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.