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Ullman’s Strategic Revolution?

Sunday, May 13th, 2012

Strategist Dr. Harlan K. Ullman (best known for the concept of  “Shock and Awe“) had a piece up at Atlantic Council about which I have a mix of opinions, so I am going to break it down with some excerpts and comment:

Needed Now: An Intellectual Revolution in Strategic Thinking 

Toward the end of the Cold War, Soviet military thinkers coined the phrase “Military-Technical Revolution.” Based on a combination of extraordinary advances in precision strike and in information and surveillance technologies, the MTR was successfully transformed by the Pentagon into the “Revolution in Military Affairs.”

Meant to defeat the Red Army, the RMA was a real military revolution proven in the first Iraq War in 1991 when US arms pulverized Saddam Hussein’s army; in Afghanistan quickly routing the Taliban in 2001; and again smashing Iraq two years later.

There’s more than just a semantic difference here.

A “Military Revolution” is a rare thing in history, an epochal event, like the transformation of warfare in early modern Europe , which also dovetails with the Marxist-Leninist  economic deterministic conception of what constituted a world-historical “revolutionary” event in Soviet ideology. A “Military-Technical Revolution” was a terminological effort by Soviet general officers to reduce the ideological scope of the event discussed away from a sphere predominantly governed by the supreme authority of the Party (and in practice then, by politburo ideologist, Mikhail Suslovwho was deeply suspicious of any kind of reform) to one that emphasized that radical changes in warfare originated in or would flow from purely technological innovations and could therefore be safely managed by military professionals without encroaching upon political matters.  Self-interest and institutional interest of the Red Army general staff at work.

American defense intellectuals repackaged the Red Army’s “Military-Technical Revolution” as the  “Revolution in Military Affairs” – a much narrower concept than “Military Revolution” yet broader, more flexible and open-ended than it’s Soviet parent. Eminent strategist and military historian Colin S. Gray described RMA thusly:

Military Revolutions are preceded, implemented, and succeeded by RMAs. RMA refers to a radical change in the character of war. The engines of such change include, but are by no means limited to, technological innovation. Scholars note that most historically plausible RMAs have not obviously been led by new technologies [1].

The American RMA unlike the Soviet version was more closely tied to the force-multiplying effects of the information revolution and Moore’s Law  that was to reshape the global economy, and came to be shorthanded, under Rumsfeld, as “transformation“. However, like the Soviet MTR, RMA suited the growing fascination of American military officers with operational art as the acme of professional identity and a substitute for strategy and troublesome questions of policy and politics. While “transformation” was good for making the military more efficient at applying violence, the focus on technological magic in operations tended to anesthetize senior generals from the need to attend to the vital strategic-policy dimension of war.

Back to Ullman:

….Today, American and certain allied militaries are exhausted by a decade of war. All face large and looming defense cuts meaning far less money for defense. Under these circumstances, readiness and morale become early casualties.

With the exception of North Korea (or to some states in Europe, Russia), few hostile armies are around to fight in a conventional conflict making the case for defense more diaphanous. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated that while military force may have been necessary, it could not make either country more governable, hardly the best argument for defense spending.

The omission of China is simply weird. I am neither a ‘Panda hugger” or a “Panda mugger” and I don’t think China should be shoehorned into the role of near-peer competitor, which it is not yet, except in the fantasies of hypernationalistic Chinese and maybe blogger/salesmen from the Lexington Institute. But how do you ignore a nation like China and the PLA in in a military-geopolitical strategic analysis?

….How can militaries deal with these facts of life? The answer is that a new revolution is desperately needed. Given the bleak funding outlook, this revolution can only be accomplished through intellect and rejuvenating strategic thinking.

British Gen. Rupert Smith’s “The Utility of Force” skillfully interpreted war in the 21st century to be about and over people — to protect and defend them or to defeat or disrupt them rather than as modern armies squaring off against one and other.

Many assumptions to unpack from few words.

I welcome Dr. Ullman’s call for an intellectual renaissance in strategic thinking which, if badly needed among the professional military class, is even more urgently required in our political class who – with some exceptions – were largely AWOL from their responsibilities of senior partnership in fashioning strategy and grand strategy with the uniformed military in the past ten years. Perhaps in a generation or two, the proliferation of grand strategy programs at elite universities that are increasingly feared by anti-American intellectual leftists, will produce a large cadre of statesman with real strategic competence.

Regarding the second paragraph, while I am sympathetic to the assumptions that 4GW environments will increase with the erosion of state sovereignty and legitimacy, the future of warfare may very well be extremely “hybridwith well-financed polities, corporations and networks fielding impressively high tech military capabilities alongside atavistic and disorganized insurgencies wallowing in blood and entrails. The latter will invite intrusion by the former and the former are sometimes going to clash with one another, as well as against postmodern warlords, superempowered individuals, urban guerrillas and networked jihadis.

….Some 15 years earlier, the concept of “shock and awe” was created in which the goal was to affect, influence and ultimately control the will and perception of an adversary (hence Smith’s “people”) with the use or threat of military force. “Shock and awe” was inspired by the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu eons ago when he wrote that the really brilliant general wins without having to fight a battle.

Shock and awe posited four criteria: control of the environment, rapidity, (near) perfect knowledge and brilliance in execution.

The last two, combined with the realities and uncertainties of today’s international environment, form the foundations for this much needed intellectual revolution in strategic thinking.

If so, then the revolution fizzles out here.

Rapidity and brilliance in execution – or at least excellence – can be trained for, but in control of the environment, the enemy gets a vote (and so, for that matter, does the environment) and “(near) perfect knowledge” is a transient comparative advantage held (if at all) during the initial moments of a complete surprise attack. While it would be nice to have, “(near) perfect knowledge” cannot be a foundation for a strategic revolution as it is a largely unachievable standard in unhurried conditions of perfect peace, much less during the fog and friction of war.

….No one can be certain about the nature of future conflicts as the requirements for defense, once equated in largely military terms, have expanded to cover security with a far broader aperture extending well beyond armies, navies and air forces.

In future conflict, military force may or may not be necessary. But they have not been sufficient to achieve the strategic and political aims of bringing stability and security to Iraq, Afghanistan and so far Libya for example.

Further, given defense cuts, preparations for major conventional operations will be severely curtailed as both weapons and systems for those engagements as well as training will likewise be reduced, possibly dramatically. The strategic question that forms the heart of an intellectual revolution rests on how militaries can prepare for a future so filled with uncertainty while preserving traditional war fighting skills with far less money.

Ullman is correct that public expectations of “security” have expanded beyond military strength to encompass more of the DIME spectrum with, arguably, law enforcement, immigration/assimilation and cyber issues as well.

Disagree that the current political class dominated by aging Boomer fantasists will recognize that sharply curtailed military budgets mean fewer operations.It certainly has not worked that way in Britain where harshly punitive budgetary cuts to the British Army and Royal Navy have scarcely curbed Her Majesty’s government’s appetite for military intervention.  American politicians and Atrocity Boards will simply require the Pentagon eat it’s seed corn to pay for intervention piled upon intervention and when that runs dry, Congress will look at cutting veteran health benefits and pensions and hollow out the force until it breaks.

….First, militaries and strategic thinking must be oriented about obtaining (near) perfect knowledge not merely about traditional operations and employing weapons systems with far greater creativity. There must be far more learning about other, non-military tools and other regions and states round the world of import or interest to assuring national security.

The part  about creativity is spot on, but in a military where majors, colonels and brigadier generals feel they cannot sign off on something as mundane as a platoon, a company or a battalion using ATVs on patrol in Afghanistan without risking their careers, then bureaucratic micromanagement has already reached the state of military rigor mortis. Strategic thinking in the ranks cannot begin until the climate of fear is removed and the incentives for promotion changed to reward risk-taking. Just like the State Department, the Pentagon’s antiquated personnel system is out of alignment with the needs of American national security and  represents a systemic bulwark against positive change.

Pursuit of near perfect knowledge should be dropped. When Admiral Art Cebrowski helped conceive of network-centric warfare,  there was an opportunity present, through real-time sharing of  information across a military “system”, to maximize individual and unit initiative within their understanding of the commander’s intent and accelerate the operational tempo vis-a-vis the enemy. Instead, information technology, as I see it imperfectly from my far remove as a civilian kibbitzer, has empowered micromanagement with three and four star generals playing company commander, colonels playing squad leader and lawyers and powerpoint-inebriated staff officers hundreds  of miles away blocking artillery or air support requested by units under fire.

Perfect knowledge as a doctrinal benchmark encourages organizational paralysis in the face of uncertainty, rather than the fluidity, creativity and adaptiveness that Ullman seeks.

….Second, new means and methods must be created or strengthened that contribute to maintaining fighting skills that enable brilliance in operations. For example, as the British navy and air force lose both carrier and anti-submarine capacities for an interim period, units should be assigned to the US or French navies that will employ these weapons systems. The British army could deploy units to serve in Korea or Pakistan and India where conventional combat is central to those forces to maintain these skills. And new generations of war games and simulators must be invented and fielded so that many scenarios can be played out to keep skills at acceptable levels of readiness.

These are useful ideas, especially the wargames. I don’t think the British will bite though, except for “model” partnerships with the French. There’s really no good reason why there should not be an “Anglospheric” (UK, US, ANZUS, Canada) combined naval warfare planning staff and regular joint exercises.

….Third, to achieve these aims, a further revolution in military education from bottom to top is essential. Officers and troops must be prepared intellectually in order to obtain near perfect knowledge about a future that at best is opaque. And simultaneously, keeping combat skills sharp in an era of austerity when weapons and training will be in shorter supply is best done as Bobby Jones, perhaps the greatest golfer ever observed about that game — it is played in the 6-inch space between the ears!

Militaries will be reluctant to accept new or any revolutions when they are fighting for subsistence. Politicians find governing hard enough. And few are prepared to impose a revolution let alone make tough decisions.

If an intellectual revolution is to be wrought, it must come from within. But who will listen? And who will lead?

As of now, no one is leading and few understand the need to do so.

1. Colin S. Gray. Another Bloody Century. Orion Books Ltd. London. 2005.  117..

Arquilla on the New Rules of War

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

John Arqilla, along with David Ronfeldt, was the pioneering military and security theorist who forseaw the rise of networked non-state adversaries, which they detailed in their now classic book, Networks and Netwars. Below, in a Foreign Policy mag article, Arquilla expounds on the failure of the Pentagon to adapt sufficiently to leverage the power of networks or counter those opponents who have done so.

The New Rules of War

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…..”

Read the rest here.

It was nice to see Arquilla give some props to VADM Art Cebrowski, who is underappreciated these days as a strategic thinker and is much critricized by people who seldom bothered to read anything he actually wrote. Or who like to pretend that he had said a highly networked Naval task force is a good way to tackle an insurgency in an arid, mostly landlocked, semi-urban, middle-eastern nation.

It also occurs to me that one of the reasons that the USAF resisted drones tooth and nail is that robotics combined with swarming points to en end ( or serious diminishment) of piloted warplanes. Eliminating the design requirements implicit in human pilots makes for a smaller, faster, more maneuverable, more lethal aircraft that will probably be infinitely cheaper to make, more easily risked in combat and usable for “swarming”. Ditto attack helicopters.

Of course, nuclear bombers will probably stay in human hands. Probably.


Contentious Small Wars Council thread on Arquilla begun by “student of war” and defense consultant Wilf Owen. I have weighed in as has Shlok Vaidya.

Military Robotics….Deep in the Singularity Zone

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

I’m as big a fan of technofuturistic science as the next reader of Danger Room but National Defense Magazine ‘s article really is breezily optimistic:

Reverse Engineering the Brain May Accelerate Robotics Research 

….Machines that walk upright will assist civilians and the military alike, said Stefan Schaal, associate professor of computer science and neuroscience at the University of Southern California.“We should at some point be able to create an artificial human being and I think humanoid robots are currently the first step toward that,” he said at the Army Science conference.“This is going to happen,” he predicted. “And it’s going to happen in this century.”It may not be as “polished” as the iRobot movie, he added.While other experts noted that there are huge technological hurdles to overcome, basic research continues on several critical technologies such as vision, movement and computational models that will allow robots to “think” like humans.A parallel effort to map – or reverse engineer – the human brain is going to give robotics experts inspiration that will allow them to create these advanced models, researchers at the conference said.The National Academy of Engineering is spearheading this “Grand Challenge.” Just as researchers successfully mapped the human genome earlier in the decade, the engineering community – not normally thought of as being a part of the life science discipline – says there will be a clear benefit to a Herculean effort to figure out exactly how the human mind works.“If we could determine the software of the human brain, we could embed all sorts of systems so as to provide human like quality for machines,” said John Parmentola, director of research and laboratory management at the Army office of the deputy assistant secretary for research and technology.Neural models will enable robots to better perceive, think, plan and act, said James Albus of the Krasnow Institute at George Mason University, Va.

“Significant economic and military applications will develop undoubtedly early in this century and in fact are already developing,” he said.

Read the rest here.

The part that makes me a tad skeptical is the “reverse engineering” of the brain. This is no small task. “Wetware” isn’t hardware and the wetware here is dynamically adaptive and to an extent individualized within parameters we do not yet fully understand. Unless I am missing something ( please correct me if I am) in terms of difficulty, reverse engineering the brain would appear to be harder than almost any other question that could possibly be related to the whole field of robotics itself. 

While scientists have learned more about the human brain in the last 10 years that the previous 10,000, brain science is still in it’s infancy. The exciting MRI scan studies are primarily exercises in positively identifying correlation of brain activity with specific cognitive and physical tasks; what these studies mean in terms of application requires extrapolative speculation and experimentation.

By all means guys, go for it! I’m behind the effort 100 % as the spillover benefits are going to be enormous. However, I’d wager that this strategy is not the fastest route to functionally useful, autonomously acting, robots on a societal scale.


I just picked up P.W. Singer ‘s new book Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.  Flipping through it quickly, I will say this is an extremely cool book designed to appeal to war nerds, tech geeks and defense policy wonks alike ( For example, if you read Singer’s ref to “the Big Cebrowski” and get it, well, then this book is for you). Some well known figures in the blogosphere also make it into Singer’s book but to find out who, you’ll have to go get a copy. 🙂


Jeff Hawkins at TED.com on the revolutionary potential of brain science:

Admiral Cebrowski’s Legacy is not Iraq

Sunday, December 2nd, 2007

By now many of you have probably read the exchanges between Thomas P.M. Barnett and Noah Shachtman of WIRED’s Danger Room over Shachtman’s recent article “How Technology Almost Lost the War: In Iraq, the Critical Networks Are Social – Not Electronic“. If you haven’t, the exchange pretty much went like this:

Wired’s subpar Iraq analysis” -Barnett

My ‘Weird’ Article, ‘Well Worth the Read’ ” -Shachtman

Tom’s reply to Noah” – Barnett

Blog Fight? Zzzzzzzzzz” – Shachtman

File it under whatever you want” – Barnett

Admittedly, Network-centric Warfare today is a larger concept than the original theoretical ideas of Arthur Cebrowski and John Garstka; whenever a theory is accepted by a large and powerful bureaucratic organization- like, say, the Pentagon – it collides with reality. Some ideas get tested, tinkered with, discarded or adapted to existing factional agendas by people with more enthusiasm than understanding. Network-centric Warfare, an emerging doctrine, had more “legs” inside the DoD bureaucracy than did it’s main rival, the 4GW School, because it suited the intellectual needs of armed services planning to fight a future “near peer competitor” state military and to rationalize the U.S. military’s systemic coordination and use of emerging technology on the battlefield (“rationalize” in the sense of provide a coherent order – though NCW was also used as a justification in making budgetary requests). And as with any bureaucratic paradigm shift, factional partisans who had career and mission objectives became personally invested in deriding or advancing NCW’s ” transformation”. That’s a far cry from the complexity of the NCW ideas, as presented by Cebrowski and Garstka. Some examples:

Network-Centric Warfare: Its Origin and Future

Network-centric Warfare:An Overview of an Emerging Theory

Arthur K. Cebrowski on Transformation of Defense

Statement of Vice Admiral A. K. Cebrowski, Director, Space, Information Warfare, Command and Control, Chief of Naval Operations – Senate Select Committe on Intelligence Hearings 1997

The crux of the problem with Shachtman’s article is that his opener gives the impression that the botching of the occupation in Iraq should be laid at the door of two men who articulated strategic ideas with impressive intellectual celerity and subtlety, one of whom is no longer able to defend himself.  It’s a preposterous implication. When the  4 star grandees of the post-Vietnam War U.S. Army decided to “purge” COIN doctrine from the Army’s institutional memory, Admiral Cebrowski was a mere Navy fighter pilot. The creation of the CPA with the subsequent incompetence of Paul Bremer and a bunch of non-Arabic speaking kids just out of college, who interned at AEI, was above the pay grade of any uniformed officer of the United States. Dr. Barnett, who was very close to Admiral Cebrowski, was justly irritated by this cartoonish libel of his friend and mentor.

In fairness to Shachtman, as the WIRED article proceeds, he offered a more nuanced picture of the role of Network-centric Warfare in the larger scheme of things and backtracked somewhat during his exachanges with Tom. However, not all of WIRED’s readers are defense geeks who surf obscure PDFs from OSD.mil and understand the entire context of defense doctrine and policy; Cebrowski and Garstka are therefore, left tarnished by Shachtman in a way that’s sort of akin to blaming William Lind and 4GW theory for Pakistan and India brandishing nuclear weapons at each other.

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