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The New Face of War

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
March 23, 2003
The Washington Post


How War Will Be Fought in the 21st Century
By Bruce Berkowitz
Free Press. 257 pp. $ 26

What will be the most important determinant of U.S. military success in Iraq? The firepower delivered by American bombers and missiles? The bravery and skills of our soldiers? The cunning strategies of our generals? Bruce Berkowitz, a former CIA analyst turned RAND and Hoover Institution scholar, argues that the answer is none of the above. "Today the ability to collect, communicate, process and protect information is the most important factor defining military power" -- more important than armor, firepower or mobility, he writes in The New Face of War. Therefore, he argues, defeating Saddam Hussein, or any other opponent, requires winning the "information war."

Berkowitz does not set out to systematically defend this thesis, which is sure to be resisted by some traditional "ground pounders," as infantry forces are colloquially called in the U.S. military. But most readers likely will be convinced by the strong second chapter of The New Face of War. Titled simply "An Afghan Hard Drive," it describes how the war on terrorism is really a battle for information dominance pitting the United States against al Qaeda. America's foes may be fanatics, but they're not primitive; they make cunning use of laptops, the Internet and cell phones to coordinate their attacks. Berkowitz shows how the terrorist network is organized into autonomous cells "linked together by a secure, networked communications systems." America paid a heavy price on Sept. 11 because it failed to penetrate this global network.

But when U.S. Special Forces entered Afghanistan, they used information technology to turn the tables on al Qaeda. Like their enemies, the Americans depended on "dispersion, covertness and stealth." Once the United States had the information advantage -- the Green Berets could pinpoint targets for hovering aircraft while remaining unseen -- the Taliban and al Qaeda were routed.

Having demonstrated IT's value, Berkowitz spends the rest of the book examining different aspects of info-war and how it came into being. He does not offer a comprehensive history of IT warfare, but rather a few snapshots centered on idiosyncratic individuals. They include Tom Rona, a Hungarian-born scientist who, while employed at Boeing in 1976, coined the term "information war"; John Boyd, a former fighter pilot who posited that winning a battle required completing an "OODA loop" (observation, orientation, decision, action) faster than your enemy; and RAND analysts John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, who "explained how interconnected, digital communications were changing how to organize a military force." The point of Berkowitz's stories is not always completely clear (why take up so much space recounting a conversation he had with Ronfeldt about how IT is changing stock car racing?), but his engaging style, with its touches of wry humor, carries the reader along.

Berkowitz is no mindless advocate of IT as a military panacea. In fact, he deftly deflates the hype of some cyberwar boosters. In his view, media coverage of computer viruses has given most people an exaggerated image of what such attacks can accomplish. An "electronic Pearl Harbor," he suggests, is unlikely because "it is really, really hard to do sophisticated attacks against a lot of computers, especially an attack that would achieve a meaningful military objective."

The most controversial part of his book may be his argument against imposing export controls on high technology -- controversial, that is, among defense wonks, not among computer geeks, for whom the free flow of information is an inalienable right. Like many in Silicon Valley, Berkowitz suggests that "information technology is so widely available that it is almost always impossible to control."

But then he adds an interesting twist of his own. It's better to sell your systems to the enemy than to have him buy from someone else, he argues, because that way you'll know his weaknesses and be able to exploit them. That's precisely what England did during the Falklands War when it fought Argentine armed forces equipped with British-made bombs. The Argentines didn't realize that their munitions wouldn't explode if dropped from below 200 feet; the British did, and adjusted their tactics accordingly. This is a clever illustration, but there are obvious dangers in carrying this argument too far; probably not even Berkowitz thinks it would be a good idea to export B-2 Stealth bombers to China.

Berkowitz's conclusion -- that "we all need to prepare for combat in the Information Age" -- is no more than common sense. The value of The New Face of War is that it offers a user-friendly introduction to this complex subject. *

Max Boot is Olin senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power."