Point Men for a Revolution
Can the Marines Survive a Shift from Platoons to Networks?
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 6, 1999; Page A1 CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. In a darkened room on this vast base, Lance Cpl. Jason Pautz, 19, of Fulton, Mo., is preparing to hit the beach in Monterey, 400 miles up the coast.
He and his Marine buddies will burst from their landing craft next Saturday, M-16s high, vests stuffed with ammo, into a sea of hungry, needy "civilians" speaking foreign languages, past actors impersonating CNN camera crews. They will be attacked by foes diabolically trained to fight like a Mogadishu clan people who intimately know the streets and one another. These Bad Guys will have a Weapon of Mass Destruction.
Before Pautz is an experimental weapon. It is a computer no wider than a spread hand. He will go into battle with it strapped to his chest. Antennae spring from his shoulders.
He can pop the computer open, look down, and there will be the screen, like a little fold-out tray. If he needs to enter something, he can tap on the keyboard. When he tucks his hands up to do this, he looks like a praying mantis.
The key to this weapon's power is that it is a network.
That's why the Monterey experiment, called "Urban Warrior," is far more than a war game. This exercise is not only about how technology will transform the way the Marines fight, but also how they think about who they are. It is about one of the big ideas of the Information Age the rise of human networks and the fall of hierarchies and about how this idea might reshape a traditional, top-down military organization. In that sense, the Marines' experiment serves as a case study for thousands of other organizations, from corporations to government, at the heart of America's economy and society.
The antennae coming out of Pautz's shoulders are supposed to connect him to the entire Marine Corps. The network hooks him to satellites overhead that, on a color map on Pautz's screen, instantly show him where he is, and where his buddies are. When he moves, his dot on the map moves. If he finds some Bad Guys and targets them, everybody can see. "Everybody" includes the pilots in the jet fighters overhead, the tacticians with the precision missiles on the ships over the horizon, and the cruisers with the Naval artillery. Soon, Pautz could plug binoculars with laser-range finders into the network, or a digital camera with cross hairs. Someday, he might talk to it. It might talk back.
As the young Marines training at Pendleton begin to see what this network can do, they start having a good time with it. One Marine marks his location and labels it "Don't kill me." This information blossoms on dozens of tiny chest screens around the room. Another location dot appears with the phrase "Sexy women are coming my way." A third Marine shows himself on the map and reports, accurately: "Everybody looks like a dork."
It's an open question how this network will perform in combat. But the implications are formidable.
Like many swords, this weapon cuts two ways.
An electronic network may give the Marines unprecedented flexibility, adaptability and competitiveness, but it may also fundamentally unravel the way the Marines have worked for more than 200 years.
This network rearranges power radically. It allows much to be pushed down to the grunts. " 'The strategic corporal,' we call him," says Gen. Charles Krulak, commandant of the Corps; "He's going to do amazing things." One young Marine will with his fingertips be able to call in awesome furies more carnage than an entire World War II company.
It also pushes power up to the generals. "A God's-eye view of the battlespace," is what they hope for, says Col. Robert E. Schmidle Jr., commanding officer of "Urban Warrior." Suppose every corporal becomes an intelligence agent, as well as a combatant. Suppose you can add to his situation reports those from the partisans on your side. Suppose you can deploy robots that add information, as well as the reports from unmanned aircraft. Suppose, back at the command location, computers will allow you to integrate all those reports and display the "battle space" in a three-dimensional picture in real time, the way a future MRI might tell surgeons at the time they're operating what's going on inside a patient. Suppose that lets a commander on one side in a battle lift the "fog of war," so that he could actually see patterns in what his enemy was doing. Would that not be the biggest advantage since gunpowder?
Perhaps. But can the time-honored Marine hierarchy adapt to this revolution? Will there be a role for all those people in the middle the sergeants and majors who have invested their lives in the Marines?
That's the question the Marines are trying to answer. Can they transform themselves into a human network an instantaneously reacting, self-organizing swarm that can metamorphose on the fly? Can they do this without tearing apart the essence of their organization?
No one knows.
In a strictly military sense, the Marines see the game they're playing in Monterey as crucial to facing modern threats thugs in Haiti, warlords in Mogadishu, terrorists in Beirut, separatists in Kosovo. But they are also trying to prepare themselves for the next few decades a time of social and technological upheaval. They see a future in which chaos and instantaneous change is normal, and small bands can destroy imposing hierarchies. In fact, they say that all our civilian jobs, and our corporations, and America itself will be at risk during the coming era of rapid, confusing change.
Pocket phones, Web sites, e-mail, low-orbit satellites, interactive television we are in a period of astounding innovation. But far less well understood is the strain these new electronic networks put on the human networks that weave the fabric of our lives.
The Marines are doing their level best to glimpse these new patterns, however. For today, "the more we study the rise of network forms of organization, the more we think it means that societies are entering a new epoch of organization and transformation," analysts John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt write in the Rand study "The Advent of Netwar." This will offer unusual opportunities "for ethnonationalists, terrorists, and transnational criminal and revolutionary organizations. ... Traditional notions of war as a sequential process based on massing, maneuvering, and fighting will likely prove inadequate."
It's not just the gear, they emphasize. It's how the gear is changing the way we live, work, play, pray and compete, as well as fight and die.
Human organizations have always been influenced by technology. Revolutions in technology yield revolutions in human affairs.
The telegraph and railroad in the 19th century, for example, caused an expansion in human scales of distance and time. Suddenly business affairs spanned an entire continent. That's why the Industrial Age came to be ruled by corporations and hierarchies, instead of traditional family enterprises. Men became cogs in giant machines. Even tiny decisions were made at the top of the hierarchy because, it was thought, only at the pinnacle could a decision-maker have all the information necessary to make the right choices. Therefore, organizations wanted front-line workers not to risk messing up the system by thinking. They encouraged their top leaders to take full command of even the most minute details.
But hierarchies are flawed. Some things only front-line workers know. "Take the look in the customer's eye when you tell him a new price," says Thomas W. Malone of the MIT Sloan School of Management. "That's very useful information." It's not easy, however, to rapidly communicate that up through the layers of the chain of command and wait for instructions to make their way back down.
The rise of the Information Age is smashing all that. "Internet time" has entered the language, signifying the blinding speed at which change occurs. That's why informal, flexible human networks as distinct from the electronic ones are soaring in importance. They are the all-important means of guiding change in a knowledge economy, says Karen Stephenson, who studies corporations as if they were tribes. Trained as an anthropologist, she now teaches management at UCLA's Anderson School of Business and heads NetForm, a developer of human network analysis software.
Stephenson believes that most of the knowledge crucial to an organization whether it's Bell Labs or the Marines comes from common hands-on experience. It is not written down in handbooks. It lies within informal human networks embedded in the corporate or military hierarchy. It's the difference between knowing the rules and knowing the ropes. Such tacit knowledge allowed the networked hordes of Genghis Khan, for example, to attack European cities hundreds of miles apart within hours of each other.
Whether they are office-gossip rings or worldwide communities of researchers struggling to cure cancer, these human networks are bound by patterns of trust, Stephenson believes. Mafias, sororities and Marine platoons all have similar trust patterns, as predictable as the paths by which molecules come together to become walls. Therefore, she claims, those interested in efficiently guiding change must learn how to harness the power of human networks especially at a time when society's key technologies are becoming networked.
But there is a dark side to networks, Stephenson observes. They are always in tension with the brass the hierarchies that think they run the operation. That's because hierarchies are about authority and are rigid, but networks are about how things actually get done and thus are adaptable and constantly shifting. If this mismatch becomes pronounced enough, the network can destroy the hierarchy. Armies can fail either because their enemies, organized as networks, can outfight them, or because their internal cohesion as a top-down organization is destroyed.
This has profound implications for the Marines.
'Riding the Dragon'
The Soviet Union was a cumbersome hierarchy. Mikhail Gorbachev thought he could bring a little openness to it, a little reform, while maintaining its essence.
He was wrong.
What happens when you open up a hierarchy like the Marines to the bracing effects of human networks?
No one knows, but a few leaders try to imagine.
Paul K. Van Riper, former three-star commanding general of the Combat Development Command at Quantico, is one. He can envision a Marine hierarchy so transformed by revolutionary technology as to become almost unrecognizable. The possibilities he entertains give pause:
Suppose one Marine at the front really did control more firepower than a company? Would that require the Marine to have powerful intelligence, experience and wisdom? Maybe he's no longer a teenager. Maybe she needs an advanced degree.
These are precisely the uncertainties that the Marines are trying to explore. But Van Riper is not panicked.
"Marines generally have some unusual characteristics that bring them together. There is almost a religious fervor to what goes on. It's definitely instilled in recruit training. We don't understand it, but it's there."
This is why Van Riper hopes that the Marines are indeed a good advance patrol for the larger society, particularly those businesses and individuals whose purposes could be obsolete tomorrow. He thinks the Corps will survive because beneath all that encrusted hierarchy, there already is a profound human network with two centuries of deeply engraved patterns of trust.
"I don't think it will change the intangibles," says Van Riper. "It will shortchange the structure, and it will change what you need to do the job. But this idea of a religious order, I think that'll stay. That's the essence of the Marine Corps."
To be sure, Van Riper's vision of transformation is not the official Marine future. Gen. Krulak, the commandant of the Corps, is remarkably sanguine that the Marines can adapt to a networked world without changing in any fundamental way.
The Corps is already fighting smarter, he believes. Today, before going into battle, a Marine commander has to be able to explain to the troops in less than one written page the object of the game. Then the troops are supposed to figure out on the fly how to accomplish those goals.
"Genghis Khan gave his commander's intent," Krulak says. "And then he had battle captains. Our platoon commanders are going to be the battle captains. And then the kids execute the tactic. It won't be like the old days when, to pass gas, you had to have an order. Genghis Khan would communicate over long distances with outriders. But the riders would only do as much as report a shift in commander's intent. That's the way the world is going.
"We're experimenting. We're 'riding the dragon' of change. Chinese proverb. I've got the Chinese character for 'chaos' from the I Ching on my wall in my office. Below, it says, 'Chaos where brilliant dreams are born. Before the beginning of great brilliance, there must be chaos. Before a brilliant person begins something great, she or he must look foolish to the crowd.'
"But the question is will they be able to fight and win?
"Damn right they will."
The Marines are exceptionally focused on the future because their leaders wonder if they will exist in 20 years. "The nation doesn't need a Marine Corps," says Van Riper. "If the United States Army had a disaster on the battlefield, we as a nation would have to re-create the Army. Same obviously for the Air Force and the Navy. But if the Marine Corps ever was to fail in a mission. ... There is always someone seeming to say, do we need a Marine Corps? So you'd better offer something unique."
That's why they're concentrating on networks. "Most people misperceive the Marines as a bunch of tough guys," says Andrew Marshall, director of the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment, whose job it is to think forward as much as 25 years and more. "Yet they have maintained a stream of officers who are very thoughtful and interesting. They're ahead of the other services in focusing early on some things that are changing the world."
The 'Three-Block War'
For a glimpse of what a future world might look like, the USS Coronado offers the Marines' best guess.
The Coronado was built for an earlier era the Marines understand. Its back third was made to be flooded with water, to launch amphibious landing craft.
The Coronado has changed. It is now a floating laboratory. Out of what once was the hold has been built a singularly graceless windowless gray office block. It's called The Box. Inside, The Box looks a lot like a Silicon Valley office. Cubicles are jammed below fluorescent lights. All that distinguishes them are the screen savers that say "Top Secret" and the poster with a sea dragon flaring its cobralike hood over a city. "Urban Warrior USMC Warfighting Lab," it says.
Just forward of The Box is a room called the Experimental Combat Operations Center the ECOC which has a vast computer screen in front, scores of terminals all around and a video conference center in the back. The room looks a tiny bit like the Starship Enterprise. Actually it's much more like a trading floor like the one you'd find at Salomon Smith Barney near Wall Street. No matter how wired it is, a premium has been put on face-to-face contact.
For a human network.
The ECOC is where the commanders will be when the grunts hit the beach at Monterey a week from today. If the experiment works as advertised, they will have little to do but watch.
"Urban Warrior" will test tactics, strategy and gear meant to respond in a self-organizing swarm to a crisis like Bosnia. Throughout, the Marines will be working what Krulak calls the "three-block war." (The Marines originally planned to maneuver this war game through the streets of San Francisco, two days after Monterey. But authorities there decided it might be too disruptive. So instead the Marines will move up to Oakland.)
The future of fighting is in cities. The American military loathes this development. They know how awful it can be. Stalin took more than 300,000 casualties capturing Berlin when the Nazis were on their knees. Nonetheless, humans today live mostly in cities where they are linked by personal relationships and group hatreds and dense webs of cheap communications. So that's where conflict is likely to occur.
Suppose the Marines find themselves in one block of a city in which they are expected to be humanitarians, feeding people and restoring services. In the second block, their assignment is to be the sheriff, separating warring gangs. In the third block, they come under attack. It's war with airstrikes and precision guided missiles.
That's the "three-block war." Perform all three tasks. Know how to switch from handing out candy bars to being warriors to being peacekeepers. Figure out who is the enemy and who isn't. In a city packed with noncombatants. Speaking a foreign language. While the world watches, live, on CNN.
As the Army learned in Mogadishu, where superbly equipped and trained Army Rangers were killed by clan warriors, firepower alone isn't the deciding factor. Neither is technology. In the modern world, Van Riper says, the key seems to be the human factor the ability to observe, orient yourself, decide and take action faster than the foe.
That's why the Marines are going to try to hit the beach at Monterey as a network.
Col. Schmidle shaped the ECOC. He is the commanding officer of the SPMAGTF(X) that would be the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force (Experimental) that will be the attack force in "Urban Warrior."
Schmidle quotes the Tao and Jung and "The White Goddess" the poetry of Robert Graves. He is big on complexity theory. And he's concerned about what all this electronic stuff these computers on the chests of young Marines, this ECOC full of computer screens might take away.
To be sure, he hopes the technology "will allow us to do more with less," faster. But when he designed the command center on the Coronado, he made it one-third the size of an earlier mock-up, organized the decision-makers into a horseshoe and took down all the half-walls.
"People couldn't talk to each other. It was difficult to see each other. When you were just listening to them on headsets, you didn't know who you were talking to. You didn't have the human connection that would normally occur."
Schmidle believes that in a speeded-up future, the role for human intuition will be greater, not less. The Marines have studied firefighters. Schmidle speaks of one commander who evacuated his crew just before a living room floor fell through. Why? "He said, 'It didn't feel right.' It didn't feel right.
"Same as the intuition of a commander in a battlespace," he says. "I'm not sure you can make that connection through 'trons. You may not be able to sense the rhythms, the patterns. The sixth sense may not be available. The spirit doesn't come through wires."
Lance Cpl. Pautz couldn't agree more. Back at Camp Pendleton, he's in touch with his sixth sense. He may not be an expert in human networks, but he's a Marine and knows a thing or two about being a warrior.
He looks at the network computer on his chest and sees potential, if not necessarily that which its inventors intended. He snaps the battery off the front of the keyboard. It is about the mass and length of a pipe wrench. Pautz hefts it like a club. He turns to the Marine next to him and smiles.
"They come at you with a knife," he observes, "you can always beat 'em to death with the computer battery."
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