John Arquilla Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

International Relations in the Information Age: Conversation with John Arquilla, Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey; March 17, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Organizational Response

Confronted with the information age, and the realization of the rise of networks' different types of organizations, decentralized ones as opposed to the hierarchical ones, how can organizations adapt to this new set of problems? Across the board, whether you're talking about crime, you're talking about intelligence, whether you're talking about public policy, hierarchical organizations do have to adapt because the targets are moving, and the old routines of the hierarchy aren't going to work.

Hierarchies are strong, but slow. Networks are supple and nimble. It's as simple as that. Ronfeldt and I have the hypothesis that it takes a network to fight a network. Now, that's not a black-and-white statement. We realize that most of the organizational space out there is taken up by hierarchies, particularly in the military. What we're suggesting is moving in the direction of networking, mixed systems that are hybrids of hierarchies and networks. Allowing as much networking as possible and continuing to build on that seems to me the only sound basis for policy in this area.

The American military is now at a point where we could say it is thinly networked. In the intelligence realm, we're doing a great deal of networking with foreign countries. The successes we've enjoyed in the tele war have almost all come from networking with a variety of countries, including several in the Muslim world -- halting attacks or preempting them, in the Straits of Gibraltar and Singapore, from Morocco to Malaysia, a striking number of successes.

Where we don't network very well is right here at home. One of our major stumbles was in creating a Department-level hierarchy of Homeland Security, with a secretary of its own, with its own stovepipe through which information moves. The very fact that they included nobody from intelligence in that organization suggests that there was a lot of turf fighting going on, a lot of traditional bureaucratic politics. We simply must move past that.

Frankly, I think an information age is one in which the idea of central intelligence may be a contradiction in terms. We really need to think about network intelligence structures, and to some extent the counter-terrorism center at CIA is an effort to begin trying to build networks. But it's small and it's embryonic. Our goal should be to grow this networking capability a little bit each year.

In fact, the fiasco about what information we had, what was the importance of flight schools, should this be investigated, which emerged in the expos? about the agent who couldn't get the hierarchy in the Federal Bureau of Investigation to move, it was right to the point, because what you had was information that couldn't go up the hierarchy, whereas if there had been lateral networking within the bureaucracy between the intelligence community and the FBI, then the meaning of this piece of information might have had important consequences.

This commission is going to be investigating 9/11 much as the commission investigated Pearl Harbor. When it all comes out, they're probably going to say there was a serious intelligence failure. And I'm here to tell you, No. There was a great deal that was known already. Not just the fact that Zacharias Musawi was in custody for three and a half weeks. We had known since 1994 that terrorists had been thinking about turning planes into missiles. The Armed Islamic Group tried to do it back in 1994. We also had a great deal of information in terms of the amount of traffic that was going on. We knew something was definitely afoot.

We suffered a failure of imagination, a failure to use information properly because we were not properly organized. And that really renders the judgment that 9/11 was not an intelligence failure, but rather an organizational failure. This should be a lesson to us, one that at the domestic level we still haven't gotten.

Now, let's look at a different kind of organization, and that is the military. Where, ideally, does it have to go in terms of recognizing the implications of a network society in an information age in changing its routines and making it a more effective fighting force?

The military is very sensitive to a whole range of Information Age issues. As far as the organizational dimension, the Navy, for example, now has a network warfare or net-war command, headed by a three-star admiral. the whole idea being to create these networks that will function efficiently in various places around the world, often very small amounts of force being very efficiently employed. One of the classic military principles is of economy of force.

The other thing that the military is becoming very sensitive to is the fact that action in the field affects the battle in the story that exists beyond the field of battle. We're beginning to see a variety of strategies unfold in which the information dimension begins to affect how we even plan to fight. For example, in the current conflict with Iraq, there was a great deal of thought given to minimizing destruction, because of the sensitivity, socially and culturally, throughout the Muslim world. So a variety of weapons that have to do with the disruption of communications were used that, through microwaves and various other directed forms of energy, were able to do disruption without very much destruction. This is a step forward in military thinking.

That said, we're still talking about the United States -- your tax dollar in mind -- going to the tune of supporting over a billion dollars a day of defense spending. And I'm sorry to say that most of that is wasted in terms of preparing us for the kinds of threats we face and for the kinds of actions that we should be undertaking. We really are wedded to an industrial-age military, based on capital-intensive assets, when we need to be moving to an Information Age set of capabilities with very small expenditures on hardware and a much greater investment in the development of human capital right down to the level of the noncommissioned officers. This trend is beginning to emerge, but, again, only in a very nascent way.

In Afghanistan, we had at any one time perhaps half-a-dozen Predators. Now, in the military spending, nearly $400 billion a year, how can you only have a few of these unmanned aerial vehicles that can do so much for you and so quickly in the field? We need to start reversing that. Do we really need 2,000 main battle tanks if there's never going to be a main battle ever again? I think the traditional thinkers are just keeping the landing lights on for Amelia Earhart! We have to figure out how to break that paradigm, and right away, because, quite frankly, we could get more bang for our defense buck by spending less. It would encourage the military to make hard choices, and it would bring true transformation.

You suggest, and I want to get this terminology straight, a situation where you might eliminate some levels of middle management. You say the lower-upper levels, or the upper-middle levels in the military might be eliminated, and one could then have a direct link between the commander who has an overview and the soldier in the field. There's a term that describes this type of command.

"Top sight."

"Top sight," in direct communication with the soldier in the field, who may be operating a laptop and communicating with a drone, and so on. Tell us a little about that.

Right now, we have a command and control structure in which there are rank gradations from the lowest private to the highest general, and information must flow from one to the other. There are about twenty steps up and twenty steps down. What David Ronfeldt and I have suggested in terms of organizational redesign is that we create many small units who, first of all, can communicate with each other, and secondly, with our automated, unmanned assets in the air and other aircraft or ships at sea that can provide fire support. We've also suggested a commanding general or admiral who will be able to observe all of this as it is under way. The true measure of generalship in the future will be the leader who watches, but doesn't control directly, who adjusts and corrects where necessary, but allows things to unfold in a natural way.

I went so far as to suggest once that it would be nice if a general tried to move to an eBay-style command system in which he simply let it be known to his commanders of what Ronfeldt and I call these little pods and clusters out in the field -- if he simply gave them a list of all the things that mattered to him: a bridge, a town, an enemy unit, the battery of artillery. We assign point values to those, and he put them on his list for a certain amount of time, at a certain point value. Of course, this could be adjusted every day. Imagine a campaign in which the commander's intent was expressed in that fashion, as opposed to a stream of orders from one unit to the next. The efficiencies created would be absolutely enormous. And, frankly, we have the information technology today. EBay is the proof that we have an efficient auction system for allocating resources. Well, we could be doing that in the military realm as well. I'm only partly tongue in cheek about that; I think we could go to something very, very close to that, very much further away from traditional notions of command.

In fact, that would allow for a kind of innovativeness at the lowest level that, on one hand, would make the work probably more interesting, but also, on the other hand, would open the opportunity to bring on values that soldiers might have about not wanting to kill the guys on the other side or innocent civilians and so on. Despite some people's opposition to the military as a general principle, there is a positive story here in terms of empowering people at the lowest level to do a positive thing in the context of the military.

I think so. The idea of empowering from below is not only going to make good strategy, but good and as ethical as possible military operations. It's hard in that networked military world to think about the My Lai massacres occurring. No doubt, there will be incidents in wars, as long as there are wars. But I think the kind of things that went on in Vietnam were, in part, a function of a disconnected command and control system in which individual soldiers felt sold out. The patrols that were used were called "dangling the bait." They felt terribly, terribly used. In a network where people are choosing their paths, the degree of morale is going to be far, far greater, and the circumspection about following the rules of war will also be far, far greater.

I would add, by the way, that Ronfeldt and I are not the first ones to think of this kind of decontrol. The Israeli Defense Force has had a system going into the Six Day War of 1967 that they called, "optional control," in which a general maintained what that we today call top sight. Junior officers had a tremendous amount of latitude. In fact, exploiting weaknesses that occurred on the spur of the moment was the hallmark of this six-day victory. That campaign is being restudied right now, specifically from that perspective. It was one of the remarkable military operations. Again, it wasn't the general rule. The Israelis didn't get it right in 1973, for a variety of reasons. But in 1967, there was the right convergence of factors and the right commander to be willing to engage in this, so it was possible, even before an age now in which our information technologies make it tremendously easy to decontrol.

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