In recent years the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’ has given way to ‘Transformation’ as the guiding rationale for most U.S. national security developments. Since the late 1990s, the ability to wage “network-centric warfare” has become identified as a goal of transformation. Both terms are broad enough to be used, and abused — imprecise and sometimes grandiose language has led some to see “network-centric” as part strategic panacea, and part silver bullet. Its reality and potential are each more complicated.
Network-centric warfare (NCW) now has a track record. Practical application in Afghanistan and Iraq has given analysts enough data and experience to begin to evaluate its successes, weaknesses, and prospects for improvement. These first clashes in the war on terror have shown that NCW works. Albeit against markedly inferior military forces, American forces were able to integrate information and communications systems and procedures to accomplish more with less, and faster, than would have been possible even a decade ago. Sorties per target destroyed; speed of the “target observed-target destroyed” sequence; relatively little collateral damage; aggregate numbers of U.S. forces required — by these and other measures, both conflicts show that NCW is the right objective for American military planning.
By their very nature, and especially in the early going, major shifts in orientation are always more about challenges, risks, and shortfalls than about smooth, flawless implementation. As expressed in unit-level after-action reports, top-level Defense Department reviews, and numerous outside analyses, it is clear that the promise of NCW is accompanied by a range of challenges. Understanding, resolving, and accounting for these challenges will enhance NCW as a tool in America’s war on terror.
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