The Project Kai e’e / UARC scandal at the University of Hawai’i was all about network centric warfare technology research, testing and development and the use of a public university as the front to channel congressionally earmarked funds to defense contractors conducting their programs at the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kaua’i. This article is a sobering critique of the limits of technology in warfare.
WIRED MAGAZINE: Wired Issue 15.12
How Technology Almost Lost the War: In Iraq, the Critical Networks Are Social – Not Electronic
By Noah Shachtman Email 11.27.07
The future of war began with an act of faith. In 1991, Navy captain Arthur Cebrowski met John Garstka, a captain in the Air Force, at a McLean, Virginia, Bible-study class. The two quickly discovered they shared more than just their conservative Catholic beliefs. They both had an interest in military strategy. And they were both geeks: Cebrowski – who’d been a math major in college, a fighter pilot in Vietnam, and an aircraft carrier commander during Desert Storm – was fascinated with how information technologies could make fighter jocks more lethal. Garstka – a Stanford-trained engineer – worked on improving algorithms used to track missiles.
Over the next several years, the two men traded ideas and compared experiences. They visited businesses embracing the information revolution, ultimately becoming convinced that the changes sweeping the corporate world had applications for the military as well. The Defense Department wasn’t blind to the power of networks, of course – the Internet began as a military project, after all, and each branch of the armed services had ongoing “digitization” programs. But no one had ever crystallized what the information age might offer the Pentagon quite like Cebrowski and Garstka did. In an article for the January 1998 issue of the naval journal Proceedings, “Network-Centric Warfare: Its Origin and Future,” they not only named the philosophy but laid out a new direction for how the US would think about war.
Their model was Wal-Mart. Here was a sprawling, bureaucratic monster of an organization – sound familiar? – that still managed to automatically order a new lightbulb every time it sold one. Warehouses were networked, but so were individual cash registers. So were the guys who sold Wal-Mart the bulbs. If that company could wire everyone together and become more efficient, then US forces could, too. “Nations make war the same way they make wealth,” Cebrowski and Garstka wrote. Computer networks and the efficient flow of information would turn America’s chain saw of a war machine into a scalpel.
The US military could use battlefield sensors to swiftly identify targets and bomb them. Tens of thousands of warfighters would act as a single, self-aware, coordinated organism. Better communications would let troops act swiftly and with accurate intelligence, skirting creaky hierarchies. It’d be “a revolution in military affairs unlike any seen since the Napoleonic Age,” they wrote. And it wouldn’t take hundreds of thousands of troops to get a job done – that kind of “massing of forces” would be replaced by information management. “For nearly 200 years, the tools and tactics of how we fight have evolved,” the pair wrote. “Now, fundamental changes are affecting the very character of war.”
Network-centric wars would be more moral, too. Cebrowski later argued that network-enabled armies kill more of the right people quicker. With fewer civilian casualties, warfare would be more ethical. And as a result, the US could use military might to create free societies without being accused of imperialist arrogance.
It had a certain geek appeal, to which Wired was not immune. Futurist Alvin Toffler talked up similar ideas – before they even had a name – in the magazine’s fifth issue, in 1993. And during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, my colleague Joshua Davis welcomed in a “new age of fighting that combined precision weapons, unprecedented surveillance of the enemy, agile ground forces, and – above all – a real-time communications network that kept the far-flung operation connected minute by minute.”
As a presidential candidate in 1999, George W. Bush embraced the philosophy, as did his eventual choice for defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. At the Pentagon, Rumsfeld instituted a massive program to “transform” the armed services. Cebrowski was installed as the head of the newly created Office of Force Transformation. When the US went to war in Afghanistan, and then in Iraq, its forces achieved apparent victory with lightning speed. Analysts inside and outside the Pentagon credited the network-centric approach for that success. “The successful campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq took far fewer troops and were executed quicker,” Rumsfeld proclaimed, because of “advanced technology and skills.” The Army committed more than $230 billion to a network-centric makeover, on top of the billions the military had already spent on surveillance, drone aircraft, spy satellites, and thousands of GPS transceivers. General Tommy Franks, leader of both invasions, was even more effusive than Rumsfeld. All the new tech, he wrote in his 2004 memoir, American Soldier, promised “today’s commanders the kind of Olympian perspective that Homer had given his gods.”
And yet, here we are. The American military is still mired in Iraq. It’s still stuck in Afghanistan, battling a resurgent Taliban. Rumsfeld has been forced out of the Pentagon. Dan Halutz, the Israeli Defense Forces chief of general staff and net-centric advocate who led the largely unsuccessful war in Lebanon in 2006, has been fired, too. In the past six years, the world’s most technologically sophisticated militaries have gone up against three seemingly primitive foes – and haven’t won once.
How could this be? The network-centric approach had worked pretty much as advertised. Even the theory’s many critics admit net-centric combat helped make an already imposing American military even more effective at locating and killing its foes. The regimes of Saddam Hussein and Mullah Omar were broken almost instantly. But network-centric warfare, with its emphasis on fewer, faster-moving troops, turned out to be just about the last thing the US military needed when it came time to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan. A small, wired force leaves generals with too few nodes on the military network to secure the peace. There aren’t enough troops to go out and find informants, build barricades, rebuild a sewage treatment plant, and patrol a marketplace.
For the first three years of the Iraq insurgency, American troops largely retreated to their fortified bases, pushed out woefully undertrained local units to do the fighting, and watched the results on feeds from spy drones flying overhead. Retired major general Robert Scales summed up the problem to Congress by way of a complaint from one division commander: “If I know where the enemy is, I can kill it. My problem is I can’t connect with the local population.” How could he? For far too many units, the war had been turned into a telecommute. Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon were the first conflicts planned, launched, and executed with networked technologies and a networked ideology. They were supposed to be the wars of the future. And the future lost.
Inside the Pentagon, the term network-centric warfare is out of fashion, yet countless generals and admirals still adhere to its core principles. On the streets of Iraq, though, troops are learning to grapple with the guerrilla threat. And that means fighting in a way that couldn’t be more different from the one Donald Rumsfeld embraced. The failures of wired combat are forcing troops to improvise a new, socially networked kind of war.
Tarmiyah, located about 20 miles north of Baghdad, is an ugly town – traced with rivulets of sewage, patrolled by stray dogs, and strewn with rubble and garbage. Insurgents fleeing US military crackdowns in Baghdad and, farther north, in Baqubah, have flooded the city. The local police quit en masse almost a year ago, leaving the security of Tarmiyah’s 50,000 residents to 150 men from the US Army’s Fourth Battalion, Ninth Infantry Regiment – known since an early-1900s tour of duty in China as the Manchus.
Typically, soldiers spend hours of every day at war just trying to figure out where their comrades are, and how to maneuver together. But hand out GPS receivers and put everyone’s signals on a map, and those tasks become a whole lot simpler. Luckily for the Manchus, the 4/9 is arguably the most wired unit in the Army. Select troops wear an experimental electronics package, including a helmet-mounted monocle that displays a digital map of Tarmiyah with icons for each of their vehicles and troops. The unit’s commander, William Prior, rides an upgraded Stryker armored vehicle that shows the same info on one of many screens. It’s packed with battle command stations, advanced radios, remote-controlled weapons turrets, and satellite network terminals. No commander at his level has ever been able to see so many of his men so easily.
“It increases the unit’s combat power, no question,” Prior says. Trim and dark-eyed, the lieutenant colonel knows his tech. He has a master’s in physics and taught science at West Point in the late 1990s.
During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, only a fraction of the Humvees, tanks, and helicopters invading the country were equipped with these kind of readouts on the position of other US vehicles. Still, enough had them to allow the troops pushing to Baghdad to execute perilous maneuvers, like sending one unit through another’s kill zone – a move made even more hair-raising by dust storms that turned the air opaque.
Today, every three-man team in the Manchus is an icon on every other team’s monocles. Network-centric doctrine says that these plugged-in soldiers should be able to cover a bigger swath of the battlefield and take on more enemies. And, yes, the gear does let them clear neighborhoods more efficiently and respond to enemy attacks more quickly. But a handful of soldiers still can’t secure a town of more than 50,000. Half a dozen Manchus have been killed or wounded by snipers during their five months in Tarmiyah. Prior has handed out 25 Purple Hearts to the 150-man Comanche Company guarding Tarmiyah. It’s even worse outside town, where the equally small Blowtorch Company was trying to keep the peace in an area three times the size of Manhattan, until the higher-ups ordered the company onto other missions.
“A well-informed but geographically dispersed force,” Garstka and Cebrowski wrote in 1998, should be able to triumph over any foe, regardless of “mission, force size and composition, and geography.” But neither Cebrowski nor Garstka was thinking about the kind of combat where foes blend into the populace and seed any stretch of road with bombs. Lawless towns like this can be pacified only by flooding them with troops – collecting tips and knocking heads. That’s what Prior needs, not more gadgets. “They’re just tools,” he says in his flat Iowa accent.
But Prior has just caught a break: Another several hundred soldiers, Special Forces operators, and Iraqi troops have descended on the city to kick in doors, drop bombs on extremist hideouts, and drive out the insurgents. Those men will leave eventually, though, and to sustain the gains they make, Prior is supposed to recruit civilians into a kind of neighborhood watch. The idea is to have as many eyes and ears on the streets, around the shops, and in the mosques as possible. In counterinsurgency, it’s better to have a lot of nodes in your network, connecting to the population, than just a few. In fact, that’s a key tenet of the new US strategy in Iraq – hiring watchmen who’ve come to be known in other towns as “alligators” for their light-blue Izod shirts. Prior hasn’t had much luck in getting folks in Tarmiyah to sign up; even his own soldiers are reluctant to go out in the daytime.
But the extra boots on the ground have given Prior some space. If he can recruit a few alligators in a hurry, the extremists will be less likely to come back. So he has started spending quality time drinking chai with local leaders instead of fighting a shooting war.
We walk into the home of Tarmiyah’s former mayor, sheikh Sayeed Jassem. Everyone in town agrees he’d be the guy to help sign up alligators. One problem: Jassem is in jail on charges of embezzlement and funneling money to the insurgency. The Iraqi government is in no mood to let him out. That makes the several dozen tribal leaders sitting in Jassem’s 40-foot-long, lavishly carpeted living room extremely grouchy. “Sayeed, he knows every sheikh, he knows all the children. The first step is releasing him. Then we can arrange security,” says burly, balding, gravel-voiced Abu Ibrahim. Next to him, in a white headdress and wearing a pencil-thin mustache, Jassem’s cousin Abu Abbas nods. “I couldn’t make a decision until he’s free.”
Prior blinks. Abbas went to Jassem’s jail cell the day before yesterday and got the sheikh’s blessing to proceed. “But you saw him yesterday, with your own eyes, did you not?” he asks. Abbas starts saying something about his uncles. Prior turns to Ibrahim. “Yesterday, you said you’d have 100 men. All I’m asking for is 30. Five men, in eight-hour shifts, to guard the sheikh’s home, and to guard the Tarmiyah gate” – the main entrance to the town. The meeting has been going on for two hours. That’s typical. But after a few of these, Prior has finally learned that such gatherings are as much about performance as ticking off agenda items. He booms out in a Broadway-loud voice: “Are there 30 strong men in Tarmiyah who can do this?”
OK, OK, everyone answers, of course there are, don’t get so excited. They spend the next few hours drinking cup after cup of chai, hammering out exactly what the recruiting announcement will say, whether these guardians will have badges, how they’ll be vetted. Finally, they agree that 30 men will meet back at the house tomorrow morning. Prior’s soldiers print up 50 makeshift applications – better to have a few extra, just in case.
The next day, we go back to Jassem’s house. More than 500 men are braving the heat, waiting in front to sign up as alligators. A week later, that number swells to more than 1,400. In the month since, Prior has downed a lot more chai. But he hasn’t had to award a single Purple Heart.
Outside of Fallujah, on a sprawling US military base, there’s an old barracks supposedly built for Uday Hussein’s personal shock troops. Down at the dimly lit end of one hallway is a tiled bathroom that’s been converted into a tiny office. Inside, three screens sit on a desk, displaying a set of digital maps showing a God’s-eye view of the entire country. Every American tank and truck is marked with blue icons. Every recent insurgent attack is marked in red. There are more than 1,100 units like this one across the country, and the site of every major US military center in Iraq is connected to the same system. The brass calls these futuristic command posts… well, it calls them command posts of the future, or CPOF. (Grunts call them the command posts of the right now – C-PORN.) This is network-centric warfare, translated from journal theory to war-zone reality.
Fallujah isn’t more than 10 miles away, but staring at those three screens feels like observing Iraq from another continent – maybe another planet. Outside, it’s ant-under-a-magnifying-glass hot. In here I have to pull my arms inside my T-shirt, the thermostat is turned so low. Across the city, marines do their best to predict the insurgents’ next moves. But in front of the command post, we have so much information at our fingertips it makes Prior’s tech look like a beta-test version of Missile Command. “There’s a sea of information here. All you have to learn to do is fish in it,” says Jim Kanzenbach, a tan, goateed Army contractor and trainer with a southern-accented baritone.
Kanzenbach taps the mouse a few times. Red diamonds representing all of the insurgent sigacts (military-speak for “significant activities”) array themselves into a timeline. He sorts it by day of the week, then by hour of the day. White space appears during a particular hour; there don’t seem to be any sigacts then. “If I was going to run a convoy, that would be the better time.”
He clicks again, and the middle screen switches to a 3-D map of an Iraqi town from a driver’s point of view. Kanzenbach smiles, and his mile-a-minute Texas patter goes hypersonic. “Now let’s plan the route. You’ve got a mosque here. An IED happened over there two weeks ago. Here’s the one that happened yesterday. Hey, that’s too close. Let’s change my route. Change the whole damn thing.” He guides me through capability after capability of the command post – all kinds of charts, overlays, and animations. “But wait – there’s more,” he says. “You wanna see where all the Internet cafés are in Baghdad?”
It’s hard not to get caught up in Kanzenbach’s enthusiasm. But back in the US, John Nagl, one of the authors of the Army’s new counterinsurgency manual, isn’t impressed. He’s a lieutenant colonel and an Iraq vet, an Army batallion commander at Fort Riley in Kansas. He’s also the author of several influential articles and books about counterinsurgency, including Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife, an analysis of Vietnam and Malaya. When I ask him about CPOF, he’s more interested in what the screens don’t show. Historical sigacts don’t actually tell you where the next one’s going to be. Or who’s going to do it. Or who’s joining them. Or why. “The police captain playing both sides, the sheikh skimming money from a construction project,” Nagl asks, “what color are they?”
CPOF was designed for planning short, decisive battles against another regular army – the Soviets, the Chinese, Saddam’s Republican Guard, whoever – as long as they had tanks to destroy, territory to seize, and leaders to kill. The counterinsurgency game has completely different rules. The goal here is to stabilize a government, not bring it down; to persuade people to cooperate, not bludgeon them into submission. In fact, many of these kinetic bombs-and-bullets activities can actually undermine a counterinsurgency, creating more enemies than they kill. “Some of the best weapons for counterinsurgency do not shoot,” Nagl’s counterinsurgency manual says. Instead, it advises troops to get to know the locals – both individually and as groups – and gain their trust. The locals generally know which of their neighbors are insurgents and which aren’t; they’re already plugged into the communal network. “Arguably,” the manual says, “the decisive battle is for the people’s minds.”
Cebrowski and Garstka wrote about a different kind of power, one that came when connected troops started to share information in ways that circumvented, and bypassed, the Industrial Age military chain of command. But that helps only if troops can connect in the first place. It can take up to a week for them to wrangle their laptops into updating the biometric databases that track who gets in and out of Fallujah. Intelligence reports can take even longer. The people best equipped to win the battle for people’s minds – US troops on the ground, local policemen, Iraqi Army officers, tribal leaders – are left out of CPOF’s network. It’s a bandwidth hog, and the soldiers and marines fighting these counterinsurgencies aren’t exactly carrying around T3 lines. Only recently did infantrymen like the ones in Fallujah even get their own radios. The Pentagon’s sluggish structure for buying new gear means it can take up to a decade to get soldiers equipped. (Though to be fair, CPOF was purchased and deployed years ahead of schedule.) In Fallujah, the marines of Fox Company, based in an abandoned train station, mostly use their CPOF terminal to generate local maps, which they export to PowerPoint. Their buddies in Fox Company’s first platoon, working out of a police precinct, have it even worse. When they want to get online, they have to drive to the station.
As for Iraqi access, while CPOF technically isn’t classified, all of the data on it is. Locals can’t see the information or update any of those databases with their own intelligence. A key tenet of network theory is that a network’s power grows with every new node. But that’s only if every node gets as good as it gives. In Iraq, the most important nodes in this fight are all but cut off.
Meanwhile, insurgent forces cherry-pick the best US tech: disposable email addresses, anonymous Internet accounts, the latest radios. They do everything online: recruiting, fundraising, trading bomb-building tips, spreading propaganda, even selling T-shirts. And every American-financed move to reinforce Iraq’s civilian infrastructure only makes it easier for the insurgents to operate. Every new Internet café is a center for insurgent operations. Every new cell tower means a hundred new nodes on the insurgent network. And, of course, the insurgents know the language and understand the local culture. Which means they plug into Iraq’s larger social web more easily than an American ever could. As John Abizaid, Franks’ successor at Central Command, told a conference earlier this year, “This enemy is better networked than we are.”
The insurgent groups are also exploiting something that US network-centric gurus seem to have missed: All of us are already connected to a global media grid. Satellite television, radio, and the Internet mean that many of the most spectacular attacks in Iraq are deliberately staged for the cameras, uploaded to YouTube, picked up by CNN, and broadcast around the world.
American forces have been trying to solve the insurgent puzzle in Fallujah since 2003. Massive battles devastated the town, damaging more than half the homes there and driving out 90 percent of the populace. The insurgents kept coming back. But in the past year, things have shifted. Today, Fallujah is calm: Shops are open, kids are in school, men are smoking their cigarettes and holding hands in outdoor cafs. “The people just decided they couldn’t take al Qaeda anymore,” says George Benson, executive officer of the marines’ Second Battalion, Sixth Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team Six, which is responsible for the town. Benson believes that a beefy, blue-eyed kid raised in the Cleveland suburbs is a big part of the reason Fallujah has gone so quiet.
His name is Joe Colabuno, and he’s a sergeant who works in psychological operations – psyops, in military-speak. His job is to win the hearts-and-minds battle, and his tools are almost comically simple: posters drawn in Photoshop, loudspeaker and radio broadcasts pasted together with SonicStage and saved to MiniDiscs, the occasional newspaper article, and, above all, his own big mouth. Arab culture lives by its oral traditions; talk is often the most important weapon. “I find the right people to shape, and they shape the rest,” Colabuno says.
Just as in Tarmiyah, troops in Fallujah are looking to recruit locals to keep tabs on their neighborhoods. Yesterday, on the west side of town, an alligator helped catch one of the Americans’ top insurgent targets in Fallujah. After seeing a photograph, the watchman ID’d the guy as a neighbor, living just a few houses down the street.
But an alligator-recruiting drive yesterday in the Askeri district, in the northeastern corner of town, didn’t go so well. The marines got less than half of the 125 they were looking for. So Colabuno hops into a Humvee to find out why.
We pull up to a narrow, unpaved street alongside the Askeri recruiting station. A group of seven men sit on the gravel, beneath a set of drying sheets. In the middle of the crowd, leaning on a cane, fingering prayer beads and dressed in white, is a rotund, bearded man. He’s clearly the ringleader. Colabuno and his wire-thin interpreter, Leo, approach him. In every other district, they’ve recruited plenty of alligators. “Why not in Askeri?” Colabuno asks the ringleader.
The money’s not good enough, he answers. An alligator makes only $50 a month; day laborers get $8 a day – when there’s work, that is.
“That’s the weakest argument ever,” Colabuno says. The men looked stunned; Americans don’t normally speak this directly – they’re usually deferential to the point of looking weak, or just condescending.
“Do you remember Sheikh Hamsa?” Colabuno asks. Sure, sure, the men nod. The popular imam was killed more than a year ago by insurgents, but they’re a bit surprised that Colabuno knows who he is. Most of the US troops here have been in town for just a few months. “Well, Sheikh Hamsa told me that weak faith protects only so much.'” The ringleader stares down at the ground and fingers his beads. Colabuno has hit a nerve. “You know, I looked in the Koran. I didn’t see anything about Mohammed demanding a better salary before he’d do God’s work,” Colabuno says, jamming his forefinger into his palm.
A skinny man at the back of the pack speaks up, telling Colabuno that the Americans are just here to take Iraq’s oil. “Yeah, you’re right. We want your oil,” Colabuno answers. Again eyes grow big with surprise. “We want to buy it. So you can pay for jobs, for water, for electricity. Make you rich.” The men chuckle. Everyone shakes hands. Askeri’s alligator quota is filled by the next morning.
Colabuno joined the Army because, frankly, it sounded better than his other option: managing a local steakhouse. When his recruiter told him about psyops, Colabuno loved the idea. It sounded like something out of The X-Files. “Does the job involve LSD?” he jokingly asked. It did not. Instead, Colabuno has spent the better part of four years, and all of the past 17 months, getting comfortable with the residents of Fallujah. And now that he has cracked Fallujah’s cultural code, the brass is reluctant to let him leave.
We head back to the base. Colabuno’s office looks like a dorm room, with mountain bikes hanging on the wall next to posters of Kristin Chenoweth, Vida Guerra, the Denver Broncos cheerleaders, and Corona beer. “Theme of the week,” reads a white board, “terrorism causes CANCER… and impotence.” Colabuno’s early efforts to persuade the population were just as subtle. He shows me a collection of his early posters, tabloid-sized pages laid on a table. Against a flaming background, a terrorist holds a child. The text asks why the parents of Fallujah would let insurgents harm their kids. Wrong move. This is a culture based on shame and honor; now you’ve just called the parents inadequate. Plus, the piece is just too on the nose, too blatant. The best propaganda is sneaky.
So Colabuno started spoofing the insurgents’ posters instead. He put a logo similar to that of the terrorist Islamic Army at the top of a simple black-and-white sheet. “A young boy died while wearing a suicide vest given to him by criminals,” one flyer read. “You should remember that whoever makes lies about Allah should reserve his seat in hell.” The extremists went nuts – screaming at shopkeepers and locals who posted the flyers, blaming other insurgents for defaming their good names. All the while, Americans watched the action through high-powered surveillance cameras. Consequently the marines knew who to question, and who to capture or kill. “We know where you are and what you are doing,” another poster proclaimed. “Who will you trust now?”
American forces here set up a tip line so the locals could report on any insurgents (and get a little reward for their efforts). The extremists responded by blowing up the local cell towers, which Colabuno then turned into another psyops poster criticizing their self-destructive behavior. “Now we’ve got them making really stupid decisions,” he says, grinning. “They communicate by cell phone, too. They can’t argue that they’re just attacking the foreigners.”
General David Petraeus knows all about these mind games. The man in charge of the American military effort in Iraq helped turn soldiers’ training from tank-on-tank battles to taking on insurgents. He oversaw the writing of the new counterinsurgency manual that John Nagl worked on. The book counsels officers to reinforce the local economy and politics and build knowledge of the native culture, “an operational code’ that is valid for an entire group of people.” And the manual blasts the old, network-centric American approach in Iraq. “If military forces remain in their compounds, they lose touch with the people, appear to be running scared, and cede the initiative to the insurgents,” it says.
So I get escorted across Baghdad’s concrete-ringed International Zone, around the manicured lawns of the Republican Palace, up its marbled stairs, past ambassadors and generals, through a seemingly endless series of gates and checkpoints, and into Petraeus’ office. But even this far inside the US war machine, I’m expecting a frontal assault on network-centric warfare.
Instead, he sings me a love song.
“It’s definitely here to stay. It’s just going to keep getting greater and greater and greater,” Petraeus says. I settle on a couch, and he shuts off the air conditioner. “I was a skeptic of network-centric warfare for years,” he confesses. But thanks to years of wartime funding, he says, the military now has the ability “to transmit data, full-motion video, still photos, images, information. So you can more effectively determine who the enemy is, find them and kill or capture, and have a sense of what’s going on in the area as you do it – where the friendlies are, and which platform you want to bring to bear.”
Of course, he adds, he doesn’t believe the Rumsfeld-era idea that you can get away with fewer, better-networked troops. Petraeus is the man behind the “surge,” after all. Anyone who thinks you don’t need massing of troops is living in an “academic world,” he says. And Petraeus believes “the most important network is still the one that is between the ears of commanders and staff officers.”
Yet he’s a believer, just like a whole lot of other Army generals. He supports the $230 billion plan to wire the Army, a gargantuan commitment to network-centric war. “We realized very quickly you could do incredible stuff with this,” he says. “It was revolutionary. It was.”
I press my hands to my forehead. What about all the cultural understanding, I ask him. What about nation-building? What about your counterinsurgency manual?
“Well,” Petraeus says, “it doesn’t say that the best weapons don’t shoot. It says sometimes the best weapons don’t shoot. Sometimes the best weapons do shoot.” A war like Iraq is a mix, he adds: In one part of the country, the military is reinforcing the society, building things; in another, it’s breaking them – waging “major combat operations” that aren’t all that different from what might have gone down in 2003. And this technology, he says, it’s pretty good at 2003-style war.
When Cebrowski and Garstka wrote about adding information technology to the military’s way of finding and wiping out enemies – the kill chain – to a certain extent, they were right. In 1991, Operation Desert Storm began with a long bombing campaign, then a ground assault. But in Afghanistan and the 2003 Iraq war, soldiers on the ground handed off coordinates to bombers and fighter planes, who attacked with laser- and satellite-guided munitions. The effect was devastating, shrinking the so-called sensor-to-shooter cycle to mere instants. During the first Gulf War, it typically took three days of paper pushing to assign a plane a target to hit. This time around, in parts of Anbar province, it took under 10 minutes. A relatively small number of Special Forces, sent to neuter Scud missile sites, took control of an area about the size of South Carolina – despite being outnumbered on the ground at least 10 to 1, and in some spots 500 to 1. The Iraqis never got off a single Scud.
But for all that, Cebrowski and Garstka weren’t really writing about network-centric warfare at all. They were writing about a single, network-enabled process: killing. In 1998, to a former fighter jock and missile defender, the two things must have seemed the same. A decade later, it’s pretty clear they aren’t – not with American troops nation-building in Afghanistan, peacekeeping in Kosovo, chasing pirates off Djibouti, delivering disaster relief to Indonesia, and fighting insurgents in Iraq.
The fact is, today we rely on our troops to perform all sort of missions that are only loosely connected with traditional combat but are vital to maintaining world security. And it’s all happening while the military is becoming less and less likely to exercise its traditional duties of fighting an old-fashioned war. When is that going to happen again? What potential enemy of the US is going to bother amassing, Saddam-style, army tanks and tens of thousands of troops when the insurgent approach obviously works so well? “The real problem with network-centric warfare is that it helps us only destroy. But in the 21st century, that’s just a sliver of what we’re trying to do,” Nagl says. “It solves a problem I don’t have – fighting some conventional enemy – and helps only a little with a problem I do have: how to build a society in the face of technology-enabled, super-empowered individuals.”
Admiral Arthur Cebrowski died of cancer in 2005. The Office of Force Transformation he headed has been disbanded. John Garstka is still at the Defense Department, working in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Forces Transformation and Resources. It reports to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict and Interdependent Capabilities, which in turn reports to the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense (Policy). I ask Garstka if he’d like to meet up. “Sure,” he answers. “The Ritz-Carlton does a nice lunch.”
In the Ritz’s oak-paneled dining room a few minutes’ walk from the Pentagon, Garstka sits with his arms folded across his white button-down shirt and his Defense Department badge. He’s not exactly pleased with his new position – the length of his office’s name is perhaps inversely proportional to its influence. “I have to be a good soldier,” he sighs. But he takes comfort in knowing that network-centric warfare is “past the point of no return.” It’s been “demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt” – not just in traditional battles, like the invasion of Iraq, but also during so-called stability operations, like the four-plus years since “mission accomplished.” (He says he’d like to go to Iraq one day to see it all for himself.)
If network-centric warfare has flaws, he adds, don’t blame the concept. The slow-moving Defense Department bureaucracy hasn’t worked quickly enough to roll out wired gear for the troops. Insurgents seized on commercial technology quicker than anticipated. And anyway, Garstka says, people have hijacked the term network-centric warfare to mean all sorts of things, from investing in fiber optics to rejiggering an organizational chart, without really understanding what it means.
But by the time Garstka finishes his 8-ounce Angus cheeseburger, he’s willing to acknowledge some of the potential gaps in the strategy. “I’m not an expert in stability operations,” he admits. Maybe network-centric combat isn’t perfectly suited to the wars we’re fighting now. And it certainly requires a different skill set than counterinsurgency or nation-building. “Stability operations is like soccer. Major combat operations is like football. So it’s almost impossible [for one team] to win both the World Cup and the Super Bowl in the same year,” he tells me. “Not when you’re playing two different games.”
Finally, at the end of our meal, Garstka suggests that the model he helped create will have to change again. “You have to think differently about people,” he says. “You have your social networks and technological networks. You need to have both.”
So the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are updating the playbook. Technological networks like Wal-Mart’s are out. The social network warfare of Nagl, Prior, and Colabuno is in.
The Army has set aside $41 million to build what it calls Human Terrain Teams: 150 social scientists, software geeks, and experts on local culture, split up and embedded with 26 different military units in Iraq and Afghanistan over the next year. The first six HTTs are already on the ground. The idea, basically, is to give each commander a set of cultural counselors, the way he has soldiers giving him combat advice.
In western Afghanistan, for instance, a brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division was being targeted by rockets, over and over, from the vicinity of a nearby village. But no one from the unit had bothered to ask the townspeople why. When the Human Terrain Team finally paid a visit, villagers complained that the Taliban was around only because the Americans didn’t provide security. And oh, by the way, they really wanted a volleyball net, too. So a net was acquired. Patrols were started. There hasn’t been an attack in two months.
At the HTT’s suggestions, the brigade also invited the province’s head mullah to bless a newly restored mosque on the base. He “was so delighted that he recorded an announcement in Pashto and Dari for radio broadcast denouncing the Taliban,” an after-action report noted. In his initial evaluation, the brigade commander credits the HTT with an astonishing 60 to 70 percent drop in the number of bombs-and-bullets strikes he has had to make. It’s a number that even some HTT members have a hard time believing. But the commander insists that 53 of 83 districts in his area now support the local government. Before the HTT arrived, it was only 19.
“We got trapped into thinking that killing/destruction mechanisms of the highest technical quality could replace true human understanding. The vote is in, and we were wrong,” says Steve Fondacaro, a cleft-chinned, chipped-toothed former Special Forces operator who now heads the HTT program. “We had been trying to take the test without doing the course work. That never works in school, and it hasn’t worked any better in war.”
The program is still new, and many questions remain about how it’ll actually operate. Will the social scientists – many of them civilian academics – carry guns? Wear uniforms? Will they be conducting fieldwork or just doing research at their desks? How will these people be trained? What kind of credentials do they need? Will commanders listen to what they have to say? And is it even ethical to use their skills in wartime?
One thing is clear: The Human Terrain Teams will eventually do more than just advise. Soon each team will get a server, a half-dozen laptops, a satellite dish, and software for social-network analysis – to diagram how all of the important players in an area are connected. Digital timelines will mark key cultural and political events. Mapmaking programs will plot out the economic, ethnic, and tribal landscape, just like the command post of the future maps the physical terrain. But those HTT diagrams can never be more than approximations, converting messy analog narratives to binary facts. Warfare will continue to center around networks. But some networks will be social, linking not computers and drones and Humvees but tribes, sects, political parties, even entire cultures. In the end, everything else is just data.
Contributing editor Noah Shachtman wrote about Darpa’s research into human enhancement in issue 15.03. To read his Iraq diary and see photos from his trip, see the Wired News blog Danger Room, which won the Online Journalism Association’s 2007 award for beat reporting.