Center for Strategic Decision Research


Network-Centric Operations

General Klaus Naumann
Former Chief of Defense of Germany
Former Chairman of the NATO Military Committee


The nature of the risks and dangers our nations will be confronted with will determine their way to defend themselves but the nature of future warfare will to a considerable degree be determined by technology.

The nature of the risks seems to suggest that they will be increasingly transnational in nature and global in scale. They will most probably include dangers posed by non-state actors who will use military means, possibly including weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

For the foreseeable future, no nation-state will be able to take care of its security on its own. All nations will need allies, but whether they will need alliances may remain an open issue. In my view, alliances are not a hindrance but the right answer to the security challenges of the future, and certainly a superior answer to any ad hoc coalition of the willing.

Alliances and coalitions must be capable of keeping risks at a distance from their homelands and must formulate strategies that reflect this objective. They must take into account that this world, although increasingly interconnected and interdependent, consists of post-modern, modern, and pre-modern societies. Each of these societies has its own way of reaching conflict resolution and its own way of fighting and winning a war.

Most of our societies are aging, and their population decreasing. One can see this most dramatically in Europe, where the average age today is 36 but will be 53 by the year 2050. Because of this aging process, post-modern societies can no longer afford the luxury of risking a war of attrition since they will all suffer increasingly from manpower shortages. In addition, the incredible velocity of technological progress we will see in the next decades in the fields of C4ISR and precision-strike capability will inevitably push post-modern nations into the direction of network-centric warfare (NCW). The aim of such warfare is no longer the destruction or attrition of enemy forces in a three-dimensional operation, but to paralyze an opponent’s command and control center in a four-dimensional operation (which includes cyberspace). The advent of NCW means far more than a warfare revolution; it means a shift in strategic paradigms.


The advent of NCW means first and foremost that the aim of warfare operations will be dramatically different from today’s. Today the aim is to neutralize an enemy as quickly, as completely, and with as little loss as possible of one’s own capabilities through the destruction of its fighting power. To this end the forces are organized, equipped, and trained to exert a maximum of deadly force in order to win as quickly and as decisively as possible in a joint land/air/sea battle. Most western countries’ force planning, except for that of the U.S., Sweden, Australia, Singapore, and, to a lesser degree, the United Kingdom, reflects this 20th-century concept.

NCW is aimed at the opponent’s C4ISR to make its forces blind, deaf, and unable to control themselves, thus rendering them easy targets should they not surrender. It is aimed at nerve centers and command posts that will be paralyzed in a battle that is no longer three-dimensional but includes cyberspace as its fourth dimension. By 2020 it will be possible to localize with 90% probability and 10 cm accuracy any event within a 360 x 360 km battle space within 30 seconds of its occurrence. That means that tomorrow’s operational decisionmaker will have very accurate knowledge very rapidly and over a very broad area.

NCW therefore is an information superiority-enabled concept of operation that produces increased combat power through networking of sensors, decisionmakers, and actors and is able to translate information provided by dominating battlefield awareness (DBA) into full-spectrum dominance.

In translating NCW into force structures, a change in our military organizations must be considered. Forces no longer need to organize along the lines of their physical environment (the land, sea, and air). Forces will organize more effectively along the lines of their roles in combat: highly networked engagement forces, awareness and assessment forces that operate within the DBA architecture and intimately deal with its products, and C2 forces that are temporarily pulled from the other two groups. One could say that NCW would link three grids together: the sensor grid, the C2 grid, and the shooter grid.

The ability to conduct network-centric operations will be achieved when the three levels of NCW, the sensor level, the C4 level and the shooters level, are linked to form one coherent network. If a nation relies on an ally’s NCW assets and capabilities but transforms its forces so that they are fully interoperable with a NCW force and know how to operate under NCW conditions, then they would be capable of network-enabled operations.


The war in Iraq saw the first employment of a 21st-century force that was able to conquer a country the size of France within 20 days with three army divisions—to some degree an asymmetric war. But the truly new dimension was the degree to which the U.S. forces were able to conduct network-centric operations against an enemy who initially offered stiffer resistance than had been expected. To elaborate on this new dimension, let me briefly describe one episode of this war.

You may remember when the American forces came to a halt just south of the Kerbala gap and heavy sandstorms transformed days into nights. Malicious comments made in the European and Russian media suggested that the U.S. was about to fail. But what happened on these sand-swept grounds on which no European and probably no Russian or Chinese force would have been able to see anything? The Iraqi Medina Division saw its golden opportunity, under the cover of the bad weather, to launch a counterattack and it began to move south. But the Americans, who had two Global Hawk UAVs waiting and two or more JSTARS plus AWACS and Rivet Joint on station which were all linked together, were able to see everything. Thanks to the operators aboard the JSTARS, the Americans fed the target data into their C4 system, and tasked aircraft or missiles to destroy targets that had been identified and precisely located. They thus literally vaporized a full army division comprised of some 10,000 men and equipment worth a billion or so dollars within two days. Simultaneously the U.S. was able to severely degrade forces that were moving from the north of Baghdad to reinforce the Medina attack. These events may have been the defining moments in this war.

I can further describe NCW operations by using the words of the chief of the defense forces of a nation that fought side by side with the U.S. in Iraq, the Australian General Peter Cosgrove: “Every moment of that brief, violent, and spectacular campaign showed that warfare in the information age will co-exist with the cruder aspects of industrial or even pre-industrial warfare. While it is likely that some type of crude kinetic effect will still be the ultimate expression of violence in war, it is also likely that as information and network-related war fighting techniques start to mature and to predominate, outcomes will be swifter, as dramatic, and paradoxically less bloody than the classic force-on-force attritionist paradigm of the past…In the main the Iraqi forces were beaten quickly, spectacularly, and comprehensively by a force using what were, on balance, mostly first generation network centric technologies and concepts.”

During these operations in Iraq, information was passed between the different parts of the forces in a rapid and seamless way. NCW offered opportunities to detect, identify, and engage targets within minutes using a broader range of sensors and weapons than ever before. This means that future forces will have to be planned as a networked system rather than as a group of platforms. It will require changing the still-prevailing armed forces mind set, keeping in mind that everything used by the armed forces must build toward a network. But fighting and winning under this new arrangement will require more than better connectivity and information management, critical though they are. It will also take making hard decisions about the doctrine, the training, the organizational structure, and the equipment.

With technology advancing at an incredible speed, we cannot afford to wait any longer. We should start now to avail ourselves of COTS and MOTS, since this will allow our forces to learn, to understand, and to practice as quickly as possible the new dimension of future operations. No nation can afford to lose time in transforming its armed forces, since the next RMA, then based on nano- and biotechnology, will knock at our doors around the year 2020. Moreover, the EU nations must act quickly to coordinate and redirect their uncoordinated R&D programs.

Since most nations possess some precision-strike capability and some deployability, or have plans underway to possess them in the near future, the key to transformation is C4ISR, not the transport or tanker aircraft that are available on the market. C4ISR is the true hub of transformation. To achieve it we must begin by linking existing capabilities. We must also make maximum use of legacy forces in a capable ground surveillance system in conjunction with state-of-the-art C4 that can cope with the enormous amount of data generated by modern ISR systems. Then nations can maximize the effectiveness of their legacy forces, which they will have in their inventories for quite some time. At the same time they can become interoperable with those nations, the U.S. in particular, that currently enjoy the advantage of having some first-generation NCW, killing two birds with one stone.


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