Data Flows

By lex, on July 14th, 2009

My work these days carries me into the networking field, significantly into an effort to extend global information grid connectivity to previously disadvantaged users like the E-2C Hawkeye. It wasn’t always true that command and control aircraft were considered disadvantaged – when I first started flying fighters on the tactical edge, I had very good awareness as to what was more or less directly in front of me at 30-50 miles, but much less situational awareness as to what was on my flanks, behind me or at extended ranges. The Hawkeye crews strove manfully to fill in the gaps between the picture I and my wingman assembled, and that which was out of our field of regard. We trained together, we trusted each other and we were held accountable for our actions.

The explosion of information technology into all sectors since the 1990s did not leave the military on the sidelines. Data contributions from multiple sensors, electronic, mechanical and human were rapidly processed, exploited and disseminated. Operational echelon commanders profited greatly from a synthesized, all-source picture of the battlespace while command elements just one notch up from the tactical edge became marginalized with each passing moment that they’d been airborne and disconnected from the data grid. This has proven both a blessing and a curse.

By the time I was a squadron executive officer, a one star flag officer that had flown single engine, single mission Skyhawks in Vietnam could look “over the shoulder” at a lieutenant on a strike mission in Iraq or Afghanistan. Sensor vehicles, manned and unmanned, could relay the battlefield picture and weapons effects even as events unfolded. The video pictures were compelling, even mesmerizing. It wasn’t long before strategic commanders at the three and four star level started looking in as well. And not long after that before the 12,000 mile screwdrivers came out to “help” the forward deployed forces make “smart decisions.”

Of course, when a three star commander is eyeballing the work of a fleet lieutenant as and when it’s happening there are a lot of three star tasks going unserviced, not to mention a lot of fleet lieutenants in the holding pattern waiting their opportunity to be mentored by the all-seeing eye. In a tough, high visibility and fast paced operational environment, it’s all too easy for senior commanders to fall back upon a previous level of comfort by attempting to do the work for which their subordinates are being paid. Don’t even get me started on video teleconferencing as a command and control tool.

In a perfectly networked, distributed system, data does do not merely flow up to the senior commander at the operational and strategic level, but down and out to those on the pointy end of the spear who actually do the killing work. It flows to the tactical edge, hopefully with a polished veneer of analysis that transmutes data to information, information to knowledge, knowledge to advantage.

The Army and Marine Corps, at least as personified in Generals Petraeus and Mattis, seem to understand this:*

U.S. technological prowess has made it possible to centralize command-and-control functions in the military, to the point that a general sitting at the Pentagon can micromanage a war half a world away.

This may satisfy senior leaders’ yearning for efficiency but it also makes the U.S. military more vulnerable, especially in wars such as the ones it’s fighting today, says Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Joint Forces Command. Highly centralized and computerized command is not the way to go, he says, because the enemy could easily disrupt the network and cause chaos. “The U.S. military is the single most vulnerable military in the world when we overly rely on technical command-and-control systems,” says Mattis. “Centralized decision making equals single point of failure.” He cited Gen. David Petraeus’ mantra: “We must decentralize to the point of discomfort.”

Soldiers do not need to be micromanaged, says Mattis. They are capable of following a “commander’s intent,” or generalized instructions, without necessarily having detailed orders. “How’s that for change?” Mattis asks. “We’re going to have to restore initiative.”

The limitations of centralized planning in the chaos of an insurgency have led the generals back to where their organizations were born: Train your people well, trust them, hold them accountable.

I think the Navy – and who knows? Maybe the Air Force too – will find that the initiative is still out there on the pointy end, begging more for release than restoration.

*Ed. Note: The link Lex referenced when mentioning Generals Petraeus and Mattis (seem to understand this) was gone, and a new link with the same quote found.

BB

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  1. Pingback: Index – The Best of Neptunus Lex | The Lexicans

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