The New Rules of War
The visionary who first saw the age of "netwar" coming warns that the U.S. military is getting it wrong all over again. Here's his plan to make conflict cheaper, smaller, and smarter.
Every day, the U.S. military spends $1.75 billion, much of it on big ships, big guns, and big battalions that are not only not needed to win the wars of the present, but are sure to be the wrong approach to waging the wars of the future.
In this, the ninth year of the first great conflict between nations and networks, America’s armed forces have failed, as militaries so often do, to adapt sufficiently to changed conditions, finding out the hard way that their enemies often remain a step ahead. The U.S. military floundered for years in Iraq, then proved itself unable to grasp the point, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, that old-school surges of ground troops do not offer enduring solutions to new-style conflicts with networked adversaries.
So it has almost always been. Given the high stakes and dangers they routinely face, militaries are inevitably reluctant to change. During World War I, the armies on the Western Front in 1915 were fighting in much the same manner as those at Waterloo in 1815, attacking in close-packed formations — despite the emergence of the machine gun and high-explosive artillery. Millions were slaughtered, year after bloody year, for a few yards of churned-up mud. It is no surprise that historian Alan Clark titled his study of the high command during this conflict The Donkeys.
Even the implications of maturing tanks, planes, and the radio waves that linked them were only partially understood by the next generation of military men. Just as their predecessors failed to grasp the lethal nature of firepower, their successors missed the rise of mechanized maneuver — save for the Germans, who figured out that blitzkrieg was possible and won some grand early victories. They would have gone on winning, but for poor high-level strategic choices such as invading Russia and declaring war on the United States. In the end, the Nazis were not so much outfought as gang-tackled.
Nuclear weapons were next to be misunderstood, most monumentally by a U.S. military that initially thought they could be employed like any other weapons. But it turned out they were useful only in deterring their use. Surprisingly, it was cold warrior Ronald Reagan who had the keenest insight into such weapons when he said, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
Which brings us to war in the age of information. The technological breakthroughs of the last two decades — comparable in world-shaking scope to those at the Industrial Revolution’s outset two centuries ago — coincided with a new moment of global political instability after the Cold War. Yet most militaries are entering this era with the familiar pattern of belief that new technological tools will simply reinforce existing practices.
In the U.S. case, senior officials remain convinced that their strategy of “shock and awe” and the Powell doctrine of “overwhelming force” have only been enhanced by the addition of greater numbers of smart weapons, remotely controlled aircraft, and near-instant global communications. Perhaps the most prominent cheerleader for “shock and awe” has been National Security Advisor James Jones, the general whose circle of senior aides has included those who came up with the concept in the 1990s. Their basic idea: “The bigger the hammer, the better the outcome.”
Nothing could be further from the truth, as the results in Iraq and Afghanistan so painfully demonstrate. Indeed, a decade and a half after my colleague David Ronfeldt and I coined the term “netwar” to describe the world’s emerging form of network-based conflict, the United States is still behind the curve. The evidence of the last 10 years shows clearly that massive applications of force have done little more than kill the innocent and enrage their survivors. Networked organizations like al Qaeda have proven how easy it is to dodge such heavy punches and persist to land sharp counterblows.
And the U.S. military, which has used these new tools of war in mostly traditional ways, has been staggered financially and gravely wounded psychologically. The Iraq war’s real cost, for example, has been about $3 trillion, per the analysis of Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes — and even “official” figures put expenditures around $1 trillion. As for human capital, U.S. troops are exhausted by repeated lengthy deployments against foes who, if they were lined up, would hardly fill a single division of Marines. In a very real sense, the United States has come close to punching itself out since 9/11.
When militaries don’t keep up with the pace of change, countries suffer. In World War I, the failure to grasp the implications of mass production led not only to senseless slaughter, but also to the end of great empires and the bankruptcy of others. The inability to comprehend the meaning of mechanization at the outset of World War II handed vast tracts of territory to the Axis powers and very nearly gave them victory. The failure to grasp the true meaning of nuclear weapons led to a suicidal arms race and a barely averted apocalypse during the Cuban missile crisis.
Today, the signs of misunderstanding still abound. For example, in an age of supersonic anti-ship missiles, the U.S. Navy has spent countless billions of dollars on “surface warfare ships” whose aluminum superstructures will likely burn to the waterline if hit by a single missile. Yet Navy doctrine calls for them to engage missile-armed enemies at eyeball range in coastal waters.
The U.S. Army, meanwhile, has spent tens of billions of dollars on its “Future Combat Systems,” a grab bag of new weapons, vehicles, and communications gadgets now seen by its own proponents as almost completely unworkable for the kind of military operations that land forces will be undertaking in the years ahead. The oceans of information the systems would generate each day would clog the command circuits so that carrying out even the simplest operation would be a terrible slog.
And the U.S. Air Force, beyond its well-known devotion to massive bombing, remains in love with extremely advanced and extremely expensive fighter aircraft — despite losing only one fighter plane to an enemy fighter in nearly 40 years. Although the hugely costly F-22 turned out to function poorly and is being canceled after enormous investment in its production, the Air Force has by no means given up. Instead, the more advanced F-35 will be produced, at a cost running in the hundreds of billions of dollars. All this in an era in which what the United States already has is far better than anything else in the world and will remain so for many decades.
These developments suggest that the United States is spending huge amounts of money in ways that are actually making Americans less secure, not only against irregular insurgents, but also against smart countries building different sorts of militaries. And the problem goes well beyond weapons and other high-tech items. What’s missing most of all from the U.S. military’s arsenal is a deep understanding of networking, the loose but lively interconnection between people that creates and brings a new kind of collective intelligence, power, and purpose to bear — for good and ill.
Civil society movements around the world have taken to networking in ways that have done far more to advance the cause of freedom than the U.S. military’s problematic efforts to bring democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan at gunpoint. As for “uncivil society,” terrorists and transnational criminals have embraced connectivity to coordinate global operations in ways that simply were not possible in the past. Before the Internet and the World Wide Web, a terrorist network operating cohesively in more than 60 countries could not have existed. Today, a world full of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallabs awaits — and not all of them will fail.
But the principles of networking don’t have to help only the bad guys. If fully embraced, they can lead to a new kind of military — and even a new kind of war. The conflicts of the future should and could be less costly and destructive, with armed forces more able to protect the innocent and deter or defend against aggression.
Vast tank armies may no longer battle it out across the steppes, but modern warfare has indeed become exceedingly fast-paced and complex. Still, there is a way to reduce this complexity to just three simple rules that can save untold amounts of blood and treasure in the netwar age.
Rule 1: “Many and Small” Beats “Few and Large.”
The greatest problem traditional militaries face today is that they are organized to wage big wars and have difficulty orienting themselves to fight small ones. The demands of large-scale conflicts have led to reliance on a few big units rather than on a lot of little ones. For example, the Marines have only three active-duty divisions, the U.S. Army only ten. The Navy has just 11 carrier strike groups, and the Air Force about three dozen attack aircraft “wings.” Almost 1.5 million active service members have been poured into these and a few other supporting organizational structures.
It is no wonder that the U.S. military has exhausted itself in the repeated deployments since the 9/11 attacks. It has a chronic “scaling problem,” making it unable to pursue smaller tasks with smaller numbers. Add in the traditional, hierarchical military mindset, which holds that more is always better (the corollary belief being that one can only do worse with less), and you get massive approaches to little wars.
This was the case during the Vietnam War, too, when the prevailing military organizational structure of the 1960s — not much different from today’s — drove decision-makers to pursue a big-unit war against a large number of very small insurgent units. The final result: 500,000-plus troops deployed, countless billions spent, and a war lost. The iconic images were the insurgents’ AK-47 individual assault rifles, of which there were hundreds of thousands in use at any moment, juxtaposed against the U.S. Air Force’s B-52s, of which just a hundred or so massed together in fruitless attempts to bomb Hanoi into submission.
The same problem persists today, the updated icons being the insurgents’ thousands of improvised explosive devices and the Americans’ relative handful of drones. It is ironic that the U.S. war on terrorism commenced in the Afghan mountains with the same type of B-52 bombers and the same problematic results that attended the Vietnam War.
The U.S. military is not unaware of these problems. The Army has incrementally increased the number of brigades — which typically include between 3,000 and 4,000 trigger-pullers — from less than three dozen in 2001 to almost 50 today. And the Marines now routinely subdivide their forces into “expeditionary units” of several hundred troops each. But these changes hardly begin the needed shift from a military of the “few and large” to one of the “many and small.”
That’s because U.S. military leaders have not sufficiently grasped that even quite small units — like a platoon of 50 or so soldiers — can wield great power when connected to others, especially friendly indigenous forces, and when networking closely with even a handful of attack aircraft.
Yet the evidence is there. For example, beginning in late 2006 in Iraq, the U.S. command shifted little more than 5 percent of its 130,000 troops from about three dozen major (i.e., town-sized) operating bases to more than a hundred small outposts, each manned by about 50 soldiers. This was a dramatic shift from few-large to many-small, and it soon worked wonders in reducing violence, beginning well before the “surge” troops arrived. In part this happened because the physical network of platoon-sized outposts facilitated social networking with the large numbers of small tribal groups who chose to join the cause, forming the core of the “Awakening” movement.
The Pentagon’s reluctance to see the new possibilities — reflected in the shrilly repeated calls for more troops, first in Iraq, then in Afghanistan — stems in part from the usual generalized fear of change, but also from concern that a many-and-small force would have trouble against a traditional massed army. Say, like North Korea’s.
Then again, perhaps the best example of a many-and-small military that worked against foes of all sizes was the Roman legion. For many centuries, legionary maniples (Latin for “handfuls”) marched out — in their flexible checkerboard formations — and beat the massive, balky phalanxes of traditional foes, while dealing just as skillfully with loose bands of tribal fighters.
Rule 2: Finding Matters More Than Flanking.
Ever since Theban general Epaminondas overloaded his army’s left wing to strike at the Spartan right almost 2,400 years ago at Leuctra, hitting the enemy in the flank has been the most reliable maneuver in warfare. Flank attacks can be seen in Frederick the Great’s famous “oblique order” in his 18th-century battles, in Erwin Rommel’s repeated “right hooks” around the British in North Africa in 1941, and in Norman Schwarzkopf’s famous “left hook” around the Iraqis in 1991. Flanking has quite a pedigree.
Flanking also formed a basis for the march up Mesopotamia by U.S. forces in 2003. But something odd happened this time. In the words of military historian John Keegan, the large Iraqi army of more than 400,000 troops just “melted away.” There were no great battles of encirclement and only a handful of firefights along the way to Baghdad. Instead, Iraqis largely waited until their country was overrun and then mounted an insurgency based on tip-and-run attacks and bombings.
Thus did war cease to be driven by mass-on-mass confrontation, but rather by a hider-finder dynamic. In a world of networked war, armies will have to redesign how they fight, keeping in mind that the enemy of the future will have to be found before it can be fought. To some extent this occurred in the Vietnam War, but that was a conflict during which the enemy obligingly (and quite regularly) massed its forces in major offensives: held off in 1965, defeated in 1968 and 1972, and finally winning in 1975.
In Iraq, there weren’t mass assaults, but a new type of irregular warfare in which a series of small attacks no longer signaled buildup toward a major battle. This is the path being taken by the Taliban in Afghanistan and is clearly the concept of global operations used by al Qaeda.
At the same time, the U.S. military has shown it can adapt to such a fight. Indeed, when it finally improved its position in Iraq, the change was driven by a vastly enhanced ability to find the enemy. The physical network of small outposts was linked to and enlivened by a social network of tribal fighters willing to work with U.S. forces. These elements, taken together, shone a light on al Qaeda in Iraq, and in the glare of this illumination the militants were easy prey for the small percentage of coalition forces actually waging the campaign against them.
Think of this as a new role for the military. Traditionally, they’ve seen themselves largely as a “shooting organization”; in this era, they will also have to become a “sensory organization.”
This approach can surely work in Afghanistan as well as it has in Iraq — and in counterinsurgency campaigns elsewhere — so long as the key emphasis is placed on creating the system needed for “finding.” In some places, friendly tribal elements might be less important than technological means, most notably in cyberspace, al Qaeda’s “virtual safe haven.”
As war shifts from flanking to finding, the hope is that instead of exhausting one’s military in massive expeditions against elusive foes, success can be achieved with a small, networked corps of “finders.” So a conflict like the war on terror is not “led” by some great power; rather, many participate in it, with each adding a piece to the mosaic that forms an accurate picture of enemy strength and dispositions.
This second shift — to finding — has the potential to greatly empower those “many and small” units made necessary by Rule 1. All that is left is to think through the operational concept that will guide them.
Rule 3: Swarming Is the New Surging.
Terrorists, knowing they will never have an edge in numbers, have pioneered a way of war that allows them to make the most of their slender resources: swarming. This is a form of attack undertaken by small units coming from several directions or hitting many targets at the same time. Since 9/11, al Qaeda has mounted but a few major stand-alone strikes — in Bali, Madrid, and London — while the network has conducted multiple significant swarming campaigns in Turkey, Tunisia, and Saudi Arabia featuring “wave attacks” aimed at overloading their targets’ response capabilities. Such attacks have persisted even in post-surge Iraq where, as Gen. David Petraeus noted in a recent speech, the enemy shows a “sophistication” among the militants “in carrying out simultaneous attacks” against major government targets.
Perhaps the clearest example of a terrorist swarm was the November 2008 attack on Mumbai, apparently mounted by the Lashkar-e-Taiba group. The assault force consisted of just 10 fighters who broke into five two-man teams and struck simultaneously at several different sites. It took more than three days to put them down — and cost the lives of more than 160 innocents — as the Indian security forces best suited to deal with this problem had to come from distant New Delhi and were configured to cope with a single threat rather than multiple simultaneous ones.
In another sign of the gathering swarm, the August 2008 Russian incursion into Georgia, rather than being a blast from the Cold War past, heralded the possibility that more traditional armies can master the art of omnidirectional attack. In this instance, Russian regular forces were augmented by ethnic militias fighting all over the area of operations — and there was swarming in cyberspace at the same time. Indeed, the distributed denial of service attack, long a staple of cyberwarriors, is a model form of swarming. And in this instance, Georgian command and control was seriously disrupted by the hackers.
Simultaneous attack from several directions might be at the very cutting edge in conflict, but its lineage is quite old. Traditional tribal warfare, whether by nomadic horse archers or bush fighters, always featured some elements of swarms. The zenith of this kind of fighting probably came with the 13th-century Mongols, who had a name for this doctrine: “Crow Swarm.” When the attack was not carried out at close quarters by charging horsemen, but was instead conducted via arrows raining down on massed targets, the khans called it “Falling Stars.” With such tactics, the Mongols carved out the largest empire the world has ever seen, and kept it for a few centuries.
But swarming was eclipsed by the rise of guns in the 15th century, which strongly favored massed volley fire. Industrial processes encouraged even more massing, and mechanization favored large flank maneuvers more than small swarms. Now again, in an age of global interdependence replete with advanced information technologies, even quite small teams of fighters can cause huge amounts of disruption. There is an old Mongol proverb: “With 40 men you can shake the world.” Look at what al Qaeda did with less than half that number on Sept. 11, 2001.
This point was made by the great British strategist B.H. Liddell Hart in his biography of T.E. Lawrence, a master of the swarm in his own right. Liddell Hart, writing in 1935, predicted that at some point “the old concentration of force is likely to be replaced by an intangibly ubiquitous distribution of force — pressing everywhere, yet assailable nowhere.”
Now, swarming is making a comeback, but at a time when few organized militaries are willing or able to recognize its return. For the implications of this development — most notably, that fighting units in very small numbers can do amazing things if used to swarm — are profoundly destabilizing. The most radical change is this: Standing armies can be sharply reduced in size, if properly reconfigured and trained to fight in this manner. Instead of continually “surging” large numbers of troops to trouble spots, the basic response of a swarm force would be to go swiftly, in small numbers, and strike the attackers at many points. In the future, it will take a swarm to defeat a swarm.
Almost 20 years ago, I began a debate about networks that blossomed into an unlikely friendship with Vice Adm. Art Cebrowski, the modern strategic thinker most likely to be as well remembered as Alfred Thayer Mahan, the great American apostle of sea power. He was the first in the Pentagon power structure to warm to my notions of developing fighting networks, embracing the idea of opening lots of lateral communications links between “sensors and shooters.” We disagreed, however, about the potential of networks. Cebrowski thought that “network-centric warfare” could be used to improve the performance of existing tools — including aircraft carriers — for some time to come. I thought that networking implied a wholly new kind of navy, one made up of small, swift vessels, many of them remotely operated. Cebrowski, who passed away in late 2005, clearly won this debate, as the U.S. Navy remains heavily invested in being a “few-large” force — if one that is increasingly networked. In an implicit nod to David Ronfeldt’s and my ideas, the Navy even has a Netwar Command now.
Swarming has also gained some adherents. The most notable has been Marine Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, who famously used swarm tactics in the last great Pentagon war game, “Millennium Challenge 2002,” to sink several aircraft carriers at the outset of the imagined conflict. But rather than accept that something quite radical was going on, the referees were instructed to “refloat” the carriers, and the costly game — its price tag ran in the few hundred millions — continued. Van Riper walked out. Today, some in the U.S. military still pursue the idea of swarming, mostly in hopes of employing large numbers of small unmanned aerial vehicles in combat. But military habits of mind and institutional interests continue to reflect a greater audience for surges than swarms.
What if senior military leaders wake up and decide to take networks and swarming absolutely seriously? If they ever do, it is likely that the scourges of terrorism and aggression will become less a part of the world system. Such a military would be smaller but quicker to respond, less costly but more lethal. The world system would become far less prone to many of the kinds of violence that have plagued it. Networking and swarming are the organizational and doctrinal keys, respectively, to the strategic puzzle that has been waiting to be solved in our time.
A networked U.S. military that knows how to swarm would have much smaller active manpower — easily two-thirds less than the more than 2 million serving today — but would be organized in hundreds more little units of mixed forces. The model for military intervention would be the 200 Special Forces “horse soldiers” who beat the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan late in 2001. Such teams would deploy quickly and lethally, with ample reserves for relieving “first waves” and dealing with other crises. At sea, instead of concentrating firepower in a handful of large, increasingly vulnerable supercarriers, the U.S. Navy would distribute its capabilities across many hundreds of small craft armed with very smart weapons. Given their stealth and multiple uses, submarines would stay while carriers would go. And in the air, the “wings” would reduce in size but increase in overall number, with mere handfuls of aircraft in each. Needless to say, networking means that these small pieces would still be able to join together to swarm enemies, large or small.
Is such a shift feasible? Absolutely. Big reductions in the U.S. military are nothing new. The massive demobilization after World War II aside, active forces were reduced 40 percent in the few years after the Vietnam War and by another third right after the end of the Cold War. But the key is not so much in cutting as it is in redesigning and rethinking.
But what happens if the status quo prevails and the potential of this new round of changes in strategic affairs is ignored or misinterpreted? Failure awaits, at ruinous cost.
The most likely form catastrophe could take is that terrorist networks would stay on their feet long enough to acquire nuclear weapons. Even a handful of warheads in Osama bin Laden’s hands would give him great coercive power, as a network cannot be targeted for retaliation the same way a country can. Deterrence will lie in tatters. If there is ever to be a nuclear Napoleon, he will come from a terrorist network.
Within the U.S. military, the danger is that senior commanders will fall back on a fatalism driven by their belief that both congressional and industrial leaders will thwart any effort at radical change. I have heard this objection countless times since the early 1990s, repeated mantra-like, all the way up to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Thus the mighty U.S. war machine is like a Gulliver trussed up by Lilliputian politicians and businessmen.
The irony, however, is that the U.S. military has never been in a better position to gain acceptance for truly transformational change. Neither party in Congress can afford to be portrayed as standing in the way of strategic progress, and so, whatever the Pentagon asks for, it gets. As for defense contractors, far from driving the agenda, they are much too willing to give their military customers exactly what they demand (rather than, perhaps, something better). If the U.S. armed forces call for smaller, smarter weapons and systems to support swarming, they will get them.
Beyond the United States, other countries’ security forces are beginning to think along the lines of “many and small,” are crafting better ways to “find,” and are learning to swarm. Chinese naval thought today is clearly moving in this direction. Russian ground forces are, too. Needless to say, terrorist networks are still in the lead, and not just al Qaeda. Hezbollah gave quite a demonstration of all three of the new rules of war in its summer 2006 conflict with Israel, a virtual laboratory test of nation versus network — in which the network more than held its own.
For the U.S. military, failing a great leap forward in self-awareness of the need for radical change, a downward budgetary nudge is probably the best approach — despite President Barack Obama’s unwillingness to extend his fiscal austerity program to security-related expenditures. This could take the form of a freeze on defense spending levels, to be followed by several years of, say, 10 percent annual reductions. To focus the redesign effort, a moratorium would be declared on all legacy-like systems (think aircraft carriers, other big ships, advanced fighters, tanks, etc.) while they are subjected to searching review. It should not be assumed that the huge sums invested in national defense have been wisely spent.
To most Americans who think that being strong on defense means devoting more resources and building bigger systems, this suggestion to cut spending will sound outrageous. But being smarter about defense might lower costs even as effectiveness improves. This pattern has held throughout the transformations of the last few decades, whether in farming or in industry. Why should the military be exempt?
There’s real urgency to this debate. Not only has history not ended with the Cold War and the advent of commerce-driven globalization, but conflict and violence have persisted — even grown — into a new postmodern scourge.
Indeed, it is ironic that, in an era in which the attraction to persuasive “soft power” has grown dramatically, coercive “hard power” continues to dominate in world affairs. This is no surprise in the case of rogue nations hellbent on developing nuclear arsenals to ensure their security, nor when it comes to terrorist networks that think their essential nature is revealed in and sustained by violent acts. But this primary reliance on coercive capabilities is also on display across a range of countries great and small, most notably the United States, whose defense policy has over the past decade largely become its foreign policy.
From the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to simmering crises with North Korea and Iran, and on to longer-range strategic concerns about East Asian and Central European security, the United States today is heavily invested in hard-power solutions. And it will continue to be. But if the radical adjustments in strategy, organization, and doctrine implied by the new rules of war are ignored, Americans will go on spending more and getting less when it comes to national defense. Networks will persist until they have the capability to land nuclear blows. Other countries will leapfrog ahead of the United States militarily, and concepts like “deterrence” and “containment” of aggression will blow away like leaves in the wind.
So it has always been. Every era of technological change has resulted in profound shifts in military and strategic affairs. History tells us that these developments were inevitable, but soldiers and statesmen were almost always too late in embracing them — and tragedies upon tragedies ensued. There is still time to be counted among the exceptions, like the Byzantines who, after the fall of Rome, radically redesigned their military and preserved their empire for another thousand years. The U.S. goal should be to join the ranks of those who, in their eras, caught glimpses of the future and acted in time to shape it, saving the world from darkness.