For those who have en-dured combat, Carl von Clausewitz’s classic military metaphor about “the fog and friction of war” needs no explanation; it’s a truism. For those of us who have never served, the line is only understood rationally. No doubt the tone and tenor of this review would have been different if it had been written in the guts of an Apache helicopter or Abrams tank on a combat mission. Then againLifting the Fog of War is both title and theme of Admiral Bill Owens’s smoothly written and crisply argued book about what America’s high-tech military infrastructure should be. The admiral-vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the first Clinton administration and commander of the U.S. Sixth Fleet during the Gulf War-is a champion of both technological and organizational innovation. In fact, he wants them integrated. He wants new command and control infrastructures to redefine communication and coordination between and within the services. He proposes joint forces training, exercises and initiatives to annihilate anachronistic army, navy, marine and air force doctrines. His harsh-but astute-interpretations of the technical and interservice conflicts surfaced by the Desert Storm and Kosovo conflicts merit particular attention. Owens doesn’t flinch from critiquing his civilian counterparts either.
Unsurprisingly, Owens grasps the nettle of the cultural and institutional politics that both thwart and enable military innovation. The pleasant surprise is that his comments are candid without being cutting. And they’re targeted at an Economist-type audience-not just the Brookings or Georgetown defense policy crowd. Even the endnotes are informative and entertaining.
While Lifting the Fog of War isn’t propaganda, Owens’s ideological bias and technical sensibility make it a policy polemic. In particular, he promotes the “revolution in military affairs” doctrine, a profound effort to redefine America’s war-fighting architecture that has provoked superheated debate inside America’s military-industrial complex and the national-security community.
The revolution in military affairs premise? Technology should make the battlefield “transparent”; mobility should be as treasured as mass; weapons should be made smarter and the people who wield them smarter still. The chain of command should be preserved, but warriors must be rigorously trained to improvise. Technology and tactics should coevolve and not be held hostage to annual budget battles and internecine interservice conflagrations. Procurement cycles for cutting-edge technology must shrivel. Innovation-not the preservation of military tradition-should drive doctrinal debates.
While these aspirations are bold, their implementation has been tepid. “Even as we built a consensus on what was needed to jump-start American military power into the twenty-first century,” Owens writes, “we knew that the White House and many congressional leaders were bent on drastically reducing defense spending whatever the cost to our national security.” Long-term research and development projects fell behind. Humanitarian missions and peacekeeping assignments ran forces ragged. The U.S. revolution in military affairs appeared bankrupt before it had gotten started.
Yet the Bush administration, with supporters of revolution in military affairs-type initiatives playing key roles in the Pentagon, may reverse that trend. Certainly, Owens’s vision of bandwidth-rich battlefields where commanders can real-time track their own personnel-and the enemy’s-is compelling. The belief that tomorrow’s technology can, indeed, lift “the fog of war” is powerful.
But the battlefields of tomorrow’s hell may be digitized with good intentions. I have never been in battle nor commanded men with lives at risk. On the other hand, I have had the opportunity to see exactly what happens when technology makes a workplace or a marketplace more “transparent.”
Yes, there are benefits; but oftentimes, transparency creates more conflict than it resolves. Reread Owens’s own assessments of Desert Storm and Kosovo and it becomes clear that greater transparency and more just-in-time information would have been tremendously useful at key points during those wars. But it’s equally clear that many of the most significant conflicts within the military and civilian command structures revolved around differing interpretations of excellent data.