Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Network-centric Warfare and Implications for Distributed Education

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The concept of “network centric warfare” has totally pervaded military training and policy publications, and, although there are operational and philosophical critiques of the concept, the fact remains that it continues to influence the way that the military thinks of itself and its activities.

It represents a profound epistemological change – not only in terms of how strategy is conceptualized, but the entire notion of what constitutes meaning and knowledge.

In a certain way, the notion of network-centric warfare privileges knowledge and knowledge management, suggesting that victory has to do with successful management and dissemination of data.

We’ve seen spectacular successes. Desert Storm is often cited as an excellent example of coordinated information and joint force efforts resulting in overwhelming force, and a quick, harsh, decisive victory.

The rise of remote sensing (which evolved quantum leaps from where it was in the late 1970s with LANDSAT satellite imagery, and the ability to generate false color composites and map vegetation, landmasses, and human activity trends in new ways) coupled with highly mobile, handheld GPS units not only transformed land navigation, it also led to breathtaking detail (if not precision) of surface features and heat signatures.

Tracking people, natural phenomena, static and mobile features (buildings, equipment, etc.) while coordinating logistics, materials and “fire” could lead the impression that the war of the future (or of today) would be something from a science fiction film. Certainly the footage that the average civilian like myself would see reinforced that notion. “Surgical strikes” of insurgent hideouts in Kosovo, with scary fire coming from gunships, and remotely directed attacks on distant targets, ranging from Sarajevo to wherever, made warfare seem like a techies’ game.

According to John Gilligan, the U.S. Air Force’s Chief Information Officer, the accuracy and precision of air strikes have become even more astonishing. In a Air Force press release, Gilligan was cited as saying the following: In Desert Shield/Desert Storm, 40 percent of the munitions that we delivered were precision munitions. Today it's over 90 percent. Our accuracy rate is phenomenal. And when you talk to those who are doing the planning of weapons delivery, we're able to gain insight in terms of what's the physical composition of the target. What are the wind speeds? What's the angle, et cetera? They can predict with extraordinary accuracy what is going to be the collateral damage. Now that's not just what's the impact point, it's what's the collateral damage. All of that is information-based. All of that information is available through the network” (US Fed News, 28 March 2005).

And then comes Fallujah. And then Najaf, Sadr City, and all the other places where the other ubiquitous term, “asymmetric warfare,” comes into play.

Needless to say, in this case, network centric warfare, according to the people who are typically on the ground – Marines, Infantry, Army National Guard, Navy Seabees, even Air Force personnel charged with driving convoys – has come under fire.

In the April 2005 issue of the Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute, Captain Tim Feist of the U. S. Marine Corps takes issue with the inflated expectations and hints of invincibility that the “network centric warfare” model suggests. In “Transformation Has Limits,” he points out the failures of networks and information, and argues that the raw material and data are often faulty, as are the networks themselves, and the assumptions used to build the models. There is also a suggestion that an over-reliance on it can lead to strategic disasters. This not only has to do with what we are commonly led to think of as “insurgents” – snipers, suicide bombers, child soldiers, and the trickery of booby-traps and human shields. It also has to do with activities in the "informal economy."

What is often not mentioned are the virtual economic blockades that arise due to illicit profiteering – mercenaries, arms-trafficking, black-marketing, etc. How many ambushed convoys and supply lines are actually types of piracy? How many kidnappings of truck drivers were not expressions of holy war, but of a turf battle over which contractor would receive the lion’s share of contracts? How many of the contractor killings were attempts to drive out the lower-paid workers who came in from Nepal, Kenya, Pakistan, and Bangladesh? The informal economy is not just about a business opportunity. It has strategic implications.

Corruption – whether originating due to a local “kleptocrat” leader, or de facto “pirates” who take advantage of anarchy and chaos to peddle guns, water, and false documents, along with trafficking humans to provide “safe” passage to somewhere else – can defeat a network centric war plan, as well as “boots on the ground.” Asymmetric warfare is not just about small, unexpected guns against the big ones, it’s also about duplicity, double-dealing, and greed.

The astute observer can see a very clear parallel between this situation and that of distributed education. While the disruptive technology has already happened – the reliance on networks and network information to make decisions and coordinate action (of all types) – the fact remains that the technology can be rendered useless by ground activities when and if the goal is to control activities in urban centers on the ground.

Network centric warfare can also be rendered useless by incompetence or hubris in the data gathering process. The old “garbage in – garbage out” tenet still holds.

What does this have to do with military training and education? In a network-centric approach, the following elements hold true:

First, Training / educational content is distributed over networks: “Coordinated autonomy” is possible through a central network. Entire learning network systems can be in place, with collaboration, contribution, and decentralized access and contribution to a network-housed structure, where the content is housed.

Second, Simulation and video-game based training will take place far from the actual place of battle: Learning will take place far from where the instructor is, and the participants may be separated in time and in space. Yet, they will be united through a massively multiplayer system that allows interaction and coordination. Knowledge gained will be useful, or useless – depending on its relevancy and “freshness.” In such cases, being “stale” but not knowing it will result in a very perniciously deleterious product. In a word, it can kill.

Third, Data used to develop training and “situated” learning will come from far away: The inputs used to create learning modules, learning objects, and the integrated systems will be contributed to the network from widely divergent sources. Coordination is key. Security must constantly be examined. Security will probably always be one step behind the hackers. Even now, researchers are exploring how to probe enemy communication webs in wartime. The same applies to e-learning.

Fourth, Training created by people who have second-hand or third-hand knowledge can be flawed: Extreme situatedness is a must. Data to build learning programs that is collected on site and uplinked through handhelds in situations as directly related to the real thing as possible is critical. This used to be called “ground truthing.” Today is falls into the category of collaborative, multi-nodal course / training development. Training must be reviewed and updated continuously, as circumstances and conditions (as well as tactics) continuously change.

Fifth, Corruption can destroy the integrity of a learning system. Corruption takes many forms in terms of training and education. Academic dishonesty, theft of intellectual property, and “short-cutting” to simply pander to perceived business opportunities rather than providing a high-quality product are all issues to be addressed. Duplicity, disinformation, political backstabbing, and black-marketeering may not play the same role in an education system as they do in a war-torn country. Nevertheless, one has to say that the sterile view from above (in the control rooms of the networks) has little or no connection with the ugly streets of war where wild dogs fight over human carcasses. Does the analogy hold in higher education or in corporate training? You, the reader, can decide.

To backtrack a bit and to provide grounding for readers who may not be aware of the nuances of network centric warfare, the following is offered.

At a recent briefing and update, David Alberts, director of research and strategic planning in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Networks and Information Integration, provided a broad, theoretical overview of network centric warfare. The architect of what was often referred to as information technology warfare, Alberts has influenced policymakers in the Pentagon for a number of years. Here are his words, from the press release:

Network centric warfare has four simple tenets. It all starts with the concept of a robustly networked force. That robustly networked force leads to increased information sharing.

Second, increased information sharing enhances not only the quality of information but encourages collaboration and increases what we call shared awareness.

Third, increased collaboration and shared awareness enables self-synchronization.

Fourth, all of that together dramatically improves mission effectiveness and ability.

These four tenets serve to define a value chain that links the full spectrum of material and non-material investments to operational effectiveness and agility.

Although these tenets are very general and have broad applicability, there were many people who thought that it was only about the conduct of high intensity warfare. So to better convey the notion that these principles are general, we started using the term network centric operations sometimes instead of and sometimes with network centric warfare.
(US Fed News, 28 March 2005)

The controversy is only beginning. Certainly it will continue to gain momentum as casualties mount, and call into the question the efficacy of a plan that assumes that remotely directed fire and remotely gathered information can truly result in total control of the ground environment.

The argument in education is only beginning, too. Can we assume that remotely delivered educational experiences that take place completely in a digital environment can truly result in total control of the learning outcome?

We’ll see.

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