Caught in the Net: Lessons from the Financial Crisis for a Networked Future by Gautam Mukunda and William J. Troy (PDF) in the Summer 2009 issue of Parameters is a brilliant read, one of the best articles I have read in awhile examining the relative strengths and weaknesses of Network-Centric Warfare. This is a long quote, and I apologize, but it is necessary.
The Duke of Wellington described “[t]he whole art of war [as] getting at what is on the other side of the hill, or, in other words, in deciding what we do not know from what we do.” Even for Wellington such deductions were inherently uncertain, and it is this uncertainty that makes war as much art as science, with success dependent on the commander’s “intuition and genius.” War is, and always has been, an exercise in decision making under conditions of uncertainty. Modern military platforms (such as aircraft, ships, or tanks) and military formations (from infantry companies to carrier strike groups) seek to mitigate the effects of this uncertainty by, among other approaches, using redundancy and generalization. They guard against unanticipated events by devoting resources to back-ups, contingencies, and self-protection. The fog and friction of war push today’s force, as they pushed all of its predecessors, toward generalization. The force deals with the unexpected, so its individual components retain the ability to succeed at a variety of tasks, rather than focusing on performing a single mission with the highest degree of effectiveness. Today’s military specializes to a degree but has to compromise and retain broader capabilities due to uncertainty. These compromises are inherently inefficient. Yet today there is no other choice, because seeing the other side of a hill, and coordinating to deal with the enemy there, remain imperfect at best.The US Navy has claimed itself as a leading military service integrating Network-Centric Warfare into their doctrine, and many legitimately accept this claim based solely on the efforts the Navy has made to integrate its ships into a network. Unfortunately for those who believe the Navy is a NCW proponent, what the Navy is doing is more akin to ForceNET, not NCW. For almost two decades the network integration of existing and new naval assets into the network has taken what was a service of distinct ships and turned that collection of ships into a coordinated and connected fleet, but it is important to note the only benefits that anyone can truly cite are in Command and Control. There are dozens of topics that have been discussed regarding the wide range of effects this integration effort has done to the doctrine of the Navy, indeed the connectivity has changed the very nature of what Command at Sea is in irreversible ways. I will leave it to Naval officers to decide whether the positives outweigh the negatives as it relates to leadership, but I believe the result has been generally positive at the operational level.
NCW’s most enthusiastic proponents, however, envision a future military comprised of much more specialized units connected by the network. The network will help produce “information dominance” through its ability to rapidly combine data received by many different nodes into a coherent picture of the battlefield. American forces then can be “smaller, lighter, [and] more efficient” because they are made up of specialized units that cooperate to produce effects that previously required much larger forces.
A force made up of such specialized units would be smaller and lighter, and faster and more agile. Instead of combining mass these units would combine their effects and even “self-synchronize”—work together without direction from higher authority. Specialized units have advantages if the network truly allows them to cooperate seamlessly, but each single unit has less cross-functional ability and less reserve capacity to deal with unanticipated contingencies. Specialized units do one thing and do it well. If they encounter a task they cannot accomplish, they use the network to hand it off or get support. Given the same amount of resources, a specialist will always outperform a generalist at the task on which the specialist is focused. The network would provide a clear enough view of the battlefield that these specialized units could reliably be in the right place at the right time. An army made up of tightly networked groups of specialized units should thus be able to outperform a traditionally organized one given the same resources.
The idea that networked specialists can outperform generalists is not a product of the information age. It goes back, in fact, to Adam Smith’s description of a pin factory in On the Wealth of Nations. Smith described how the workers at a pin factory produce thousands of times as many pins as the same number of people would if they worked individually. This productivity is possible because each employee specializes in one step of the process. The employees in Smith’s pin factory were networked by their communication inside the factory. Information technology simply allows networks to diffuse across the globe.
Sophisticated modern networks, linked by computer systems and flows of trade goods, have resulted in an enormous increase in world productivity, much of it derived from firms’ greater ability to specialize in a global market. This is the tantalizing promise of NCW—the potential to vastly increase capabilities without a concomitant increase in resources.
Unfortunately, networks of specialized units can also be vulnerable to unforeseen or unforeseeable disruptions. Even networks that seem highly resilient can fail abruptly and catastrophically when they suffer unanticipated shocks. Just as the globalized world economy shows the potential benefits of networks and specialization, the worldwide financial crisis demonstrates their dangers.
There is no evidence at all that the Navy has made any significant effort to field specialized units and leverage NCW to gain more capability through specialization as NCW proponents envisioned. If anything, the more integrated the Navy has become with NCW, the more generalization has become an institutional priority. In fact, despite NCW and its promises, specialization has been shoved in its own box of general capabilities. The ugly reality, based on action, is that in the Navy specializations are neglected and treated with bias primarily because of their specialized skill, and the promotion boards have historically reflected it. Lets examine this in detail.
Now that the Navy has integrated NCW potential into a common air picture, almost every naval aviation asset has become part of a common system. The P-8 is based on the Boeing 737, perhaps one of the most common airframes in the world today. Roles for Intercept, Strike, and Electronic Warfare are delegated to the F18 common air frame, a generalist model of doing everything with the same platform. The only other airframe not expected to retire soon still flying off aircraft carriers is the E-2/C-2 airframe, an airframe flexible enough to realistically be a Common Support Aircraft (CSA) for carrier based fixed wing ASW and Tanking if the Navy wanted. The Navy even uses the same general airframe for both the Romeo's and Sierra's being fielded to fill RW requirements.
Despite the expectations that Network-Centric Warfare should allow for more specialization, naval aviation has taken a direction of solid generalization. The F18 is a great aircraft, but it isn't particularly dominant in any of the roles it services for the Navy. Obviously there are many factors involved in these decisions to consolidate to common airframes, but wasn't NCW supposed to enable more capability with less quantity by allowing the Navy to specialize? Wasn't the promise of NCW supposed to allow the Navy greater specialization, resulting in individual capabilities that were superior to those of opponents? Did naval aviation forget to capitalize on this promise of NCW? Hmm...
The great naval surface warfare idea of 2009 is the same great naval surface warfare idea of John Lehman, 20 years ago: build the big multi-mission Arleigh Burkes. The Littoral Combat Ship is rightfully questioned in the way David Axe presented the other day, the hull is specifically a massive generalization of possibilities without having the necessary characteristics to make it a specialization in any specific area of warfare. Indeed, the way the SWOs look at Network-Centric Warfare in their approach to new ships, one will not find specialization anywhere as a future priority. Regardless of the promise of NCW to allow more specialization, mission specific ships like MCMs and MCHs are retiring as quickly as can be done. Regardless of any claim made by surface warfare, the institutional direction of surface warfare outright rejects the promises of NCW to allow for specialization within the network, tapping into only the minimalist potential of NCW while claiming to master the rewards.
Amphibious ships are no different. The LPD-17 is 24,000 tons because it had to have absolutely every possible addition to be generic enough to support every possible Marine Corps requirement. When the Marines decided to remove the well deck on the LHA(R) for USS America (LHA 6), it was a decision to move towards specialization. No surprise then that this year the Marines testified in front of Congress that the well deck will be added to future LHA(R)s as soon as possible, because just the removal of the well deck turned the LHA(R) into too much of a specialization for the Marines to overcome shortcomings in necessary sealift throughput. Under the theory of Network-Centric Warfare, the Marines should be able to field sealift ships to augment any loss of throughput over the shore, or said another way, become more specialized in that capability at a lower cost allowing them to reap the rewards of the network.
Apparently not. Just like the Navy, when positioned to specialize with NCW, the Marines instead opt for generalization and refuse to invest into the potential of NCW. When it comes to ship design for the United States, the network potential heavily invested in and intended to add resiliency and specialization to our maritime military capabilities is seen as a risk to be institutionally opposed rather than as a reward to be realized.
The direction of submarines is no different. The Virginia class block III now includes as part of the design silo systems very similar to the converted Ohio class SSGNs. The intention is to insure that every submarine can include these capabilities for SOF deployment, cruise missile strikes, and any number of other ingenious capabilities the Navy comes up with to fit into those tubes. In other words, instead of a highly specialized attack submarine, the Navy is building generalist submarines that do everything. It is rumored that the future SSBN(X) will take a modular form as to support either the SSBN or SSGN role depending upon which payload is required, again morphing from a specialized platform into a generalist platform.
The generalization trend of submarines goes hand in hand with the enormous costs of the platform. It is entirely possible for the Navy to build a cheaper submarine nuclear attack submarine specialized for Sea Denial or ISR or SOF, but instead the submarine community builds nuclear attack submarines that can do all at the same time if necessary. US submarines are the best in the world by far, but they are also becoming so generalized that affordability is a legitimate concern.
Transition to Operations
The influence of generalization on the fleet platforms above, on, and under the sea transitions directly into the generalist attitude the Navy takes in performing mission function. For example, has anyone been following the USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) as it conducts the East African Partnership Station? Earlier this month the ship was with the Mauritius Coast Guard, a Coast Guard under the command of the local police authority that fields 9 small boats and 2 small unarmed aircraft. The US Navy has become so generalist with its attitude towards mission profiles like maritime security cooperation that sending a 9,000 ton destroyer to train with friends like Mauritius seems to make sense... to someone.
I must be missing something, because I think sending a 9000 ton destroyer to build maritime security cooperation with a nation that fields 9 little coast guard boats is an embarrassing reflection of the attitude that promotes generalization in the Navy, something of an arrogance that the fleet can meet any obligation regardless of how little the US Navy may have in common with the specific requirements and tasks to be done. Come on.. the New York Port Authority has more in common with the Mauritius Coast Guard than the US Navy does. It doesn't seem to register that the USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) represents an investment nearly 10% the total annual GDP of Mauritius, and yet the ship is on a mission specifically to build mutual understanding, trust, and a working cooperative relationship based on common objectives? Usually cooperation is built on what folks have in common, not with a massive visual demonstration in the form of the worlds most advanced warship that reveals just how little you actually have in common.
Consider the analogy. This is like the Marines in Twenty-nine Palms strapping motorcycles to the back of their tanks, driving up to Santa Monica, pulling the motorcycles off the tanks, and instructing the Santa Monica Police bicycle patrol how to do law enforcement on the Promenade and expecting a cultural understanding to spontaneously occur as a result of the interaction based entirely on the human desire to attempt mutual understanding. I'm sure the good folks on USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) gave their very best effort, and it is entirely possible they found a way to overcome the challenges and build a relationship there, but I have serious concerns regarding the folks in leadership who came to the conclusion this was how the Navy puts its best foot forward in a cultural exchange and cooperative engagement.
The Navy takes a similar approach to naval medical diplomacy and proactive humanitarian deployments, sending LHDs and T-AKEs to provide medicine and health care. It is a very generalists approach, because if the Navy seriously considered these activities a long term strategic role, wouldn't it be much less expensive and much more productive to charter a vessel and convert it into a dedicated shallow port humanitarian ship?
Square Pegs, Round Holes
The problem is, the Navy takes the same attitude towards specialization when it comes to warfare requirements, but believes that their specialization in generalization can meet any requirement. Take for example small war littoral requirements at sea, which have been to date requirements for RHIBs, helicopters, and manpower. Well, in the minds of today's Navy leaders, the Burke is the mothership to support RHIBs, helicopters, and manpower; which is why the US Navy chases down little skiffs with 9,000 ton destroyers in anti-piracy operations.
The Philippines, Columbia, and Somalia all represent places of activity that require specialization in the maritime domain to be effective against the unique challenges faced there, but the big well funded part of the Navy is too generalist to give any meaningful assistance at sea or make a significant contribution to the activities in these places in general. The maritime activities in the Philippines, for example, are pushed off to SOF who uses a MSC charter for MSO. In Columbia the NECC makes infrequent rotations, so SOUTHCOM relies heavily on Army mariners while the Combatant Commanders request for additional supporting assets goes ignored (a problematic topic that somehow never gets brought up in public Congressional testimony for some reason). Off Somalia, well, the US Navy chases speedboats with ships not less than 9000 tons, but it's just piracy so no one cares.
There is no plan anywhere to build a ship optimized to address littoral threats, after all, the LCS is by design generalized (thus very expensive) in order to address some specific littoral threats, relying of coarse on the network to make up the platforms shortcomings in each specific warfare specialization. I have no idea how the Navy expects NCW + generalization to translate into specialization, because that isn't how Network-Centric Warfare is either stated or expected to offer benefit to the Navy. Doesn't matter though, because the Navy states they will build 55 of them and it will all turn out OK... or something like that.
The public face of Navy leadership today suggests the general consensus is that all of this generalization is OK, probably because generalization is all today's Navy officer has ever known. As the Navy has built itself through the 80s and since the end of the cold war, the specialization of generalization has become the requirement and direction resulting in massive, multi-mission capable warships. The natural result of wanting the most general capability out of each platform has been the enormous increase in the cost of all assets. Indeed, there are remarkably few examples over the last 20-25 years where the US Navy has undertaken a ship designed for a unique specialization to any requirement. A well known example of an effort towards specialization is the DD-21 with NSFS, which turned into a massive effort to add more generalization as a means of adding resiliency to the platform itself (instead of leveraging the network for the resiliency), and the result was the most expensive surface combatant one could imagine.
The Navy's integration of Network-Centric Warfare as an institutional directive has been almost entirely absent the benefits of specialization NCW was intended to provide the force. Indeed, we know that rejection of specialization is an institutional problem in the Navy, because all one has to do is look at how the Navy treats specializations - those units get dumped into the giant generic box called the NECC or pushed off to SOF - and when it comes to the NECC the Navy under funds the specializations and fails to provide any specialized support for all these specialized units.
In theory NCW is supposed to enable the Navy to become better specialized in meeting a wider range of challenges by leveraging lower cost, optimized assets. The total asset package is then protected from potential vulnerabilities through a networked approach. In reality the Navy has never even tried to leverage NCW by adding specializations, which is the way NCW was intended to add benefit.
So I ask the question, when will the Navy attempt to leverage the benefits of Network-Centric Warfare? Should the Navy even try? Is the networked maritime battlespace a risk to be guarded from, or a reward to be leveraged? So far the Navy only knows NCW as factor that adds risk to collective individual assets rather than a strength to the collective, individually specialized assets. Without leveraging the rewards of NCW and specialization, the high cost of generalization will continue to stretch the fleet.