February 1, 2008  

Networks and knowing

Globalization is flattening the military landscape

Maneuver warfare has always held the elevated terrain as sacred. Aviators have a similar golden rule: Maintain altitude, which can be traded for speed, another virtue of air power. And at the extreme, space has become a key “domain,” as last year’s anti-satellite missile test by the Chinese reminds us. In its many forms, the “high ground” will always be critical to a strong national defense.

In April 2001, an EP-3 reconnaissance flight in the South China Sea revisited the golden rule after a pair of Chinese fighters intercepted the American patrol aircraft. Things became desperate when Wang Wei, one of the Chinese pilots, accidentally collided with the EP-3. Lt. Shane Osborne, the EP-3’s pilot, drew the world’s attention after he conducted an emergency landing, and his 24-person crew emerged on the Chinese island of Hainan. Although Wang Wei was never recovered after ejecting, Osborne’s skillful piloting prevented any loss of American life. Nonetheless, the U.S. found itself in a strategic foreign policy challenge, due simply to a tactical mistake on the part of one brash Chinese fighter pilot.

Given China’s role as a central node in the expanding network of globalization, the symbolic and physical intersection of America and China over the island of Hainan renewed consideration of how globalization influences the military. To be clear, the implications of the information age and globalization on the military are well-worn topics of discussion. For over a decade, network-centric warfare and other evolutions in military strategy have correctly focused on the increasing value of information.

Yet given the increasingly ideological nature of our national security challenges, we must open the aperture beyond bandwidth and “common operating pictures” to not only capitalize on our networks and exploit those of our enemies, but also to improve how we leverage those in between. Sharing information to improve awareness and succeed in conflict is a better way of fighting the same fight. By contrast, shaping information to affect motivations may prevent or end the conflict. Put another way, the next “revolution in military affairs” must go beyond building and manipulating networks for better employment of “hard power” to institutionalize understanding and leveraging networks as a source of “soft power.”

Along with recasting how we view information, we must also revive the importance of the individual. The special operations community has a long-standing mantra that “humans are more important than hardware.” And while the procurement of mine-resistant vehicles and our government’s response to the treatment of troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center demonstrate our focus on people, there is some risk in the information age that an overemphasis on knowledge will sideline the individual. This is a considerable pitfall given the individual’s increasing ability to influence the strategic endgame, as Wang Wei reminded us.

At first glance, the EP-3 downing illustrated the obvious potential for asymmetric effects when sensitive missions go sideways. The incident has been compared to the Soviet downing of a U.S. U-2 spy plane piloted by Gary Powers in 1960. Yet unlike Osborne’s misfortune, Powers’ U-2 was deep inside foreign airspace when it was deliberately shot down by Soviet surface-to-air missiles. Osborne, on the other hand, had been routinely patrolling international skies and was brought down by the errant flying of an individual, not a government. There is a reasonable expectation of major military and political implications in situations like the Powers incident. But something entirely different has occurred when our great nation finds itself embroiled in an international incident following inadvertent pilot error on the part of one individual in the global commons of international airspace.

Classic models have long demonstrated that complex interconnected systems, over time and shaped by competing influences, evolve toward the boundaries of order and chaos, where these systems enjoy optimal efficiency and agility. Scientists have affirmed this nonlinear sensitivity to small perturbation in a variety of disciplines from stock market behavior and biological populations to geologic tectonics and geopolitical shifts.

The defining characteristic of globalization is an increasing connectedness among the elements of a global system, which has several well-documented effects. The first is an increasing transparency of action and an associated amplified velocity and value of information. A less-documented but more accentuated effect stems from classic physics: that a more-connected, complex system is increasingly sensitive to nonlinear effects. But, most important, things now happen more quickly. It took weeks for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in an alley of Sarajevo to culminate in the first offensives in 1914. It took four days for the U.S. to issue a press release on its downed U-2 in 1960. In 2001, the world knew within hours that an American plane had nearly crashed in China.

While globalization changes how quickly things tend to happen, it more dramatically redefines how things happen and who makes things happen. Through the history of warfare, even through the completion of the Vietnam conflict, classic tactical or individual actions did not generally transcend the operational level to influence strategic effects. Recent examples suggest this may be changing. At one extreme was the incident at Hainan Island. On the other was Sept. 11, 2001 — a tactical attack by 19 men with clear strategic effects. This phenomenon, when leveraged by the enemy, is often characterized as asymmetric warfare, made possible by the proliferation of terrorism and unconventional weapons in the last half-century. But globalization’s blurring or flattening of the tactical, operational and strategic levels has equal but different ramifications for our side. Examples of this flattening abound in Iraq, where a few major illustrative turns in that war have included the shooting of one insurgent leader, the hanging of a deposed dictator and multiple bombings of a particularly symbolic shrine. In December 2006, a suspected insurgent leader named Sahib al-Ameri was shot and killed on his roof when he pointed his rifle at Iraqi and U.S. soldiers. The mission was, in a classic operational sense, a complete success. A high-level insurgent suspected of facilitating improvised explosive makers was killed. But this seemingly straightforward raid had a twist with immediate strategic implications. The next day it was learned that al-Ameri also happened to be Muqtada al-Sadr’s deputy, and soon thousands of his followers were protesting in the streets. Not long after, the issue had the attention of national-level leadership, demonstrating the lack of insulation between the individual soldier in the field and his ability to reap strategic effects.

Further fallout from this incident was mitigated by the subsequent news that Saddam Hussein would be executed within 24 hours — a considerable consolation for the protesting Shiites. And while the media coverage of the hanging initially appeared as politically palatable as a public execution can appear, it was immediately and quite strategically derailed by the proliferation of Internet cell phone video of Hussein being taunted in the final seconds of his life by Shiite witnesses. The killing of al-Ameri is proof that a lack of information operations (IO) considerations in conventional military planning may drive effects to transcend out of bounds and adversely impact the “big picture.” The hanging of Saddam is a reminder of the speed with which the audiences of today can become global. Both are examples of the power of the anonymous individual, whether armed with a rifle or a cell phone.

Yet in more than four years of U.S. military operations in Iraq, arguably the most strategic turn in the war involved terrorists emplacing a few tactically positioned explosive charges inside a 100-year-old gilded dome atone of the holiest Shiite shrines in Iraq. When the dome fell on a relatively quiet morning in February 2006 in the city of Samarra, the nature of the conflict was set on a new course of sectarian violence, demonstrating the sensitivity of a dry and strategic tinder box to a tactical but deliberately and well-placed match.

Undervalued: The Individual

An ardent determinist, Leo Tolstoy might have argued that the leader’s actions were mostly irrelevant. But since we can’t risk our national security to Tolstoy’s determinism, we seek to influence the future through the decision-making of an extensively trained corps of senior military leaders. But Tolstoy’s inverted relationship between level of leadership and influence on world events has an alternate interpretation: that collective individual action is more powerful than the single leader in influencing history. While we often speak as though it is the other way around, leaders are important and individuals are powerful.

In an age of advancing technology on a shrinking planet, the individual is increasingly capable of tactical action that might eclipse our leader’s strategic efforts. This is particularly true in cases of individual lapses of professional ethics. In the past several decades, headlines outside the military context have highlighted a number of such lapses that have had far-reaching implications. The worst nuclear accident in history, the 1986 explosion at Chernobyl, has been attributed to human negligence and error on the part of the plant’s operators, who decided to conduct an ill-advised and improper experiment with the reactor. And one of the worst oil spills in recent history, the 1989 rupture of the Exxon Valdez’s hull, was attributed to human error and negligence on the part of the ship’s captain, who had allegedly been drinking.

The phenomenon of individual human error causing disproportionately large effects is particularly challenging for the armed forces, because they routinely operate at the edge of ethical norms by virtue of their dual role as civil defenders and warriors. Our aircraft carriers have delivered food and water to tsunami victims in Indonesia just as effectively as they delivered bombs aimed at al-Qaida in Iraq. Our national strength requires that our nation’s troops operate along a stressed boundary of profound respect for humanity and ruthless violence of action. Coupling this fact with the velocity of modern communications and the scrutiny of global opinion, we should not be surprised that our troops operate closer to the strategic level, particularly in an age of small-scale irregular conflict embroiled in a “battle of ideas.”

In 2004, world attention turned to one of four main prisons in Iraq, a lockup for insurgent detainees in Abu Ghraib. The infamous Baghdad suburb was not the site of a major battle of arms — it was a turning point in the battle of ideas. The failures that precipitated such actions have been exhaustively debated. It is arguable that the crisis was, on one level, a psychological testament to the dehumanizing influence of war. In another sense, it was poor judgment by a handful of junior soldiers with insufficient supervision. And on a third level, it represented the ability of today’s media to quickly move information in debilitating circles around any rigid hierarchy. The contrast between the flattened global landscape and the vertical model of military leadership will continue to yield such challenges. One small but important lesson of Abu Ghraib, as with the Saddam hanging, is that underlying problems will be rapidly exposed by digital technology and the omnipresent media. The demands on the professionalism of our practices are as formidable as cell phones are ubiquitous.

More important, and perhaps unfair to the toils and sacrifices of the hundreds of thousands of hard-working and professional American service members, our position in Iraq, and perhaps the world, had suddenly surrendered some high ground. Like the military’s release of GPS to the world, the ubiquity of reporters on today’s battlefields is unlikely to be reversed. Their presence, coupled with the digital age of the Internet and a growing ideological struggle among adversaries, is just one of many reasons that information operations, public affairs, public diplomacy, civil-military operations and strategic communications must be an integral part of the training of our officer corps at every level. The realities of how these areas have permeated our operational planning should not be viewed as a liability or something we succumb to for the sake of political sensitivities, but rather as an opportunity for us to exploit. We should not be reactionary on the ideological battlefield — we should be calling the shots.

Since the disbanding of the U.S. Information Agency and the creation of the International Broadcasting Board of Governors in 1999, when responsibility for public diplomacy was folded into the State Department, the nation’s ability to drive effective strategic communications has been widely criticized. There are, nonetheless, some bright spots. The recommendations of a recent Government Accountability Office study on public diplomacy are mostly reflected in the “National Strategy for Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communications,” and Congress recently (and modestly) augmented State’s budget in this vital area. Yet the effectiveness of implementation and the split organization at the national level should continue to be re-examined.

While the military is not officially responsible for this effort, it is frequently at the center of the stage. Thus it is fortunate that the Pentagon clearly understands the information revolution and the related imperative for an “indirect” approach to countering violent ideologies as demonstrated by increased attention on improved communications in a “media age,” polling of foreign audiences, and expanded cultural and language training.

It is in this spirit that the military must consider an improved and renewed organization with respect to “information-related” operations, not simply to gain favor for our many honorable actions, but also to expose terrorism as the evil to humanity that it is. We must doctrinally integrate and more clearly define the similar but distinct fields of public affairs, civil affairs, information operations, military support to public diplomacy and strategic communications, particularly given their broad overlap and frequent intersections. Existing doctrine is insufficient in explaining the relationships between this family of fields. Understanding how to leverage the supporting strengths between these mutually reinforcing fields will be a key to success. Our ability to do this is not yet optimized, and thus our coordination of efforts in the battle of ideas is impaired. To integrate these fields will require expanding the classic definition of IO and network-centric warfare beyond processing and sharing of information to include the more dynamic and difficult elements of leveraging and shaping information.

This should be accompanied by the corresponding creation of a new joint professional community of information operations officers, akin to Foreign Area Officers, so that our new “super-IO” advisers are professionally trained full-time specialists, rather than line officers acting in a collateral capacity. The full spectrum leveraging of information is too important to be a narrow collection of cyber issues, electronic warfare and the pursuit of the elusive “common operating picture.” Our management of information and the age-old influence of “hearts and minds,” whether done properly or poorly, may have more real impact than classic engagement of the enemy with bullets and bombs.

Just as globalization extends the reach and impact of U.S. military actions, the horizon of our leadership training needs to expand accordingly. Beyond the time-honored and sound requirement that maneuver warfare include the decentralized fundamental of “commander’s intent,” it is now increasingly necessary that our boots on the ground know not only their superior’s operational objectives, but that they also clearly understand their national strategic priorities. Globalization not only mandates such a transformation, but its underlying causes may also expedite such change with technologies, like peer-to-peer networking, that facilitate communication with the “fringes” of our forward forces. As a first step toward recognizing the value of the individual, the strategic-level commander’s intent must be clearly articulated to the foot soldier, because that soldier is increasingly capable of influencing the strategic endgame.

Last, and perhaps most imperative, the flattening of the military landscape has practical leadership implications for the training of our junior officers, those closest to the ranks of our individual actors. Most critical is the importance of resilience in decision-making, particularly with regard to ethical dilemmas, which abound in the situations our junior officers increasingly encounter. Our leadership training must refocus our approach to the individual, with a particular emphasis on professional ethics, as our larger goals become increasingly influenced by decision making at the individual level. For instance, conventional ethical training, which can be mired in memorization of definitions and classic moral philosophy, may no longer be sufficient. The “do the right thing” approach is of less value in situations where the dominant juxtaposition is right vs. right, not right vs. wrong. Reshaping training to focus on the individual actor and to understand the dynamics of such dilemmas will advance the already strong legacy of military leadership training and bring it to bear on the conundrums of future generations. As with respecting information, this is not a reaction to the whims of political correctness or to prevent national embarrassment. It is an acknowledgement of the changing landscape, an investment in our future infrastructure, and a requirement for success in combating terrorism.

CMDR. JEFFREY W. EGGERS is a naval officer serving on the Joint Staff. He recently completed a tour as a director for combating terrorism at the National Security Council and a White House fellow. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Navy, the Defense Department or the U.S. government.