Times are changing. After the war in Kosovo some of the old certainties inherited from the cold war are about to give way to new military doctrines. The network - the nervous system through which information circulates - is now the organisational paradigm. In their research into this transformation some analysts are calling for the United States to prepare for "cyberwar" and "netwar", in which enemies are defeated by interrupting their command structures and their systems of thought and communication, rather than aiming to destroy them physically.
Published in Le Monde Diplomatique, August, 1999
There is a contradiction: we are supposed to be in the "information era", where according to the visionary formula of technoguru Nicholas Negroponte bits are going to replace atoms (1). But in the recent war in Kosovo Nato made massive use of bombs deriving straight from the industrial age. Even the "smart" bombs, so called because they have an independent ability to handle information, were equipped with a very classic capacity for physical destruction.
Behind the immediate human and political dramas of this war, a question arises about the nature of future war. This problem has been posed by two United States' analysts specialising in warfare in the information era.
John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt (2) are the inventors of a whole series of original concepts and formulas: "cyberwar", "netwar" and "noopolitik" (a politics of knowledge). John Arquilla is a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, California. David Ronfeldt is an analyst with the Rand Corporation, a research institute very close to the US military establishment and security services. The two researchers are convinced that "the information revolution is altering the nature of conflict ... it is bringing new modes of warfare, terrorism and crime to the fore". Thus they have responded to the invitation extended by futurologists Alvin and Heidi Toffler for people to develop "a fresh understanding of the relations between war and a fast-changing society" (3).
One cannot talk about the deep changes taking place in society without also discussing the upheavals they are bound to create in our ways of making war (4). The Renaissance, to which the digital age is often compared, was also characterised by a different way of making war, with the invention of infantry. The same was true of the industrial era and the means of mass destruction that it made available to its armies.
In the view of the Tofflers, our own epoch is characterised by "a shift in the relationship between tangible and intangible methods of production and destruction alike". The intangible is one of the characteristics of our present era.
Cyberwar goes beyond the "smart" bombs that were used in the Gulf war and the graphite bombs designed to short-circuit power stations, recently used against Serbia. It relies on the concept of information. Information has always been at the heart of the art of war but today it takes on a new role.
In the economic sphere, according to sociologist Manuel Castells, this difference resides in the fact that "information itself [becomes] the product of the production process" (5). In the event of war, it becomes the aim of the conflict, not just the means whereby war can be pursued in more favourable circumstances.
At the heart of the notions elaborated by Arquilla and Ronfeldt there is a very particular view of what information is. They move beyond the classic definitions (the message or the medium, in the distinction laid down in the 1960s) and describe information as a physical property, on a par with matter and energy.
From this they derive a new conception of power, and therefore of war. Instead of being based on material resources, from now on power resides in relations between people, and thus in organisation: it becomes immaterial. From the brute power of the god Mars we are passing to Minerva, the goddess of wisdom. This means a shift from war based on mutual capacities for destruction, to war in which the capacity for disruption, or dis-organisation, assumes equal importance. On this basis, the researchers distinguish four levels of what they call their "vision":
1. At the conceptual level, information gives form to structure. Thus they differentiate from theories that emphasise communication and the transmission of messages: such theories are seen as insufficient, since they take no account of the role played by information in organisations. "All structures contain embedded information," they say. As a result, the ideas contained within a given superstructure, its values and aims, are as important as their technological infrastructures.
2. "This vision emphasises adapting to a major consequence of the information revolution - the rise of network forms of organisation," they say. This is true for both non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and terrorist networks. And for governments it translates into an invitation to cross-breed traditional hierarchical structures with more flexible forms. All this will involve an unavoidable "flattening" of hierarchies. Ronfeldt in particular distinguishes between four types of organisation: tribes, institutions, markets and networks. And he argues that "technology strengthens networks as social structure". Hence the distinction between "cyberwar" (the classic form of conflict, using more "intelligent" weapons and modes of engagement that are adapted to the information era), and network war ("netwar"), in the area of conflict between (or with) actors "other than states".
3. The core of their military doctrine is the notion of "BattleSwarm". Here the main objective is domination of the theatre of operations in terms of information (knowing more than the enemy). The fact of having intelligence about the circumstances and movements of your enemy, combined with a sophisticated system of communication (each combatant is in contact with all others, and unit commanders communicate with air force commanders and with other units) should make it possible to employ fewer personnel with greater effectiveness.
4. The overall strategy which they propose is what they call "guarded openness". Arquilla and Ronfeldt believe that the free circulation of information serves the interests of the US and that, in the final instance, victory in tomorrow's wars will go not to those who have the biggest bombs, but to those who can tell the best story (6).
Their most recent book, published in 1999, is called The Emergence of Noopolitik (7), in an explicit reference to the "noosphere" or sphere of knowledge that we find in Teilhard de Chardin. Adapted to the information era, noopolitik "emphasises the primacy of ideas, values, norms, laws and ethics through 'soft power'". They conclude that "information is itself in the process of becoming its own distinct dimension of grand strategy -- eg, it is capable of being employed in lieu of field armies or economic sanctions ... Otherwise, the older tools of statecraft may be unduly relied upon, and possibly employed inappropriately or ineffectively."
REVOLUTION IN DIPLOMACY
Viewed in the light of their writings, the war in Kosovo can be seen as a victory for what they claim is about to disappear from history: the tangible, the material, brute force. In 1997 they described aerial bombardment as "a maximalist affirmation of material power". At the time some were tempted to think that, for all its brilliance, their theory was still-born.
In their interpretation of the Kosovo war, however, published in the Los Angeles Times on 20 June 1999, Arquilla and Ronfeldt reckoned that it was precisely the use of various elements of cyberwar that made it possible for the war to be brought to an end: "It was the small bands of widely distributed Kosovo Liberation Army fighters and, to a lesser extent, allied special forces who provoked the Serbs to manoeuvre and fire, which instantly made them vulnerable to being attacked from the air." The information on which they base this analysis is not published, but elements can be found in an article in the Glasgow newspaper The Herald (8), where we read that four members of the alliance (the US, France, the United Kingdom and Norway) were engaged in a secret war in Kosovo. Each contingent was allocated a section of territory and worked in liaison with the air forces. Among other things they used laser beams in order to signal targets to the pilots.
France's involvement seems to have been substantial. According to The Herald, it included detachments from several units, including the 13th Airborne Dragoon Regiment (which was this year invited to take part in the 14 July parade on the Champs-Elysies (9) as recognition of their role), commandos from the 2nd Parachute Regiment of the Foreign Legion, troops from the 13th Marine Infantry Regiment, plus naval frogmen from the famous Hubert commando, the unit responsible for the sinking of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand.
"Cyberwar means operating in small, dispersed units, so well internetted that they can coordinate, coalesce and then dissever in repeated swarming attacks," say Arquilla and Ronfeldt. "Cyberwar thus requires a ground presence but without relying on conventional ground forces." This leads them to a criticism of the main argument of Nato's strategists, the idea that a large ground force (which would have been slow to mobilise) was indispensable for winning the war on the ground.
In their opinion, in order effectively to disorganise enemy forces, it would require mobilising - and deploying in "BattleSwarm" - a force only one tenth the size of the enemy forces. They claim that the US, Canada, France and UK had troops trained for this kind of engagement, and were able successfully to use them.
The problem, Arquilla told me at the start of July, was that the cyberwar conducted in Kosovo was "treated as an adjunct to the main effort when it should have been our main thrust because it would have allowed us to protect the Kosovars. Massive aerial bombing drove the Serbs to rage and frustration and contributed to the atrocities. It is a little bit reminiscent of the rage and frustration of US troops during the Vietnam war when they suffered casualties from land mines and unseen opponents."
The ideas of Arquilla and Ronfeldt are not widely held in the Pentagon. However, they are patient people and they are pressing ahead. Specifically they are preparing a presentation for the House of Representatives in which they will discuss their understandings of the nature of war.
They argue that the revolution in military affairs that we have seen should be accompanied by a revolution in diplomatic affairs, which is taking time to emerge: "The Kosovo model of 'coercive diplomacy' is a misconceived strategy based on the use of force to compel accession to political demands."
The threat of a recourse to force in the event of the breaking of established agreements would have been preferable. "This approach to the new diplomacy," Arquilla adds, "could have been a real exercise in noopolitik, ie, guided by the ethical construct of protecting rights; keeping the shadow of the use of force in the background; and engaging our adversaries and a host of nonstate actors in the process of conflict resolution." In abstract terms, the inability to dissuade is the key to the drama. In concrete terms, it is the impossibility of acting: economic sanctions are ineffective and bombing is pointlessly murderous and destructive.
The two geo-strategists recognise the presence of risks, but they think that "cyberwar may offer a new way to win decisively, at low cost in blood and treasure, without relying on a bombing campaign that causes troubling collateral damage, especially among civilians."
Thus, they say: "We should never again wage war in a fashion that suits our political constraints, but which subjects those we would protect to the worst sort of unfettered barbarism."
1. Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital, Knopf, New York, 1995.
2. John Arquilla, David Rondfeldt et al, In Athena's Camp, Preparing for Conflict in the Information Age, Rand, Santa Monica, 1997, p 4.
3. Alvin and Heidi Toffler, War and Anti-war: Survival at the Dawn of the 21st Century, Little Brown, Boston, 1993, p 5.
4. See Maurice Najman, "Developing the weapons of the 21st century", Le Monde diplomatique English Internet edition, February 1998.
5. Manuel Castells, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, Vol 1: The Rise of the Network Society, Blackwell, Cambridge, Mass., 1996.
6. See the article by Robert Fisk in this issue.
7. The Emergence of Noopolitik: Towards an American Information Strategy, Rand Monograph Report, Rand, Santa Monica, California, 1999.
8. Ian Bruce, "Secret war behind the lines", The Herald, Glasgow, 21 April 1999. See: www.theherald.co.uk/
9. For the first time in this parade France significantly raised the veil of secrecy from various of its military units involved in the operations in Kosovo. As well as the 13th Regiment of Parachute Dragoons, based at Dieuze (Moselle), there were the commando group of the 11th Parachute Division, stationed at Toulouse, and the 2nd Regiment of Hussars, based at Sourdun (Seine-et-Marne), which included an information and electronic war brigade. See Le Monde, 14 July 1999.
Translated by Ed Emery