19 March 2009

Micromanagement to a new level?

The information revolution has transformed how we conduct the business of warfare. While the Fog of War will always be a reality, we can help cut through that with amazing information technologies, such as the FBCB2 system--a system which tracks the location and identity of thousands of Coalition vehicles, and can be used to help them navigate with sophisticated mapping and GPS systems, as well as communicate through text-messaging, and even plan out mission briefings with a touch-screen display transmitted to other vehicles. Friendly forces can view the locations of units and communicate with them thousands of miles away.

But this information revolution has a dark side. The same technology which allows our Tactical Operations Centers to track the location of dozens of patrols and combat missions can also give rise to some darker human nature. Much as Powerpoint, originally a simple communications program, gave rise to the wasteland that is now the military briefing, so can these systems give way to extreme micromanagement, as an article in Defense News (and a thread on Small Wars Jounal) seems to indicate.

The ripple effects of robotics on leadership even affects the strategic level. Many have discussed the idea of "strategic corporals," younger and younger troops who are being given greater and greater power and responsibility. But the rise of robots has created an opposite phenomenon - a dirty little secret that people in the service are somewhat afraid to talk about for risk of their own careers. I call it the rise of the "tactical generals."

Our technologies are making it very easy, perhaps too easy, for leaders at the highest level of command not only to peer into, but even to take control of, the lowest level operations. One four-star general, for example, talked about how he once spent a full two hours watching drone footage of an enemy target and then personally decided what size bomb to drop on it.

Similarly, a Special Operations Forces captain talked about a one-star, watching a raid on a terrorist hideout via a Predator, radioing in to tell him where to move not merely his unit in the midst of battle, but where to position an individual soldier.

Indeed, back in 2003, I remember a senior chief warrant officer bemoan these new systems, claiming that the ability of a general to view a rifle squad was going to take micromanagement to new extremes. Verily, a blog post from 2003 talked about generals sitting in a tactical operations center and being absolutely mesmerized by the feed from a Predator UAV, surmising that the ability of a Predator UAV to show generals the battle gave them the feeling as if they were actually fighting the battle. Today, we refer to the Predator feeds as "Predator Crack", alluding to their addictive nature.

On a more somber note, the extreme micromanagement of tactical units by high-ranking defense officials has many disheartening echos of Robert MacNamera deciding which bombs to drop on which bridges in the middle of air raids during the early stages of the Vietnam War.

Maneuver warfare is based on the ability to successfully execute OODA Loops, and indeed, these systems greatly enhance that ability. But it's also based on trust of subordinates and not holding back these units. We've all been impacted positively by these communication and navigational systems, but how can we use them more responsibly to ensure they don't wind up corrupted like Powerpoint?

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