Shifting the Fog of War

Shifting the Fog of War: Information Technology and Practice in Military Organizations

Book manuscript, under review

Does information technology improve military performance? The belief that it does is prevalent in military thought, recurring in ideas such as the American “electronic battlefield” in the 1970s, the Soviet “reconnaissance-strike complex” in the 1980s, the “revolution in military affairs” in the 1990s, Chinese “informationization” in the 2000s, and the American “third offset” in the 2010s. In practice, however, militaries flush with network technology have experienced confusion, bureaucratic dysfunction, and disappointing strategic results, exemplified by the American misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. The technologies designed to reduce uncertainty, ironically, become new sources of it. This book offers an alternative to the popular “technology theory of victory” by examining the actual experience of people waging war in an information-intensive environment.

Computer networks mediate almost every effort to gather, store, process, display, analyze, and communicate information in modern militaries. Different social interactions with the same technologies can produce different qualities of knowledge and control, which in turn affects combat outcomes. This book provides a framework for understanding “information practice,” an important intervening process translating the material and intellectual capabilities of a military organization into battlefield performance. The quality of information practice varies depending on the degree of constraint in the strategic problem and the degree of institutionalization in the organizational solution. When practitioners are able to coordinate the strategic demand for information with the organizational supply, then information technology can enhance military performance. Unfortunately, pragmatic coordination becomes more difficult as military systems and operations become more complex.

This book explores the micro-foundations of military power in the information age through a series of historical and ethnographic studies of the U.S. military experience after the Cold War, together with a comparative study of the Battle of Britain. It adds to a growing literature on military effectiveness demonstrating that force employment and administrative management, not just technological quality or force quantity, are critical for success in war. It also provides a novel explanation for why the United States, despite huge American advantages in information technology, has struggled for so long in unconventional warfare against weaker asymmetric adversaries. It also helps to explain why the United States retains important advantages against advanced military competitors like China that, despite huge Chinese investment in information technology, are less prepared to cope with the complexity of modern information practice.

Table of contents:

1. Information Technology and Military Power

I introduce the notion of information practice through my experience as a practitioner during the Kosovo and Iraq wars, including the “problematic practice” that resulted in the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy; then I review the popular “technology theory of victory” and criticism of it in the academic literature on military innovation and effectiveness.

2. A Framework for Understanding Information Practice

I provide a theoretical framework to explain (1) how information practice works to produce knowledge and control, (2) how different degrees of constraint in the environment and organization produce different qualities of practice and military performance, and (3) how strategic interaction and organizational innovation tend to increase the complexity of practice over time.

3. Regulated Practice in the Battle of Britain

Stable strategic constraints and prior organizational institutionalization in the Battle of Britain enabled performance-enhancing “regulated practice” for the Royal Air Force, while Germany suffered from more “insulated practice” in the face of a more ambiguous problem.

4. Adaptive Practice in Aviation Mission Planning

Dynamic changes in the strategic environment of the 1990s and a decentralized community of skilled practitioners in the U.S. military promoted “adaptive practice” that produced innovative software and enhanced mission accomplishment; by comparison, centrally-managed systems procured from defense contractors were more insulated and less functional.

5. Insulated Practice in Naval Special Warfare

A participant-observer study of special operations in Iraq in 2007-2008 show how the interaction of an ambiguous counterinsurgency problem and a strongly institutionalized warrior identity reinforced the insular tendencies of the Naval Special Warfare community, even as other units in the same theater enacted more regulated counterterrorism performance (e.g., Joint Special Operations Command) or more adaptive counterinsurgency performance (e.g., Marines in Anbar).

6. Complex Practice in U.S. Drone Campaigns

The information system that enabled U.S. drone counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen was the product of the dynamic interaction between changing information problems, solutions, and practices; the complexity of the system increased endogenously over time without, however, producing lasting performance advantages.

7. Strategic Implications of Information Practice

An understanding of the microfoundations of military power in the information age can inform assessments of important strategic and grand strategic problems, such as the magnitude of the threat of Chinese “informationization,” the institutional requirements of the American “third offset” to counter it, the prospects of intelligence-driven counterterrorism in “contested zones” around the world, the viability of nuclear targeting strategies in “the new era of counterforce,” and nature of the threat of “cyberwar.”