With Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ announcement this week that he will be closing the office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Networks and Information Integration [ASD(NII)] and the Joint Staff’s office for Command, Control, Communications & Computer Systems, several commentators have triumphantly heralded the death of network-centric warfare (NCW).  The announcement was “triumphant” because the two commentators in question, Noah Shachtman and Loren Thompson, have been critics of NCW for quite some time.  Which raises the question, are they merely seeing what they wanted to see?  Partly.  Some parts of NCW and the ideas that underpinned it are dead.  But some of them live on.  Unfortunately, it’s much of what was good that has been lost and much of what was bad that has been retained. [1]

Background

NCW was the brainchild of VADM Arthur Cebrowski (ret) and was an attempt to take the supposed lessons of Information Age economy and society and apply them within the military.  NCW marked the confluence of two strands of discussion during the 1990s, the debate over the possibility of realizing an ICT-induced “revolution in military affairs” (RMA) on the one hand, and a lesser-known discussion about the supposed lessons of “nonlinear science” (e.g. chaos theory, complexity theory, network theory, catastrophe theory, etc.) on the other.

NCW before 9/11

The most influential and most cited statement of the NCW vision was an article written in 1998 by Cebrowski and co-author John Garstka, “Network-Centric Warfare: Its Origins and Future” (Cebrowski and Garstka, 1998).  Drawing from a combination of the works of Information Age popularizers Alvin and Heidi Toffler on the one hand (Toffler and Toffler, 1993), and scholars who had attempted to understand business and economy through the lens of nonlinear science on the other (Beinhocker, 1997, 1999a, 1999b; Arthur 1988, 1989, 1996), NCW saw Information Age society, economy, international politics, and warfare as “complex systems.”  The precipitous rise of globally networked ICTs was the supposed cause of this new-found complexity, and networked ICTs, along with appropriate strategies and organizational structures to take advantage of them, were seen as the key to coping in this new world.

Through the closing years of the twentieth century, the scope of the NCW vision was limited to the battlefield and was intended to provide the flexibility and adaptability essential for the U.S. military to respond to the dangers of an uncertain, post-Cold War world. In 2000, Cebrowski explained that “The universe as we know it is an integrated system of systems, made up of many parts that dynamically interact with each other. The future behaviors of such systems are difficult or impossible to predict.”  Therefore, he said that “we must plan for a wide array of threats” and that U.S. forces would have to rely “on our ability to adapt to the situation.”  When faced with an ever-changing and unpredictable environment, “rather than having one strategy, optimized for a single predicted future,” he said that the military should maintain “an array of options over time, minimizing long-term and irreversible commitments” (Cebrowski, 2000).

NCW, 9/11 & Preventive War

In October 2001, Donald Rumsfeld appointed Cebrowski director of the newly formed Office of Force Transformation (OFT). During the campaign, candidate George W. Bush had pledged to turn the heavy, slow, Cold War-era U.S. military into a light, agile, information-age force. The OFT would be the home of concept development and planning for making the President’s pledge a reality, as well as a key advisory body to the Secretary of Defense. With Cebrowski at the helm, the “transformation” of the U.S. military came to mean the adoption of NCW.

But following the attacks of 9/11, transformation and NCW could no longer be justified as a response to the generic uncertainty and dangers of the post-Cold War world.  Instead, they would need to be justified in light of the new threat of global terrorism.  To help him do that, Cebrowski brought in a colleague from his days as President of the Naval War College, a professor named Thomas Barnett.  Barnett served as Cebrowski’s “Assistant for Strategic Futures” and helped to “tie in this new explanation for transformation to the changed security environment that we think was really crystallized on 9/11″ and “to locate transformation in some sort of larger vision…a centralizing, ordering principle [for] the way defense is going to be used” (Barnett, 2003a).  In short, the two created an “operating theory of the world and a military strategy to accompany it” (Barnett, 2003b) that they briefed throughout the U.S. national security community, up to the level of the Secretary and Deputy Secretary of Defense (Barnett, 2004: 6; Chaikivski, 2002). In the 1 March 2003 issue of Esquire magazine, just eighteen days before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Barnett summarized the ideas he had briefed to the Pentagon to explain to readers “why we’re going to war, and why we’ll keep going to war” (Barnett, 2004: 267).

And the reasons that they gave for going to war were simple.  First, some parts of the world, like the Middle East, had been left out of the process of globalization.  They were a “disconnected,” “non-integrating gap” of globalization.  Most importantly, they were the source of violent “system perturbations”–i.e. “butterfly effects”–like 9/11.  Thus, Barnett introduced what he called a “a simple new security rule set”: “A country’s potential to warrant a U.S. military response is inversely related to its globalization connectivity,” or even more simply, “Disconnectedness defines danger” (Emphasis in original. Barnett, 2003b).

Second, they believed that globalization and the Information Age resulted in global “rule sets” (i.e. laws and norms of international behavior) becoming “misaligned” (Barnett, 2004: 22), which was reflected in dramatic shifts in the nature of power in and structure of the international system.  Cebrowski and Barnett argued that globally networked ICTs enable and empower transnational, non-state actors such as al-Qa’ida, what they called “super-empowered individuals” and others have termed “global guerrillas,” to wield power and to have effects at the “larger system level,” a level once reserved for states (Cebrowski & Barnett, 2003; Robb, 2007).  In response, they said it was “time to play catch up, with the U.S. military once again serving as an instrument of rule-set exportation through the global war on terrorism” (Cebrowski & Barnett, 2003).

The only solution, therefore, was “shrinking the gap”—i.e. spreading economic globalization to the Third World (Cebrowski, 2003c).  In the post-9/11 version of NCW, “exporting security” became a euphemism for establishing “bases, naval presence, crisis response activity, [and] military training,” but also for the preventive use of force to remove rogue regimes that threaten globalization (Barnett & Gaffney Jr., 2002: 6).  Cebrowski talked of a “booming export market for…security” and warned those who would resist, “If you are fighting globalization, if you reject the rules, if you reject connectivity, you are probably going to be of interest to the United States Department of Defense” (Cebrowski, 2003c).

Transformation and NCW were justified via this “new explanation,” this new “operating theory of the world.”  NCW would allow the United States to “shrink the gap” and prevent “system perturbations” by providing “a military of super-empowered individuals [capable of] fighting wars against super-empowered individuals. In this manner, the American Way of War moves the military toward an embrace of a more sharply focused global cop role: we increasingly specialize in neutralizing bad people who do bad things” (Cebrowski & Barnett, 2003). This military would allow the United States to “deter forward,” which Cebrowski said “has to be based on prevention”–i.e. another euphemism for preventive use of force (Cebrowski, 2002).

The post-9/11 NCW vision of spreading globalization by force even seemed to take on a patina of scientific legitimacy.  By 2002, nonlinear science-inspired terms such as “pathway dependencies,” “tipping points,” “spillover,” and “unintended consequences,” seemed not to point to the difficulties of meaningful individual action in a complex international system, but rather, inspired confidence, even hubris.  Cebrowski equated “deterring forward” with “altering the initial conditions” in both the battlespace and the international system as complex systems (Cebrowski, 2002, 2003b).  Barnett criticized the military’s focus on uncertainty and ambiguity during the 1990s, arguing that “What had looked like ‘chaos’ from the Pentagon’s perspective appeared a lot more orderly once you knew how to track globalization’s causes and effects” (Barnett, 2004: 47). Thus, rather than pursuing the kind of reactive policy based in flexibility and adaptability that Cebrowski had advocated as late as the year 2000, Barnett advocated using knowledge of globalization’s “rule sets” to realize “a future worth creating.”

For Barnett and Cebrowski the first step to realizing that future was the removal of Saddam Hussein.  Barnett explained, “The reason I support going to war in Iraq…is that the resulting long-term military commitment will finally force America to deal with the entire Gap as a strategic threat environment” (Barnett, 2003b).  The other steps towards his “future worth creating” included overthrowing the regimes in Iran and North Korea, military action in Columbia to realize the “dream” of the Free Trade Area of the Americas, and even “cherry-picking [i.e. annexing] the best economies” of the Western Hemisphere, which meant that “by 2050, the United States could include a dozen more states” (Barnett, 2004: 379-382).

Creating this “hopeful image” would require a new kind of military force.  The two saw U.S. operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq as indicative of the future of warfare (Cebrowski, 2003a: 3; Swofford, 2004: 4-5). For Cebrowski, the adoption and use of NCW by U.S. forces in Iraq had resulted in nothing less than “the movement from the Industrial Age to the Information Age on the part of our forces.”  He hoped for a repeat in future conflicts: “We want all of our enemies, current and future, to look at us and say, ‘Wow. How do they do that? We see it unfold before our very eyes, but we don’t understand what’s really happening, and we can’t stop it.’ That’s the power of transformation” (Cebrowski, 2003c).

NCW after Rummy

Though OFT was closed in October 2006 (one month before Donald Rumsfeld was replaced by Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense) and despite “regime change” in the United States with the election of President Barack Obama, both supporters and critics recognize that Cebrowski and OFT have had a lasting impact upon the U.S. military (Barnett, 2006; DiMascio, 2006).  Indeed, Thompson and Shachtman’s recent essays are not the first time that NCW and transformation have been declared dead.  The closure of OFT, departure of Rumsfeld, and the rise of counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine have all been heralded as a repudiation of NCW, transformation, and the Bush Doctrine (DiMascio, 2006; Sieff, 2007; Barry & Thomas, 2007; Gates, 2010, 2009).

Though the theories and strategies presented by Cebrowski and Barnett are certainly controversial, the two have nonetheless had a lasting impact on U.S. foreign and defense policy. Just as Donald Rumsfeld set up his own “competitive intelligence” organization to “wash” pre-war intelligence about Iraqi WMD programs (Mitchell, 2006), the OFT  worked “outside the normal course of business activities” as the “only office solely dedicated to transformation,” [2] which Rumsfeld saw as a top priority.  With Cebrowski hand-picked by Rumsfeld to lead OFT, and Barnett hand-picked by Cebrowski to assist him, the two were able to shape “the way the Pentagon views its enemies, vulnerabilities and future structure” in the period between the attacks of 9/11 and the invasion or Iraq in March 2003 (Jaffe, 2004). [3]

Barnett concurred and in 2006 assessed that OFT’s closure was largely due to its success–i.e. it had succeeded in its mission of spreading NCW and transformation, leaving it with nothing left to do.  He wrote, “Art and others played out a most excellent string following 9/11, using OFT as a pulpit to push Network-Centric Warfare’s ‘many and the cheap’ mantra in ways most helpful to waging the Long War. But Art’s success in mainstreaming his thinking meant that OFT always had a limited shelf life. NCW is everywhere now. So is Transformation” (Barnett, 2006).  Indeed, though Cebrowski did not think that the process of transformation was complete (or would ever be complete, for that matter), [4] as we saw above, he did see the conduct of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan as significant and positive steps along the path of transformation.

A contributor to the U.S. Army War College DIME Blog noted recently that “NCW Never Went Away” (Groh, 2010).  Nor have many features of Cebrowski and Barnett’s theory and strategy. Their view of the global threat environment as one of information age-induced global insurgency is not so different from the assumptions underlying the COIN doctrine and Secretary Gates’ efforts to implement it. The joint Army/Marine COIN doctrine authored by General David Petraeus, as well as Secretary Gates’ 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, both view the confluence of globalization and technological development as allowing the rise of dangerous non-state actors (U.S. Army, 2006: vii; Gates, 2010: 9, 31). Thus, Secretary Gates’ focus on building forces optimized for COIN is not such a departure from the neoconservative vision of a military force able to secure a “new American century.” The neocons had called for the creation of a “constabulary force” (Donnelly et al., 2000: 10-11) and Barnett and Cebrowski for a “SysAdmin force” specially devoted to cleaning up the mess following “regime changes,” a force specializing in “nation building” (States News Service, 2003; Barnett, 2004: 302). Ironically, while the proposal for a “SysAdmin force” did not gain much traction in the Rumsfeld DoD, the Obama DoD under Robert Gates accepted Barnett’s forecast that “big wars are out, small wars are in” and prioritized such a force as the centerpiece of its military reform efforts (Barnett, 2004: 302; Gates, 2009; Gates, 2010).

Even references to nonlinear science continue to play a role in defense community discourse. The 2010 QDR, for example, sees the international system as “A Complex Environment” and speaks of the “increased complexity of war” (Gates, 2010: 9, 31). One of Gen. Petraeus’s primary advisors has drawn from complexity theory when writing on “Countering Global Insurgency” (Kilcullen, 2004, 2007). It is not surprising, therefore, to find that the COIN manual authored by Petraeus advises that “systems thinking” is a requirement for success in counterinsurgency. “This element is based on the perspective of the systems sciences that seeks to understand the interconnectedness, complexity, and wholeness of the elements of systems in relation to one another” (U.S. Army, 2006: 4-3).  The rationale for and “science” of imperial warfare remains largely intact.

If the rationale for and “science” of an “American way of war” meant to spread globalization are still intact, certainly Gates can be said to have rejected NCW’s fetish for technology, right?  Not entirely.  In some ways, Gates is even more enamored of technology than the NCW advocates.  Under Gates we have seen the formation of U.S. Cyber Command (Gates, 2009a), which will supposedly give the United States the ability to conduct instantaneous, bloodless warfare by computers and over global distances via the ethereal domain of “cyberspace.”  Additionally, Gates has pushed for greater reliance on remotely controlled “drone” aircraft to wage COIN in Afghanistan, all while canceling the production of some manned aircraft programs (i.e. the F-22) in favor of more research and procurement of networked swarms of armed robot planes (Canuckistan, 2010; Mayer, 2009; Kaplan, 2009).  It’s not exactly exemplary of a “low-tech” vision of future warfare.

Assessing the “Death” of NCW

If NCW really has died, we should ask if that is a good thing.  It depends on which NCW we are talking about.  The original, pre-9/11 vision of NCW, both strategically and technologically, was more sound than the post-9/11 vision.  Unfortunately, much of the post-9/11 vision has survived while the pre-9/11 vision has largely died.

Strategically, the big shift in NCW happened post-9/11–i.e. a shift from a reactive to offensive, even imperial vision.  That was a mistake.  If anything, under Gates, the focus on forces to allow constabulary, SysAdmin, COIN types of missions has intensified.

Cebrowski was right in 2000 to argue in favor of creating a force capable to meeting a wide range of possible threats.  We do not know the future.  The post-9/11 NCW vision was one that assumed that we could know the future because we were acting offensively to create the future.  The view of the Gates DoD seems to be based in the assumption that the future is now, that what the United States is doing now is all it will do in the future.  While Gates has criticized the Rumsfeld DoD from suffering from “future-war-itis,” I have argued previously that the Gates DoD seems to suffer from “future-now syndrome.”  Regardless of their subtle differences, both are at root the same malady: An overconfident, illogical, ahistorical, pseudo-scientific, and dangerous belief that we know what the future holds.  Unless we plan to continue initiating the kind of regime change/nation building adventures that were the result of the Bush Doctrine, something that President Obama has rejected, then we have even less reason to believe that the future belongs to counterinsurgency.  In short, though both assumptions about our ability to know the future are deeply flawed, it is at least slightly more reasonable to believe that you can know the future if you’re actively working to drive it in a particular direction.  Saying that we will no longer actively drive the future in the direction of X but then believing that X is our inevitable future nonetheless is even more dubious.

Next, technologically, the original NCW vision was actually a quite rational response to large-scale social, economic, and political changes that seemed to be the result of massive technological changes.  Of course, we can argue that the Tofflers and others of their ilk were peddling a naive brand of technological determinism.  And they were to a large degree.  But they weren’t entirely wrong either.  ICTs have had a huge impact on our world.  In the environment of the 1990s, with talk of a large-scale “IT revolution” and emergent “Information Age” in the air, and in the wake of Desert Storm, it is understandable that military professionals would look around and try to determine what it all meant for the future of warfare.  They would have been irresponsible if they had not.

For their part, NCW theorists like Cebrowski and Garstka looked to other geographically dispersed organizations with global operations similar to the military, organizations like multi-national corporations, and tried to learn from their experiences adopting networked ICTs.  Then they made the “radical” case that the organization that had invented the Internet, the U.S. Department of Defense, should work to network its organization just like so many other organizations had done already. Airplanes, tanks, ships, soldiers, etc. should be linked so that they could share information with one another, have better situational awareness, and thereby act more quickly and effectively, just like so many other organizations throughout society had already demonstrated.  Can this vision be taken too far?  Yes.  Was it?  By some.  Did all of the programs that they proposed work?  No.  But the fundamental idea behind NCW was not really that radical, not even at the time, when we put it into a larger context of how people understood large-scale sociotechnical change.

Now consider the role of technology in the Gates DoD’s vision of future warfare and the actions taken in the last several days.  If getting rid of ASD(NII) (the DoD equivalent of a CIO) and the JCS head of C4I is a repudiation of NCW, then we have to ask if that really makes any sense.  A respected former CTO of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Bob Gourley, has made a strong argument that it does not make sense.  Are U.S. forces less reliant upon networks, information, command and control, communication, and intelligence systems?  No.  Then why get rid of high-level organizations devoted to those issues?  The functions of those organizations will have to be shuffled off to other offices.  Will this reorganization of deck chairs really lead to savings?  Most importantly, will the missions carried out by the eliminated organizations be carried out as effectively?

Or is Gates saying that U.S. forces should be less reliant on networks, information, communication, etc., etc.?  If so, that doesn’t seem to square with his own support of cyberwar and robot planes.  Nor do cyberwar and robot planes seem to square with supporting the promotion to CENTCOM commander of someone like Gen. Mattis who has made claims about the social and organizational implications of computers and communications technologies that blatantly contradict what we know from the history of these technologies.  For example, Thomas Ricks has reported that

Mattis also objected to the Rumsfeld Pentagon’s emphasis on ‘net-centric’ warfare built around the movement of data. ‘Computers by their nature are isolating. They build walls. The nature of war is immutable: You need trust and connection’. He dismissed the net-centric emphasis as ‘a Marxian view–it ignores the spiritual’.

Is that really the lesson of computers and networks in the post-World War II period?  The fundamental nature of networked computing in the last 65 years is that they have built walls and isolated us from one another?  Does that ring true at all with what we know of the social history of computing and networking?  No.  Thus, policy recommendations based in this ideology should be taken with a grain truck-load of salt.

Next, elimination of high-level organizations dealing with networks, information, and C4I does not square with the rest of the world.  If Gates and company are declaring an end to the Information Age, I do not think that the rest of the world is going to get that memo.  If, as Cebrowski and Garstka did, we look around for lessons by way of analogy, we can ask whether other large enterprises like corporations and other government agencies are eliminating their CIOs and other units devoted to ICTs.  The answer is no.  So why is the DoD so different?

Finally, which is a more technophilic, futuristic vision of war: One that seeks to link our existing and future variants of land, sea, air, and space platforms together just like other organizations are already doing with much success, or one that eschews the modernization and procurement of proven platforms like manned aircraft, ground vehicles, and ships in favor of unproven “cyberweapons” and swarms of robot planes?  Of course, cyberweapons and robot planes might turn out to revolutionize warfare in a way that far exceeds the vision of RMA and NCW from the 1990s and early 2000s.  But if you are inclined to cheer the demise of NCW because you think it was too focused on technology, the Gates DoD’s vision is not an improvement on that front.

Conclusion

Network-centric warfare is not entirely dead.  The dangerous post-9/11 version that sought a force that would give the United States the ability to spread economic globalization by way of military force is still alive and perhaps even stronger than before.  The pre-9/11 version of NCW that sought to achieve the very rational and modest goal of adopting the same kinds of technologies and organizational structures that seemed to have revolutionized the rest of society, all for the purpose of promoting a military flexible and adaptable enough to meet the challenges of an uncertain world, have been abandoned in favor of an incoherent, internally inconsistent, and in some ways even more technophilic and overconfident vision of future warfare.  In short, the worst of NCW lives on while much of the best that it had to offer has died.  So to the Noah Shactmans and Loren Thompsons of the world, go ahead and raise your glasses to the demise of the hated Rumsfeld and his NCW.  You’re going to need that drink to get through Gates’ pseudo-luddite, cyber-drone-powered global counterinsurgency.


Notes

[1] This post is a “mash-up” of new and old content, some of which is taken from previous blog posts and some of which is taken from an article that I have written, “Surfing on the Edge of Chaos: Nonlinear Science and the Emergence of a Doctrine of Preventive War in the United States,” which is forthcoming in the journal Social Studies of Science.  Thus, the citation style used here is a mix of academic-style parenthetical with reference list, as well as blog-style hyperlink references.  Additionally, there is much, much more that could be said on this topic, much of which I said in the much longer, forthcoming article, and even more of which was said in my dissertation (click “continue,” bottom right, to read).

[2] Statements from the OFT website about ‘what sets us apart’. See http://web.archive.org/web/20040723043322/http://www.oft.osd.mil/apart.cfm accessed 3/22/2010.

[3] For more on Barnett’s influence, see (Gertz & Scarborough, 2004; Kelley, 2004).

[4] Cebrowski stated, “Transformation is foremost a continuing process. It does not have an end point. Transformation is meant to create or anticipate the future.  Transformation is meant to deal with the co-evolution of concepts, processes, organizations and technology. Change in any one of these areas necessitates change in all.”  See VADM Arthur Cebrowski, “What is Transformation?” available from http://www.cdi.org/mrp/tt-14oct02.pdf


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