The Twilight Of Network-Centric Warfare

When a Defense Business Board task force recommended last month that the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) eliminate its networking and information integration secretariat, it signaled just how far from grace the notion of network-centric warfare has fallen. The secretariat was established at the tail-end of the dot.com boom to coordinate the joint force’s migration from industrial-age warfare into the era of information warfare. Proponents of network-centric warfare believed new information technologies were so powerful that they could overthrow traditional warfighting concepts if backed up with appropriate military doctrine and organizations. OSD’s office of networks and information integration — NII for short — was supposed to shepherd this vision into reality by overseeing a raft of multi-billion-dollar investment projects.

A decade later, nobody talks about military transformation anymore, and joint initiatives begun under its banner such as the Transformational Communications Satellite and Future Combat System are fading memories. Service-level projects like the Navy’s Next-Generation Enterprise Network increasingly look like wasteful efforts to re-invent the wheel — efforts that are doomed to be canceled as Washington turns to deficit reduction and military budgets shrink. So what went wrong? How is it possible for every policymaker in the five-sided building to embrace a common vision of information-age warfare at the beginning of a decade, and for it all to be forgotten by decade’s end?

The first thing that went wrong was that threats evolved differently than military planners expected. The authors of network-centric warfare thought that the joint force was in the midst of a prolonged “strategic pause” when the decade began, after which some new peer or near-peer adversary would emerge. That pause ended unexpectedly on 9-11, and America suddenly found itself facing a very different kind of danger. Networks and information technology have certainly proven useful in dealing with elusive new adversaries, but so far they haven’t proven to be the winning weapon that visionaries expected. It turns out that all those networks the Pentagon was planning are just conduits, and that what matters more for victory is the accuracy and completeness of the information moving through the networks.

The second problem that proponents did not see coming was that the new technology itself might become a source of weakness. Planners implicitly assumed that if the Pentagon invested heavily enough in cutting-edge networks and information applications, it could leverage the warfighting potential of the new technology while staying comfortably ahead of other countries with similar ideas. Well, it hasn’t worked out that way. We now know that everybody from the Taliban to Mexican drug cartels can benefit from the reach and richness of wideband networks. Even worse, they can tap into our own networks, as China proves on a daily basis. So the military has had to launch a crash program to prevent its gee-whiz networks from being used against it (incidentally, the Navy is inexplicably trying to replace the one big network that so far has proven largely immune to hostile penetrations, in order to implement a more “advanced” architecture).

And then there is the cost of network-centrism. When the decade began, America was basking in the prosperity of the dot.com revolution, generating nearly a third of all global economic output. Since then its economy has swooned and tax receipts have collapsed to a point where over 40 percent of the federal budget is being borrowed. So one by one, all of the big networking initiatives begun during the Bush years are being canceled. That isn’t so hard to do since there are no immediate consequences for warfighters and the projects never developed firm political constituencies. The Defense Business Board’s proposal to kill the Pentagon’s networking shop is just the latest installment in what has become a long-running chronicle of decline. No doubt about, networks have changed the way the world wages war. But network-centric warfare is an idea whose time has passed.