The New Face of War: How War Will Be Fought in the 21st Century, by Bruce D. Berkowitz, New York: Free Press, 272 pages, $26
The CIA at War: Inside the Secret Campaign Against Terror, by Ronald Kessler, New York: St. Martin's Press, 496 pages, $27.95
During the 1999 Kosovo war, American forces pounded Serbian ground targets from the skies. Less famously, they also attacked with what Pentagon strategists call information operations, or I.O. The goal was to cause economic and political panic in the Serbian leadership. The methods ranged from cutting electrical power to hacking bank accounts to spamming e-mail boxes and Web servers. Important buildings were destroyed by cruise missiles and pinpoint munitions after a series of fax and phone messages appeared, delivering clear warnings of the attack and fomenting fear in the classic psychological operations mode.
By most assessments, this campaign had little effect. It did not fatally weaken the Serbian infrastructure. Coordination was ill-defined, legal problems persisted (is an electronic attack an attack on civilians?), and the effort was beset by such unforeseen problems as foreign ownership of some targeted media enterprises. Despite American advantages in Internet experience and programming power, no virus shut down Belgrade; the city did not endure the "digital Pearl Harbor" of so many I.O.-fueled speculations. Indeed, Serbs also took to the Net, fighting for media dominance internally and abroad and perhaps hacking in return.
Such results disappointed those with high hopes for information warfare. But the approach has remained part of the American arsenal, and it has expanded vigorously since 9/11, albeit with unclear results. Two new books, Bruce Berkowitz's The New Face of War and Ronald Kessler's The CIA at War, attempt to describe and assess I.O. in the context of the war on terror.
Each author argues that information operations have transformed American forces: That they've led to smaller, more flexible units -- and more flexible doctrine. Kessler's account ascribes the changes to the last phase of the Cold War, the rise of anti-terror operations, and personnel changes within the CIA. Berkowitz prefers a larger scope: He argues that the development of I.O. goes back decades, culminating in the first stage of a global shift to information warfare.
Berkowitz, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, begins in the 1950s, as a series of thinkers recognized that the Cold War was linking vast military machines, nations, and globe-spanning alliances into new information networks. One function of those networks was the systematic, in-depth assessment of the other side's capabilities, in comparison with one's own, combining intelligence operations abroad and analysis at home. By the early '70s, the RAND Corporation's Andrew Marshall and Albert Wohlstetter offered an innovative analytical method which looked for imbalances between two forces.
At that time, the Pentagon was working from a parity model, trying to balance Soviet forces with its own at every register. In contrast, some threats were not so balanced. Short- and medium-range missiles, ineffective against the American homeland when based in the USSR, became dire threats when relocated to Cuba; submarines stationed offshore offered the capability not to counter American subs, but to decapitate the United States' command and control apparatus.
While concerns about these asymmetric threats prompted a series of American responses to perceived Soviet imbalances, asymmetry also became applicable to other forces without the size and resources of the USSR, such as the Vietnamese National Liberation Front or the Somali urban war clans. An American military built to fight the Warsaw Pact in a conventional war on the German plains had to rethink its approach when confronted by the drastically underresourced Viet Cong.
Asymmetry combined with networks in 1976, when Boeing published engineer Thomas Rona's Weapons Systems and Information War. This monograph argued that communications and information support networks were sufficiently linked and cross-dependent to be inviting targets. In Berkowitz's words, "this meant that the best way to defeat your enemy was to attack the components of its information systems, and Rona was broad-minded in defining 'component.' It included the hardware, of course, but it could just as easily be software, the people operating the system, or the data that traveled through it."
A World War II example shows the implications of this insight. When the British cracked the German ENIGMA cryptography scheme, they had several options: They could use information gleaned from German messages to strike military targets pre-emptively, maintain the illusion that they had not broken the code so they could continue to decrypt German messages, or use the code to feed the Germans misinformation.
The New Face of War calls this "the Perennial Question of Information Warfare," arguing that it recurs to the present day: "Deny, deceive, destroy, or exploit? Do you transmit your own smoke signals to interfere with his? Do you send bogus signals to confuse your adversary so that he is easier to kill? Do you find the enemy sending the message and kill him? Or do you quietly watch the signals so you know where your adversary plans to be, head him off, and kill him then?"
When one thinks of information as an essential part of military operations, this question covers much broader ground. Berkowitz explains its importance by drawing on the work of the Air Force colonel and influential military theorist John Boyd. Considering the defeat of American F-105s by MiG-17s over Vietnam, Boyd theorized that military opponents fought each other through a sequence of steps: observation, orientation, decision, then action. He called this the "OODA loop." American pilots were flying faster aircraft than their enemies but were nevertheless outmaneuvered by Soviet planes using better intelligence on the ground (observation) and smaller turning radii (orientation), thus getting a jump on rapid decision and action.
The party that completes its loop faster has a huge advantage over its enemy. Critically, information is central to each cycle -- information about the enemy, the situation, and one's own forces. "This was the real answer to the Perennial Question," Berkowitz argues. "You can collect, analyze, and move your information faster than your opponent to get an edge." This means a combination of something like special forces operations with knowledge management: You weaken the enemy's cycle processing while speeding up your own loop to finish first. The September 11 attacks were a successful OODA run, with Al Qaeda striking before American intelligence and military agencies were able to connect the dots and react decisively.
The first major test combining these concepts for offensive purposes came during the first Persian Gulf War, with the desert flanking move that checkmated Iraqi forces in Kuwait. A small American task force led a pinpoint attack on Iraqi radar and communication systems, preventing the Iraqis from gathering information about what was going on in their western desert and stalling them in the first O of Boyd's OODA loop. At the same time allied flanking units used geographical positioning systems and a well-defended network to keep observing, while remaining oriented within the larger battle plans. Berkowitz differs with the received wisdom regarding this move, arguing that at that point "speed, usually critical to turning the corner in a traditional flanking maneuver, was not the most important factor. Even if they had not been fast, the Coalition forces could have outflanked the Iraqis, simply because the Iraqis could not see them, had no idea where they were, and did not know where they might reappear."