On Point

Computers are as much a part of today's battlefield as tanks and guns. The man behind the networking of today's armed forces is retired Vice Adm. Arthur Cebrowski.

by / January 31, 2005
In researching my new book, Government 2.0: Using Technology to Improve Education, Cut Red Tape, Reduce Gridlock, and Enhance Democracy, I spent three years traveling the country looking at the impact of new technologies on government. One thing I discovered surprised me greatly: Perhaps no government institution was being transformed as profoundly by technology as the U.S. military.

The Pentagon has adopted a new doctrine, dubbed "network-centric warfare," that abandons some long-cherished military dogmas to harness fully 21st century information technologies. In contrast to the traditional chain-of-command model, which epitomized military organizations for centuries, the network-centric model is flatter and less hierarchical. Information-sharing tools are used to create what is officially termed "Total Information Awareness" (TIA).

TIA is a battlefield term that came into use well before its controversial attempted application to domestic-counterterrorism. The phrase designates the goal, or the grail, of the network-centric doctrine: to give everyone -- from foot soldiers to field commanders -- access to the same data so everyone can react and interact in real time.

Under TIA, "bottom-up" structures convert general information into specific, actionable battlefield knowledge. This networked war-fighting is made possible by sensors, satellite communications, fast and capacious computers, and a robust information backbone.

The speed of the U.S. advance on Baghdad during Operation Iraqi Freedom revealed TIA's revolutionary potential. Radio frequency identification (RFID) and satellite tags allowed the Department of Defense (DoD) to transform its patchy, paper-based logistics system -- in which troops were forced to go "container diving" through thousands of unlabeled "mystery containers" -- to one where they had total asset visibility of every item in every container as it moved across the world to Iraq. Mobile computing devices allowed soldiers to view information collected by radar planes. Seamlessly linked sensors and Internet-based communications systems gave forces "situational awareness," enabling widely dispersed units to fight with real-time knowledge of each other's movements, as well as the enemy's positions and strength.

Most impressively, the flow of real-time information allowed the Army, Marines, Air Force and Special Operations Command -- perennial rivals who have long had trouble working together -- to orchestrate stunningly coordinated actions. Many believe that the new technological capabilities, if properly exploited, will eventually result in a revolution in military affairs.

The individual behind many of these changes, the person widely described as the father of network-centric warfare, is retired Vice Adm. Arthur Cebrowski. A member of the Navy Hall of Fame, Cebrowski championed technology issues throughout his 37 years in the Navy, from the day he graduated with a master's degree in computer systems management from the Naval Postgraduate School to his role as president of the Naval War College decades later. "Art is the Curtis LeMay of his time," said Tom Barnett, author of The Pentagon's New Map, referring to the man who is also considered the father of modern air warfare. "He sees things others don't see. He spoke early, often and consistently about certain principles long before they became the accepted wisdom in the Pentagon."

In 2001, Cebrowski's work caught the attention of Donald Rumsfeld, the incoming secretary of defense. In October of that year, Rumsfeld personally selected the vice admiral to lead his high-profile defense transformation effort as director of the Office of Force Transformation at the DoD. Few jobs at the Pentagon are more important to the future of America's military.

A few weeks after the 2004 elections, Government Technology's Public CIO magazine caught up with this visionary military leader to discuss technology, organizational transformation, Iraq and the future of warfare.

Q: How did a retired admiral become one of the U.S. government's biggest cheerleaders for technology innovation?

Really, I am an advocate for making the kinds of adjustments and changes that the age and times demand. It's not just a matter of technology; in fact, of the three great elements of an enterprise -- organization, process and technology -- one cannot change one while holding the others constant. That would simply result in dysfunction. So to become an advocate for change, you have to be an advocate for changes in processes, organizational structure and technology.

The reason people normally pick technology first is because it's morally neutral. It doesn't typically have immediate behavioral ramifications, and consequently, the institutional resistance to technology is typically less than the resistance to organizational and process changes. Thus, technology is a good place to start.

Secondly during the late 1980s, and most of all, the early 1990s, there was a step function increase in the impact of information technology on society at large. It is that tidal wave of technology we are riding in network-centric operation.

Q: You have been an evangelist for technology-driven change for a long time. What first inspired your appreciation for reform and for the transformational effects of technology?

During a crisis situation in the eastern Mediterranean in the early 1970s involving the Israelis, the Palestinians, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, I was struck by how little the fleet commander knew about the moment-by-moment actions -- not just of potential adversaries or neutrals, but also of his own force. It became stunningly obvious that something had to be done about this.

Secondly during the early 1970s, we witnessed the profound change from electronics development being dominated by the Department of Defense to development being dominated by the commercial world.

So we had these two things going on simultaneously. We were entering a world where technology was going to move out at an accelerated rate, and where the need for knowledge with higher fidelity, better accuracy and greater relevance was increasing.

Q: You have been called the father of network-centric warfare. What is this development and how is it transforming warfare?

Network-centric warfare has to do with creating a superior information position that is superior relative to your needs versus an enemy position relative to his needs, then being able to exploit that superior information position by developing high-quality, shared awareness. With this shared awareness, you can allow your organizational structure and your tactic to float, if you will -- meaning that they are not tied to some manual, but they float insofar as they become highly responsive to the situation that emerges by virtue of this high-quality shared situational awareness.

In the physical domain, you can now have a very high-speed operation with a great deal of precision, so precision weapons emerge by virtue of this superior information position.

Then there is the issue of the cognitive domain, which is really where battles are won and lost. Commanders, appropriately informed, can then develop new plans, new tactics, new operational schemes not otherwise possible were they not in this enriched information environment. What happens then is the person operating from this superior information position has tools in his toolbox for operational maneuvers, for tactical procedures, that an enemy does not have. With this richer mix of tools, you will have a higher probability, or at least a greater opportunity, to be successful than your enemy.

Q: Many insights from network-centric warfare come from private-sector innovations at companies such as Wal-Mart and Dell. How did you make those links between the two?

A nation makes war the same way it generates power and wealth -- they are closely coupled. If you have a society that generates power and wealth through industrial might, then you should expect to see a military enterprise that is fully consistent with those rules. As that society shifts into the Information Age, where it is developing power and wealth by virtue of information and information processes, then that implies different rules and therefore, the military will make that shift.

For example, when we arrived at the Information Age, one thing that became quite stunning is that firms that were competitors would partner in certain areas even as they were competing in other areas. That was previously unheard of.

These firms realized by doing this, they could develop essentially a temporary lockout paradigm or phenomena. We are seeing all these things going on in society, and our sense is that it would be very naive and even arrogant to suppose our entire society should change but the military would stay the same.

Q: The first two major real-life tests of network-centric warfare on the battlefield were in Afghanistan and Iraq. What are the biggest lessons from these engagements in terms of network-centric warfare?

One of the biggest things is the power of jointness at the tactical level. That turns out to be enormously powerful. It enables people to reach for previously unattainable solutions. One of the best examples is the special operations forces working with Afghan allies calling in targets to B52s and Navy F18s, which in turn used smart weapons launched from out of sight of anyone.

Q: Some critics have said an unrealistic belief in these new warfare technologies caused the Pentagon to not commit enough troops to Iraq, which resulted in a range of problems we are still addressing today. Your response?

I didn't see any real fixation on new technologies. What I did see was an appreciation for speed. When a commander is given a military objective and can take it at very high speed, he will. And the reason he will is because the faster he takes it, the lower the risk to the soldiers and the population, the higher the probability of his success, the fewer options available for an enemy to do a counterattack -- there is a whole host of reasons why speed is of enormous advantage. Show me a person who does not think speed is important, and I will show you someone who has never been shot at.

Just as the side employing network-centric operations suffers fewer casualties, there are also fewer casualties for the enemy and in the civilian population. This is a new phenomenon. A good development. This is what we want. Warfare is supposed to be an absolute last resort. You are supposed to use appropriate proportionality, minimizing the violence to only that necessary to achieve the objectives. So this is a step in the right direction ... the moral direction.

We need to look at how we have to change all the other processes in response to the increased speed. Are the other agencies of government prepared for the speed of success the Department of Defense is capable of achieving?

When you come out the other side of a major combat operation, responsibilities do not just lie in the military domain. We need a wholesale change in the way we structure our government to be able to respond to this new reality in warfare.

Q: You've said that network-centric capabilities give more decision-making to soldiers in the battlefields. This is a transformational idea. What implications might this have for other parts of government?

We are now witnessing the maturing of a very large cadre of junior and midgrade officers making life-and-death decisions on the spot in unfamiliar and very challenging environments where the doctrine is not necessarily well developed, where one cannot rely on or have the time to discuss up the chain of command in any great detail. In other words, what we are witnessing in such places as the streets of Fallujah and Baghdad is greater power to the edge. This large cadre of junior and midgrade officers has every expectation that this is the way things are done. And as they become more senior officers, they will continue with those expectations.

That will be a powerful force in changing the way the military works. Many of these officers will leave military services, go on to the commercial world or other agencies of government, and they will carry those same lessons with them. Those are powerful lessons. No one learns faster than someone who is being shot at, so these lessons are burned into their psyches. We should expect to see the results of that over the next decade.

Q: What drives this development?

The phenomenon we are seeing is the result of the shift from very large unit operations to small unit operations. The reason for this shift is because the United States is so very good at large-scale operations. One reason we are so good at it is because we are able to generate a superior information position.

This tends to drive enemies toward much smaller units, operating in different ways. In the case of Iraq, we are talking about counterinsurgency, and in that environment, the enemy has taken to very small units of action. Success does not come from pitting division-size units against these small guerrilla bands. Instead, the number of battles is going up dramatically because it is small-unit and even individual-on-individual. If you expect to have success in this environment, you have to empower the individual to take the initiative, read the situation and be as informed as possible.

Q: Some military people have said Sept. 11 changes the nature of warfare. Is this true, and if so, how?

First of all, I avoid talking about changes in the nature of warfare. The reason: I don't want to mislead people into believing that somehow warfare will ever be anything less than a frightful, violent, high-risk, dangerous, dirty undertaking that is to be avoided. What does change is the character of war -- the sharp increase in speed and the change in casualty rates. Outcomes hinge much more on the ability to gather and network information, the ability to develop the shared information awareness. This was never really even talked about before.

And you are not seeing so much a reliance on mass production in warfare so much as what the commercial world would call mass customization -- the ability to tailor the force, to change the doctrine, to reach for a different niche of technology, to create a new solution in real time, apply it and then change again. And this is what we are seeing in the military.

Q: You're in charge of the Department of Defense's Force Transformation Office and its transformation process. This has been a very challenging and difficult process. What can civilian agencies in government learn from your experience?

First, be swift. No transformational leader, no matter how successful, ever looked back and said, "I could have gone faster. I could have accomplished more. I was too timid."

That brings up the second point: Be bold. Make the big leap. If you are working on the margins, you are deluding yourself if you think it's transformation. It's not. It's just good management, efficiency or modernization. But it's not going to change the rules -- it's not going to create a new future. That requires real boldness.

The third lesson is specificity. Without it, subordinates will offer their interpretation of what is required; this will often tend toward nontransformational activity. The directive has to have specificity. It cannot be just a statement like, "We will cut costs" or "We will make this better."

Q: You faced opposition from some members of Congress, federal employee unions and many in the military. What have you done to overcome some of the obstacles?

Nothing works like execution. You just do it. This is not the kind of area where you take a vote. Leadership is required.

A great example of this occurred a few years ago when I wanted to lease for the U.S. Navy a high-speed transport from Australia. I thought if our Navy officers could see what this type of ship could do and experiment with it, it would be an eye-opener. I was told immediately this was a silly idea, that the Navy would never pursue ships like this, and I should cease and desist.

What did I do? I took the money out of the War College budget and then leased the transport. Once it got into the hands of the fleet, they immediately saw the possibilities. The military now operates four of them and plans to build or acquire more -- all made possible by virtue of the initial experiment.

Q: So the lesson is to "beg for forgiveness later rather than ask for permission"?

Yes. Or you could also say that they let the nose of the camel under the tent. Once it was proven to be a good idea, it took on a life of its own.

Q: Early on, there was a lot of skepticism and even some open ridicule of some of your ideas. Do you feel vindicated now that they have taken hold throughout the forces?

Absolutely, but it is not a gloating kind of thing. There is a lot left to be done, and I can look over my shoulder and say, "Geez, I wish I had done this, I wish I had done that," and you can only do so much.

Q: Where will we be in 10 years? Will network-centric warfare principles be so ubiquitous that people won't believe they were once considered novel and experimental?

Absolutely. Ultimately these capabilities will become commodified. The danger for the United States is that we become so used to having a superior information position that we think we have it by divine right, and consequently, we don't take the steps necessary to preserve it.

Consider the Battle of Gettysburg. You have forces from two different ages who met on that famed battlefield. You had the Army of Virginia, which was probably the last of the great Napoleonic armies, and then you had the Union Army, which arguably was the first of the Industrial Age armies. When you have that kind of confrontation, there is a certain kind of inevitability to the conflict. Later on, however, when you start to have industrial armies clashing with industrial armies, then the outcome is very much in doubt again because the area of competition has shifted. To win, you need different competitive attributes.

Over the next 10 years or so -- well, actually forever -- we must continually reassess how well we are doing on the competitive attributes and whether the competitive attributes we're focused on are still relevant. It's not enough to be competent in what you are undertaking; you must also be relevant.

Q: How can the United States maintain its military advantage and competitive edge as these capabilities commodify?

As the information capabilities become more commonplace, you start to compete on how well you can exploit the capabilities -- with what speed and with what imagination. The notion of taking 15 years to develop a certain military capability -- you simply can't do that anymore.

By virtue of the ubiquitous availability of high-quality IT, the barriers to competition have fallen. You need a new basis for competition, and that might have to do with the ability to generate and preserve a very large number of options on very short timelines. Cycle time becomes very important, as do learning rates and the ability to shed organizational structures that inhibit learning and speed.

Q: What would you most like to be remembered for? As the father of network-centric warfare?

That is just a line in a book somewhere. The things that really matter are the influences you have had on people's lives that might seem small or insignificant at the time, but they did change people's lives and result in a better world, and frequently we do not even know what they are. They happen by virtue of working hard at trying to do the right thing.
William D. Eggers Contributing Writer