February 1, 2006  

Spiraling ahead

With the loss of its greatest champion, what’s to become of transformation?

Retired Vice Adm. Arthur K. Cebrowski, who died Nov. 12, was at the center of the U.S. military’s struggle with the information age, part of a small coterie of visionaries who attempted to push the institution into the future. He argued that information technology challenged many of the precepts of traditional American military thinking. He saw network-centric organizations and warfare auguring radical change.

“We live between two great chapters of human history, in the messy interspaces between the industrial age we are leaving and the information age we are entering,” Cebrowski wrote in the beginnings of an autobiographical treatise.

Few could disagree with the statement, nor with Cebrowski’s simple proposition that the United States serves as the fulcrum for the future of military affairs.

After Sept. 11, 2001, Cebrowski became the head of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s Office of Force Transformation. In that job, Cebrowski articulated an aggressive view of the future of the U.S. military. “We should push — more rapidly, strongly, and diligently than we have — the potential capabilities that technology opens into the way we organize, structure, train and use the U.S. military,” he wrote.

It is a view that dovetailed with the defense secretary’s rhetoric, that transformation is as much about change as anything else. As Cebrowski liked to say, transformation is a process, not a destination.

So what will happen to transformation with the passing of one of its greatest champions? Absent the appointment of another high-profile figure, it is likely that the formal transformation office will descend into obscurity.

Officially, transformation has a definition. Unofficially, transformation continues to be exactly whatever any office or command offering the definition is doing. But under Rumsfeld, transformation has also transformed to having a singular and highly political meaning: It is speed, agility and flexibility. In the Rumsfeld era, program attributes that suggest quick action are favored and elevated to the exclusion of almost any other articulation of a way to operate.

No other process more symbolizes the Rumsfeld transformation of transformation than spiral development. Here lies the epitome of an absence of destination. When applied to acquisitions, spiral development may be the essence of flexibility in the information era. But when applied to policy and strategy, spiral development is vague and risky.

For most of the 1990s, Cebrowski was at the center of a growing group of military officers and theorists arguing in favor of a new trade-off between mass and information. On the one side was Cebrowski and others who argued that the U.S. military stood on the threshold of an explosion of information and knowledge that would change the very nature of warfare. On the other were those who argued that the metrics of military power didn’t change simply because some self-proclaimed visionaries said they were different. “Never saw and don’t believe bytes of information kill enemy soldiers,” now-retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper was fond of saying. “Bytes of information can be very valuable in war, but it’s bullets that kill enemies.”

In his penultimate assignment, Cebrowski worked with Adm. William Owens, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the most concerted internal push ever in favor of radical and rapid change for the U.S. military. The high water mark came in 1997, when Owens and Cebrowski convinced then-Chairman Gen. John Shalikashvili to issue “Joint Vision 2010,” a document billed as a “template for future U.S. military operations.” According to James Blaker, who at the time served as a civilian assistant to the vice chairman and worked on the vision, the document neatly navigated between the two competing views of tradition and revolution.

The first half of “Joint Vision 2010,” Blaker says, intentionally read like “an enlistment advertisement,” underlining the importance of tradition, the need for highly trained, dedicated and disciplined personnel, and for regard for the lessons of the past. The second half, pushed by Owens and Cebrowski, who was then the Joint Staff director of command, control, communications and computers, spoke of new operational concepts emphasizing agility and speed.

At all levels of conflict, according to the Owens-Cebrowski vision, military operations would move from sequential to concurrent actions, an argument that not only contradicted existing planning assumptions — it also challenged the linear operational concepts that had conditioned ground forces training, doctrine and equipment since the Civil War.

Information superiority was also posited as the key to military success, not military mass or a balance of tanks, aircraft and ships. Overwhelming force as practiced in Operation Desert Storm would be less useful and less effective than decisive force, applied quickly and precisely. Forces and equipment, training and doctrine would change to enable the new way of warfare.

“We actually believed it could be done by 2005,” Cebrowski would later tell Blaker, who would go on to toil as the admiral’s consultant and ghost writer. “But, we knew that would be too controversial to get people behind our efforts to accelerate change,” so Cebrowski said he, Owens and Shalikashvili chose 2010 instead as a target date.

Then the fog descended. Revolutionary restatements of military affairs met with strong skepticism and opposition from the senior military leadership. All four of the Joint Chiefs sent a letter to Shalikashvili asking that the chairman rein in his vice chairman as he was demanding too much of their time. Shalikashvili didn’t budge.

On some level, the issue was one of timing. The Internet was just emerging as the dominant paradigm; computers were still highly unreliable. No one could fathom the prospect of having to reboot the system during combat. Confusion, disruption and deception were immutable elements of the fog of war, senior military officers argued. Even with greater transparency and new-fangled “information operations,” the fallback still had to be mass and destruction.

Being senior military officers themselves, not politicians or pointy heads, Cebrowski and Owens understood the many valid counterarguments offered by the traditionalists. There might be a ferocious military debate, one in which Van Riper could write that “the so-called revolutionaries misunderstand the nature of war,” but the two admirals understood enough to know that for the military change was not easy, that those in uniform valued continuity and conformity to rules and that there were good reasons to maintain tradition.

Cebrowski in particular understood that predetermined doctrine had a place in the din of battle, that conservatism was purposeful in its desire to create predictability in an otherwise chaotic enterprise. Most important, Cebrowski believed that a highly structured, hierarchical organization adhering to doctrine was central to enforcing order and humanity during an otherwise immoral act.


That is because Cebrowski had an additional powerful reserve: He was a devout Roman Catholic with a special interest in just-war theory and how to use violence morally. “As a military professional, my career dealt directly with the most violent and destructive dimension of state power,” Cebrowski would later tell Blaker. “How to draw the line between the moral and immoral use of military force is a constant companion to those in the military profession; we wrestle with it throughout our careers.” What is more, Cebrowski said, the revolution in military affairs “had great moral seductiveness,” promising “to make it easier to protect the innocent.”

Cebrowski was arguing that change was not only called for, but that there was a moral imperative for even more rapid advances in precision. But if there was a moral imperative, Blaker says, it was the conviction on the part of many of Cebrowski’s contemporaries who felt it was their moral imperative to oppose his views. Cebrowski lost the battle during the counterrevolution of 1998. A new chairman and a thoughtless defense secretary possessed neither the intellectual curiously nor the stomach to take on the old ways. “Joint Vision 2010” became “Joint Vision 2020,” still officially a guide to the future of the American military, but the future was pushed back a decade, far enough away so that plans, programs and budgets didn’t have to change.

The old status quo returned. The phrase “revolution in military affairs” — with its connotation of what Cebrowski called “radicalism, speed and lack of control” — was banished, replaced by the more indeterminate and benign “transformation.”

When Cebrowski first met Rumsfeld in the summer of 2001, he was neither a Rumsfeld confidante nor a Bush administration insider. The new president had campaigned on a promise to transform the U.S. military and Rumsfeld made transformation a signature issue for his tenure at the Pentagon. Here was the new secretary, interviewing Cebrowski, who could dazzle with obscure briefings about network-centric warfare, dominant battlefield awareness and parallel operations.

Rumsfeld asked Cebrowski how he could help him transform the U.S. military. “But before I answered,” Cebrowski recalled, “Rumsfeld answered for me.”

“He was not particularly clear in that discussion,” Cebrowski said. “He talked of a need for big changes, undertaken quickly and of the controversy he expected to stir.” Within weeks, the secretary was describing U.S. Special Forces on horseback in Afghanistan as the “Rumsfeld transformation.”

“There was not a shred of transformation in a bunch of SOF [special operations forces] guys on horses calling in JDAMs [Joint Direct Attack Munitions],” said Barry Watts, Rumsfeld’s first director of program analysis and evaluation. “This is just the military making the most of what they’ve got.” In the same way that Cebrowski could be exasperatingly esoteric, the new secretary could be terribly simplistic.

The new “secretary of war,” as some dubbed him, articulated a war like no other and the need for a long war to defeat terrorism. Yet in planning circles he preached speed. He favored the unorthodox over the orthodox, special operations over conventional forces, simultaneous over sequential, actionable over deliberate, the ad hoc over the existing. The war in Afghanistan started, in the words of Benjamin Lambeth, author of the new Rand Corp. study “Air Power Against Terror,” with “no clear road map [and] no clear idea of what the endgame would look like.” Overwhelming force and the existing war plan for Iraq were later abandoned. Rumsfeld cut the number of ground forces that would be employed to achieve regime change.

Historians can debate what led to the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, whether “shock and awe” was a success, how Saddam Hussein was toppled in 21 days. At each step along the way, what is clear is that the secretary answered the question before and without any contending alternative views. He tightly controlled the information flow and doggedly articulated an enigmatic and slippery description of war’s uncertainties even as he stiff-armed all of the military safeguards that had built up over generations to minimize fog’s effects.

When the CIA said in the summer of 2003 that the United States was facing a “classic insurgency” in Iraq, Rumsfeld was still fighting his last war. Even when Gen. John Abizaid, the new head of U.S. Central Command, publicly contradicted the secretary, there was not a crack to be seen in the Rumsfeld way. It was as if the war the secretary got was exactly the war he wanted.

And thus enters the corrosive influence of the spiral. When applied to the development of complex systems of systems — command and control networks, missile defenses, the creation of a common operating picture — spiral development connotes acquiring and building upon components rather than using the traditional “fly before you buy” procurement approaches applied to individual weapons with fixed characteristics. The network can be improved upon incrementally through the use of compatible elements. As an element of transformation of procurement and business practices, spiral development makes some sense, but when applied to policies and strategies, it becomes indeterminate and vague guidance, a kind of bureaucratic and political cover that can be used to justify almost any decision.

If Osama bin Laden is not captured or killed in Afghanistan, the operation spirals on. If defeating the Iraqi army and toppling Saddam’s regime doesn’t result in instant change, objectives spiral. The opposition is doggedly labeled dead-enders and foreign fighters until that spirals as well. The mission shifts to reconstruction, to creating stability, to defeating an insurgency, to building a democracy — spiraling even to intentionally attracting terrorists to avoid them at home. The justification for war spirals as it becomes clear that there was no imminent threat from weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. military commitment to democracy and to defeating the insurgency then even spirals away as a new modification is acquired. The mission is now to build up Iraqi military and security forces to take over the problem so that the U.S. can withdraw with honor.

George Packer calls Iraq the Rashoman of wars in “Assassin’s Gate,” but that fails to fully convey the infinitely movable core of U.S. military strategy and policy under Rumsfeld. Transformation as a result is not just cynically “whatever”; it is intentionally vague and indeterminate.

In a way, the process has become the war; there is no fixed destination. So also true to form, just like when a weapon system is purchased and the specifications constantly change, an orgy of cost overruns with regard to policy also results. Public support spirals away as well.

One of Cebrowski’s combat axioms from his Vietnam War experience is that “no one learns as quickly as someone being shot at.” Warriors on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq are innovating and adapting; there is no question that the military is transforming as it becomes more conversant and comfortable in using revolutionary systems. In terms of fighting the big war, transformation has been incredibly successful. Effects-based operations are now jointly pursued, systems such as blue force tracking provide a common operating picture, bandwidth and communications are increasingly robust, more and more authority is pushed downward.

In fact, if there is one thing that has changed since Sept. 11, it is the military perspective on change. This is especially so given how conservative the military inherently is, as well as how hostile to change the senior uniformed leadership has been described.

For the future, though, the biggest obstacle impeding a wholesale embrace of Cebrowski-esque transformation and change is the uncertain ground the military has to occupy. On a day-to-day basis, the American military has to contend with promiscuously changing mission objectives as versions 1.0, 2.0 or 3.0 of each spiraled operation get loaded.

Further down the road, under the annoyingly vague force-structuring construct called capabilities-based planning, the military is being asked to prepare for everything and anything. Rumsfeld’s justification for transformation — that the post-Cold War period is filled with a greater variety of threats and a greater degree of uncertainty — seems on the surface to be tailor made for Sept. 11 and its aftermath. But the embrace of uncertainty is no more a defense and national security policy then it was before Sept. 11.

As Christopher J. Lamb, a senior research fellow in the Institute for National Strategic Studies, says, uncertainty “is the antithesis of planning.”

“It is not possible to plan for that which cannot be anticipated, and it is not possible to distribute resources to priority solutions if there is no corresponding known problem set,” Lamb writes.

Rumsfeld is asking the American military to “shape” the nature of future military competition “by accomplishing military missions that were previously unimaginable or impossible except at prohibitive risk and cost.” Yet there is a lack of consensus or even guidance as to what the actual missions might be or how (or whether) mission accomplishment will be defined.

The Defense Department under Rumsfeld has certainly instituted a host of new processes covering almost every aspect of defense planning, business practices and military operations. Though many of these processes have become inundated by the real demands of troops in the field and many have been hijacked by traditionalists and bureaucrats who use the occasion of war to work their passive-aggressive art to ensure stasis, the American military is transforming, at least, that is, to meet its immediate needs.

Cebrowski’s Vietnam combat axiom has a conclusion. The complete quotation is: “No one learns as quickly as someone being shot at, and usually no one in senior headquarters is being shot at.”

When Owens was vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he used a variety of arguments to reach consensus with service chiefs and senior officers often reluctant to accept his urgings for change. First, he played into the elitism and inherent specialness of military officers. Second, he would argue that the officers should make the changes themselves because they were the only ones who really understood the subject matter. Finally, he would drop his own bomb, a corollary of the Cebrowski axiom: If they did nothing, Owens would say, some deputy undersecretary named Sue would come up with something.

In the wise ways of senior leadership, Cebrowski believed strongly that it was not just the officer’s job to get those he leads to implement orders without denigrating or ignoring their insights. Officers, Cebrowski wrote, had a solemn obligation “to keep their seniors from issuing unfortunate or uninformed orders.”

“This is a moral dimension that distinguishes the American military from others,” he argued. “It places value on honesty and on maintaining the flow of information throughout the chain of command.”

Though Cebrowski became a fixture in senior Defense Department deliberations, even joining the defense secretary’s new Senior Leadership Review Group with regular access to Rumsfeld, he concluded before his death that in almost a decade of toil to change the military, he was never fully successful.

“The world was changing too rapidly, and the changes were digging down into the foundations of society — into basic assumptions and what we had accepted as rules,” Cebrowski wrote. He knew that competitors would measure military power in the future in radically different ways, but he also admitted that he could not accurately predict the future.

Could Rumsfeld match Cebrowski’s modesty, or articulate a similar moral compass to guide the development of the military into the future? Ask anyone at a high enough level in the Pentagon — military or civilian — who has to respond to the secretary’s constant storm of “snowflake” memos and they will tell you that the department goes around and around and around trying to figure out what the secretary wants, that Rumsfeld is intuitive but doesn’t have a clue how to follow up.

The snowflakes spiral to the ground, each one different, each one ephemeral and short-lived. As for military transformation, said one of Cebrowski’s former deputies: “That is more of a glacier.”