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Shifting the Fog of War

Shifting the Fog of War: Information Technology and Military Power

Book manuscript, under review

The argument:

Information technology can improve military performance, but only if organizations can coordinate strategic information problems with bureaucratic solutions; unfortunately, increasing operational complexity undermines successful coordination.


Does information technology improve military power? The belief that it does is prevalent in military thought. In practice, however, militaries flush with network technology have often experienced confusion and disappointing results in war, as exemplified by the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Enemy counteraction or bureaucratic dysfunction can undermine even the most sophisticated systems. This book explains why some militaries perform well in information age combat while others struggle. It argues that when organizations can coordinate the strategic demand for information with the bureaucratic supply, then it becomes possible for information technology to improve “situational awareness,” which, in turn, can improve the efficiency and precision of military operations. Mismatches, however, create debilitating “fog and friction” that can reinforce counterproductive behavior and undermine battlefield performance. Unfortunately, the coordination of informational supply and demand becomes more difficult as the complexity of military operations increases, as it has in recent decades. This book tests this “coordination theory” against the popular “technology theory” through a series of historical and contemporary case studies that systematically vary strategic and organizational conditions. It adds to a growing literature on military innovation and effectiveness by showing how structure and bureaucracy interact to shape strategic outcomes. It also provides a novel explanation for why the United States, despite its huge advantages in information technology, has struggled for so long in contested land environments even as it retains advantages against competitors like China in common maritime and cyber domains who are less prepared to cope with sociotechnical complexity.  

Chapter summaries:

0.       PREFACE. This chapter provides the personal context for this project, presenting the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade as a motivating case of military failure despite, and in part because of, American reliance on information technology.

1.       INTRODUCTION. This chapter describes how military organizations and operations have changed in the information age, describes the popular “technology theory” of military performance, raises empirical and logical problems with it, and summarizes the book’s argument, empirical findings, and implications for grand strategy and defense policy.

2.       THEORY. This chapter presents “coordination theory,” which explains why information is important for military performance and how the strategic demand for information and the bureaucratic supply determine the ability of information technology to improve military performance or undermine it.

3.       BATTLE OF BRITAIN. This exemplary case of victory through better information (and an important historical antecedent for modern U.S. command and control) confirms the logic of coordination theory by demonstrating that a clear military task complemented by a standardized bureaucratic system can enable information technology to improve military performance.

4.       MISSION PLANNING. In the more complex American air campaigns of the late 1990s and early 2000s, official bureaucratic mission planning systems encountered problems, but airmen who informally adapted commercial software enabled performance improvements, which are both outcomes that coordination theory can explain but technology theory cannot.

5.       SPECIAL OPERATIONS. Informal adaptation of information technology (as in the previous case) is not a panacea, but on the contrary, can even reinforce counterproductive tendencies in military cultures (unlike what technology theory leads us to expect), as shown in this participant-observer study of the information systems used by U.S. Naval Special Warfare (Navy SEALs) in Iraq’s Anbar Province.

6.       DRONE WARFARE. This chapter tests the dynamic expectations of coordination theory against the static expectations of technology theory in a case study of the evolution of U.S. drone-based counterterrorism campaigns, during which strategic interaction between combatants caused the situational and organizational contexts to change over time, producing all four of the outcomes of coordination theory in turn. 

7.       CONCLUSION. The conclusion summarizes the implications of coordination theory (and the folly of technology theory) for U.S. grand strategy and defense policy, challenging the widespread pessimism about the Chinese “anti-access/area-denial” threat, misguided optimism about American nuclear counterforce capabilities, unrealistic expectations for American success in irregular warfare, and the exaggerated threat of cyber warfare.