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Chapter Two



Carl H. Builder



The social and military effects of the ongoing information revolution

occupy the thoughts of modern thinkers. From a social standpoint,

the true believers hold that the current revolution in computing, telecommunications, and information technologies will profoundly remake our society, our democracy, and our daily lives. From a military perspective, visionaries within the U.S. military see in the new technologies of the information revolution the means to radically increase military effectiveness, reduce casualties, and save money.

The purpose of this chapter is to develop an understanding of how these two perspectives, usually considered apart, impinge upon one another.

A nation’s military is a reflection and a servant of the society from which it is drawn. If that society undergoes a change as profound as the information revolution, its security requirements will change as well. As a result of these changes, what society asks and expects the military to do to defend the nation, the military’s “enterprise,” will almost certainly change. If so, the most important consequence of the information revolution for the American military will not be the application of new information technologies to its existing missions, as the military perspective often implies. Rather, the most important effect will be the need for the military to adapt itself to performing new and different missions. The key, then, to understanding how we should apply new information technologies in the military is to unite 20 Strategic Appraisal: The Changing Role of Information in Warfare the social and military perspectives into an understanding of how the American military enterprise will evolve.


No technological development since the release of nuclear energy has so preoccupied the American military as the currently cresting revolution in computing, telecommunications, and information technologies1; no part of that revolution has been the subject of more speculation by the military than the idea of information warfare.

Those preoccupations are evident in the professional journals of the American military and in the emergent doctrines, organization, and funding of the American armed forces. The fallout from these preoccupations is neither complete nor obvious—because many of the issues remain unresolved and involve large stakes within the American military institutions.

Some see the information revolution as but one component of an ongoing (or forthcoming) revolution in military affairs, in which the information technologies, when combined with new concepts for military operations and their command and control, will usher in a revolution in warfare comparable to that which occurred with blitzkrieg and aircraft carriers in World War II.2 Some of these expectations are captured in Joint Vision 2010, which sees the information technologies as enabling “full-spectrum dominance” of military operations and “dominant battlespace awareness.” (DoD, 1996a.) Critics see such expectations of transparent battlefields as technological chimeras—futile hopes to eliminate the Clausewitzian friction of war.3 Few would dispute the importance of the new information technologies for militaries and warfare, but beyond that point, the ______________

1 Hereinafter called the information revolution, recognizing that computers, telecommunications, and the explosive expansion of information access and utilization are inextricably intertwined.

2 See, for example, Builder (1995), pp. 38 and 39.

3 Perhaps the best treatment of this subject is found in Watts (1996). Dunlap (1997) cites information superiority or dominance in future conflicts as one of his four myths.

One flag officer recently quipped that if he were thrust into the boxing ring with Mike Tyson, information dominance would hardly prevent him from being soundly beaten.

The American Military Enterprise in the Information Age 21 schools of thought divide and fan out on just how important and how pervasive these technologies will become. At the conservative end are those who see the application of the information technologies limited to marginal improvements in existing military operations—in communications, navigation, intelligence, logistics, etc.—as already evident with the introduction of Global Positioning System receivers, laptop computers, and wideband global communications nets. At a somewhat more ambitious level is the so-called “digitization of the battlefield,” in which maps and sensors are registered together in a common framework for all who would venture there.4 Toward the more expansive end are those who see the “information sphere” becoming the battlefield of the future—where the main battle will not be fought over territory using physical force, but over the minds of the combatants and their access to information. It is this school of thought that now precipitates turbulence within the American military, as it clamors for the attention of leaders who must decide on resource allocations and organizational changes. At the outer fringes of this school of thought, one can hear calls for an independent “information corps” similar to those (still heard) for an independent “space corps,” echoing much earlier (and ultimately successful) calls for an independent air corps in the first half of the 20th century. And it is here that one finds the jarring concept of the “information warrior,” a new and different breed of military person, like the pioneering aviator before, who boldly lays claim to the future of warfare.

The mainstream American military finds itself torn between (a) gaining for itself the fruits of the information revolution when applied to its traditional concepts of military roles and missions and (b) finding itself riding the back of a tiger that might threaten to overturn those traditional concepts and replace them with a new kind of war and warrior. The balancing act is how to embrace the information technologies without being institutionally undone by them.5 ______________

4 This perspective is captured in the Army’s Force XXI concepts and experiments.

5 For example, the most effective exploitation of information is achieved through networklike organizations, while the most effective command and control is achieved through the hierarchical organizations so long associated with the military. Marrying the two forms risks one undoing the other, for hierarchical and network organizations 22 Strategic Appraisal: The Changing Role of Information in Warfare Whether the choice is real or not may be less pertinent than the fact that there are factions within the American military that are willing to make the choice seem real to those in and out of uniform who must decide how the military should be organized and funded. That such opposing views might surface within the military and be broadcast is certainly not without precedent, but the information revolution has just as certainly made the debate more visible and widely spread.

So, one important fallout of the information revolution is the looming prospect of information warfare—warfare waged with information as a primary weapon or target.6 Although information warfare as a component of war is not new (as in deception and electronic warfare), the possibility that it might become the dominant dimension in future war is new. That possibility looms now because of the growing dependence on information infrastructures for the most modern means of warfare—such as the use of precision weapons— and for the economic functioning of a modern society and state.

Even those in the American military who believe information warfare

is the wave of the future find themselves pulled between complementary interests and concerns:

1. The interests are the potential military advantages of exploiting information as a weapon against the entire range of enemy targets—from the minds of the enemy’s leadership to the performance of their weapons.

2. The concerns are the potential vulnerabilities of the sophisticated U.S. civil and military infrastructures—communications, commercial, logistical, and command—to hostile actions using information as a weapon.


tend to be mutually corrosive—the former cutting network links for greater control, the latter bypassing hierarchical levels in the search for more information.

6 Information warfare is formally defined as Actions taken to achieve information superiority by affecting adversary information, information-based processes, information systems, and computer-based networks while defending one’s own information, information-based processes, information systems and computer-based networks. (DoD, 1996b.) That information might be a primary weapon or target is evident from Army Field Manual 100-6 (TRADOC, 1996), which declares that “The objective of IW [information warfare] is to attain a significant information advantage that enables the total force to quickly dominate and control the adversary.” The American Military Enterprise in the Information Age 23 The interests are generally contemplated under the heading of offensive information warfare, while the concerns are associated with defensive information warfare. The interests and concerns are, of course, intertwined: Means devised for offensive purposes might be turned against us, and exposition of our vulnerabilities—if neither corrected nor correctable—might invite the very attacks we hope to avoid. Indeed, there is a line of argument that says information warfare is something that the most developed societies in particular should eschew—that its relative advantages will accrue mostly to the weak and underdeveloped adversary.7 An opposing argument is that the most developed societies can bring their enormous information resources—from global infrastructures and technological superiority in depth—to bear against an enemy with surprising new effects and reduced risks.

These arguments will not be resolved soon. They will reverberate over the next several decades as the information revolution crests and then subsides in the first half of the 21st century.8 But to anticipate how these arguments and others might be resolved, they will be

illuminated here in four different lights:

1. the historical patterns in 20th-century technological revolutions, particularly as they have affected the American society and interacted with American military cultures

2. the current information revolution—which may break with the historical patterns—because it is fundamentally transforming the relationships between the American society and its institutions, including its military

3. the adaptations—past and prospective—of other American institutions to the information revolution, with the American family, business, government, and education as examples of how the information revolution can or will wreak changes—changes that might foretell what will happen to the American military ______________

7 The reasons being that the capital investments required to wage offensive information warfare within the existing global networks are modest and that the required technology is developing faster in the commercial sector than in the military because of differences in acquisition cycles. (See Dunlap, 1997.) 8 For more perspectives on the information revolution as a passing wave, see Builder (1990).

24 Strategic Appraisal: The Changing Role of Information in Warfare

4. the historically changing enterprise or focus of American military activities, as a way of anticipating changes even as the institutional roles and missions remain constant.


The contemporary American military response to information warfare—rooted as it is in the information revolution—is not without precedent. In the 20th century, at least three and perhaps four technological revolutions swept through the American military: the mechanization of warfare by means of the internal combustion engine, the release of almost unlimited nuclear energy, the opening of access to space as a new vantage point, and now the information revolution. In each of the first three instances, the American military was transformed in its thinking and eventually in its physical makeup. The fallout from these three revolutions included the ideas of strategic air warfare, nuclear warfare, and even space warfare. We should not be surprised today, therefore, to find a part of the American military captivated by the idea of information warfare.

However, as the idea of information warfare is now embraced by its advocates, it is worth reflecting on the evolution of these transforming ideas as they were incorporated into the American military. First, they took a long time to move into the mainstream of military thought. Although World War II was a mechanized war, horsemanship remained a required skill at West Point two years after the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan. In many segments of the American military, airpower is still seen today as it was in the 1920s— primarily as support for the surface forces, not as an independent national instrument of power. 9 Space operators in the military are still struggling, like the aviators before them, to find their place in the mainstreams of American military institutions.

Second, the ideas were oversold as expectations, at least in the short term. In the mechanization of warfare, strategic bombardment theories were finally vindicated by the advent of the atomic bomb more than by the bombers themselves. Within four decades, many of the theories of nuclear warfare were made irrelevant by the unimaginSee, for example, Correll (1997), in an editorial in Air Force Magazine.

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