Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Reading :: Bullets & Blogs

Bullets & Blogs: New Media and the Warfighter

"If I can discredit my adversary," says one nameless participant quoted in this analytical synthesis, "then I don't have to kill him" (p.17). And that, in a nutshell, is what this workshop report is about: the fact that new media have changed warfare, dramatically increasing the importance of argument, engagement, and (although the report doesn't use the term) rhetoric.

The report is "an analytical synthesis and workshop report" summarizing the findings of a workshop on "New Media and the Warfighter" that was held at the US Army War College. Participants were Army officers, many of whom had combat experience in Iraq. The specific cases they discussed were drawn from the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war, a fascinating case in the use of new media and its power to counter conventional forces, but officers also drew on (unclassified) examples from their Iraq experience.

A few words about the cases. The authors characterize the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict as
an important milestone for warfare in the information age. The non-state actor Hezbollah proved capable of thwarting Israel’s primary war aims and forcing a battlefield stalemate. While Hezbollah stood little chance of prevailing militarily against the Israeli Defense Forces, its strategic victory was achieved by way of an information-led warfighting strategy that leveraged new media to influence the political will of key global audiences (including the Israeli public). (p.1)
Like the Zapatista netwar in the 1990s, the Israeli-Hezbollah war involved a smaller, weaker combatant that successfully forced a stalemate due to its superior use of the information space to establish and develop a narrative, one that networked the interests of many actors. But this netwar happened at a breakneck pace. The authors caution that
The current and future geo-strategic environment requires preparation for a battlespace in which symbolic informational wins may precipitate strategic effects equivalent to, or greater than, lethal operations. It demands a paradigm shift away from an emphasis on information control and towards information engagement. (p.1)
Certainly that shift was on display during this conflict. On one hand, Hezbollah was outnumbered, but on the other hand, it was far more agile in the media space. Hezbollah realized that “the center of gravity was public opinion – often of multiple audiences” and therefore they had to maintain a “distributed presence” as well as credibility (p.2). So they did several things to establish superiority in the media space, including hammering away at a coherent narrative, broadcasting information (including troop movements and images) instantly, beating the Israeli army to the punch in battlefield reports, making information available across various languages and media, and developing crude but effective propaganda that supported its storyline. The IDF also suspects that Hezbollah gained access to the mobile phone system, allowing them to tap troops’ conversations and even track their movements – although that allegation is still unproven. (Israeli troops, used to taking action in areas supplied by Israeli telecoms and used to constant contact with their loved ones, sometimes ignored orders to turn in their mobile phones when they entered the battlespace.)

The authors allege that Hezbollah effectively established “information engagement”: communicating effectively and making their messages “sticky,” while arguing with and countering their adversary’s messages (pp.2-3). They warn that
Irregular and hybrid adversaries — aided and abetted by new media — have demonstrated the capability for rapid and effective maneuver in strategic information engagements. Adversarial agility is underpinned by three factors: a coherent strategy, synchronized methods, and decentralized organization, all of which leverage new media to their advantage. (p.3)
In particular, such adversaries have mastered – and the US Armed Forces need to master – six competencies, “underpinned by six core competencies” (pp.3-4):
  • Speed. While the Israelis were hampered by going through layers of bureaucracy to get their messages approved, Hezbollah fighters were empowered to push out messages in real time.
  • Authorities (need to be powered down): “Insurgent forces get their stories out fast because they all know the story-line, and are non-hierarchical when it comes to message approvals.” By “fast,” they mean in a matter of minutes, not hours or days (see p.22).
  • Message: Must be “specific, consistent, persistent, reflexive.” To push (message) power to the edge, all fighters have to know the basic storyline and know how to supply messages that contribute to it. (This one makes me think of Rich Freed’s discussion of themes in his book Writing Winning Business Proposals.) Indeed, in many such attacks, the message is the point; killing is secondary (p.28).
  • Media: Forces must engage in the “conversation” across traditional and new media: anywhere that your multiple target audiences may get the message. (This means an expanding universe of media and genres – including first-person shooters, in Hezbollah’s case [p.46].)
  • Messengers: Beyond the ground-level fighters, the authors stress “third-party validators” who don’t always push exactly the same message but who do have the established ethos to validate elements of the force’s storyline. In the Israeli-Hezbollah war, Lebanese bloggers served in this capacity (p.38).
  • Synchronicity. “Synchronicity enables organizational speed and agility by empowering actors at all levels to act appropriately. Synchronicity is achieved when different actors and actions, messages and messengers all reflect a shared narrative and strategy. This does not mean a coordinated and controlled response. Rather, it means that a clear strategic message sets the left and right parameters within which all agencies and levels ‘nest’” (p.4).
Such forces have established – and the US Armed Forces are trying to establish – continual self-documentation, such as filming all operations, declassifying them via guidelines rather than explicit approval, and rapidly posting the information to counter negative messages (p.4). In one example, a Lt. Colonel who had served in Iraq swore that he would “never again participate in an operation without at least helmet cams if combat camera personnel were unavailable” (p.23).

Countering is a big theme, because in most cases, the traditional method of “lethally targeting the delivery system” is no longer effective; rather than centralized broadcasting tools, adversaries are using the decentralized Internet. “The future is not to remove the message, but to respond to the message” (p.4). In other words, the future of warfare looks – in part - more like a flame war than Iwo Jima.

The future of espionage looks different too:
Experts noted that social networking sites can be a “disaster for national security:” “Give me the name of somebody in your unit, and in five minutes I can map the entire unit. I can draw a lot of valuable intelligence from these sites, that would otherwise take me hours or days of interrogation.” (p.55)

So self-monitoring and “rules of engagement” for social media become tremendously important. I’ve mostly focused on the executive summary here, but the entire 99-page report is riveting. It certainly points to the future of warfare and the challenges our third-generation army faces in a world of fourth-generation warfare. But it also suggests lessons across a wide range of organizations and activities. Fascinating reading; I highly recommend it.

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.