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War and Information Technology

By Chris Hables Gray, with a response from James Nugent

by Chris Hables Gray

Technology has always been an important part of war. Today, with information technology situated as the defining technology of our age it should be no surprise that IT (information technology) is a central part of war making. In fact, the US military has officially determined that information is the main "force multiplier" in battle, more important than numerical superiority or force of fire, the old standards. This is because, in the US military's view, we now have the information technologies that can not just make a crucial difference in battle, in terms of precision weapons, intelligence, and command and control, but that these technologies might actually allow the "fog" (uncertainly) of war to be dispelled so that total, almost painless victories, might be won against many opponents.

Computer professionals, when evaluating these information technologies, must start with two basic rules that come both from within computer science (especially information theory, systems analysis and information management) and from the academic disciplines represented by groups such as the Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S), the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) and Science, Technology, and Society studies in general (STS). They are:

1) Technologies cannot be evaluated out of their context of use. Very few technologies either "work" or "don't work". They all perform at certainly levels of efficiency, but whether or not they "work" depends on what they to do in terms of their institutional and societal contexts. In the case of military technologies, for example, they have to be evaluated not just in terms of failure rates but also how the technology performs, and influences, in the context of the relevant doctrines, tactics and strategies.

2) Technologies, especially information technologies, are parts of systems. They cannot be evaluated in isolation. The systems, which often include human operators and users, either work well or not in their context. For repairing and evaluating systems it is important to know how the various components or nodes perform, but a system that fails because of so-called human-error, has failed none-the-less and that includes it's computational elements.

So, any weapon system has to be analyzed in terms of all its components (including the humans and their training), the doctrine that it serves, its tactical and strategic uses, and the political context of the war it is used in.  To say B-52s are bad and so-called smart missiles are better does not make sense.  The computer and other technical parts might work with a high level of reliability (or not) but that doesn't make any one weapon system better than another.  The purely technical efficiencies cannot be separated out.

As a computer science professor I teach my students that computing systems in particular must be evaluated as systems, not in isolation.  A perfect case is the destruction of Iranian Air flight 655 by the USS Vincennes (deploying the most sophisticated computerized weapon system  used in combat: the Aegis) that killed 290 civilians.  There were technical problems (the jamming of an automatic 5-inch gun, the poor reliability of the automated Phalanx machine guns, the fact that Standard missiles need miles to accelerate, the poor interface design of the combat information center), training problems (all training was for fleet combat with the Soviets), command problems (other US ships correctly identified the flight but the Vincennes was in charge because it had the best computer system), human error (misreading the computer information because of scenario fulfillment), doctrine (the source of the command and training problems), the tactics (sending the Vincennes into Iranian territorial waters to engage small Iranian patrol boats), the strategy (the illegal stupid mission the Vincennes was on -- trying to provoke an Iranian counter-attack), and the politics (supporting Saddam's Iraq in an aggressive war against Iran).  So what if the Aegis is a marvel of computer engineering?  Tell that to the families of the dead Iranian civilians.  (For full details and documentation see: Chris Hables Gray, "AI at War: The Aegis System in Combat" in Directions and Implications of Advanced Computing 1990, Vol. III, D. Shuler, ed., Ablex, 1996, pp. 62-79.)

By the way, there is substantial evidence that the testing of the circuit cards for the Phalanx was faked, one reason their reliability was so low and so the Captain of the Vincennes could not trust them for close-in defense and so made the incorrect decision to take out the innocent airliner.

An undergraduate in one of my computer classes who tried to evaluate a system that uses computers by only looking at certain technical parameters of the computers, and not at all the relevant factors, would not pass.  A military that does the same, might win some battles, but it will lose all but the easiest wars, and even then, it will often lose the peace that follows.

In Gulf War I a strong case can be made that the massive B-52 bombings shattered the main Iraq Army, the so-called "smart weapons" were not nearly as accurate as claimed (and we found out much later the Patriots hit nothing), and that the destruction of the Iraqi infrastructure (in part by so-called precision bombing with all kinds of bombs and missiles) led to the deaths of 300,000 Iraqi women and children (according to both the UN, independent aid NGO's, and a Harvard Health School study).  War is complicated, weapon system performance is complicated, and accuracy (or even reliability) is hardly everything.

When Force of Fire was the main doctrine for winning war in the US military, bigger explosions were almost always considered more important than smaller accurate ones.  In some situations this was (and still is) true, in many others not.  The US military in particular has had a tendency to want to ignore the strategic and political realities of war.  This is why it lost Vietnam.  US weapons were more accurate and more powerful than the Vietnamese weapons but that was not enough.  It didn't help the Soviets win in Afghanistan either. This is why there is a whole debate about Asymmetric War in the military today, by the way.

Some of the main issues computer professionals should look at in Gulf War II--

* To what extent are such doctrines as "Shock and Awe" and of the general U.S. strategy based on misconceptions about what IT can and cannot do in a unpredictable and uncontrollable arena such as war.

* To what extent the existence of "so-called" smart weapons leads to the doctrinal, tactical, or strategic misuse of such weapons. Americans have a particular love of technology. That some people can unequivocally say such weapons "really work" when they have hit three of the wrong countries is an important issue to explore.

* The actual performance of such weapons as the Patriot.

* The possibility and possible impact of future weapons or military information systems such as effective identification systems.

* The absolute limits of computer technology to model complex systems. CPSR played a major role in articulating this crucial part of information theory during the first round of Star Wars debates and in the Spring 2001 newsletter (ed. by Carl Page and Chris Hables Gray) there is a full bibliography of the key articles in this area.


There are now a number of monographs and collections of articles that look critically at IT in the context of contemporary war. They include:

David Bellin and Gary Chapman, eds., Computers in Battle, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1987.

Paul Edwards, The Closed World, MIT Press, 1996.

Chris Hables Gray, Postmodern War, Guilford, 1997.

Gerfield Stocker and Christine Schopf, eds., Infowar, Springer Wien/New York, 1998.

James Der Derian, Virtuous War, Westview, 2001.


Sites circulated during CPSR discussions:

Shock and Awe:

Context of the War on Terror:

War on the Web (UK Guardian):,3605,898661,00.html

War Peace and Complex Systems:

Interesting article from the UK on the use of tomahawk missiles:,3858,4630027,00.html

Excellent article from a Business magazine, including discussion of interfaces:

Here is a link to the book that describes the whole "shock and awe" concept:

Here are two sites that discuss the media-zation of the current war in different ways.

1) Brown University's Watson Center (yes, the IBM Watson) has a whole project on infowar and infopeace and have some recent articles on embedded journalists:

2) And here's a site on media literacy and this war:

Respectfully submitted, Chris Hables Gray

by James Nugent

In Chris Gray’s article, War and Information Technology, his lack of understanding of the Aegis weapon system and how it would be employed in a combat situation undermines the point he attempts to make regarding technology and weapons. I’d like to address specific errors made in his piece, and highlight areas of agreement that legitimately touch on areas of concern with regard to sophisticated weapons systems such as the Navy’s Aegis weapons system.

Gray raises various problems with the overall weapons system on the U.S.S. Vincennes and he tries to make the case that these contributed to the tragic in-flight destruction of an Iranian airliner with 290 passengers on board. To start:

"There were technical problems (the jamming of an automatic 5-inch gun, the poor reliability of the automated Phalanx machine guns, the fact that Standard missiles need miles to accelerate, the poor interface design of the combat information center) …"

Gray lists these problems as contributing to the downing of Iran Air 655. As he points out in his article, it's important to understand how doctrine and tactics bear on a weapon’s employment. From a doctrinal or tactical perspective, the five inch gun (there are two on a ship such as Vincennes) and Phalanx (otherwise referred to as the CIWS, close-in weapons system) were not a consideration in the employment of the ship’s missiles. The order of priority for defensive engagement for the Vincennes would have been:

  1. Standard missile system.
  2. Five inch guns.
  3. Electronic deception.
  4. Chaff.
  5. Phalanx.

Systems 2 through 5 could have been completely out of service, or fully employable, and this would not have altered the first use of the standard missile system as the primary line of defense against an air threat. This is in accordance with the U.S. Navy doctrine of layered defense, a concept later adopted by computer information assurance/security community to explain how a computer network should be defended. In this case the doctrine of layered defense would be as follows:

"Weapons [used within a layered defense]: AAW weapons begin with Phoenix, Sparrow, Sidewinder, and AMRAAM missiles carried by the combat air patrol (CAP) [my note: this was not available to Vincennes]. Next are long-range "Standard" missiles such as extended- and medium-range SM-1s and SM-2s. These missiles are capable of intercepting targets at a range of nearly 100 miles. Shorter-range variants of these weapons are good out to 25 miles. Inside 10 miles, Sea Sparrow missiles are used to engage targets, and at extremely close, "do-or-die" ranges, CIWS guns are utilized. Additionally, MK45 5"/54, and the OTO Melara 76mm gun mount can engage air targets with limited effectiveness." 1

Layered defense means that you attempt to stop an attacker as far from what is being attacked as you possibly can, and then successively attack it with shorter range defensive systems until the attack is stopped. In an anti-air scenario that means you use the system with the furthest reach to take out an air threat, and on the Vincennes that was clearly its SM-2 missile system with a range out to 100 miles.

Gray points out a problem with the missile’s need to accelerate, to what specific purpose is not clear. No Navy ship's captain dealing with a single air threat would ever allow that threat to get so close that the acceleration dynamics of the defensive missile system would be a detrimental factor for its employment. While a missile would not necessarily be used to its maximum range in a situation where the threat wasn’t clearly identified, as was the case with Iran Air 655 where the full range of the missile system was not taken advantage of, an air threat would be engaged long before a concern for missile acceleration would enter into consideration.

" … the tactics (sending the Vincennes into Iranian territorial waters to engage small Iranian patrol boats), the strategy (the illegal stupid mission the Vincennes was on -- trying to provoke an Iranian counter-attack) …"

It's certainly questionable that a cruiser was the ideal weapon to go after shallow draft Iranian boats in what were depth-restricted waters. That said this incident started with a helicopter from the Vincennes coming under fire by the Iranian boats, i.e. the Iranians provoked the situation not the Vincennes, so it was the call of the captain of the Vincennes as to how he was to defend his helicopter and he elected to engage the Iranians. This didn’t have to result in the ship shooting at Iran Air 655, though it did set the stage for this possibility given the heightened sense of threat from what was seen as a legitimate provocation by the Iranians boats, to then dealing with an aircraft that wasn’t clearly identified which appeared to be coming to the aid of the boats under attack. 2

Gray raises an interesting question vis-a-vis the legality of the U.S. Navy's action during this time. First, the Iranians started the shooting so any measured response in return was certainly legal by any understanding of the rules of war. Second, our main reason for being in the Gulf was due to a request from the government of Kuwait to escort its tankers (which were subsequently re-flagged as U.S. vessels) through the Gulf. Escorts were necessary because both the Iraqis and the Iranians were engaging ships with anti-ship missiles, and the Iranians were also aggressively laying floating mines in the Gulf, a somewhat restricted by otherwise fully international waterway. Iranian complicity in minelaying was without question given that the Iranian minelayer Iran Ajr was captured and its mines confiscated as it was in the act of laying floating mines near Bahrain. U.S. actions taken in the Gulf were in response to a threat to the international sea lanes, and the oil that had to travel those sea lanes which western countries, in particular the U.S., needed to maintain their economies. So the U.S. could not afford not to be present in the Gulf as it had a decidedly vested interest in seeing to it that commerce would flow unmolested through its waters. 3

"So what if the Aegis is a marvel of computer engineering? Tell that to the families of the dead Iranian civilians."

Gray's inference here is that Aegis is what caused this tragedy. Technically speaking Aegis did exactly what it was supposed to, but there was a string of human errors, failures, and assumptions that ultimately caused the captain of the Vincennes to authorize the unleashing of two missiles at Iran Air 655; Aegis was never in automatic and it did not make the decision to fire.

"By the way, there is substantial evidence that the testing of the circuit cards for the Phalanx was faked, one reason their reliability was so low and so the Captain of the Vincennes could not trust them for close-in defense and so made the incorrect decision to take out the innocent airliner."

The order of weapon employment against an air threat is provided above, and Phalanx is the last system a ship's captain thinks to use, rightly so. It's a last ditch effort, if the attacker is that close (Phalanx's range is 1 mile) engaging it with Phalanx may well destroy the threat but if it's destroyed within the range of the weapon system there's a good chance there'd be debris resulting from the destruction that could still present a danger to the ship. Doctrine tells you that you engage air threats as far away as possible. It also bears noting that an Aegis cruiser has two Phalanx systems, only one of which at any time can reasonably engage a target and it’s unlikely that both were out of order, for whatever reason. Bottom line, Gray seems to consistently make the case that the ship’s captain would wait until he could actually visually see the air threat coming into him and that because he didn’t have these, as it turns out, nominal anti-air warfare systems up and running this induced the CO to shoot down the airliner at a much further distance than he would have otherwise done; that’s just flat incorrect and shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how Vincennes was expected to act in the situation it was believed to be facing.

Gray does make some valid points in his article, specifically:

" …training problems (all training was for fleet combat with the Soviets) …"

This is a legitimate point. The crew of the Vincennes was in a situation vis-a -vis Iran Air 655 that it had never trained for. While the Aegis system itself was very capable of adequately tracking civilian airliners given its use for just that purpose in two different venues, this specific scenario had not been one the Navy had anticipated or trained the Vincennes crew for. Had such training been conducted it's very likely problems with the human-machine interface would have been discovered and corrected, and the crew would have likely handled this specific situation differently and avoided the disaster which occurred.

" … command problems (other US ships correctly identified the flight but the Vincennes was in charge because it had the best computer system) …”

This made this incident all the more tragic – two other ships in the vicinity of this event were correctly tracking Iran Air 655, and tried to correct the erroneous conclusion reached by the Vincennes. That said, Vincennes was “in charge”, as Gray puts it, not because it had the best computer system but rather because the CO of the Vincennes was the senior officer on the scene and therefore by Navy regulations he was automatically in charge. In retrospect it’s also fairly apparent that Vincennes wasn’t very interested in being told by the ships in the area that it was incorrectly tracking the Iranian aircraft. This was partly due to hubris, the Vincennes was the ship with the premier weapons system on board and, therefore, the assumption by the crew was that they knew best. Added to this, though, was the fact that Vincennes had earned the reputation as Robo-cruiser during her deployment to the Gulf, primarily due to her aggressive behavior while on deployment.4 Complicating this all the more was that this tragedy occurred on the heels of the shooting of the USS Stark by an Iraqi jet. In the end the Stark’s commanding officer and his crew were found to be too complacent, allowing the Iraqi fighter to successfully launch its missiles. Vincennes and its crew may have been overly aggressive, but this is in part relative to the venue and previous events and the Vincennes’ CO was not, in the end, taken to task for excessive aggressiveness.

In the end the shooting down of Iran Air was a tragedy for many different reasons, but technology was not at fault, though a certain hubris that's often attendant to new technology was. Overall the technology worked as it was expected to, it was the humans who operated the system, who designed it, and trained the crew for the its use who failed in this equation leading to tragedy. Poor machine-human interface was clearly a problem. But more importantly and often not properly addressed in a new use of technology, adequate training was lacking. Using highly technical and often automated or nearly automated equipment in extremely stressful situations that often lie outside past experience, calls for extensive and imaginative training to identify potential problems which could lead to the sort of tragedy which occurred here. In addition, how this incident is perceived is often tainted by the bad blood that existed between Iran and the U.S. which resulted in the U.S. acting with a degree of pettiness in the face of a tragic occurrence which was nearly on par with the Russian reaction to the shoot down of KAL 007. The destruction of Iran Air 655 was clearly the fault of the U.S., but the tragedy was needlessly exacerbated and complicated by the U.S. government’s failure to apologize for the accident, leading many to believe it was intentional and that otherwise the U.S. didn’t care that it had killed a plane full of Iranians, and with a financial settlement that many argued was not commensurate with the magnitude of the incident, again entrenching the notion that the U.S. didn’t care or had acted with deliberate disregard.

Finally, a reasoned critique of a weapons system should come from a full appreciation for how it is used. Gray does not provide this perspective in the least, and it's very clear that he never endeavored to obtain one, likely I would suspect due to his distaste for anything to do with the military (this conclusion is based on my own discussions with him wherein his distaste for the military was very clear to me.) He does make points here that are germane to what did cause this tragedy and that demanded immediate and fleet-wide corrective action by the U.S. Navy. He otherwise clutters his article with poor historical perspective, no appreciable understanding or knowledge for the system he’s critiquing, and what would seem to be a desire to make a point from his own political/philosophical perspective, which poorly serves himself and his readers.


1 Introduction to Naval Science, Lesson Guide 13: Surface Warfare Community, last accessed 24 July 2006:
2 Operation Earnest Will,, last accessed 25 July 2006:
3 Ibid.
4 "The Vincennes Incident," Proceedings: U.S. Naval Institute, Vol. 115, No. 9, Issue 1039, September 1989, pp. 87-92.

Submitted by James Nugent

Created by nbrigham
Last modified July 27, 2006 07:40 PM

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