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War’s Coming Digital Fog

Michael Schrage reviews Lifting the Fog of War by Bill Owens and Friendly Fire by Scott A. Snook.

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 again

Lifting 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.

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.

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