Network Centric Warfare (NCW) is an approach to warfare, which uses synergies that can be created by linking geographically separated forces into one engagement grid using computers, high speed data links, and networking software to link military personnel, platforms and formations in the battlespace, into highly integrated networks.
As the world sees a steady decline in conventional wars as years go by, more and more military jargon is being created. Seductive jargon, that promise to be panacea for every (unseen, poorly known) problem. This is a natural phenomenon. When empirical lessons dwindle, rationalist theory takes over. Network Centric Warfare (NCW) appears to be one area where much jargon rules, making it difficult to extract the essentials required for real warfighting in the future, examining them carefully and auditing if one is marching up the right path. So, what is it about NCW?
The March of NCW
Though ideas on combining the advantages of the advances in the field of communications, data transfer, data storage, and gathering information for aiding warfighting saw a new spurt from end 1990s, what came to be called NCW and NCO (Network Centric Operations) really started its formal march in USA from 2005. New theories took birth around what happened on the ground during Op Iraqi Freedom. The essence of this was, networked forces, enhanced situational awareness, increased communication and cooperative engagement. That the enemy just couldn’t have stood up to the massive military strength that bore down on them, didn’t matter. Theories and jargon mushroomed.
NCW – Essentials
For some time, we have been hearing that we are in an information intensive world, where ascendency in gathering, managing and processing information would give much edge over others. At the root of this ascendancy are enhanced situational awareness and networked forces. The script is that (a) a robustly networked force improves information sharing, (b) information sharing and collaboration enhance the quality of information and shared awareness, (c) shared situational awareness enables self-synchronisation (whatever that means) and (d) these, in turn, dramatically increase mission effectiveness.
Information handling is highly technology dependent today. This, other than imposing huge costs, also stands the danger of being overtaken by ever emerging newer technology.
But when has information not been important? Reliable and real-time information is important to almost everything in this world. But what is the degree of its importance? Is there anything superior to information? Even in early 1498, as Vasco da Gama travelled up the East African coast looking for India, information about his presence, cruelty, requirements etc were being relayed up the coast. But that did not help the people he kept running into. They kept getting into trouble, suffering Vasco’s terror. There were too many imponderables. Information can never be enough. The Clausewitzian fog of war will never lift.
Information – Characteristics
Information handling is highly technology dependent today. This, other than imposing huge costs, also stands the danger of being overtaken by ever emerging newer technology. The result is disruption or even distortion, causing the recipient to never being sure of the accuracy or credibility of the information. For instance, in the difficult world of war in the vast oceans, where most times a distant enemy is just a small blip on a screen, put there by a network based on various inputs, it is very possible that the blip is just that. An empty blip, placed by an interfering entity, with no enemy actually in the water. An entire bunch of weapons could end up rushing there from hundreds of miles and getting wasted, or entire formations could squander precious time manoeuvring in response to such phantom contacts. This is possible till eternity, if technology is in the lead.
Information can also be denied or delayed. Even if this doesn’t happen, delays and denial can even be feared and falsely assumed. What is known as the Schwarzkopf Syndrome, where decisions are delayed for a little bit more of time, awaiting one more possible input, is an all too common phenomenon.
There are many more pitfalls. Interpretation of information is one. Faulty interpretation can lead to overestimation or underestimation of the enemy, and this could lead to either inaction from under confidence or fatal overconfidence respectively. Quantity of information is another. It tends to be linked to consumer demand and data handling capability, and quantity will keep increasing to meet the demand and capacity.
Power to Execute War
David S. Alberts and Richard E. Hayes in their book titled, Power to the Edge – ‘Command Control in the Information Age’, published in 2003, advocated increased power to the frontlines, termed as the Edge by them. What they meant was, that with the increased information available at the frontlines, the frontlines could be authorised to undertake more autonomous action. Timing was opportune in the publication of the above book too. Post 9/11, US forces had gone onto Afghanistan, in another bout of motherless bombing of a vastly inferior enemy. It all looked very simple. How wrong all this was, was proved over time.
Who should have the power to execute war? Is it every entity who wields a weapon, is it the field commanders who command the entities that control those who wield weapons, or is it one or several higher authorities backed up by a great system of situational awareness? The answer is, that it should be a combination of all these. But how much is to be the level and nature of autonomy for each, is a difficult question to answer. The solution to this lies in good Doctrine. Doctrine, born of experience, and ever adaptive to changing technological and military environments, cannot be disrupted or influenced. Good Doctrine also enables freedom of thought and enables effective action in the face of imponderables.
There are many pitfalls. Interpretation of information is one. Faulty interpretation can lead to over estimation or under estimation of the enemy, and this could lead to either inaction from under confidence or fatal over confidence.
Iraq – Crucible of US NCW
Iraq has been virtually the crucible where USA thought up NCW and later learnt to suspect it. After going into Afghanistan in 2001 and subsequently into Iraq again in 2003, they disbanded the Saddam Hussein regime and embarked onto a new war or ‘restoring peace’ after ending exactly that. But by now, the enemy had adapted too. The enemy was not easy to spot, they operated with the help of a great social network and had developed skills in changing form. The subsequent birth of ISIS and the catastrophic actions that followed, all provided enough data, to suspect the great merits technology driven NCW had promised. This led to an institutional review, a rational follow up action, and a rethink on allocation of precious resources. It also gave rise to more awareness about the need to create and expand Social Networks, a network of human minds, which hold information, which no man made sensor can pick up.
NCW – No Model Fits All
Like in everything else, how NCW is developed and embraced, is different for different entities. It is dictated by strategic culture, technological skills, money available, geography, neighbours, approach to conflict resolution etc. So in this case, there is no model that fits all. While available architectures, and experiences can be studied and may even be used as starting points, it is important to draw up specific models, that return the most gains for the resources spent. All too often have the approach of putting all faith in an emerging concept led to despair down history. NCW is just another seductive scheme in the modern era. It is not that information sharing is not important. It is important. But good Doctrines and systems that draw primarily upon the human element, are more important. It is easy to jump on to a bandwagon, but difficult to step off it, especially in the absence of conventional conflict, which is the only source for realistic testing of efficacy for any military concept. Good waypoint checks help.
Commodore G. Prakash retired in December, 2019. A specialist in Aviation and Anti-Submarine Warfare, he has held several Command and Staff appointments.