Networks at War

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Being something of a military buff, I’ve been following trends in warfare during the past decade with a great deal of interest. Particularly fascinating is the application of networks to the ways in which wars are fought. Here, the term “network” has a couple of meanings: the human network in which information is rapidly disseminated and acted upon, and the technologies and strategies that enable this coordination.

With regard to the latter, entire military doctrines recently have been formulated around the notion of using networks to fight wars. Enabled by increasingly sophisticated networking technologies, leaders in the U.S. Armed Forces began to develop the concept of network-centric warfare in the late 1990s. It quickly gained support in the United States and the militaries of its Western allies due to its potential to revolutionize battlefield operations.

The reason it caught on so quickly is the fact that most 20th-century wars involving developed countries were characterized by massive armies — as well as air and sea forces — clashing on battlefields that covered hundreds of square miles. Because of limited communications and logistics abilities, the results were often messy, with uncoordinated assaults that caused wanton destruction of military machines and infrastructure and unnecessary high losses in military and civilian lives.

Network-centric warfare offered something different: Precision weapons, speedy logistics, omnipresent battlefield intelligence and advanced communications rolled together in a unified network could act as a “force multiplier.” This enabled a relatively small but cohesive military unit to concentrate on strategic targets, thus minimizing devastation on not only its own side, but also its enemy’s.

Although elements of this appeared in the Gulf War in 1991, the first time it was truly applied was in 1999 during the Kosovo War, when NATO forces executed highly coordinated bombing raids on the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In this conflict — which lasted about two and a half months — cruise missiles repeatedly were launched from fighter-bombers against Serbian air defense systems, tanks, artillery and other military targets.

During the course of the campaign, the decision was made to bomb targets — offices, warehouses and the like — belonging to close associates of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. In other words, they literally attacked his personal network.

The war was not an unqualified success. NATO accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, which sparked protests in that country. However, the operations were targeted enough to compel the Serbians to withdraw from the province of Kosovo and eventually oust Milosevic from his seat of power without a single loss of life among NATO military personnel.

However, the limitations of network-centric warfare — at least as practiced by the U.S. and its allies — became apparent just four years later in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. While the initial conventional combat went well — with minimal casualties for coalition forces as they drove to Baghdad — the subsequent occupation proved problematic despite the superior technical systems of the U.S. and its allies.

It was much more challenging to employ network-centric warfare against a motley assortment of insurgents than the official Iraqi army, for the simple reason that it’s difficult to execute a strategy that emphasizes targets against enemies that make themselves untargetable via hit-and-run guerrilla methods.
Also, the insurgency managed to develop its own form of network-based warfare that proved surprisingly effective. Essentially, it was an ad-hoc affair, with various paramilitary groups and terrorist organizations sharing tactical information freely via chat rooms, e-mail, videos and other online media.

This turn of events can be explained by a quote from U.S. Air Force Col. John Boyd, a pioneer in network-centric warfare: “Machines don’t fight wars, people do. And they use their minds.”

In other words, a network is only as good as the relationships it fosters. To use Iraq as an example, the highly sophisticated networks used by the coalition forces were great for providing a coordinated effort against an opponent that wore a uniform and fought with tanks, artillery and attack helicopters.

However, when that part of the war was over and the time came to reach out to the people of Iraq and get their support for the daunting task of putting the country back together, the coalition had no real network in place to do so. The native insurgency groups, however, had those connections, and used what technologies they could to fill that vacuum.

Boyd had another quote worth citing here: “People, ideas, hardware — in that order!”

To put it another way, technology serves people, not the other way around. This is something all networking professionals should keep in mind as they develop and maintain their solutions.

- Brian Summerfield,

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