Small Wars Journal

Learning to Find the Right Needle in a Stack of Needles

Wed, 10/08/2014 - 7:28am

Learning to Find the Right Needle in a Stack of Needles

Timothy E. Grebo

In 2002, the US Dept. of Defense conducted Millennium Challenge (MC02), a major exercise designed to test the capabilities of technologies that supported the emerging doctrine surrounding a new approach to the conduct of war. Vice Admiral Arthur Cebrowski and John Garstka had introduced the concept of network-centric warfare in their 1998 Proceedings article Network-Centric Warfare: Its Origin and Future, and with a price tag of $250 million, MC02 looked to put their theories to the test. The new network-centric doctrine looked to capitalize on advances in sensor, communication, and simulation technology to provide commanders enhanced situational awareness and more effective command and control capabilities. The experiment did not go as planned. Pundits offered up a myriad of reasons and rationales as to why MC02 went so far astray from its intended outcome. They continue to debate why the promise of network-centric warfare failed to deliver on its potential. Despite almost a decade of analysis, the most significant reason behind the failure of MC02, and the reason why network-centric warfare doctrine continues to fall short of fully revolutionizing the battlefield, even after a decade of upgrades born out of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been overlooked. While conventional wisdom consistently focuses on the system, or some piece of it, as the root cause of the shortcomings of network-centric warfare, the real problem exists in the people sitting behind the system’s terminals. More specifically, MC02 failed, and network-centric warfare continues to fail to fully deliver on its promise, because the people operating within the system are not properly trained to excel in the network-centric environment.  Military leaders operating in the network-centric environment have been educated and trained to find a needle in a haystack, when the true skill-set required is to find the right needle in a stack of needles.

In his seminal work On War, Carl von Clausewitz states, “everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war.” As much as the forces of friction haven’t changed, a main cause of friction has changed dramatically. In order to properly train and prepare future generations of military leaders to fight effectively within the medium of friction, we must recognize a paradigm shift and acknowledge the new element that lies at the root cause of friction.  Clausewitz categorized the friction that pervades war into four elements: danger, physical exertion, uncertainty, and chance. He defined the ‘fog of war’ in terms of the uncertainty military leaders experience regarding the disposition of their own forces, the disposition of the enemy’s forces, and the enemy’s intentions. A leader’s lack of situational awareness stems from a combination of incomplete, inaccurate, and contradictory information.  It is the origin of this uncertainty, which is at the core of the friction Clausewitz defined, that has undergone tremendous change. Cebrowski, Garstka, and others developed network-centric warfare doctrine as the antidote to friction, but they instead created a new variety of it. While the architects of network-centric warfare doctrine state emphatically that this revolutionary way of war-fighting will transform data and information into awareness and increase speed of command, they never state exactly how. This gap is most evident in the brevity of “Chapter 6: Cognitive Domain” of Understanding Information Age Warfare (UIAW) by David Alberts, John Gastka, Richard Hayes, and David Signori. In UIAW, which would set the foundation for network-centric warfare doctrine, the authors allocate ten scant pages,  three of which are fully diagrams, to the challenge of equating increased inputs from sensors and information networks into a more complete and shared understanding of the battlefield.  Alberts et al. never fully define how information becomes awareness, and the chapter’s consideration of how to translate reality into information, and finally into understanding, creates more questions than it answers. Senior military leaders and thinkers at the heart of network-centric warfare doctrine development were left to be certain that more information was better than less and that commanders and their staffs would figure out how to assimilate this torrent of information into a shared, omniscient awareness. What no one fully understood in the aftermath of MC02, and what no one has fully realized to date, is that military schools and training don’t provide commanders and staffs the skills to make sense of the data pouring at them. To be fair to Cebrowski and Garstka, they did include a paragraph in their article about the need to develop a cadre of “operators” with new technical and analytical skills, but this theme does not carry forward in subsequent writings on network-centric doctrine. Unable to see the right needle in the stack of needles, commanders are paralyzed by the comparative volumes of data available to them as a result of network-centric warfare.

In order to fully realize the benefits of network-centric warfare, we must educate and train the next generation of military leaders to be experts in data analysis and develop in them a new understanding of the decision-making process. For decades, formal schools and training exercises for military leaders have preached decision-making in an environment of incomplete information, teaching leaders to employ tempo as a weapon against the enemy. Rapid movement through Col John Boyd’s Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) Loop was facilitated by the lack of inputs in the Observe stage of the process. Leaders were able to Orient very quickly, however imprecisely, as a result of their limited ability to Observe. Network-centric warfare has changed this dynamic fundamentally. Leaders now have access to data from multiple systems, and the information from force trackers, live video feeds, and automated command and control common operational pictures quickly overwhelms a leader’s ability to Observe and Orient. With so much data to upload, prioritize, assimilate and analyze, the leader quickly succumbs to ‘paralysis by analysis’ and fails to ever progress into the Decide and Act stages of Boyd’s process. Without the skills to efficiently and effectively sift through the data streaming in, leaders lose the very tempo that network-centric warfare was created to facilitate. Uncertainty still lies at the heart of friction, but it is uncertainty resulting from too much available information, rather than too little. Leaders untrained in the latest data analysis techniques are unable to see patterns or identify outliers in a sea of raw and processed data. During MC02, General Van Riper used couriers and launched aircraft by visual signal to reduce his Red Forces’ vulnerabilities to Blue Forces’ sophisticated electronic surveillance network. Despite being denied the ability to eavesdrop on Van Riper’s communications, leaders for Blue Force should have recognized the lack of radio communications as a significant data point. Van Riper stated after the exercise that network-centric warfare concepts, “were fundamentally flawed in that they leaned heavily on systems analysis of decision-making.”  It is a more accurate critique to say the concept of employing systems analysis decision-making by relying solely on technology implemented by staffs and commanders unskilled in applying analytical methods, was fundamentally flawed.

Critics of network-centric warfare, like the critics of the system engineering techniques applied by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara during the war in Vietnam, see the systems and the technology as the cause of failure. We must remember that the body count as a measure of determining success in Vietnam was not the invention of the system or technology, but of man. A system will only work as well as the people who use it. Network-centric warfare, and the technologies that enable it, have tremendous potential to reduce friction, lift the veil of the fog of war, and increase the tempo of US forces to breakneck speeds. All of these benefits can only be realized if we educate and train future leaders how to equate the information created by the system into a shared awareness. We can’t rely on technology to interpret data into a common operational picture, we must change the way we train leaders to seek, prioritize and analyze the most important data out of the vast quantities of data available. Just as we have trained generations of military leaders to use Boyd’s cycle to create tempo, and to embrace the concept that, “when skating over thin ice, speed is our security,” so now we must train leaders to see the forest for the trees. We must train and exercise analytical techniques the same way we do tactics. A leader’s intuition becomes increasingly valuable because there is so much data, but we must teach and train our leaders in a manner that develops this brand of intuition. Our formal leadership schools’ curricula must include more statistics, data analysis, and decision modeling to prepare our leaders to succeed in the network-centric warfare environment. We must grasp upon and pass to our leaders through formal schooling the latest in decision-making science and theory. Our schools and training must now arm leaders to ignore irrelevant information spewed out by networked systems, just as they armed them to decide and act in the absence of information in the past. If military leadership is a combination of art and a science, we must update the science we teach our leaders to match the times. To successfully operate in the network-centric warfare environment, we must equip our leaders with the know-how to find the right needle in a stack of needles.

About the Author(s)

Timothy Grebos currently serves as the Director of Intelligence and Security for an Army transportation brigade in Kaiserslautern, Germany, and previously worked as the lead strategic planner at the US Army Armament Research, Development, and Engineering Center at Picatinny Arsenal, NJ. He earned his B.A. from Penn State University, and his M.B.A. from Boston University, and is a graduate of the United States Marine Corps Command and Staff College. Mr Grebos is a reserve communications officer currently assigned to the G-6 at Marine Corps Forces Europe/Africa. Last deployed in 2005 to the Horn of Africa in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, he presently holds the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.


Move Forward

Sun, 10/19/2014 - 10:14am

In reply to by RantCorp


What a combination: football and arithmetic. American football as an analogy helps make points and math has its military uses as well. Imagine the NFL owner and coach trying to balance his team’s individual salaries given salary caps. It sounds kind of like when Congress continues to raise troop salaries above inflation while not raising Tricare costs to match inflation when both costs are so large a part of our Army’s budget.

It’s unfortunate that Gen. Giap was so proud of a strategy that lost so many tactical battles and slaughtered one million of his own in a persistent arithmetic of disregard for life. That hardly seems the kind of leader we should aspire to create. The 58,000+ of our own lost was sad enough Vietnam arithmetic. We also should recall that had Congress noted the arithmetic of the ’72 Easter offensive that “did work there” and the effectiveness of “exterminating them with our aircraft,” then and during Linebacker II, they would not have been so quick to pass a law prohibiting a repeat use in ’75 that may have made Giap a loser instead of forfeit winner since the U.S. didn’t bother showing up. Sound familiar?

Back to football tactics and strategy, can we imagine a football team succeeding only by passing (airpower) and never running (maneuver), or only passing a few times a game and from a lake well outside the stadium? Can we picture coaches trying to observe and call plays from a plane circling over the stadium at 400 knots or a lake well outside the stadium? More critically can we imagine a team opting for a light footprint and not fielding 22 traveling starters and other back-ups, plus special teams and trying instead to get by with a few really good ones (SF/SOF) against the other team’s 120-man roster? And I haven’t seen a team yet that tried to flood the field and sail the ball into the end zone.

However, war is not a lot like football because the other “team” and its leaders can adapt and change the rules as they go along. We cannot run out the clock on wars and insurgencies as long as one or both adversaries wish to and can continue, and conflict motivations remain. For instance, some argue we should have ended the game and gone home early after we ran up the score (OEF I, OIF I, Libya) like Alabama just did to Texas A.M. (sorry RC about Cal/UCLA). The problem is if our team goes home at half time, the other team can score at will in the second half. Even if we stay until late in the game and put in freshman recruits who speak another language, the other team likely will keep on playing their starters long after ours fly home.

Don’t forget that uniquely our fields of <strong>unfriendly</strong> strife are primarily away-games giving opponents every home field advantage. Adversaries easily sneak into our stadium for the few home events. They then attempt sabotage (terror) of our team and fans before and after the game and attack our planes/buses (A2/AD) going to quite-distant away-games. Also, the adversary team invariably figures out how to hide its players from our team and coaches, placing some out of uniform on the sidelines (urban and complex terrain), disguising others as ambulance drivers and stadium workers, and others in the crowd (sanctuary) who suddenly appear on the field to make a first down or trip our players as they run to score. Good luck trying to get the crowd to give up the hidden players. The enemy and crowd also booby-traps the field to maim our star players.

But what truly hurts our team are decisions of the athletic director (AD) rather than the coaches. For instance, many away-games are simply forfeited because the AD decides not to show up on critical game days or brings just the quarterback and ends and somehow thinks that boat in the pond outside the stadium will suffice. The AD also orders coaches to field only 8 players instead of the 22 we need for offense and defense not realizing we need those running and defensive backs and all our linemen. Clueless advisors tell the AD to field primarily passing players because they think it a cleaner politically and less costly approach not realizing that without a ground game, the other team can “play the pass” the whole time. Advisors who know nothing about football advise the AD to downplay the need to play harder games against tougher opponents and thus forego elimination opportunities precluding the other team from playing in much higher stakes later championships.

Advisors try to get the AD to divert school resources to other domestic sports and activities such as rowing because the rowing team practices and makes jobs on the blue team coasts which have many AD supporters. However, the rowers have little influence on the football field itself because passing from lakes miles outside the stadium means extended times for passes to get completed hours later which limits the number of passes per day. Of course the rowers who also play football off the boat and on the field are a huge help but the weaker AD and amateur non-coach advisors often won’t use them.

The AD often is told if we simply negotiate rules of the game with the other team that they will abide by them. The AD and politically correct advisors also believe you can mix opposing fans on both sides of the stadium and no conflict will result in the crowd. We won’t engage or criticize some teams because they never play by our rules and we excuse their harsh tendencies as culturally/religiously acceptable to them. Yet they invariably show up on our campus and kill our players and fans even if we don’t show up to play them. If we attempt to divert TV money and scholarships from the other team due to a rule infraction, the other team finds ways to overcome sanctions by seeking wealthy donors and recruiting from other nearby schools for help in filling out and funding their roster.

As for math, are we advocating that we would have been more successful fighting the Viet Cong and NVA division with only 10,000 troops? If that is SF/SOF arithmetic most would submit it doesn’t add up. Should we attack battalions with platoons or defend against armored regiments with airborne infantry companies? Should we not calculate where artillery will strike and how much area it will damage, an elaborate math exercise at best assisted by those computers and programmable radios/networks you don’t like.

Should we ignore that our tanks guzzle gas and are hard to deploy and keep identical tank quantities per combined arms battalion as we expand to three CABs per BCT instead of two? What about the math of our tanks seeing/shooting as far as 4 kms due to fire control computers and great sensors while adversary tanks are closer to 1.5 kms and probably won’t penetrate our equivalent inches of rolled homogeneous steel that our unique armor simulates? What about fire control computers on aircraft and precision munitions to assist accuracy?

When we limit how many troops we field, particularly for the ground game, is there math involved in determining the best players to field and task organize? Do fewer active forces mean playing both ways resulting in worn out players? If the President wants to reduce spending for conflict, will math unduly influence him/her to send lots of tanks/IFVs or instead less capable Strykers/LAVs, M-ATVs, and dismounts that prolong the conflict? If the AOR is a large area with extensive rugged, high altitude terrain should we bother to consider the speed and range of dismounts vs. the speed of M-ATVs and CH-47s? If we don’t do the math, do we end up sending an MV-22 to emplace troops via fast rope on 10,000’ peaks?

I understand your point on computers vs brains, but I can guarantee you that those Generals you mentioned who were West Point grads had multiple semesters of calculus and other engineering courses assisted by math. I further guarantee that those WWI and II Generals did not even have computers (and Eisenhower would have benefitted during Normandy planning), the few Vietnam era computers had less power than today’s laptops, and even today’s four stars had punch card computers when they studied them briefly. Computing power and access has changed since then not that I’m even remotely arguing that we should trust them exclusively. But they certainly can help staffs, decision-makers, situational understanding (the COP and digital maps), and information dissemination and fusion.

Also, math has less controversy unlike many aspects of diplomacy, geographic borders that <strong>should</strong> vs. do exist, liberal arts, Design, counterinsurgency, and other military-related philosophy. Yeah, stats can be manipulated but if we tell you that an aircraft will not reach a location with the fuel on board, it is not debatable, nor is the time it will arrive based on the speed and route chosen. If the USAF tells you that the A-10 will not survive against modern air defenses and that stealth aircraft <strong>will</strong> there is a math component behind it that you can choose to ignore but that won’t go away. If you want artillery support but choose to attack or defend outside artillery range, all the arguing, theorizing, and Design in the world will not help. Your M1A2 tank will still burn about 2 gallons a mile even though you and your fuel trucks want to go 500 miles in just 9 hours with just 500-gallons in fuel tanks multiplied by so many tanks on a cross-country route...math says you won’t make it that far on that fuel in those tanks and trucks at achievable speeds in that time on that route.

That is a math problem easily "framed" and assisted by computers without elaborate Design wiring diagrams. However, it is not easily solved by strictly intuitive or philosophical leaders who fail to do the upfront math and detailed vs. conceptual planning required...such as how many forces and supply trucks will be required for post "mission accomplished" stability operations.


Fri, 10/17/2014 - 12:50pm

'The United States has a strategy based on arithmetic. They question the computers, add and subtract, extract square roots, and then go into action. But arithmetical strategy doesn't work here. If it did, they would already have exterminated us with their airplanes.'

— Gen Vo Nguyen Giap

IMO the problem with our “new network-centric doctrine” approach to command and control is that we insist our leaders use mechanical and electronic computers in the process of decision-making. By doing so we place ourselves at a crippling disadvantage to our opponents who promote leaders who display a capability to use quantum computations and 5th, 6th , 7th dimensional event-horizons to outsmart and out fight us.

The quote above was Giap’s take on a quote from Mao who probably got it from Genghis Khan who might have got it from Alexander who perhaps read about Sun Tzu. All these great strategists utilized the same Mark One model and it didn’t/doesn’t cost anywhere near MC02’s $250 million and when I last looked the Mark One is still widely available.

The Mark One computer is the device Mission Command requires to energize the chain of command in order to gain the tactical, operational and strategic advantage. Unfortunately for us the Mark One computer cannot function in a MC02 style environment/network. In the same way as a cup of coffee split on a keyboard destroys a laptop a MC02 type network obliterates the Mark One’s ability to establish/maintain Mission Command. The level of processing speed and awareness of our electronic/mechanical system networks is so retarded compared to the quantum processing speeds utilized by the Mark One computer that the Mark One simply shuts down in frustration.

The Mark One computer utilized by the Vietcong, Mujahedeen, Taliban, IS etc. to stand up Mission Command did/does not have to overcome the concrete strait-jacket imposed by our latest RMA and that IMHO is why we lose. I once thought it possible that by spending a million dollars for every dime the enemy spent would overcome the electronic/mechanical – quantum computing gap but the last 13 years proves I was mistaken.

The Jihadis have a way of recognizing whose Mark One is tuned to Mission Command. It is a process that, outside of an existential war such as WW2, is probably too harsh for our liberal sensitivities. However there are other ways that enable us to recognize individuals who possess the Mark One computer capable of standing up MC.

Individuals displaying the behavior that suggests a MC capable Mark One can be observed, to quote Wellington ‘... on the playing fields of Eaton.’ It is the certain individual who seems to have ‘so much time’ as many a barroom pundit would testify. Any sports fan can name dozens of players over many decades who seem to react to an event within the game that they appear to predetermine. If you have many individuals who possess this ability within a single unit you get a ‘72 Dolphins. If you have just a few you get a ’76 Raiders, ’84 49ers, ’85 Bears etc. The momentum these units generate (even when all seem lost) is the essence that Mission Command strives to harness.

(You imagine the effect if a coach ran onto the field in Super Bowl XXXIV with a laptop and showed Mike Jones the best way to tackle Kevin Dyson.)

There are tens of thousands of kids who display the ability to utilize their Mark One’s quantum capacity in a whole myriad of team-based activities. Such individuals who possess unusual physical courage are best suited to senior NCOs or platoon command and those with a more intellectual courage (trust, speaking truth to authority) capability are best suited to senior command. Get a courageous Marino in the foxhole you get an Alvin York, Dan Daly, Audie Murphy, David Hackworth, Carlos Hathcock, and Chris Kyle or appoint a Gretzky as a flag officer and you get a Pershing, Patton, Marshall, and Bradley etc.

It is not the intellectual capacity that is important; though that would be a bonus , it is the ability to perceive future events that is the critical capability and their ability to establish/inspire a cognitive network within their command.

I imagine there many other activities that an ability to perceive future actions/events produces outstanding results (playing in an orchestra or rowing in an eight perhaps) but contact sport adds the critical element pertaining to Mission Command of physical danger and the opposition having a vote. Furthermore a team sport gives an opportunity actually observe how a coming together of decision making (sometimes in milliseconds) of individual with widely differing duties creates a momentum that can overwhelm the opposition (Mission Command).

Giap said ‘But arithmetical strategy doesn't work here.’ I would suggest it works even less at the tactical and operational level.

IMHO the reason it didn't work then and it doesn't work now is the processing hardware we are so hell-bent on developing is so profoundly slow that we'll never stand a chance.


This article presents an outstanding perspective and aspect of information technology and the NetCentric black hole. While technology is critical to the current battlespace, it is only as good as the recipients understanding of the data presented. The context of information overload is well stated and lack of training is partially correct. What is more important about the abundance of data is the "so what" related to the end state goal of the mission in focus. In a current joint operation center, massive amounts of J2, J3, and J6 information is present, the commander observing the information must be adaptive enough to fully understand the mission, the requirements, the enemy, and what each is bringing to the fight and what each is fighting back with. This has a deep tie to operational mission execution knowledge and a touch of common sense. As stated, technology is only as good as the person who designed it and that technology is only good if the person using it has the ability to do it correctly. Under a JOC context, a good commander has a great deal of data at their fingertips and also has very good operational users on the JOC floor supporting a common end state goal by gathering and correlating that information based on the dynamics of the moment and the clearly identified goals of the missions all operating simultaneously in the same moment of time. Finding the right needle in the stack of needles with a mission success focus would make this article even more valuable to DoD planning and improve training practices.