Monday, April 10, 2006

Network-centric Warfare and the Next World Order

Part I of the Next World Order series explored the issues involved with calculating a 21st century American military force planning strategy. Part II addresses the failed efforts of Donald Rumsfeld and others to "transform" the force to support the neoconservative dreams of a "New American Century."

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


  1. I take it you've read Bruce Berkowitz, The New Face of War?

  2. "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."

    And they say academics are ridiculously jargon-philic.

    Talk about a war on language!

  3. Sadiq,

    I've read bits and pieces of it. Some of what he says rings true, some doesn't. My head explodes when I hear these guys talk and talk and talk about "infomormation war" and "decision cycles" when our information is so consistently bad and we cyclicly make the wrong decisions.

    Ultimately, they're all talking about tacics, but ignore the strategic and political purposes of war.


    "Jargon-philic" indeed. The academics have nothing on the military types.

    My article "Invasion of the Transformers" addresses the love of renaming old things and calling them "new."

  4. The tactics we're really talking about are sales tactics.

    Contractors play the role of the real estate developer. The customer -- call him the Mark, or how 'bout the Rumsfeld? -- wants to believe, maybe already does believe, he's smarter than everyone else.

    Build on that; reinforce that. "We don't need to fight harder; because we know how to fight SMARTER!" Then, bring on the jargon and the acronyms!

    I love this: "...combine the latest technology with the right kind of supercalifragilistic doctrine..."

  5. Yes, and there's a lot more to fighting smart than how you fight. It has a lot to do with why, when, and where you fight.

  6. I'm reminded of a talk I had once day with a retired Navy Aviator who went to one of the Navy trade schools where they try to churn out potential Flag Officers.

    It seems the class was given a tactical exercise: "Attack South America." The class came up with some fairly ornate strategic and tactical scenarios, involving all sorts of weaponry.

    But the right answer to the problem, apparently, was "Why?" Implicit in that correct response was the missing data: What are the political parameters that require such an attack? Withough some guidelines, forming a coherent strategy is impossible.

    And without a strategic reason, goals cannot be established, nor the proper force dedication established, nor the appropriate logistics solutions dialled in.

    Only a fool goes off on a military adventure half-cocked, without a good reason, i.e. a valid and achievable goal.

    BTW: Did Mr Rumsfeld ever attend any of the Navy career schools during his time in uniform?

  7. Anonymous10:01 AM

    Well...a couple of things, I think, detract from the US NCW/ Transformation Project. First, at the core, US martial thinking remains - at one level - Jominian and at another level, Clausewitzian. So on the one hand there is this tendency to think of war in geometic terms - so network architectures, meshes,etc...the principle cause for the use of 'jargon' as some of the other posters have indicated. On the other hand, the Clausewitzian influence keeps understanding war and its conduct in the context of politics. Result? Subordination of 'war to politics/ policies'.

    Cebrowski's 'vision' of 'war', which we know in terms of NCW, is not so much a strategic posture but a 'descriptive term'. It describes what he thinks 'war' is or will be. In other words, NCW is NOT the 'solution' to all wars, but is more of an existential indicator. In this, the presumption is a perpetual condition of war. Naturally, this extends the hitherto limited understanding or notion of war that we are generally familiar with. Thus, it is not surprising to see wht 'effects-based ops' would be included within the ambit of NCW. Admittedly, this stance (such as the one Cebrowski propounds) necessitates a 'cognitive shift' and in this sense, I would not be surprised if Cebrowski -and the others who advocate his formulations - have read the ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, who famously said, 'war is the father of all things, and of all kings'.


  8. Lurch,

    I don't think Rummy was around long enough to do any of the service schools. He was a flight instructor, and only served three years.


    Fascinating observations. To be honest, I'm not sure what the NCW types have or haven't read. I tend to think there's a bit of "everything that happened before is irrelevant" attitude among that group.

    I also think they tend not to see anything beyond the tactical level of war (i.e. combat).

    Some of them talk in policy/strategy terms, but at the end of the day, I think everything boils down to technical/tactical details involved in prosecuting the target. Why the target was chosen isn't so well thought out.

    But like so many things, you can't point to a group of people and say "they're all like that."