Information Technology—Servant, Not Master, of Operational Art

June 2000
By Col. Alan D. Campen, USAF (Ret.)

Clash between revolution and evolution challenges military doctrine and systems integration.

The military’s increasing reliance on commercial off-the-shelf information systems is leading to an environment in which the technologies could be driving the doctrine. The opportunities—and the challenges—presented by these new technologies cover the gamut of communications, computing, sensors, networks, interoperability and security. The defense community’s response to this development may define military superiority for years to come.

Experts differ on whether U.S. armed forces are experiencing a revolution in military affairs that decrees massive alterations to force composition, organization and doctrine; or if the military machine is still plodding along the linear, judicious, predictable, evolutionary path to modernization. Both sides are correct. Two dissimilar acquisition processes are at work—one producing the weapons and the other generating the command and control of those weapons.

Weapons enter the inventory from a rigidly controlled evolutionary acquisition process that delivers products tested and warranted to military specification (MILSPEC) and underwritten by training, supply and maintenance organizations. The predictable and orderly introduction of these products is overseen, if not directly managed, by those responsible for systems integration and operational doctrine.

Information systems (formerly communications) once trod the same well-worn and sluggish path, but no longer. Laissez-faire would be a charitable term to describe the revolutionary means by which commercial off-the-shelf information systems are absorbed into the military kit.

Because commercial information products and services are inexpensive and ubiquitous, they can be acquired by unit commanders in response to their own unique perception of needs and financed from operating funds. This exploding dependence on the commercial market has prompted an appropriations subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives to question the source of money for the proposed multimillion-dollar U.S. Navy/Marine Corps intranet. A complicating factor is that there is no line item for this purpose in the budget. The funds are there, but they are immersed in operating accounts and hidden from detailed oversight within or without the defense establishment.

The allure of over-the-counter purchasing or leasing of information services is instant access to inexpensive state-of-the-art technology that satisfies management and support needs. The flip side, however, is that the products also can be proprietary, untested, unreliable and unwarranted, and delivered with inadequate training materials or underlying technical support. They also may be incompatible with products obtained by the other military services for similar functions—yet another impediment to joint operations. Further, their shelf life is measured in months, and the pace and vector of technical improvements is nonlinear and unpredictable. All this adds to the burden for those who must merge rapidly changing technology with long-life MILSPEC weapons.

The positive contribution of commercial off-the-shelf technology to military support functions is beyond question, but the inexorable extension of commercial services ever downward toward the point of the combat spear warrants more careful attention. No longer just a supporting player, information systems now are recognized as inexpensive weapons, vulnerable targets and powerful instruments of war.

The eagerness of the armed forces to solicit the reins of command from a turbulent, intensely competitive commercial marketplace is a marked change from the past when the military grudgingly tolerated commercial communications services on posts, camps and stations and fought fiercely for organically owned MILSPEC strategic and tactical communications. This change begs explanation.

For one, digital information technology proffers advantage to those best able to exploit truly revolutionary advances in sensing, processing, storage and distribution of data. Air operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina provide evidence that technology can do this—at least under conditions of minimal stress. However, reliable performance under less permissive conditions, such as the ability to withstand determined and skilled counterattacks, has yet to be demonstrated. Further, the chaos resulting from loss of control over combat operations cannot easily be simulated in battlelab experiments or exercises. The fog of war quickly descends on the human who, as one writer notes, is “both the strongest and the weakest link in the system.”

If conditions of information dominance are achieved—and this presumes that either side could sense that ephemeral instant when superiority prevails—this means that intelligence has been instantly sensed, data accurately analyzed and processed, and derived knowledge quickly disseminated to those who actually need it.

In tactical exercises, an information-rich battlespace is proving to stress small staffs that must filter a deluge of data in search of essential nuggets of information. This creates a potential for what Lt. Col. James E. Harris III, USA, describes in Military Review as “mismanaged information that would be dysfunctional and overwhelming.” Under conditions of “info-plenty,” Col. Harris says doctrine must decide “how much information is too much ... and to what level and to whom should this information be available.”

Creating such a responsive decision environment would appear to demand, if not outright abolishment of hierarchical structures, at least the overlay of a virtual decision process or the means to bypass those organizations that cannot improve on the quality and timeliness of the decision.

Superior information (meaning predictable, secure, accurate and reliable) always has and will continue to be a tie-breaker in combat. However, the test for those who craft doctrine for the information age battle force is to assure not only that command and control works effectively when information systems perform as advertised but also that it does not collapse when they fail.

Evolving doctrine “wagers the farm” on the ability of technology and doctrine to provide networks that give all echelons a common view of the battlespace. However, systems integration still is a long way from providing for network-centric warfare. This is true not only within each military service but also from a joint operations perspective. Senior military leaders reportedly informed a Senate panel in April 2000 that “disparate datalinks...[and] inexcusable gaps remain in the interoperability that is supposed to prevail among the services.”

The Joint Staff has proposed a new organization to ensure that the sensors and surveillance systems of all military services are fused into a seamless network that provides a clear and unambiguous picture of the threat. In addition, Representative Curt Weldon (R-PA) would elevate intelligence fusion to a “hub” at the interagency level (SIGNAL, April, page 47).

With the introduction of the telegraph in the Mexican and U.S. Civil wars, and the telephone and radio in both world wars, instant communications made the physical location of the senior commander less critical. This new doctrine was acceptable as long as the lines of electrical communications remained intact and messages provided the commander with an accurate perspective of what then were set-piece tactical operations. When communications failed, the commander either forfeited control or sped to the tip of the spear to regain a sense of the situation and the reins of command.

Painfully penalized by unreliable communications in World War I, the German army developed the doctrine of auftragstaktik (mission orders/tactics) that presumed likely failure in communications. Unit leaders were given the operational commanders’ desired goals, thus freeing them to employ the most appropriate means and methods when the telephone went dead.

The doctrine of mission orders/tactics was adopted by the U.S. Army in the 1980s to support a shift from attrition war to maneuver warfare and to overcome any information void during operations. However, Maj. Anthony R. Garrett, USA (Ret.), offers in Military Review that the U.S. Army is “mesmerized by the promise of enhanced situational understanding ... trusts technology to eliminate the fog of war,” and has permitted technology to attain “supremacy over doctrine in general and [in] mission orders in particular.” Garrett urges the Army to readopt “the proven concept of mission orders ... and alter the military culture’s preference for centralized control.” The U.S. Army is not the only military service with a doctrine of centralized control over globally deployed forces.

The vulnerability and unreliability of information systems can only increase as both MILSPEC and commercial products are layered onto legacy systems. As Frank Cilluffo, deputy director, global organized crime project, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C., notes, “New systems are being integrated on top of one another—hence a fail-safe system one day becomes a loophole the next.”

Joint Vision 2010 sets goals that are untenable without dominance of the information sphere. Technology offers the potential to achieve these goals if and when integrated both technically and doctrinally into joint operational art. If this does not happen, then information technology will increase the density of the fog of war.



Col. Alan D. Campen, USAF (Ret.), is a member of the adjunct faculty, School of Information Warfare and Strategy, National Defense University; a SIGNAL contributing editor; manager of AFCEA International Press; and a contributing co-editor of the AFCEA book Cyberwar 2.0: Myths, Mysteries and Reality.

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