McChrystal’s Network: It takes a Sea Change

It Takes a Network,” General Stanley A. McChrystal’s uneven and idiosyncratic essay on his tactical and operational challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan, shows how an adaptive enemy using 21st century technology changed his thinking about the “new front line of modern warfare.” McChrystal correctly identifies the characteristics of an emerging threat and details his adaptation to that threat. Unfortunately, he misses an opportunity to show how the institutional Army, and its obsession with doctrine and process, puts Army creativity in a headlock when facing new, non-linear phenomenon.wpid-48441166-2011-05-22-12-10.jpg

Facing Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and later the Taliban, McChrystal realized both had evolved into self-organizing and unstructured networks that were resilient and self-generating, employing ever changing tactics in response to U.S. military presence. Terrorist leaders used cell phones and the internet effectively to get out their global message and provide direction to their decentralized network of cells. After initially seeing the enemy as he saw himself, McChrystal found that traditional “indicators,” predictive of enemy action, were too numerous and non-linear to inform decision making. Further, intelligence sharing tended to stovepipe along organizational and cultural lines. To destroy the enemy’s decentralized, resilient networks, McChrystal’s troops had to create their own in order to find, fix, finish, exploit and analyze (F3EA) the enemy faster than it could evolve itself.

As a stylist, McChrystal is hard to like, with the reader constantly reminded of the general’s well known resume. He’s fond of details that do not advance his “network” point; “we left early, traveling light and small…,” and “we started to diagram AQI on white dry-erase boards.” And of course, the Petraeus name dropping.

After describing the seemingly lost art of battlefield circulation, McChrystal writes:

“But I was not alone. There were other combatants circling the battlefield. Mirroring our movements, competing with us, were insurgent leaders.”

Just McChrystal and the enemy, of course.

It’s a bit of a stretch when McChrystal writes “the emerging networks of Islamist insurgents and terrorists are fundamentally different from any enemy the United States has previously known or faced.” One wonders, what about the Viet Cong? Granted, the VC mirrored North Vietnamese Army units, except on a smaller scale. However, they were every bit the decentralized network that AQI and the Taliban are, only relying on couriers instead of cell phones and the internet. Like the Taliban, “Charlie” operated in the countryside, winning “hearts and minds” with the same brutality used so effectively by our enemies today.

In addition, McChrystal notes he had to create a “true” network to defeat a network. In fact, U.S. forces were already networked; It just wasn’t a very good “open” network. And technical descriptions of networks as “open” or “closed” tend to have more value in describing their robustness and effectiveness as information sharing and learning organisms. Clearly, McChrystal grew from his experience confronting the asymmetrical threats in Iraq and Afghanistan, but still views “true” networks as more like an ideal command post:

“A true network starts with robust communications connectivity, but also leverages physical and cultural proximity, shared purpose, established decision-making processes, personal relationships, and trust.”

In a true network, physical proximity matters little as distances are easily bridged. McChrystal himself notes that the enemy “leverage sophisticated technology that connects remote valleys and severe mountains instantaneously…” As far as established decision making protocols, they are in constant flux and adaptation to changes in situation, technology, tactics and personnel. These changes are, and ought to be, beyond the understanding, and control, of any one person. While many understand the characteristics of networks few follow the implications to their logical conclusions.

Indeed, writing on net-centric warfare and its implications for operational art, have been around since the early 90s.

Net-centric Warfare seeks to leverage information technologies to gain situational dominance and rapidly connect intelligence, sensors, and shooters into an efficient and resilient network. In 1996 Admiral William Owens introduced his ‘System of Systems’ paper linking the evolution of emerging technologies to enhanced command and control and distributed and efficient targeting. In ‘Power to the Edge’ Alberts and Hayes note that  today’s technology centric, complex military operations are too difficult for any one person to grasp, thus pushing the meaningful action to the periphery.

In addition, scientific and business writing on the science of networks have been around for years; Edmund O. Wilson’s groundbreaking work on ants and self-organization; the Toyota Aisin factory fire case study that showed the resilience of collaboration, non-centralized adaptation and emergence, as examples. Observing the evolution of the internet and the characteristics of networks, Duncan Watts in his excellent book ‘Six Degrees’ observed that hierarchical organizations are inherently inefficient at redistributing information:

“ A robust information-processing network, therefore, is one that distributes not only the production load but also the burden of information redistribution evenly as possible, thus maximizing the volume of information that can be processed without suffering breakdowns. And hierarchies, although they make highly efficient distribution networks, are extremely poor at redistribution. Imagine, for example, an organization in which every activity must be monitored, coordinated, and approved by a formal chain of command. In theory, such strictly hierarchical organizations do exist, the army being perhaps the quintessential example.”

It was precisely this imperative of information redistribution that McChrystal drew on his yellow legal pad. Noting that the Taliban is not an army or corporate structure, but more a community of interest, McChrystal writes:

“For the U.S. military that I spent my life in, this was not an easy insight to come by. It was only over the course of years, and with considerable frustrations, that we came to understand how the emergent networks of Islamist insurgents and terrorists are fundamentally different from any enemy the United States has previously know or faced.”

One cannot underestimate the impact of the Army’s obsession with doctrine and process: how standard operating procedures and “school solutions” permeate the day-to-day life of the soldier. In the safe confines of garrison life, this process focus provide leaders with peace of mind and organizational top cover.

But the real world is non-linear and context rules. As he tried to understand his enemy and create a more efficient network, McChrystal was fighting the baggage of decades of indoctrination; both his, and the junior leaders tasked with killing insurgents and terrorists. The network that emerged was bottom up fed, and something no one had envisioned. Indeed, “emergence” is another defining characteristic of networks with far reaching implications for current doctrines of command and control. At the end, McChrystal gets it right:

“Although we got our message out differently than did our enemies, both organizations increasingly shared basic attributes that define an effective network. Decisions were decentralized and cut laterally across the organization. Traditional institutional boundaries fell away and diverse cultures meshed. The network expanded to include more groups, included unconventional actors. It valued competency above al else – including rank. It sought a clear and evolving definition of the problem and constantly self-analyzed, revisiting its structure, aims, and processes, as well as those of the enemy. Most importantly, the network continually grew the capacity to inform itself.”

As military organizations move towards greater decentralization, counter intuitively, the commander becomes more important than ever in mission accomplishment. With decision-making pushed to “the edge” and the fight carried at the lowest level, only a wise leader can enable his subordinates the freedom of action to succeed. In his book, ‘Good to Great,’ Jim Collins noted that the CEO’s of great corporations were unassuming, behind the scenes enablers of their people. Their emphasis was to get the best people “on the bus” and let them guide the enterprise from the periphery-where the corporation met the customer.

The days of control freak commanders are nearing an end. The Army just needs to wake up and smell the complexity.


One Comment to “McChrystal’s Network: It takes a Sea Change”

  1. A solid analysis of the “emergence” of future warfare discussions! Most importantly, by focusing on the differences between networks and hierarchicies, as general forms, the amount of change required to break from traditional linear paradigms is clear. Wait till we face networks that aren’t just Taliban with AK-47s…….

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