Westmoreland’s dream and Perrow’s nightmare: two perspectives on the future of military command and control
Published online: 3 December 2020
The near simultaneous introduction of machine-learning technologies into the heart of traditional command and control arrangements coupled with the operational challenges inherent in executing complex missions, such as hypersonic missile defence, poses unique risks and opportunities to today’s military commanders. This commentary explores this challenge from two perspectives. The first is the technological positivist perspective of US Army General William Westmoreland, which holds that military command and control functions can and should be automated to the highest degree possible to increase operational efficiency. The second is the more sceptical perspective of Dr Charles Perrow, which holds that interactively complex systems with tightly coupled components are inherently prone to unexpected and often dramatic failure. By incorporating both these perspectives into the design and operation of modern command and control systems, the author hopes these systems can be made to operate safely and more effectively.
In October 1969, standing behind a podium at the Sheraton Park Hotel in Washington DC, Army Chief of Staff General William C Westmoreland presented his vision of the future of warfare to the assembled attendees of the Annual Luncheon Association of the United States Army.
On the battlefield of the future, enemy forces will be located, tracked, and targeted almost instantaneously through the use of data links, computer assisted intelligence evaluation, and automated fire control … I see battlefields or combat areas that are under 24-hour real or near real time surveillance of all types. I see battlefields on which we can destroy anything we locate through instant communications and the almost instantaneous application of highly lethal firepower. 1Westmoreland presented this vision, this dream, years before the US Department of Defense (DoD) embarked on its Second Offset Strategy, which was designed to leverage the US’s superiority in science and technology to overcome the Soviet advantage in raw troop numbers in Europe, and decades before the US would first operationalise this approach to warfare during the first Gulf War. In his speech, Westmoreland was describing ‘network-centric warfare’ almost 30 years before the idea would gain broad acceptance in the Pentagon in the late 1990s.
computer-vision algorithms needed to help military and civilian analysts encumbered by the sheer volume of full-motion video data that DoD collects every day in support of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations. 2
We need two or more failures among components that interact in some unexpected way. No one dreamed that when X failed, Y would also be out of order and the two failures would interact so as to both start a fire and silence the fire alarm. Furthermore, no one can figure out the interaction at the time and thus know what to do. The problem is just something that never occurred to the designers... This interacting tendency is a characteristic of a system, not of a part or an operator; we will call it the “interactive complexity” of the system.
…But suppose the system is also “tightly coupled” that is, processes happen very fast and can’t be turned off, the failed parts cannot be isolated from other parts... operator action or the safety system might make it worse, since for a time it is not known what the problem really is. 3
To cite this article:
Documentary-note: Shane Halton, ‘Westmoreland’s dream and Perrow’s nightmare: two perspectives on the future of military command and control,’ Australian Journal of Defence and Strategic Studies, 2020, 2(2):259-268. https://www.defence.gov.au/ADC/Publications/AJDSS/volume2-number2/two-perspectives-on-future-military-c2.asp
Author-date (Harvard): Halton, S., 2020. ‘Westmoreland’s dream and Perrow’s nightmare: two perspectives on the future of military command and control, Australian Journal of Defence and Strategic Studies, [online] 2(2), 259-268. Available at: <https://www.defence.gov.au/ADC/Publications/AJDSS/volume2-number2/two-perspectives-on-future-military-c2.asp>
1 Randolph Nikutta, ‘Artificial Intelligence and the Automated Tactical Battlefield’ in Allan M. Dims (ed), Arms and Artificial Intelligence: Weapons and Arms Control Applications of Advanced Computing, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1987, p 101.
2 Cheryl Pellerin, ‘Project Maven Industry Day Pursues Artificial Intelligence for DoD Challenges’, US Department of Defense, last modified 27 Oct. 2017. https://www.defense.gov/Explore/News/Article/Article/1356172/project-maven-industry-day-pursues artificial-intelligence-for-dod-challenges
3 Charles Perrow, Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies - Updated Edition, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2011, pp 4-5.