Digital War: The Rumsfeld Doctrine

It's information-based, flexible, Internet-savvy, high-tech, decentralized, partnered-up, global. The American corporation? No, the American military. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld may not be the deftest of diplomats, but his fight to remake the U.S. military to deal with post-Cold War realities is laudable. And controversial. Rumsfeld's transformation of the military from slow but massive to light but fast and precise is being tested right now in Iraq. In fact, Iraq is, in most ways, Rummy's war. The Iraqi battlefield is highlighting the benefits of network-centered warfare. But it's revealing the vulnerabilities as well. Clearly, it would have been better to have had more troops and armor on the ground as the war was launched, as General Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command for the Middle East, originally wanted.

In the '50s and '60s, Corporate America borrowed its technology and organization from the military. Today, the reverse is true -- the military is adapting technology and organization from corporations. Rumsfeld's doctrine of digital warfare tries to use technology to create a smart, lean, rapid 21st century military force (page 30). It relies on the pervasive use of information technology to integrate relatively small, nimble ground forces with new precision firepower. The concept of network war is to generate huge amounts of information from unmanned Predators, satellites, and sensors and integrate communications systems, commanders, soldiers, and weapons into a single giant battlefield computing grid. Companies have been remaking themselves into networked organizations for a decade. Now it's the military's turn.


When it works, digital warfare can be incredibly effective, allowing soldiers on the run to reallocate resources in real time. One example: Special operations forces downloaded real-time video of al Qaeda and Taliban forces from Predators, used GPS to mark their exact location, and lasers to bring smart bombs directly onto their positions. But a system based on IT is only as good as the information itself, as many companies have already discovered. In Afghanistan, special forces were able to call in exact bombing when enemy fighters were in the desert. But once they retreated to mountain caves and camouflaged themselves, the technology didn't work nearly as well. In the end, it took on-the-ground fighting to reveal the enemy and traditional hand-to-hand combat to defeat it. Many got away, including Osama bin Laden. Cities and caves have a lot in common. Fighting in the streets of Baghdad may well be difficult.

In Iraq, bad information is already having a serious impact on the war. The Pentagon believed the "shock and awe" of precision firepower would kill the leadership, cut lines of command-and-control communication, break the Iraqi military's will, cause defections, and end the war swiftly. Whatever the Pentagon's sources of information, they proved incorrect. The military also thought fighting in the south would be easy and Iraqis would rise up immediately. Fighting has been much harder and a Shiite uprising in Basra appears only now to be under way. Small guerrilla bands are operating -- to the military's surprise. Information failure is also to blame for the maintenance convoy that took a wrong turn into an ambush. And software problems appear to be behind Patriot missiles shooting down a British Tornado jetfighter and locking on to an Air Force F-16, which escaped only by blowing up the Patriot's radar. Again, as any company can attest, the integration and use of complex software is an awesome task.


The new doctrine of digital warfare also has serious supply-chain vulnerabilities. Speed means moving quickly ahead of the fuel, munitions, and water supplies essential for operation. In Iraq, it is clear that rearend logistics is not well-integrated into the military machine. It doesn't have the digital gear to hook up to the "tip of the spear" mechanized forces in the front, nor can it maneuver fast enough (page 33). The rear is also unguarded: In their rush to Baghdad, the more mobile Army and Marines left the 300-mile supply chain open to attack. They are now doubling back to fight guerrilla forces no one expected to be a problem.

Yet another weakness in the doctrine of digital warfare involves the management of partners. As most companies know, this may be the toughest task of modern organizations. Designing a core force of lean, light, and mobile troops means the military often needs partners to achieve goals. So far, the military has had mixed success. In Afghanistan, special operations forces partnered with warlords to defeat al Qaeda and the Taliban. In many battles it worked. In the most important, at Bora Bora, it failed when the warlords permitted Osama bin Laden to escape. In Iraq, the U.S. has had help from the Kurds, but a key ally, Turkey, caught Washington off guard with its refusal to allow the 4th Infantry Division to deploy into northern Iraq through its territory. This failure of management may slow the taking of Baghdad and lengthen the time it takes to win the war.

There is one final downside to the doctrine of digital warfare. The strategy could turn out to work all too well. Despite ground difficulties, the military machine is showing itself to be very adaptable and effective. Its successful transformation into an easy-to-use, relatively inexpensive, and effective tool could make it the perfect means of supporting a unilateral, preemptive foreign policy. It delivers a potent force globally to battle terrorism and change rogue regimes, and allows the U.S. to do so alone or with an ally or two of convenience.

Going-it-alone in the world is a temptation that should be resisted. Donald Rumsfeld is modernizing the U.S. military to deal with real threats and real dangers. In Iraq, he is fighting a war to depose a despotic regime and liberate its people. But to win the post-war, and the long-term battle against terrorism, the U.S. will need all the multilateral help it can get.

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