An Unbreakable Network is Like an Unsinkable Ship

by LtCol Gregory A. Thiele

In the last 30 years, the Marine Corps has tied its warfighting capability ever more closely to the use of computers and the Internet. This development has had some benefits. Unfortunately, it has also created tremendous vulnerabilities potential adversaries may be able to exploit. While no communications system is ever entirely secure, the Internet and other computer-based information sharing systems have proven extremely vulnerable. The Marine Corps should reconsider its use of internet-based technology and employ it only in a carefully targeted manner compatible with the Marine Corps’ warfighting philosophy oí maneuver warfare.

The Marine Corps now uses computers and the Internet for nearly everything, both in garrison and in wartime. It seems that virtually every Marine has a computer, Internet connection, and email address. Everything from personnel records to maintenance records, annual training statistics to annual training classes are delivered and shared via the Internet and tracked, cataloged, and stored on computers and servers. When servers crash or the Internet fails for any reason, workflow virtually stops in affected units. Units now drag computers, servers, heating and cooling systems, and associated generators to the field in order to establish Internet connections with other units. The light, foot-mobile headquarters seems to be a thing of the past.

The Marine Corps’ use of computers and Internet-based information sharing systems for both garrison and wartime use has some beneficial aspects. A greater amount of information can be shared more rapidly among more Marines than ever before. Tasks that used to take a great deal of time or manpower can now be automated and conducted cheaply, quickly, and efficiently.

Unfortunately, the Internet’s benefits have not come without significant drawbacks. Our fascination with technology may actually be detrimental and make Marine units less capable. Commanders are now inundated with information. The increased information requires a corresponding increase in staff to process it. More staff officers mean that there are more individuals vying for a commander’s time. The plethora of information available is likely to result in a commander experiencing information overload, which may inhibit effective decision making.

Information sharing technology may also degrade unit performance in less obvious ways. The Internet provides higher headquarters with the means to monitor virtually any aspect of a subordinate’s actions it chooses. Nothing can escape the all-seeing electronic eye of Big Brother. To augment this electronic supervision, units are required, to send so many reports to higher headquarters each day/week/month/year that this effort can easily become a unit’s focus of effort in garrison. Higher headquarters’ appetite for information only increases during wartime with a corresponding potential negative impact on unit focus and initiative.

Perhaps the greatest drawback that comes with wedding warfighting capability to information sharing technology is that every network is vulnerable. In fact, it is quite impossible to create a network that is impervious to attack.1 Despite the financial resources of the United States and the extensive efforts made to protect important data, U.S. government files are routinely compromised. For instance, in 2015, it was revealed that the Office of Personnel Management’s files were hacked and the information of at least four million federal service employees may have been compromised. Even the U. S. Secretary of State at that time, John Kerry, once admitted that it was “very possible” that his email account had been compromised “and I certainly write things with that awareness.”2 Although Secretary Kerry’s actions may be no more than prudence, if the U.S. Secretary of State cannot be certain that his email is secure, what does this say about the ability (or inability) to provide secure communications in other areas, particularly where the scale of use is much greater (such as the Department of Defense)?

In such an environment, what may actually be required is for the Marine Corps to chart an entirely contrary course when it comes to information technology. The most secure option is for the Marine Corps not to use Internet-based technology at all. Given current trends and ever-greater desires for data communication, this is likely an unpalatable option. If the Corps is to continue to rely on information technology, it should be far more selective than is currently the case in how and when such technologies are employed. Marines ought to employ technology in a manner that contributes to the Marine Corps’ warfighting capacity while presenting or creating a minimum of vulnerabilities that can be exploited by a potential threat.

The Marine Corps must place technology in its proper relation to war and to the Marine Corps’ warfighting philosophy. The best guide possible for the employment of technology is that provided by the United States’ greatest military theorist, U.S. Air Force Col John Boyd. Boyd used to say, “People, ideas, hardware-in that order.”3 Marines seem to have forgotten this lesson, if indeed they had ever truly learned it. The Marine Corps should work tirelessly to find the best people available (and then work even harder to incentivize them to remain in the Corps).4 These Marines can then develop concepts suitable for modern war and consistent with the Marine Corps’ maneuver warfare doctrine. This group must then identify the equipment required to put the new concepts into practice so that it can be purchased or, if necessary, developed.

The preceding description probably sounds fairly logical, so it may be surprising that the Marine Corps rarely seems to follow this model in determining what equipment to buy. The MV22 Osprey, for example, is a testament to the Marine Corps’ tendency to fall in love with and buy technologically complex equipment and develop a concept of employment later.3 The same is true of the F-35 and Expeditionary Force 21. In each case, because no clear requirement existed for these aircraft, the Marine Corps created a concept and attempted to tie the equipment to the concept after the fact-however tenuous the links.

Marines need to employ technology in a targeted fashion. Each potential purchase needs to undergo a rigorous review process in which several important questions are asked: How will this piece of equipment fit with Marine Corps’ maneuver warfare doctrine? Is the equipment compatible with a decentralized philosophy of command and control (C2)? How will this piece of equipment actually be used in both peace and war-how does it fit into the way in which Marines will fight in anticipated future conflicts? Some may argue that these questions are already asked and exhaustively studied, but such a claim would seem to have little merit, as the preceding examples indicated. If equipment is incompatible with the Marine Corps’ warfighting philosophy or its C2 philosophy, the Marine Corps should not purchase it.

Breaking the Marine Corps’ addiction to technology will help Marines make better procurement decisions and permit the Corps to focus scarce resources on securing the technologies acquired. In the end, however, Marines must accept and embrace the nature of war described in Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1 (MCDP1). Among other attributes, war is chaotic, violent, and a clash of hostile, irreconcilable wills, each seeking to impose itself on its opponent. The enemy will seek to compromise our use of the electromagnetic spectrum or turn our use to their advantage.

Networks that rely on the electromagnetic spectrum can be compromised in numerous ways. The codes they use to keep information secure can be broken.6 Signal transmission can provide the location of the emitter inviting physical attack or targeted disruption. Servers can be attacked with malicious code or distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks. Such attacks do not require an enemy with the same level of technology and resources as the United States; such capabilities are becoming increasingly available to Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW) adversaries.

Marines must prepare for a battlefield where the enemy seeks, and is able to interrupt or compromise any use of, the electromagnetic spectrum. Ever more complex and costly defenses are unlikely to be able to keep pace with the threat. The best security against disruption of the electromagnetic spectrum is to use it as little as necessary.

There is, perhaps, a simple answer to this dilemma. We should prepare Marines to rely on the oldest network in existence: the network that exists between individual human beings. Col Boyd used to say that, “Machines don’t fight wars, people do, and they use their minds.”7 Fluman networks consist of relationships between individuals. These connections can be extremely difficult to disrupt, can be surprisingly resistant to major shocks, and at their best can often be broken only through physical destruction. The resilience of human networks is maximized when paired with a decentralized C2 philosophy that allows individuals the autonomy to make decisions in an atmosphere of trust.

Unfortunately, one cannot simply buy an improved human network; connections between people must be built over time. Once forged, however, a unit utilizing decentralized C2 can function much more rapidly and effectively than a highly centralized network. A decentralized, less rigidly hierarchical organization that trusts its people will be more effective in combat-with or without the aid of the electromagnetic spectrum.

If the Marine Corps is to succeed in the future, Marines must take a more thoughtful approach to the acquisition of technology. The role of technology is to serve Marines, not enslave them or overmaster them. Over reliance on technology can be dangerous and can have devastating consequences. This is particularly true in the realm of Internet-based information-sharing technologies. The best method to safeguard information in a digital world is not to use computers or the Internet at all. Since it is unlikely that the Marine Corps will turn away from informationsharing technologies entirely, the best option remaining is to limit the use of such technologies and to target their use carefully. Such an approach will help reduce potential vulnerabilities and allow the Marine Corps to focus limited resources on securing the systems it procures. In the end, though, it is people that matter. The most powerful information-sharing network that can be created is among people, and so long as war is waged by human beings, it will remain so, no matter how technology changes.



1. Before World War II, the Germans adopted the ENIGMA as their means of encoding sensitive communications. At the time, the ENIGMA was the most advanced technology available, using a plug-board and a system of variable rotors to provide what was considered to be an “unbreakable” encryption. The problem, of course, was that ENIGMA was not unbreakable. There can be no question that penetration of the ENIGMA played a significant role in the course of World War II in Europe (just as penetration of the Imperial Japanese naval codes were vital to success in the Pacific). Anything that human genius can create, human genius can penetrate or destroy.

2. “Kerry: ?Very Likely’ Hackers Reading Emails,” CBS Washington, accessed on 27 August 2015 at http://washington.cbslocal.

3. Robert Coram, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, (New York: Back Bay Books, 2002), 354.

4. Although beyond the scope of this essay, while the Marine Corps may do a good job of finding the right people, the Corps’ personnel management policies are so bad and so out-of-date as to deserve to be called “regressive.” The best work on this subject is by Major Don Vandergriff, USA (Ret.), in his book The Path to Victory.

5 – In the case of the Osprey, the concept it was touted to support was/is Operational Maneuver From the Sea (OMETS), yet OMPTS was introduced in 1996, well after development of the Osprey began, making the Osprey a classic example of a program in search of a concept of employment.

6. Like the German ENIGMA.

7. Coram, Boyd, 354.