How Network-Centric Warfare Failed: The Networks are Social, Not Electronic

Michael Gilbert picks up on an important piece:
How Technology Almost Lost the War: In Iraq, the Critical Networks Are Social — Not Electronic

A couple of key ‘grafs:

The network-centric approach had worked pretty much as advertised. Even the theory’s many critics admit net-centric combat helped make an already imposing American military even more effective at locating and killing its foes. The regimes of Saddam Hussein and Mullah Omar were broken almost instantly. But network-centric warfare, with its emphasis on fewer, faster-moving troops, turned out to be just about the last thing the US military needed when it came time to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan. A small, wired force leaves generals with too few nodes on the military network to secure the peace. There aren’t enough troops to go out and find informants, build barricades, rebuild a sewage treatment plant, and patrol a marketplace.

“A well-informed but geographically dispersed force,” Garstka and Cebrowski wrote in 1998, should be able to triumph over any foe, regardless of “mission, force size and composition, and geography.” But neither Cebrowski nor Garstka was thinking about the kind of combat where foes blend into the populace and seed any stretch of road with bombs. Lawless towns like this can be pacified only by flooding them with troops — collecting tips and knocking heads. That’s what Prior needs, not more gadgets. “They’re just tools,” he says in his flat Iowa accent.

Locals can’t see the information or update any of those databases with their own intelligence. A key tenet of network theory is that a network’s power grows with every new node. But that’s only if every node gets as good as it gives. In Iraq, the most important nodes in this fight are all but cut off.

Meanwhile, insurgent forces cherry-pick the best US tech: disposable email addresses, anonymous Internet accounts, the latest radios. They do everything online: recruiting, fundraising, trading bomb-building tips, spreading propaganda, even selling T-shirts. And every American-financed move to reinforce Iraq’s civilian infrastructure only makes it easier for the insurgents to operate. Every new Internet café is a center for insurgent operations. Every new cell tower means a hundred new nodes on the insurgent network. And, of course, the insurgents know the language and understand the local culture. Which means they plug into Iraq’s larger social web more easily than an American ever could. As John Abizaid, Franks’ successor at Central Command, told a conference earlier this year, “This enemy is better networked than we are.”

But for all that, Cebrowski and Garstka weren’t really writing about network-centric warfare at all. They were writing about a single, network-enabled process: killing. In 1998, to a former fighter jock and missile defender, the two things must have seemed the same. A decade later, it’s pretty clear they aren’t — not with American troops nation-building in Afghanistan, peacekeeping in Kosovo, chasing pirates off Djibouti, delivering disaster relief to Indonesia, and fighting insurgents in Iraq.

The fact is, today we rely on our troops to perform all sort of missions that are only loosely connected with traditional combat but are vital to maintaining world security. And it’s all happening while the military is becoming less and less likely to exercise its traditional duties of fighting an old-fashioned war. When is that going to happen again? What potential enemy of the US is going to bother amassing, Saddam-style, army tanks and tens of thousands of troops when the insurgent approach obviously works so well? “The real problem with network-centric warfare is that it helps us only destroy. But in the 21st century, that’s just a sliver of what we’re trying to do,” Nagl says. “It solves a problem I don’t have — fighting some conventional enemy — and helps only a little with a problem I do have: how to build a society in the face of technology-enabled, super-empowered individuals.”

Worth a read in depth for those of us interested in networked strategies for social change.

One thought on “How Network-Centric Warfare Failed: The Networks are Social, Not Electronic”

  1. I think you’ll like the “global guerrillas” weblog at where John Robb says somewhat similar things. He also compares the guerrilla’s social system to open source, which I find pretty interesting to compare and contrast with my knowledge about open source.

    The terrorists in Iraq are out-innovating the USA army. Every innovative new way of blowing up stuff anywhere in the world finds its way via the social networks to the “terrorist in the street”. The dead hedgehog in the street’s gutter can contain a small anti-personel bomb.

    And don’t underestimate the simple monitary reasons. People are making money by providing energy to a single city block with their generator. Is it in their interest if the Iraqi government restores the electrical grid? Sigh. And when there’s massive unemployment, why not take a job placing roadside bombs? Simple bomb placement has a going rate of $100-$300 iirc. Osama can have a lot of fun: for 1 million $ you can keep the USA army busy for a couple of months (at 1000 million $ a day or so). Return on investment, anyone? Sigh.

    And it was such a nicely terrorist-free country before Saddam got bombed out. Saddam was a bastard, rightfully hanged, but it was one of the few terrorist-free and not-terrorist-funding countries in the neighbourhood… The irony.

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