Is it possible that military transformation made defeat more likely in Iraq? That’s a heretical idea in the doctrinal madrassa that is Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, where every operational innovation is reflexively credited to the farsightedness of transformationists. However, the evidence is more ambiguous. Some of the insights now credited to transformation weren’t present at its creation, and only got imported into the corpus of official wisdom as a result of experiences in Iraq. In particular, the technological hubris that infected Rumsfeld’s early thinking about military change has been tempered by repeated setbacks and surprises. Here are a few technology lessons from Iraq that the proponents of transformation didn’t expect.
1. Networks are neutral. The Rumsfeld school of military change emerged at the tail-end of dot.com mania, when big thinkers were arguing digital networks would transform every facet of civilization. Iraq has provided a testing ground for how net-centric forces can be more agile and aware than their adversaries. It turns out that they don’t do so well against entrenched enemies fighting on friendly terrain for the simple reason that content matters more than speed. If you don’t speak the language or understand the culture, the network is just a fast way of disseminating misconceptions. Networks can be powerful tools, but they are no substitute for good intelligence or linguistic fluency.
2. New technology levels the playing field. During the industrial age, cutting-edge military technologies such as nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles conferred great advantage because few countries could afford them. Things are different in the information age. Pretty much everybody has access to new technologies like the internet, cell phones, encryption software and satellite television. So instead of empowering U.S. forces, new technology works to the advantage of terrorists and insurgents who often have a better grasp of how to use it locally. No doubt about it, the network shifts power “to the edges.” Unfortunately, that’s where Zarkhawi and the Mahdi Army live.
3. Speed and precision can preclude closure. Smart bombs and wireless networks have enabled the military to employ lightning-fast tactics against slower, more clumsy adversaries. Unfortunately, such tactics foster expectations about the intensity and duration of warfare that aren’t borne out by experience in Iraq. Like the Wehrmacht that overran Yugoslavia in weeks and then spent years trying to pacify it, U.S. forces in Iraq are learning there are some missions that take a lot of time. New Yorker correspondent George Packer contends Rumsfeld’s impatience doomed the campaign in Iraq, because he had unrealistic expectations about what could be achieved quickly. And substituting finesse for firepower may have allowed the discriminate destruction of key military “nodes,” but it seems to have left enemy morale largely intact.
4. Market forces sometimes impede innovation. It’s an article of faith among transformationists that emulating the practices of the private sector can accelerate the pace of military innovation. But U.S. forces in Iraq are finding that isn’t always so. Proprietary software code and system architectures influenced by intellectual property considerations are undercutting the capacity of soldiers to fuse time-sensitive intelligence from diverse sources. The problem is so bad that units in the field are writing their own software to work around barriers to quick correlation of data. The difficulty isn’t confined to legacy equipment, it crops up in the latest net-centric warfighting tools.
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