Academic journal article Defense Horizons

Custer in Cyberspace

Academic journal article Defense Horizons

Custer in Cyberspace

Article excerpt


The combination of abundant networked information and fluid, unfamiliar situations in the current era makes it at once possible and imperative to improve decisionmaking in combat. The key to improvement is to integrate faster reasoning and more reliable intuition into a cognitive whole to achieve battle-wisdom. Although the technologies that both demand and facilitate battle-wisdom are new, military history holds lessons on combining reasoning and intuition in conditions of urgency, danger, and uncertainty.

Today's fast and distributed style of war has antecedents in the reconnaissance and strike operations of 19th-century American cavalry, which depended on similar qualities--speed, flexibility, and command "at the edge." Cavalry officers had to make quick decisions in unfamiliar circumstances with imperfect information, and without seeking instructions.

There may be no more arresting case of fateful decisionmaking by a commander in combat than that of George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Custer's reliance on his legendary intuitive powers, which had produced many victories during the Civil War, was his undoing. Instead of analyzing his options when he learned of Major Reno's failed attack and Indian strength, he evidently satisfied himself that his original plan still made sense. Famous for his self-confidence, Custer never asked himself the critical question: Could I be wrong?

Although intuition remains central to decisionmaking under time pressure, the ability to combine intuition with reason in the crush of battle is increasingly important to commanders. The need for this combination of cognitive skills has implications for the recruitment, retention, development, selection, training, and education of military decisionmakers.

Cognition and Cavalry

Opinions are sharply divided about whether George Armstrong Custer was a brilliant tactician or a compulsive risk-taker. In turn, was the massacre at the Little Bighorn the result of rare misfortune or inexcusable audacity? We will not try to settle the arguments between Custer's detractors and apologists. (We doubt either camp would settle on terms short of the other's total capitulation!) Rather, we will try to understand Custer's thought process, using a new, explanatory model of cognition in combat. (1) More importantly, at least for nonhistorians, we will consider what Custer's thought process can tell us about military decisionmaking in this era of networked warfare. (2)

Why select this flamboyant, 19th-century cavalry officer as the subject for an inquiry into 21st-century military decisionmaking? Surely, analysis of cognition in today's warfare must take into account the revolution in information technology, which began a century after Custer met his death in Montana. After all, by today's standards, Custer's "bandwidth" was negligible--binoculars and some scouts. Moreover, in contrast to today's complex global security environment and unpredictable operating conditions, Custer faced known enemies in known places with known weapons and tactics.

Nevertheless, there are good reasons to consider Custer. To start with, 19th-century cavalry action was a precursor of the fast-breaking, distributed warfare that is becoming pervasive in the networked era. Cavalry missions (reconnaissance, deep strike, disruption) and strengths (speed, flexibility, autonomy) are broadly relevant in current warfare. By its nature and purpose, cavalry had to be able to respond to the unfamiliar and the unanticipated. More than their counterparts, who directed set-piece infantry maneuvers and artillery bombardments, cavalry commanders had to make quick decisions under fluid and ambiguous conditions, often without guidance from higher authority, not unlike tactical-level officers in networked warfare. (3)

In any case, basic lessons on military operational decisionmaking are ageless. …

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