Retired U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Arthur Cebrowski, who died Nov. 12, joins George S. Patton, Billy Mitchell, Hyman Rickover and others in that great brotherhood of military innovators who revolutionized national security affairs.
It is a heroic cadre, because changing things and pushing into new frontiers in military affairs inevitably mean challenging convention and hierarchy in the most inherently conservative of American institutions.
Like Patton’s insights into the promise of armor, Mitchell’s unerring faith in the potential of aircraft and Rickover’s advocacy of nuclear-powered submarines, Cebrowski’s keen appreciation of the power of information technology opened new passages of military strategy. But he searched for much more than just how to adjust military functions to emerging technology. He drove the debate from the eternal military question of how to use the wisdom of experience to the far more disruptive question of how to change past wisdom to meet the new challenges of the time. And he understood that to do so meant shifting from the military focus on questions of “how” to the more profound questions of “why.”
Cebrowski understood how difficult rapid innovation is for militaries, for he was no armchair intellectual. He had flown and led more than 150 attack sorties through North Vietnamese flak and missiles, commanded squadrons and aircraft carriers in combat, pounded out the design of future forces while serving on Navy and joint staffs, and, in his last position as the secretary of defense’s director of the Office of Force Transformation, built the conceptual foundation for U.S. military transformation.
Writing in the first year of the 21st century, he argued that “the central lesson is that innovation is more than just the introduction of new technology. Innovation requires articulating a vision of how a technology or operational concept can gain a significant advantage in the future competitive environment.” He thought and wrote of shifts in ages, cultures, institutions and of new theories of war — and of the tension between military force and moral authority.
His legacy is a new and deeper understanding of military force. Most of the observers, advocates and opponents of military transformation approach it myopically. They seize on a particular technology or military technique, a tactic or strategy, an organizational form or military structure as a harbinger for changing the U.S. military, or turn to earlier history to critique and caution against doing so. They pay lip service to the dramatic changes that swirl around the military — to globalization, technological proliferation and the clash of cultures. But Cebrowski rooted his vision in these tectonic shifts and drew from them an internally consistent concept on why and how the U.S. military must change.
He did so deductively. Society was moving from the industrial to the information age, and, just as such grand shifts in the past had changed the sources of military power, a similar transition is underway today. Military power would increasingly flow from information technology. But this source differed from earlier ones. Unlike industrial power, information technology was available to just about anyone who wanted it. And those who could most quickly adapt it and use it militarily would be the most powerful. What made the new technology potent were military organizations, structures and operational concepts that differed from those which the United States had honed for the industrial age. The U.S. military recognized this and led all others in transitioning to the new age. But its size, its current dominance in military power and its pride worked against the probability it could keep the lead.
Cebrowski developed two concepts to change that probability, convinced the defense secretary they were valid and needed, and was the most articulate of those who have sought to implement them. The first was the argument that military transformation is a process, not a destination. That sounds easy enough. Most dictionaries define transformation as “change,” and who doesn’t believe the cliché about the only constant being change itself? But acting on the notion that transformation has no end point challenges the comfortable planning approach of setting time-phased goals, working backward to set milestones and then adhering as rigidly as funding allows to schedules designed to reach the destinations.
Dispelling the notion of transformation end points undermines linear, sequential planning. It makes leaps to more advanced systems more thinkable. It provides the intellectual foundation for spiral development to integrate technology and organizations much faster. It justifies true experimentation, not efforts to demonstrate you were “on schedule.” It breaks the crystal hardness of “programs of record” that, once established, drive relentlessly toward their destination, even when the world for which the end point was destined has vanished. It was a profoundly disruptive concept, rooted in American positivism that emphasized continually subjecting earlier decisions, assumptions and policies to assessment, critique and challenge. It accelerates transformation.
His other prime concept was “network-centric operations.” Here, too, was a disruptive extension of what at first seems a truism. If, for example, an infantry team or Marine squad, separated from other units by the ridge of a hill or other geographic obstacle, sees an enemy waiting in ambush, shouldn’t it inform its colleagues? Information technology makes doing so easier, not just among squad members but among companies, battalions and divisions. And between Army and Marine battalions and Air Force squadrons. And between Air Force squadrons and Navy aircraft carriers.
Cebrowski argued for pushing information down to the tactical level and for more widely distributed operations. But he took it further, calling for a transfer of decision power along with the information and for moving toward self-synchronization among tactical units at the expense of the kind of hierarchical command structures that dominate U.S. military command and control today. Doing this, he argued, would allow the U.S. military to achieve that long-sought goal of being able to operate within the decision-action cycles of opponents. Yes, he admitted, always with a twinkle in his eye and the shadow of a smile, it would blur the lines between the military services. It would facilitate their integration and perhaps even raise their interdependence. It would enable a new form of “sense and respond” logistics support that blurs the boundaries among support, operations and intelligence. It would shift command away from centralized authority and discretion toward subordinate units. It challenged hoary concepts such as the fog and friction of war dictums that the esteemed Clausewicz had handed down 200 years earlier. It offered a means of defeating an opponent other than by attrition.
Cebrowski pushed these grand thoughts to specifics, however. If the emerging information technologies made network-centric operations feasible, could they also enable more effective naval operations by spreading the capabilities now lodged in a few massive ships among more numerous, faster, stealthier and less expensive ships that were highly networked, each carrying in a module part of what had before been concentrated in a single platform? His affirmative answer was the Street Fighter concept that has now morphed into the U.S. Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship.
If U.S. forces, blessed with the new technology, restructured and reorganized to conduct network-centric operations, could operate over vaster distances, how could they remain networked and supplied? His answer was the TacSat — smaller and far less expensive satellite networks and systems — that will make U.S. military use of space far more effective and responsive to a new set of previously underserved users: forces at the operational and tactical level of warfare.
Another answer was leasing and experimenting with fast transport ships from foreign sources, since U.S. shipyards don’t build these types of vessels. Now seaborne logistics can be performed in one-third the time it took five years ago.
Cebrowski was a revolutionary. He knew he was describing a radically new way of using military force and was calling for dramatic changes in the design of the U.S. military. Why did this kind, patriotic and sophisticated man do this? His religious faith and Western philosophy had a lot to do with it. He understood St. Augustine’s linear concept of history and the view that the moral character of mankind could improve. He studied the American pragmatists John Dewey and William James and the Jesuit John Courtney Murray. He read and was conversant with the Just War literature. He did not believe armed conflict was inevitable but thought that it was likely the United States would confront it. And the just use of force, he would say, mandated no harm to the innocent. Network-centric operations offered a way to lessen the dilemma of using military force without harming the innocent. It promised to push conflict from the physical to the cognitive realm, from the arena of physical destruction, attrition and annihilation toward the arena of belief, thought and perception in which a networked force, designed for agility, would always have the edge. It would have that edge because its emphasis on lateral communications made it learn faster and better understand the conflict environment. That meant it could perceive more operational options sooner than its opponent; that it could decide which of them to pursue and implement its decisions faster. It would be able to impose overwhelming complexity on its opponent; to almost always beat it to the punch, almost always avoid disadvantageous contacts and almost always not be where the opponent thought it would be. It would win because the opponent would believe he could not.
Network-centric operations would not banish terrible violence from military conflict. The innocent would not be immune from its effects. But this way of using force would be less harmful to them, and therefore, it was the right moral choice, as well as the most effective.
Cebrowski’s legacy demonstrates the power of and necessity for continual thought and assessment of the character and purpose of military force. Like the great military theorists, he fit military affairs into a broader social and historical context, recognizing that military forces reflected deeper rivers of human affairs. Like great American thinkers, he understood the value as well as the inevitability of change. He never had the arrogance to believe he could accurately predict the future, but he relished and never questioned the idea of trying to shape and influence what would come. He was the prime architect of U.S. military transformation.