Cover: Information Technologies and the Future of Land Warfare

Information Technologies and the Future of Land Warfare

Published 1995

by Brian Nichiporuk, Carl H. Builder


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On December 7, 1993, RAND convened 18 researchers with expertise in the information sciences and military operations to "brainstorm"[1] on the ways that fast-growing communications and computational capabilities might change the nature of conflicts, the Army's missions, the way it organizes, and especially its concepts of operations. The workshop began with four prepared briefings by invited experts who speculated on

  • The technical dimensions of the information revolution (Tony Hearn),
  • How that revolution is shifting political, economic, and military power in the world (Carl Builder),
  • The responses of commercial organizations to these changes (Paul Bracken), and
  • The changing nature of the battlefield (Sam Gardiner).

Following these introductory briefings, the workshop participants devoted a half day to discussing the broad implications of these changes for conflict, land warfare, and the U.S. Army. They spent the following day speculating about concepts that might be appropriate for the Army as it adapts to and exploits the changing environment and as it works through its Force XXI experimentation process. Dozens of ideas and their variations or applications were brainstormed and discussed; all were exposed to expert opinion, but none were analyzed in any detail. The authors then extracted what they thought were the most significant and representative of these concepts for exposition here.

It should be noted that this report is about the effects of the information technologies upon future land warfare rather than about "information warfare" per se. Whereas information warfare is a discipline concerned mainly with technical C3I and command deception issues such as computer viruses and electronic jamming/spoofing, this study has to do with some broader impacts and implications of the ongoing information revolution.

The findings of the workshop reported here are of three different kinds:

  • Synopses of the four invited introductory briefings,
  • Highlights from the workshop participants' observations about the changing nature of conflicts and of the Army's missions, and
  • Sketches of six concepts for Army organization or operations that the participants thought might become feasible because of the rapidly expanding information technologies and capabilities.

The four introductory briefings painted a picture of sustained growth in communications and computational capabilities per unit cost over the next several decades, compounding at the rate of about 40 percent per year. These extraordinary changes are dramatically altering the sources of wealth and power on a global scale, implying significant changes in the roles of nations, the nature of conflicts, and the tasking of military forces. Commercial enterprises, after a century of following the hierarchical military models for organization, are now diverging toward much more distributed, specialized, and flexible structures. Future battlefields may reflect many of the structural changes that are now becoming evident in the information-dominated commercial markets.

The workshop participants generally agreed that the nature of conflict is changing not so much because of technological changes in the means of warfare as because of technical, demographic, and geopolitical shifts of power. Technical shifts of power are here defined as power shifts that significantly increase the independent technical capabilities of political actors that were heretofore very weak in comparison to more traditional actors and institutions. The causes, participants, and objectives in conflicts are being transformed by the information technologies more rapidly and fundamentally than the weapons are. One of the more intriguing observations in the workshop was that warfare in the information era has come to resemble improvisational theater on a world stage, where major policy shifts can result from a single good or bad scene.

All six concepts for Army organization or operations advanced by the workshop are rooted in currently observable changes associated with the information technologies. The concepts span a broad range of issues—from the primary role of the soldier on the battlefield to how the total Army might be organized for its disparate missions:

  • Soldiers as Sensors—the idea that soldiers may be more valuable on the battlefield as sensors than as weapons.
  • Information Carousel—the idea that information on the battlefield may be treated as a commodity available to all upon demand and one to which all can contribute.
  • Agile Defense/Lodgment—the idea that the holding of territory may be less important than its selective use in time and space for battle.
  • Network Army—the idea that the Army may not need to physically move many of its resources in order to bring them to bear on the battlefield.
  • Franchised Combat Units—the idea that communications permit the efficient organization of smaller, more numerous and autonomous units, each with a span of control defined by its maximum weapons range.
  • An Army of Armies—the idea that the changing tasks of the Army may call for differently organized, trained, and equipped units rather than "one soldier fits all" tasking.

None of these ideas were examined in detail. The purpose of the workshop was to speculate, not analyze. It is apparent, however, that all six concepts would imply significant changes for Army doctrine, training, organization, or equipment.

The report concludes with some workshop observations on the relationships between the information technologies and the Army in a rapidly changing world. In particular, the information technologies may be shifting many of America's national security problems out of our current defense planning paradigm—one that has long emphasized the ability to fight and win large conventional wars that take place over clear issues of sovereignty and in which the enemy is an established nation-state.

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  • [1] As used here, the verb "brainstorm" means to elicit and record ideas in a collegial seminar setting, without immediate criticism or analysis, in order to encourage speculative and imaginative thinking about future possibilities. The noun "brainstorm," as a process, presumes that one uninhibited idea, when exposed to the mind of another, may trigger still another idea—in a sort of chain reaction or "storm" of ideas.

"A useful look … at the impact of the information revolution on warfare. The RAND volume is heavier on civilian technology than on its military applications, but it raises at least one central issue: the 'de-layering' of structured, hierarchical organizations."

- Foreign Affairs

Research conducted by

The research was conducted in the Force Development and Technology program of RAND's Arroyo Center, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the United States Army.

This report is part of the RAND monograph report series. The monograph/report was a product of RAND from 1993 to 2003. RAND monograph/reports presented major research findings that addressed the challenges facing the public and private sectors. They included executive summaries, technical documentation, and synthesis pieces.

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