January 1, 2007  

The NCW illusion

Proponents of network-centric warfare (NCW) envision the future war as fought by small, geographically dispersed and highly deployable forces operating offensively, in parallel and simultaneously, and on a noncontiguous battlefield. They assert that a robustly networked force improves information sharing, which enhances quality of information and shared situational awareness. Shared situational awareness enables collaboration and self-synchronization and enhances sustainability and speed of command; these, in turn, dramatically increase mission effectiveness. NCW advocates contend that in the future war one’s force level will be precisely determined. There will be no need for reserves or reinforcements. Likewise, logistical support and sustainment will be precisely calibrated to reduce or eliminate redundancies. Supplies will be delivered “just in time.” The focus will be not on objectives to be accomplished, but on effects to be attained.

Effects-based operations are touted as the main method for combat force employment. The concept of center of gravity has been watered down and essentially made useless by the adoption of the so-called system-of-systems approach in analyzing the situation. Likewise, NCW proponents apparently believe the Clausewitzian concept of point of culmination is obsolete.

Like all technocrats, NCW enthusiasts equate management with leadership. Interference from the top in purely tactical elements of the situation is increasingly considered a virtue, not a vice to be avoided. Technology is considered not an aid to war fighters but the very heart of warfare. Everything else is subordinated to the “systems.” Hence, it is not surprising that humans are reduced to a “human-centric system.”


Initially, NCW advocates were unable or unwilling to define what their new concept really was. However, after the concept was adopted as one of the pillars of the Defense Department transformation process, network-centric enthusiasts began to assert that NCW could be successfully applied not only in the combat phase of a campaign but also in low-intensity conflict. NCW proponents also assert that in the new theory of war, new sources of power can be brought to bear across the spectrum of military competition, from peacekeeping, deterrence and dissuasion to violent clashes and high-intensity conflict. NCW can also be applied not only to force building and countering traditional threats but also to countering irregular, catastrophic and disruptive threats.

However, the empirical evidence so far shows only that NCW is effective in fighting weak and passive opponents, such as the Taliban regime in Afghanistan or the incompetent military in Iraq. It might also be effective when nonmilitary (i.e. political, diplomatic or psychological) aspects of a strategic objective predominate, as in the Kosovo conflict of 1999. There is no proof, at least not yet, that NCW would be effective in quickly and decisively defeating stronger and much more skillful opponents than the ones the U.S. forces faced in Afghanistan and Iraq. NCW also appears not to provide much of an advantage in fighting an insurgency in the post-hostilities phase of a campaign, as the current situations in Afghanistan and Iraq illustrate. In fact, the ongoing insurgency in Iraq is a powerful proof, if any is needed, of how little practical value networking one’s forces has in obtaining accurate, timely and relevant information on the enemy.

There is probably no conflict in which U.S. forces have fought in such ignorance of the enemy’s purpose, strength and leadership.

Even more dubious are ideas that somehow NCW can be effective in fighting and defeating international terrorists such as al-Qaida.

NCW enthusiasts insist that, in the new theory of war, the destruction of the enemy’s army is not as important as it was in the past. In their view, what matters most is to obtain control of the enemy’s territory. Yet since the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars, wars have ended only after the enemy’s army has been destroyed or forced to surrender on the battlefield. The reason is pretty simple and obvious: Once the enemy’s army is defeated, control of the enemy’s territory is ensured. Otherwise, the process of consolidating and exploiting one’s strategic or operational objectives will be long and painful.

Experience in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) contradicts the key tenets of NCW advocates. The coalition forces’ focus on seizing Iraq’s territory while bypassing or not engaging Iraqi forces on the ground resulted in too many Iraqi troops simply vanishing and merging into the general populace. Failure to destroy the Iraqi ground forces in the major combat phase of OIF is one of the main reasons for the spread of insurgency and continuing difficulties in Iraq today.

NCW enthusiasts’ views on future warfare are similar to the failed theories of the late-18th-century “mathematical (or geographical) school” of warfare. Then, wars were conducted with smaller, expensive, mercenary armies operating in a large space. The art of war was not based on bloody battles but on skillful avoidance of “checkmate”-setting maneuvers through geometrically calculated marches and movements around the opponent.

NCW proponents’ views on the future war are also strikingly similar to those of generals Giulio Douhet and Hugh Trenchard and other early air-power enthusiasts. Similar views also arose in the interwar years among the most prominent proponents of army motorization — British Maj. Gen. J.F.C. Fuller, for example. In the 1920s, Fuller alleged that the physical epoch (in warfare) had ended and the moral epoch was dawning. It was no longer necessary to literally destroy the enemy’s armies in the field, as the Allies had tried to do during the war. Aircraft using gas would disable, demoralize and paralyze unarmored troops, surface ships and civilian populations and infrastructure alike. Armored forces would paralyze, demoralize and cause the disintegration of armies by striking at their rear communications and command system in the same manner. Politically, with slaughter and destruction reduced, war would become both more humane and more rational.

To destroy a nation is to destroy the very objective of peace; consequently, the less destruction, the more complete to the winner is the victory.

Linear vs. Nonlinear Warfare

NCW advocates view warfare in predominantly physical and tactical terms. They falsely claim that wars in the past were linear while NCW is supposedly nonlinear. True enough, in purely physical terms, wars fought until the end of the 18th century were linear. The French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars were the first wars with noncontiguous fronts. However, many wars fought in the industrial era — for example, the Russo-Japanese War and the war on the western front in World War I — were also fought along more or less fixed front lines, employing vast numbers of troops on each side. Most wars in the modern era were nonlinear, that is, operations were conducted in several dimensions and distributed throughout the width and depth of the battlefield.

NCW enthusiasts assert that the future war will be fought without traditional lines drawn on the map, such as the forward line of one’s own troops. One’s forces should be able to disperse when they need to and come together when they must, by substituting information for mass and through the use of information systems. NCW advocates wrongly insist that OIF illustrated the emergence of the noncontiguous battlefield — the battlefield without a front — and that this was possible only because of networking. However, the Iraqis chose not to concentrate their ground forces in large numbers along their borders with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. They also did not have many forces deployed in the proximity of the borders with Jordan and Syria. In other words, war on land without a contiguous front can occur because of vast space or because of insufficient forces on both sides. On the eastern front and in the Balkans, World War I was fought without a continuous front. Likewise, the Russian Civil War (1918-21) was conducted over the vast steppes of southern Russia without fronts. The highly successful German campaigns in Poland, Norway and the west in 1939-40 were also examples of wars with noncontiguous fronts. The linearity of warfare as exemplified by such elements as base of operations, lines of operations, line of communications and the concept of decisive points is not meaningless or out-of-date in the information age, as the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have demonstrated

The nonlinearity of war is not just a matter of geography or technology but is the product of many other factors, most of them intangible. They include, but are not limited to, the inherently chaotic nature of war, the perennial and insolvable factor of friction, chance, personalities of the commanders, and the unpredictability, and often irrationality, of human nature. War’s psychological aspects make it inherently nonlinear, as Clausewitz aptly observed some 170 years ago. Traditionally, nonlinearity in warfare was associated with insurgency and counterinsurgency. In modern conventional operations it pertains to one’s ability to move forces, collect information, transmit orders, acquire targets and strike at widely dispersed points within the battle space. However, there are potentially serious problems in protecting the flanks of one’s forces when those forces are dispersed beyond a mutually supporting distance. There is also a problem of logistical support and sustainment if speed of movement is combined with dispersal of one’s combat forces.


Perhaps one of the principal beliefs of NCW proponents is that, in the future, one’s forces will be much lighter and smaller than they are today. The logic behind this is based on NCW advocates’ belief that dramatic advances in the precision and lethality of smart weapons will enable a major part of one’s combat potential to be brought to the battlefield from great distances. In theory, this would require a smaller presence of organic weapons. If fewer organic weapons are needed, then the ground forces themselves can be smaller and more dispersed. They are then harder to find and thus more difficult for enemy forces to target. Because of their small size, the forces can be brought on a battlefield fairly quickly, even faster than a traditional light airborne unit. A relatively small and rapidly deployable force would be capable of accomplishing missions that would otherwise require a large massed force.

If one believes in the lessons of history, NCW claims that a war can be fought and won by employing smaller but more agile and well-equipped combat forces are simply false. At the least, such claims should be vigorously debated. It is one thing to win a victory in the major combat phase of a campaign by using small and sophisticated forces with practically no operational reserves or readily available reinforcements when one is fighting a passive and incompetent opponent, as was the Taliban in 2001-02 or the Iraqi army in 2003. It is another matter when the conflict is with strong and resourceful enemies. Moreover, the need to fully control the enemy territory and population in the posthostilities invariably requires, at least initially, much larger forces on the ground. The situation is even more complicated if one’s forces are engaged in fighting an insurgency. It is true that enormous advances in precision weapons combined with information technologies have led to a rather significant increase in the combat power and effectiveness of U.S. forces in the air and at sea. What is overlooked is that the increase in the ground forces’ combat power is not of the same order of magnitude and quality as that of air forces and naval forces. Also, one’s ground forces must be capable of fighting in much more diverse and forbidding environment than the other services and also have to perform missions across the entire range of military operations.

For OIF, the Office of the Secretary of Defense deliberately did not deploy U.S. forces timely into the theater, but only issued deployment orders, hoping that the forces would not be needed. On standby were the 15,000-man 1st Armored Division based at Wiesbaden, Germany; the 17,000-man 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas; and the 4,700-man 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment at Colorado Springs, Colorado. The 101st Airborne Division was initially slated to lead the charge to Baghdad, but was instead used to secure Najaf, Hillah, Karbala and other towns along the route. The Marines spent a week of hard fighting to secure Nasiriyah. One brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division was sent back to secure lines of communications. The Office of the Secretary of Defense and Central Command also held the 4th Infantry Division (Mechanized), with 35 ships and laden with heavy armor and equipment, off Turkey’s coast for too long after it became clear that Turkey’s parliament would not reverse its original decision not to allow U.S. ground forces to use the country’s territory. This division did not receive orders to start movement toward Kuwait until March 27 and was not expected to reach Kuwait until early April.

NWC advocates’ assertions are, in fact, not new; almost exactly the same rationale was used by airpower proponents and some leading advocates of motorization in the 1920s and 1930s. Gen. Hans von Seeckt, the chief of the German Reichswehr, wrote that the whole future of warfare appeared to lie in the employment of mobile armies, relatively small but of high quality and rendered distinctly more effective by the addition of aircraft, and in the simultaneous mobilization of the whole defense force, whether to feed the attack or for home defense. He also insisted that two major requirements in the modern era for the success of operations conducted along interior lines were speed and mobility of action. Similarly, the era of missiles and nuclear weapons promised the radical reduction, if not elimination, of conventional forces. None of these prophecies was fulfilled.

Overemphasizing Speed

NCW enthusiasts repeatedly insist that one of the most important features of the new American way of war is high speed in making decisions and executing planned actions. They contend that networking is the key that enables battle-space transparency, which in turn is the key prerequisite for speed of deployment, organization, employment and sustainment.

NCW proponents assert that small changes in initial conditions result in enormous changes in outcome. Hence, speed becomes a more valuable characteristic of the entire force, because the ability to decide and act faster than the opponent allows us to define or alter the initial conditions on terms favorable to our interests.

In the initial phase of OIF, the quick advance of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division is often cited as proof that the emphasis on speed works. While it is true that the 3rd ID covered a distance of about 370 miles from Kuwait to the outskirts of Baghdad in only a few days, this rapid advance also had a price. The 3rd ID was forced to fight in multiple directions and with units in contact often up to some 125 miles apart. If the Iraqi commanders had been more agile and competent than they were, the 3rd ID would have run into serious difficulties on its way to Baghdad.

The emphasis on speed in warfare is not new. From the ancient era until today, the most successful commanders invariably emphasized speed in making decisions and in the movement of forces as the key element for success. For example, Napoleon I insisted that waging war energetically and with severity is the only way to make it shorter. He also believed that an army’s strength, like power in mechanics, is estimated by multiplying mass by rapidity; a rapid march augments the morale of an army and increases all the chances of victory.

Like the NCW advocates today, however, German chief of general staff Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen overemphasized the importance of speed in the conduct of major operations and campaigns. Schlieffen’s plan of 1905 (actually a memorandum) for a campaign against France and Belgium envisaged defeating a large French army quickly in a single blow and then shifting the weight of effort east against Russia. The campaign would consist of a single major combat phase; hence, no operational pause was planned. The well-known German theoretician and Schlieffen’s contemporary, Gen. Friedrich von Bernhardi was highly critical of Schlieffen’s excessive focus on the value of the double envelopment and his underestimation of the penetration maneuver.

Another problem was that Schlieffen rejected the idea of having reserves behind the front line. This, combined with the insufficient maneuverability of the German forces, led to difficulties in meeting unexpected changes in the situation and exploiting sudden favorable opportunities during the plan’s execution in August 1914.

war without pause

NCW enthusiasts apparently believe that fighting in the future will be continuous and there will be no need for operational pauses. Supposedly these ideas were first tested successfully in OIF. Yet, contrary to NCW advocates’ expectations, logistics and the weather conspired to impose a 72-hour-long operational pause on the coalition forces in the sector of main effort. It is simply unrealistic to grandly proclaim that continuous operations will be conducted all the time and in any environment — a least, this is the impression one gets from reading various statements of NCW proponents. No one can ignore the hard realities of combat. In general, continuous fighting is difficult to envision for any great length of time, even against weaker and passive enemies. Forces must be supplied and sustained; the weather and difficulties of terrain might make continuous combat a practical impossibility. One’s forces must at some point slow down and shift to a temporarily defensive posture before resuming its advance or operations.

The proponents of NCW firmly believe that war can be fought successfully not only with small forces but also without any reserves or reinforcements. These and similar views violate one of the basic tenets of warfare at all levels: Commanders should have or create reserve regardless of the size of forces available or becoming available. Otherwise, their freedom to act is much reduced. Without reserves, commanders would be unable to act effectively in the case of some unexpected reverses on the battlefield and turn the tide to their favor. A lack of reserves or reinforcements considerably reduces the number of friendly courses of action open to the commander. At the same time, the enemy commander’s problem of deducing friendly courses of action is greatly simplified. Even if in some situation a war could be fought without reserves, this should never be rigidly set down in doctrine. The key to success in solving a military problem on hand is always to vary one’s approach.

Tactical-Level Jointness

Some leading NCW proponents have stated that jointness should be extended all the way down to the lowest tactical command echelon. They asserted that compressed operations and levels of war would eliminate procedural boundaries between services and within processes, so that to achieve rapid and decisive effects, joint operations must be conducted at the lowest organizational levels possible. However, employing multiservice forces to accomplish purely tactical objectives would unnecessarily complicate the planning and execution of a tactical action. Service cultures are different; doctrine, command and control processes and logistics differ, in some cases, too much to justify the advantages of applying joint employment of forces to accomplish tactical objectives.

These objectives can be achieved much more efficiently and quickly by relying on single-service tactical-size forces. Lowering the level of jointness from the operational-tactical to the tactical level should be justified solely in terms of the military objectives. One’s efforts should be focused on the highest degree of multiservice employment in planning and conducting major operations and campaigns, not at the tactical level of war. There is much more to be done at the operational and strategic levels that needs continuing attention and efforts on the part of the U.S. joint community. In short, the objectives to be accomplished — not jointness for the sake of jointness — should be the determining factor on whether platforms or forces of a single or two or more services should be employed.

Dangerous visions

Experience shows the difficulties of predicting exactly the real nature of the future war. However, a vision of the future should avoid certainty and dogmatism. Whenever the vision conflicts with reality, the necessary lessons should be derived and corresponding changes made.

It is even more serious to make long-range programmatic decisions based on flimsy or contradictory evidence and unproven assertions. Experience conclusively shows the danger of having a vision of war or operational concept that is in serious disconnect with operational realities. It is presumptuous to think that the information age or the 21st century has somehow made all military theory irrelevant and all experiences somehow dated or invalid, as many NCW proponents think or imply.

The single biggest problem with the vision of the future war propounded by NCW advocates is their almost exclusive focus on information and new technological advances. There is no argument that information has played an important and often critical part in making decisions and ultimately winning wars. However, success in war is the product not only of what is called today “information dominance” but also of many other tangible and intangible factors. The human element, not technology, has been in the past and will remain in the future the key to one’s victories. The complexity of the mix of technology and human factors defies any attempt to quantify their relationships or predict outcomes.