Understanding Network-Centric Warfare
The creation of a ‘system of systems’
If you are a mere ‘civilian’ like me, you may not have heard about Network-Centric Warfare (NCW). Still, it is a core principle in modern armed forces.
Given its ever-increasing presence in warfare today, I think we shóuld know about Net-Centric Warfare. That is why I wrote this article: to introduce you to the concept and to go into some of its related challenges.
Let me start with a definition provided by the United States’ homeland security library:
The term “network-centric warfare” broadly describes the combination of emerging tactics, techniques, and procedures that a fully or even partially networked force can employ to create a decisive warfighting advantage.
In the 1990s, analysts started to realise that information was becoming more central to warfare than it was ever before. A force’s ability to aggregate, analyse and act on information was to become vital to its effective operation.
In the preface of Network-Centric Warfare : Its Origin and Future, Vice Admiral A.K. Cebrowski and high-ranking Department of Defence member J.J. Garstka reflected on Network-Centric Warfare as such:
We are in the midst of a revolution in military affairs (RMA) unlike any seen since the Napoleonic Age, when France transformed warfare with the concept of levée en masse.
NCW in Practice
Having introduced the concept of Network-Centric Warfare and provided a brief backdrop to its emergence, let us try to grasp what NCW means in practical terms.
Well, theoretically speaking, there are innumerable ways of understanding NCW. But, in general terms it is a desire to optimize the inter-operability and inter-communications between two or more distinct parts of the army.
Let me — within the limits of my outsider understanding of armed forces — provide an example which shows one way of understanding NCW:
- Step #1: satellites (SATINT), humans (HUMINT) and other battlefield sensors aggregates information
- Step #2: a command and control centre analyses this information, turns it into ‘situational awareness’, creates ‘knowledge’ (making meaning of raw data) and, finally, directs a strike
- Step #3: an F-35 uses the amassed information and data to conduct a directed, precise airstrike
In sum, the end goal of NCW is to create a ‘system of systems’: a well-oiled machine that is a near-perfect optimization of operations.
‘NCW’ and ‘system of systems’ are rather vague concepts and should be seen as a front door to a humongous corpus of literature and debates.
For instance, there are more specific terms such as net-centric conversation (NCC) and there are several different efforts to improving NCW, such as moving towards a more esperanto-like, universal language of communication.
If you are interested in reading about such suggested implementations NCW, there are plenty of (declassified) documents to be found on the internet.
Naturally, there are a lot of challenges, disruptions and risks that relate to a System of Systems. Some of them are as follows
- Mission Creep: the ongoing Ukraine invasion shows that an elongated war makes operations, morale, a sense of direction and communications much more difficult to maintain.
- Far from home versus ‘Interior Lines’ theory: The Seven Years War illustrates how a strong aspect of home-core advantage is having short logistical lines. Military historians have suggested that this was a remarkable asset of Frederick The Great’s army during this time.
- (Communication) disruption and misdirection: these principles are ancient if not natural. Sun Tzu wrote about this in The Art of War.
- Fog of War: you cannot know everything and, thus, there will always be unforeseen variables hindering operations. These variables can be caused from within. For instance, the Battle of Mogadishu illustrates a seemingly vast under-estimation of public resistance. In addition, a lot of unforeseen events occurred during this mission and the mission got really ugly really fast.
Hopefully, I was able to provide you with a general understanding of Network-Centric Warfare. Again, I am a mere ‘member of the public’ and so this article will undoubtedly be incomplete.
However, I did my due diligence by reading plenty of material and, as such, I hope to have given you some valuable insights.