Network-Centric Warfare and Complex Humanitarian Emergencies, Meet Napster!
by W. Scott Gureck
Network-Centric Warfare and Complex Humanitarian Emergencies, Meet Napster!
W. Scott Gureck
There is widespread agreement that complex humanitarian emergencies have become a permanent feature of the world's security environment, and that for both practical and political reasons, the U.S. military will remain the president's tool of choice when dealing with them.
At the pointy end of any U.S.-led response will be a joint force commander (JFC), and complicating his job will be the requirement that he consult and coordinate with the numerous humanitarian relief organizations (HROs), which he neither commands, nor controls, but which will most certainly populate any such humanitarian emergency. Among other things, a climate of cooperation will help all sides focus on what they do best. For the HROs, this will include obtaining supplies and local information, selecting delivery areas, and interacting with the local populace. For the military, the focus will be primarily on logistics, communications, and security.
While support of a complex humanitarian emergency is a sure-bet mission for the U.S. military, the available literature on one of its newest initiatives, network-centric warfare (NCW), has yet to suggest a way for it to include HROs into the military's shared information umbrella, when doing so would boost the transparency of everyone's actions. This is because, as it is currently envisioned, NCW is meant primarily to enhance offensive military capabilities.
This is unfortunate because after-action reports consistently state that while mechanisms to share current and comprehensive information about both the crisis and the actions of others are needed, truly innovative and efficient ones remain elusive. Technology that is simple to use, provides for interoperability of different software and hardware, makes the sharing of information virtually automatic, reaps the benefits of computer networking, and most importantly, could be used by both military and civilian relief providers, would seem to offer an ideal solution to this problem.
This essay addresses that shortcoming. It will show how the technology and business model behind the simple and popular software program Napster, as it was originally conceived and distributed prior to its recent legal troubles over copyright infringement, and freely distributed by the Department of Defense (DoD), could make any computer with an Internet connection, a node on a shared information grid. This, of course, would benefit not only the JFC, but also any member of any organization who has an interest in fostering better interagency coordination during the chaos of a complex humanitarian emergency.
The importance of coordination
A common feature of complex humanitarian emergencies is the involvement of a broad range of agencies, particularly NGOs and PVOs, who often precede the arrival of the U.S. military. The nature of their business means they are often on scene long before, and frequently long after, the arrival of military forces, especially when long-term problems precipitate the complex humanitarian emergency. These groups are independent, diverse, flexible, and are often the primary relief providers. They are the ones who manage the health clinics, the feeding centers, and the truck convoys that deliver the food before, during, and after a crisis.
Each organization brings its own culture, philosophy, goals, practices and skills to the crisis, and the challenge becomes finding a way to synchronize everyone's efforts.
Of the various coordination tools the JFC has at his disposal, the most effective are those that provide an opportunity for all sides to be heard. These include the establishment of an Executive Steering Group (ESG), a civil-military operations center (CMOC) or a humanitarian assistance coordination center (HACC), and the use of liaison officers (LNOs).
Because cooperation is so important, even when military instruments are absent, civilian relief providers have devised their own ways to coordinate their efforts. For example, the American Red Cross, the Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE), the Christian Children's Fund, and at least 22 other NGOs have attempted to improve NGO-NGO, NGO-military, and NGO-UN relations through the adoption of a Field Cooperation Protocol, which is basically a list of issues about which they have agreed to try and achieve consensus during disaster assistance efforts. The formation of a Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) by USAID's OFDA is a U.S. government agency initiative to accomplish the same thing.
Other less formal efforts by CARE, World Vision and Catholic Relief Services to improve cooperation between military and non-military actors in complex contingency situations include the hiring of former military officers for senior positions within their organizations. Even a special humanitarian relief exercise, complete with refugee-actors and a mock UN camp, was conducted recently between the U.S. Navy, several Pacific rim countries, and a range of civilian relief agencies interested in practicing better cooperation and coordination.
The available literature on complex humanitarian emergencies has covered both the effectiveness, and the shortcomings, of these and other coordination mechanisms in great detail, and a more detailed analysis of these mechanisms is beyond the scope of this essay. The point is that coordination tools are both desired, and necessary, and that as civilians and soldiers alike find themselves in an increasingly networked world, a high-tech, network-based coordination tool would benefit everyone concerned, including the JFC and the military forces he commands.
A networked world
While it may seem hard to remember today, it was less than a decade ago that we actually performed our jobs without the benefit of e-mail or the web. In fact, it was not until the mid to late '90s that most of us expected the personal computer (PC) on our desk to be part of a local area network (LAN). Today, we expect not only a LAN, but a continuous connection to the Internet as well. When we are away from the office, many of us will stay in touch using a mobile phone, a notebook PC, or both. Connectivity, and increasingly, networked connectivity, has become both a necessity, and a way of life.
This desire to stay connected extends to our private lives as well. At home, the majority of us have at least one PC complete with Internet access and personal e-mail accounts. Many families with more than one PC have set up their own home networks. Several large companies, including Ericsson, IBM, Intel, Nokia and Toshiba are working on Bluetooth, a short-range radio technology aimed at simplifying communications among Net devices and between devices and the Internet. As a de facto standard for wireless technology, Bluetooth will facilitate both rapid ad hoc connections, and automatic unconscious connections between devices. By eliminating multiple cable connections, users will be able to think about what they are working on, rather than how to make their technology work.
Because of the widespread availability of mobile communications devices, and because of constantly shrinking PCs (both in size and cost), the opportunity for anyone to connect to the Internet, primarily for the purpose of accessing the web or e-mail, will steadily increase, regardless of where in the world they might find themselves. To be sure, there are many places in the world today without cellular phone service or ready access to the Internet. But this number shrinks daily. Ten years ago, few of us had ever used a cellular phone. Fewer still could afford the luxury of ownership. Today, on the other hand, we routinely see high quality digital phones and service plans at very reasonable prices, and you can use these phones from coast to coast. What a difference a decade makes!
Every facet of our lives is being touched by netcentricity, which allows for vast global connectivity, real-time collaboration, and rapid and convenient information exchange. Netcentricity has produced a significant byproduct as well - reduced costs. Moving information is far less costly than moving people and things, and as a rule, netcentric businesses, such as Microsoft and AOL, have mass than traditional pre-net ones such as GE, GM, or AT&T, while enjoying similar levels of market capitalization.
Netcentricity has also allowed companies to downsize while simultaneously increasing productivity. For example, FedEx's PowerShip customer tracking software boosted both customer volume and satisfaction while allowing for an 80-percent reduction in customer service representatives.
For the military, the promise of being able to mass effects rather than forces, to leave people and machines where they are, and to create smaller, in-theater footprints, are just a few of the benefits to be derived from its version of netcentricity: NCW.
NCW describes how the military will organize and fight in the Information Age. By networking sensors, decision makers, and shooters, a shared awareness is created, which enables faster decision-making, higher tempo operations, greater lethality, increased survivability, and self-synchronization. And because NCW promises a better distribution of resources to tasks than was possible in the past, operations, which may have been impossible under a traditional warfare model, might become feasible in the future.
But this focus on warfighting seems to ignore the possibilities NCW might have during military operations other than war, especially complex humanitarian emergencies. Indeed, some have suggested that to better prepare itself for the future, the military might focus NCW on crisis prevention and termination, and accept the fact that external information-technology networking is more important than internal networking, and that the generation and reconstitution of networks might be more beneficial than taking them down.
The question, then, is why not augment traditional, low-tech coordination tools such as the CMOC or LNOs, with a high-tech tool that extends the benefits of NCW to the many PVOs and NGOs who wage war against hunger and disease every day? As one of the U.S. government's principal mechanisms for assisting people at risk in complex emergencies, there should be a way to incorporate them into the military's NCW architecture. Indeed, I believe there is a way, and it can be found in the technology and business model behind Napster.
What is Napster?
While news reports about Napster's ongoing legal trouble with the music recording industry have dramatically increased its visibility and name recognition, the typical JFC or advocate of NCW has probably not had any first hand experience using the service. This is because 35 percent of Napster's users are in the 15- to 24-year-old age group, while another 28 percent of Napster's users are in the 25- to 34-year-old group.
A reporter recently wrote that Napster epitomizes the use of peer-to-peer (P2P) networking in a way no other software application begins to match. He goes on to suggest that often it takes a youngster, like Napster's inventor Shawn Fanning, who has no preconceived ideas about how the Internet should work, to harness its distributed power so effectively.
Napster users share one goal: to locate and download CD audio tracks that have been compressed into the popular MP3 file format. So keen are they to do this, that Napster's owners have estimated that even without marketing, its network is growing by more than 200 percent per month, that approximately 10,000 music files are shared per second using Napster, and that every second more than 100 users connect to the system. Quadrupling its user base between February and July 2000, it became the fastest growing software application ever tracked by a research company. Napster's popularity (and no doubt, its legal troubles) may be directly attributed to how seamlessly and easily it allows users to exchange data (in this case MP3 format data files) that is otherwise difficult to obtain.
The Napster service, which is likely to undergo dramatic changes in order to settle the various lawsuits against it, presently consists of a free, client-side software application that users download from the Napster web site. Less than two megabytes in size, installation and setup are quick and easy, and no additional hardware is required.
Napster's popularity comes from its ability to take the frustration out of locating servers with MP3 files. It does this by eliminating the need for their servers to do anything other than to keep track of MP3 files located on client computers. As a client-side data discovery software application, Napster provides a way to perform searches of a server-side database made up of information about the MP3 files held on all online client computers. Once a user finds an MP3 file he wants, the software makes setting up the necessary client-to-client, P2P transfer of the desired file as simple as a mouse click. With little more than the installed Napster software and an Internet connection, any PC can become a node on the Napster network.
The value of the Napster network, therefore, grows as the quantity and quality of available music increases. Nodes allow for interaction, with the value of most networks being based upon the number of potential interactions that can take place between nodes (N) - the general formula being N2 for most networks. In other words, a network with three nodes has the potential for nine information interactions (32 = 9), while a network with 10 nodes offers the potential for 100 interactions (102 = 100).
In the case of the Napster business model, by creating a software application that is simple to use, platform-independent, easy to install and, most importantly, makes P2P connectivity automatic, they routinely have 10,000 or more users (i.e. nodes) online at any given moment, creating some 100 million potential information interactions between them (10,0002 = 100,000,000). An astonishing number by any measure, it is possible because its creators have made becoming a node on their network as basic as having a PC with an Internet connection.
The DoD version of Napster
As mentioned above, Napster users share one goal: to acquire MP3 files. To join the Napster network, you need little more than a PC with an Internet connection. Users are as diverse as the population itself, and the majority of file transfers are completely anonymous because knowing who has the information you need (in this case a desired MP3 file) is not only unimportant, it is unnecessary. Instead, you need only know what it is you want. The client-side software, and the powerful server-side database, does the rest.
This desire to share information, often with people you do not necessarily know, is exactly what faces the joint military forces and the many HROs involved in a complex humanitarian emergency. As discussed previously, all sorts of coordination tools must be set up by these groups, with many of them involving face-to-face interactions.
But what if this coordination could be done via PC networking? Why not harness the Napster technology and business model in a way that extends the power of netcentricity and thus NCW to the benefit of everyone involved?
The solution is for DoD to create a Napster-like software application, and to maintain Napster-like servers, for the express purpose of coordination between groups who typically become involved in complex humanitarian emergencies. The Internet already provides the digital backbone necessary for such a network. What is missing is a common, Napster-like software interface designed with coordination of relief efforts in mind.
Given the sheer number of relief organizations who become involved in a particular emergency, the number of potential information interactions that could take place between users of such an application are staggering. For example, there are some 441 NGOs registered with the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). Assuming each NGO organized themselves around at least three sites or offices, and that each was using a Napster-like software application to become a node on the coordination network, the possibility exists for more than 1323 (441 x 3) nodes and almost two million information interactions between relief organizations in Kosovo alone.
The precedent for taking the lead on a project that is likely to be used by more civilians than members of the military is the Global Positioning System (GPS). To date, tens of billions of dollars have been invested by DoD in GPS despite the fact that 95% or more of its users are civilians, and several civilian firms do a brisk business building commercial GPS receivers. DoD has the people and the resources to do it right, and by taking the lead, it could ensure that the software application would complement and integrate seamlessly into other, DoD-only, undoubtedly secure, NCW-based applications.
The software application itself could be made available via a DoD website, just as users download the Napster software from the Napster web site. This ability to easily distribute the software for free to anyone who needs it via web site download is a critical aspect of the business model, and should probably not be changed. It might also be open-source, meaning end-users could modify the software to suit their particular needs as long as functionality between other users remains intact.
What might have to be modified, in the interest of security, would be the registration procedure. Rather than letting anyone join the network, a means of validating users as having a genuine need to coordinate with other members of the network would certainly be in everyone's interest. This brief validation procedure might be an appropriate task for a current military coordination mechanism, such as the CMOC, or perhaps it could be performed by one of the major civilian relief agencies, such as CARE or the American Red Cross. In any event, the technology exists to apply whatever level of security is needed to ensure only legitimate individuals and groups have access to the coordination network. The point is that to the greatest extent possible, the system should be inclusive rather than exclusive, and the need for human intervention should be minimal.
Like Napster, this software would allow any user to discover information possessed by another user regardless who that other user might be, or where that user is located. In some cases, the desired information might be files held by another user, such as a digital photo, briefing, or a document relevant to the humanitarian relief effort. In other cases, it may be information about people and supplies, such as being able to find out how many tents, bottles of water, or doctors are available, and where they are located. Perhaps it might help a member of the CMOC find an individual they need to contact. And like Napster, it could provide a chat feature, allowing instant voice or written communication between two or more online users.
When Hurricane Mitch struck Central America in November 1999, everyone from local church congregations to corporations were eager to donate food and supplies. Some 200,000 pounds of food of various types was collected, including 50,000 pounds of sugar and 30,000 pounds of pasta. The donated food was then flown to Honduras using space available on military aircraft under the Denton Amendment.
Had a Napster-like coordination tool been available, these congregations could have become nodes on the relief network. As such, they would have quickly and efficiently discovered exactly what types of food or supplies the primary relief providers on the ground in Honduras were requesting, and what needs had already been filled, before the first donation was collected back in the States. By collecting only what is actually needed, everyone benefits; the HROs get exactly what they need, and the military optimizes the use of valuable logistics resources.
But perhaps the real power of such an application would come from the way it creates a network-based vehicle for the sharing of information by many disparate, and geographically dispersed individuals. By allowing coordination independent of location, the possibility exists that fewer individuals will need to actually move forward to the crisis location. This would of course save money, and in the case of the military, reduces its footprint, a major consideration for any deployment.
Various after-action reports have suggested that during peace operations, the U.S. could benefit from economies realized through participation in multinational logistics, and that a pool of common-user resources can add to overall efficiency. A Napster-like software application in the hands of multinational and commercial logistics providers, such as UPS or FedEx, might mean that the JFC avoids some logistics coordination headaches altogether because the software could facilitate the matching of a request and an available commercial lift opportunity in ways never before possible.
Another advantage to a network-based mechanism is that coordination could begin early, and need not be dependent upon the actual involvement of the U.S. military. For example, while the typical JFC might not become involved before the situation becomes a complex emergency, this application could be available all the time, allowing HROs to coordinate more efficiently even during periods of relative stability. And because of better pre-crisis coordination, if and when the military does become involved, its footprint might be smaller, and its troops better prepared.
This software application would allow self-synchronization, and would help to make the JFC's contribution and his command responsibility commensurate with his stake in the operation. By leveraging DoD's technological prowess, it could preserve valuable military resources for another day. In other words, not only might this software application better integrate American military power into complex humanitarian emergencies, it would also provide a mechanism for the conservation and maintenance of finite military and civilian resources.
During Operation Uphold Democracy in Haiti, civil affairs (CA) officers received and prioritized requests for logistics assistance and forwarded them for approval and tasking to the CMOC with a goal of providing a response to the customer within 72 hours. These NGO requests, which were often vague and incomplete, included requests for various foodstuffs, vitamins, oil, school supplies, and construction materials. The solution to clarifying the requests was to include a military logistics representative in the daily HACC meeting. This person informally reviewed each request, made sure all necessary information had been provided by the NGO, and based on his knowledge of the military mission, helped CA personnel prioritize the requests.
While this manpower-intensive solution to clarifying and prioritizing requests apparently worked, this is another example where a Napster-like application could improve efficiency. Instead of sending individual requests to the HACC or CMOC, where they must be interpreted and prioritized, much of the coordination could self-synchronize between individuals out in the field, eliminating the need for every request to flow in and out of a central entity.
Such an application would no doubt be beneficial to a future JFC as a preemptive response tool. For example, during a period of increased violence in Zaire and Rwanda in 1996, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a directive to the United States European Command to develop a tactical plan to facilitate relief operations and voluntary repatriation of Rwandan refugees. The intent of the plan was, among other things, to prepare to conduct military operations in support of UN-directed humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, to be able to rapidly assess the situation and recommend usage of unique U.S. military capabilities, to complement/supplement designated UN/civilian-led agencies, and to minimize the requirement for U.S. military forces. In fact, some of the first mission essential tasks identified during the initial planning stages were to identify requirements in support of the humanitarian assistance operations of the UNHCR, NGOs, and PVOs in central Africa, and to establish CMOC interfaces.
After this initial planning, the humanitarian assistance survey team deployed to the area to make an assessment; establish an interface with the U.S. country teams, the government of Rwanda, and relief agencies; and to prepare for follow-on forces.
Had a Napster-like software application been available in this case, perhaps the planners working back in Germany and Italy could have done much of the coordination normally done by a survey team via P2P connectivity, eliminating the need to deploy them in the first place. And even if a team is sent to the crisis area, no doubt it could be smaller, better prepared, or both. Smaller military footprints not only make force protection easier, host nations often express a desire for a limited presence of foreign forces, both in size and duration.
Once the JFC arrives at the scene of a complex humanitarian emergency, considerable effort is spent setting up ways to communicate what is happening on the ground to higher headquarters, relief agencies, the local government, multinational forces, and to the media. Once again, a common, simple-to-use, platform independent software application that could make all of these groups nodes on a common network would make the job of coordination easier for everyone involved.
Just as many disparate users of Napster have a common tool to share MP3 files, a Napster-like application could provide a netcentric coordination mechanism that would work independently of actual U.S. military involvement, or the establishment traditional coordination mechanisms.
Web sites, e-mail and other collaborative tools
Because they have become useful to both our personal and professional lives, the obvious question some critics will ask is "Why not just build a web site or use e-mail?" Others will say that the last thing the JFC and members of the CMOC need is another software application to learn, or an in boxto check, arguing that e-mail and web sites already network everyone together.
ReliefWeb, a web site owned and operated by the UN OCHA, is probably the best online coordination solution to date. Updated around the clock, it provides time-critical access to over 50,000 documents and other information on events as they unfold. Examples include emergency reports, background information, maps, appeals, and contribution tracking.
ReliefWeb provides a valuable service, and there is no doubt it will continue to be a valuable tool for anyone interested in relief efforts around the world. The fact remains, however, that web sites are not node connectors. The authors of a web site can only reach someone willing to seek out what they have to offer.
The typical web site also tends to be self-promoting. Should a crisis occur today, each of the major HROs and military commands involved, would undoubtedly put information about what they are doing to help the relief effort up on their own, existing web sites. But for the most part, these sites are nothing more than web-based press releases. They are perfect for keeping the media or public informed, but they do little to improve coordination between participants. And as data discovery tools, they are only as good as the last web update, which might be daily for some sites, but days, weeks, or months for others, especially if they lack the manning or resources to update them on a more regular basis.
E-mail also falls short as a true genuine networking solution. While it certainly improves the speed of communications, its unstructured nature inhibits prioritization and positive accounting. This is exacerbated in a crisis when there is a tendency to send everything to everyone on the basis that more information is better than less. The more e-mail one receives, however, the harder it becomes to prioritize those that are meaningful and require action from those that should be discarded. And even junk or unnecessary e-mail must be evaluated before it can be discarded, delaying action on high-priority tasking that sits lower in the queue.
Another problem with e-mail is that the address of the intended recipient must be known. In a normal work environment, where everyone in the command or business is on a LAN, finding people internal to the organization is as simple as going into the system address book. To find someone outside the organization, people typically rely on their personal address books, web pages, telephone calls, etc. But what happens when these same people are deployed to a crisis area, and nobody is at their usual desks? What if a member of the CMOC would like to send an e-mail to the senior Red Cross representative in a particular location, but has absolutely no idea who that person is, yet alone what their e-mail address is?
Instead of creating a DoD version of Napster, some might argue that coordination could be improved through the use of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) software. Indeed, the U.S. military is evaluating collaborative planning software such as Microsoft NetMeeting, Information Workspace, and Lotus Notes as tools for the joint warfighter. Unfortunately, since these programs involve a certain amount of end-user training, as well as licensing costs, it is unlikely that the large and diverse population of HROs would ever embrace one particular application. Napster, on the other hand, enjoys nearly universal appeal among MP3 enthusiasts by virtue of being free (for end users at least) and easy to use (no training is required). These two characteristics are essential elements of the Napster business model, and they would have to carry over to any version developed for the purpose of sharing information during complex humanitarian emergencies.
The bottom line is that while web pages, e-mail, and COTS products are useful tools, they do not present realistic solutions for creating nodes on a network as it is envisioned under NCW.
Network-centric warfare offers many advantages, but unless a way is found to integrate the many HROs into the joint force commander’s shared information grid, better coordination during complex humanitarian emergencies will not be one of them.
Complex humanitarian emergencies are a fact of life. Because the U.S. military possesses an abundance of precisely those resources that are in the shortest supply when disaster strikes; transportation and logistics, fuel, communications capabilities, commodities, building equipment, medicines, large stockpiles of off-the-shelf pro-visions; and because it has the ability to provide security in hostile situations, it will continue to be called upon to provide assistance in ways suited to its unique capabilities.
Since it is the PVOs and NGOs who are often there before, and long after the emergency ends, mechanisms that foster cooperation should not be withdrawn with the withdrawal of military forces. That would be the main advantage of a Napster-like coordination tool. It could begin working long before, and long after, any U.S. military involvement. In fact, under ideal conditions, it would facilitate HRO coordination efforts so effectively that other than to provide the software and run the servers behind it, the military would not have to become involved.
While the scope and purpose of this paper has been to show how such a tool might help the JFC during a complex humanitarian emergency, it need not be limited to this use alone. In fact, the owners of Napster, trying desperately to defend their service against music industry attempts to shut them down, have argued that its technology might be used for collaborative working relationships in business, education, and research. Indeed, at least one researcher working on the Human Genome Project is investigating ways to use Napster-type technology to allow scientists to share their discoveries of the genome.
A Napster-like software application that would help DoD coordinate with HROs might easily do the same thing for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) during domestic emergencies, perhaps without any modification.
It is also possible that an even more powerful, yet simple, networking application exists, but lacks widespread visibility. For example, the Gnutella project was recently shut down as quickly as it was launched because it posed an even greater threat to the recording industry than Napster. Rather than relying on a centralized server system to maintain a database of available client-side MP3 files, it would have made user PCs both clients and servers, creating a self-perpetuating chain of networked computers that authorities feared they would never be able to stop. While this might scare music executives, this type of technology might be perfect as a coordination tool during complex humanitarian emergencies.
The original Napster technology and business model proves, with efficiency and style, that as long as they share a common goal, it is possible to network thousands of dissimilar people with tools and technology that readily exist today. A similar tool, tailored for coordination during complex humanitarian emergencies, would shorten deployments, while simultaneously reducing the size of military footprints, tangible benefits any military commander can appreciate.
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About the Author
Commander W. Scott Gureck, U.S. Navy, wrote this essay while attending the College of Naval Command and Staff, where he graduated with distinction in March, 2001. A Navy Public Affairs Officer, he is currently Chief of Publishing for All Hands magazine. Previous assignments include the Secretary of the Navy staff, USS INDEPENDENCE (CV 62) in Yokosuka, Japan, and the United States European Command in Stuttgart, Germany.
CDR W. Scott Gureck USN
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