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Network-Centric Warfare Requires A Closer Look

Major military failures frequently arise when leaders ignore fundamental changes in technology, doctrine or society. However, when leaders are seduced into believing that there is a fundamental change in technology or doctrine where none has actually occurred-for example nuclear weapons in Korea or the use of the helicopter in Vietnam-the result can be equally devastating.
By Lt. Col. Edmund C. Blash, USAR

Concept may be too ahead of its time.

Major military failures frequently arise when leaders ignore fundamental changes in technology, doctrine or society. However, when leaders are seduced into believing that there is a fundamental change in technology or doctrine where none has actually occurred—for example nuclear weapons in Korea or the use of the helicopter in Vietnam—the result can be equally devastating.

The concept of networked warfare or network-centric warfare poses a similar situation. Network-centric warfare is a generally new and technology-codified concept for fighting future wars and conflicts with a preponderance of technology as opposed to the traditional personnel, tactics and logistics elements matrix. Indeed, it is the new “darling” of the U.S. defense development community. Its unencumbered embrace by both military and civilian defense officials is as great as the embrace by pseudo-intellectual computer geeks of the concept of free and open software or the irrational exuberance exhibited by greedy Wall Street bandits during the technology stock bubble of the late 1990s.

In its defense, network-centric warfare is a concept worthy of further investigation, research and development, and testing because its technical potential is promising and novel.  Without new theories and concepts, we can never hope to maintain our technological superiority over our real and potential adversaries. Should the concept prove viable, additional funding should be advanced and actual prototype systems implemented. However, in other historical developments and evolutions in both the commercial and military arenas, the scientific and technological innovations always came first. Then, enterprising individuals and organizations placed these innovations into a system or process for eventual practical or profitable application. However, network-centric warfare, as proposed by various protagonists of the idea, would be achieved by doing just the reverse: Develop the science and technology based on the concept of network-centric warfare, and sound implementation will occur.

In employing this cart-before-the-horse methodology, tentative doctrine, warfare theory and defense management are being planned today as if the actual pieces of network-centric warfare are already developed, and only an organization is needed to put the pieces into place. This is wrong from a programmatic, scientific and engineering perspective.

The Apollo space program is a prime example of how basic scientific and engineering principles need to be in place prior to enacting any tangible plan. A proven ballistic rocket rather than the X-15 high-altitude space plane was used for Apollo because the science and technology of the time simply did not exist for the space plane, while liquid rocket propellant was a proven technology.

The basic premise behind network-centric warfare theory is that it is a totally new and evolved way to conduct military operations and that the practices of the past are inefficient, if not irrelevant. The concept represents the third generation of combat development in modern warfare. The actual combat platform itself constitutes the first generation; the linking and automation of the individual platforms into a command and control system constitutes the second generation; and the third, network-centric warfare, is a system of systems dynamically linked with distributed and dynamic information processing.

This is a logical and progressive evolution in warfare, yet its tenets remain undemonstrated and unproven to date. The network-centric warfare objective needs further investigation and technological exploitation for it to be developed into a workable system.

The term revolution in military affairs (RMA) originated in the Soviet Union, which postulated that RMAs are usually declared after the demonstrated manifestation of a material event, invention or discovery. Network-centric warfare is based on the premise and demonstration of X.25, distributed data warehousing, interconnected communication suites and Internet technologies. These are all immature inferences—the failure and compromise of which are being routinely illustrated in the media. The term evolutionary is probably more appropriate and succinct.

There is an over-reliance on technology as promulgated by network-centric warfare advocates, just as the United States overly relied on logistics and order of battle advantages in Vietnam. In Vietnam, the United States won every battle engagement, but in the end it did not matter, and terrorism presents a similar paradigm.

An antagonist employing a mathematical, symmetrical battle match can still overwhelm superior technology. This poses a problem to the United States’ ability to interdict militarily in the future in southwest Asia where the military’s order of battle, logistics and technology will be severely tested.

Doctrinal breakthroughs are manifested and proven when operational commanders take advantage of developed or emerging technologies and use them to their operational advantage. Germany’s use of wireless radios, tanks, air power, motorized infantry and artillery in the Blitzkrieg is an example of this principle. The U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command is key to future combat developments to a certain degree, yet the operational commanders will be key to its implementation and execution on the battlefield.

Successful use of information age technology for warfare is predicated on maintaining the strengths of previous ages of development: agricultural, maritime, industrial, aeronautical and electrical. The United States does not maintain hegemony in all of these infrastructure areas, and a weakness or deficiency in any area will impact another infrastructure area, including the information infrastructure.

The comparison between civilian and military use of emerging technologies is too simplistically insufficient in scope to serve as a viable measurement. The extrapolation of network and information age commercial applications does not readily equate with either the capabilities, complexities, variables or functions that military units will face in the future dynamic battlespace.

To a large degree, network-centric warfare is fires, sensor and information oriented; yet the tenets of mass, speed and maneuver are eclipsed. Survivability now shifts and is engineered through distributed modularity, not an inherent platform. System and platform independence is eliminated under the concept. Consequently, if the system is defeated, sensor or fire platforms are compromised.

In network-centric warfare, technology has become a substitute for sufficient, rapid logistical support. For the past 150 years, the national logistics base has been the premise to fight and win all of the United States’ wars and engagements. There is no proof that technology alone will suffice for a weak or insufficient logistical capability.

In addition, network-centric warfare is not optimized for asymmetric warfare. Rather, it is optimized for a lighter logistical “tail” component. While this is fine for some forms of warfare, it is not optimal for others.

The concept of network-centric warfare has additional shortcomings. It is still inherently vulnerable to the mathematical concept of warfare. Throw enough assets and chaos at the network, and it becomes vulnerable to enemy exploitation.

Network-centric warfare will require a new type of combat leader, one who can master technology and information then make rapid and correct decisions. There may be a bureaucratic inertia against the concept’s implementation and its optimal implementation once it is fielded in its objective configuration. Institutional resistance has often terminated viable programs in the past.

Information and networking alone are not substitutes for combat maneuver and the massing of armed forces. As in a chess game, situational awareness alone is not power and neither is pure knowledge by itself. Rather, knowing the move to make, or analysis, in relation to an anticipated enemy movement is key. Network-centric warfare is akin to a chess game where the movement of pieces is more important than the power and position of the pieces.

Network-centric warfare offers great opportunities, and its concept should not be ignored; however, there also are serious technological barriers that must be overcome, especially if there is a definitive fielding schedule to be achieved. Although scientific and engineering funding will probably assist in developing many of the required technologies, science and engineering technology frequently follow an independent development path, and more funding will not necessarily bring about a desired implemented system or entity. Science cannot be rushed.

Western civilization relies on technology to make life easier, and this includes the military forces as well. Science and technology have made U.S. armed forces second to none in the world, yet it is not a total or singular answer to all threats and situations. Sometimes technology will fail, and sometimes it may even be irrelevant to an event or situation. It is important not to place all the eggs in a single basket.

Perhaps the most fundamental flaw in network-centric warfare is that it is based on the premise that machine intelligence and analysis is superior and can be substituted for work now being performed by soldiers. However, no viable proof exists that software algorithms, information fusing or Boolean decision analysis will be any more successful than is the current soldier in the loop. It is important to remember that the history of commercial computer networks is replete with actual instances of massive communication, information, security and processing failures. It is one thing for a Web site or computer server to fail or be hacked; it is quite another for U.S. military forces to encounter the same degree of failure.


Lt. Col. Edmund C. Blash, USAR, is a military intelligence officer currently serving with U.S. Central Command in support of operations Enduring Freedom and Noble Eagle.