On 4 August 1964, data-driven decisions in an uncertain operational environment falsely assumed a North Vietnamese patrol boat attack on American destroyers in Gulf of Tonkin international waters. See Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s “The Fog of War” video account here, which mentions uncertainties such as weather, equipment limitations, and operator perceptions in a combat context. Notably, two days earlier, there was solid evidence of an attack on the destroyer USS Maddox, which did not prompt a US counterattack.
President Lyndon Johnson felt that the absence of an escalatory response signaled weakness. So the second attack, which never happened, led him to approve retaliatory airstrikes in North Vietnam. On 10 August, Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which gave President Johnson complete authority to wage war.
In 2022, data-driven decisions meticulously tracked the Communist Party of China’s massive reaction to US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s 2 August 22 visit to Taiwan, a thriving democracy. Beijing’s response included live-fire missile impacts in Taiwan’s territorial waters, and ship and aircraft violations of Taiwan’s sea and airspace. Party-government spokespersons (the only approved source of news in the PRC) cited US violation of China’s sovereignty and promised to punish those who offend or disrespect China. The escalatory response has led to what Beijing intends as a new baseline—routine violations of Taiwan territory to set conditions for coercive inducements while deterring an effective US strategy.
CCP authoritarians emphasize “one China” in reference to the “one country, two systems” claimed agreement of 1979. Taiwan rejected China’s offer to Taiwan that it keep its economic, social, government, and military if Taipei agreed to be part of communist China. Deng Xiaoping, China’s de facto leader at the time, believed this patient approach would unify Taiwan with mainland China. Xi Jinping may not be so patient, particularly with the development of a Taiwanese identity among Taiwan’s ethnically han and original peoples’ descendants.
Despite advancements in networked sensors, shooters, and infrastructure, the similarities in data-driven decisions in 1962 and 2022 are strategically significant.
In 1962, the US President’s decision to escalate (vertically) military action to defeat North Vietnam militarily in a short war met with long-term North Vietnamese determination to fight a protracted war. Mao Zedong called on Vietnam to fight such a war. He indicated that China would only intervene if the US attacked Chinese territory (see Lien-Hang T. Nguyen, Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam, The University of North Carolina Press, 2012, pp. 75-76).
In 2022, President Joe Biden’s repeated statements of commitment to Taiwan’s defense contrast with past Presidents’ “strategic ambiguity.” The latter is supposed to deter China from attacking Taiwan militarily and deter Taiwan from declaring independence from China.
Emergent systems such as the US Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) link systems of systems as the scope of warfare expands to all domains and all effects—lethal and non-lethal. China’s unrestricted warfare fuses diplomatic, informational, military, economic, and social (DIMES) tools for national security, effectively escalating horizontally, not just vertically (lethality).
As a result, decision makers at many levels need to attribute meaning to data and place it into context. That dual process is the definition of “information” in the JP 3-04, Information in Operations (September 2022). Information-driven decision-making requires accuracy in the multiple meanings of data from relevant actors’ perspectives, including how they place that data in context.
JADC2 does not address policy-level uncertainty because US policy abides by an idealistic “when deterrence of armed conflict fails” approach to war. To compete and wage contemporary warfare, we require informed decision-making across all domains and all effects all the time.
Data-driven decision-making in the contemporary ops-info environment is prone to disastrous mistakes unless we understand the meaning and context of data. We need to compete and wage warfare in that information environment from “left of lethal” to combinations of DIMES effects.