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The Army in the Information Age

Authored by General Gordon R. Sullivan, Lieutenant Colonel Anthony M. Coroalles. | March 1995

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Times of change, times of turbulence, and times of uncertainty are inherently "interesting" periods. The element that makes them so is unpredictability. Unpredictability also compels many people, including military professionals, to fear and to want to avoid such times. Certainty, stability, and calm are conditions that we find much easier to deal with in our daily lives. Given a choice, these are also the conditions that most nations and institutions would prefer as characteristic of their strategic environment. Yet neither the Army nor the nation seem to have a choice in the rapid pace of change that is swirling around us as the 20th century draws to a close. Indeed we live in interesting times.

Two powerful conditions define the environment in which the United States Army operates today: the collapse of the Cold War strategic environment and the dawning of what futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler have described as the "Information Age."1 In November 1989 the Berlin Wall came down, and with it tumbled the central strategic focus of the United States. From the end of the Second World War until the collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union, our world view had been filtered through the lens of the Cold War confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union; a stable and certain strategic focus. From 1948, when American and Allied forces stood firm during the Soviet blockade of Berlin, and simultaneously showed their determination over Greece, the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a worldwide, political, economic, military, and ideological struggle; a struggle we correctly perceived as a life-or-death contest between diametrically opposed socio-political, economic, and ideological systems. The U.S. Army went to war in Korea in 1950 and American troops faced off with Soviet and East German soldiers at Checkpoint Charlie during the Berlin crisis in the summer of 1961. The armed forces of this nation stood ready for what might have been the final conflagration as the John F. Kennedy administration stared down Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. The Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines fought a long and bitter war against communist insurgents and North Vietnamese aggression in Indochina in the 1960s and into the 1970s.2 In the 1980s, Washington supported resistance forces in Nicaragua and Afghanistan while standing by our traditional allies in NATO and our friends in the Middle East. All of this was done under the rubric of containment with one goal in mind: to stop the spread of Soviet communism. The Cold War was America's third most costly war; 100,000 Americans gave their lives in this effort.

Ultimately, we prevailed. Not only was Soviet communism contained, but Germany and the countries of Eastern and Central Europe were freed from the yoke of communism. Today freedom is growing in these countries and, however delicately and precariously, growing in a democratic Russia.

Throughout this 40-year conflict, our Army trained and prepared for global war against the Soviet Union. Army doctrine, organizations, and equipment reflected this reality. Physically and psychologically the Army was oriented to our biggest threat?a Soviet and Warsaw Pact attack into Western Europe. By November of 1989, the Army had 28 Divisions, 18 in the Active Component and 10 in the Reserves. Of these, 24 were committed, in one way or another, to fighting a war in Europe. The others were apportioned to the fight in other theaters against the Soviets or their surrogates and allies. Thus in November of 1989, after years of preparation for a war that never happened?precisely because we were prepared for it?we found ourselves the victors in Europe and the heirs to a new strategic environment which we are just now beginning to understand.

Today, as we articulate a vision for the Army of the 21st century, Force XXI, rapid technological developments in information management and processing are ushering in what many believe to be the beginning of a post-industrial age; the Information Age. The microprocessor is revolutionizing the way that we live our lives as individuals, the way that society functions, and the way that we are likely to fight our future wars. Just as coal and steam, and petroleum and electricity made possible the mass production of goods and the emergence of industrial society by supplementing muscle power with machine power, the microprocessor is revolutionizing industrial society today by supplementing brain power with the near instantaneous power of electronic computation. The results are already apparent. Electronic banking, barcode scanning, personal organizers, cellular car phones, telephones and modems on airline seats, electronic town hall meetings, and teleconferencing are among the developments that mark new ways in which people work, govern, transact business, and teach. These powerful developments are leading society toward an uncertain but interesting future; a future which it is just beginning to explore. These same forces acting on society are acting on our Army as well.

As exciting as all this may be, interesting times are difficult times precisely because, unlike more stable periods, the very uncertainty and turbulence that makes these periods interesting also makes planning for the future very difficult. Assumptions are less secure, objectives less well defined, and the future utility of current means decidedly less certain. By themselves, either the collapse of the Cold War strategic paradigm, or the coming of the Information Age would have presented the Army with a formidable task. As we contemplate not only new missions but also new means, these events present us with both an unprecedented challenge and an unparalleled opportunity.

The two previous monographs in this series, War in the Information Age and Land Warfare in the 21st Century, aimed at identifying in general terms what future war and land combat in this new environment is likely to portend. We are continuing to gain insights into the conduct of operations in this new environment. As we have conducted additional military operations, continued to think about the challenges facing us, and engaged in experimentation to test our ideas, several areas where we believe the future will differ most from the past have come into focus. This monograph will provide insights into three critical areas: the operational environment; the emergence of simultaneity as the unifying concept in Information Age warfare; and, changes in the planning environment. The intent of this discussion is to further the dialogue necessary for moving our profession into the 21st century.


Anticipating the future is an imprecise endeavor. Nevertheless, it is imperative that we look forward, notbackward. Only by anticipating the requirements can the Army expect to position itself as a relevant force in the future. History is the only reliable source we have for analyzing how previous armies anticipated change, and the pages of history books are replete with armies that failed to do so. For the nations unfortunate enough to have relied on these armies, the cost of not being prepared was high?sometimes catastrophically so.

The reason that many armies have failed to change with the conditions is that armies are by nature conservative institutions, generally resistant to change. This institutional resistance is particularly dangerous in times of historical transformation when a paradigm shift is evident. It is precisely then that the most rapid organizational response is needed. One of the most difficult, but also most essential tasks confronting a military establishment is the acceptance and development of bold new ideas. This is particularly true in military institutions which have recently experienced significant military successes, as the U.S. Army has in the Persian Gulf and in Haiti. Ideas that have the potential to overturn long-established, bureaucratically entrenched methods of operation are not welcomed by the average man. When the paradigm shifts, most cannot grasp the full potential of new ideas. New technologies and processes can frighten those who are comfortable with the routines established to accommodate the old technologies. Furthermore, vested interests within the organization and within its bureaucracy?usually for what to them are good and logical reasons?will resist ideas that threaten the status quo. Bureaucracies flourish on procedures instituted to insure efficiency. Innovation is the enemy of efficiency because it threatens established procedures. This is a mindset that we cannot afford in Force XXI. While military professionals must hold the security of the nation as something with which they dare not gamble, they cannot afford to discourage the kind of imagination and innovation that is needed to meet the varied challenges that will arise in the 21st century.

History can be a help. Consider the struggle within the Navy for carrier aviation. Prior to its development, the existing naval paradigm held that decisive victory at sea depended upon capital ships engaging with cannon at visual range. Shortly before World War I, tests and demonstrations were conducted which established that aircraft could be launched from vessels at sea and that these planes could drop bombs with a degree of accuracy. The use of aircraft at sea presaged an alternative approach to the conduct of naval warfare. Throughout the inter-war period, a generation of naval officers worked to perfect the ideas and concepts for carrier warfare. Theory led practice because, until the 1930s, airplanes simply did not have the power to take off from the deck of a carrier while carrying enough ordnance to seriously damage a modern battleship. Army Air Services Colonel Billy Mitchell had shown that land-based aviation could do it, but his twin-engine bombers carried 1,100 pound demolition bombs and took off from large, grass and earth fields.10 However, technology caught up with the concept. Better communications, more powerful airplanes, and larger aircraft carriers provided the means to realize the theory.

Concurrently, through gaming conducted at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, and in exercises conducted at sea, a doctrine of naval air power gradually evolved. This was so not only in the United States but also in Japan, England, and Italy. In the United States and England this was accomplished in a period of extreme budgetary constraints and against the opposition of a significant faction in each country's naval establishment who believed that scarce resources could better be spent elsewhere. Had these defenders of the status quo won the day over the proponents of innovation and change, the subsequent war in the Pacific may have turned out very differently for the United States. That the establishment reacted in this way is even more remarkable when one considers that when the admirals and captains of 1925 were ensigns and junior lieutenants, their senior officers had been in the Navy when there was a similar paradigm shift from wooden hulls and sail to steel hulls and steam power.

The Second World War, Pearl Harbor and Midway in particular, convincingly proved the validity of carrier power and changed entrenched notions about naval warfare. By the end of the war the aircraft carrier had replaced the battleship as the Navy's prime capital ship and another paradigm shift had taken place. The historical method of waging naval warfare, gunnery duels at visual range, gave way to engagements well over the horizon. In essence, naval commanders came to understand that the aircraft was more than just a long-range cannon, and that against anintegrated fleet no battleship stood a chance. Once this understanding took hold, the carrier became the dominant naval platform around which organizations and tactics were designed. A new paradigm was born.

Clearly there are forces at work today which will have consequences that military professionals need to anticipate. The purpose of this monograph has been to identify these forces and to suggest some of their consequences and how these might affect the operational environment, the structure of the Army, and the way we plan and conduct operations. While we live in a rapidly changing world, institutional change moves slowly. Just as the fully developed carrier concept matured over 40 years, so too will our force of the future grow, evolve and change. For two decades the Army has pioneered information-based systems. Now it is evident that information and knowledge based systems, organizations, and operations will change fundamentally the way the Army fights. While the precise manner in which this will happen may not be entirely clear, the one thing that is sure is that Information Age technologies will have a profound effect on land warfare in the 21st century.

In 1925, only the most convinced "true believers" in ship-borne air power could have imagined what impact their ideas would eventually have. They did not know precisely what equipment they would need or how their ideas would alter institutional organizations or the tactics of naval warfare. Yet they persevered despite tight budgets and internal opposition. Had they not done so it would have been clear, by the summer of 1942, with a fleet of Japanese aircraft carriers bearing down on Midway, just how much risk an institution and a nation can incur by discouraging and fighting change.

Today, America's Army is in a similar position. The world has changed and there is great risk in standing still. Information Age technology has advanced to the point that some can begin to see the potential that new tools will have in the way military operations are conducted. Through the lenses of experiments, such as the Synthetic Theater of War (STOW) and Advanced Warfare Experiments (AWEs), glimpses of what could be are apparent even if no one is yet able to specify exactly where all this will lead. Like those brave pioneers who developed naval aviation, we will test the validity of our concept and continuously refine the application despite the opposition of the keepers of the intellectual status quo. We have a vision and a plan to grow into that vision. Keeping in mind that it took the Navy a generation until the idea of carrier-borne air power became fact, we should not expect full, fast, and precise solutions to all the challenges facing us today. But be very sure that America's Army will meet these challenges.


1. See Alvin and Heidi Toffler, War and Anti-War: Survival at the Dawn of the 21st Century, Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1993.

2. A great degree of controversy still exists as to the strategy and conduct of the Vietnam War. Harry G. Summers, Jr., in On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, Novato: Presidio Press, 1982, presents one point of view. Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr., presents an opposing argument in The Army in Vietnam, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986, as does Larry E. Cable in Unholy Grail: The U.S. and the Wars in Vietnam, 1965-1968, London: Routledge, 1991. The air war, too, is subject to opposing points of view. Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp?s Strategy for Defeat, San Rafael: Presidio Press, 1978, holds that political constraints prevented air power from being used to its full potential. Articulate arguments to the contrary are presented by Mark Clodfelter in The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam, New York: The Free Press, 1989, and by Earl H. Tilford, Jr., in Crosswinds: The Air Force?s Setup in Vietnam, College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1993.

10. See William Mitchell, Winged Defense: The Development and Possibilities of Modern Air Power, Economic and Military, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1925, pp. 56-76.