Network-Centric Warfare on the Cheap

Aeryon Systems has recently gotten a good deal of media attention for Libyan rebels’ use of 3-pound (backpack, briefcase, or trunk-stored) Scout unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in tactical-level intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) functions. Dependent on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for their ISR needs, the rebels naturally opted to develop their own organic ISR. The question on everyone’s minds, undoubtedly, is how soon it will be until non-state actors develop their own armed drone capabilities. While this is an important issue– and the growing expert consensus about the proliferation of guided munitions suggests that armed drones will not be an exception to the rule–Libya provides an interesting data point on potentials for non-state employment of network-centric warfare (NCW). The issue is not platforms but the network as a whole.

The two dominant high-tech visions of C2 in the late 20th century were collective animal intelligence and NCW. As former RAND analyst David Ronfeldt noted, both of these ideas somewhat missed the point of what kind of swarming he and John Arquilla pioneered, although they are often identified as such. Collective intelligence in the insect mode is more like decentralized flocking–perhaps relevant to automated capabilities, but more in the realm of science fiction (for political reasons) than anything having to do with “man-in-the-loop” C2 technologies that largely eschew autonomy. The extensive political and legal complications of the Central Intelligence Agency’s drone campaign in Pakistan and what P.W. Singer sees as an increase in ISR-enabled military micromanagement is a sobering corrective to dreams of fully automated drone flocks using collective intelligence to hunt down elusive prey.

The second vision–NWC–is rather poorly understood, even today. As CTOVision’s own Bob Gourley put it, the core idea of NWC–enabling better networking through information technology (IT) across the enterprise–is not exactly controversial. While there were some System of Systems-related operational concepts that indulged too much in wishful thinking about the tracking, targeting, and resilience of NWC-related systems, this is true of many crucial military capabilities. The tank theorist J.F.C. Fuller dreamed of all-tank armies that fared, in practice, poorly against combined arms, and a parade of airpower theorists have promised much more than strategic bombing could possibly deliver. But both the tank and the airplane–and the operational concepts that came out of their design–are still the “price of admission” for modern warfare. NWC simply means the growing networking of IT systems and has been around in the Navy for decades.

If we continue our tank analogy, drones are in a stage equivalent to tank doctrine in which the tank was seen primarily as a tactical weapon that supported infantry in the breach. Hence the main uses of drones have been for reconnaissance and tactical air support. The most extreme example of the drone as “support” weapon is the idea of the backpack thrown UAV–a pure accessory function. Drones of even the most advanced world militaries are a ways away from what John Warden would understand as operational air campaigns. So what made tanks leap into Blitzkrieg?

First,”Blitzkrieg” is something of a myth. The much more prosaic truth is that what we understand as “blitzkrieg” was never a unified concept but a series of tactical patterns whose conceptual unity was a journalistic invention. What linked together those tactical patterns was radio’s emergence as a mature technology, as opposed to the primitive telecommunications that hindered World War I trench warfare. Even with this technology, the 1940 campaign of France was “almost a miracle” and certainly a shock to anyone predicting combat outcomes off of strictly quantitative balances of French, British, and German forces and weapon strengths (see Philip Karber’s contract work on the WEI/WUV model and the 1940 balance, if you can find it, for more on this point).

Now, let’s take a step back to the concern over the proliferation of drones–armed or not–as worldwide attempts to match American superiority lead to ubiquitous proliferation of unmanned systems. If we equate NWC exclusively to IT links generated by advanced military System of Systems, then we take a very narrow view of who is able to effectively use IT technology for C2. On the tactical level, everyone from rioters to Mumbai terrorists use simple things such as Blackberries and Voice over IP (VoIP) as coordination tools. The Pentagon also assumes in its planning that non-state actors (albeit, in the case of Hezbollah, state-supported) are developing their own battle networks for use of guided munitions. Hence, cheap and effective battle networks are the “radio” of today’s conventional operations. If non-state actors increasingly use drones for ISR and strike operations in a way equivalent to the Libyan use of Scout UAVs, the platforms themselves are not as important as the ability to integrate them into a C2 network. We’ll see how successful they are in the coming decades.

Aside from the issue of non-state threats, this also suggests, as Bob previously noted, that creative ways to use NWC technologies and capabilities are still important and eminently realizable. To some extent, as Danger Room has chronicled, this is the result of constant tinkering downrange. Military theorists often–and rightly–take a backseat to practitioners in developing operational uses of technology. But one necessity for C2 is an open mind and an understanding that NCW was a good deal more complicated than the cartoon image of techwarriors being frustrated by cheap-and-dirty insurgents suggests. Rather, both the techwarriors and insurgents have learned–and continue to learn–a great deal from each other.

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