Saturday, February 11, 2006

Net-Centric Discussion: Today's Wars

Just like our victory in the Gulf War (Desert Storm) was, in many ways, forged in the jungles of Vietnam, our potential future triumphs are being created by the next generation of our nation's military leaders in the streets of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan. What are we learning from today's wars? Many discussions, inside and outside of the military, have centered on this issue. Regardless of the discussion in many forums regarding the differences of network-centric warfare (NCW) and fourth-generation warfare (4GW), I suspect that most of our future leaders understand that this is a false dichotomy and that NCW and 4GW are but flip sides of the same coin; they both represent ways in which we are going to be fighting wars in the Information Age. In postmodern war, the old meets the new in peculiar and unpredictable ways. Witness the extraordinary convergence of 19th-, 20th-, and 21st-century styles of warfare in evidence in Afghanistan and Iraq.

There are literally thousands of lessons (that apply both to NCW and 4GW) that we have learned from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, here's ten.

1. Don't count on the elusive. The elusive is that which we can't easily understand. Some of our mistakes have come from lack of understanding of our adversaries' internal workings. Basically, we tend to project American or Western values into our adversaries. For example, the US misjudged how the North Vietnamese would react after the gradual-response Rolling Thunder air campaign; they just did not respond to the "signals" in the way that the US was expecting. In Iraq, we misjudged the resilience of the Saddam regime after Desert Storm and then after the Iraq War in 2003, we misjudged the response of the Iraqi population and the growth rate of the insurgency.

The elusive can be assessed, but it can't be counted on. We should not count on best-case scenarios or that the enemy will react with American-like logic. We should concentrate first on what we understand, on the tangible. Victory in warfare (whether NCW or 4GW) is still defined by the application of decisive force at the right time and place. The way we wage war should be grounded in reality and not in dreams or ideology.

2. Don't go to war by yourself. We can win either way, alone or with a strong coalition, but when we go alone we increase our chances of "winning ugly". The more obvious we make our case for war against a potential adversary in the international stage, the more support we'll get from our key allies. No matter how much we bitch about Europe (especially France), I believe that the Europeans are our natural allies.

We took care of the "low-hanging fruit" that was Saddam's regime in Iraq through a preemptive, but necessary war. We could have done a better job of not alienating the Europeans in the process, but that's now in the past. Today, the Iranians and North Koreans are pretty much making our case for us.

Sometimes I wonder if Bush's preemption doctrine died prematurely on the roads of Iraq.

Like Dr. Barnett, I am not so worried that we can't win a war by ourselves; I am worried about the "peace" that immediately follows the conventional portion or "big war".

3. IO the crap out of the battlespace. Information operations or IO are crucial in winning an Information Age war. When it comes to IO, in many cases, the battlespace includes the whole world. This is related to the "elusiveness" lesson in the fact that we are not very good at it. Is related to the "don't go at it alone" lesson in the fact that we went to war with Iraq with a "with us or against us" attitude that has proven to be ultimately counterproductive.

From a regional perspective, in Iraq and Afghanistan the IO fight has been waged as an afterthought. Wars in the Information Age are primarily wars for the hearts and minds of people. This should be easy for us Americans. We are the land of freedom and prosperity. The light of the world. Unfortunately, we are also perceived in much of the world as an imperial (or at least neo-imperial) power. It can be difficult to make the case for Goliath, but it can be done.

4. An initial intense air campaign always helps at the start. We learned that during Desert Storm and now we've made this a part of the American way of war. Nothing can beat airpower when it comes to putting decisive conventional force at the right time and place. Shock and awe still works. This is not to say that airpower can not benefit from the synergy provided by land forces; witness the successes of Desert Storm where the massive amount of ground forces amassed in the Arabian desert acted as an anvil to our airpower's hammer, the marriage of special ops and airpower to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, or the closely coordinated maneuvers of Iraqi Freedom that toppled Saddam's regime in three weeks.

Major initial destruction still counts as long as the essential targets are justified. Bombing civilians is counterproductive in an Information Age battlespace. Regardless of what the critics say, when waging war, the US currently takes the most care in not harming civilians ever witnessed by any nation in the history of warfare. It is almost a function of being the Leviathan force that you are going to be condemned for all collateral damage.

5. You need a broad range of capabilities. When you are the US and you face an array of threats from state and non-state actors your options and capabilities need to be equally extensive, from satellites and stealth bombers to infantrymen in close quarters door-to-door combat. Forecasting what our forces will need in the future is very difficult. Usually you don't know what you need until you need it. Our current operations in Iraq do not look like anything we were training for (at least in my service, the Air Force) back in the 90's.

6. Open armored and exposed infantry warfare will be very rare. Our adversaries will likely shelter their forces in cities and populated areas. They will try to compel the US to fight in a urban environment where they can offset our technological prowess. The enemy will take propagandize any strike in an urban area regardless of how justified or collateral damage. The enemy will not stay put in one place waiting for our air strikes.

7. Get the OODA loop in the field. My main criticism of NCW is that, when let loose, net-centricity tends to foment micro-management. This can be the topic of a whole book and is one of the most frustrating aspects of waging post-modern war. The OODA loop is closely related to the sensor-to-shooter cycle that involves finding, fixing, tracking, targeting, engaging, and assessing the results or F2T2EA. We call this F2T2EA cycle the kill-chain. In the Air Force is all about shortening the kill-chain. Matched up to Desert Storm and Allied Force, each of these F2T2EA/OODA loop actions needed a progressively smaller amount of time to be accomplished, with the only exclusion of deciding. The "D" takes a long time if you take it out of the field and put it in the HQ, especially if the HQ is not even in the same country as the shooters.

8. Take advantage of the politization of enemy military forces. Adversary forces associated with a nation-sate will likely have combined military and political responsibilities. In other words, they are structured more to fit the regime's domestic security needs than to conduct joint maneuver warfare operations. Even more so than in the US case, their "D" in the OODA loop will likely be their most limiting factor.

9. Interoperability is key. Since Desert Storm, there's been significant advances in intelligence reconnaissance and surveillance (ISR) fusion and comms connectivity, yet access to information required by field components at the tactical level continues to be widely different among the components. Interoperability is key to joint warfighting. Our services' capabilities need to be seamlessly integrated. We are improving in this area, but we need to get better. This is not an easy task for a modern military force. The good news is that we are probably the best is the world when it comes to interoperability; compared to American standards, potential nation-state adversaries like Iran and North Korea do not have mature combined arms capabilities.

10. We need to emphasize forward leadership. Wars are fought by human beings. No amount of technology will compensate for poor leadership. We have the technological edge, but more importantly we have the leadership edge. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are wars of people. Our tactics in both countries rely more on the leadership of our company-grade officers and NCO's than on technology. Leadership and not technology is what makes our armed forces the best in the world.

The revolution has already happened and was partially televised. Regardless of all the debates in what we call "the corridors of power", captains, majors and NCO's are the ones who quietly implement revolutions.

Suggested Reading:

Blueprint for Action : A Future Worth Creating. Thomas P.M. Barnett. The book starts with a debate on the false dychotomy of NCW and 4GW. After that, it gets better.

The Tiger's Way: A U.S. Private's Best Chance for Survival. H. John Poole. Our adversaries prepare to outwit our technology, and take on many times their number.

The Challenge of Command: Reading for Military Excellence. Roger H. Nye. Not directly related to NCW or 4GW, just highly recommended reading for junior officers and NCOs.

Transformation Under Fire : Revolutionizing How America Fights. Douglas A. McGregor. Read this book if you want to understand transformation where is mostly needed: in the Army. Perhaps its only flaw is that it's too Army-centric.

Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America, and the New Face of American War. Evan Wright. For my money, this is the best book written on the "big war" part of the Iraq War. The most accurate presentation of life in the Marines. (I am not a Marine, but I have worked closely with them in Iraq. The Marines rule. Semper Fi.)

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