“Network-centric warfare” is the greatest military innovation of this generation. All the armed forces are being linked in a wireless web that will enable them to instantly assimilate and act on information from diverse sources. The resulting gains in agility and awareness could transform warfighting as much as air power and nuclear weapons did in earlier generations. Many experts think the unprecedented precision and coordination exhibited by U.S. forces in Iraq proves that transformation is already under way — due in no small part to relentless pressure from a hard-charging defense secretary.
But as Thomas Kuhn argued 40 years ago in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions — possibly the most influential book about science published in the postwar period — there is always a subjective element at work in periods of scientific and technological upheaval. Old paradigms fall and new ones rise not just on the merits, but also because of fashion and ego. Intellectuals are sometimes seized with a new idea, only to see it rapidly eclipsed in later years. So the rise of network-centrism should be viewed with a measure of skepticism — it may look like a revolution, but there is another side to the story. Here are some possible drawbacks to consider.
1. Unlike nuclear weapons, digital networking technology is readily available in global markets. Not only will other nations understand how to use it, but they can learn a great deal about how to disable U.S. networks in wartime.
2. Most wireless networks operate in the radio-frequency portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. The physics of disrupting such transmissions are simple and widely understood. So are the skills required to generate computer viruses that can impair networking software.
3. These weaknesses are worsened by the military’s preference for open architectures and commercial interface standards. Such features facilitate network access and upgrades, but they also make cyber-attacks easier.
4. As fighting vehicles — planes, ships, tanks — are connected to the web, they tend to be dumbed down to save money. Why carry a sensor when the same information is available from other sources? But if network access is severed, the vehicles may lack the capacity to autonomously defend themselves.
5. The pervasive role of networks in new warfighting concepts encourages precisely the sort of “asymmetric” aggression U.S. analysts have been fearing for years. Enemies like Osama and Saddam may be too primitive to grasp the power of information warfare, but China won’t be so accommodating.
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