Network-Centric: Is It Worth the Risk?

By Commander William K. Lescher, USN

Today, the term "revolution in military affairs" is used mostly to describe the potential leap in military effectiveness promised by applying tools of the information age to the exercise of military force. NCW is a major element of this revolution, and refers to warfare excuted by forces employing a common network to share and act on information at unprecedented rates. The idea is to combine sensor and networking technology with new operational concepts to enable a dramatically improved military sense and respond capability. This capability allows force application to be focused for greatest effect. Combat power is concentrated by using a netted sensor information edge—coupled with agile forces, precision munitions, and the command-and-control connectivity to spin decision loops so rapidly that an adversary must work continuously to fight yesterday's battles.

The use of information to focus effect and maximize efficiency suggests that in many ways NCW is to warfare what precision guided munitions (PGMs) are to munitions. As with PGMs, NCW is as much about how we bring destruction to the enemy as the nature of destruction itself. Like PGMs, the principal value-added features of NCW (the sensors and network) are not ends in themselves, but only the means to the end. While neither PGMs nor NCW is the best choice for every force application scenario, both offer advantages for scenarios of great interest.

What Advantages Does NCW Offer?

NCW offers substantial advantages for fighting large-scale conflicts over great distances with small forces. NCW offers lesser advantages in smaller-scale contingencies where information advantage and standoff strike may be less relevant; even in these situations, however, the improved intelligence, command and control, logistics efficiency, and decision aids of NCW will be helpful. NCW's advantages arise primarily from its ability to enable smaller, mobile forces to act with disproportionate effect through the use of accurate long-range fires and near real-time sharing of information. 1 Shared awareness among dispersed forces facilitates both a heightened pace of operations and the ability to coordinate effects. These speed-of-command and self-synchronization features can combine to create a more preferable massing of effect rather than the massing of forces. 2 NCW thus offers the potential to shift from large forces fighting sequential battles (attrition warfare) to precision near-simultaneous attacks by smaller forces.

The capability to strike effectively without massing forces creates significant advantages for ships, aircraft, and ground troops hindered by requirements for forward bases, logistical tails, and coalition hosts. Smaller, more agile forces also stand less risk of taking casualties. And, as with PGMs, the combination of an effective strike capability and a low risk of casualties makes NCW attractive to political leaders—and consequently increases the credibility of the threat of force.

Why Embrace NCW Now?

The environment we fight in is changing dramatically. Current and potential adversaries have learned from Desert Storm—some of them more quickly than we have. We see asymmetric conflicts breaking out increasingly—where adversaries confront us at our weak points, and in ways that reduce the effectiveness of our current strength. In Kosovo, Serbia's President Slobodan Milosevic blunted NATO's air power and its attrition strategy by decentralizing command power, dispersing his forces, using human shields, and avoiding direct engagements. He attacked where NATO was unwilling to respond directly—on the ground. NATO's strategy of gradual escalation, massing of forces, and sequential hitting of targets took months to achieve its intended goals, by which time Milosevic had essentially reached his primary objective: the mass expulsion of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority. The growing phenomenon of asymmetric confrontation is apparent elsewhere as well. Saddam Hussein satisfies internal needs and harvests support from the Arab world by sustaining conflict while avoiding a direct large-scale confrontation, and nonstate actors such as Osama Bin Laden strike through terrorism. China is reported to be embracing space denial weapons and information warfare concepts.

Today's threats also are changing in terms of the tools of confrontation. In the information age, unlike the past, state-of-the-art technology is driven increasingly by and for civilian markets—not military ones. Our newest weapons increasingly employ commercial off-the-shelf technology and commercial "open" architectures. Secure communications, access to global positioning and high-resolution earth observation satellites, and advanced computing technology are widely available. As the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Henry H. Shelton, remarked recently, "The proliferation of advanced technology with military applications is so extensive that many of our adversaries in the next century will have capabilities they could only dream about in this one." 3

The transition to the information age also means that the conflict environment is changing in terms of opportunity. It is hard to imagine the information revolution bypassing warfare while it alters most other forms of human activity. The opportunity to gain significant warfighting advantage and the necessity to hedge against such gains by others require that we shape the change offered by the information revolution—rather than be compelled to react to its effects. 4

All of these factors—combined with Americans' lower tolerance for casualties and a smaller U.S. military—suggest that the type of sustained massing of forces and logistical stockpiling seen in Desert Storm and Allied Force are unlikely to remain the best models for future force employment. In contrast, potential NCW payoffs of speed and precision of attack, credibility of threat of force, reduced risk to friendly forces, and a reduction in resources required seem to align well with the changing environment. The current absence of a major strategic competitor provides a window of opportunity for examining the advantages offered by and competencies required for NCW, and for mitigating the risk from others seeking netcentric advantages over us.

What Risks Arise From a NCW Strategy?

In "Network-Centric Warfare, Its Origin and Future," Vice Admiral Arthur K. Cebrowski and John Garstka draw a number of important lessons from leading private sector practitioners of network-centric operations. By examining Wal-Mart, Deutsche Morgan Grenfell (financial securities), and the New York Police Department, Cebrowski and Garstka demonstrate how the shift from platform to network orientation brought about a flexible and dynamic response, how local awareness and decentralized decision making facilitated real-time identification of opportunities, and how speed of command emerged as a decisive operational capability. 5 Beyond the identification of these positive outcomes, however, critical issues of process—how the outcomes were achieved—were not examined thoroughly. Overcoming organizational inertia to gain the positive outcomes was addressed only in general terms by a brief discussion of a "co-evolution" process of organization, doctrine, and technology.

Explicit consideration of the process by which we will attain an NCW capability is as critical as focusing on the outcomes we eventually hope to achieve. Precisely because of process issues, a successful long-term shift to NCW in the Navy will be more challenging—and riskier—than anticipated by the examples cited by Cebrowski and Garstka. One key reason has to do with the pace of innovation and implementation. Today's successful long-term netcentric implementers typically possessed a key organizational competency of fast-paced organizational-level innovation prior to embracing netcentric operations fully. This competence is one key reason that they are long-term netcentric success stories.

Others have discovered, unhappily, that changing an organization's culture concurrent with technology implementation is a daunting task, which cannot fail to slow the pace of implementation and innovation. And the rub is that, in a competitive environment, the pace of implementation and innovation in large part determines the sustainability of netcentric advantages. Choosing to compete on information use without a clear organizational edge in applying information-use innovations is not a smart bet. In a world where information and sensor technologies are increasingly market-driven, netcentric concepts will be imitated. Navy and Marine Corps migration to NCW thus will involve strategic risk arising from the uncertainty of how our relative military advantages will change as we lead others down this path. Will U.S. downsizing and reliance on NCW concepts enable adversaries to close today's military capability gap through reliance on market technologies, nimble incorporation of market innovations (not even their own), and imitation of our concepts?

Netcentric Advantages—Two Paths, Two Outcomes

Wal-Mart's netcentric success story began with an initial competitive advantage gained by placing stores in locations where the market leaders were not—in small towns. To serve these small, dispersed stores, Wal-Mart developed an innovative and particularly efficient hub-and-spoke product distribution system. It then built on these first-mover advantages in location and organizational design with further innovation and expansion, leading in implementation of decentralized decision making, speed of response to customers (by restocking by purchase behavior rather than forecasts), and speed of response to competitors (by using local pricing decisions). These organizational characteristics were largely in place prior to the massive information technology investments that later greatly facilitated this sense-and-respond orientation. Because of these cultural strengths, Wal-Mart eventually achieved a market dominance that competitors—even well-capitalized ones—have been unable to match. 6

In contrast to Wal-Mart, the International Stock Exchange (ISE) in London offers an example of large netcentric investments leading to a very poor outcome. At the same time that Wal-Mart achieved advantage through netcentric implementation, an ISE firm also gained a substantial competitive advantage through an innovative sense-and-respond technology, exploiting market inefficiencies. Unfortunately, this technology later was matched by competitors. A fundamental restructuring of the competition resulted, with the market inefficiencies and related operating margins largely disappearing altogether. The London firms suffered extensive losses with virtually no prospect for return to traditional profitability. 7

Long-term netcentric success in a competitive environment is less about technology than about an organization's ability to apply and innovate with technology. Wal-Mart has been, and continues to be, a moving target for their competitors; the ISE firms were not. In the information age, long-term payoffs tend to accrue from the pace of innovation. The relevant insight for those contemplating netcentric strategies for large organizations is that the pace of innovation in such organizations generally is constrained by the organizational element (i.e., the culture), not technology. The networking technology employed by Wal-Mart and its competitors—while expensive to implement—is not particularly exotic or uncommon, and by itself provides neither a sustainable advantage nor clear competitive payoff. Wal-Mart's advantage is organizational design and culture, the way it uses technology, its boldness in applying concepts and gaining experience with technology, and its pace of learning and implementation.

Criticisms of NCW

There is no shortage of critics of NCW concepts in general and business "lessons" in particular. In "War Isn't a Rational Business," Colonel T. X. Hammes argues that lessons from the marketplace are not relevant because "business models assume rational decision making, and war is rarely rational." 8 He cites Somali intra-clan fighting and the attrition warfare of World War I as specific examples of the irrational nature of war for which business conflict offers no insight. The "irrational" examples cited by Colonel Hammes, however, clearly involved actors making choices that they perceived as correct—despite opposing views that the actions may have reflected incorrect beliefs or "crazy" values. If conflicting perceptions of options, actions, and outcomes mean that war is irrational, then business is equally irrational.

Business conflict offers precise analogies for each type of "irrational" behavior cited by Colonel Hammes. One example is the 1980s war of attrition in the U.K. satellite television market between the British Satellite Broadcasting consortium and Rupert Murdoch's Sky Television. Before agreeing finally to merge in 1990 (with each side having 50% control—a "truce"), these two firms racked up losses in excess of one billion pounds fighting for control of the U.K. market. 9 This case illustrates clearly why wars of attrition are so dangerous. When conflict history is considered a "sunk" cost, only forward-looking expectations are considered relevant. As a result, when large winner-take-all payoffs are one perceived endgame, long fights and large cumulative losses are to be expected—not considered irrational. Fog and friction exist in business conflict as much as in war, and with similar effects. As Cebrowski and Garstka commented, "we may be special people in the armed forces, but we are not a special case." 10

Competition in business and military arenas share another key characteristic particularly relevant to the analysis of NCW: the scope and intensity of business and military competition are both resource constrained. (Hence the familiar saying, "Amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics.") The enormous sense-and-respond advantages that have permitted some in the private sector to focus limited resources for huge competitive advantage have the same potential to affect the nature of military conflict—in our favor or against us.

There are other prominent objections to NCW: it is too technically complex; it is too fragile for warfare; it is unable to provide a decisive edge when there is little information available; and it may be overwhelmed by calls for fire from small dispersed forces if it is not resourced correctly. The technology of NCW is generally no more exotic or fragile than what we rely on today. Certainly, some risk arises simply from relying on any technology, but this risk must be managed by designing robust systems to work in harsh environments, providing redundant capability for critical elements, and designing for graceful rather than catastrophic system degradation as elements fail. If calls for fire overwhelm capability, this reaffirms the requirement for continuous organizational learning to get execution right. Scarcity of information-intelligence is bad news whether you are fighting network-centric, platform-centric, or rifle-centric warfare. Clearly, the relative advantages offered by NCW decrease as the ability to decide where to focus force is lessened. The fact that such scenarios can be imagined, however, does not argue persuasively for the elimination of the capability to focus force rapidly. It argues for excellence in basic information warfare skills.

The New Landscape

Evaluation of NCW ideas must extend beyond today's environment. How will we fare in future conflicts where others also are applying these ideas? Our potential adversaries are paying attention, and will gain some form of NCW benefit at some point in the future by imitating our successes and substituting our technology with commercial equivalents. (The combination of chemical/biological weapons and GPS guidance is an example of a precision standoff weapon substitute. "Home field" location advantages could offset sensor disadvantages.)

The landscape of the future will feature smaller forces that achieve operational success with fewer resources. The competition to adapt new, increasingly commercial technologies for tactical advantage will see organizational factors acting as the implementation bottleneck, as the pace of technological change accelerates. State-of-the-art, commercially available technology may provide adversaries adequate capability to compete with world-class military forces in a given region—particularly when combined with weapons of mass destruction. Unit operational effectiveness—performing similar tasks better than an adversary—might be matched by an adversary's innovation that allows similar tasks to be executed differently, or similar results to be achieved by executing entirely different tasks. Each of these NCW features tends to level the playing field in areas of current significant U.S. advantage: size of forces; operational effectiveness; currency of fielded technology; and amount of defense resources available.

Should we lead the way to such an arena? The short answer is that we have little choice. Even with the considerable uncertainty of the details of the scope and timing that accompanies a transition to an information age, it is unmistakable that this transition is the dominant trend affecting our future. Even though this future competitive landscape could be more challenging than today's, we are compelled to prepare for it. The ISE firms that were unable to match the innovation that so changed their competitive environment did not simply face the dramatically reduced profitability of those that did—they faced corporate annihilation. This is why the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach is so dangerous. If we do not lead the way into information age competition now, how will we know when our current approach becomes broken?

The fact that no adversary currently threatens our military advantage should neither slow our preparation for new competition, nor cloud our understanding of its implications. We will have to improve significant elements of the way the Navy and Marine Corps field new ideas and technology in order to achieve standout performance in fast-paced implementation. It will take years of effort and outstanding leadership to make NCW work, and Navy and Marine Corps leaders will have to overcome widespread complacency to bring about the required change. The comfort we are accustomed to drawing from the sheer size of our forces will be misplaced in an era of NCW—because the whole idea of NCW is to lessen the advantages of size.

The key now is to bring our focus on organizational change into balance with existing prescriptions and architecture for technological change. The organizational elements critical to success in the information age will both be the hardest to change and the hardest to duplicate—they will be the Navy's and Marine Corps' key advantage in the future, not specific technologies. Today, we have a solid foundation for pushing innovative technology to the fleet, with our "global" war games, Fleet Battle and Sea Dragon Experiments, Joint Warfare Interoperability Demonstrations, Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, Strategic Studies Group, and a revamped Naval War College. We now need inspired leadership to build on this foundation, to shake us out of our complacency, and to address the most significant factors constraining the pace and quality of organizational innovation.

These constraining factors are no secret: The tendency, as we embrace jointness, toward "group think" and the creation of monopoly providers of specific combat capabilities; a zero-defects mentality and an aversion to the risk of failure; poorly designed warfighting experiments featuring an overemphasis on technological prototypes and underemphasis on organizational prototypes; the lack of focus and discipline in resource decisions; the allocation of scarce resources to incremental improvements of legacy systems at the expense of breakthrough systems; a leadership that does not appear to embrace decentralized innovation; and the widespread contentment with our current performance and advantages. 11

Two powerful historical trends will have to be overcome if we are to achieve the required organizational change: we always have responded better to threats than to opportunity, and leaders in any field rarely lead the way to breakthrough paths. Both trends help explain why the players leading change often are the dark horses, whether it is Wal-Mart coming out of nowhere to dominate discount retailing, or Germany using Blitzkrieg concepts to conquer much of Europe and march to the gates of Moscow.

The inevitability of warfare in the information age is a reality—now is the time to grasp the implications and prepare. We need to get past our fascination with technology and focus on the key success factors for this future—bold leadership, continuous learning, and optimized, flat, organizational designs. This is a time for activists—not theorists—to shake things up. The best news for our future is that the keys to accomplishing this, and the keys to advantage in this newest form of warfare, are the keys to success we have embraced in the Navy since its founding—quality people and exceptional leaders.

Commander Lescher recently commanded Helicopter Antisubmarine Squadron Light 48, and currently is the prospective executive officer of USS Inchon (MCS-12).

   1. David Gompert, "National Security in the Information Age," Naval War College Review , Autumn 1998, pp. 29-30. back to article
   2. Vice Admiral Arthur Cebrowski and John Garstka, "Network-Centric Warfare: Its Origin and Future," Proceedings , January 1998. p. 32. back to article
   3. General Henry Shelton, "Operationalizing Joint," Air Chronicles , April 1998. back to article
   4. Gompert, "National Security in the Information Age," p. 31. back to article
   5. Cebrowski and Garstka, "Network-Centric Warfare," pp. 30-34. back to article
   6. Harvard Business School Case Study 9-387-018, and update N9-793-070, Wal-Mart Stores' Discount Operations, 1986, 1992. back to article
   7. Harvard Business School Note on Information Technology and Strategy, N9-193-138, 1993, pp. 7. back to article
   8. Colonel T. X. Hammes, "War Isn't a Rational Business," Proceedings , July 1998, p. 23. back to article
   9. Harvard Business School Case Study 9-794-092, "Hold or Fold? The War of Attrition," 1994. back to article
  10. Cebrowski and Garstka, "Network-Centric Warfare," p. 35. back to article
  11. See "Gansler: DoD In A 'Death Spiral,' Program Terminations Likely," Defense Daily , September 3, 1998. back to article


Commander Lescher recently commanded Helicopter Antisubmarine Squadron Light 48, and currently is the prospective executive officer of USS Inchon (MCS-12).

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