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August 24, 2006

Five Years After 9/11: The New Strategic Canvas


The War on Terror has been called “the first great war between nations and networks.”(1) Five years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 it represents a juncture for the United States that continues to severely test its political and public will, and will set the terms and quality of its future existence. In the post-9/11 era the United States finds itself engaged in three simultaneous ongoing conflicts: in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and against the global insurgency being waged by al Qaeda. At the same time, it must move beyond its traditional industrial age approach to warfare and prepare to engage adversaries both in new forms, as well as in new domains of conflict. In short, it must redefine its strategic canvas.


The premise is that America’s future adversaries, whether they take the form of terrorist or other types of networks, are not invincible. In fact, their structures and operations can be very fragile and are certainly capable of being defeated. However, it is necessary to move away from the inductive Cold War approach of the past 50 years – looking for weaknesses, gaps, and deficiencies, and determining how to exploit them; and toward deductive thinking and an adaptive capabilities-based approach in the War on Terror – a conscious search for the unexpected and the bounds of feasibility.(2)

The key tenet of this approach, the new strategic canvas, is that transformation from industrial age methods to information age concepts and methods is essential to long-term success in the War on Terror and beyond. The emergence of al Qaeda as the likely forerunner of terrorist and other types of networks in the information age will drive strategic transformation from industrial age domains of conflict – air, land, maritime, and cyber, to information age domains of conflict – physical, information, cognitive, and social. Traditional concepts of waging warfare against an adversary’s centers of gravity will be replaced with a focus on the elimination of critical systems, nodes, and links of information age networks. Network warfare will replace conventional warfare in the information age as both nation states and non-state entities come to realize its dialectical advantages.

The Strategic Canvas

The current operational paradigm employed by the United States in the War on Terror evolved from the experience of the United States military during the industrial-scale wars of the twentieth century. It is rooted in industrial age concepts that focus on conventional, symmetrical threats and responses, and hierarchical command and control. It is geography-based across territory and space. Its standard for defending the United States against external threats is a layered defense across the operational domains that comprise the industrial age global commons – the land, air, maritime, cyber, and space domains.

This paradigm is based on the concept that an active layered and comprehensive defense is necessary if the United States is to detect, deter, prevent, and defeat threats as early and as far from United States borders as possible; and, if necessary recover from them when they do occur. Its primary weakness is that it presumes that attacks will originate from outside the homeland and be conducted in a conventional manner. It forces acceptance that military force will always be the first line of defense.

However, as stated above, the information age will see the end of conventional warfare. The overwhelming battlefield successes of the United States military in the gulf wars (1991, 1993) have initiated the demise of large-scale maneuver warfare by illustrating its limitations. The reaction in many corners of the world is that there are no nations remaining that are capable of sustaining the costs of competing with the United States in conventional warfare.(3) Instead of relying on military force to wage war, strong and weak nations alike will find other ways to wage war, in other domains, by redefining the strategic canvas. Further, this development will not be limited to nation states, but will also be available to non-state entities, as well as super-empowered individuals and groups.

The emerging information age paradigm is a network-centric approach based on the premise that a fundamental shift in power has occurred from industry to information. It is rooted in information age concepts that focus on non-conventional, asymmetrical threats and responses, and non-hierarchical command and control. It expands beyond the geographical base of territory and space. Its standard for defending the United States against both internal and external threats is a universal networked defense across the operational domains that comprise the information age global commons – the physical, information, cognitive, and social domains. Network-centric operations seek to create an information advantage and translate it into an operational advantage. It accepts that military force, while essential, may be neither the first nor the most significant line of defense. The information age domains are defined as:(4)

• Physical – the traditional domain of warfare where a force is moved through time and space. It includes the land, sea, air, and space realms.

• Information – the domain where information is created, manipulated, and shared. It includes the cyber realm.

• Cognitive – the domain where intent, strategy, doctrine, tactics, techniques, and procedures reside. It is the domain where decisive concepts and tactics emerge.

• Social – the domain which comprises the necessary elements of any human enterprise. It is where humans interact, exchange information, form shared awareness and understandings, and make collaborative decisions. It is also the domain of culture, values, attitudes, and beliefs, and where political decisions are made.

The strategic canvas uses business concepts on strategy to demonstrate the transformation of warfare that must occur.(5) In the industrial age, large and small powers compete for the same thing – conventional military supremacy in the physical and cyber domains that comprise the industrial age global commons. Relative advantage or disadvantage is a matter of availability of the greatest amount of resources and control of the available knowledge.

Al Qaeda, as a forerunner of terrorist groups and non-state entities in the information age, rejects the logic of trying to compete with conventional military forces. As a non-state entity it lacks the necessary resources to employ conventional warfare in order to achieve its strategic objectives. Instead, it seeks to redefine its strategic canvas and to make conventional warfare irrelevant by embracing an information age paradigm for warfare. It seeks to leverage the shift in power from industry to information. In so doing, it tries to avoid conventional warfare in the physical and cyber domains of the industrial age global commons – but seeks instead to transfer the conflict to the domains of the information age global commons where it can compete by employing its asymmetrical strengths to its advantage.

The implication of the strategic canvas is that all, greater and lesser powers, including nation states and non-state entities alike, will be able to acquire infinite capabilities and compete equally in the information age domains. However, numerical scale can still play a decisive role in achieving and maintaining the strategic advantage. The United States can retain significant advantage by adopting a strategic approach similar to that of al Qaeda and other potential adversaries. This will allow it to bring to bear all the elements of its national power, and continue to take advantage of its superior resources and knowledge to develop strategies to defeat entities such as al Qaeda. The War on Terror, and that which follows, will be won or lost in the domains of the information age global commons.

(1) John Arquilla, Professor of Defense Analysis, Naval Postgraduate School. Student notes from a lecture given on networks and netwar at the Naval Postgraduate School, Center for Homeland Defense and Security, to graduate students in Cohorts 403 and 404, on July 12, 2005.

(2) Arthur Cebrowski, “Transformation and the Changing Character of War,” Department of Defense, Office of Force Transformation, Transformation Trends (June 17, 2004), 2.

(3) Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, Unrestricted Warfare: China’s Master Plan to Destroy America (Panama City, Panama: Pan American Publishing Company, 2002), xix.

(4) Department of Defense, Office of Force Transformation, Implementation of Network-Centric Warfare (2005), 20.

(5) W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, 2005), 25.