It’s easy to understand how superior information helped U.S. forces succeed in, say, the Gulf War or in Kosovo. But as Berkowitz explains, information was also a key factor for forces like the Mogadishu mob that fought the U.S. Army in Somalia in 1993. It relied on a network of cellular phones and burning tires to send information about U.S. troop movements.
Unlike much of the military literature published since the Gulf War, Berkowitz does not simply tout the “revolution in military affairs”–the belief that technological advances are central to military power. In The New Face of War, he argues instead that a combination of “people, ideas, and hardware” determines victory. To make his case, Berkowitz draws on four major theories of warfare that have emerged in the last three decades. The first, known as “asymmetric warfare,” posits that one should use one’s strength to attack an enemy’s weakness. Though many people mistakenly believe this concept originated with guerrilla warfare or terrorism, its lineage dates to Sun Tzu and his ancient work, The Art of War. More recently, the United States embraced it as a way of balancing the scales during the Cold War. Unable to compete directly with the Soviet Union on a tank-for-tank, plane-for-plane basis, U.S. leaders recognized that by emphasizing their strength–such as the ballistic-missile submarine fleet–against areas of Soviet weakness, they could prevail. More recently, al Qaeda used asymmetric warfare against the United States; instead of attacking “hard” targets, like military installations, the terrorists bypassed the conventional battlefield entirely, striking directly at civilian targets to spread terror and hurt the economy.
The second part of Berkowitz’s theory hinges on information technology. Nearly 200 years ago, Clausewitz wrote of the “fog of war,” and how it obscured a commander’s ability to see the battlefield. Today, field commanders can see themselves, the enemy, and the terrain through this fog with the help of information technology. Moreover, Berkowitz writes, commanders now have the ability to attack their opponents’ information systems and blind or confuse them.
“Network-centric warfare” is the third foundation. Old armies were organized in extremely rigid ways because their communications were short-range and linear. Modern armies, Berkowitz argues, will increasingly disperse and work like the Special Forces teams in Afghanistan, supported by global satellite communications.
Finally, Berkowitz borrows heavily from the work of U.S. Air Force Col. John Boyd, whose ideas about military decision processes revolutionized the way America fought in the 1980s and 1990s. Boyd originally set out to determine why American pilots shot down so many MiGs in the Korean War, despite having planes generally regarded as inferior. Boyd discovered that the American fighters were more maneuverable than their Soviet-made counterparts. Over the course of a dogfight, this gave U.S. pilots an advantage that let them get behind their enemy and shoot him down. The critical variable was how fast a U.S. pilot could move from one decision to the next–how fast he could adapt to a rapidly changing environment.
This theory became known as “OODA” (for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act) and came to inform military decision making at every level. In the context of America’s war on terrorism, some have advanced this theory as an explanation for why the United States was so ill-prepared for September 11. Even had we known about al Qaeda’s intentions, this line of thinking goes, it would have taken the U.S. bureaucracy so long to observe, orient, decide, and act on the threat that the terrorists would still have had ample time to strike. OODA explains nearly any cat-and-mouse game of warfare: The winner is the one who can decide and act the fastest.
“There is no single approach that is always best, but the ultimate objective is always the same: collect, process, and apply information faster and better than your opponent,” writes Berkowitz, building on Boyd’s work. “Whoever gets to the end of his OODA loop first gets to take the first shot. In modern warfare, that’s often the only shot.” This statement rings especially true in the context of terrorism, where the first shot can kill thousands of civilians.
Ultimately, as Berkowitz hints, the debate over the new face of warfare is more than academic. Predictions about future conflicts drive Pentagon decisions about where to allocate resources. Next year, the Pentagon’s budget will exceed $380 billion dollars–roughly half the amount the CIA estimates is spent by the entire world on defense. It’s also a reason for pause. Much of the work of anticipating future wars is performed by the same defense contractors and Pentagon-funded think tanks that stand to collect those billions. To them, the new face of war is much more than a night of telling war stories; it’s a game of high-stakes poker.