The Twilight of Network-Centric Warfare

August 10, 2010
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Highly respected writer and industry analyst Loren B. Thompson has just penned an opinion piece on recent changes in the Pentagon related to how DoD does IT.  The piece, titled “The Twilight of Network-Centric Warfare” is worth a full read by anyone in the IT business, in or out of government.

Dr. Thompson argues that the recent directive by secretary of defense Gates spelling out his intention to reorganize and eliminate the senior staff overseeing department networks and information integration (ASD NII) and moves at the same time to eliminate J6′s marked the end of the network centric era.

The meat of Thompson’s article reads:

When a Defense Business Board task force recommended last month that the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) eliminate its networking and information integration secretariat, it signaled just how far from grace the notion of network-centric warfare has fallen. The secretariat was established at the tail-end of the dot.com boom to coordinate the joint force’s migration from industrial-age warfare into the era of information warfare. Proponents of network-centric warfare believed new information technologies were so powerful that they could overthrow traditional warfighting concepts if backed up with appropriate military doctrine and organizations. OSD’s office of networks and information integration — NII for short — was supposed to shepherd this vision into reality by overseeing a raft of multi-billion-dollar investment projects.

A decade later, nobody talks about military transformation anymore, and joint initiatives begun under its banner such as the Transformational Communications Satellite and Future Combat System are fading memories. Service-level projects like the Navy’s Next-Generation Enterprise Network increasingly look like wasteful efforts to re-invent the wheel — efforts that are doomed to be canceled as Washington turns to deficit reduction and military budgets shrink. So what went wrong? How is it possible for every policymaker in the five-sided building to embrace a common vision of information-age warfare at the beginning of a decade, and for it all to be forgotten by decade’s end?

The first thing that went wrong was that threats evolved differently than military planners expected. The authors of network-centric warfare thought that the joint force was in the midst of a prolonged “strategic pause” when the decade began, after which some new peer or near-peer adversary would emerge. That pause ended unexpectedly on 9-11, and America suddenly found itself facing a very different kind of danger. Networks and information technology have certainly proven useful in dealing with elusive new adversaries, but so far they haven’t proven to be the winning weapon that visionaries expected. It turns out that all those networks the Pentagon was planning are just conduits, and that what matters more for victory is the accuracy and completeness of the information moving through the networks.

The second problem that proponents did not see coming was that the new technology itself might become a source of weakness. Planners implicitly assumed that if the Pentagon invested heavily enough in cutting-edge networks and information applications, it could leverage the warfighting potential of the new technology while staying comfortably ahead of other countries with similar ideas. Well, it hasn’t worked out that way. We now know that everybody from the Taliban to Mexican drug cartels can benefit from the reach and richness of wideband networks. Even worse, they can tap into our own networks, as China proves on a daily basis. So the military has had to launch a crash program to prevent its gee-whiz networks from being used against it (incidentally, the Navy is inexplicably trying to replace the one big network that so far has proven largely immune to hostile penetrations, in order to implement a more “advanced” architecture).

I think I should add some commentary from a CTO perspective.

– As far as I can tell, this reorganization is not because a concept fell from grace.  The reorganization seems to be designed to save money by reducing staff overhead.  Although I personally don’t agree that this is a smart move, the functions are being organized into other places (both at OSD and DISA) and there are high expectations that IT will continue to be enhanced and modernized in the department.

– Very few believed that new IT programs would give us an ability so powerful that IT would overthrow traditional militaries.  There has always been a “lunatic fringe” of folks who thought like that, but the mainstream always saw IT as a critical enabler. The folks I know who see the benefit of new operational constructs leveraging network-centric-warfare still know that real war is still a very bloody, boots-on-the-ground activity.

– Although the title “NII” was born out of a reorganziation.  Its functions existed before as ASD C3I.  Its functions will continue in the future in the new organization.  This is an important point.

– It is certainly true that network-centric concepts made significant contributions to success in conflict.  The functions of NII helped that occur.  Those functions will still enhance the use of IT in the department in the future, just in a different organization.  But it is true that threats evolved differently than military planners expected.  Can you tell me what is new about that?  We have to continue planning, of course, but should not be surprised when we are surprised (how is that for some deep national security guidance?)

– It is not accurate to say that proponents of net centric warfare did not see that IT itself could be a weakness.  This accusation is just unfounded.  But the fact is IT is changing the military and will continue to do so, even though it has weaknesses.

Those are just some thoughts.

By the way, I’m not sure I support this move, I worry that it will be harder to continue the efficient and effective continuous improvement of IT in the Services and Joint world because of this.  But as an outsider and a fan of big enterprise IT folks, I’ll be pulling for the folks who have the mission and I really hope this works out well.