High-tech failure against terrorThe Pentagon's current preoccupation - some say obsession - with network-centric warfare is increasing in the context of enhancing America's supremacy over its actual and potential adversaries. In layman's terms, this type of warfare relies heavily on "sending secret intelligence and stratagems instantly to soldiers in battle". As a result, the US military has become "a faster [and] fiercer force against a faceless foe".
The effectiveness of network-centric warfare was proved in the US invasion of Iraq, even though in two wars prior to the latest one - the Gulf War of 1991, which is referred to as Desert Storm, and the US military campaign in Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom) - the technological superiority of the US military reached new heights. It was recently reported in the New York Times that the Pentagon was building its own Internet in order to get a "God's-eye view of battle".
The chief basis of the popularity of network-centric warfare is that it is so natural to the age-old US cultural idiosyncrasy of viewing technology as a silver bullet to all contemporary problems and challenges, including winning wars. One only has to recall president Ronald Reagan's commitment to developing the so-called Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) - which was derisively described by its critics as "Star Wars". With the development of ballistic missile technology in the 1950s, both the US and the former Soviet Union invested enormous resources in unsuccessfully seeking technologies that could defend them from a potential ballistic missile attack from the other side. Failing in finding a solution, both sides agreed to sign the famous anti-ballistic missile treaty of 1972, which limited the establishment of anti-ballistic defense systems for both superpowers. Through SDI research, Reagan envisaged the creation of a shield defending the US against Soviet ballistic missiles. The fact that such a technology was not yet available did not stop him from strongly exhorting American scientists to pursue its development.
Despite the mirage nature of SDI technology, the idea of strategic defense against ballistic missile attacks on the US remained very much alive. President George W Bush's commitment to develop national missile defense systems had its genesis in Reagan's dream of developing SDI. This very same fixation with technology to institutionalize the supremacy of the US military is also driving America's commitment to the transformation of its military on a continuing basis. The objective of developing network-centric warfare capabilities is an essential aspect of that commitment.
One of America's potential competitors, if not adversaries, China, has spent an enormous amount of time and energy on countering the supremacy of America's fighting forces related to network-centric warfare. Beijing knows that there is no way it can even considerably narrow the technological gap between its military and America's armed forces in the near future. The alternative was to develop small offensive and defensive platforms, as countermeasures in case of a potential war, that are scattered all over its territory and sea approaches that could overwhelm America's offensive strategy, which relies heavily on large and integrated platforms, such as reliance on aircraft carriers as a very important aspect of its naval warfare.
As much as China focuses on mastering the escalated pace of the use of fighting technologies by the US armed forces, its chief source of concern is countering the highly innovative capabilities of the US military to develop original fighting strategies that are sui generis to a particular theater of operation. For instance, the concept of the use of overwhelming force that Colin Powell, then serving as the chairman of joint chiefs of staff, used as the modus operandi for Desert Storm in 1991 was applied in a much different manner during the US military campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. In the latter campaign, US air power was used in conjunction with the use of Special Forces. However, the brunt of ground war fighting was carried out by the Northern Alliance. The result was the collapse of the rag-tag forces of the Taliban. In the case of the US invasion of Iraq, the fighting strategy was focused on the use of US ground forces, but not an overwhelming force a la Desert Storm. That was also a campaign when network-centric warfare was utilized with considerable potency.
However, despite its proven record in creating the so-called "shock and awe" in toppling Saddam Hussein, network-centric warfare is not without its critics, and Pentagon traditionalists never stopped questioning its value. They call it "nothing more than an expensive fad", especially when it comes to fighting insurgents in Baghdad, Samarra and Fallujah. The traditionalists argue, with some merit, that in urban warfare, "fire power and armor still mean more than fiber optic cables and wireless connections" that are essential ingredients of network-centric warfare.
There is little doubt that if US forces were to face a conventional adversary in a battlefield, network-centric warfare would serve as an awesome force multiplier. However, for the remainder of this and the next decade, the chief threat to the US comes from terrorists and insurgents who will fight the US everywhere they have an advantage. Insurgents and terrorists, even though they will work assiduously to maximize their advantage over the US, aren't driven by the use of high technology, nor do they practice techniques of conventional warfare.
So the question is whether the reported US$200 billion that will "go for the war net's hardware and software in the next decade or so" is being spent wisely and is fighting the right enemy. Given what is emerging in the streets of Iraq and the battlefields of Afghanistan, the answer is far from a resounding yes.
The future fighting capabilities of US forces also depend on acquiring actionable and just in-time intelligence. The 9-11 Commission report has established unequivocally that the chief problems related to intelligence for the US forces aren't related to the use of high-tech or satellites, but that of human intelligence. As the current debate over reorganizing America's premier intelligence institutions evolves, there is a lot of room for improvement by fully incorporating some of the major recommendations of the 9-11 Commission's report regarding intelligence. Indeed, more questions are likely to pop up about the wisdom of investing billions of dollars for fighting a network-centric warfare while America's chief adversary - global terrorist groups - is primarily low-tech based, and might be best tackled by enhancing the effectiveness of the United States' intelligence-gathering capabilities worldwide and disseminating them just in time to the fighting forces.
Also, consider reports that al-Qaeda has expressed high interest in smuggling dirty bombs to the US, or even gaining access to nuclear weapons. The alleged use of such weapons relies on smuggling them to the US, or to one of its allies. Then there are reports that al-Qaeda would be interested in acquiring and using chemical or biological weapons to carry out attacks on the US. Concerning such scenarios, one wonders how relevant the Pentagon's current preoccupation with "weaving American military intelligence services into a unified system" really is.
In the history of developing countermeasures against its conventional enemies, the Pentagon has relied heavily on devising high-tech-based strategies and plans. Considering that its current enemy relies heavily on whatever measures that serve its purpose of harming the US, its assets and its citizenry, the Pentagon's continued excessive preoccupation deserves serious reconsideration.
Ehsan Ahrari, PhD, is an Alexandria, Virginia, US-based independent strategic analyst.