Monday, October 26, 2009

Reading :: In Athena's Camp

In Athena's Camp
Edited by John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt

In 1997, RAND published this collection on conflict in the information age. The issue, as Arquilla and Ronfeldt explain in the first chapter, is that there are no conventional wars in sight; the information revolution is having a deepening impact on military affairs, just as it is having everywhere else. They argue:
Information, in all its dimensions, will enhance both the destructive and the disruptive capabilities of small units for all the services; in an information-age “battlespace,” massed forces will simply form juicy targets for small, smart attackers. In the new epoch, decisive duels for the control of information flows will take the place of drawn-out battles of attrition or annihilation; the requirement to destroy will recede as the ability to disrupt is enhanced. (p.2)
And they predict that "Curious combinations of premodern and postmodern elements will appear in antagonists’ ideologies, objectives, doctrines, and organizational designs." (p.4). Conflicts will revolve around information (p.4); changes in conflcit will be just as much about organization as technology – maybe more (p.5); war in the information age gravitates toward networked forms of organization (p.5). Indeed, "the conflict spectrum is being remolded from end to end" and "Information-age threats are likely to be more diffuse, dispersed, nonlinear, and multidimensional than were industrial-age threats” (p.5).

With that in mind, the editors have rounded up chapters exploring various aspects of the information age's impact on warfare. I'll just hit some of the highlights below, then sum up.

In Ch.2, “Cyberwar is coming!” Arquilla and Ronfeldt argue that
The information revolution, in both its technological and non-technological aspects, sets in motion forces that challenge the design of many institutions. It disrupts and erodes the hierarchies around which institutions are normally designed. It diffuses and redistributes power, often to the benefit of what may be considered weaker, smaller actors. It crosses borders and redraws the boundaries of offices and responsibilities. It expands the spatial and temporal horizons that actors should take into account. And thus it generally compels closed systems to open up. But while this may make life difficult especially for large, bureaucratic, aging institutions, the institutional form per se is not becoming obsolete. Institutions of all types remain essential to the organization of society. (p.26)
Yet in many cases, hierarchical institutions give way to networks:
The network form is very different from the institutional form. While institutions (large ones in particular) are traditionally built around hierarchies and aim to act on their own, multi-organizational networks consist of (often small) organizations or parts of institutions that have linked together to act jointly. The information revolution favors the growth of such networks by making it possible for diverse, dispersed actors to communicate, consult, coordinate, and operate together across greater distances and on the basis of more and better information than ever before. (p.27)
And networks lead to netwar, which
means trying to disrupt, damage, or modify what a target population “knows” or thinks it knows about itself and the world around it. ... In contrast to economic wars that target the production and distribution of goods, and political wars that aim at the leadership and institutions of a government, netwars would be distinguished by their targeting of information and communications. (p.28)
One reason that networks are ascendant as an organizational form for some aspects of warfare is that warfare is increasingly reliant on “topsight.” leading to a deluge of information. In hierarchical command and control, this glut of information can result in bottlenecking and information overload. Therefore, the authors see a possible transition from hierarchy to network. "The traditional emphasis on command and control, a key strength of hierarchy, may have to give way to an emphasis on consultation and coordination, the crucial building blocks of network designs" (p.45).

This theme is partially expanded in Chapter 3, “Preparing for the next war,” where Blank argues that
States seeking strategic superiority via technological superiority must undergo substantive organizational transformation that enhances adaptability. Today, states move from technological to strategic superiority by achieving organizational superiority. Organizational transformations translate superior technology into superior strategic performance because organization is itself a form of technology. Moreover, the importance of organizational change grows during periods of technological innovation. (p.63).
In chapter 4, Davis argues that the information revolution means a merging of strategic, tactical, and operational levels:
The primary impact of the Information Revolution is to push the envelope of the decision-making speed-limit, i.e., the speed of thought. The result of these technological advances is that the time required to take action on the battlefield is becoming increasingly limited by the speed at which the human in the loop can make a tactical decision. (p.92).
In the past, decisions were made at a given command level because only that level had the requisite information to make the appropriate decision. But now, everyone in the chain of command can have access to the same information at essentially the same time. (p.92)
Davis argues that we must switch to networks to "allow greater flexibility, lateral connectivity, and teamwork across institutional boundaries" (p.93)

In Chapter 6, “Information, power, and grand strategy: In Athena's camp – Section 1,” Arquilla and Ronfeldt take up the question of what information is. They explain that there are three understandings of information: as message; as medium; and as physical property. But
Now, the emphasis has shifted to the concept of “complexity”—and this has led to a new concern with the “coordination” of complex systems. Control and coordination are different, sometimes contrary processes; indeed, the exertion of excessive control in order to avoid entropy may inhibit the looser, decentralized types of coordination that often characterize advanced forms of complex systems. What James Beniger called the “control revolution” is now turning into what might be better termed a “coordination revolution.” (p.148)
They also review three views of power: as resources, as organization, and as immaterial. And they provide a summary matrix (p.153), in which the “view of Athena” is located at the conjunction of matter and metaphysics.

Arquilla and Ronfeldt go on to discuss netwar in Chapter 12, “The advent of netwar.” Netwar, they say, works at the societal end: low-intensity conflict (LIC) and operations other than war (OOTW: “a broader concept than LIC that includes peacekeeping and humanitarian operations” p.275). We can expect increasing “irregularization” in warfare.

While the US military was the leader in cyberwar in 1997 (the date of publication), others led in netwar (p.276). And those others aren't necessarily enemy states: “some extremist rightist militia members in the United States have been heard to declare netwar (or netkrieg) against the U.S. Government, and have organized a virtual netwaffe. Also, center-left activists operating in Mexico sometimes refer to themselves now as 'netwarriors'.” (p.279).

A netwar actor, the authors explain, consists of a web (network) of nodes. These could be individuals, groups, organizations, etc. Such nodes exist in a flat organization with little or no hierarchy; have multiple leaders, no single leader; and make decisions in a decentralized way. Their capacity may depend on doctrine, ideology, or interests/objectives that span all nodes (p.280). Here, Arquilla and Ronfeldt cite Gerlach and Hine's SPIN concept (“segmented, polycentric, ideologically integrated network”) as a precursor of the netwar concept (p.281). This design's “node-level characteristics, rather than implying a need for rigid command and control of group actions, combine with interoperability to allow for unusual operational flexibility, a well as for a rapidity of maneuver and an economy of force” (p.281).

Netwar “tends to defy and cut across standard spatial boundaries, jurisdictions, and distinctions between state and society, public and private, war and crime, civilian and military, police and military, and legal and illegal. A netwar actor is likely to operate in the cracks and gray areas of a society” (p.283). It “may also confound temporal expectations by opting for an unusual duration and pace of conflict” (p.283).

On the other hand, a network is harder to run than a hierarchy because “network forms of organization generally require constant dense communications. The information revolution dramatically enhances the viability of the network form” (p.285). Proliferating media and genres “contribute to netwar,” becoming layered onto older media and genres to increase flexibility and density of communications (p.285). That's important, because in the past, the network as an organizational form was hindered due to its need for dense communication, the time to make decisions in a network, and “free riders” in the network (p.287). The information revolution shores up these problems, and thus favors networks while eroding hierarchies (p.290).

So what are the implications of a move toward networks? In Chapter 13, “Societal Implications,” Nichiporuk and Builder argue that the information revolution weakens hierarchies in two ways: by bypassing them (e.g., the breakdown of the nuclear family), and by using more effective alternative human organizational forms (e.g., the computer industry) (p.297).

The authors list two reasons why power is shifting from institutions to individuals. First, “the informational processing and filtering roles performed by many levels within traditional hierarchies have become obsolete” so “hierarchies need no longer serve as the exclusive conduit of information to the individual” (p.299). Second, the workforce has changed in advanced economies: “Information workers generally do not need the structure or control provided by traditional hierarchical organizations, since their jobs require them to innovate and adapt on a daily basis. Indeed, they operate most efficiently when they are given the autonomy to attack problems with their own independent approaches” (p.299). Whereas hierarchies are optimized for managing routine work, that work is becoming a smaller percentage of the work in most national economies (p.299). Hierarchies will survive for specific functions (p.301), but information workers need a more flexible organization structure that allows them more autonomy.

Indeed, the authors argue, “hierarchical institutions become the victims of abundant information, while networks thrive on it” (p.304).

Those networks are not necessarily what we would consider legitimate state actors prosecuting conventional war aims. In Chapter 14, “Transnational criminal organisations and international security,” Williams discusses criminal enterprises as networks. One of his most arresting claims is that the Cali cartel is the developing world's most successful transnational organization (p.324). And in Chapter 18, “Information, power, and grand strategy: In Athena's camp, section 2,” Arquilla and Ronfeldt further argue that economic threats rise as military threats recede. They warn of “neo-merchantilist networks that are designed to perform well against market-oriented competitors.” (p.428)

Finally, in Chapter 19, “Looking ahead: Preparing for information-age conflict,” Arquilla and Ronfeldt attempt to synthesize “the beginning of an integrated vision of information-age conflict” with four parts: “conceptual, organizational, doctrinal, and strategic” (p.439). Among other things, they discuss network-hierarchy hybrids, recognizing that in military application, networks must operate in relatively flat hierarchies (p.440, 462). “Gaining a competitive edge depends not only on strengthening one's ability to compete against rivals and adversaries, but also on one's ability to cooperate with partners” (p.490).

So what are we to make of this collection? As longtime readers of this blog know, I'm not a big fan of collections because they're hard to keep coherent. And we see a bit of that problem here, with some chapters – particularly the ones on cyberwar – aging less gracefully than others. But the collection also has some real gems, chapters that explicate the netwar concept and examine the characteristics of networks more generally. The Arquilla and Ronfeldt chapters are particularly useful, but some of the others discussed above are also really useful for covering more specific parts of netwar.

This book is available for free at, although I bought my copy. If you're interested in netwar and/or networks, I recommend it – but download some chapters from first and see what you think.

No comments: