‘Out of the loop’ on the battlefield

The author of Cyburbia says recent wars in the Middle East show that techno-savviness is no substitute for purpose.

James Harkin

Topics Science & Tech

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What does it mean to be ‘in the loop’? To most of us, the idea means no more than being ‘in the know’, privy to information known only to those in a privileged inner circle; to be cut out of the loop, by contrast, is to be distanced from your colleagues and excluded from a hallowed circle of power.

The general notion of being ‘in the loop’, however, is older than most people think. It can be traced back 70 years to cybernetics, whose progenitors imagined the perfect human society would see us all hitched to an electronic information loop defined by a continuous cycle of messaging and feedback among all involved in it.

For most of its life, the idea that all of us should spend our time hitched to an electronic information loop only interested bohemian intellectuals on the fringes of society. As the technology advanced, however, it began to be taken very seriously among managers. In the latest decade, cybernetics found a home in the American and Israeli militaries under the rubric of something called ‘network-centric warfare’.

The thinking, rooted in cybernetic principles, was that tying all the different nodes in the military’s network in a single information loop would give troops the clearest possible picture of the battlefield, allowing everyone to act in concert and making the enemy’s communications seem primitive in comparison. The plan was to eliminate ‘the fog of war’, and to replace it with ‘complete situational awareness’ – to make sure everyone knew what everyone else was doing and what was going on all of the time.

The results, however, have been disappointing. The influence of network-centric warfare can help to explain why, when asked to stage a full-scale military operation during the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict of 2006, the Israeli armed forces failed rather spectacularly. For a start, Israel seems to have been so convinced of its military and technological superiority that it didn’t think it would have to fight any ‘real’ wars anymore. As a result, the Israelis relied too heavily on their airforce to wipe out South Lebanon’s infrastructure – its telecommunications networks, for example – in the vain hope that Hezbollah’s guerrillas would simply cave in. Israeli soldiers went into battle armed with high-tech communications; many were even allowed to hang on to their mobile phones.

During the ensuing ground war, ‘small but smart’ mobile units of Israeli soldiers, who were supposed to use high-tech communications systems to ‘swarm’ around the enemy, seemed unsure of what their aims were and where they were headed. In the official inquests into the war that followed the five-week invasion, military officials blamed the complicated operational jargon of one of its think-tanks, the OTRI, whose staff had been greatly influenced by cybernetics and network-centric warfare. During a meeting of the heads of Israeli military intelligence just prior to the incursion into Lebanon, for example, there were complaints that the army had stopped relying on Hebrew for its operational instructions, and that the dominant language was now ‘gibberish’.

But what do we know of the other side? A Westerner currently trusted by Hezbollah is a former British diplomat named Alastair Crooke. Crooke, who was seconded by Tony Blair to be the European Union’s envoy to the Middle East between 1997 and 2003, now lives in Lebanon and spends his time encouraging discussions between Islamist movements and Western governments. After the 2006 war, he was taken to South Lebanon by Hezbollah officials and allowed rare access to its battlefield commanders.

In October 2008, I visited him in Beirut and asked him what he had seen and heard. At the beginning of the 2006 war, Crooke told me, Hezbollah fighters were given general orders and were then broken down into tiny cells, each of which operated independently of any central command. They performed very well without employing high-tech communications or complicated military manoeuvres to help get around the battlefield. A specialist team was given high-tech listening devices and managed, according to Crooke, to intercept electronic communications flying to and fro between Israeli military personnel. The bulk of Hezbollah’s military units, however, were encouraged to avoid unnecessary electronic chatter; when unit commanders did need to pass on messages they relied on relatively primitive means such as motorcycle couriers.

Despite the fact that their information loop was not speeded up by new communications technology, Hezbollah’s fighters were much better equipped to swarm around their enemy with great agility. ‘Rather than have to react faster than the [Israeli] decision-cycle’, one early analysis of the war from Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies concluded, ‘they could largely ignore it, waiting out Israeli attacks, staying in positions, re-infiltrating or re-emerging from cover, and choosing the time to attack or ambush’.

Hezbollah’s commanders found that giving their fighters clear prior battle instructions was vastly more important than allowing them to liaise with each other electronically during the conflict. Faced with a technologically superior enemy, they seemed to understand, it was still possible to knock your enemy off-balance and confuse him. But this was only true if those under your command had a very clear idea of what was expected of them; only if they ignored the enemy’s electronic information loop; and only if they switched off their mobile phones and fell back on their own initiative.

A postscript to all this emerged in December, when Israel mounted an invasion of Gaza. This time the Israelis drew up clear and achievable plans and didn’t rely on ‘smart’ battlefield units communicating with each other and making it up as they went along. Last but not least, it was reported in the New York Times, Israeli military commanders meticulously confiscated the mobile phones of their soldiers.

James Harkin is author of Cyburbia: The Dangerous Idea That’s Changing How We Live and Who We are (buy this book from Amazon(UK)). For more information see Email James {encode=”” title=”here”}.

Previously on spiked

James Harkin dismissed the snobbery towards mobile phone users and explained why text voting can’t save politics. Martyn Perks debated Charles Leadbeater’s idea of ‘we-think’ and suggested the potential of technology is being wasted. Or read more at spiked issues Science and technology.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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