006
By Vice Adm. Herbert A. Browne, USN (Ret.)

The tactical level of the Global War on Terrorism is having a greater effect on the war’s strategic outcome than we ever would have predicted. Rather than being an issue of doctrine or force structure, this is largely an information technology issue. Today, information gathering and information transfer occur blindly from the tactical level to the strategic level.

Previous wars did not come close to today’s global live news coverage of events on the field of battle as they happen. Prior to the war on terrorism, even the newsreels that documented the impact of armed conflict did not focus on the effects of individual warfighters in the trenches, in the cockpits or on the decks. These warfighters maintained a largely tactical role. All that has changed.

The war on terrorism has redefined the role that every “trigger puller” plays in the eyes of the public. This new reality requires a shift in mindset for operations and for preparing our warfighters. For centuries, militaries have related tactical execution with the training of individuals. However, in today’s environment, we need to do more than train. We need to educate.

It has been said that training is used to solve today’s problems, while education is used to solve tomorrow’s. So, Free World forces must use the power of the information age and of information technology to work as much on the educational part of the individual’s preparation for conflict as on the training of the warfighter.

Using the power of technology to educate our young warfighters today will provide them with the intellectual tools to fulfill their strategic role—a role that is expanding exponentially as the nature of conflict, and of society itself, changes.

We can arm the tactical warfighter with strategic tools by using available information technology. Improved situational awareness and access to intelligence stand out as key enablers in this fight against a very lethal adversary.

Another area in which we can better prepare our warfighters is cultural understanding. Warfighters need to know much about their adversary so they can adapt to the asymmetric warfare tactics that this foe employs—and changes. The enemy is counting on success, or U.S. failure, in the tactical arena to define the strategic balance.

This cultural understanding must apply to friendly forces and civilians as well. U.S. troops must be able to understand and relate to the people whom they are helping; this is vital to strategic goals.

Another tool U.S. troops need is an understanding of their environment. This goes beyond ecological and climatological conditions, which are important, to include societal constructs. Urban warfare in Baghdad, for example, is considerably different from what would be encountered in a Western city rife with tall skyscrapers.

And what may be the key tool is for individuals to better understand the significant effect that their actions can have on strategic outcomes. This effect can last for a day, a month, a year or even the entire duration of the conflict.

Anyone who watches television news can see how individual actions can affect perception of a war. These actions may even define the war for a period of time.

For example, when U.S. forces arrived in Baghdad in 2003 and began to topple statues of Saddam Hussein, a U.S. soldier draped a U.S. flag over the head of the largest statue in the downtown area. Local citizens who came to see the statue toppled booed loudly. The soldier then replaced the flag with a traditional Iraqi flag, and the boos turned to cheers. That soldier’s actions affected the large crowd present and influenced the millions watching on television around the world.

On a more negative note, the mistreatment of captives at Abu Ghraib prison turned worldwide public opinion against the United States and changed the perception of its role in Iraq. U.S. forces went from liberators to occupiers—and in some minds, even worse.

The tactical warfighter has this powerful effect because the information age brings individual action in front of the world in a way unseen in history.

This capability places new pressures on our warfighters. When I flew missions in Vietnam, I tried my hardest to hit the target. During that war, I put hundreds of bombs somewhere near their targets. A few hit their targets, but many more did not. Technology during most of that war did not give my generation the ability to strike a target exclusively every time we attacked. Missing specific targets became an accepted fact of aerial warfare.

But today, if an aviator releases a bomb that hits somewhere that it shouldn’t, then the odds are pretty good that the aviator’s parents will see the results of that bombing run before the aviator returns to base. These service members have been trained as tactical aviators, but they quickly become strategic if their bombs hit the wrong place in full view of the world. It’s quite a burden to know that what you do could very easily end up as world news even before it ends up on your boss’s computer screen.

All of these factors illustrate the need for additional preparation of our troops. Compared to their amount of tactical training, tactical warfighters have received relatively little education on their strategic impact in the field. We need to invest in the technology that will better balance the “tactical action = strategic outcome” equation.