This commentary appeared in Aviation Week & Space Technology on September 29, 2003.
Technological advances often give rise to new types of weapons, but the achievement
of lasting breakthroughs in fighting power requires organizational and doctrinal
innovation as well. Invention of the internal combustion engine more than a
century ago, for example, led to the tank and airplane. Yet these weapons systems
did not realize their potential until the 1930s, when the Germans concentrated
their armor into panzer divisions and articulated a blitzkrieg doctrine that
tightly coupled maneuver forces on the ground with attack aircraft above. Today,
the U.S. military is fielding awesome new technologies, but it is still far
from figuring out the right organizational structures and doctrines for best
Advanced information technologies have revolutionized U.S. forces' abilities
to communicate swiftly, monitor enemy movements in real-time, operate vehicles
remotely -- on land, at sea, or in the air -- and guide weapons in a way that
effectively decouples range from accuracy. Yet, only modest attempts at organizational
and doctrinal innovation have been tried.
The U.S. Air Force is experimenting organizationally by creating "composite"
wings and tailored "air expeditionary forces" that mix different types
of air platforms in the same tactical combat units. A concomitant new doctrinal
emphasis on supporting advanced ground operations is bringing modern air power
tantalizingly close, after so many decades, to realizing its fullest war-winning
potential. The Marines have also engaged in field exercises in which the units
of maneuver have been radically altered by creating autonomous units as small
as eight-man squads. The Marines (not to mention special operations forces)
understand that connectivity coupled with air mastery greatly empowers even
the smallest combat formations.
For the most part, though, the bulk of the U.S. military is still wedded to
heavy ground divisions and aircraft carrier battle groups. Almost all the technological
changes of the past two decades have been folded into the Pentagon's existing
understanding of war, summed up in the doctrine of "AirLand Battle."
This concept of operations -- originally intended for use against Russian forces
if the Cold War ever got hot -- is but a small upgrade to the aforementioned
World War II-era blitzkrieg doctrine. Indeed, Norman Schwarzkopf's "left
hook" in the Iraqi desert in 1991 was a virtual clone of Erwin Rommel's
panzer sweeps across the North African desert in 1941.
Meanwhile, the world keeps moving into the age of networks. Networking means
much the same for the military as it does in business and social-activist settings,
not to mention among information-age terrorists and criminals: monitoring the
environment more broadly with highly sophisticated sensors; expanding lateral
information flows; forming and deploying small, agile, specialized teams; and
devolving much (but not all) command authority downward. But it also has a doctrinal
implication that these other types of actors are learning faster than the U.S.
military: It's a good idea to become adept at "swarming."
Swarming is a seemingly amorphous but carefully structured, coordinated way
to strike from all directions at a particular point or points, by means of a
sustainable "pulsing" of force and/or fire, close-in as well as from
stand-off positions. It will work best -- perhaps it will only work -- if it
is designed mainly around the deployment of myriad small, dispersed, networked
maneuver units. The aim is to coalesce rapidly and stealthily on a target, attack
it, then dissever and redisperse, immediately ready to recombine for a new pulse.
Unlike previous military practice, battle management is now mainly about "command
and decontrol," as networked units all over the field of battle (or business,
or activism, or terror and crime) coordinate and strike the adversary in fluid,
flexible, nonlinear ways.
Early examples of swarming appeared with the great mounted armies of the 7th
century Muslims and the 13th century Mongols, both of which mastered the technique
of omnidirectional attack. In modern times, British fighter planes swarmed from
dispersed airfields all over southeastern England to harry massed Luftwaffe
formations during the Battle of Britain, while at sea German U-boats were widely
distributed when scouting, then converged to attack allied convoys. What's different
today is that advanced sensing, communication and weapons guidance technologies
make swarming possible in any terrain, against any opponent, 24/7.
While the American military remains officially wedded to AirLand Battle, its
latest field campaigns exhibit the beginnings of a potential "BattleSwarm"
doctrine. In Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, slightly more than 300 special
forces soldiers, who were networked with each other and with various air-based
attack assets, quickly toppled the Taliban. These same elites did it again in
much of Iraq, striking all over the country from the outset, saving the oilfields
in the south, knocking out the Scud Box in the west, coordinating with the Kurds
in the north and securing the approaches to Baghdad.
Will the U.S. military build on these first steps toward developing a truly
networked "swarm force"? To best counter the adversaries bedeviling
us in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those we may confront in other terror-war theaters,
it is advisable to innovate along these lines. Right now, many military leaders
are attracted to the concept of "network-centric operations," a vision
of wiring together all our sensors and shooters. In some circles, however, swarming
is being viewed narrowly, as a specialty notion, associated mainly with the
use of autonomous (i.e., artificial intelligence-driven) systems. But as a deeper
vision emerges and fixations on technology ease, serious questions will be raised
about how best to give network-centric concepts operational life through organizational
and doctrinal innovation. When these systemic questions get some traction, it
will become evident that swarming is a big part of the answer.
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