Nodes, Swarms, and the Risk Society

Christopher Albon takes on John Arquilla and addresses “The Limits of Netwar” in Current Intelligence:

Arquilla is correct: a netwar-enabled military would be powerful. Swarms of small American units could be perfectly suited for dismantling irregular terrorist networks in Afghanistan and elsewhere. However, America will never have a netwar military. Why? One reason: the political cost of casualties.

While a network of small swarming units represents substantial capacity, it also increases the risks to individual units on the battlefield. Operating quasi-independently and at speed, netwar’s small units are vulnerable to being flanked, isolated, and overrun. The network is resilient, but individual nodes are exposed.

Albon also cites the Battle of Wanat – with an American contingent of the same  ‘small unit’ size advocated by Arquilla – as an example of how this particular conception of ‘netwar’ is in fact precisely wrong for waging war in a democracy.

That is what truly determines the US military’s ability to conduct prolonged operations in a given theater: public support. And the easiest way to undermine it is to kill lots of American soldiers, preferably all at one time. This strategy is particularly effective within the node-centric system Arquilla calls for:

The attack left nine U.S. soldiers dead and the outpost was quickly abandoned. If the Taliban’s attack had been successful, the loss of this one node would have had little detrimental effect on an Arquillan network of small units.

Still, the military already seems to be considering the idea, with exercises scheduled for this summer to determine the feasibility of a company-sized Marine landing team. Of course, then logistics become the primary problem (plus the lack of battalion C3I, etc), which in turn leads to more deaths, which of course is the whole point for the enemy.

Leaving aside the issues of media control and information handling (because I still keep the faith), how then could a node-centric strategy utilizing smaller units actually function? Obviously, one key component to coming wars is UAVs and other unmanned weapons platforms. Most of these systems are currently more mobile than needed to be effective in a node-centric system. Automated sentry guns and the like, coupled with appropriate surveillance equipment and on-call air support – manned or unmanned – would be enough to maintain a network of observation posts without risk to American lives.

Then again, perhaps it’s the concept of nodes as they currently stand that needs to be addressed. Obviously not all OPs could be replaced by drones and remote-controlled camera, but presumably some could be. The further goal of the OP; that is, contact and interaction with the native population, could just as easily be accomplished through means other than an isolated post. Albon might overstate the case for maintaining centers of gravity (“There is power in small, networked units, but there is security in massed forces and large fortress bases, both for servicemen and politicians”), but he certainly grasps the risks of not doing so.

Presenting an American war effort to the public, then, is a two-part project. One is to convince them that both the overall and the specific causes are just (why are we in Afghanistan? And why do we maintain a network of isolated observation posts)? Two is to make sure that American casualties are in line with the perceived goal of it. Perhaps nothing more than a good PR strategy is what’s needed, but I think the issues with netwar run a bit deeper.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s