Rethinking the Application of Power in the 21st Century

by Douglas H. Dearth

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Among First-World powers, there has emerged in recent years a form of "Third-Wave War" to match the evolution of "Third-Wave Societies." The hallmark of both is information. The Tofflers' book, War and Anti-War: Survival at the Dawn of the 21st Century, is a paean to the work of the U.S. military over the past twenty years to essentially "reinvent" itself in these terms.1 The evidence and effectiveness of this fundamental change was evident to an extent during Operation DESERT STORM in 1991.

A Conflict of Decision Processes

Just as information is changing society, it is also changing concepts of national security, the definitions and parameters of battlespace, and the measurements of force. "Force" is becoming less tangible and more dependent upon qualitative factors. Battlespace is expanding greatly in terms of frontage, depth, and altitude. Movement rates for forces, materiel, and ideas are increasing; therefore, time is shrinking. War is becoming more a conflict of decision processes, and success will be determined by the "information differential" between forces and between commanders. "Third-Wave War" is "Information War." These "post-industrial war" operations must be not only "joint" and "unified," but "holistic" and "simultaneous."2
What Is Information Warfare? Tom Rona, the probable originator of the term, essentially would describe information warfare (IW) as a "battle of decision systems."3 While something of a ground-breaking concept, especially in the 1970s, this is essentially a technical approach; from some perspectives, warfare has always been a struggle between decision systems. Professor George Stein of the Air University holds that the concept is broader. He said "Information warfare, in its broader sense, is simply the use of information to achieve our national objectives." Further, he says that "Information warfare, in its essence, is about...the way humans think and, more important, the way humans make decisions."4 The Tofflers would describe IW in broader terms: as "a new 'war-form."5 Their concept is that IW is a way of thinking about war, warfare, and conflict. It is a different way of applying military power.
In fact, part of the mystique and promise of IW is that it may be broadly applied as part of a national policy designed to obviate the need for traditional military involvement. In some ways, it is political war beyond the bounds of diplomacy in which weapons are intangible in appearance and very tangible in result. This is a new breed of weapon which leaves neither a "smoking gun" nor plausible trace. It is a weapon and a campaign which a head of state may launche with or without the involvement of his military force options.
IW also constitutes an operating or conflict environment. The attempt to "digitize the battlefield" currently under way in the U.S. Army, on its face seems to be a limited technical approach to the broader issue. It is not inappropriate; in fact, it is necessary, and tacitly acknowledges that something is significantly different in the arena of armed conflict. Others would describe IW as simply "command and control warfare (C2W) by another name." It is not. C2W is the tactical application of the much broader phenomenon of IW.
The Department of Defense defines IW as
...actions taken to achieve information superiority by affecting adversary information, Information-based processes, information systems and computer-based networks, while defending one's own information, information-based processes, information systems, and computer-based networks.6 The current confusion about these concepts is further exacerbated by the introduction of other new terms like "cyberwar," "netwar," and "knowledge war."7 All of these concepts are valid. It is inescapable that there is something qualitatively different about warfare in the information age.

Characteristics of Information War

Continuous, Simultaneous, Accelerated, and Non-linear. At the heart of the IW concept is the idea of achieving military objectives with an absolute minimum of force application and cost. Although this has always been a warfighting objective, in the past the ability to achieve this objective depended upon a number of variables, many of which the potential or real enemy controlled.
With the information revolution, however, the minimum force or cost objective becomes attainable by the side that has information dominance. If we have continuous, real-time surveillance of a potential adversary's military forces, we can simultaneously position our forces to achieve and maintain an advantage. We may deter or preclude adversary use of military force altogether by communicating this advantage and our intentions, perhaps with additional information like psychological operations and deception routed through other channels to further complicate his decision process. Even failing that, by maintaining more perfect knowledge of enemy force disposition and positioning our forces accordingly while denying the enemy knowledge of our disposition, we can maximize the effectiveness of any force application, thus allowing use of only as much force as is necessary to achieve our objectives. In addition to maintaining the element of surprise, because we immediately know the results of our application of force on the enemy, we can accelerate our response to changes in enemy activity and tailor our re-application of force to only those critical nodes that require it.
By dominating the adversary's information systems, along with the use of smart stand-off weapons, we will be able to impose our will on the enemy without the costs associated with occupying his territory. Rather than moving through a battlefield in a linear fashion, we will continuously be able to select and neutralize critical targets in a non-linear battlespace "just in time," thus obviating the need for a large inventory of backup weaponry. Instant Feedback. The ability to take the right action just in time depends, of course, on feedback. Since the beginning of human organization, decisionmakers have sought information about the results of their decisions as soon as possible, so that if corrective or reinforcing actions were required, they could be taken while it was still possible to influence the course of events set in motion by the initial decision. Until relatively recently in our history, the ability to gain such information was limited by many factors, but most especially by distance.
Electronic communication will change all this, particularly the advent of communications satellites and high-capacity fiber-optic cables. Decisionmakers can now remain "plugged in," not only receiving instant feedback on the effects of their decisions, but also using these same lines of communication to transmit new decisions based on the feedback information.
The concept of instant feedback as it relates to IW is viewed in the context of a closed system, whether the F-117 or the Army's "digitized battlefield" envisioned in Force XXI. Instant feedback, or something close to it, applies at all levels of decisionmaking. While the media may not be responsible for the United States "losing" the war in Vietnam, public reaction to the combat images brought into our homes most assuredly influenced the decisions made by the Johnson and Nixon Administrations on prosecution of the war. During the Gulf War in a speech covered live by the Cable News Network (CNN), Saddam Hussein called for a debate with President Bush; within thirty minutes, President Bush held a press conference to advise the world (and Saddam) that he had no intention of participating in such a debate. Even in non-democratic societies, both leadership and the general public are simultaneously aware of the results of policy decisions via television news coverage. The point here is that, as Professor Stein noted
the worldwide infosphere of television and broadcast news...[will] shape the political context of the conflict. It will define the new "battlespace." We face an "integrated battlefield," not in the usual sense of having a global positioning system (GPS) receiver in every tank or cockpit, but in the Clausewitzian sense that war is being integrated into the political almost simultaneously with the battle.8 Under such conditions, the distinctions between the tactical, operational, and strategic tend to blur into insignificance. Like it or not, the actions of a single soldier, caught by the international media, can potentially affect the outcome of a conflict.
The problem with this, Stein points out, is that this media-created world is a "fictive universe," not because the images are untrue, but because they do not contain sufficient information to capture the context and totality of the truth. The average "sound bite" (actually a "video bite") on the news is somewhere between 8 and 12 seconds very little time to articulate a policy position. In a perfect world, decisionmakers would have perfect instant feedback on which to base subsequent policy decisions. In the real world, the temptation to rely on timely fictive feedback, as opposed to less timely but more fulsome feedback from intelligence or other official sources, may prove to be overwhelming.
Blurred Levels of War. Information technology is increasingly blurring the levels of war. Efforts at the tactical level of war at which engagements and battles are fought for limited objectives are aggregated at the operational level of war in the form of campaigns. This process musters broader efforts over wider terrain and space and time in a theater of operations. These in turn are directed toward the achievement of national war goals at the strategic level in theaters of war. These three levels of war historically have been distinguished by the size of forces and volume of resources employed, the breadth of terrain and space over which forces deploy, and the time expended in the prosecution of operations. There has been a realization, too, that these levels overlap somewhat.
Since at least the Napoleonic Era, the distinct military trends have been toward larger and more varied kinds of forces employed over increasingly broader terrain, space and distance, often with the decision cycles of operations consuming decreasing periods of time. Various aspects of information technology and IW provide the prospects for significant change in certain of these trends:
Hence, the discernible distinctions among the levels of war will be increasingly blurred; this will complicate the nature of political and military planning and decisionmaking. The "packaging" of IW into a division of labor that fits convenient military doctrine and organization may be pass‚. The smallest team of specialists, operating covertly under direct civilian control and tasking, could apply strategic, operational, or tactical IW tools against any level of an adversary's decision system. Military knowledge and supervision need not necessarily be a consideration in the planning, but may be significantly influenced by the results.
Blurred Civil-Military Divisions. In a similar fashion and for the same reasons, the Uptonian distinctions between the civilian and military realms9 are being blurred. The Clauswitzian concept of the trinity of "Army" (really "Armed Forces"), the "State," and the "People" is more valid than ever on one level: in the information age, the state and armed forces will no longer necessarily possess a monopoly over the means of violence especially "information violence." Further, national centers of gravity increasingly will reside in the civil sector. These centers of gravity include the national banking and finance industries and power generation and distribution systems. The civil sector, in terms of production and morale, has long been important to warfare. However, in an age when production is measured more in terms of intangible knowledge than tangible goods and the value of knowledge applies equally in both the civil and military sectors, the distinction between the two realms will blur even more. Further implications are that in the future civilian infrastructure will be an even more prominent target of attack than was the case in the industrial era, but it cannot be defended by military forces.
War as Work: Third-Wave War. The basic characteristics of the new "war-form" essentially mirror those in the civilian economy. As the Tofflers observed, nations make war the way they make wealth. The watch-words are information dominance and information assurance.
These characteristics of IW will affect combat arms, as well as combat service and combat service support functions, most markedly in terms of intelligence, signals, transportation and logistics.
War as Improvisational Theater.11 In the future, we will be operating in a very media-rich environment, where our military actions will be broadcast instantaneously via worldwide television. Think of the intelligence and operational security implications of private-sector news media operating their own remote-sensing imaging satellites, which certainly will happen within the decade. Consequently, military commanders must be increasingly adept at operating effectively in this environment. If we consider a military operations plan (OPLAN) a script, the ensuing events will increasingly resemble improvisational theater on a global stage where reactions of a variety of audiences and critics can ultimately determine the difference between success and failure in a political, if not military, sense.
At Mogadishu, Somalia, SEALs reconnoitering the beach in the glare of the lights of the assembled video cameras looked more silly than formidable. It was an inauspicious beginning to what was to become a well-intentioned but ultimately frustrating and futile military exercise.12 Consider also the image of illiterate thugs on the docks of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, who greeted U.S. and Canadian troops aboard the USS Harlan County, waving their English-language placards and shouting (for CNN's cameras) that Haiti would be "another Somalia for America." We then watched as the Harlan County steamed away, much to the consternation of the U.S. military advance party waiting on the wharf. When the U.S. advance elements of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's Implementation Force (IFOR) entered Tuzla, Bosnia, they found themselves outnumbered by the media at easily a ten-to-one ratio. Because the global information infrastructure is nothing if not interactive, commanders may find their OPLANs or "scripts" being rewritten as they go along. The level of "script" adaptability may be a critical predictor of success for military operations in the information age.13

Implications of Information Warfare

The United States and other Third-Wave societies are undergoing changes in both the ends and means (but not the purpose) of war. Despite these changes, it is highly unlikely that armed conflict will totally disappear into cyberspace. Proliferation of the Means of Conflict. The rigorous application of information technology to warfare means, first of all, that there will be a proliferation of the means of conflict. To the traditional means of firepower and maneuver will be added the means of attacking one's enemy ever more powerfully electronically. One can not only attack his command and control (C2) systems with destructive firepower, but with other destructive technological means. Disinformation, rumor, and propaganda have long been means of attack and these means are now enhanced. Some have speculated that effective deception operations are no longer possible in the age of satellite reconnaissance. The effectiveness of deception depends upon available "channels" of information and the penchant of one's opponent for self-deception. Hence, the possibilities for successful deception operations have never been better. Lethality versus Effectiveness. Electronic combat will potentially enable a commander to inflict "effective neutralization" upon his opponent without the necessity of physically destroying infrastructure, forces, or people. Military professionals often overlook the fact that the purpose of warfare is not "killing people and breaking things." Those have been the mechanics of war, not its purpose. The purpose of war is to inflict your will upon your opponent. If one's will can be imposed modifying the opponent's behavior or intent without widespread physical destruction, the post-conflict possibilities for political reconciliation and human progress may actually be enhanced. War in the information age holds out at least the prospect of that eventuality.
If this has validity, we now have the prospects of fundamentally changing the way we conduct war and the desired ends. The traditional ends of war were to destroy the opponents's forces in the field, in the air, and on the seas; to destroy his productive war capacity; to subdue his population; and to occupy his capital. With the destruction or disabling of his C2 capability and the ability to control the perceptions of his policy elites and population, there is the possibility of working one's will upon the opponent without necessarily wreaking physical havoc upon the infrastructure and population of the enemy. The calculation can be humanitarian or purely utilitarian in terms of preserving the economic wherewithal to sustain a viable and productive society with altered political aims.
Clausewitz and Anti-Clause-witz. Much of this analysis flies in the face of traditional Industrial- age warfare. In the military forces, there is an ingrained "Clausewitzian" value system, and we have been raised within it. Much of the foregoing discussion contradicts the Clausewitzian approach to warfare as taught in our staff and war colleges. Clausewitz still has much to contribute to military thinking, even in democratic societies. The trinity of state, armed forces, and people is crucial, and its continued importance cannot be over-emphasized, although his emphasis on physical destruction and annihilation may be outdated. The possibility of the decisive winning battle (at least in peer-competitor warfare) could theoretically be resurrected. The danger for "Third-Wave" societies is that the potential for success in this regard may well rest with niche-competitors in asymmetrical conflict.
Time, Distance, and Speed. Since the early days of the industrial age, time compression has increased, yet time has become more important. Clocks for centuries had only hour hands; today, many endeavors measure time in hundredths of seconds. Initially, transportation technology drove this compression. There followed the telephone and the facsimile machine, then television, which introduced the added dimension of more vivid graphical images. More recently, it has been the computer particularly the microprocessor linked via local- and wide-area networks. Thus, speed has increased ever more dramatically as a function of distance. The result is that distance means less and, hence, time is compressed.
The instant feedback provided by modern electronic communications affects the political, cultural and social spheres as readily as it does the commercial and military arenas. Recall President Bush's near-real-time response to Saddam's challenge to a debate on global television in 1990. By the same token, cultural and social trends proliferate very quickly among the Third-Wave countries and to the rest of the world. The global currency market now operates 24 hours a day, and the stock and commodity positions are calculated instantaneously. The U.S. Air Force's Air Tasking Order procedure now demands a 24-hour turn-around against military targets. Expectations. The result is not just efficiency the saving of time and labor. It is that, but it is far more. It changes peoples' expectations. They understand that they can know more about more things with a lower expenditure of effort and faster; this understanding turns to a want and then demand to know more, faster.
People's expectations also have changed by virtue of what they know. Reading about events is different from viewing vastly more life-like images on a screen. It is much more realistic, because interpretation is easier. It requires less imagination, and at the same time it fires the imagination. While people are drawn to the vividness of the images, they can be repulsed by those same images. The interpretation is more intense. Politically, the potent images of starving Somali children, butchered Rwandans, or a bludgeoned Los Angeles motorist virtually demand a prompt political response. Generations of computer technology will progress in 18 to 24 months, rendering corporate and government management and procurement policies laughable.
For the military, and government generally, the omnipresent and seemingly omniscient global media mean that every decision and action is immediately transparent to national and international scrutiny. For now, even a single military casualty will be the subject of immediate coverage and public scrutiny. The risks will be hyper-sensitive decisionmaking and timid military leadership in the face of fickle public emotions.
Erosion of State Sovereignty. Increasingly, the traditional attributes of the nation-state are eroding, and much of this erosion results from the influence of information technology. In the age of information violence, the state will not be able to dominate the means of force, nor will the state necessarily be able to deter or defend against information attack. States also are no longer the only or necessarily the most important actors in the international arena. Increasingly, the non-state actors deal across state boundaries with each other and with states on a nearly independent footing. There is a general erosion of the concept of sovereignty. While some of the nation-states are "failing" because they cannot fulfill the basic traditional criteria of sovereignty, mature and successful states also are witnessing a similar erosion of traditional controls, largely as a result of the effects of information technology. The state will not fade away. States will remain as primary and important actors in the international arena, but they will represent only one of many forms of political organization, power, and interaction.14
Global Information. National control of information is tenuous if it is possible at all. The same is true for IW. Moreover, the global information infrastructure is becoming more ubiquitous every day. With the multiplicity of media, access, and service-providers comes a redundancy and survivability that challenges the notion of denial and disruption of service. The threshold of the information age saw the successful severing of Panamanian and later Iraqi command, control and communications and telecommunications, but the world has learned from these experiences. Aiding the learning process has been a steady erosion in the acquisition and operating costs of digital communications. Whether the threat is fire, flood, or IW, systems developers continually add new tools to their capabilities for assuring service via alternate routes and standby systems.
Public Diplomacy. "Public diplomacy" is a term that refers generally to those government activities designed to inform and influence foreign publics. If traditional diplomacy is state to state, public diplomacy is from state to the foreign populace. Although not a new concept, it has taken on new importance over the past decade as a result of the global communication explosion. Moving beyond the traditional, usually defensive, concept of the Public Information Office, the U.S. military has developed mechanisms like the Military Information Support Team in Haiti and the Combined Joint IFOR Information Task Force in Bosnia. The intent of both is to aggressively pursue the public information quotient in support of military operations.

Conflict in the Information Age

War, Conflict, and Force. All war and conflict will not change, but in many cases it will. The purpose of war will not change from that of imposing one's will on one's opponents. The nature of war, however, will change considerably. In forces configured for IW, the preference will be conflict dominated by the advanced nature of decision systems and by more subtle means of waging war. These forces configured for IW will have at their disposal a wider array of the means of destruction, but the nature of those mechanisms will result in proliferating the means of conflict. The traditional means of firepower and maneuver will be augmented and perhaps in the long run replaced by methods of attacking one's opponents with electronic technological methods. The ultimate outcome of applying those methods, however, will not necessarily be free of lethal outcomes.14
It is a common conceit of advanced nations and their armed forces that they can impose their wills on the lesser powers and relatively primitive forces through application of advanced technological means. Painful historical experience since the late 19th century indicates just the opposite. "Low-intensity" conflict (or the current concept of "operations other than war") is not a "lesser case" of higher-order strategy and doctrine and the tactics, techniques, and procedures that support them. Relatively primitive forces will and do have access to sophisticated technology, and they will know how to use it. Advanced technology will be increasingly available. While such relatively sophisticated concepts as "air-battle management," "air-land operations," and "dominating maneuver" might be lost on them, there will be some opponents who do understand "perception management" and "information warfare" in its rudimentary sense.
Another conundrum will face sophisticated military forces: the possible passage of what might be called "heroic warfare." If the Tofflers are approximately correct that a hallmark of future combat is "brains over brawn," a change will be required in the selection, retention, development, and promotion of "cyber-warriors" who attack the enemy and defend the nation by means other than cold steel and hot lead. This possibility might appeal more to a nation that shies from incurring combat casualties; it likely will appeal less to their military subcultures that intrinsically value blood sport, distance running, and the machismo self-image.
The Social Impact of Information War. It is difficult for democratic society to discern "good news" from the prospects of war. If there is any good news to infer from the kind of warfare likely to predominate in the 21st century, it might be the prospects for reduced levels of physical and human destruction. Among Third- Wave peer-competitors, at least, perhaps humankind will be spared the tens of millions of civilian and military deaths in World Wars I and II, and the prospects of thermonuclear annihilation during the Cold War era.
It is equally difficult, however, to foresee the end of total war in a world increasingly dominated by technology. In the future, it might be possible for technologically sophisticated societies to truly wage war against the very fabric of the opponent's society and to do so digitally. For generations now, we have witnessed indiscriminate attacks against civilian populations by military forces. The world likely will not be spared the genocide in Rwanda, the senseless waste in Liberia, or the religio-ideological destruction of Afghanistan. In the future, it may be increasingly difficult to detect the attacker and indeed perhaps from what quarter and for what purpose. One could envision a politico-military future in which irregular warfare might be possible on an unprecedented scale. The targets (ours or theirs) need not be physical infrastructure, but a nation's financial, automated distribution, and communications systems.
A primary characteristic of the nation-state era has been state monopoly of the means of violence. We surely are witnessing in both Third-Wave/First- World and First-Wave/Third-World societies a trend away from state monopoly of lethal violence. In a future characterized by cyberwar, technology offers the prospect of non-state possession in abundance of the "non-lethal" means of violence.


1. Alvin and Heidi Toffler, War and Anti-War: Survival at the Dawn of the 21st Century (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1993).
2. Joseph S. Nye, Jr., and William A. Owens, "America's Information Edge," and Eliot A. Cohen, "A Revolution in Warfare," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 75, No. 2 (March-April) 1996, 20-36 and 37-54, respectively.
3. While the pedigree is difficult to track, it appears that Thomas P. Rona may have coined the term "information war" as early as 1976 in a study written for Boeing Corporation, entitled "Weapons Systems and Information War."
4. George J. Stein, "Information Warfare," in Campen, Dearth, and Goodden (Editors), Cyberwar: Security, Strategy, and Conflict in the Information Age (Fairfax, VA: AFCEA International Press, 1996), 175-183.
5. Toffler, particularly 81-85.
6. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction 3210.01, 2 January 1996, p. 6. This rather labored definition has replaced the more common-sense 1994 definition: "actions taken to achieve information superiority in support of national military strategy by affecting adversary information and information systems while leveraging and protecting our information and information systems."
7. See John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, Cyberwar Is Coming!, RAND P-7791, 1992; and Philippe Baumard, "From Info War to Knowledge War: Preparing for the Paradigm Shift," in Campen, Dearth, and Goodden (editors), Cyberwar: Security, Strategy, and Conflict in the Information Age, 147-160.
8. Stein, 177.
9.The distinction between the realms espoused by Major General Emory Upton. See Russell F. Weigley, The American Way of War (Bloomington: Indiana Univ Press, 1973) 168-171, 221.
10. Toffler, 64-80. The orient, observe, decide, and act (OODA) concept originated with U.S. Air Force Colonel John Boyd in the 1970s.
11. Information Technologies and the Future of Land Warfare, RAND Study DDR-659-A, February 1994 (draft).
12. This unfortunate incident was the fault of neither the SEAL Team nor of the waiting journalists. U.S. officials had informed the latter of the landing site. The SEALs apparently did not know that U.S. forces would meet no hostile resistance, and they were following "normal" procedures. The oversight in proper coordination lay with senior planners, who failed to grasp the importance of melding purely military concerns and operations with public diplomacy requirements and activities.
13. RAND DDR-659-A.
14. The literature concerning this phenomenon is voluminous. For one of the best discussions, see Walter B. Wriston, The Twilight of Sovereignty: How the Information Revolution is Transforming Our World (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1992).
15. See Winn Schwartau, "Ethical Conundra of Information Warfare," in Campen, Dearth, and Goodden (Eds), Cyberwar: Security, Strategy, and Conflict in the Information Age, 243-249.
Mr. Dearth teaches at the Joint Military Intelligence Training Center. A veteran of 25 years in the intelligence business, he has served on the Army War College faculty; as advisor to the Commander, U.S. Special Operations Command; and as Special Assistant to the Executive Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Readers can reach Mr. Dearth via E-mail at dhdearth, and by telephone (202) 231-3290 and DSN 428-3290.