Wednesday, November 28, 2007

That Wired article on network-centric warfare

Noah Schachtman has a decent article about network-centric warfare in Wired in which he tells a familiar story. It goes like this: The US military became really enamored with network-centric warfare, which amounts to lots of high-tech equipment for coordinating warfare and killing people. This technologically enabled warfare implied smaller groups of soldiers doing more work. But for counterinsurgency and stabilization operations, this approach isn't good enough, because it means overrelying on technological solutions and underrelying on measures that connect with local populations and win the battle for hearts and minds. In an O. Henry twist, "In Iraq, the Critical Networks Are Social — Not Electronic."

Some parts of the story don't fit, of course. When he interviews Gen. Petraeus, he is surprised that the General does not renounce network-centric warfare:

Yet he's a believer, just like a whole lot of other Army generals. He supports the $230 billion plan to wire the Army, a gargantuan commitment to network-centric war. "We realized very quickly you could do incredible stuff with this," he says. "It was revolutionary. It was."

I press my hands to my forehead. What about all the cultural understanding, I ask him. What about nation-building? What about your counterinsurgency manual?

"Well," Petraeus says, "it doesn't say that the best weapons don't shoot. It says sometimes the best weapons don't shoot. Sometimes the best weapons do shoot." A war like Iraq is a mix, he adds: In one part of the country, the military is reinforcing the society, building things; in another, it's breaking them — waging "major combat operations" that aren't all that different from what might have gone down in 2003. And this technology, he says, it's pretty good at 2003-style war.

Schachtman seems struck by the contradiction because it doesn't fit the familiar story. So he locates the contradiction in Gen. Petraeus. Instead, he should have examined the story more closely. Terms that experience a lot of success tend to also experience a lot of slippage -- as a cursory review of the rhetoric of science literature shows, for instance -- and "network-centric warfare" is one such term. Yes, it's been applied to Total Information Awareness schemes and to Rumsfeld's shift toward a smaller, more technologically mediated military. But it has also been applied -- for instance, by John Arquilla, David Ronfeldt, and others at RAND -- to social organization. And this work is fairly sophisticated.

The apparent contradiction in Gen. Petraeus' thinking comes from Schachtman's assumption that the technical and the social are two different kinds of networks that have to be addressed through two different doctrines. Arquilla, Ronfeldt, et al. describe sociotechnical networks, and I think Gen. Petraeus understands that.

How Technology Almost Lost the War: In Iraq, the Critical Networks Are Social — Not Electronic

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Update: David Ronfeldt just mentioned to me that although the concepts "network-centric warfare" and "netwar" have had some interaction, they really are separate concepts and NCW has to some degree impeded the reception of the netwar concept. Mea culpa.


johnspinuzzi said...

Indeed, while I was over there back in 2004 you could see how the military was using the tech network to enhance their understanding and utilization of the social networks they were building.

Clay Spinuzzi said...

Oh, sure. Schachtman has gotten into a little blog war with Thomas P.M. Barnett about the article -- Barnett was one source, and has basically the same criticism. It doesn't make Schachtman look good.