/ Published November 30, 2020
Information Technology and Military Power by Jon R. Lindsay. Cornell University Press, 2020, 248 pp.
Ideas associated with what was once called the revolution in military affairs are in vogue again. Today, the emphasis is on artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, and quantum computing, but the worldview is similar. A hasty reader could easily mistake University of Toronto professor Jon Lindsay’s new book, Information Technology and Military Power, as a straightforward dismissal of such techno-utopian thinking. But it is more than that. For one, Lindsay makes a more even-handed argument than such a reading permits.
The book’s central argument holds that the nature of the external military problem and the internal solution determines what Lindsay calls information practice, or how military organizations coordinate their internal representations of the external world. Military problems, Lindsay argues, can be either constrained or unconstrained. The former is marked by few, simple, defined, fixed entities and the latter by many, complex, ambiguous, and dynamic entities. Internal military solutions can be either institutionalized, in which the behavior of subordinate units is highly regulated, or organic, in which subunits are able to self-organize and adapt. Two combinations, Lindsay argues, result in improved military performance: constrained problems paired with institutionalized solutions (resulting in what he calls “managed practice”) and unconstrained problems paired with organic solutions (“adaptive practice”). Two other configurations degrade military performance: constrained problems with organic solutions (“problematic practice”) and unconstrained problems with institutionalized solutions (“insulated practice”).
Readers willing to grapple with the book’s abstract theoretical section will find that the theory springs to life in four case studies. A fresh take on the Battle of Britain examines how the constrained problem of air defense over Great Britain alongside a well-tuned sociotechnical system of observers, radar towers, operations researchers, and fighter planes foiled Hitler’s invasion plans. The book then takes an ethnographic turn. Lindsay, a US Navy veteran, tells the story of FalconView, a geospatial software developed by a community of American military software enthusiasts. The narrative, which includes interviews with key personalities, reveals that FalconView excelled over well-funded programs of record by, in part, creating a devoted user community and partnering with traditional acquisition organizations. In the most intriguing chapter of the book, Lindsay weaves a case study from his deployment to Iraq’s Anbar province in 2007–8 as a reservist in a Navy SEAL unit. His unit faces the ambiguous, messy environment of insurgency (an “unconstrained” environment) while, in his telling, pursuing direct action no matter the consequences. Insulated practice, Lindsay argues, ensues. A final case study of American drone operations finds that a cast of persons from drone operators to lawyers built a large sociotechnical infrastructure, gradually increasing targeting effectiveness while reducing the killing of civilians.
This book will appeal to a wide audience. It is only a moderate exaggeration to say that if you are in the military and use a computer to do your work, you will find this book useful. Military personnel working in large command centers will find this book especially helpful. Anyone interested in John Boyd’s OODA loop—observe, orient, decide, and act—will also discover an alternative, cybernetics-derived take on the model. (Note: Lindsay’s version lacks the mnemonic punch of Boyd’s but compensates with a thorough, thought-provoking explanation.) More academic readers will find this book an information age successor to Stephen Biddle’s Military Power and will likely appreciate his use of science and technology studies scholarship to enrich his argument.
It is also likely that this book will provoke debate. The Navy SEAL community particularly will find his Iraq case study unflattering. Lindsay portrays the unit he deploys with as narrowly focused on “finding, fixing, and finishing” what it perceives as “high value targets.” In his view, the unit excelled at the warrior part of this mission but undervalued the information work—that intelligence aspect of understanding and comprehending what was once called “human terrain.” Therefore, he perceives the unit as myopically pursuing its own interpretation of its mission to the detriment of the counterinsurgency mission. These are fighting words, but it is a fight that promises to be enlightening. This book will also likely inspire future researchers to examine the origins of how military organizations frame problems and create goals. Lindsay’s framework invokes military self-identity arguments (à la Carl Builder’s Masks of War), but this work appears to leave ample room for future theorizing and study regarding how exactly a military organization decides what goals it intends to pursue to solve a “problem.”
One of Lindsay’s recommendations that seems ripe for implementation is that the services—especially those more technically inclined—explicitly create and foster military software user communities. The Air Force has embraced software development as a core capability for at least some Airmen. The next logical step, with historical precedent in FalconView, is cultivating a vigorous user community around new pieces of software to turbocharge software development and ensure the software evolves with the mission.
Most importantly, this book opens a reader’s eyes to the reality that the revolution in military affairs (or some version of it) is already here. Consequently, understanding the influence of information technology on battle does not require arcane computer models, war games, or waiting for a future war. Instead, curious military practitioners simply need to look a little closer at the computers beneath their fingertips.
John Speed MeyersData scientist, In-Q-Tel
"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."