Two weeks ago I posted a piece here addressing the question of whether or not network-centric warfare (NCW) is dead.  Though the history of U.S. military thought, and in particular the role of the sciences in shaping U.S. military understandings of new information and communication technologies, has been the main subject of my research over the last eight years, I was still a bit apprehensive about the post.  You just never know how the “intertubes” will react.  I have been pleasantly surprised, therefore, by the positive responses that I have received thus far.  For example, both Bob Gourley, former CTO of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and Jeff Groh of the Army War College had nice things to say.

The most extensive comments thus far have come from Ed Beakley of Project White Horse.  Ed, who was lead test pilot and director of testing for Tomahawk, wrote to me to say that my post is “one of (if not the only thing) I’ve seen written that even gets close to NCW, transformation, and RMAs.”  Needless to say, I’m honored that someone like Ed, who has been intimately involved in the changes upon which my research has focused, thinks that I got something right.

In the process, Ed pointed me in the direction of a post by Adam Elkus over at Rethinking Security.  In it, he riffs on both my post and a recent book by Keith Shimko (which I will definitely be ordering) to contribute to the discussion of the history and legacy of RMA.  He concludes his post by arguing that

The core of the American RMA, circa 2003, was strategic paralysis and economy of force operations. These were directed to create a science of “breaking” states through strategic simultaneous targeting–an evolution of the operational ideas of simultaneity enabled by the AirLand Battle and later FM 100-5 Operations 1993 edition suite of technologies. The perceived ability to offer an operational fix for the strategic problem of rogue states in remote areas is behind their negative reception today. But I would suggest that the problem might not be the technologies per se–even though their actual performance in 2003 was not as good as hyped—but the Schlieffen-like manner in which an operational concept becomes a vehicle of geopolitics. Or, at the very minimum, criticizing it becomes a substitute for criticizing geopolitics.

I think that Adam’s conclusion is right on the money.  In fact, I made a very similar argument in the conclusion to my dissertation and in an a forthcoming article, “Surfing on the Edge of Chaos: Nonlinear Science and the Emergence of a Doctrine of Preventive War in the United States,” for the journal Social Studies of Science.  In that article, I argue that during the 1990s, military professionals and civilian defense intellectuals alike used concepts and metaphors from nonlinear science–e.g. chaos theory and complexity theory–to translate certain elements 1980s battlefield doctrine into theories of international politics and tenets of foreign policy that posited the necessity of speed and offense to confront a supposedly more chaotic and dangerous post-Cold War world, all of which served as a foundation for the Bush Administration’s case for acting quickly and preventively against “gathering threats” in the international system.

In the conclusion to my dissertation, I called Elkus’ identification of a tendency to “offer an operational fix for the strategic problem of rogue states” leading to “an operational concept becom[ing] a vehicle of geopolitics” the “tacticalization” of U.S. foreign policy.  I argued that the transformation of the nation’s military into a force that focuses, as Cebrowski and Barnett advocated, on combating “super-empowered individuals” and groups blurs the line between military and law enforcement. But it is also indicative of the blurring of boundaries between the traditional levels of war–i.e. tactical, operational, strategic, grand strategic/national strategy. This is reflective of Charles Moskos’ [1] identification of the blurring of distinctions between ranks that is often referred to as the “strategic corporal” effect–i.e. the idea that a soldier at the lowest level can take action that has impacts at the highest levels. The implications of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal are an example, as is the capability of small groups of special-forces soldiers utilizing IT-enabled systems to overthrow the Taliban. Both are examples of Cebrowski and Barnett’s “super-empowered individuals” or small groups having effects disproportionate to effort expended or position within the traditional levels of war.

As the Abu Ghraib scandal indicates, there can be negative consequences to the blurring of these boundaries. However, the negative consequences of blurred boundaries could potentially be much worse. First, the idea that remaking the world system in our own image is analogous to altering the initial conditions of a complex system and getting inside a potential adversary’s OODA loop assumes (dubiously) that concepts and systems originally developed for use at the battlefield level are also appropriate at the level of national strategy and even peace-time foreign policy. Finally, the vision of the U.S. military playing the role of “global cop” that targets individuals directly, or a “global systems administrator” that “exports security” as part of a national strategy based on spreading economic globalization, represents the “tacticalization” of national strategy and foreign policy, increasing the likelihood that military force will increasingly be used as a day-to-day tool of foreign policy. What’s more, the increasing capabilities for “global precision engagement,” including for example the very real possibility of developing the capability to hit a target the size of a house on the other side of the world, within minutes, with conventional weapons launched from the continental United States, could increase the likelihood that such seemingly “small” doses of force would be seen as viable tools of foreign policy.

It is vitally important that we come to grips with our recent past, in particular the efforts at military reform, revolution, and transformation that have so profoundly shaped the U.S. military in the post-Vietnam period. In doing so, it is important to avoid accounts that distort through over simplification and/or present the results of reform, revolution, and transformation efforts as natural and inevitable. The results of these efforts could have turned out differently. It was neither natural nor inevitable that operational concepts associated with AriLand Battle in the 1980s or NCW in the late 1990s should become vehicles for geopolitics in the form of spreading globalization by way of the preventive use of force.  In short, things could have been different, and they might still be. But we can only work to head somewhere different if we understand where we’ve been.


[1] Moskos, Charles C. (2000) ‘Toward a Postmodern Military: The United States as a Paradigm’, in Charles C. Moskos, John Allen Williams & David R. Segal (eds), The Postmodern Military: Armed Force After the Cold War (London: Oxford University Press): 14-31.