THE RISKY GAME PLAN
THE INFORMATION REVOLUTION AND AMERICAN POWER
|Prepared by the Joint Center for
International and Security Studies (JCISS)
Core Study Group on Information Warfare
Richard Harknett, University of Cincinnati
How best to protect a lead? In American sports culture, the dominant view is that leads are squandered through conservative play and abandoning the initiative to opponents "the best defense is a good offense." In the closing minutes of a game, fans will criticize a conservative "prevent" defense, and call instead for an aggressive game plan aimed at running up the score and sealing the victory.
The emerging national security strategy of the United States would make sports enthusiasts proud. Instead of resting on the laurels of victory in the cold war and deriving comfort from its military superiority, the United States is now considering a revolutionary restructuring of its military doctrine and forces aimed not only at preserving America's security edge but at dramatically increasing it. The twenty-first century, rather than the twentieth, may truly be America's century -- the era of America's greatest preeminence.
Such an outcome can be achieved, we are told, by exploiting America's superiority in information technologies. This view holds that Information Technology (IT) can radically transform international security. Information revolution enthusiasts argue that as society and the economy shift to a new production base in which knowledge is the key to prosperity, the United States can reorient its defense and foreign policies to exploit the power of information. The introduction of cutting-edge information technologies, this view argues, is creating a "revolution in military affairs" (RMA) that the United States can lead and exploit. Rather than play conservative "prevent" defense, the United States should take a revolutionary leap and move even further ahead, putting the game conclusively out of reach. What is most remarkable about this call is that the United States is not being pushed by external threats. When the British revolutionized naval warfare with the Dreadnought battleship in 1905 and when the United States developed nuclear weapons in the 1940s, these two leading states faced serious international security threats. In contrast, America today faces no military competitor, but rather enjoys a comfortable cushion. Nevertheless, American defense planners are calling for a substantial transformation of the armed forces so as to expand the gap between the United States and its next closest competitor.
The lure of technology is powerful, particularly in an America whose culture has long extolled science and progress. To political leaders caught between the Scylla of rising costs, budget pressures, and popular intolerance of casualties, and the Charybdis of global violence and increasingly frequent calls for U.S. intervention, the notion that IT can reduce the costs of an activist foreign policy is especially attractive. Whatever the truth about an IT-based RMA, American leaders are both culturally prepared to believe in it and powerfully motivated to want to believe in it. Defense Department planning documents such as Joint Vision 2010 and the National Defense Panel's "Transforming Defense" hold that the United States can best maintain its lead in international politics through "aggressive transformation" that "radically alter[s] the way in which we project power." IT-RMA supporters call for early abandonment of such "sunset systems" as heavy direct-fire ground forces, non-stealthy aircraft and carrier battlegroups. They call with urgency for the fielding of a new generation of deep-strike precision weapons and information-warfare technologies. IT-RMA proponents make the case that just as it was foolish and wasteful to keep cavalry after tanks came along, the United States needs to move away from the weapons of the industrial age in order to compete in the information age. Their plans are not about change on the margins, but will dramatically affect doctrine, the make-up of the military services, and the level of training and readiness.
Not everyone applauds placing such a large bet on the information technology revolution. Skeptics argue that there is little empirical evidence of an emerging "third wave" economy, that the technical base required by the visionaries is years away from being developed, and that the promise of the digitization of information is overblown. We, too, are skeptical, but for different reasons. Although we have serious doubts, we begin, for the sake of argument, by granting that a RMA can be achieved. What we question is whether such a revolution is desirable. While we share the IT enthusiasts' goal of protecting America's lead in world politics in order to achieve greater security for the nation and to enhance its prosperity, we conclude that an embrace of an IT-based RMA as the foundation for U.S. national security policy is ill-advised. It invites unwarranted and unnecessary risks. A full embrace of the information revolution, one that entirely restructures American military forces and fundamentally shifts military doctrine, is more likely to undermine, than enhance American power and influence.
The currently popular rush to restructure American military doctrine and forces around information technologies is dangerous for three reasons. First, it will unnecessarily create new American vulnerabilities. Dealing with these new vulnerabilities will eliminate most of the benefits cited for the revolution. Second, it will skew capabilities in ways that are increasingly irrelevant to the real dangers America faces. And third, it is likely to engender a balancing reaction by other states, including allies. RMA enthusiasts recognize that "aggressively transforming our military may present some risk [but believe] that risk is both acceptable and manageable." We believe taking the revolutionary leap amounts to reckless play-calling which unnecessarily risks the lead America already enjoys. Such a security game plan is likely to be ineffective, irrelevant, and counterproductive -- it may accelerate decline, rather than cement a lead.
Our position is not a Luddite treatise against technology and change. On the contrary, we support a gradual, measured exploitation of new technologies and reasonable investment in IT that will allow the United States to hedge its bets by retaining much of the doctrine and forces that have yielded the United States its current advantages. With such a posture, the United States will be able to respond to the technical breakthroughs of other states. Foregoing the revolutionary restructuring of our military now does not amount to abandoning the playing field. THE REVOLUTIONARY CALL: THE INFORMATION PROPONENTS' ARGUMENT
Technological advances in the ability to process, organize, and disseminate information are defining America's vision of the approaching millennium. The most popular view sees evolving information capabilities as the basis for revolutions in social and economic practices, organizational structures, and military affairs. The digitization of information processing is seen as creating a fundamental shift in the way societies pursue wealth and power.
Leaders across the political spectrum have extolled the benefits of the information revolution. According to President Bill Clinton, "the invention of the steam engine two centuries ago and the harnessing of electricity ushered in an industrial revolution...today, the invention of the integrated circuit and computer and the harnessing of light for communications have made possible the creation of the global Internet and an electronic revolution that will once again transform our lives...[as we] enter the new millennium ready to reap the benefits of the emerging electronic age of commerce." Speaker Newt Gingrich already talks about the "lessons of the information age" guiding policy decisions.
The American defense community has picked up on these presumed lessons and connected them to centuries-old tenets about the importance of information. The military theorist currently in vogue is the ancient Chinese writer Sun Tzu, whose philosophy of war is captured in the admonition "Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril." In defense circles, information revolution enthusiasts stress that IT now holds out the possibility of knowing the disposition and movement of both opposing forces and one's own to a degree to which Sun Tzu could only have dreamed.
According to these IT-RMA proponents, the integration of information technologies will provide the United States with major military advantages. The effectiveness and strength of fighting forces will be multiplied through information superiority as a system of information systems connects remote sensors, soldiers in the field, commanders, and weapon platforms, allowing the military to locate, target, engage, assess, and reengage with speed and efficiency. This reliance on information will produce welcome efficiencies, as fewer troops will have to be deployed, and fewer weapons will be needed. This will allow the United States to maintain a strong defense at a lower cost, and will reduce the risk of high casualties.
Information revolution enthusiasts argue further that the increase in American military power produced through superiority in information technology will help deter conflict from occurring in the first place, and will help to contain it if it does break out. Information-based superiority will also enhance America's non-coercive forms of military power. Controlling the information spectrum will allow the United States to offer its information processing systems to support allies. America's technology can be used to support reformers in countries undergoing transition to democracy by promoting the free flow of news, and it can be used to undermine undemocratic regimes by making information travel around and over authoritarian leaders. This capability may be especially important in regions where ethnic and nationalist tensions are high: America 's edge in information power can balance nationalist rhetoric and help stave off ethnic atrocities by providing unbiased information to members of different ethnic groups. For those who work and profit behind walls of anonymity - for example, international criminals or terrorists -- information superiority will aid in exposing their practices.
According to Joseph Nye, former assistant secretary of defense, and Admiral William Owens, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, such information power will support and amplify the special appeal of the United States to millions around the world ? key to the enlargement of the democratic zone of peace that lies at the heart of the Clinton administration's national security strategy. This "engagement" strategy is predicated on a closer relationship between the United States, the globe's established democracies, and those states acquiring market economies and liberal political systems. America's edge thus lies not only in its ability to restructure its military power around information technologies, but also in its ability to use information to make the world more hospitable to its values and interests. By influencing and shaping the information revolution and using it to its advantage, America will enhance its ability to achieve its goals through attraction as well as coercion.
In sum, enthusiasts conclude that America's power can grow and its influence can be enhanced without major new expenditures of economic or military resources because the current revolution in military affairs plays to America's strengths in technology and its ability to integrate such technology into complex systems. This image of the future is best captured in the Defense Department's Joint Vision 2010, which according to then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Shalikashvili lays out a blueprint for American military doctrine and force structure in the twenty-first century. The core premise of Joint Vision 2010 is that emerging technology will permit "information superiority" in any battle space (air, land, sea, or outer space), enabling new operational concepts to achieve "full spectrum dominance" for American military forces; that is, dominance over adversaries across a full spectrum of conflict -- ranging from major war to low-intensity conflict to peace and humanitarian operations.
Such dominance across the spectrum of conflict
is what the United States needs, information enthusiasts argue, in part, because the end
of the cold war has not ushered in an era of order and stability. The world remains a
dangerous place. Regional actors like Saddam Hussein threaten vital American interests,
while international crime syndicates eat away at the internal fabric of American society.
Terrorists, both foreign and domestic, imperil American lives at home and abroad. Civil
wars and ethnic conflicts may cause mass migrations of refugees, threatening the stability
of countries with ties to the United States. According to information enthusiasts, the
adoption of new, information-based methods and means, will produce a flexible and
adaptable military, suitable for dealing with any eventuality in an uncertain world.
ACHIEVING INFORMATION SUPERIORITY: THE PLAN
Joint Vision 2010 defines information superiority as "the capability to collect, process, and disseminate an uninterrupted flow of information while exploiting or denying an adversary's ability to do the same." This capability rests on three basic components. The first is the capacity to gather and share large amounts of information quickly. The key is to structure a system to take advantage of networked computing, remote sensors, and satellite communication to improve accuracy, access, and speed of information processing, so that every member of a military unit or command can have a shared awareness of battle-space situations. These systems, relying on expert software and precise information processes as well as highly-trained personnel, will reduce the friction traditionally associated with complex military operations.
The second component of information superiority is the capacity to determine relevant information and deliver it in a timely fashion. It is not enough to have access to speedy analysis -- in fact, too much information can overload and confuse individuals trying to make decisions. Superiority depends on getting the needed information to the right people at the right moment. Processing must, therefore, be both tailorable and automated.
The December 1997 National Defense Panel (NDP) report notes that the capability for securing information superiority "could be an instrument of decisive advantage." Panelists suggested that particular attention should be directed at Joint Vision 2010's third component of information superiority -- an ability to defend information and information-processing capabilities from attack. The information networks serving as the backbone for American information power must remain secure against misuse, reliable against system failures, and robust against attacks.
American defensive information operations will require an American advantage in encryption software and an edge in hacking and spoofing tactics. RMA supporters acknowledge that these requirements are made more demanding by the fact that a majority of American military communications depend on the civilian information infrastructure, which, in turn, is linked to the broader global information environment. They assume, however, that the balance of information operations will be in favor of the United States.
There is, of course, some ground for skepticism. Five concerns are worth noting about the explicit and implicit assumptions RMA advocates make. First, to achieve dominance across the information spectrum, American systems will require superior software and programs integrated precisely into layers of networked information systems. Second, the American "system of systems" will require exceptional communication bandwidths, sensors, and satellites mixed into the civilian information infrastructure -- on which the military information infrastructure will continue to rely. Third, the blend of civilian and military networks will have to be both seamless in certain areas and securely separated in others. Fourth, the American network will have to be reliable and robust against attacks and effective on the offensive. Information superiority thus assumes that American cryptology will remain ahead of opponent's offensive-information warfare (IW), while American offensive-IW will be able to crack opponent's cryptology. Finally, the interdependent nature of the system will require that all of these components work as planned, including the precision weapons that provide the systems' 'punch'. In isolation, none of these requirements may prove unmanageable, although even this is questionable. If, however, even only one or two of these problems were to arise, the whole technical system could be radically less effective.
Most critiques of the IT-RMA rest on doubts
about one or more of these assumptions. We share some of those doubts, but argue here that
there is an even more fundamental weakness in the RMA-proponents' thesis. Our central
concern is that the pursuit of information superiority carries with it substantial risk
and potential negative consequences. Even if technically feasible, the endeavor could
prove ineffective, irrelevant, and counterproductive.
WHY THE ACHIEVABLE MIGHT NOT BE DESIRABLE: ACHILLES=HEEL If information content and connectivity have the potential to shape economic, political, and military realities in the twenty-first century, and if the United States leads in developing the processes, norms, and organizations to exploit them fully, why should the United States not push its comparative advantage?
The first reason, we argue, is that efforts to push an IT-RMA will create more new vulnerability than benefit. The base information technology and practices that would serve as the foundation for an American-led revolution in military affairs is being produced by private commercial companies and open university training. The hardware, software, and skills needed to corrupt, disrupt, or destroy networked information are available on the open market. Therefore, we must assume that the capability to engage in offensive-IW will proliferate and the organizational and operational skills will be in place. How significant the cyber threat will be is an open question, depending in part on how reliant critical infrastructures, including the U.S. military, become on information systems.
The Homeric hero of Ancient Greece Achilles, the "best of the Achaeans," dominated the battlefield of Troy through his military prowess and other great skills. He was both feared and revered. His infamous heel anchored his great power, but proved to be a fatal vulnerability. It was a vulnerability that was present from infancy, but was not fatally exploited until Achilles himself revealed it. His enemies did not match Achilles' strength to defeat him -- in fact they could not -- but struck at his core vulnerability.
Reliance on information systems may enhance
American military power, but this reliance introduces significant vulnerabilities as well,
and the American military will operate in an environment in which its opponents are aware
from the outset of such vulnerability and, thus, will actively target it. An IT-RMA
promises to create an Achilles heel for American military forces. There are at least three
critical vulnerabilities arising from an information-driven U.S. military that will
off-set any expected benefits -- the access-security problem, a reduction in resiliency,
and flawed network organizational dynamics.
THE ACCESS- SECURITY PROBLEM: ENEMY EXPLOITATION AND SELF-GENERATING FRICTION Proponents of an IT-RMA argue that restructuring forces to take advantage of IT can significantly reduce the uncertainty inherent in military operations and the inefficiencies found in organizational action. A system of information systems will provide, according to this view, a shared sense of fluid military situations among all levels of command. Troops will know clearly where they are in relation to friendly and enemy soldiers. If a military force, from the foot soldier to the commander-in-chief, has a common understanding of where both enemy and friendly forces are positioned, mistakes can be avoided and military power brought to bear with precision. Information superiority is expected to leave the enemy paralyzed and helpless -- easy prey to coordinated, low-cost surgical strikes.
Shared situational awareness enhances efficiency by giving every actor access to all the best information the U.S. side possesses. For a shared sense of the battlespace to be maintained during combat, access will have to be relatively easy and comprehensive. Individuals will have to be able to connect to the information network in a variety of ways; if one way fails, other access points will have to be available. But if possession of shared situational awareness can provide decisive advantage, it follows that opponents will find it a highly valuable target and will try to 'eavesdrop' in or disrupt the information flow. In the Persian Gulf conflict, Iraqi leaders did not understand the significance of surveillance planes such as AWACS and JSTARS, but it is unlikely that opponents will place such low value on such systems in the future. Each access point into the system of systems, therefore, is a potential goldmine of information that will need to be carefully protected. It is here that the tension between easy access and robust security creates a dilemma.
Because networks are supposed to have a seamless quality -- once into the network one can see most everything -- an adversary who has gained access to the network will be able to move much more freely and swiftly in the pursuit of critical information -- to gain it, change it, or destroy it. With a traditional, hierarchical organization, impersonating an infantry soldier by capturing him and putting on his uniform might have produced access to some information, but given the soldier's low rank, the information would likely have been non-critical. By contrast, the very nature of non-hierarchical information systems means that penetration into a tightly-webbed network would allow the impersonator access to more - and more important -- information. Penetration of one point of defense could create havoc throughout the information system, something an adversary could not hope to accomplish when dealing with traditionally-structured militaries.
The opportunity to exploit the seamless quality of networked communication -- a quality that is necessary for shared awareness -- is magnified by the requirement that direct access be relatively easy. It is a simple problem of numbers. It is easier to protect access to information if ten people have one key to the filing cabinet than if a thousand people each have five keys.
One solution to this access-security problem is to recompartmentalize information so that the access of the common foot soldier differs from the access of a general. This, however, reintroduces hierarchy back into information processing, essentially "un-networking" the network and forgoing the benefits of the seamless sharing of information. Situational awareness will be differentiated if the network is not seamless. Another solution might be to keep a seamless network but narrow significantly the number of access points into it. One may eliminate direct access for certain individuals or ranks but again this would undermine the concept of shared awareness. The final response would be to maintain comprehensive access and seamless networking, but engage in very active and robust defense. IT-RMA proponents, indeed, assume that reliable defense against enemy exploitation of information system vulnerabilities is possible.
On the face of it, the proponents may be correct. Information can be encrypted, robust passwords developed, and layers of firewalls built. Expert software can be customized to meet opponent's offensive IW attacks. However, the problem lies not in developing defensive countermeasures, but in the effective incorporation of those measures into a "system of systems" that is actively being used. Military operations are dynamic situations- once set in motion they cannot be put on hold while a newly discovered vulnerability in the information system is repaired. Can we assume that an effective defensive patch can be introduced seamlessly into the information system, so that all forces will be able to update their access procedures quickly and maintain connections while the enemy is forced out? Just think of the compatibility problems that are created when a new version of a word-processing software is introduced into a small office group. If each member of that office group had been able to customize their software, not only would problems of compatibility arise, but the introduction of the new version comprehensively throughout the new department would be near-impossible. This, of course, leaves out the fact that everyone has to be retrained. The friction produced through defensive-IW actions may be intense.
Defensive measures will also burden system processing. Sending more information, such as authentication codes and double-checks, and broadcasting the same message in redundant channels will reduce the number of new data packets that can move through the system in a given time span. Loading system bandwidth with defensive-IW precautions and barriers reduces the system's capacity for sending useful information that commanders need. The more elaborate the defensive measures, the greater the sacrifice of system efficiency. In the highly contestable environment of information warfare, a vicious cycle will ensue. The goal of shared situational awareness is to reduce friction, but defensive measures to protect situational awareness may actually increase friction. Even granting that expert software and information processes might conceivably allow for efficient automation at any given point of time, there is the problem that an adversary will be actively contesting American information systems when they are most needed. Adaptation of the system's infrastructure will have to occur while both offensive and defensive operations continue. Can heavily automated processes be flexible? Can changes in software or information processes made under conditions of stress with little time for testing achieve the same reduction in friction that the original software and processes achieved? These changes and adaptations of the system under stress will also have to include defensive measures to prevent unauthorized entry, but it is reasonable to assume that the accumulation of defensive adaptations will create a serious loss in accessibility precisely at a time- that is, during crisis and conflict- when smooth and efficient access to the system will be most needed.
Traditional conceptualizations of defense look
to placing walls around things one wants to protect - the walls of a fortress, a moat, a
phalanx of bodyguards, or the armor of a battleship. The equivalent in computer lingo
is the term "firewalls." Every firewall, however, is a step back from the
ideal level of accessibility needed to support shared situational awareness. When do
firewalls begin to make shared situational awareness unattainable? The issue is not
whether it is possible to defend information operations, but whether it can be done
without undermining the network itself. Opponents may not need to gain ascendancy over the
information system in order to challenge the superiority of the system's owner; all they
have to do is persist long enough, forcing the system's owner to erect so many firewalls
that the system no longer functions as designed. If opponents can force the United States
to update constantly encryption schemes or constantly re-authenticate officers' and
soldiers' access, enough of the organization may be cut-off from the system enough of the
time that nothing close to shared situational awareness is ever achieved.
THE ACCESS-SECURITY PROBLEM: THE EMPOWERED MALCONTENT The leveling of hierarchy and the individual empowerment which flows from it raise the further possibility of conscious misuse. The access-security dilemma concerns keeping the unauthorized out of the network. An additional and perhaps the more serious problem occurs when those authorized to be in the system "go south." While one can install high walls around a network, once in, the ability to move through an organization's information systems is much easier than in a hierarchical structure. This opens the possibility for individuals with views counter to American interests or with principled or unprincipled opposition to a particular mission, to attempt to crash the system (or leave time bombs that can be activated at future times), corrupt information, or engage in internal conspiracy, theft, or espionage. The problem of traitors or malcontents has always existed in militaries, but until now it has been manageable. Traditionally, what one individual could accomplish without great effort was marginal. They may have been able to pass along some narrow intelligence, scuttle a few weapons, or persuade a few others not to carry out their duty. The greater the effort, the more likely such a person would be caught by authorities; thus, individual action that could cause serious damage to morale or combat operations could be deterred by the threat of being found out. The empowerment associated with network organization dynamics changes the balance.
Actions of individuals can be amplified, have
a wider ripple effect throughout the organization, and can occur at much greater speed.
The effort can remain low and thus out of sight, but produce much more serious damage.
Consider what the Oklahoma City bombing perpetrators or the white supremacist group at Ft.
Bragg could do in the future with easy access to comrades in a million person military.
The number of malcontents is likely to remain small, but information networking will
enable this small number of people to wreak a level of havoc that was impossible in the
past. Even more seriously, a single individual with access to critical nodes might be able
to bring a whole system down. Individual empowerment means that single members of the
armed forces, if 'turned', can become serious threats. Since they can operate in isolation
without the need to recruit collaborators, the risk of getting caught is reduced
dramatically. If the source of computer failures can not be tracked, deterring such action
becomes difficult if not impossible.
THE RESILIENCY LOSS Proponents of the information revolution argue that reliance on information technologies will be a force multiplier; that is, the information-enabled military will be more efficient and effective in its ability to locate, target, and attack. This permits doing more (or, at least, the same) with less resources (and less risk to many personnel). This is especially important in the post-cold war period, when support for high defense spending is waning at the same time that new challenges to U.S. security and prosperity are emerging. If the United States were to shrink its forces based on the assumption that IT will enhance the smaller force's capabilities and that assumption were incorrect, then the ability of the U.S. military to fulfill its missions will be jeopardized. True, IT can be integrated into the American military without shrinking the military's size, but the political climate of balanced budgets makes this unlikely. This, in any event, is not what proponents of IW advocate. The IT revolution is presented as a substitute for industrial-age mass, not a supplement to it.
From a military standpoint, the substitution of information for combat mass entails a significant tradeoff. Mass provides a critical advantage -- resiliency and endurance in the face of unforeseen events. A leaner, digitized American military exploiting an integrated system of information systems may be more efficient and powerful than its more mass-oriented predecessors, but how much depth and robustness will such a force have against clever enemies? A Defense Science Board study, "Investments for 21st Century Military Superiority," noted that future military opponents are likely to exploit asymmetric advantages. If they can not win in the information- and technology-dominated battle space, they may turn to terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, or media manipulation. The report noted that adversaries would have little difficulty developing offensive means and tactics to target U.S. information systems, and that such attacks would have a relatively high effectiveness. Information superiority may solve the problem of spending less on defense while maintaining a dominant force, but the translation of information into power provides opponents with attractive, low-cost opportunities.
Relying on information as a force multiplier
reduces resiliency not only if information vulnerabilities are exploited but also if
clever enemies unexpectedly reduce the impact of American weapons. Precision guided
munitions (PGMs), for example, may increase the lethality of U.S. forces and permit a
significant decrease in the size of U.S. fighting forces. If, however, a skilled enemy is
able to contest the effectiveness of PGMs- through movement, hiding, or active
countermeasures- the lack of mass may foreclose alternative paths to victory. If two
fighter-bombers can not knockout a communication site because the enemy has figured out a
way to confuse our smart bombs, twenty-four bombers with an array of weapons might be able
to do it. If you have traded in those multiple delivery systems for a few smarter weapons,
you might not be able to overcome the enemy's defense. The point is simple: mass provides
more options, when unexpected events occur and in international conflict the unexpected is
normal. The more reliant the organization is on automated distributed networks, the more
vulnerable the organization is to interruptions of those networks. American forces might
thus lose the ability to deal with threats that mass forces could tackle effectively,
while not gaining the ability to deal effectively with new threats. Gambling for high
stakes is an underdog's strategy. The United States is not an underdog.
ORGANIZATIONAL DYNAMICS: THE MANAGEMENT PROBLEM The problems of access-security and resiliency are tied to a third, which strikes to the heart of the revolutionary change being planned. The true revolution in military affairs is not only about weapons and doctrine, but about radical organizational change. Of all modern social institutions, the military have perhaps come closest to the ideal form of bureaucratic hierarchy. In the traditional military, information is tied to function and function is linked to rank. The responsibilities of a general require a different amount and type of information than the duties of the foot soldier. Each possesses the information needed to do his function and, in theory, not much more.
The transformation of the military into a networked organization fundamentally alters the relationship between information and function. Joint Vision 2010 states that "new technologies will allow increased capability at lower echelons to control more lethal forces...thus leveraging the skills and initiative of individuals." The document envisions empowered individuals exercising "maneuver, planning, and coordination...which were normally exercised by more senior commanders in the past."
There are, however, troubling costs associated with such a revolutionary leap. In a non-hierarchical structure, where all participants have equal access to information, the notion of "higher" authority becomes problematic. This generates two mirror-image concerns.
The first is micro-management: the potential for central authorities to make every decision. The shared situational awareness of a networked military would include operational commanders and the nation's political leadership. If the president has full awareness of a military situation, will he remain a passive recipient of information or will he feel pressured to use that information? What we know of human nature suggests that those who will be held accountable for actions will want to control what they can control. The network might thus function as a hyper-hierarchy, where top leaders reach down to the lowest levels to direct action and meddle. To be sure, it is conceivable that, given full knowledge of the battle space, such centralized command might not have the deleterious effects typically associated with past examples of micro-management, such as the Lyndon Johnson's selection of bombing targets in Vietnam and Jimmy Carter's intervention in the Desert One operation. Yet even with more information than was available to Johnson or Carter, should presidents be making tactical decisions in between Rose Garden ceremonies? What are the consequences of denying junior officers meaningful authority and responsibility? In the short run, morale problems seem certain; in the long-run, a mindset that is not conducive to effective leadership is likely to emerge.
Conversely, the leveling of traditional hierarchical structure also creates a danger of macro-management: the temptation of actors in the field to make decisions that should be made by "higher" authorities. Giving the troops a "god's-eye view" of the battle space may encourage them to act as independent gods. Instead of more information leading to greater coordination, it risks leading to a breakdown of discipline. Will soldiers who are fully informed that they stand against approaching enemy forces that clearly outnumber them, and that support troops are too far away to make a difference, hold their positions? This is not to impugn the courage of fighting men and women, but to acknowledge human nature. On the one hand, there is a difference between being ordered to hold a desperate position when there is some ambiguity as to whether the defense is futile or not and, on the other hand, following the order in the full knowledge that it is suicide. Complete knowledge may demoralize rather than embolden the troops. Of course, information can be withheld, but what will be the consequences of such a disruption in shared situational awareness? Will troops interpret an information blackout as a signal of impending doom? It is not clear that better training would create perfect soldiery professionalism. Empowering individuals with better information will thus produce enormous requirements for enhanced discipline.
Problems associated with micro- and macro- management are exacerbated by the different interests of actors within the network. Having the same information does not necessarily lead to the same conclusion about how to act on that information. A president will view information through political-strategic lenses; the combatant commander through operational lenses; and soldiers through tactical and personal lenses. Consider a situation in which a battalion must be ordered to fight a rear-guard action to allow larger units to retreat in an orderly fashion from a desperate situation. From an operational standpoint, the sacrifice of the battalion is a difficult choice, but it serves the wider goal of winning future battles. From the president's viewpoint, such sacrifice might make military sense, but a domestic political concern for casualties might add pressure to "find another way." At the battalion level, self-sacrifice will demand personal courage and unit cohesion. Or consider the less extreme case of close air support (CAS). Commanders of engaged ground units typically want more CAS than they are getting -- if sorties are flown somewhere else, more of your own people will die. Different commanders thus have conflicting immediate interests: they all want more of the same finite resource (in this case, CAS sorties) and it may well mean life or death for them. If their interests were all the same, which seems to be the assumption behind the U.S. Army's IT-enabled Force XXI plans, then giving all of them perfect information on how many sorties are available theater-wide, and giving everyone all direct access to call for these sorties, would provide an optimal solution.
Presumably, less heavily pressed units would stand by and let the sorties go to other, more pressed units. Under stress of attack, however, what commander is going to conclude that he would not benefit from just a few more CAS sorties? If assessments are likely to conflict, then it is not at all clear that giving commanders all the information they need to contest higher command's preferences on scarce resource allocation is the best way to ensure that scarce resources are used most effectively.
Without a perfect integration of
political-military goals throughout the network, without the fusion of perspectives and
views, the potential for different actors with the same information to make conflicting
decisions will exist. The focus on situational awareness assumes that shared information
about events will mean (indeed, will equate with) a convergence of interests, but common
sense and experience tell us that this is not the case. People may see the same thing but
still disagree as to what to do about it.
ORGANIZATIONAL DYNAMICS: CROSS LINES IT organizational dynamics also raise the difficult problem of 'blowback'. The goal of offensive information warfare includes the corruption of opponent information and information systems. Consider the following scenario. An American infowarrior is able to take over an opposing information emitter and have it feed false information into the opponent's command and control system. Simultaneously, in an effort to obtain dominant battle-space awareness American sensors pick up on the compromised emitter and process the new (false) information. Since the information does not really reflect what the opponent is doing or hint at what he actually plans on doing, the rest of the American network will be reacting to a false situation. The initial American corruption of information could actually blowback and adversely affect American operations. One solution is to guarantee that offensive information warfare is coordinated throughout the network and that compromised sites are known to all sensors. Such a level of coordination is difficult to conceive and even more difficult to achieve.
In fact, there may be strong incentives to keep secret the fact that sites have been compromised. First, if sufficient coordination were in place to allow everyone in the American system to know which opponent's emitters were under U.S. control, the likelihood that such information would fall into the opponent's hands increases. Second, the opponent might be tipped off if American operations seemed to regard the information they were working with as compromised.
Connectivity of an opponent's information
system is simultaneously a target and an access point for information. Once compromised,
is a particular node in an information network worth more when disabled, or when left
intact for information collection? Who will make this call? Because of the
interdependencies of networks, the flow of corrupted information may be swift and
widespread. Being able to corrupt opposing information may carry the negative consequences
of blowing back through American systems.
ORGANIZATIONAL DYNAMICS: THE WEEKEND WARRIOR The redesign of military institutions to take advantage of the IT revolution promises to create sweeping cultural and practical problems for the military services, problems which need to be addressed slowly and carefully. One of the objectives of military training is to create a soldier's ethos, a particular view of the world. The creation of this unique social institution has been possible, in part, through physical isolation on military bases, although students of civil-military relations differ on the appropriate degree of separation during peacetime. A networked military that allows greater individual initiative will have to contend with a closer operational connection between the military and the civilian worlds. This interconnection might boost general morale, but also holds out the off-setting potential for individual demoralization, particularly during actual warfare. Once a deployment has begun and hostilities have broken out, constant e-mail from mom, who is getting critical reports on an operation from her local news broadcaster (who has his own satellite feed from the operation) can distract, if not demoralize.
Will mom be able to carbon copy throughout the system and contact her son's commanders? Add the home front's information arsenal of fax machines, cell phones (a problem with which the Israeli military has had to contend), and e-mail pagers, and the traditional divide between military and society at large -- a divide upon which a system of tight discipline rests -- becomes blurred. The professional military will begin to take on the feel of a virtual militia. One of the reasons for moving away from a militia form of military organization was dependability. In a militia, the conduct of military operations competes with concerns and responsibilities at home and on the job: when the crops are ready, the pitchfork must replace the gun. A professional military that remain "virtually" connected to home is likely to behave very differently in combat than a traditional military organization. This is not to suggest that total isolation during combat is critical. During the Second World War, mail call and movies were important, controlled distractions. The problem with networked integration is that commanders will have a harder time controlling the flow in both directions between the home front and the battlefront. This problem may be magnified if a gap between civilian society and military institutions at a general level -- measured in values, attitudes, life experiences, and so on -- grows. Civilians and the military may simultaneously have tighter communication links and increasingly disparate world views. Civilian society, which increasingly knows nothing about combat, will have the ability to tag along with troops. Problems may also be produced from the well-informed. Will defense contractors sit on a virtual sideline watching command decisions about missile usage and then attempt to influence after-action evaluations in near-real time? It is unclear whether civilian society will wield its IT-based capability responsibly when American forces face prolonged combat conditions? Will the military find such connection with society problematic?
For security reasons, the military must also be concerned about the flow of information specifically back to the home front. State-side family and friends can cause problems, even unintentionally, by the way they use information gleaned from the deployed troop. A recent example of this is the pilot involved in the rescue of Air Force Captain O'Grady, who was shot down in Bosnia. The rescue pilot sent e-mails describing the rescue to his buddies. The e-mail messages literally circled the globe many times, and along the way committed numerous security violations.
The negative aspects of empowering individuals
can be eliminated by increasing the level of professionalism of the individual soldier,
but this is problematical. Even if we grant that 99.9 percent of all members of the
military are above distraction, that leaves one thousand weak links in a million-member
combat network. Add to that the further complications created as the Defense Department
increases the percentage of civilian technicians under contract to install, maintain,
update, and repair complex technical systems. In order to increase the centrality of
information technology, the military are going to have to increase the numbers of
technically savvy personnel. Thus, civilian contractors will have to be relied upon more
heavily. Will electronic engineers and software developers have the same discipline and
paramount interest (victory) assumed of the fighting forces? Does the integration of
people who may not carry what Eliot Cohen calls the "warrior's ethos" increase
the risk of internal conspiracy, theft, and espionage?
PROBLEMS MAGNIFIED: THE ALLIED CONNECTION All of the off-setting costs listed so far could be amplified if one accepts the widely held expectation that America is likely to deploy its military forces as part of a coalition effort. If so, American networks will have to expand to include and work through a larger coalitional network of many countries. The coalitional network will have both greater size, and therefore more potential access points in need of defense, and a more diverse membership, which will have to filter information through more diverse cultural values and national interests. Will a shared awareness lead to shared action? Will different levels of training and equipment impair standard access and hinder a shared awareness from developing? If, for security reasons, we limit ally access, we will lower our ability to work together effectively and may produce burden-sharing resentments since their means for carrying out missions will rely more on mass and thus will risk more of their troops.
New vulnerabilities thus seem to be
inextricably entangled with the promise of information technologies. The advantage of
basing future U.S. strategy and force structure on this modern Achilles heel when there is
no pressing need to assume the inevitable attendant risks should be questioned vigorously.
WHY THE ACHIEVABLE MIGHT NOT BE DESIRABLE: THE CURE-ALL MAY CURE LITTLE. Arguments in favor of a revolutionary restructuring of the American military point to the changed international environment of the post-cold war era. Many analyses begin with a litany of new threats ranging from traditional warfare (major regional contingencies or MRCs in Pentagon lingo) to low-intensity conflicts (civil, guerrilla, urban war), and military operations other than war (humanitarian relief, peace-making). Associated with the last are problems such as refugee migration and environmental devastation, along with ethnic genocide. An information-driven military is touted as having a special advantage in that such a force will be tailorable to many different types of missions. Information superiority, it is argued, can be decisive against Saddam Husseins, Bosnian Serb paramilitaries, and Somali street mobs, as well as be critical in tracking refugees and, perhaps, preventing organized genocide. Some reflection about such claims is warranted, however.
To justify a revolutionary transformation in security infrastructure, we should be persuaded that information superiority solves real problems and permits the United States to better accomplish real-world missions. On balance, however, the net gains of the information revolution do not seem tremendous. Consider the spectrum of early twenty-first century threats. MRCs Information technology may contribute the most added value in the case of major regional contingencies. MRCs, though, are the threat which today?s U.S. forces are most clearly able to handle and in which a revolutionary change is least needed. Current American military superiority is overwhelming and is unlikely to be challenged soon. American defense expenditures, much reduced from the cold war era, today are roughly equal to that of next top ten defense spending countries combined (most of which are U.S. allies), plus such rogue states as North Korea, Libya, and Cuba. The United States already dominates the MRC portion of the conflict spectrum and does not need to revolutionize to stay ahead.
The enthusiasts' response is that the unique nature of the information RMA is that it will allow peer competitors to arise quickly. But what state could actually revolutionize more quickly than the United States? Should evidence of a competitor emerge, the United States will be able to respond. This is not a call for standing still, but for slower, value-added incremental modernization. If the most important national security threat can already be handled with the means at hand, why revolutionize? LICS Some argue that an information-enabled military will deal more effectively with low-intensity conflicts. If this is correct, it would be significant since the most likely threats facing the U. S. military will involve third world instability. A critical problem, however, is that these threats will likely involve urban settings and opponents who are indistinguishable from the civilian population -- because in many cases they are the civilian population. The relevant image here is the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa, the Palestinian Intifada, or Chechen guerrillas. The adversary will be able to rely on low tech means -- tape recordings and low-wattage radios for communication, fire arms, and relatively simple explosives to do the dirty work. Organizational structure may be simple or horizontal, so decapitation or isolation of leaders would be irrelevant. At the same time, the adversary may be technologically and politically quite sophisticated, able to hack and able to understand American political vulnerabilities. In conflicts like these, there is no technical panacea. Enduring success is hard to come by and hard for outsiders to influence very much except (sometimes) by altering the local balance of power and/or by rebuilding local political institutions. In these cases, it will be "boots on the ground," rather than information superiority that is more important to establish short-term order and negate the military capacity of adversaries.
Improvements in IT and incorporation of IT into military doctrine and forces may, at the margin, increase the effectiveness of deployed troops. But redesigning military forces around IT will not solve the root problems behind LICs. Dominant battle-space awareness will do little to alter the centuries-old animosities or the personal and political struggles that give rise to these conflicts. To begin to justify revolutionary change in U.S. military doctrine and structure on the grounds that it will provide a solution to LICs is not only misguided, but counterproductive and dangerous for a number of reasons. First, it leads to the development of military doctrine which focuses on the technology for identifying and killing rather than on the human nature and social characteristics of our adversaries.
Second, it involves shifting resources, both human and financial, from areas that could do some good -- such as enhanced training and readiness -- to areas of low return. Third, it may lead to a presumption among the American people that, thanks to our revolutionary advances, we can win a variety of LICs which, in fact, we have no capacity to win at an acceptable cost. Fourth, by creating false expectations about lower casualties, America might not only get into conflicts we cannot win (without high cost and risk), but withdraw precipitously from conflicts when the going does get tough. MOOTWs In addition to improving U.S. capabilities to undertake MRCs and LICs, enthusiasts argue that American sensors and communication systems can enhance monitoring operations including arms control verification, scientific and environmental studies, and refugee tracking; that is, missions other than war (MOOTWs). It is certainly true that peace operations can be aided by more effective information collection, analysis, and dissemination. Additionally, intelligence-gathering capabilities for anti-terrorist and anti-international crime operations, which fall between LICs and MOOTWs, will benefit with greater use of information technology. Such net gains, however, do not seem to require a major restructuring of American military forces. The attempt to achieve dominant battle-space awareness may, in some instances, prove counterproductive. Central reliance on information technology may create a target that the least deterrable opponents -- terrorists and Mafioso -- may be willing and able to attack. The asymmetric leverage of such opponents increases if the United States relies more heavily on technology with which they can compete. Since no major advantage is readily apparent, why invite the opponent to blitz?
A final argument offered in support of an IT-RMA is that conceiving of conflict in traditional military terms (MRCs, LICs, and even MOOTWs) simply misses the point about an information edge. Alvin and Heidi Toffler, William Owens, and Joseph Nye have contended that command of the information environment may be used to prevent genocide and ethnic clashes before they start, thus obviating the need to send troops to intervene. The United States, for example, could suppress inflammatory radio messages, denying nationalist leaders the ability the incite their populations. In the case of Rwanda, Nye and Owens contend the United States could have, "exposed the true actions and goals of those who sought to hijack the government and incite genocide, [which] might have contained or averted the killing."
While propaganda can have an effect, an
argument about the potential for an IT-RMA to prevent global instability mistakes content
for context. The mindset necessary to take a machete to another human being and hack him
to death does not develop overnight due to the ranting of a voice over the radio, but
rests on much deeper fears and calculations. Information which contradicts an individual's
general conceptual mindset is likely to be rejected as propaganda, rather than accepted as
enlightened truth. Simply because information (which may, in fact, be the truth) can be
inserted into a society's information system does not solve the context problem, nor
guarantee positive reaction. Better American computers and better American satellites and
more infowarriors will not stop Black Christian southern Sudanese and Arab Muslim northern
Sudanese from hating and killing each other. They know exactly what they are fighting
about. This is not a misunderstanding that can be alleviated with better information. An
information-driven U.S. military will be no more effective in dealing with these problems
than traditional militaries.
WHY THE ACHIEVABLE MIGHT NOT BE DESIRABLE: THE PERSISTENCE OF EQUILIBRIUM In the late 1980s, the popular argument was that American power was in decline. One of the stronger counterarguments to this school of thought was offered by Joseph Nye in the pages of the Atlantic Monthly. Nye argued that the unique appeal of American democracy and free-market economics could translate into "soft power;" that is, the ability to achieve foreign policy goals through attraction rather than coercion. He concluded that the growth in American soft power could offset declines in military and economic predominance. In 1996 Nye along with Admiral William Owens moved one step further arguing that with an intelligent strategy America could actually increase its overall power relative to the rest of the world. These authors called on the United States to "adjust its defense and foreign policy strategy to reflect its growing comparative advantage in information resources." They concluded that pushing America's information advantage would protect America's prominence in global politics.
Implicit in this recommended new strategy for America is the notion that other nations will view American power as benign or, at least, as incontestable. A revolutionary increase in American military strength will either be seen as a positive force in world politics, or countries will conclude that the gap between themselves and the United States is so wide that even if they wanted to compete there would be little point in doing so. According to Nye and Owens, the "United States can use its information resources to engage China, Russia, and other powerful states in security dialogues to prevent them from becoming hostile. At the same time, its information edge can help prevent states like Iran and Iraq, already hostile, from becoming powerful."
But as we have suggested, clarity of information does not guarantee a convergence of interests. Information capabilities may enhance the U.S. ability to shape relationships, but they do not alter basic interests. More to the point, an America with the power to lead will look suspiciously like an America with the power to bully. Some countries may in the end trust America to wield its strength benignly, but the history of international politics suggests that few states will be willing to accept uncritically and passively such preponderance of power.
Proponents of an IT-RMA embrace revolutionary transformation specifically because they believe it will widen America's global political-military preponderance of power. While this may spell trouble for states already hostile to the United States, will not such a capability be problematic for allies and neutrals? Will the revolution in U.S. force structure and doctrine not be viewed as augmenting U.S. coercive capabilities? Will most states, even allies, accept these developments willingly? The history of international politics suggests that the presence of a dominating power does not generally create a harmony of interests. On the contrary, it often encourages other states to coalesce in order to balance the increasing capabilities of the dominant power. Information revolution enthusiasts have gone so far as to suggest that full engagement may allow the United States to escape from history, and that, this time, the augmenting of U.S. hegemony will not result in the emergence of a coalition to balance it. Alvin and Heidi Toffler talk about "the end of equilibrium (not history)." They argue in their book War and Anti-War that "Second Wave theories about the global system tended to assume that it is equilibrial, that it has self-correcting elements in it....This view of global order closely paralleled Second Wave scientific notions about order in the universe. Thus nations were like Newtonian billiard balls that bounced off one another. The entire theory of balance of power presupposed...restoring equilibrium again....Yet none of these assumptions apply today." They warn that "the promise of the twenty-first century will swiftly evaporate if we continue using intellectual weapons of yesterday."
There is little evidence that information
suspends or transforms interests. Even when certain goals can be agreed upon, reasonable
leaders of states may disagree on how to reach them. Can we assume that allies and
potential partners, such as Russia, will consistently appreciate America's wisdom? Can we
expect such states to accept in perpetuity a system in which, because of America's edge,
they have no independent choice to reject such wisdom? Nye and Owens write "the
information advantage can strengthen the intellectual link between U.S. foreign policy and
military power." It is difficult to understand how taking a revolutionary leap will
be viewed as anything but evidence of open-ended U.S. ambitions. Such a leap seems in
tension with a political grand strategy of benign engagement. Our partners will worry that
the United States is increasing its ability to coerce. We can be sure that allies'
acquiescence in an American hegemony will last only as long as we can reassure them that
their interests are complementary with America's and that America does not seek the
ability to ride roughshod over them.
WHY A REVOLUTION TODAY IS A PREMATURE IDEA
If the revolutionary consequences of a restructured American military are marginal for many missions, carry significant off-setting costs, and might encourage balancing by adversaries and unease among friends, why is the Joint Chiefs of Staff producing a Concept for Future Joint Operations that requires fundamental organizational and operational change? Why are political leaders in both parties promoting a climate that regards moderate modernization and incremental change as "dangerous thinking?" Why is the National Defense Panel calling for "aggressive transformation?" The obvious (and cynical) answer- threat inflation or traditional service rivalries and their attendant bureaucratic politics- is just as obviously wrong. Pressures from those quarters would actually tend to favor existing institutional arrangements rather than shifting resources and thus power to new programs and services. The attraction also does not rest on the short-term perspective from which American politics tends to suffer. On the contrary, the current push for a radical change in military planning and force structure is remarkable because it is coming at the expense of parochial service interests and despite the short-term preoccupations of most leaders. The revolution is wrong-headed, as we have argued, but it is correctly billed as revolutionary. Why do defense planners want a revolution? There are five identifiable reasons.
The first is that analysts have tended to misinterpret the lessons of the Persian Gulf conflict. There is no doubt that the American victory was impressive. It is reasonable to attempt to build upon success. As the war relates to the importance of information superiority, however, one critical conclusion has been overlooked - U.S. superiority was never even contested. The United States is unlikely to face a major regional conflict again in which an opponent does not at least make an effort to counter American information systems. If the United States makes such systems central to operations, targeting those information systems will become a high priority for adversaries. The Persian Gulf conflict gives no indication of how such a contest over information might be fought, because there was no fight over information. Additionally, it is far from clear that information superiority played as an important a role as is popularly assumed. Although the United States knew much more about the Iraqi military than they knew about U.S. capabilities and strategies, Iraq was still able to react and defend. Precision-guided weapons delivered by air didn't destroy as much as we first thought. The military victory, and more importantly the low level of American casualties, were not the result of dominance across the information spectrum so much as a fortuitous mix of superior American skill and technology with a good dose of Iraqi incompetence.
The second and third reasons for the support of an IT- RMA are that the pursuit of innovation has become institutionalized and that there is a general positive societal view of technological advance. These two factors reinforce each other. There are large bureaucracies, such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), whose sole purpose is to innovate. Their vision of the future resonates in a larger political environment that accepts change as good. Consider the emphasis in industrial America on this year's new model car against the current information age cycle in which hardware and software are declared obsolete within months of hitting the stores. In the defense community as in America at large, to move slowly is not to move at all.
Both of these reasons are intensified by the fourth -- the fact that more information and strong information systems do seem to be making positive and unique innovations. In essence, the revolution in military affairs argument parallels what society sees around it. In the 1950s Americans measured themselves in terms of horsepower and the number of cars they owned; now they do so in gigabytes and RAM, and whether you have an additional laptop.
Finally, support for revolutionary military
change holds out a very appealing political solution. If political leaders worry about
remaining engaged in world politics, but do not have domestic political support to pay in
both money and potential casualties for such a commitment, they are likely to be open to a
solution that promises them that they can stay engaged without the cost and risk attendant
to such an engagement. None of these appeals, however, adequately address the off-setting
costs we have detailed.
GOING SLOW IS OK How do we best protect a lead? The suggestion of this essay is not to stand still, but to modernize military forces in a way that reflects a desire to protect that lead, rather than push radically to expand our advantage. The information age enthusiasts' argue that the United States should overturn a system it already dominates. This is both unnecessary and dangerous. The United States has reached a pinnacle of world power without exhausting itself. Dire predictions of decline have not materialized. Relative to most developed countries, the American economy continues to show resilience, and the American military remain without peer. The United States is not only ahead, but it is well positioned to respond quickly to any threat that might arise.
The technology may work as enthusiasts predict and organizational structures may in fact change, but this does not mean that all the consequences of such a revolution will advance American interests. There is great risk as well as opportunity associated with the information revolution. The possibility exists that a radically restructured American military might extend America's edge beyond the reach of others. It is not the only possibility, however. The nature of the technology itself holds the potential for introducing unnecessary vulnerabilities and weaknesses, and sprinting out to lead a RMA will not eliminate such problems. The strategy of revolution will introduce needless antagonisms. Given the U.S. lead in the game of world politics, such risky planning seems unwarranted and should be rejected. Information Warfare Page
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