Times are changing. After the war in Kosovo some of the oldcertainties inherited from the cold war are about to give way to newmilitary doctrines. The network – the nervous system through whichinformation circulates – is now the organisational paradigm. In theirresearch into this transformation some analysts are calling for theUnited States to prepare for “cyberwar” and “netwar”,in which enemies are defeated by interrupting their command structuresand their systems of thought and communication, rather than aiming todestroy 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 oftechnoguru Nicholas Negroponte bits are going to replace atoms(1). But in the recent war in Kosovo Nato made massive use of bombsderiving straight from the industrial age. Even the “smart”bombs, so called because they have an independent ability to handleinformation, were equipped with a very classic capacity for physicaldestruction.

Behind the immediate human and political dramas of this war, aquestion arises about the nature of future war. This problem has beenposed by two United States’ analysts specialising in warfare in theinformation era.

John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt (2) are the inventors of a wholeseries of original concepts and formulas: “cyberwar”,”netwar” and “noopolitik” (a politics ofknowledge). John Arquilla is a professor at the Naval PostgraduateSchool in Monterrey, California. David Ronfeldt is an analyst with theRand Corporation, a research institute very close to the US militaryestablishment and security services. The two researchers are convincedthat “the information revolution is altering the nature ofconflict … it is bringing new modes of warfare, terrorism and crimeto the fore”. Thus they have responded to the invitation extendedby futurologists Alvin and Heidi Toffler for people to develop “afresh understanding of the relations between war and a fast-changingsociety” (3).

One cannot talk about the deep changes taking place in society withoutalso discussing the upheavals they are bound to create in our ways ofmaking war (4). The Renaissance, to which the digital age is oftencompared, was also characterised by a different way of making war,with the invention of infantry. The same was true of the industrialera and the means of mass destruction that it made available to itsarmies.

In the view of the Tofflers, our own epoch is characterised by “ashift in the relationship between tangible and intangible methods ofproduction and destruction alike”. The intangible is one of thecharacteristics of our present era.

Cyberwar goes beyond the “smart” bombs that were used in theGulf war and the graphite bombs designed to short-circuit powerstations, recently used against Serbia. It relies on the concept ofinformation. Information has always been at the heart of the art ofwar but today it takes on a new role.

In the economic sphere, according to sociologist Manuel Castells, thisdifference 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 canbe pursued in more favourable circumstances.

At the heart of the notions elaborated by Arquilla and Ronfeldt thereis a very particular view of what information is. They move beyond theclassic definitions (the message or the medium, in the distinctionlaid down in the 1960s) and describe information as a physicalproperty, 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 powerresides in relations between people, and thus in organisation: itbecomes immaterial.  From the brute power of the god Mars we arepassing to Minerva, the goddess of wisdom. This means a shift from warbased on mutual capacities for destruction, to war in which thecapacity for disruption, or dis-organisation, assumes equalimportance. On this basis, the researchers distinguish four levels ofwhat they call their “vision”:

1. At the conceptual level, information gives form to structure. Thusthey differentiate from theories that emphasise communication and thetransmission of messages: such theories are seen as insufficient,since they take no account of the role played by information inorganisations.  “All structures contain embedded information,”they say. As a result, the ideas contained within a givensuperstructure, its values and aims, are as important as theirtechnological infrastructures.

2. “This vision emphasises adapting to a major consequence of theinformation revolution – the rise of network forms oforganisation,” they say. This is true for both non-governmentalorganisations (NGOs) and terrorist networks. And for governments ittranslates into an invitation to cross-breed traditional hierarchicalstructures with more flexible forms. All this will involve anunavoidable “flattening” of hierarchies.  Ronfeldt inparticular distinguishes between four types of organisation: tribes,institutions, markets and networks. And he argues that “technologystrengthens networks as social structure”. Hence the distinctionbetween “cyberwar” (the classic form of conflict, using more”intelligent” weapons and modes of engagement that are adaptedto the information era), and network war (“netwar”), in thearea 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 thetheatre of operations in terms of information (knowing more than theenemy). The fact of having intelligence about the circumstances andmovements of your enemy, combined with a sophisticated system ofcommunication (each combatant is in contact with all others, and unitcommanders communicate with air force commanders and with other units)should make it possible to employ fewer personnel with greatereffectiveness.

4. The overall strategy which they propose is what they call”guarded openness”. Arquilla and Ronfeldt believe that thefree circulation of information serves the interests of the US andthat, in the final instance, victory in tomorrow’s wars will go not tothose who have the biggest bombs, but to those who can tell the beststory (6).

Their most recent book, published in 1999, is called The Emergence ofNoopolitik (7), in an explicit reference to the “noosphere” orsphere of knowledge that we find in Teilhard de Chardin. Adapted tothe information era, noopolitik “emphasises the primacy of ideas,values, norms, laws and ethics through ‘soft power'”. Theyconclude that “information is itself in the process of becomingits own distinct dimension of grand strategy — eg, it is capable ofbeing employed in lieu of field armies or economic sanctions… Otherwise, the older tools of statecraft may be unduly reliedupon, and possibly employed inappropriately or ineffectively.”


Viewed in the light of their writings, the war in Kosovo can be seenas a victory for what they claim is about to disappear from history:the tangible, the material, brute force. In 1997 they described aerialbombardment as “a maximalist affirmation of materialpower”. At the time some were tempted to think that, for all itsbrilliance, their theory was still-born.

In their interpretation of the Kosovo war, however, published in theLos Angeles Times on 20 June 1999, Arquilla and Ronfeldt reckoned thatit was precisely the use of various elements of cyberwar that made itpossible for the war to be brought to an end: “It was the smallbands of widely distributed Kosovo Liberation Army fighters and, to alesser extent, allied special forces who provoked the Serbs tomanoeuvre and fire, which instantly made them vulnerable to beingattacked from the air.” The information on which they base thisanalysis is not published, but elements can be found in an article inthe Glasgow newspaper The Herald (8), where we read that four membersof the alliance (the US, France, the United Kingdom and Norway) wereengaged in a secret war in Kosovo. Each contingent was allocated asection of territory and worked in liaison with the air forces. Amongother things they used laser beams in order to signal targets to thepilots.

France’s involvement seems to have been substantial. According to TheHerald, it included detachments from several units, including the 13thAirborne Dragoon Regiment (which was this year invited to take part inthe 14 July parade on the Champs-Elysies (9) as recognition of theirrole), commandos from the 2nd Parachute Regiment of the ForeignLegion, troops from the 13th Marine Infantry Regiment, plus navalfrogmen from the famous Hubert commando, the unit responsible for thesinking of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand.

“Cyberwar means operating in small, dispersed units, so wellinternetted that they can coordinate, coalesce and then dissever inrepeated swarming attacks,” say Arquilla andRonfeldt. “Cyberwar thus requires a ground presence but withoutrelying on conventional ground forces.” This leads them to acriticism of the main argument of Nato’s strategists, the idea that alarge ground force (which would have been slow to mobilise) wasindispensable for winning the war on the ground.

In their opinion, in order effectively to disorganise enemy forces, itwould require mobilising – and deploying in “BattleSwarm” – aforce only one tenth the size of the enemy forces. They claim that theUS, Canada, France and UK had troops trained for this kind ofengagement, and were able successfully to use them.

The problem, Arquilla told me at the start of July, was that thecyberwar conducted in Kosovo was “treated as an adjunct to themain effort when it should have been our main thrust because it wouldhave allowed us to protect the Kosovars. Massive aerial bombing drovethe Serbs to rage and frustration and contributed to theatrocities. It is a little bit reminiscent of the rage and frustrationof US troops during the Vietnam war when they suffered casualties fromland mines and unseen opponents.”

The ideas of Arquilla and Ronfeldt are not widely held in thePentagon.  However, they are patient people and they are pressingahead. Specifically they are preparing a presentation for the House ofRepresentatives in which they will discuss their understandings of thenature of war.

They argue that the revolution in military affairs that we have seenshould be accompanied by a revolution in diplomatic affairs, which istaking time to emerge: “The Kosovo model of ‘coercive diplomacy’is a misconceived strategy based on the use of force to compelaccession to political demands.”

The threat of a recourse to force in the event of the breaking ofestablished agreements would have been preferable. “This approachto the new diplomacy,” Arquilla adds, “could have been a realexercise in noopolitik, ie, guided by the ethical construct ofprotecting rights; keeping the shadow of the use of force in thebackground; and engaging our adversaries and a host of nonstate actorsin the process of conflict resolution.” In abstract terms, theinability to dissuade is the key to the drama. In concrete terms, itis the impossibility of acting: economic sanctions are ineffective andbombing is pointlessly murderous and destructive.

The two geo-strategists recognise the presence of risks, but theythink that “cyberwar may offer a new way to win decisively, at lowcost in blood and treasure, without relying on a bombing campaign thatcauses troubling collateral damage, especially among civilians.”

Thus, they say: “We should never again wage war in a fashion thatsuits our political constraints, but which subjects those we wouldprotect 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, Preparingfor Conflict in the Information Age, Rand, Santa Monica, 1997, p 4.

3. Alvin and Heidi Toffler, War and Anti-war: Survival at the Dawn ofthe 21st Century, Little Brown, Boston, 1993, p 5.

4. See Maurice Najman, “Developing the weapons of the 21stcentury”, Le Monde diplomatique English Internet edition, February1998.

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 InformationStrategy, 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 theveil of secrecy from various of its military units involved in theoperations in Kosovo. As well as the 13th Regiment of ParachuteDragoons, based at Dieuze (Moselle), there were the commando group ofthe 11th Parachute Division, stationed at Toulouse, and the 2ndRegiment of Hussars, based at Sourdun (Seine-et-Marne), which includedan information and electronic war brigade. See Le Monde, 14 July 1999.

Translated by Ed Emery


J’enquête, je suis et j’analyse les technologies de l’information et de la communication depuis la préhistoire (1994). Piqué par la curiosité et l’envie de comprendre ce que je sentais important,...