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General Sir David Richards’ Chatham House speech touches on a number of themes that should have been inculcated in the Australian Defence White Paper.  These are not new themes, even in the Australian context; they include some of the thinking behind the Defence Update of two years ago.

Richards says

…our generation is in the midst of a paradigm shift, is facing its own ‘horse and tank’ moment if you like, born in our era chiefly but not exclusively of the global revolution in communications and associated technology. The result is that the way even state on state warfare will manifest itself has changed fundamentally.

He argues that ‘conflicts with dissatisfied and violent non-state actors are here for the long term’ and while the British Army, at least, is okay at fighting such wars, it needs to get better at doing so.  State-on-state warfare is likely to remain a possibility, but it’s shape and nature will change, becoming more like the current wars against insurgents, proxies and non-state actors: there is a ‘virtuous congruence, between non-state and inter-state war’.  Like US Defence Secretary Gates, he argues for a better balance: conventional capability should not be abandoned, but nor should it remain the predominant shaper of capability:

…an intelligent opponent will not be impressed by capabilities which can readily be made irrelevant through the adoption of asymmetric tactics or technology….Those who seek to continue investment in traditional forms of conflict at the expense of the new fail to understand the degree to which inter-state dynamics have changed since the Cold War.

Afghanistan he sees as a ‘non-discretionary war’.  In this I tend to depart a tad from his thesis: the larger trends and dynamics, which Richards himself has touched on, should not be obscured by a focus on Afghanistan. Patrick Porter (who provided the lead on the speech) also notes the doomed-if-we-do-and-doomed-if-we-don’t nature of the argument over Afghanistan.  Not only should we rethink warfare, but rethink what constitutes success and failure—at the strategic level these are not always, and rarely over the long-term, defined in purely military terms.

Flexible organic light emitting diodes—OLEDs—as below (NYT).  Note the reference to the OLED rifle attachment.

Good advice for university students—how to get used to making an argument (NYT).

The 21st century city.  Certainly the OLEDs above bring to mind Blade Runner, also mentioned here. (Forbes)

Let them eat cake drink coffee.  It’s hard to know even where to start with this one.  Can you imagine being rolled into hospital and making sure your doctor has not yet reached his sixth cup of coffee for the day—and that he has in fact had enough.

There’s no reason, of course, to think that an organisation such as Hezbollah should be any less vulnerable to Ponzi schemes than any other group, given that the confidence trick is based on social relations and a constructed reputation.

The most dangerous job in the world?

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.

The pieces by Mahnken, Singer and Harp all point to an increasing dependence on information technology:

  • strategically, to help overcome weaknesses elsewhere (such as demographics);
  • operationally and tactically to secure battlefield advantage and in an effort to gain certainty; and
  • in terms of resourcing and capability, to enhance existing systems.

As Harp notes, the reliance on information technology to deliver an ‘edge’ now lies across a range of domains, from warfighter to strategic strike to counterinsurgency to humanitarian missions.  And increasingly the end-users of capability are ‘digital natives’  comfortable in information-saturated environments, who not only rely on information and social technologies, but expect those technologies in their work as well.

The use of information technologies increase the West’s dependence on immediacy as the dominant paradigm.  The effort to ‘get inside the OODA loop’ is an expression of immediacy, as is the collapse of time, space and hierarchy as generals seek to direct their lieutenants through real-time video.

Immediacy indeed can be useful in the tactical level, but its utility lessens as we move from the tactical through the operational to the strategic.  As we ascend the layers, immediacy becomes one of a range of considerations, such as positioning, sustainability, escalation (and de-escalation) and political ends.  A preference for speed risks excluding other means of shaping the environment and achieving strategic objectives.

In the Iraq invasion, a broader and heavier footprint was eschewed for speed and leadership decapitation.  Subsequent experience from both Iraq and Afghanistan emphasised the importance of slower, more patient understanding of change-resistant traditions, and of the time needed to build trust with communities.

Greater reliance on information technologies increases interconnectedness.  Considering organisation purely as information processes—a very IT-centric view—the behaviour of the organisation is a function of its network structure and the information-processing capability of its agents.  A completely connected structure—every agent connected to every other agent—would, one may think, have the highest possible processing capability.  But that would assume a) infinite processing capability on the part of the agents; b) immediate information transfer, with no delays or attenuation; c) completely accurate information.

None of those assumptions holds, of course.

People have limited processing capability, and we filter information and exclude data that does not fit with our preconceptions.  Even real-time systems suffer from delays, though they may be imperceptible–and data may take time to assemble itself into meaningful information.  Nor do we necessarily want the immediate to crowd out the important.

Moreover, we reinterpret data and information as it arrives and is processed—and errors creep in and are rapidly magnified through speed and linkages.  And information is contextual, and context doesn’t always translate easily through technology.  High degrees of interconnectedness increase system complexity and the chances that poor or simply wrong information will cascade across technological and social networks.

Such systems can be self-correcting, when, for example, individual agents have the ability (and authority) to self-correct, the wider context and information to self-correct, and there exists source in which they have sufficient degree of trust.  The latter, of course, is not necessarily the government or highest authority.

All this implies that to be effective, increased reliance on information technologies has to be accompanied with changes to social systems and organisation.  Social organisations are far more adaptable than brittle, complicated IT systems—and the more sophisticated the technical systems, the more fragile it is.  The popularity of current social networking technologies is that they are lightweight and match much more closely social organisation.  They don’t match top-down command and control or silo organisations.

Briefly, we can expect that information technologies, amongst other attributes, will

  • Enhance speed and immediacy as discussed—the challenge will be to avoid their temptations, but take the long view and choose their use wisely;
  • Allow the retrieval of past patterns of behaviours—both sides can build up ‘pattern libraries’.  Terrorists and insurgents already scout out targets using information retrieved from the internet and Google Maps; human terrain teams seek to understand and map the social environment in which the military operates.  Information technologies can capture conversations, traffic streams, local weather conditions, trade flows and so on ;
  • Reverses traditional command and control, both as illustrated by Singer, but also through enabling different means of organising (for example, swarms, ‘pop-ups’).  The need for human capital—skilled, experienced, and educated people, both military and civilians—will increase: it takes people to programs, understand, assess and make judgments on the vast streams of data enabled through technology; and
  • Obsolesce old platforms, as old platforms are made vulnerable by new technologies and, as Harp points out, advantage in a shift from platforms to systems  It also enables new capabilities to be developed, and implemented quickly.

Krepinevich has a pertinent point: rocket, artillery, mortar and missile (RAMM) capabilities are proliferating rapidly, and guided RAMMs (G-RAMMs) are increasingly available.  The later ‘do not require a high degree of operator training’ (p24).  The range of such weapons extend out to 50 miles/80 km, compared to the 4 mile/7 km radius of Vietnam-era mortars.

How well then does the inkblot approach to counterinsurgency work, when the insurgents can attack bases from such a range?


Krepinevich, A. F. (2009). “The Pentagon’s Wasting Assets.” Foreign Affairs 88(4): 18-33.

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.


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.

The day I’m about to start posting again is the day my MacBook Pro’s video card decides to give out.  So we’re a little stressed at the moment.

China’s pollution problem: it could ‘put an abrupt end to China’s economic growth’ and there’s the minor matter of causing ‘mortal havoc in societies and ecosystems throughout the world.’ (Mother Jones)

Programmable matter via DARPA (Danger Room, Wired)

The hollowing out of families and the middle class in American cities, resulting in ‘places that, despite celebrating diversity, actually could end up as hip, dense versions of the most constipated suburb imaginable.’  (The American)

Throwing at the batter‘–a baseball expression; I suppose the equivalent would be a bodyline ball–and its expression in the workplace (Pink Slip) 

12 of the world’s most fascinating tunnel networks (OOBjects, via BLDGBLOG)

The evolution of the house cat. (Scientific American)

Twitter is less a peer-to-peer social networking tool and more a uni-directional, one-to-many publishing tool. (Harvard Business)

Ray Kurzweil reminding us of the continuing exponential growth in information technologies, and announcing the launch of Singularity University. (TED)

Thinking of lessons learned: Confessions of a Car Czar. (Free Exchange)

Ken MacLeod on surveillance in science fiction:

… we can identify three phases: pressing down, spreading out, and hacking back. In the first phase, pervasive surveillance is a feature of dystopia. In the second, it becomes a default feature of most imagined future industrial societies. In the third, the emphasis is on ways in which citizens can subvert rather than evade surveillance (the perfect example being Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother – I can’t remember whether I put Paul McAuley’s Whole Wide World, perhaps the most thorough recent SF exploration of surveillance, in the second or the third group). 

In the course of the talk I mentioned some relevant bits of my own work, for instance the significance of small cheap video cameras, referred to in The Star Fraction as making torture difficult to keep secret. I hadn’t, however, predicted that the torturers would use the cameras to make their own home movies.

It was only after I’d finished the presentation that I realised that the three phases could be neatly mapped to the increasing cheapness and availability of the technology of surveillance and data processing: from being only available to states, to being available to large companies, to being mass consumer items. 

The Star Fraction is a great book.

June 2017
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