X
Story Stream
recent articles

Bitskrieg. John Arquilla. NY: Polity, 2021.


In Bitskrieg, John Arquilla distills much from his three decades of advocacy about networked warfare into a compact volume accessible to a wide audience. He displays a continuing ability to produce provocative arguments and engaging books. Netwar, a term Aquilla and collaborator David Ronfeldt created in 1992, “resonated with the surety that the information revolution favored the rise of network forms of organization, doctrine, and strategy.”[1] In Bitskrieg, Aquilla specifies that “the best way to organize will be to shift to a ‘many-small’ paradigm,” rejecting the “‘few-large;’ organizational structures . . . of industrial-age thinking.”[2]

Market forces have for decades undervalued computer security, and open societies are relatively more vulnerable than autocratic systems in regard to disruptive attacks.

Bitskrieg, a term Arquilla coins, represents “a sub-set of cyberwar” and nests within the voluminous context of his thinking about the too-often latent value of networked approaches to warfighting.[3] Arquilla produces a number of valuable and important points about trends in networks and security. Cybercrime includes actions that have strategic implications in the security realm, and can thus be harnessed for multiple purposes. Market forces have for decades undervalued computer security, and open societies are relatively more vulnerable than autocratic systems in regard to disruptive attacks. Cyberterrorism poses problems beyond the Global War on Terror, and cyberespionage activities mirror the preliminary stages of attacks that Arquilla dubs cybotage.

The tenets of Bitskrieg are consistent with many of Arquilla’s previous writings. These include the point that networked warfare or netwar encompasses cyber conflict but extends beyond it, and that its importance will grow “as the information revolution spreads and deepens” globally.[4] Furthermore, coordinated actions by “small combat formations” can devastate and disrupt enemies through swarming them, but the practice of swarming demands significant adjustments in organizational patterns.[5]

Additionally, he lays out how the low cost of entry and the proliferation of varied uses of computer and network technology foreclose any serious prospect of reaching a structural, capabilities-defined, form of arms control in relation to cyber. Instead, operational, actions-defined, approaches represent the only promising avenue in relation to arms use control in the domain. These ideas are persuasive enunciations or extensions of his previous thinking, making the book an accessible introduction to Arquilla's thinking about warfare.

Arquilla makes frequent and engaging use of historical examples and analogies, as well as of allusions to recent cases of opportunities seized or missed about fighting a networked form of warfare. Historical awareness provides valuable tools for evaluating ideas about revolutionary change in conflict, but as MacGregor Knox and Williamson Murray observed in the landmark The Dynamics of Military Revolution, such skills are too-often overlooked.[6] The allied coalition’s information dominance over Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1991 permitted the air campaign and the deployment of the daring left hook maneuver on the ground to deliver Kuwait’s liberation. The deployment of special operators able to call upon precision-strike air resources against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 likewise constituted a positive example of networked warfare. The obtuse use of airpower against Serbia in 1999 disappointed Arquilla at the time and since; he deemed the 200,000-strong invasion of Iraq as an operational folly that rejected the proven promise of networked warfighting.

The book might have benefited from a short discursion at that juncture about the degree to which the Iraq invasion represented a rejection of networked warfighting per se. Arguably, the 2003 campaign represented a hybrid, since netwar advocates blanched at the large size of the force to be used, while at the same time traditionalist planners were scandalized that the ground force was not much larger. Interestingly, in his 2008 book Worst Enemy, Arquilla identified the initial force decision as a “compromise” in which “the traditionalists won out.”[7] Unfortunately, this opportunity for an interesting, and perhaps valuable, updated discussion about the potential and the price of hybridized doctrines was sacrificed to keep the book short and accessible to larger audiences.

The effort to make Britain’s World War II combination of radar installations, Observer Corps posts, and fighter plane units the equivalent of a modern Iranian or Chinese navy use of swarms strains the historical picture.

In a few instances, the interpretation of selected examples is slightly incomplete. His interpretation of U.S. shortcomings in the Vietnam War are cogent, but tactically oriented, risking the reader’s inference that policy-level mistakes had not already created serious and potentially fatal shortcomings in the war effort. He characterizes 1960s flexible response doctrine as being “all about resorting to nuclear weapons if conventional defenses failed.”[8] While not incorrect, the description places the cart before the horse. Nuclear weapons had already been enshrined as the instrument of response for more than a decade, and Arquilla aptly cites strategic scholar Thomas Schelling’s observation that “‘Massive retaliation was a doctrine in decline from its enunciation in 1954.’”[9] Thus, flexible response was less about resorting to nuclear weapons, that was not new, than it was about shimming conventional-weapons options into what had previously been opaque gaps in the escalation ladder. Bringing these two sections of the book into closer proximity could help readers more readily grasp that point about Cold War-era doctrine. The effort to make Britain’s World War II combination of radar installations, Observer Corps posts, and fighter plane units the equivalent of a modern Iranian or Chinese navy use of swarms strains the historical picture. Nonetheless, the British air defense structure aptly illustrates the value of networking, although doing so with 1940s tools it can be expected to operate in a more hierarchical fashion than Arquilla would advocate for modern or future militaries.

Arquilla’s conceptualization of modern war bears some affinity with the views of interwar advocates of mechanization, armored forces, and airpower. The omission of historical analogies in these areas is therefore salient and paradoxical. Such thinkers, given their profound interest in technology and their assertive faith in the potential for distributed warfighters acting in coordinated ways that are made possible by communications, represent the most natural parallel with the ideas that Arquilla advances. The aphorism that prediction is difficult, particularly in regard to the future, holds true.

World War II displayed more differences than similarities when compared to the 1920s technology advocates’ ideas about future warfare. Recognizing the fact, however, is not to dismiss the impact of their prognostications and prescriptions--and insights contained in works by interwar authors like Fuller, Hart, de Gaulle, Guderian, or their less enduringly famous peers. Aside from a brief but observant point that Guderian came to mobile warfare by way of the signal service and a later comment that “few in the 1920s and 1930s figured out the combat potential of networking tanks and planes by radio” or “the attendant organizational and doctrinal implications,” Arquilla is otherwise quite silent about a topic that could have received greater consideration.[10]

…Bitskrieg is used in the book as a stand-in for the successor to the kind of industrial-era approaches to combat that are often considered to have reached their apex with the German World War II offensives widely called blitzkrieg.

The book lauds Army Chief of Staff General William Westmoreland’s 1969 prediction that “data-links, computer-assisted intelligence evaluation and automated fire control” will make “the need for large forces to fix the opposition physically … less important” and Arquilla himself emphasizes: “the emergence of cyberwar, and its related military doctrine of Bitskrieg, do hold out the prospect of introducing quantum changes into the conduct of warfare: from old-style massed frontal or flank attacks to omnidirectional swarms, from balky divisions and battalions to nimble, networked units of action…. There is even the possibility of waging short, sharp wars at lower cost in battle casualties.”[11] Even if history never quite repeats itself, elements of these predictions cry out for comparison to strains of 1920s technology advocacy that argued that the proper use of modernized and mechanized units could wage wars more effectively, more cheaply, and with greater speed and with fewer casualties.[12]

A factor that may help explain the book’s virtual silence about the interwar period may be that the term Bitskrieg is used in the book as a stand-in for the successor to the kind of industrial-era approaches to combat that are often considered to have reached their apex with the German World War II offensives widely called blitzkrieg. An explicit analysis and comparison of the networked bitskrieg concept with the various 1920s technologies advocates would risk casting the networked concept in the light of a predecessor rather than as a successor to blitzkrieg-style actions.

The book’s brevity plays a part in making it accessible to new audiences, and therefore capable of helping expand the dialogue

Furthermore, blitzkrieg was understood differently by its practitioners than by its initial victims. As scholars such as Robert Citino have convincingly demonstrated, the German practitioners themselves at the time thought less in terms of a lighting war and more in terms of a more conventional “war of movement” that effectively harnessed new technologies.[13] This potentially sets even the vaunted swift offensives of 1939-40 far apart from concepts that would later be identified as a revolution in military affairs. According to Williamson Murray, “the slow, steady, systematic improvements of Reichswehr and Wehrmacht only became a revolution in military affairs on the banks of the Meuse” river in May 1940.[14]

The book’s brevity plays a part in making it accessible to new audiences, and therefore capable of helping expand the dialogue; predictably, packing big ideas into a small book necessarily dictates that in some places the book will not explore areas that some readers will anticipate or expect considerations to be discussed. As a handy and crisp paperback book, Bitskrieg will strike familiar and largely compelling tones with readers familiar with Arquilla’s past work, while delivering his ideas to new readers in ways that will hopefully inspire continued serious thought about critical aspects of security and defense in the modern world.


Nicholas Michael Sambaluk is an associate research professor at the Air Force Cyber College and the author or editor of five books on military history and technology, including Myths and Realities of Cyber Warfare and the upcoming Weaponizing Cyberspace: Inside Russia’s Hostile Activities (Praeger Security International, 2022). The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.

Notes:

[1] John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2001), 2; John Arquilla, Bitskrieg: The New Challenge of Cyberwarfare (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2021), 79.

[2] John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2001), 2; John Arquilla, Bitskrieg: The New Challenge of Cyberwarfare (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2021), 79.

[3] John Arquilla, Bitskrieg: The New Challenge of Cyberwarfare (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2021), 143.

[4] John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2001), 314.

[5] John Arquilla, Worst Enemy: The Reluctant Transformation of the American Military (Chicago, IL: Ivan R. Dee, 2008), 213; John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, Swarming & the Future of Conflict (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2000), 45.

[6] MacGregor Knox and Williamson Murray, The Dynamics of Military Revolution, 1300-2050 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 2009), 5.

[7] Arquilla, Worst Enemy, 216.

[8] Arquilla, Bitskrieg 95.

[9] Arquilla, Bitskrieg 119.

[10] Arquilla, Bitskrieg 90.

[11] Arquilla, Bitskrieg 81, 88-89.

[12] The argumentation also carries some parallel to works like Striking Power by Jeremy Rabkin and John Yoo, which applauds the purported opportunity for precise and limited coercion that utilizes cyber power, robotics, and space assets to prosecute small conflicts and preclude larger ones.

[13] Robert M. Citino: Quest for Decisive Victory: From Stalemate to Blitzkrieg in Europe, 1889-1940 (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas, 2002), 195.

[14] Knox and Murray, The Dynamics of Military Revolution, 174.



Comment
Show comments Hide Comments