With a small band of insurgents threatening to bog down U.S. forces in Iraq indefinitely, some people are beginning to wonder what the point of military transformation was supposed to be. It’s a reasonable question, because countries that spend half a trillion dollars annually on defense should be able to defeat disorganized, poorly-equipped enemies quickly. But the problem in Iraq isn’t so much the enemy as the goals we have set for ourselves, which require a degree of patience and restraint seldom seen in the history of warfare. The really big military challenges aren’t about spreading democratic values in places like Iraq, they’re about survival.
The United States spent much of the last century dealing with such cataclysmic challenges. Imperialism. Fascism. Communism. We can’t say today what the next big danger will be, but it won’t be Al Qaeda or the Mahdi Army. That’s why, despite the frustrations of waging counter-insurgency warfare in Iraq over the last three years, the military continues to pour most of its investment dollars into high-tech weapons. Someday, probably someday soon, the U.S. will face a truly imposing adversary — an adversary with the kind of resources only another developed country can accumulate.
But saying the next big threat is likely to be a country isn’t the same thing as saying the next big threat is likely to be conventional. State-based and stateless enemies alike will seek to attack America where it is weak rather than where it is strong. Donald Rumsfeld saw early in his tenure as defense secretary what that meant: the nation’s future military posture would need to be organized around a portfolio of fungible competencies that could be applied to many different threats. Foremost among those competencies would be the ability to network the armed services into an agile, integrated fighting force. Thus, “network-centric operations” — now referred to simply as netcentricity — became the centerpiece of Rumsfeld’s approach to military transformation.
The intellectual foundations of military netcentricity emerged first in the Navy, reflecting the insights of thinkers such as Adm. Gerald Tuttle and Adm. Arthur Cebrowski. They argued that the Navy needed to transcend its traditional preoccupation with big-ticket weapon systems to focus instead on making all the warfighting assets in the Fleet nodes in a precisely synchronized network. Furthermore, they extended that vision to encompass the assets of other services, imagining a truly joint posture in which the longstanding preference for redundancy and self-reliance gave way to sharing and collaboration. The Navy’s framework for implementing the new vision was spelled out in an initiative called Forcenet (“FORCEnet” in naval parlance) that former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Vern Clark described in 2002. Forcenet figures prominently in the 2006 guidance to the fleet from Clark’s successor, Adm. Mike Mullen.
Forcenet is less about starting new programs than it is about aligning existing programs the right way. For example, the carrier-based E-2C aircraft is being upgraded from a mere radar plane to a critical node for joint reconnaissance and connectivity. Figuring out how various initiatives should be fit together is a work in progress, but here again, the Navy is ahead of other services. A handful of congressmen such as Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) are working hard to support the goals of naval networking, an important undertaking if the Navy is to be ready for the diverse dangers of the new millennium.
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