Techno for an Answer
The False Promise
of Information Warfare
James. The Next World War: Computers Are the Weapon and the Frontline
Is Everywhere. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998. 288pp. $25
John, and David Ronfeldt, eds. In Athenas Camp: Preparing
for Conflict in the Information Age. Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND,
1997. 501pp. $20
Winn. Information Warfare: Chaos on the Information Superhighway.
New York: Thunders Mouth Press, 1994. 432pp. $22.95
David. Tomorrows War: The Threat of High Technology Weapons.
New York: Harcourt Brace, 1996. 272pp. $26
U.S. VICTORY IN THE 1991 Persian Gulf War prompted widespread speculation
about the future of warfare and the role of technology and information
in the conduct of war. This has produced an ever-growing body of
literature concerning the future of war and the implications
toward U.S. policy. Unfortunately, that literature has gone from
explanation to prediction with very little analysis in between.1 The
predictions that have been made need to be studied in light of some
of the major works in strategic studies. On the whole, one finds
ruminations about information warfare lacking in useful hypotheses
toward generating theoretical frameworks for strategic thinking about
any measure the performance of U.S. weaponry in the Gulf War was impressive,
even taking into account some overstatements made at the time. However,
there is a profound difference between winning the war, on the one
hand, and sound strategy and policy being aided by superior technology,
on the other. At this point in history, it is important to keep in
mind that technology and information are not the automatic solutions
to every problem. From a strategic standpoint, we may have reached
the point where technology and data complicate more than they clarify.
Technology does not fix systemic organizational problems, but it does
increase implementation costs in time and money, and thus it should
not be seen as a cure-all. Most importantly, technology is a poor offset
for unsound strategy and policy.2
volumes reviewed here typify the tone of the literature regarding war
in the information age. Taken together, they exhibit a preoccupation
with technology and nonstate actors. Those two factors are not without
consequence for strategic thinking, but these authors make little attempt
to situate their claims in broader strategic thought, which would prove
useful in sparking debates that would lead to theory building about
information warfare (IW). In none of the works are theoretical frameworks
presented for evaluating events, and thus the reader cannot find a
basis for the development of sound strategy and policy regarding IW.
is not to say that authors in this genre are incorrect in suggesting
that technological advantages should be exploited or that they present
dangers, but rather that their predictions of technological prowess
translating into battlefield dominance have not been systematically
established. Generally, the literature proceeds from observations to
conclusions with insufficient attention to the component parts of society
and war, and how they relate to one another.
varying degrees these four books share two assumptions regarding information
first is that IW implies the rise of a new political-economic order
that privileges nonstate actors because IW allows nonstate actors to
threaten the security of Westphalian states. Second, technological
dominance is the key to winning future wars.
Warfare (Schwartau) and Tomorrows War (Shukman)
present views based largely upon the first assumption. The Next
World War (Adams) and In Athenas Camp (Arquilla
and Ronfeldt) accept the first assumption but emphasize the second.
at the Gate: Schwartau and Shukman. Winn Schwartau sounds
an alarmist note in Information Warfare, highlighting the
potential computer Pearl Harbor waiting to happen.4 His
concern is that IW will be part of the formation of a new political
and economic order that will have dire consequences for individual,
as well as American national, security. In a global information
war, technology will combat technology, with widespread chaos the
to this view, the vulnerability of individuals and the state lies
in the accessibility of computerized data to ill-intentioned, nonstate,
actors receive further treatment in David Shukmans Tomorrows
War. Computer hacking on a grand scale will be a facet of future
conflict, he believes, along with the use (or at least threats of the
use) of weapons in the arsenals of nonstate actors.6 Shukman
adds the threat of nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) warfare
to the arsenal of nonstate actors. A good part of this book portrays
the dangers posed by high-technology weapons, including space-based
weaponry. Shukman argues that new weapons systems, from improved missile
targeting to complex unmanned vehicles and ant-sized robots, will shape
a new geopolitical order. Shukman cites the Aum Shinri Kyo subway attack
in Tokyo as a case study to illustrate what nonstate actors can do
in tomorrows war.7 One
might reply, however, that the subway attack is an example of threats
that have been with us for many decades, not those typically associated
with information warfare, and that little geopolitical impact has yet
been seen from nihilistic or messianic nonstate terrorism.
concern of Schwartau and Shukman over an implicitly hostile new political
and economic order and the rise of nonstate actors as a result of technology
arises from a Clausewitzian assumption of trinitarian war. In this
formulation, the Clausewitzian trinity of the people, army,
and government of one state utilizes war as a political instrument
against another states people, army, and government. Generations
of strategic thought have been based upon this assumption, and thus
events that appear to be abnormal cause alarm. Strategy, for our purposes
here, is regarded as the creation of force and the application of it
at a decisive time and place.8 The
specific weapons used are less important than the application of sufficient
force at the proper time and place; there is strong historical evidence
to suggest that states will remain better at this than nonstate actors.
the fall of Rome, war was waged by armies of Vandals, Huns,
and other social entities who have no counterpart in todays world.9 The
early 1500s saw warfare between knights, cities, leagues, popes, and
religions, without the presence of anything that could be labeled a
well defined state.10 NiccolÎ Machiavelli
saw war as a tool of the prince, and there was little notion of the
people or the state in his conception of war.11 It
was only after the Treaty of Westphalia that states gained a monopoly
on the legitimate waging of war.12 To
this effect, international law since 1648 has excluded nontrinitarian,
nonmilitary warfare.13 The
result is that three and a half centuries of the Westphalian state
system have left us little experience of nonstate actors waging nontrinitarian
war. In a sense, we are now looking forward into the past, and a framework
for evaluation is needed.
threats and problems posed by nonstate actors may be new, then, but
nonstate actors are not. The end of the Cold War allowed them to take
advantage of new opportunities, some provided by technology. While
Aum Shinri Kyos subway attack could have happened in any decade
since 1960, in 1998 computer hackers invaded the websites of Chinas
human rights agency and Indias nuclear research center, and posted
messages on forty Indonesian servers. Other targets have included Mexican
president Ernesto Zedillo and the U.S. Department of Defense. In October
1998 a Serbian group calling itself Black Hand crashed
the website of a Kosovo Albanian group.14 Later
the same week Black Hand attacked the website of the state-owned Croatian
newspaper Vjesnik. In retaliation, the next day Croatian hackers
attacked the website of the Serbian National Library; Serbian hackers
then temporarily disabled the Nato website.15 Such
activities in February 2000 expanded to threaten the computer-based
civilian activities of daily life. The vast majority of the literature
on IW consists of reviews of these threats and their consequences,
but it overstates their strategic significance.
any rate the future prospects for these nonstate, nontrinitarian, cyber-warriors
are not bright. It should be kept in mind why nontrinitarian war went
out of fashion in the first place; as Charles Tilly observed, War
made the state and the state made war.16 Put
another way, the state can create and apply decisive force better than
nonstate actors, and better than nontrinitarian methods, such
as terrorism and information warfare. Strategic success depends on
the control of land, people, and resources (all forms), which means
that a technological/information-based approach alone will not prove
decisive.17 Because resistance involves
resources and will, there is strong reason to believe that the Westphalian
state can endure nontrinitarian warfare and outlast nonstate actorsmost
states being better than the typical nihilist or messianic nonstate
group at resisting various forms of IW and at applying decisive force
if it becomes necessary.18
Fire with Fire: Adams, Arquilla, and Ronfeldt. In The
Next World War, James Adams posits a future in which the places
we live and work are the battlegrounds for global information war.
(This is a common assertion of all four books discussed.) Technology
will allow the targeting of communication networks and air traffic
control, and support of misinformation campaigns. (The latter is
possible due to Adamss definition of information warfare
as including perception management.)19 This
in turn leads to the possibility of war by other means, which would
seem to imply what are normally referred to as psychological operations.20 Adams
supplies case studies to illustrate what this war by other
means will look like, before concluding that IW is
no silver bullet.21 Adams
implies that the United States is a Goliath surrounded by nonstate
Davids, that unless fire is met with fire, U.S. security will be
threatened. By way of example, Adams reports that China once released
computer viruses to silence electronically an opposition group.22 Now
this, of course, is an example of a Westphalian state taking action,
albeit of an information-warfare nature, and prevailing against
a nonstate actorthe reverse of what we are supposed to fear.
Yet if China, technologically backward, can wage information warfare
against nonstate actors, surely the United States could do so as
for the presence of new technologies in many of Adamss examples,
it is unclear how his case studies are different from standard psychological
operations, on the one hand, and terrorism and sabotage on the other.
The use of radio stations in Rwanda and Serbia to broadcast hate-filled
political messages is just plain propaganda, not information warfare.23 However,
to make his point, Adams categorizes events by the technology used
rather than the actors intentions. Technological capabilities
are important, and they are easier to measure than intentions, but
the fact that actors possess sophisticated technology need prompt no
special distinction. It is their intentions that make them dangerous.
the four books discussed, In Athenas Camp offers by far
the most systematic and sober analysis of IW. Many of its insights
regarding network forms of organization come directly from operations
research. Editors Arquilla and Ronfeldt describe a third wave that
empowers nonstate actors; they assert that conflicts will depend on
and revolve around information and communication.24 They
suggest that as a result of technology, conflict will become more diffuse
and less linear, as well as multidimensional.25 This
notwithstanding, the more parsimonious term nontrinitarian is
still the operational word here. Arquilla and Ronfeldt go farther,
distinguishing between cyberwar, which they define as an information-oriented
approach to battle, and netwar, which they call an information-oriented
approach to social conflict.26 In
Athenas Camp has chapters titled Cyberwar Is Coming; Preparing
for the Next War; and Warfare in the Information Agesubjects
that are by now familiar territory.27 The
book as a whole banks heavily on the assumption that information can
be translated into power. However, in a world where technology increases
information to the point that we may speak of analysis paralysis (indecision
resulting from forever waiting for the next piece of information to
come in), information without any theoretical framework by which to
evaluate it may cause as many problems as it solves. A notable exception
in this book, and the literature as a whole, is John Rothrocks
article, Information Warfare: Time for Some Constructive Skepticism? which
adds a healthy note of circumspection to In Athenas Camp.
with fire positionswhether the fire is technology,
as in The Next World War, or information transmitted by technology,
as argued in In Athenas Campplaces too high
a value on technological superiority. The nineteenth-century theorist
Antoine Henri de Jomini observed that the superiority of armament
may increase the chances of success in war: it does not, of itself,
gain battles.28 A
more recent observer argues that the Gulf War demonstrated what technology
was capable of but did not establish that technology wins wars.29 Its
contribution to winning ground battles is the most important variable
for the purposes of strategy; Vietnam, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Somalia
illustrate that the relevance of force is in many ways the inverse
of technological modernity.30
example of Somalia shows that no amount of technology could have mitigated
the fundamental weaknesses in policy. Means were not provided to achieve
the chosen ends, and the ends outstripped political will. While making
the debatable claim that Mohammed Farah Aideed was better at perception
management than U.S. forcesperception management was not the
issue in SomaliaThe Next World War still asserts that
the CIAs high-technology surveillance was evaded by simple walkie-talkies
and talking drums.31 Technological
advantages should be explored and exploited at every turn, but without
falling down the slippery slope of technological determinism.
prophets of technological determinism have been with us for some time.
Several significant studies have concluded that though technology is
important, it may have only marginal impact upon battlefield outcomes.32 A
closer look at these works reveals that more often than not, victory
comes to the side with an advantage in morale, leadership, skill, and
disciplinenot necessarily the side with a technological advantage.33 In
Europe, the spread of technological advances brought multinational
similarity, which led to a stalemate.34 Even
where one side had clear advantages in technology (such as when European
powers faced indigenous forces in the New World, Africa, and Asia),
that side also often had military strengths beyond technology. For
instance, the institutional superiority that allowed the maximization
of firepower goes a long way toward explaining outcomes in the colonial
in comparison to the indigenous forces they faced, European militaries
were more professional, standardized, and concentrated, which allowed
greater projection of force irrespective of technology.
of gravitythe hub of all power and movement, the decisive
strategic point, the point exercising a marked influence
on the result of the campaignis unlikely to be destroyed
by information warfare in and of itself.36 It
may be hindered and inconvenienced, but it seems inconceivable that
the United States, or any state, would surrender in war because cell
phones, satellites, or computers were no longer functional. To the
authors, it is as if states never went to war before the microchip.
The techno-centric view
also downplays the centrality of vital interests in a states
grand strategy. Technology is a dependent variable, not an intervening
or independent one, which means that states can get by with a little
or a lot of technology but that the technology needs a strong state
in which to develop. This type of state is not likely to become wholly
vulnerable to information warfare.
as a whole, these four books place too high an emphasis on the role
of technology and its impact on the international system. It has always
been the case that readiness to suffer, die, and kill are the
most important factor in war.37 Technological
prowess does not obviate this fact.
of the aura surrounding the concept of information warfare is a direct
descendant of the arsenal of democracy thinking of World
War II. According to this view, American industry and technology would
be used to limit the loss of American lives in global conflicts. This
approach has practical and political utility, and it remains a worthwhile
goal. However, the desire for low-risk, low-commitment responses to
foreign threats lures policy makers into the false promise of IW. As
recent events have shown, there are no easy ways out of postCold
War conflicts. Technological changes will come and go, and it is in
our interest to master them; but technological changes should not obscure
stark realitiesbloodless victories are seldom of strategic utility.
the nearly ten years since the end of the Gulf War, a relatively large
body of literature has been produced on information warfare. All of
it suffers from lack of a strategic theory for evaluating events and
technological developments. Absent such a political framework, amateur
speculations and armchair quarterbacking about present and future events
and technological developments replace sound strategic thinking.
books of the kind discussed here (studies of possible futures) can
clarify, define, name, expound upon, and argue the major issues of
future scenarios.38 The
goal, of course, is to identify possible futures and how to work toward
what is desirable and to prevent or minimize the impact of what is
undesirable. Another worthwhile goal is to understand better whether
the trends observed are smooth, cyclical, dialectic, or alternating.
This leads to insight regarding mechanisms of change and assumptions
regarding the operating environment.39 The
result would be an increase in understanding our environment and, one
hopes, an increase in our control of it.
essay is not an attempt to sketch a strategic theoretical framework
or to survey what is desirable or possible in the future of information
warfare. Rather, it suggests that technologya means of waging
warcannot supersede the classical theorists examinations
of the ends or purposes of war. The nature of society remains more
central to understanding war than the technology employed in its conduct.
A good start for analysis of the Persian Gulf War from an information-warfare
perspective is Alan D. Campen, ed., The First Information War: The
Story of Communications, Computers, and Intelligence Systems in the
Persian Gulf War (Washington, D.C.: AFCEA Inter- national, 1992).
These points are discussed further in David Shenk, Data Smog:
Surviving the Information Glut (San Francisco: HarperEdge, 1997).
This term is used to describe what has also been referred to as techno-war. Information
warfare is at present an ill-defined concept, but it may be thought
of as assets and processes that are information based. These include
command and control, psychological operations, and other information
sources. As these assets and processes become automated they become
susceptible to viruses and hackers.
Winn Schwartau, Information Warfare: Chaos on the Information Superhighway (New
York: Thunders Mouth Press, 1994), p. 13.
Ibid., p. 291.
David Shukman, Tomorrows War: The Threat of High Technology
Weapons (New York: Harcourt and Brace, 1996), p. 205. See also
Schwartau, p. 215.
Shukman, p. 243.
Martin van Creveld, On the Future of War (London: Brasseys,
1991), p. 48.
Ibid., p. 52.
Ibid., p. 126.
See NiccolÎ Machiavelli, The
Art of War, ed. Neal Wood (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965).
Van Creveld, p. 57.
Ibid., p. 193.
Hackers Declare Computer War, Los Angeles Times, 22 October
Amy Harmon, Hacktivists of All Persuasions Take Their
Struggle to the Web, New York Times, 31 October 1998.
Also see Amy Harmon, Serbs Revenge: NATO Web Site Zapped, New
York Times, 1 April 1999.
Charles Tilly, ed., The Formation of National States in Western
Europe (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1975), p. 42.
Paul Van Riper and Robert H. Scales, Jr., Preparing for War in
the 21st Century, Parameters, Autumn 1997, p. 8. I shall
address this point later in this essay.
Michael Handel, Masters of War: Classical Strategic Thought (London:
Frank Cass, 1996), p. 14.
James Adams, The Next World War: Computers Are the Weapon and the
Frontline Is Everywhere (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998), p.17.
Ibid., p. 39.
Ibid., p. 313.
Ibid., p. 250.
Ibid., pp. 90, 273. At a basic level, these are examples of controlling
perception and information. This type of activity is not representative
of a new phenomenon, however. Julius Caesar wrote his works from the
battlefield in part to serve the same function, spreading political
John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, eds., In Athenas Camp: Preparing
for Conflict in the Information Age (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND,
1997), p. 4.
Ibid., p. 6.
John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, Cyberwar Is Coming!;
Stephen J. Blank, Preparing for the Next War; and Bruce
Berkowitz, Warfare in the Information Age, can be found
in In Athenas Camp, edited by Arquilla and Ronfeldt.
Antoine Henri de Jomini, The Art of War (Novato, Calif.: Presidio
Press, 1992), p. 47.
Handel, p. 8.
Van Creveld, p. 32.
Adams, p. 67.
See William H. McNeill, The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed
Force and Society since A.D. 1000 (Chicago: Univ.
of Chicago Press, 1984); Timothy Travers, The Killing Ground: The
British Army, the Western Front, and the Emergence of Modern Warfare,
19001918 (London: Allen and Unwin, 1987); George Raudzens, Blitzkrieg
Ambiguities: Doubtful Usage of a Famous Word, War and Society,
September 1989, pp. 7794; and George Raudzens, War-Winning
Weapons: The Measurement of Technological Determinism in Military History, Journal
of Military History, October 1990, pp. 40333.
Raudzens, War-Winning Weapons, p. 404.
Paul M. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers: Economic Change
and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (New York: Vintage Books,
1989), pp. 2372.
McNeill, pp. 12835. The author notes that the development of
close-order drill was a significant force enhancer.
Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. Michael Howard and Peter Paret
(Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1976), pp. 5956. See
also Jomini, pp. 8592. An excellent treatment of the concepts
of center of gravity and decisive strategic point, respectively,
is given by Handel, p. 40.
Van Creveld, p. 160.
Herman Kahn and Anthony J. Wiener, The Year 2000: A Framework for
Speculation on the Next Thirty-three Years (London: Macmillan,
1967). See also Brita Schwartz, Uno Svedin, and Björn Wittrock, Methods
in Future Studies: Problems and Applications (Boulder, Colo.: Westview
Schwartz et al., p. 20.