Academic journal article Military Review

The Non-Neutrality of Technology: Pitfalls of Network-Enabled Operations

Academic journal article Military Review

The Non-Neutrality of Technology: Pitfalls of Network-Enabled Operations

Article excerpt

"Light'em all up!" was the headline on the front page of a prestigious Dutch newspaper. A still from leaked video footage taken from a U.S. attack helicopter in Iraq accompanied the story. (1) These sorts of newspaper headlines appear after tragic incidents, particularly those involving civilian victims.

In another illustrative case, a commander is quoted as saying, "Yes, those pax are an imminent threat." The chief of a provincial reconstruction team (PRT) camp in Kunduz, Afghanistan, made the judgment after he saw black dots (thermal images of persons) on his computer screen. (2) He turned out to be tragically wrong.

These newspaper quotations emphasize what can go wrong with imagery interpretation during military operations, and they are not isolated cases. (3) The first quotation is about an incident that took place in 2007, involving a group of journalists with their cameras mistaken for insurgents with weapons. Two of the news reporters did not survive the air strike that followed. The second quotation is about an air strike on two hijacked fuel trucks in Kunduz, Afghanistan, in September 2009. After the incident several reports came out deciphering the strike in terms of who was to blame for the scores of victims. (4)

A common factor in such incidents is the use of technological assets that allow several military officers to see the objective simultaneously, i.e., a network of observers and decision makers observing the same incident with the intention of gaining a military advantage.

In earlier issues of Military Review, several authors focused on the difficulties in decision making, accountability, and responsibilities in these complex military missions. (5) In this article, I take these difficulties very seriously to elucidate an often overlooked factor, the role of technology in decision making. I will discuss the pitfalls that can occur when making decisions in a network environment, specifically the sharing of live video images originating from manned or unmanned systems. This article's central theme relates to the interaction between man and technology during network-enabled operations.


The term "network-enabled capabilities" requires some explanation. The term means the use of network technologies and information technology assets to facilitate cooperation and information sharing. This can lead to a build-up of complex and ad hoc multinational environments, referred to as network-enabled capabilities or network enabled operations. Network enabled capabilities have the potential for increasing military effects through improved use of information technology systems.

The underlying vision for establishing these complex, ad hoc multinational environments is the linking up of decision makers via information technology and communication networks to enable improved, synchronized decision making. The idea is that people with authorized access to the network, wherever they may be in physical or hierarchal terms, can log in, coordinate operations, and retrieve and submit relevant information. (6) Frans Osinga has already added a critical note to the high expectations of network-enabled capabilities. (7) In "Netwerkend de oorlog in?" (Militaire Spectator), he addresses the practical and moral complexities of high technology from a philosophical perspective. (8)

In this contribution, I discuss the routine practice of the networking soldier and examine a number of problems inherently connected to the use of technology. I present these problems as possible pitfalls and use the case of the Kunduz airstrike to illustrate these pitfalls in daily military practice.

Three Pitfalls

Although I could discuss several other pitfalls, I will limit myself to three:

* The danger of developing a so-called "Predator view."

* The misinterpretation of visual data.

* The prevention of streamlined communication. …

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