Use Technology . . . But Don't Trust It!

By Captain James T. Jenkins, U.S. Marine Corps

Yet, as we have seen in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Chechnya, the human will consistently has defeated superior technology. To be truly prepared for the battles of tomorrow, the Marine Corps must avoid the technological-superiority mindset. Given the wide range of theaters and threat levels that Marines will face, individual, personal, human leadership will become both more important and more scarce as the system of systems grows.

Shortfalls of the System of Systems

Advocates of information technology usually cast the system of systems in a Desert Storm-like scenario—the U.S. military facing a conventional army. Even in this "ideal" environment, we must be wary of the illusion of certainty. The most recent conflict in Iraq provides a clear example of the limitations of technology. Despite our nearly complete picture of Saddam Hussein's force deployments, we knew almost nothing about his intentions. He might have been preparing for another invasion south, or he merely might have been aggravating the United States. Each of these options demanded a different military strategy, and despite our wealth of information, uncertainty remained. This strategic example transfers easily to the tactical level: Even if the system of systems gives every Marine from squad leader to division commander a complete picture of the enemy's forces, his intent will remain unknown.

There are other issues in the arena of conventional warfare. As quickly as technology develops, a counter will follow. Already, several nations are developing nonnuclear electromagnetic pulses that are specifically designed to knock out electronics-based systems in political and military command structures. Even today, such a weapon would cause chaos in most Marine command posts. These risks will increase as the U.S. military becomes more technology oriented. Similarly, we must consider the possibilities for deception in the electronic world. Most "secure" computer systems already have shown themselves vulnerable to "hackers," and we can never assume that our system of systems is above compromise. Interference with digital transmissions could result in grave consequences, including fratricide or noncombatant deaths.

History has shown the ineffectiveness of military action without human commitment. The French "counterattack by fire" along the Maginot Line; long-range bombing of Germany in World War II; U.S. artillery counterattacks in Vietnam; and the 1996 cruise missile attack of Iraq all demonstrate that violence without the fear of human contact does little to sway a committed foe. In fact, such military action often has had the opposite effect, increasing military and public resolve against the enemy. These issues emphasize the need for personal, human leadership in future conventional warfare.

More important for the Corps, information technology will do little in the "three-block war," where Marines provide humanitarian aid on one block, keep peace on the next, and engage in a firefight on the third. This environment requires a tremendous level of individual leadership, judgment, and initiative.

Technology no longer inspires the awe it once did in developing nations. Mohamed Aideed's use of cellular phones to avoid capture, destroy two helicopters, take the lives of 18 U.S. servicemen, and bring about the end of U.S. involvement in Somalia is a recent example.

Guerrillas will continue to take advantage of their ability to "swim in the sea" of the local population, remaining out of sight even as we increasingly depend on ineffective "eyes." A fluid, highly uncertain, low-intensity conflict will require above all else small-unit leaders who have judgment, initiative, and the trust of their superiors, rather than an array of video displays and reliance on long-range precision fires.

The "Strategic Soldier" and an Invitation to Interference

The enemy will not be the only source of friction to total battlespace awareness. The firefight in Cap Haitien, the shoot-down and subsequent rescue of Captain O'Grady, and the debacle of Task Force Ranger all show the increased influence of small-unit actions on strategic and national political goals, a phenomenon Lieutenant Colonel Dennis Murphy, U.S. Army, calls the "strategic soldier." This is not because of any substantive difference in the actions of individuals or units, but rather to the speed with which the results of these actions are seen by political leaders and the U.S. public.

As information flows faster and "virtual situational awareness" is passed rapidly to higher levels of command, an invitation to interfere is extended to all involved. Despite the best intentions of our senior military leadership, those with the "big picture" almost certainly will seek to influence small-unit actions to accomplish higher-level objectives.

Those who do not necessarily understand the nature of war will be convinced that the system of systems represents "total awareness" and certainty. As these leaders begin to believe that they have the same level of understanding as the Marine on the ground (as technological advocates have claimed they will), the temptation to control will become stronger, and the ability to exercise that control will be ever more powerful.

Making Doctrine Reality

Recently published Marine Corps doctrinal publications acknowledge the importance of the human dimension of war. The challenge for Marine leaders at all levels will be to ensure that this doctrine becomes reality. Already, headquarters have expanded drastically in space, equipment, and personnel in order to support added information-system requirements. For example, an expeditionary Marine wing headquarters in Okinawa includes more than 300 personnel. Many of these Marines are terminal operators, generator maintainers, or system administrators, who devote hours to keeping increasingly complex systems operational without noticeably increasing the flexibility or responsiveness of Marine aviation.

Training of late has focused all levels of command on the use of new technology. Rather than constantly looking to computers for answers, however, we must continue to emphasize the human dimension of war and train our Marines to operate in uncertainty and chaos. Maneuver warfare may require Marines to disregard situation displays, just as we now claim Marines might disregard orders as a situation changes, and act with only the commander's intent to guide them. Marines always must have enough confidence in themselves to trust their eyes and their judgment as much as they do a video screen. Blind trust of sensor displays may lead to dangerous situations. Critical thought must continue to be one of the most valued traits of our junior leaders.

Our Marines should be exposed to new situations constantly—electronically simulated situations and, more important, situations with real people who act with independent will. Experience gained from these situations will give Marines the skills needed to act in the face of conflicting information. As U.S. ambassadors to many of the world's inhabitants, Marines must function frequently and effectively in a human environment, rather than a sterile, technological one. Marines also need cultural and political information and training, for their actions likely will affect strategic goals. Leaders must disseminate intent that portrays the behavior needed to ensure strategic objectives are met, as Brigadier General Thomas Jones did prior to operations in Haiti:

Attack and overwhelm the enemy with absolute force and resolution, while treating the populace with dignity, fairness, and compassion. Win and maintain the `Hearts and Minds' of the Haitian people.... Maintain security of the force always. ... Secure all objectives using nonlethal force to the maximum extent possible. However, once deadly force becomes necessary, it must be used decisively and unhesitantly. We will comport ourselves always as liberators, not dominators. Mental and physical toughness must be our watchwords. . .

These leaders must have the moral courage to trust their Marines and to back them up if they act in apparent discordance with the situation as sensors portray it. General Jones, referring to National Command Authorities questions regarding the firefight in Cap Haitien put it simply: "If subordinates have even the most remote indications that they are being second-guessed, maneuver warfare is an absolute impossibility."

The Marine Corps should not ignore technology. We already are deeply involved in the development of systems that are interoperable and efficient. Hunter Warrior and Urban Warrior have shown the effectiveness of properly trained small-unit leaders wielding powerful information systems. Yet we must never lose sight of one overriding principle: Because conflict at any level is essentially a human endeavor, military success always will involve much more than the employment of technology. Although several of our general officers have attempted to debunk the "total awareness" myth of the system of systems, the Corps is fighting an uphill battle. As we lose a great deal of our warfighting experience through retirement, this battle will become more difficult.

Most people—military and civilian—continue to believe in the concept of technological supremacy. The coming generation of leaders, comfortable with technology and unexposed to the chaos of combat, is more likely to bet the lives of their Marines on purely technological capabilities. The Corps must continue to develop doctrine that advocates initiative, boldness, sound judgment, and decisiveness at every level in the face of confusing and contradictory circumstances. Even more important, we must ensure that we bring that doctrine to life, and train our Marines to trust their instincts. We must give them the experience to allow intuitive decision making in the absence of orders. Technology has no soul. Victory goes to the leader who uses technology wisely, but never fully trusts its promises.

Captain Jenkins currently is the Air Officer, 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.



Conferences and Events

Maritime Security Dialogue

Wed, 2016-11-02

You are cordially invited to: The Role of Space in Maritime Operations A discussion with RADM(SEL) Christian "Boris"...

Defense Forum Washington 2016

WEST 2017

San Diego Convention Center, San Diego, CA

View All

From the Press

Guest Lecturer & Book Signing

Sun, 2016-10-30

Book Launch Party

Wed, 2016-11-02

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership