Operation Overload in the shadow of the Somme

November 8, 1996

Information-warfare offers the prospect of a bloodless victory. Lawrence Freedman asks whether war without death is possible.

We have on offer visions of a cyber-war with "logic bombs" and "high energy radio frequency" guns the weapons of choice, and victory going to the least disoriented. The prospect of information warfare has been taken sufficiently seriously in the United States for President Clinton to create a Commission on Critical Information Protection and the National Security Agency to recruit 1,000 specialists in a new information warfare unit.

How seriously should we take such visions? The impact of the information revolution is profound. Computer power still appears to be doubling every 18 months or so. The number of Internet users - now 50 million worldwide - doubles every year. A single fibre-optic cable can carry 1.5 million conversations. We can see the impact from the changes underway in commerce and education. It would be surprising if the effects were not also felt on the conduct of military business.

There is nothing new in recognising information as a precious resource in warfare. The transmission of vital information was the purpose of the first marathon. It is not for nothing that the ancient Chinese strategist, Sun Tzu is much beloved of modern "cyber-warriors". His interest in the possibilities of a bloodless victory led him to many observations on how to acquire and use information, including concealment, confusion, deception and dissimulation. Sun Tzu also wrote of the importance of knowledge about the enemy and oneself.

The enthusiasts for strategic information warfare are looking well beyond the old intelligence game. The information flows which can be tapped are so extensive and constant that they can only be rendered intelligible by automatic processors which must then generate commands of equivalent speed and intensity so that appropriate action is taken. Human beings often seem barely to be in the loop, and they simply could not cope without this processing capacity.

Why then bother to target humans when they can be left helpless by depriving them of information support? This question resonates with a pronounced tendency in western strategy that reflects a cultural bias. We would prefer to avoid the pain, heartache and mess associated with destroying an enemy and with a minimum of risk to our own armed forces. The ideal seems to be a victimless war. The logic of this approach has been to target technologies rather than people. This is not only ethically more acceptable but also reflects a view that human beings are only as effective as the resources and technologies at their command allow.

In assessing this bundle of ideas there are some hard questions we need to ask. For example, dare we assume that this aspiration of a victimless war is widely shared? The West has always preferred to fight capital-intensive rather than labour-intensive wars. However, when advanced industrial countries fought each other the struggle for advantage encompassed capital and labour. More recently, with less reason to anticipate war among western states, and the threat from communist states receding, the impact of this preference has become more pronounced. The sheer strength of the material and technological base has led to the promotion of the United States and its allies to a conventional military ascendency that no other state or group of states can challenge.

As a result of the Gulf War, this is now well understood. If offered war, the West will only accept on its terms. Public opinion must be supportive, the result pre-ordained, and the conflict structured as a contest between conventional forces. As an exchange of fire it must be confined to military units. If targets that are civil and military are attacked the objective must be to disable rather than to hurt - to deny fighting forces their supplies, their energy and their leadership.

With the possible exception of China on an issue it believes to be essential to its territorial integrity, it is hard to envisage conflicts in which an enemy will engage us on anything approaching these terms. They will seek to impose their own terms by turning the terms of conflict towards something much more labour-intensive and broadly social rather than capital-intensive and narrowly military in its scope.

Saddam Hussein understood the principle when he tried to warn off the US before Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, by explaining to Ambassador April Glaspie that hers was not a country "which could lose 10,000 men in battle in a single day". Where Saddam failed was in execution.

The problem we may face therefore is more likely to be an "asymmetric" rather than "symmetric" war. If so, we will need to consider what this means about both our own and our potential enemy's vulnerabilities. To the extent that we will be fighting on our terms then we must keep the upper hand in electronic warfare and protect the means through which vital information can be collected, transmitted around a military organisation and then used. But we may not be fighting an enemy who has put much effort into attacking information systems of this sort. For example, understandably American military commanders are concerned about attacks on unarmed and easily-tracked satellites for navigation, intelligence, meteorology, communications and so on. But in practice, attempts at jamming and attacks upon ground stations appear to be more promising. Moreover, if their focus is on western public opinion, their priority is more likely to be civilian information systems. We should not, however, assume that civilian information systems represent easy targets. Common sense has led most users of modern information technology to take precautions. We have learned not to become dependent upon whatever equipment we are using at the time, to back-up electronic information continually, to keep open a number of lines of communication and sources of information. Moreover, it is in the nature of the information revolution that this is not too difficult. Most large organisations accept that they must control access to their systems and prevent mis-use, that they need procedures to detect viruses (of which some 8,500 are believed to be in circulation), and to prevent malfunctions from having catastrophic consequences.

For this reason an enemy might well be unsure about relying on clever and subtle forms of electronic warfare to disable a critical facility, especially when something cruder, simpler and probably more violent will do. Why become a hacker when it is as easy to be a bomber?

I do not argue that we have no need to worry about how to protect our information systems against mischief-makers, malcontents, criminals, terrorists or enemy states. What I am arguing about is the notion that this is the critical vulnerability. This conviction that information systems constitute The Critical Vulnerability seems to miss their most salient characteristic - which is the progressive reduction of dependence upon single sources of information and means of communication.

Like most other great innovations, the information revolution can be traced back to military imperatives but is being taken forward by its commercial possibilities. Civilian systems may be more efficient. The military imperatives do not just fade but the issue becomes whether they must still be met by dedicated programmes or whether the military can effectively buy off-the-shelf. If the latter course is chosen then more troubling thoughts arise. These systems are also likely to be as available to your enemy. The armed forces of a hostile state may be getting satellite images of a moderately high resolution from one of a number of commercial providers. In addition they will be able to fix positions using the Navstar global positioning system. Commercial receivers for Navstar far outnumber military receivers, and while their accuracy is not as great it is still pretty good. They may soon become standard equipment. Legal and technical minds are devising ways to limit this access or deny it at time of war. Such efforts may be thwarted by the intensity of commercial imperatives. If US satellite images come with too many restrictions then it is possible to turn to France, Russia and India.

In short, the multiplication of channels through which information can pass reduces dependence upon a single channel but also the opportunities to control the flow. There are few information "choke points", no "command of info-power" easily obtained, no "centre of gravity" to be targeted. If information dominance is achieved this is likely to be less the result of denial than overload - for example, by swamping the media with images and sound-bites. In general, new techniques and tactics are going to be needed to operate within this sphere of activity. Given the erosion of the barriers between civilian and military nets, one can assume that offensive and defensive operations will share much in common whether the campaigns are being waged against rival corporations, international criminal gangs or rogue states. The integration of civilian and military information nets is a significant development.

In different ways the information revolution alters the workings of all organisations it touches. It undermines hierarchies. It thwarts attempts at confidentiality and privilege in information access. It misleads and overwhelms those who mistake fragments of data for knowledge. It therefore puts a premium on a capacity for analysis more than collection. It challenges humans to keep themselves in the loop to ensure that automatic data processing does not produce results that they are unable to override. It requires a reappraisal of the nature of the civilian/military interface and a redesignation of responsibilities for dealing with challenges which can be as diverse as hyper-hackers, cyber-criminals and techno-terrorists yet can only be combatted with a set of very similar skills. This, by itself, offers an agenda for research and analysis. But we still must be clear that the information revolution does not offer the prospect of a virtual war, by creating a situation in which only information matters so that there is no point in fighting about anything other than information. Territory, prosperity, identity, order, values - they all still matter and provide the ultimate tests for a war's success. War is not a virtual thing, played out on screens, but intensely physical. That is why it tends to violence and destruction. Information technologies may help limit this tendency but they can never eliminate it.

Lawrence Freedman is professor of war studies, King's College, London and chairman of the International Centre for Security Analysis. This extract is taken from an inaugural lecture given on October 14.

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