In essence, the disagreements were driven as much by fundamental differences in values and perceptions as by data gaps, ambiguity or ignorance. This is only logical. As this is written, there is another global battle being waged that costs the combatants tens of billions of dollars a year. The warriors are better paid and better trained than Top Gun pilots or Navy SEALS. They, too, fight to win. They, too, fight to preserve tradition even as they struggle to adopt bold innovations. Most importantly, these warriors totally believe in “information warfare,” the “need for speed” and lifting the “fog of war.”Forgive the analogy, but I’m talking about the global financial system’s networks of ruthless traders of currencies, equities and debt. These combatants have access to the same information but-guess what?-for every buyer there is a seller. In other words, brilliant people have access to near-perfect data in their near-transparent battlefields (certainly more transparent than any military battlefield), and yet they come to completely opposite conclusions about what to do next.
Similarly, even if admirals and generals had perfect real-time battlefield perspectives, the fog of war would persist. Sure, leaders could see things more clearly-but this digitized fog might be even more dangerous. Why? Because transparency renders battlefield issues inordinately more complex.
True story: During the Gulf War, for the first time in American warfare, practically everyone who needed radio access had it. When one of the first battles began, communications were immediately clogged because everyone tried to communicate simultaneously. It took hours to establish a wireless hierarchy protocol. Question: Should every soldier have radio access? Should a soldier be able to skip the chain of command? What happens when the army, navy, air force and marines interpret precisely the same data in fundamentally different ways? This problem persists whether communications are excellent or not.
It is the failure to appreciate the profound nature of such questions-which fire at the heart of the proposed revolution in military affairs-that forms the flaw in Owens’s book. Sadly, though, many of the answers were provided on April 14, 1994, when two U.S. Air Force F-15 fighters shot down two U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters over northern Iraq, killing all 26 peacekeepers on board. This accident and its subsequent exhaustive investigation are chillingly reconstructed and analyzed by Lieutenant Colonel Scott A. Snook in Friendly Fire, which should be required companion reading for Owens’s book. And Snook, an army officer who was himself a victim of friendly fire in Grenada, comes to a telling conclusion.
“Sifting through the mountain of data, no smoking gun emerged,” he writes. “There weren’t any bad guys; hence, no one to blame. There weren’t any catastrophic failures of material or equipment; hence, nothing to fix.The more I looked for traditional culprits, the more I realized that this accident occurred not because something extraordinary had happened, but rather just the opposite.”
In fact, Snook cleanly describes a painful litany of technical, individual and organizational mini-breakdowns. The Identification, Friend or Foe transponder on the Black Hawks apparently didn’t work. An experienced F-15 pilot misidentified the helicopter. The AWACS crew-which enjoyed precisely the kind of high-tech, high-bandwidth transparent battlefield and air space Owens envisions-seldom trained as a team, and its leaders often skipped simulation runs. The army’s helicopter missions were seldom integrated into the air force’s mission “packages.” Etc., etc., etc.
So was this accidental shoot down a “transparency” issue? A command and control issue? A training issue? An interservice rivalry issue? The answer, of course, is “all of the above.” But what does that tell us? One interpretation is that “transparency” is badly overrated as a virtue if military cultures don’t address the cultural and organizational fundamentals. Another is that there is a dangerous belief that if we give more smart people more smart information and more smart weaponry, a consensus will emerge on what to do with it all. In fact, the opposite will likely occur, and this will breed even more intense disagreements over what to do next. Why? Because it will bring even more to the fore the genuine and legitimate differences in philosophies, doctrines and values that divide the armed forces branches.
I would pay good money to read a review of Admiral Owens’s book by Lieutenant Colonel Snook and a review of Snook’s book by the admiral. I think each would be sobered and tempered by the other’s insights. One can only hope that the nation’s military and new civilian leadership actively encourage that kind of rigorous reexamination of these fundamental issues for tomorrow’s conflicts. The fog of war is an excellent reason to promote as clear and transparent a debate on these questions as possible.