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War, Web 2.0 and the Fail Loop

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Network-centric warfare

Take the American and Israeli militaries, which since the late 1990's have been seduced by successive iterations of the cybernetic conceit of "network-centric warfare".

The idea, rooted directly in cybernetic principles, was that tying together 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 nothing less than 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.

Only, it didn't quite work out as planned.

The IDF's attempts to co-ordinate human activity via a high-tech electronic information loop can help to explain why, when asked to stage a full-scale military operation during the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict of 2006, they failed rather spectacularly.

In July 2006, after Hezbollah fighters seized two Israeli soldiers and stole them back across the border into Lebanon, the IDF invaded Southern Lebanon. The invasion, however, did not progress as they had expected. For a start, the Israeli Army seems to have become so convinced of its own military and technological superiority that it didn't think it would have to fight any "real" wars anymore. The IDF, as a result, relied too heavily on its air force to wipe out South Lebanon's infrastructure – its telecommunications networks, for example - in the vain hope that Hezbollah's guerrillas would simply cave in.

IDF soldiers went into battle armed with high-tech communications; many were also allowed to hang on to their mobile phones. During the ensuing ground war, "small but smart" mobile units of Israeli soldiers, which 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 which 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 about the other side?

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