War Isn't a Rational Business

By Colonel T. X. Hammes, U.S. Marine Corps

With this as background, the authors develop the idea that modern war is similar to modern business, that we can and should replace Clausewitz's concept of war and instead study how nations create wealth. When we understand how wealth is created in an information-based economy, we will understand how to fight in an information-based world. We can then apply the advantage that networks give business directly to war—and attain even better results.

I agree that warfare is undergoing significant changes, and that information technology already has had—and will continue to have—a major impact on how we wage war. The argument that network-centric warfare will allow us to dominate warfare, however, is flawed for a number of reasons:

  • It will not change the fundamental nature of war.
  • It will not necessarily give us a marked advantage over a potential enemy.
  • It is based on "Joint Vision 2010," itself a fatally flawed concept of warfare.
  • A technology-driven higher speed of decision will not necessarily provide an inherent advantage in today's conflicts.

Fog and Friction Are Forever

Despite dramatic changes in how we fight, the fundamental nature of war remains the same. It is not a business. In fact, history, current events, and even science (in the form of chaos theory) support Clausewitz's concept of war as a battle of wills that is vastly complicated by both "fog" and "friction." Clausewitz knew that war was not businesslike when he wrote, "War is an act of force, the emotions cannot fail to be involved."

This, then, is the central problem in trying to apply a business model to war: business models assume rational decision making, and war is rarely rational. What rational model can explain the continuation of World War I after the stalemate of 1916? No possible political gain could have compensated the nations involved for the millions of casualties and financial exhaustion they clearly faced, yet they fought on for two more years. Where in business is there an analogue to the Palestinian Intifada, and how does one "lock out" a suicide bomber who is willing to die to kill one Israeli? How can we rationally explain the Somali intraclan fighting or the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo?

An even more emphatic statement of the problem lies in the February 1998 crisis in Iraq. We spent months telling Saddam that he had only two options—accept inspection or face attack. Under the network-centric lockout concept, our undeniably overwhelming superiority in the "business" of conventional war should have led Saddam to the rational decision to bend to our will. Instead, Saddam ignored our obvious superiority and chose another approach. He dispersed his forces and prepared to absorb our attack. Simultaneously, he negotiated and at the last minute, agreed to inspections.

The fact that Saddam responded in an asymmetrical and "illogical" way highlights the central weakness of a lockout strategy based on a business model. The enemy can refuse to compete in the business we choose. In this case, Saddam refused to meet us in a conventional war. He moved the conflict to a different arena—the United Nations and the court of world opinion. Clearly, in the complex arena of international security affairs, an astute opponent can avoid being locked out.

This evidence will not, of course, convince everyone. Some will insist that the coming explosion in networked information systems will negate the lessons of the past, that the future belongs to science and technology. To them I point out the relatively new mathematical concept of chaos theory, which supports Clausewitz, not network centric warfare.

Chaos theory says that complex systems are very sensitive to input, particularly initial conditions. Even minor changes in input can result in massive changes to the output of those systems. Popularly summarized as the "butterfly theory," it postulates that a butterfly flapping its wings in China (very minor input) may result in a thunderstorm in Washington, D.C., rather than the anticipated clear, dry weather (a huge change in output).

Proponents of this theory say that eventually we will develop the mathematical models to predict the outcomes of chaotic systems, but they admit that such models will not work until we can identify and quantify all input—a highly unlikely occurrence. We may not even be able to determine when to measure "initial" input. Chaos theory recognizes Clausewitz's view that war is an incredibly complex system and thus fundamentally chaotic.

Science points out yet another potentially fatal flaw in the concept of network-centric warfare—complexity. Network-centric warfare requires a complex system of systems to prosecute a war. Admiral Cebrowski and Mr. Garstka praise the breadth and complexity of this system, stating that, according to Metcalfe's Law, "the 'power' of a network is proportional to the square of the number of nodes in the network."

This may be true, but I suspect that systems managers would add a corollary: the complexity of a system is proportional to the cube of the number of nodes. And, of course, reliability is inversely proportional to complexity. History has not been kind to extremely complex organizations or systems in battle—usually classifying them as mistakes.

To make network-centric warfare work, therefore, we will have to understand the impact of chaos theory on our system of systems. Unfortunately, this system of systems is what we are counting on to overcome the effects of chaos theory. We will be chasing our tails forever.

Defeat One, Defeat Them All

Admiral Cebrowski and Mr. Garstka believe that by building a warfighting system that parallels successful business systems we will dominate modern war. They propose a networked system of three grids:

  • A sensor grid will see everything on the battlefield.
  • A command-and-control grid will collate, analyze, and make the correct decisions based on the perfect picture of the battlefield.
  • An engagement grid will execute the decisions of the command-and-control grid and use precision munitions to destroy designated targets.

Collection systems, modern command and control, and precision weapons do provide enormous advantages in conventional war, but they do not provide superiority across the full range of possible conflicts. In fact, reliance on a three-tiered grid system for battlefield dominance will result in defeat. All the enemy has to do is defeat one grid and the entire system collapses.

Two examples, Somalia and Iraq, show that an enemy can defeat just one grid—in these cases, our sensor grid—and force us to fight from a position of information inferiority.

The Somalis defeated our sensor grid by blending in with the civil population in Mogadishu. Our systems could not see inside the buildings or tell the good guys from the bad guys when they were outside. All our sophisticated collection systems were unable to inform U.S. commanders that the Somalis had an aggressive, well-developed defensive system to counter our raid tactics. We did not even know that they had brought massive numbers of rocket-propelled grenades back into the city. As a result of the failure of our sensor grid, our commanders were completely surprised by the vigorous and rapid reaction to our early October raid. The result was 19 American dead and our withdrawal from Somalia.

Clearly, the Somalis had information superiority. They knew what tactics we would employ; where our forces were stationed; what routes we would use to reinforce the Rangers; and how we would react to a helicopter shot down. They even knew the importance of immediate international media coverage; they had a plan to get media to the scene to record the event and then to get those pictures on the air.

In the current crisis in Iraq, for all of our tremendous capabilities, we still do not know where Saddam's weapons of mass destruction are. We do not know how he will respond to air attacks. We don't have his command-and-control systems precisely located. We do not know how the Arab people will react to a sustained campaign. In fact, the list of what we don't know is longer than the list of what we do know, and this is against an enemy we have focused on for more than seven years.

In this case, all three of our grids performed less than ideally. Our sensor grid did not provide a perfect view of the battlefield. Our command-and-control grid failed to produce a clear, coherent course of action and remains tied up in internal and international debates about what the course of action should be. And even if we had a course of action, our engagement grid might not be able to execute it. Our precision weapons are useless against targets we cannot locate, and even with identified targets they may not be useable because of political or humanitarian restraints. Saddam is an expert, for example, at placing military targets inside hospitals, mosques, and other such facilities. All three grids essential to network centric warfare have been defeated by a not particularly well-run Third World nation. The real world has shown that network-centric warfare cannot guarantee an advantage.

A House Upon the Sand

The third major problem with the network-centric concept is that it is based on "Joint Vision 2010," itself a fatally flawed concept.

"JV-2010" is built on four pillars: precision engagement, dominant maneuver, focused logistics, and full spectrum protection. Supporting all of these pillars is the bedrock belief that we will have information superiority.

Despite what we say in "JV-2010," recent conflicts prove that we often will fight from a position of information inferiority. This should not surprise us. Virtually all current collection technology was developed to find conventional forces. As these systems were developed, we let our human intelligence resources atrophy. Even worse, this same technology gave birth to commercial systems—including satellite photos, the internet, and informational data bases—that are widely available and easily accessible on the world market.

In other words, it is easy for a terrorist/insurgent/gang member to track the movement of our forces via the internet, Cable News Network, and commercial satellite photos—precisely because these systems were developed to look for conventional forces. At the same time, our systems cannot track their unconventional forces or those operating in urban areas. These elements remain virtually invisible to our Cold War collection assets. We are forced to rely on our severely degraded human intelligence capabilities to find such an opponent.

Saddam knew how many carriers we had in the Gulf, how many aircraft, what weapon systems we were likely to employ, and even how we would employ them. In contrast, we still do not know where his weapons of mass destruction are, how his command and control works, or even where he will spend the night, much less from where he will fight the war.

All four pillars of "JV-2010" assume information superiority. Without it, the viability of the entire concept must be questioned. Somalia and Iraq show we have not achieved information superiority. Like all "dominant" systems of the past, our systems have been defeated by human ingenuity.

Going Nowhere Fast

In trying to point out the strengths of network-centric business operations that would apply to war, Admiral Cebrowski and Mr. Garstka focus on the ability of information technology to speed up the decision-making cycle. Speed of decision, they claim, will give us an overwhelming advantage. This is both untrue and, in many cases, irrelevant.

In network-centric theory, much of an organization's ability to lock out a competitor is attributed to speed of decision making. This works in the business models, but it clearly does not work in many modern conflicts. For example, the Israelis clearly had the tactical ability to react more rapidly than either the Lebanese in 1982 or the Palestinians during the Intifada. In both cases, however, tactical agility did them no good. At the operational and strategic levels, their enemies had established a long-term approach that rapid tactical decisions could not affect—stretching out the tactical fight until the Israelis lost the political will to continue. The same thing is happening in Iraq today. Our vaunted speed of decision has been neutralized by Iraq's superior use of operational and strategic tools.

The information revolution notwithstanding, war will continue to be nasty, brutish, and not subject to business rationale. As professionals, we must recognize the fundamental nature of war, develop concepts for fighting in that environment, and then develop the systems to support our concepts for fighting.

The sequence is important. If we base our concept of war on uncertainty and train to deal with fog and friction, then perfect knowledge simply makes us more effective. But if we base our concept of war on perfect knowledge and then cannot attain that perfection in every fight, we will lose.

Colonel Hammes is a Marine infantry officer with 23 years of service.



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