Upon assumption of office, George W. Bush directed Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to "transform" the American military. Rumsfeld appointed retired Vice Admiral Donald Cebrowski, a Vietnam era Navy fighter pilot and former U.S. Naval War College president, as his Director of Force Transformation. Cebrowski wasted no time in establishing his beloved notion of "network-centric warfare" (NCW) as the key component of force transformation.
Many senior military officers were skeptical of Cebrowski's ideas. As one Army official put it, "That guy needs to come up for oxygen more." In some circles, Cebrowski and his followers were referred to as the "net-eccentrics."
Still, Cebrowski had the ear of Rumsfeld and other leading administration officials, so his concepts were adopted.
What exactly was this network-centric idea that Cebrowski and Rumsfeld were so certain would revolutionize the efficacy of war?
In a 1999 address to the Command and Control Research and Technology Symposium, Cebrowski said:
Network-centric warfare is a concept. As a concept, it cannot have a definition, because concepts and definitions are enemies. Concepts are abstract and general, while definitions are concrete and specific. Thus, if a concept can be defined, it is no longer a concept.
Other Cebrowski acolytes described NCW as a "system of systems" that would, by logical conclusion, need to be supported by the good old boy military industrial network of networks.
Somewhere along the line, network-centric warfare encompassed such equally murky concepts as "effects based operations" and "shock and awe." In 2002, Cebrowski went so far as to describe NCW a " new theory of war." But by empirical standards, NCW has as legitimate a claim to being a new "warfare theory" as cigarettes have to being a cure for lung cancer.
Multiple sources have confirmed that during his tenure as president of the Naval War College in the 90s, Cebrowski used his power and influence to ensure that his pet projects and doctrines proved victorious in the school's annual Global War Game.
Network-centric strategies were employed in the Cebrowski influenced U.S. Joint Forces Command's war game Millennium Challenge 2002, a practice exercise in the run up to Gulf War II. Here's how the U.K.'s Guardian described it:
At the height of the summer, as talk of invading Iraq built in Washington like a dark, billowing storm, the US armed forces staged a rehearsal using over 13,000 troops, countless computers and Dollars 250m. Officially, America won and a rogue state was liberated from an evil dictator.
What really happened is quite another story, one that has set alarm bells ringing throughout America's defence establishment and raised questions over the US military's readiness for an Iraqi invasion. In fact, this war game was won by Saddam Hussein, or at least by the retired marine playing the Iraqi dictator's part, Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper.
In the first few days of the exercise, using surprise and unorthodox tactics, the wily 64-year-old Vietnam veteran sank most of the US expeditionary fleet in the Persian Gulf, bringing the US assault to a halt. What happened next will be familiar to anyone who ever played soldiers in the playground. Faced with an abrupt and embarrassing end to the most expensive and sophisticated military exercise in US history, the Pentagon top brass simply pretended the whole thing had not happened. They ordered their dead troops back to life and "refloated" the sunken fleet. Then they instructed the enemy forces to look the other way as their marines performed amphibious landings. Eventually, Van Riper got so fed up with all this cheating that he refused to play any more. Instead, he sat on the sidelines making abrasive remarks until the three-week war game - grandiosely entitled Millennium Challenge - staggered to a star-spangled conclusion on August 15, with a US "victory".
Roughly a year later, the United States invaded Iraq. Of the guerilla style resistance of Iraqi militia groups, the Lieutenant General William Wallace, commander of the Army's V Corps, said, "The enemy we're fighting is a bit different than the one we war-gamed against."
But in fact, a guerilla style militia resistance was precisely the type of enemy Van Riper was trying to simulate in Millennium Challenge 2002.
Van Riper aired his thoughts on military transformation and network-centric warfare in an April 2004 episode of PBS's Nova.
NOVA: Isn't the current revolution—transformation, network-centric warfare—supposed to change how war is fought?
Van Riper: We hear many terms, whether it's "transformation," "military technical revolution," "revolution of military affairs," all indicating something revolutionary has happened that's going to change warfare. Nothing has happened that's going to change the fundamental elements of war. The nature of war is immutable, though the character and form will change. The difficulty is that those who put forth this argument believe that something fundamentally has changed, and you can change very quickly without thinking your way through it. They want to apply the technology without the brainpower.
NOVA: You don't think that transformation and network-centric warfare are powerful ideas?
Van Riper: My experience has been that those who focus on the technology, the science, tend towards sloganeering. There's very little intellectual content to what they say, and they use slogans in place of this intellectual content. It does a great disservice to the American military, the American defense establishment. "Information dominance," "network-centric warfare," "focused logistics"—you could fill a book with all of these slogans.
Even Fredrick Kagan of the West Point military academy and the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute is less than impressed with the Rumsfeld/Cebrowski vision of military transformation. Writing on the results of the Afghanistan and Iraq incursions for the Hoover Institution's Policy Review in August of 2003, he commented:
Neither [network-centric warfare] nor “shock and awe” provides a reliable recipe for translating the destruction of the enemy’s ability to continue to fight into the accomplishment of the political objectives of the conflict.
Kagan also noted that:
The most important problem with these visions of war is not anything within them, but the fact that they leave out the most important component of war — that which distinguishes it from organized but senseless violence.
Yet, remarkably, as late as May of 2004, Cebrowski's main assistant John Gartska was claiming that the network-centric concept of warfare had been "proven" in Iraq.
As of April 2006, even the most casual observer of military affairs understands that network-centric warfare is a proven failure.
One might think that by this point, the network-centric true believers in the Office of Transformation would have given up the ghost on any claims to the legitimacy of their cherished philosophy, but no. The DoD's Office of Force Transformation has changed the title from "network-centric warfare" to "network-centric operations," but the song remains the same. If we can somehow combine the latest technology with the right kind of supercalifragilistic doctrine, use of armed force can somehow become the key to achieving the neoconservative vision of achieving U.S. hegemony over the rest of the world.
We've heard this tune before. The "war to end all wars." Airpower makes all other forms of military power obsolete. Nuclear weapons make all forms of conventional military power moot. Peace through superior firepower. Yada-yada, yakety-yak.
This isn't to say that technology doesn't have value at the tactical level or war. It's just that warfare itself has passed the diminishing point as an instrument of national power. You can win a thousand battles…
The most frightening aspect of all this is that the network-centric concept is still the driving impetus behind U.S. force planning strategy and, by extension, all of America's foreign and domestic policy.
Coming in the "Next World Order" series: the price of delusion.
Other Jeff Huber articles on national security issues:
In an Arms Race With Ourselves
Wars and Empires
Invasion of the Transformers