Military transformation: beyond the buzzwords

Oct. 1, 2004
We all know the mom-and-apple-pie buzzwords that flit about the U.S. Department of Defense's concept of "military transformation."

We all know the mom-and-apple-pie buzzwords that flit about the U.S. Department of Defense's concept of "military transformation." We see them in viewgraphs of every presentation: smaller, lighter, faster, more lethal, you know the list. Most of these words describe an appealing and exciting idea, yet boiled down to their essence, the words describe military goals that have been with us since before Alexander The Great — kill or otherwise neutralize them before they do the same to us.

On some levels, this is unfortunate because the notion of military transformation truly is a revolutionary, worthwhile, and pivotal vision of a bright military future, brimming with new technologies and with opportunities to employ familiar technologies in innovative new ways.

The problem centers on the sad fact that military transformation is drowning in hyperbole that would have us believe that this new approach represents a reinvention of warfare itself. It doesn't. Warfare is essentially the same today as it was at the battle of Har-Megiddo more than 3,000 years ago — find and defeat the enemy, or be destroyed yourself.

What's different about transformation is not the nature of warfare, but the way commanders fight wars, and this is where the notion of transformation sheds its facade of buzzwords and starts to get real traction. Electronic and optoelectronic technologies are huge potential enablers in transformation, but at the same time, technology has the potential to become an obstacle if commanders fail to use it in the right way.

Information any time, anywhere

Military transformation seeks nothing less than to eliminate what Carl von Clausewitz so famously described as the "fog of war." Essentially, transformation has to do with digitizing, blending, and disseminating information from sensors, eyewitnesses, and good old-fashioned deduction in real time so that — in theory — commanders can learn everything there is to know in an instant about a battlefield, an operational theater, or even about the entire global military situation.

Transformation means that in the military forces of the near future, every participant at every moment will know exactly where he is, and exactly where are the friends and enemies of consequence to him; no more guessing, no more waiting, no more confusion.

This, of course, is a monumentally tall order. The so-called fog of war — uncertainty, incomplete information, deception, and wrong conclusions — has dogged every field commander since the beginning of time, and every commander throughout history has done his best to cut through this fog, most often with limited success, and sometimes with no success at all. Military transformation, however, has the potential to go further toward eliminating the fog of war than anything else ever has . . . that is, if U.S. leaders can put the transformational philosophy into effective practice.

In the transformational approach to warfare, information is the ultimate weapon. This isn't just any information, however. It involves confirmed, relevant, and immediately useful information distilled from oceans of data — steady access to that elusive, magic information that in times past came along only once in a lifetime. This information goes beyond what scientists describe as "situational awareness." It has given rise to a whole new term — "shared awareness."

Command of information on the battlefield — often referred to as "information superiority" — enables military leaders to think and act before their adversaries can, mass fire from weapons instantly on targets of opportunity without massing their own forces, and keep the majority of their forces out of harm's way while placing the adversary in dire peril all the time.

When they posses information superiority, commanders no longer need large, heavy forces designed to withstand punishment and attrition. Instead, they can employ smaller, lightly armored, fast forces that can maneuver quickly within a battle theater, or be airlifted quickly to hotspots from anywhere on the globe. This migration from large, heavy forces to relatively small and fast forces is often accurately described as an evolution from industrial-age warfare to information-age warfare.

This is where the 21st century U.S. military is going.

The technological building blocks of transformation involve all manner of wired and wireless networks; graphical displays and software, unattended sensors in space, in the air, on land, under water; unmanned aerial, land, and underwater vehicles; tactical data links; wearable computers and sensors; nanotechnology; machine vision; intelligent, autonomous navigation; wideband communications; and many others.

Employing technology, however, is far trickier than simply burying the enemy under an avalanche of new gadgets. The challenge of using technology smartly in future wars is perhaps more difficult today than it ever has been before.

Achieving true "shared awareness" is perhaps the most difficult challenge that transformation poses. Shared awareness seeks to put into the battlefield the kinds of advanced information processing, automated decision aids, artificial intelligence (for lack of a better term), graphic displays, and — by far the most important — seamless, secure, real-time networks that will enable combatants to share all pertinent information about the battlefield, without bogging down in peripheral details.

It is that information distillation — providing all relevant information, but ONLY the relevant information — that may prove to be one of the toughest technological nuts to crack. This does not involve only technological innovation, but the smart use of new technology.

It is up to the military forces to do this, and it will be a long and difficult road. I don't envy the officers their task of rolling up their sleeves and dealing with these issues.

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