Over the last decade, corporations have become faster and leaner, thanks to their embrace of the Internet and communications technologies. And as the war in Iraq demonstrates, the military has been doing some networking of its own as well. Indeed, if Gulf War I was the first conflict to underscore the use of high technology, the current conflict is the first to spotlight the armed forces' new network-centric warfare. The idea is to link the military's sensors, weapons, communication systems, commanders, and soldiers into a giant computing grid that gives U.S. troops the clearest battlefield picture ever known, attempting to lift the fabled fog of war (see BW Online, 1/7/03, "The Network Is the Battlefield").
No person is more responsible for driving the military to embrace this new doctrine than John Arquilla. Armed with a PhD in international relations from Stanford University, Arquilla first shook up the military Establishment with Cyberwar Is Coming, a 1993 RAND think-tank study co-written with David Ronfeldt. Since then, he has further articulated a vision for the future of warfare with two more radical treatises, also co-written with Ronfeldt, The Advent of Netwar, published in 1996, and Networks and Netwars, published in 2001. The soft-spoken Arquilla, talking from his office at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., recently discussed with BusinessWeek Computers Editor Spencer E. Ante the promise, perils, and challenges of network-centric warfare. Here are edited excerpts of the conversation:
Q: What's new about this war?
A: The biggest difference is we have information systems that grant accuracy to our weapons that we've never had before. In the first Gulf War, only 10% of the bombs were smart. Now, 90% are smart. We can strike with pinpoint accuracy and truly sever the links between Saddam Hussein's regime and his forces in his field.
We're using swarming tactics -- striking in multiple places to overwhelm an opponent's ability to respond. The swarming approach is a more appropriate model for understanding what we're doing -- more than "shock and awe." Iraq is an opportunity to move from Desert Storm to Desert Swarm. Whether we can carry this off, though, remains to be seen.
Q: How are soldiers using the network?
A: The military is starting to use the Web in combat situations. In Afghanistan, an innovation called the tactical Web page was introduced for the first time. It was initially thought to be used for logistics. But Special Forces soldiers quickly learned it was something they could use to become far more powerful.
Q: What's on the Web page?
A: It would show text of soldier communications in near real-time. A Webmaster staffer would transmit communications. There were also little video feeds that showed views from Predators [unmanned spy planes] during operations. It's basically raw data. It's about putting info before the relevant parties. It's not something a general would look at. Good generalship largely means giving up power today.
Q: What's the value of the tactical Internet?
A: It facilitated the swapping of combat-relevant information. We have big plans for the future though. We want to go to the next stage, past Napster. We want to give a peer-to-peer computing capability.
The whole point is to use Internet connectivity for the tremendous efficiency it provides over every system we've used. A lot of U.S. businesses have been decontrolling or decentralizing for the last 15 years. We look to the business community for inspiration. Networked organizational forms are highly efficient, and we like to emulate that.
Q: Generals are the top dogs. Why should they give up power?
A: Generals can control too much. The challenge is to train a generation of Information Age officers who realize that power and decision-making are going to bubble up from below. That's the greatest intellectual challenge for the military. I'm happy to say that I've seen many signs of our military rising to that challenge.
Q: The majority of military communication is running over public communications line such as the Internet. Are you concerned at all about security issues?
A: [Security] has to change. You have to worry about the possibility that an opponent disrupts. Advanced information technology makes us tremendously efficient, but it also may make us tremendously vulnerable.
Q: What else worries you at the moment?
A: My fear is that if things go awry, there might be an instinct to greater destruction. If we can show that force can be used in short and sharp fashion, then resistance to the wielding of American power may not be quite as great. We have to guard against the instinct to destroy. We must continue to seek ways to disrupt our opponent.
Q: What's the next revolution in military affairs?
A: We need to create a military that's less Industrial Age and move to a military of many small systems. One example is we need more Predators and unmanned vehicles. We need basically a military post-industrial complex. The greatest single development in the future ought to be in tele-operations. Tele-operated systems are much lighter and pose less risk to troops. Combining human troops with intelligent machines is the future.