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Institute for National




Chapter 3

Command-and-Control Warfare

The following is taken from a core Department of Defense (DoD) dictum on C2W and information warfare:

C2W [Command-and control-warfare] is the military strategy that implements Information Warfare (DoD Directive TS- 3600.1, 21 December 1992, "Information Warfare") on the battlefield and integrates physical destruction. Its objective is to decapitate the enemy's command structure from its body of command forces. Note 6

Defined in this way, U.S. forces demonstrated mastery of information warfare in the Gulf by destroying many physical manifestations of Iraq's command-and-control structure. These operations have frequently been pointed to as the reason the bulk of the Iraqi forces were ineffectual when U.S. ground forces came rolling through. Note 7

Decapitation can be accomplished by a blow to the head or by severing the neck, each thrust serving a different tactical and strategic purpose.


Gunning for the commander's head is an old aspect of warfare. Examples abound, from the ancient practice of seizing the enemy's king to the death of Admiral Nelson, shot by a shipboard sniper, the employment of sharpshooters against opposing generals during the Civil War, the downing of Admiral Yamamoto's plane in World War II, strategic nuclear targeting theory, and attempts to find Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War or Mohammed Aideed in Somalia. What is new is that the commander's accessibility keeps shifting. Command effectiveness used to require commanders to oversee and thus remain near the range of combat. In World War I wireline communications enabled commanders to operate beyond the range of enemy arms. Later, the airplane and missile returned the commanders to the target zone.

More important than the commander's physical location is the transformation from the commander to the command center. Today's command centers are identifiable by copious, visible communications and computational gear (and the associated electromagnetic emissions), the physical movement of paper and other official supplies, plus enough comings and goings of all sorts to differentiate these centers from other venues of military business.

An attack on a command center, particularly if timed correctly, can prove disruptive to operations even without hitting a high-ranking enemy commander. Despite the known disadvantages of single-point vulnerabilities, most commerce in messages tends to circulate within very small spaces. Fusing data and distributing them to harmonize everyone's situational awareness requires either a central set of ganglia or a major redesign of legacy systems. Determining the location of a command center permits juicy targets to come within gunsight -- an opportunity rarely passed up. Correctly timed attacks can disrupt and distract operations beyond the immediate effect of destruction.

Iron bombs are not the only way to attack command centers. Systems can be disabled by cutting off their power, introducing enough electromagnetic interference to make them unreliable, or by importing computer viruses, yet none of these means is foolproof or cost-effective compared with iron bombs on target. Most soft-kill weapons require knowing the location of the target. Although some of them have a larger effective radius than conventional munitions, the difference is limited and finding before firing remains equally essential.

How long will command centers remain visible? Bunkering can protect headquarters, but at the cost of mobility (and newly perfected penetrating ordnance requires deep and comparatively immobile bunkers). Control of the signature of the command center may be a better strategy. Computers can be shrunk to the desktop, emissions of communications gear masked by electronic clutter (both deliberate and ambient) or offloaded through multiply redundant cables or line-of-sight relays away from headquarters, and paper will yield to the paperless, perhaps optical, society (someday). Networks can generally be decentralized. Note 8 Comings and goings and congregations that create valuable targets can be reduced through videoconferencing and whiteboarding. Note 9 Power supplies can be supplemented by bunkered generators or, more ingeniously, by relying on dispersed photovoltaic collectors for electricity (which should be scattered so their presence will not reveal the command center). These means can keep command centers indistinguishable from any other inhabited space. Failing this result, the degree to which an enemy is hurt by being struck will depend on backup architectures (e.g., which nodes supply what information, what information is vital for battlefield decisions).

Dispersion will take time; reconfiguration costs time and money and increases the difficulty of command. Proponents may need real-life demonstrations, rather than theoretical arguments, to convince commanders that dispersion is needed and that a given level of dispersion will suffice against attack. But the transformation will eventually happen everywhere. How soon militaries in other countries will make the shift will depend on technological sophistication, the degree to which current command centers feel vulnerable, the extent to which authority is vested in personal contact or in ostentatious displays of silicon, as well as miscellaneous cultural factors. In the long run, war planners would be foolish to base their strategy on the assumption that the enemy's command centers can be disabled.


Modern militaries have been knit by electronic communications since the mid-nineteenth century and by radioelectronic communications since the 1920s. Cut these communications and command-and-control is disabled, which, again, is old in warfare Note 10. What is new is the size of the communications load in the information age. Air defense systems, for instance, work better when integrated across facilities than when each facility works independently. The extent to which operations depend on the flow determines whether efforts to cut communications are worthwhile.

Cutting communication links requires knowing how the other side communicates. If its architecture is written in wire, the nodes (e.g., the AT&T building in downtown Baghdad) are easily identified and disabled. Like command centers, communications systems can be crippled by attacks on generators, substations, and fuel supply pipelines (e.g., gas lines into power plants), such as U.S. forces made in the Gulf. If the architecture is electromagnetic, often the key nodes are visible (e.g., microwave towers). If satellites are used for transmission and signalling, then communication lines can be jammed, deafened, or killed.

The impact of attacks depends on how far the other side has progressed from the mainframe era. A communications grid composed of many small elements rather than a few large ones radiates less and casts smaller shadows over the landscape; it offers greater redundancy and confounds the enemy's targeting problems.

Redundancy is an attribute of both developed less developed states. By the end of the Gulf War allied forces had more (if less important) C2 targets left to attack than at the start, despite the number destroyed. The Iraqis, as it turned out, had many communications systems, more perhaps than even they were aware of, from radio systems that Western oil contractors had left in place to rural telephone systems that routed around major cities.

Deliberate redundancy, of course, is more efficient than accidental. Systems that replicate message traffic multiply the likelihood of a message getting through in highly degraded conditions, even if redundancy reduces the system's overall capacity. Additional robustness can be protected by new technologies such as spread-spectrum (to guard against burst errors in heavy jamming environments) and sophisticated error-correction techniques (e.g., trellis coding). A strategy of redundancy still leaves the management problem of distinguishing vital bit flows from merely useful ones. Bureaucratic, rather than technological, factors may determine the vulnerability of any data-passing system.

To what Effect?

The potential influence of C2W on the outcome of conflict is predicated on the architecture of command relationships among the attacked. Iraq imitated its Soviet mentor, in part for political reasons (Iraqi society rules through convictions, rather than conviction). Cutting or thinning the links between head and body could easily be predicted to immobilize the body. Front-line troops were sitting ducks for U.S. air and ground attack and showed little creative response.

Clearly, a rigid opponent like Iraq is only one end of a long continuum of possibilities. Other societies may allow local commanders more autonomy. Although the North Vietnamese also were hierarchically organized, their operatives were capable of long periods of untethered operations. An attack on central authority could conceivably release field commanders to demonstrate an initiative that would more than compensate for any lack of coordination resulting from chaos at the center. Note 11

The opposite also merits thought: if the center can be induced to come to terms, the last thing wanted is for peripheral forces to continue to fight. Future General Robert E. Lees, one hopes, would surrender whole armies rather than free them to fight on in guerilla campaigns. Consider the difficulties in Bosnia: although Belgrade signed a peace agreement in July 1994, the Bosnian Serbs refused to sign and continue to fight. Note 12 Decapitating a military may make it less effective but more troublesome.

Much of what passes for strategy to control nuclear war Note 13 consists of persuading an opponent to cease operations prior to global conflagration. Attacks on command-and-control thus make sense only if enemy forces are acting under positive (e.g., don't fire until I tell you) rather than negative control. Otherwise, the strategy could backfire.

C2W may do more good degrading or compromising the enemy's ability to command forces than destroying its ability altogether. For instance, destroying secure channels may induce the use of open ones vulnerable to eavesdropping. Although a destroyed infrastructure may prompt an immediate search for alternatives, one only subtly degraded may not. Finding a way to slow down the other side's ability to react at a precise moment (e.g., the moment of attack) gets the attacker inside the other side's OODA Note 14 loop. All these capabilities come under the category of "nice work if you can get it." As hard as it may be to degrade a system without leaving marks (while evading periodic ping tests Note 15 of a system's message cycling efficiency), it is harder to know whether one's attacks have done anything -- even well after the dust settles. Battle damage assessment of C2 warfare is so difficult (consisting both of what was hit and what difference the hit made) that field commanders understandably want to see visible craters to ensure they had any effect at all.

C2W clearly is a valuable aspect of military operations, but it is neither a perfect complement (or substitute) to counter-force operations nor particularly new, except in certain respects. Although the information revolution has made some military operations hostage to the integrity of the center, the continuing shift from mainframe to distributed processing is reducing the center's vulnerability. The status of information warfare may reach its apogee just as the target set is accelerating its shift out from under the bombsights.

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