Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University


military revolution: a discussion with George Stein

George Stein is a member of the faculty of the USAF Air War College and is Chairman of the Department of Future Conflict Studies. His most recent books is US Information Warfare, published by Jane's. This interview was conducted in Linz, Austria, in September 1998. Ian R. Douglas is director of the power foundation, <>.

by Ian R.Douglas

IAN R. DOUGLAS: People talk of a ‘revolution in military affairs’ as a consequence of the new status afforded to information ..

That’s one of the three aspects of it ..

IAN R. DOUGLAS: There are three aspects?

Another is organization. You reorganize the way that you do things because information makes that possible. You would flatten hierarchies, you would empower people lower down, to make decisions on the spot, that’s implied. And the third thing is advances in technology.

IAN R. DOUGLAS: The flattening of hierachy, the lowering of the point of decision .. is this for the purposes of speed?

GEORGE STEIN: Yes. The ability to respond to an emergent situation

IAN R. DOUGLAS: What kind of emergent situations are being foreseen?

Well, the best example is in peacekeeping operations. You have a clear plan that you’re going to do something. And suddenly one of the people that doesn’t want a peaceful situation starts a mob riot. Well, the commander on the ground can’t wait for Washington to decide how to handle that situation. Responding to the situation is how we see it.

IAN R. DOUGLAS: In response to what you outlined here today, at ars electronica, Manuel De Landa responded by questioning your (and by association, the military’s) regime of perception. You responded by saying that the American high command didn’t much care about Derrida, Foucault, and so on ..

GEORGE STEIN: I think that if Amercans have a philosophy, it would be John Dewey.

IAN R. DOUGLAS: Pragmatism.


IAN R. DOUGLAS: So we have tow elements: a pragmatic response to the speed of the event; also the technological development that allows the rapid response.


IAN R. DOUGLAS: Can we talk a little about this technological development, for it seems obvious that along with technology there always follows a whole set of ways in which it can be used, not only the role assigned to in advance.


IAN R. DOUGLAS: One of the fears about new technologies of information, command, control and intelligence, emerging with this new ‘revolution in military affairs’, is that this technology can easily be turned inward; becoming the technical means to the colonization not only of the Other (the foreign, the outside), but the populace of the homeland in question. So take for example the concern against infoattacks on the infrastructure of the United States. It’s obvious that surveillance, new regimes of security, etc., that are born in response have effects not only on the potentialities of would-be terrorists, but very profound effects on the daily lives of ordinary citizens.

GEORGE STEIN: But we don’t have a state radio, or television. Our media compete with one another. Any media, any medium that was seen to be the mouthpiece of the state would be discredited right away.

IAN R. DOUGLAS: So is this revolution in military thinking with regard to the application of infomation technology a reaction to and against the external event?

GEORGE STEIN: No. It’s just the logic of the model. This is a new capability which exists in the universe and militaries have the duty to explore these things. It’s not like the stealth technlogy where you have some government lab working on secret airplane for years. It’s nothing like that. This stuff is all public. Now I’m sure there are undoubtedly secret government labs that do research on cryptography; breaking code and making code. Governments have always done that, back to Julius Caesar. But the net and the internet and all that are so commercial; what we would call ‘commercial off the shelf’ (COFS is what they call it). The government doesn’t build its own computer chips. That’s just not the way it works. The technology is too far in front of everybody.

IAN R. DOUGLAS: 500 years ago, or thereabouts and on, the control of technology was essentially a military domain. And now what we’re seeing, what you yourself are telling us here, is that that control has emptied out, ‘democratised’, become commercialized. Essentially anyone with the capital can get access.


IAN R. DOUGLAS: Is it the case that the technologies we’re talking about (computers, crytography, information in general) hold within themselves a military mind-set, or is their application to military affairs the result of an accident of the commercial economy?

GEORGE STEIN: I think its the accident. As was pointed out this morning. The entire internet comes from the need for secure communications. And then it expanded to universities, some universities. And then it expanded to everyone. Nobody controls the internet now.

IAN R. DOUGLAS: This is one of the frightful things about electromagnetic proximity. It’s the immediacy. Technologies always have momentum. Bu when that momentum is also immediate, it seems all that remains possible, all that is left, is to react. So the military man who once dominated the environment is now left confused by the speed of the event. And from a time when the military dominated the state we pass to a time when the civitas almost dominates the military ..

GEORGE STEIN: The military, at least in the United States, does what our civil masters tell it to do. If they say restore democracy in Haiti, that’s not something the military would dream up on its own. Go to wherever, and conduct a relief operation: you just have to look at what the military are doing; and they are doing what gets called ‘military operations other than war’, and its wearing them to frazzle. The military is sent all over the place all the time for things that have nothing to do with war. So maybe the nature of the use of the military is changing because if there’s a famine somewhere, and the government looks around for someone who is organized, that has the equipment, who when you say ‘go’ can go .. that’s not our friends in the State Department. So I think the military are responding to changes in the world as determined by the political authorities.

IAN R. DOUGLAS: The raison d’etre of the modern military is the "defense of society". Are we talking about simply an extension of that role?

GEORGE STEIN: You could say that, but one has to be cautious here. A few years ago people got all panicky about cyberattacks on domestic infrastructure. So the President appointed a critical infrastructure security task force. And the military was part of that. But it was run by the Department of Justice, and the Department of Commerce was part of it; everyone apart from the Department of State, because it didn’t involve outside the country. So the question of who protects the American telephone system, for example, is entirely a non-military function. That’s the Deaprtment of Justice, the FBI, that sort of thing. The military has no role in protecting domestic infrastructures, unless we were dealing with a known terrorist attack (someone was going to blow up the Atlantic Olympics, or something like that). Clearly some military capabilities would be supplied to the civil authories. But beyond that no. The same thing is done is done in chemical and biological terrorism. Clearly the military has gas masks and all that sort of thing, but the military is not taking over protecting the American citizens from a terrorist attack like Tokyo subway attack. That’s just not the military’s business. That’s the business of the police.

IAN R. DOUGLAS: We’re talking about defense, can we talk about attack (and I have in mind a foreign intervention)? Imagine a scenario of a clearly defined enemy. One of the effects of the focus of infrastructures (infowar, etc.) is that the civilian becomes a primary target.

GEORGE STEIN: Well, not always primary, but one of the targets you could think about, if the adversary was dependent upon that civilian infrastructure. If we’re dealing with Afghanistan, for example, where there is no such infrastructure, that’s clearly not a target. It’s absolutely situation dependent.

IAN R. DOUGLAS: But given the scenario of an infrastructurally advanced adversary, isn’t there a further potential blurring of the distinction between the military and the civilian. This of course went by the wayside with nuclear technology, where the general population was exposed to death (the possible thermonuclear war). But now we find populations exposed not at this general level, but at the specific level of their everyday lives ..

GEORGE STEIN: You mean in times of peace?

IAN R. DOUGLAS: Precisely. One of the things you referred to today was the insight of Sun Szu: that the most sucessful form of warfare is that which wins over the enemy without the necessity of battle. It’s an age old military principle, repeated by Napoleon, by Guibert, by Frederick II. Now in the age of information warfare its become more important than ever: as well as infinately more possible. So what I’m asking is what distinguishes information war from information peace? Can they be distinguished? Where is the line?

GEORGE STEIN: That would intend entirely on the attention of the policy maker, and that would vary from state to state. Let me give you an example. Even the most militaristic military person would have doubts about even command and control. Why would you want to turn an enemy military force, which is an organized force in spite of you, into an incoherent mass, of people wandering around, confused, heavily armed? It’s not at all clear that command and control warfare, to completely disorientate the enemy is effective military tactics. Now, when you take that to the strategic level, at one time during the nuclear era, some people talked about the ‘decapitation strategy’. And other people very quickly pointed out, ‘Well with whom do you negotiate peace, or surrender’. So the idea that you would conduct an information war to completely disorientate an adversary’s society, then how would you end the conflict; how do you begin the process of reconstruction? So there are very serious reasons why no military would actively thing about doing this. But like with nuclear weapons, you have to think of the possibility of an irrational actor doing that to you, and therefore you spend money on infoprotection and communications security and all these other things. Because history has illustrated there are irrational military actors.

IAN R. DOUGLAS: And is there a the line between defense and offense?

The law.

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