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Twelve submarines are going to be awfully difficult to man, even if we start now identifying those kids who hide in cupboards at pre-school and sign them up for a submariner career track.

If we’re just using subs for surveillance, then by virtue of Moore’s Law, these could well offer a viable alternative, particularly if deployed in schools (the swarming sort).

And who knows, by 2030, we could equip them with offensive weapons, too.

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Three pieces recently caught my attention:

They’re short pieces, so I recommend reading each.  But together they point to more deeper systemic change—and here I’m pushing further some of the points raised by Tom Mahnken in particular.  I’ll make a start here on some of those issues, and add to them over the next few days.

First, like the printing press, present-day information technologies have weakened traditional state structures and processes.  Take the military itself.  That sacrosanct element of the modern, western conventional armed forces, the command structure, is being challenged by its senior-most echelons.  True, senior officers could always reach down to direct junior underlings.  But now information technologies have much enhanced the ability of senior commanders to reach down, real-time, around the slower chain of command to the point of attention.  Consider comments by the-then CDF, Peter Cosgrove, in 2003:

For me, the first two hours of a relatively long day were spent poring over the website reading the various reports, following up on them by email, by telephone and face-to-face.

………..

Our Special forces could send us data including images from enemy territory. We could send them, from any level of command, anything from military orders to the rugby scores.

That reach-down can have an erosive effect on confidence within the chain of command.    Because they can, every issue–most often tactical matters–becomes worthy of the attention of the chief of service or defence force.

And it has a further consequence.  Modern technologies allow generals to relive their days as lieutenants and captains in the field without the attendant dangers.  They risk falling into the trap of addressing the problem they felt they could solve—as they had before—rather than those they should attempt to solve (Dörner 1996).  And it reinforces the focus of attention on the tactical over the operational, let alone strategic.

The issues aren’t confined to the military, but affect governance and accountability.  In a certain worlds, focussing purely on the tactical, once setting the direction, can suffice to achieve good outcomes.  But that’s not the world we live in.  Our strategic environment is fluid, changing, and as it shifts and changes our interests, goals and the best means to achieve them also change.  We need a constant dialogue between the strategic, the operational and the tactical, and a much more adaptable approach.  That’s hard to achieve in a system that inherently assumes stasis and stability, promotes dated benchmarks, and seeks to enforce certainty through tightly coupling capability to a parsimonious strategic vision.


Software development, of course, brings its own challenges.  Software development is an inherently creative process, not conducive to Taylorist approaches or waterfall models of project management (Brooks, 1995).

One of the relationships that is changing as a result of technology is that between civilian oversight and the military, worthy of a point of its own.   One of Mahnken’s colleagues, Peter Feaver, along with Damon Coletta, wrote on the effect of information technologies on civil-military relations in 2006 (Coletta and Feaver 2006).  They describe how in Kosovo and Bosnia, General Clark was able to operate under the radar of civilian monitoring, facilitated by information technologies:

  • first, the coordination of multiple assets in different planning domains, not all of which were visible to the civilian establishment; and
  • second, shifting targeting away from fixed assets, on which civilians had focussed and to mobile, ground assets, exploiting the advantages of battlefield command and control technologies and the notion of the sphere of professionalism: ‘…Clark was able to import elements of [his] tactical philosophy to the strategic campaign.’ (p118)  That in turn resulted in the loosening of civilian oversight of some aspects of the campaign while tightening others.

So while in principle information technologies should enable improved oversight and monitoring of the military domain by civilians, they by no means guarantee such an outcome (Coletta and Feaver 2006, p120-1).  Instead, information technologies generate a dynamism that permit military agents to exploit the very flexibility civilian principles require in pursuing political ends–decision-makers cannot be absolutely rigid in their statements of objectives, but must leave room for manouevre, compromise and even opportunism.

Coletta and Feaver acknowledge a concern expressed by Singer: the intrusive nature of information technologies could erode military autonomy and so professionalism (p110).  But it need not take civilians to generate such an effect: arguably we are seeing it already as generals seek to second guess the tactical judgments and overrule the commands of their more junior officers in the field, as noted above.

The second effect is more insidious: the fluidity and bandwidth generated by information technologies effectively loosens civilian control.  It’s harder for civilian decision-makers to ensure the distance between themselves and the military, provide certainty as to aims and objectives, and to specify and enforce constraints.  And it’s hard for civilian advisers to gain sufficient familiarity with military systems in fast-moving environments to assist with that oversight.  More than ever it is up to the military to help ensure civilian knowledge and control of themselves and their mission.


References

Brooks, F. P. (1995). The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering. Reading, MA, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Coletta, D. and P. D. Feaver (2006). “Civilian Monitoring of US Military Operations in the Information Age.” Armed Forces & Society 33(1): 106-126.

Dörner, D. (1996). The Logic of Failure. New York, Basic Books.

Some states—particularly Japan and South Korea—are looking decidedly edgy.  Nor are the markets impressed.

It’s easy to be mired in the thickets of contention and the hedges of counter-contention in the recently released Defence White Paper.  But this judgment in WP2009 is looking a tad more shaky after today’s nuclear test by North Koreaand firing of short-range missiles:

While currently unlikely, a transformation of major power relations in the Asia-Pacific region would have a profound effect on our strategic circumstances. (3.17, p28)

We currently have a belligerent weak state challenging the carefully managed status quo between major powers in North Asia.  North Korea’s actions may not quite be transformational, yet.  But it does look determined to be.

Given such ratcheting up of strategic pressure, does the government propose to revise its posture and force development plans, perhaps bringing projects forward…? 

It is unlikely that contingencies involving major power adversaries could arise in the foreseeable future without a degree of strategic warning. As discussed in Chapter 3 and in more detail in Chapter 10, in the light of such strategic warning, we might have to adjust our strategic posture and force development plans. (8.48, p65)

And strategic warning constitutes…what, if not a nuclear test in North Korea and a couple of missiles tossed across the bows of one of our allies?  

References

Defence (2009). Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030. Canberra.

Here’s couple of ideas to help drive down capability costs.  First, low intensity warfare and constabulary operations:

And the latest in submersibles–only $US1.5m each:

Imagine how many of those could be bought for $200bn.  Or more importantly, how many could be bought by non-state actors.

Based on its analysis of US military space programs, the GAO offers some insights into the drivers of costs and delays: 

  • the US DoD starts more weapons programs than it can afford, generating a competitive dynamic whereby advocates and industry drive down cost estimates to unreasonable levels and DoD is forced to constantly shift costs around and between programs, resulting in further overheads and uncertainty;
  • because DoD tends to start its programs too early, technology invention extends into acquisition, resulting in ongoing technical fixes that push out deadlines, and making cost estimates even more uncertain;
  • the tendency of programs to try to satisfy all requirements at once, regardless of circumstances, stretching technological capabilities; and
  • the character of and changes in government oversight–and GAO flags the erosion of capability, in particular cost estimation and engineering capability, within government.

(One dynamic the GAO doesn’t mention is that identified by Luttwak: the increasing complexity of such systems.)  Such organisational and political behavioural dynamics are hardly restricted to the US space industry, of course–they’re evident in Australia as well.  As behavioural dynamics, they cannot be solved simply through restructures or efficiency drives.  Indeed, such ‘solutions’ are likely to exacerbate, not improve, problems.  

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