The pieces by Mahnken, Singer and Harp all point to an increasing dependence on information technology:

  • strategically, to help overcome weaknesses elsewhere (such as demographics);
  • operationally and tactically to secure battlefield advantage and in an effort to gain certainty; and
  • in terms of resourcing and capability, to enhance existing systems.

As Harp notes, the reliance on information technology to deliver an ‘edge’ now lies across a range of domains, from warfighter to strategic strike to counterinsurgency to humanitarian missions.  And increasingly the end-users of capability are ‘digital natives’  comfortable in information-saturated environments, who not only rely on information and social technologies, but expect those technologies in their work as well.

The use of information technologies increase the West’s dependence on immediacy as the dominant paradigm.  The effort to ‘get inside the OODA loop’ is an expression of immediacy, as is the collapse of time, space and hierarchy as generals seek to direct their lieutenants through real-time video.

Immediacy indeed can be useful in the tactical level, but its utility lessens as we move from the tactical through the operational to the strategic.  As we ascend the layers, immediacy becomes one of a range of considerations, such as positioning, sustainability, escalation (and de-escalation) and political ends.  A preference for speed risks excluding other means of shaping the environment and achieving strategic objectives.

In the Iraq invasion, a broader and heavier footprint was eschewed for speed and leadership decapitation.  Subsequent experience from both Iraq and Afghanistan emphasised the importance of slower, more patient understanding of change-resistant traditions, and of the time needed to build trust with communities.

Greater reliance on information technologies increases interconnectedness.  Considering organisation purely as information processes—a very IT-centric view—the behaviour of the organisation is a function of its network structure and the information-processing capability of its agents.  A completely connected structure—every agent connected to every other agent—would, one may think, have the highest possible processing capability.  But that would assume a) infinite processing capability on the part of the agents; b) immediate information transfer, with no delays or attenuation; c) completely accurate information.

None of those assumptions holds, of course.

People have limited processing capability, and we filter information and exclude data that does not fit with our preconceptions.  Even real-time systems suffer from delays, though they may be imperceptible–and data may take time to assemble itself into meaningful information.  Nor do we necessarily want the immediate to crowd out the important.

Moreover, we reinterpret data and information as it arrives and is processed—and errors creep in and are rapidly magnified through speed and linkages.  And information is contextual, and context doesn’t always translate easily through technology.  High degrees of interconnectedness increase system complexity and the chances that poor or simply wrong information will cascade across technological and social networks.

Such systems can be self-correcting, when, for example, individual agents have the ability (and authority) to self-correct, the wider context and information to self-correct, and there exists source in which they have sufficient degree of trust.  The latter, of course, is not necessarily the government or highest authority.

All this implies that to be effective, increased reliance on information technologies has to be accompanied with changes to social systems and organisation.  Social organisations are far more adaptable than brittle, complicated IT systems—and the more sophisticated the technical systems, the more fragile it is.  The popularity of current social networking technologies is that they are lightweight and match much more closely social organisation.  They don’t match top-down command and control or silo organisations.

Briefly, we can expect that information technologies, amongst other attributes, will

  • Enhance speed and immediacy as discussed—the challenge will be to avoid their temptations, but take the long view and choose their use wisely;
  • Allow the retrieval of past patterns of behaviours—both sides can build up ‘pattern libraries’.  Terrorists and insurgents already scout out targets using information retrieved from the internet and Google Maps; human terrain teams seek to understand and map the social environment in which the military operates.  Information technologies can capture conversations, traffic streams, local weather conditions, trade flows and so on ;
  • Reverses traditional command and control, both as illustrated by Singer, but also through enabling different means of organising (for example, swarms, ‘pop-ups’).  The need for human capital—skilled, experienced, and educated people, both military and civilians—will increase: it takes people to programs, understand, assess and make judgments on the vast streams of data enabled through technology; and
  • Obsolesce old platforms, as old platforms are made vulnerable by new technologies and, as Harp points out, advantage in a shift from platforms to systems  It also enables new capabilities to be developed, and implemented quickly.