With U.S. forces out of Iraq and NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan proceeding apace, the effort to identify lessons learned from these conflicts is intensifying. This may sound like just an academic exercise but it will have real consequences in terms of future force structure, procurement, R&D and training. A lot of the lessons identified so far have to do either with promising technologies such as unmanned aerial systems, multispectral sensors or IED jammers or with pre-conflict intelligence as in know thy enemy.
The first and most important lesson from more than a decade of fighting violent extremist organizations across the globe and even at home is this: it takes a network to defeat a network. U.S. forces have always been able to deliver overwhelming firepower at all levels of combat. The losses they have inflicted on the insurgents in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere have been enormous. Yet, as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is alleged to have once observed, the enemy is recruiting them faster than we can kill them. To defeat an insurgent or terrorist network, it takes much more than raw power. It takes a strategy that seeks to employ a wide range of military and non-military instruments to pick apart the adversary’s organization. In other words, it takes a network.
All large scale military operations involve the creation and employment of networks. Look at all the Pentagon’s major campaigns of the past two decades. Establishing air dominance in the Balkans, over Iraq (twice) and in Libya required a sophisticated network of platforms and systems ranging from cruise-missile firing submarines and surface combatants, land and sea-based tactical aircraft, manned and unmanned ISR platforms and an armada of aerial refueling tankers. Supporting and sustaining these forces was an array of military planners, intelligence analysts, targeteers and logistics and maintenance personnel. A similar network exists for operations on land and at sea. The networks get even larger and more complex for joint and combined arms operations.
But going after the more complex threats of the future will require more nuanced and agile approaches to building, maintaining and directing our networks. The networks we are currently fighting consist of much more than just a few charismatic leaders and their gun or bomb-toting foot soldiers. They also consist of planners, bomb makers, financiers, logistics and transportation specialists. Beyond those individuals that could be called “officially” part of the extremist organization are a host of individuals and organizations that present themselves as legitimate and peaceful. In fact, many of these may be unwitting contributors to the extremist network. Even further back, hiding in the shadows are hostile, indifferent or incapable governments providing sanctuary, support or even direction.
Even high end threats are increasingly based on networks. The so-called anti-access/area denial threats consist of networks of platforms, systems and capabilities deployed by foreign militaries, paramilitary organizations and non-state groups. The U.S. is under continuous cyber assault from groups and individuals that we believe are backed by or cooperating with national governments.
In a decade of conflict in the Middle East, the United States has learned how to create and employ sophisticated networks precisely for the purpose of countering those of our adversaries. The Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) provides an example of how a network can be created, one that includes the whole of government, our allies and the private sector, to go after all elements of the terrorist system from the devices themselves all the way back to the financiers. The Army’s Rapid Equipping Force (REF) is another example of a successful network, one designed to respond rapidly to urgent operational needs from the theater. Task Force Odin is a third example, this time focused on the collection, fusion and rapid dissemination of tactically useful intelligence. All three of these organizations provide the critical central “node” around which a full network could be built and operated.
Now, as defense budgets shrink and forces are downsized, there is a danger not only that we will lose sight of this most important lesson, but will disband the critical organizations that created and directed them. Right now organizations such as JIEDDO and the REF are fighting for their very survival. They need to be treated as among the crown jewels in the development of future capabilities and the creation of networks with which to defeat future adversaries. Like the Air Force’s Checkmate organization, the Navy’s Office of Naval Reactors or OSD’s Office of Net Assessment, JIEDDO, REF and the like must be protected, funded and directed to figuring out how to defeat the networked threats of the future.
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