Technology Connects the Dots

November 2004
By Vice Adm. Herbert A. Browne, USN (Ret.)

The lines between the tactical, operational and strategic realms of warfare are beginning to blur in large part because of technology. Investments in command and control have changed the character of the battlespace, and while some of the new capabilities provide commanders with more control than they ever envisioned, new challenges are surfacing that must be tackled. The command and control capabilities that deliver the benefits of network centricity have consequences that today’s military and government leaders must address in their transformational efforts.

Even before the tragic events of September 11, 2001, defense experts confidently predicted that the looming threats to the Free World were asymmetrical. One of the ways they advocated dealing with these threats was to invest in capabilities to improve networking within the forces. Facilitating information sharing among commanders, and even among individual warfighters, would provide situational awareness to a degree never before known. And even though communications technologies are nowhere near where they are likely to be in the future, the remarkable advancements in capabilities that the U.S. military has employed during the past five years already has affected the way military leaders command and our troops fight.

But the military is not the only organization that recognizes the benefits of sharing information, and new technologies have made it easier for the general public to be networked as well. The Global Information Grid is more than just a military term or capability. CNN, Fox, the major networks and the Internet create a public domain information grid that even military commanders have turned to for situational awareness and the public taps into on a daily, if not hourly, basis. Consequently, tactical operations have strategic ramifications that are more far reaching today.

A prime example of this is the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdos Square in central Baghdad in April 2003. When Iraqi citizens were unsuccessful in their attempts to tear down the statue on their own, U.S. troops joined in the effort. Initially, a soldier draped a U.S. flag over the statue’s face, but then replaced it with a pre-1990 Iraqi flag. The statue was later brought down with the help of a U.S. military vehicle. A worldwide audience viewed this scene, thanks to the media. But soon afterward, also thanks to the media and the Internet, questions arose about the authenticity of the event. Reports surfaced on the Web that it was a staged event, and questions were raised about how the Iraqi people truly felt about the Americans.

This example illustrates how tactical actions can influence strategy, and vice versa, and begs a word of caution to military strategists. Despite how tactical operations play in the media, those in government in charge of strategy must be careful not to operate at the tactical level. Our sergeants and lieutenants in the field are much better qualified to make tactical decisions than those far away from the action. Tactical communications technologies that are literally at the fingertips of warfighters are improving their ability to make decisions about how best to carry out tactical operations. Too much oversight from the strategic level could actually detract from accomplishing the tactical mission.

This new reality has even broader implications. The J-1 through J-9 command structure of the past, supported by the command and control tools of the last century, has served the military establishment well for many years. But in the 21st century—an age when warfighters in the field see and send information about a tactical situation in near real time—it is time to re-examine the command structure.

More than five years ago, the U.S. Joint Forces Command was established and became the first unified command to take on a nontraditional, functional role. Despite the changes in the world and in technology, it remains the only command with both geographic area and functional responsibilities. Its functional mandate is to lead the transformation of U.S. military joint warfighting.

Maybe the time has come for the U.S. Defense Department to take a more functional look at the structure of the other eight unified commands. The tools of this century—increasing and improving exponentially with every military exercise and technology demonstration—call for military leaders to examine the current command configuration and determine whether it is organized in the most effective manner. Unified commands, which demonstrate total dedication to protecting their geographic areas of responsibility, can be equally effective in addressing the tactical, strategic and operational challenges the nation faces today. A functional structure would ensure that the right amount and type of attention is being paid to each area—strategic, operational, tactical. At the same time, when the lines begin to blur, as they surely will as command and control technologies develop, one group of talented, dedicated military professionals will focus on what is important at their level of command and where the line must be drawn.

Enjoyed this article? SUBSCRIBE NOW to keep the content flowing.