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Thoughts on CNAS “Preparing for War in the Robotic Age”

Friday, January 24th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

My reading at CNAS, which had once been frequent, declined with the waning of the Abu Muqawama blog. While formerly I usually scanned through CNAS reports on a regular basis after reading what Exum and his commenters had to say, toward the end I only visited when Adam and Dan had new posts up.

At the gentle nudging of Frank Hoffman, I decided to read the latest CNAS product;  I’m pleased to say with the release of ” 20YY:Preparing for War in the Robotic Age by Robert Work ( CNAS CEO and former Undersecretary of the Navy) and Shawn Brimley (CNAS Executive V.P. and former NSC Strategic Planning Director) CNAS has rolled out an intellectually provocative analysis on an important emerging aspect of modern warfare.

Work and Brimley have done a number of things well and did them concisely (only 36 pages) in “20YY”:

  • A readable summary of the technological evolution of modern warfare in the past half century while distinguishing between military revolutions,  military-technical revolution and the the 80′s-90′s  American “revolution in military affairs“.
  • .
  • A more specific drill-down on the history of guided munitions and their game-changing importance on the relationship between offense and defense that flourished after the Gulf War. 
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  • An argument that the proliferation of technology and information power into the hands unfriendly states and non-state actors is altering the strategic environment for the United States, writing:
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  • “Meanwhile in the 13 years since the last 20XX game, foreign nation-state C41, surveillance and reconaissance systems, and guided munitions-battle network capabilities have become increasingly capable.  Indeed, these systems now form the very robust and advanced “anti-access and area denial”  (A2/AD) capabilities envisioned in the 20XX game series. The effect has been that the dominance enjoyed by the United States in the late 1990′s/2000′s in the area of high end sensors, guided weaponry, space and cyberspace systems and stealth technology has started to erode. Moreover the erosion is now occurring at an accelerated rate.”
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  • Positing the near-future global proliferation of unmanned, autonomous, networked and swarmed robotic systems replacing( and leveraged by diminishing numbers of) expensive manpower and piloted platforms on the battlefield and altering the age-old relationship between a nation’s population base and the traditional calculation of its potential military power.
  • .
  • An argument that “warfare in the robotic age” will mean substantial to fundamental shifts in strategic calculation of deterrence, coercion, the use of force, operational doctrines and the evolution of military technology and that the United States must prepare for this eventuality.

This report is well worth reading.  In my view there are some areas that require further exploration and debate than can be found in “20YY”. For example:

  • While the power of economics as a driver of unmanned, autonomous weapons is present, the implications are vastly understated. Every nation will face strategic investment choices between opting for simple and cheaper robotic platforms in mass and “pricing out” potential rivals by opting for “class” – fewer but more powerful, sophisticated and versatile robotic systems.
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  • The scale of robot swarms are limited primarily by computing power and cost of manufactureand could be composed of robots from the size of a fly to that of a zeppelin. As John Robb has noted, this could mean billions of drones.
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  • The US defense acquisition system and the armed services are ill-suited for fast and inexpensive introduction of robotic warfare technology – particularly if they threaten to displace profitable legacy platforms – as was demonstrated by the CIA rather than the USAF taking the lead on building a drone fleet.  Once foreign states reach parity, they may soon exceed us technologically in this area. A future presidential candidate may someday warn of  a growing ” robot gap” with China.
  • .
  • Reliance on robotic systems as the center of gravity of your military power carries a terrific risk if effective countermeasures suddenly render them useless at the worst possible time (“Our…our drone swarm….they’ve turned around…they are attacking our own troops….Aaaaahhhh!”)
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  • The use of robotic systems to indiscriminately and autonomously kill is virtually inevitable much like terrorism is inevitable. As with WMD, the weaker the enemy, the less moral scruple they are likely to have in employing lethal robotic technology.
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  • For that matter, the use of robotic systems by an authoritarian state against its own citizens to suppress insurgency, peaceful protest or engage in genocide against minority groups is also highly probable. Is there much doubt how the Kim Family regime in north Korea or Assad in Syria would make use of an army of “killer robots” if they feel their hold on power was threatened?
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  • International Law is not currently configured for genuinely autonomous weapons with Ai operating systems. Most of the theorists and certainly the activists on the subject of  “killer robots” are more interested in waging lawfare exclusively against American possession and use of such weapons than in stopping their proliferation to authoritarian regimes or contracting realistic covenants as to their use.

All in all “20YY:Preparing for War in the Robotic Age provides much food for thought.

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Materials from the Archive 2: Adam Elkus interview

Tuesday, January 14th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- capturing another item now vanished from its original URL ]
.

Aother repost of a web-page I occasionally want to link to, but which has disappeared into the mists, saved only by the Internet Archive, god bless ‘em.

This second one comes from the Abu Muqawama blog, lately of CNAS, and features an interview Adam Elkus did with me — extremely handy when presenting my work to possible funders, publishers etc — thanks agan, Adam!

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Interview: Charles Cameron

July 31, 2013 | Posted by aelkus – 3:15pm

Periodically, I’d like to give Abu M readers some exposure to interesting thinkers they may not otherwise read. I’m leading off the first interview with Charles Cameron. It’s hard to exactly summarize his interesting career. Though his work on religious thought and apocalypticism has the most relevance for Abu M readers, he also is a game designer and Herman Hesse aficianado. He specializes in rapid-fire blogged juxtapositions of interesting connections in the news, which you can read over at the Zenpundit archive. I was most interested in Cameron’s unique style of analysis, which may have utility to people interested in things like Design and applied creative thinking for security subjects.

Adam Elkus: Your blogging is very reliant on pictorial juxtapositions and connections between disparate things. How did you come to this method, and what is it useful for?

Charles Cameron: I think we’re moving pretty rapidly from an era of textual to a time of graphical thinking — and I’d tie that in to some extent with the arrival of cybernetics. Cause and effect can be represented by a straight line, cause effect and feedback needs to be a loop. So there’s a return to the visual and the diagrammatic, visible all over the place from sidebars in major news media to Forrester’s systems diagrams, the OODA loop, Social Network Analysis and PERT charts to Mark Lombardi’s paintings — that’s high science to mass media to museum-grade art. More generally, we see that the network rather than the line is the underlying form for everything from the internet to Big Data….And if you look back, you’ll see that all this picks up on themes we haven’t seen since the Renaissance.

Another way I see it is in terms of polyphony. If you want to model all the voices in a conflict, all the various stakeholders in a problematic situation, you need a notation, a way of representing their various tensions and interactions — a way to score their polyphony. And polyphonic & contrapuntal music is the closest analog we have — JS Bach is going to be the master here.

Creative insight, and indeed all thought, depends on analogy (Hofstadter; Fauconnier & Turner; Koestler) — so my Hipbone/Sembl Games and DoubleQuotes are designed to procure & explore creative/associative leaps & the fresh insights they bring, and nothing else. This is more a poet’s mode of thought than an engineer’s mode, & underused in heavily tech oriented analysis. The necessities of visual thinking also point me toward a humanly readable graph with “the magical number seven plus or minus two” nodes, with the nodes themselves not single data points but rich & complex ideas in compact form (nasheed, flag, logo, anecdote, video clip, quote), with multiple-strand, discipline- and silo-jumping juxtapositions between them.

Almost all of the above is prefigured in Hermann Hesse’s Nobel-winning novel, The Glass Bead Game, which has been my central intellectual inspiration for at least the last two decades.

AE: You study apocalyptic tropes in religious movements. Which vision of apocalypse do you find most disturbing?

CC: Well, first I should say that I’m not talking about the current pop-culture trope of nuclear-devastated landscapes and zombie invasions. I’m talking religious “end times” beliefs, aka eschatology, cross-culturally, and with specific attention to those with violent potential.  Religion is often pigeonholed under politics, as though it’s just a veneer and everything can be satisfactorily explained without considering, eg, that it treats life after death as, if anything, a more powerful motivator than life before it — so we miss the turning point that “end times” thinking represents, with its implication that the current war is the final test on which you will be judged pass/fail by the One who created life, death and you yourself…

Broadly, I pay particularly note to unforeseen apocalypses, clashing apocalypses, and fictitious apocalypses. Muslim (Mahdist) apocalypticism was widely ignored because we knew so little about it, until well after 9/11 – yet the hadith saying the Mahdi’s victorious end times army with black banners will sweep from Khorasan (plausibly: Afghanistan) to Jerusalem has long been a major lure in AQ propaganda — while its correlate, the Ghazwa-e-Hind, is still largely dismissed. By clashing apocalypses I mean what happens when rival apocalypses mutually antagonize one another, as when the Mahdi is equated with Antichrist in Joel Richardson’s writings, or when Judaic, Christian and Islamic apocalypses clash over Israel and the Temple Mount — probably the driest tinder in the world right now, And by fictitious apocalypses, I mean the ones influentially but mistakenly portrayed in works of best-selling fiction such as the Left Behind series, or Joel Rosenberg’s far more engaging politico-religious novels.

AE: How has the study of apocalyptic tropes and culture changed (if it has at all) since 9/11 focused attention on radical Islamist movements?

CC: USC’s Stephen O’Leary was the first to study apocalyptic as rhetoric in his 1994 Arguing the Apocalypse, and joined BU’s Richard Landes in forming the (late, lamented) Center for Millennial Studies, which gave millennial scholars a platform to engage with one another. David Cook opened my eyes to Islamist messianism at CMS around 1998, and the publication of his two books (Studies in Muslim Apocalyptic, Contemporary Muslim Apocalyptic Literature), Tim Furnish’s Holiest Wars and J-P Filiu’s Apocalypse in Islam brought it to wider scholarly attention — while Landes’ own encyclopedic Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience gives a wide-angle view of the field in extraordinary detail.

I’d say we’ve gone from brushing off apocalyptic as a superstitious irrelevance to an awareness that apocalyptic features strongly in Islamist narratives, both Shia and Sunni, over the past decade, but still tend to underestimate its significance within contemporary movements within American Christianity. When Harold Camping proclaimed the end of the world in 2011, he spent circa $100 million worldwide on warning ads, and reports suggest that hundreds of Hmong tribespeople in Vietnam lost their lives in clashes with the police after moving en masse to a mountain to await the rapture. Apocalyptic movements can have significant impact — cf. the Taiping Rebellion in China, which left 20 million or so dead in its wake.

AE: What advice do you have for people looking to understand esoteric secular and religious movements relevant to national security and foreign policy?

CC: Since “feeling is first”, as ee cummings said, to “know your enemy” (Sun Tze) requires an act of empathy, the ability to feel how the enemy’s feelings must feel. That’s not an easy task for the rational secular mind, but to get a sense of the apocalyptic feelings of the jihadists, I’d recommend reading Abdullah Azzam’s Signs of the Merciful in Afghanistan, with its tales of miracle upon miracle, considering the impact of those narratives on pious but unlettered readers sympathetic to the idea of jihad…

Pay no attention to pundits. For real expertise, follow twitter and blogosphere, not Fox or CNN. Read widely.  Read above your pay grade, see what the experts think are most significant distinctions. Look for similarities in own tradition and explore the differences — read Rushdoony on Christian Dominionism and C Peter Wagner on the New Apostolic Reformation to compare with the Islamist narrative.

Look for blind spots, and focus on them — they’re as important as the rear view mirror is when driving.  Watch for undertows, movements in the making. Read comments sections, which will contain more unvarnished truth than is entirely comfortable.  Notice where disciplines (or silos) intersect — learning which applies in two disciplines is at least twice as valuable as learning that only occurs in one. Read where worldviews collide. Lastly, I’d ask you to explore any tradition, whether you think it’s idiotic or not, until you know what’s most beautiful in it — so that, again, you see it with empathy & nuance, not just in black and white…

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Elkus interviews Charles Cameron at Abu Muqawama

Wednesday, July 31st, 2013

[ by Mark Safranski a.k.a "zen"]

Longtime friend of ZP,  Adam Elkus interviews our own Charles Cameron at the highly regarded Abu Muqawama blog:

Interview Charles Cameron 

[....]  AE: How has the study of apocalyptic tropes and culture changed (if it has at all) since 9/11 focused attention on radical Islamist movements?

CC: USC’s Stephen O’Leary was the first to study apocalyptic as rhetoric in his 1994 Arguing the Apocalypse, and joined BU’s Richard Landes in forming the (late, lamented) Center for Millennial Studies, which gave millennial scholars a platform to engage with one another. David Cook opened my eyes to Islamist messianism at CMS around 1998, and the publication of his two books (Studies in Muslim ApocalypticContemporary Muslim Apocalyptic Literature), Tim Furnish’s Holiest Wars and J-P Filiu’s Apocalypse in Islam brought it to wider scholarly attention — while Landes’ own encyclopedic Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience gives a wide-angle view of the field in extraordinary detail.

I’d say we’ve gone from brushing off apocalyptic as a superstitious irrelevance to an awareness that apocalyptic features strongly in Islamist narratives, both Shia and Sunni, over the past decade, but still tend to underestimate its significance within contemporary movements within American Christianity. When Harold Camping proclaimed the end of the world in 2011, he spent circa $100 million worldwide on warning ads, and reports suggest that hundreds of Hmong tribespeople in Vietnam lost their lives in clashes with the police after moving en masse to a mountain to await the rapture. Apocalyptic movements can have significant impact — cf. the Taiping Rebellion in China, which left 20 million or so dead in its wake.

Read the rest here.

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Elkus on Policy Relevance

Monday, February 18th, 2013

Intriguing and vigorously argued piece by Adam over at Abu Muqawama

Relevant to Policy?

Are we in a 1914 scenario in East Asia? How often do guerrillas succeed? Did counterterrorism law erode national sovereignty? These are just a few of the important questions that political science has some bearing on. Yet barely a couple months goes by without an op-ed decrying political science’s alleged lack of relevance to the outside world.

Political scientists are frequently told their research is too arcane, mathematical, and self-involved to be of possible value to anyone in Washington dealing with real-world policy problems. There’s a grain of truth here. As international political economy whiz Kindred Winecoff observes, political scientists need to make a better “elevator pitch.” But here’s the problem: at the end of the day, there is a difference between what Max Weber dubbed science as a vocation and the subjective policy lessons we can take from our study. Part of that gap is reflected in the difficulties that people with purely policy interests inevitably encounter in PhD programs.

From my own (minor) experience so far, it is grueling, necessitates the assimilation of difficult methodologies, and involves having to think about intellectual questions that many people would regard as hopelessly arcane. Even a good PhD program that directly tackles policy questions will likely demand the student grapple with questions of esoteric theory and method. And not all research that tackles highly abstract questions is policy-irrelevant. Highly technical analysis of game theory and economics generated useful policy applications form the World War II convoy system to nuclear strategy and wargaming.

All of these advances began from the desire to grapple with difficult questions to produce knowledge, something many critics of political science research do not acknowledge. Take Greg Ferenstein, who penned an article supporting Eric Cantor’s call to defund the NSF. His gripe is familiar. Political science is obscuratist, hyper-mathematical, and disconnected from the policy world. Political scientists don’t do enough to make their research accessible to policymakers. Ferenstein wants a political science that his mother-in-law can understand, and he thinks starving academia of resources will motivate hungry researchers to do better. So is modern political science irrelevant to policy needs?

Contra Ferenstein, policymakers have thrown substantial $$ at the kind of research he regards as navel-gazing arcana. The RAND Corporation got a lot of mileage using what Ferenstein derides as “clever mathematical models” during the Cold War.  I’m not sure that Jay Ulfelder, who worked for the intelligence community-funded Political Instability Task Force, would agree that his quantitative forecasting methodologies must pass a mother-in-law test to be valuable. And when New York University’s game theory guru Bruce Bueno De Mesquita speaks, the CIA listens. Drew Conway, a man that could easily teach a computer programming course just as well as poli-sci 101, gives invited talks at West Point on analyzing terrorist networks. I don’t think Ulfelder, Mesquita, or Conway have sleepless nights pondering the relevance of their research to the govermment!

Read the rest here 

As an aside, I have found Ulfelder’s posts on his research or comments on the field at Dart Throwing Chimp to be very useful and worth reading.

 

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Kelly Vlahos Spoons John Nagl Over COIN

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

There is quite a buzz going in mil and defense blogger circles over the recent op-ed savaging in The American Conservative by Kelley Vlahos regarding Dr. John Nagl and COIN. Unfortunately for Vlahos, little of it that I have seen online or privately is favorable – including from some people who I know are less than well-disposed toward COIN or the COINdinistas.

Speaking as someone who was one of the earlier voices to remark that the political moment of pop-centric COIN had passed, I found Vlahos’ post to largely be ill-tempered, context-distorting, schadenfreude.

But hey, judge for yourself. My comments will be in normal text:

Learning to Eat Soup with a Spoon 

….Then Tom Ricks, Washington Post correspondent-court scribe, conducted a full-blown high school popularity contest, literally ranking the “brains behind counterinsurgency’s rise from forgotten doctrine to the centerpiece of the world’s most powerful military.” In this cringe-worthy “top ten” published in Foreign Policy in December 2009, Ricks places “King David” Petraeus at Number 1, and then Nagl, whose Oxford dissertation-turned-Barnes-and-Noble-bestseller Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife made him a counterinsurgency “scholar,” among other bright lights of the time. Nagl, Ricks predicted, would be “in a top Pentagon slot within a year or two.”

That was just three years ago. Today, there is no better symbol for the dramatic failure of COIN, the fading of the COINdinistas and the loss that is U.S war policy in Afghanistan than this week’s news that Nagl is leaving Washington to be the headmaster of The Haverford School, a rich preparatory school (grades k-12) for boys on Philadelphia’s Main Line.

Hmmmm. I guess General Petraeus as CIA Director and General Mattis as Combatant Commander of CENTCOM are therefore examples of a rare form of career failure.

And really, only a subpar military officer would involve himself in educating young people. Shame on you, John Nagl, for joining such a shady group of misfits.

….That’s right — Nagl, once called the Johnny Appleseed of COIN, who reveled in his role as face man, tutoring reporters with practiced bookish charm on the “the new way of war,”  and burnishing his personal story to convince everyone that he was a counter-insurgent before his time — a modern T.E. Lawrence — is packing up for good. Turns out that despite all the high hopes, the COINdinistas hit the brass ceiling with a smack, especially once it became clear that the magic they sold was a bag of beans….

Again, most of the COINdinistas, so-called, have not hit some kind of brass ceiling  nor are they secretly running the Army or the administration. Most are  in perfectly respectable but unremarkable ranks, institutional positions or jobs in the private sector. HR McMaster is now a brigadier major general, Con Crane is a director at the US Army Military History Institute, Kalev Sepp is a lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School, Montgomery McFate holds the Minerva Chair at NWC,  General Jack Keane sits on several corporate boards, Fred Kagan is still at AEI,  Andrew Exum is at CNAS, David Kilcullen is the  CEO at Caerus Associates and so on.

By Washington standards, this is a relatively modest level of policy influence or promotion (Petraeus and Mattis excepted). If you want to look at rapid advancement through political connections, consider Al Haig rising like a rocket from LTC to full general and NATO Supreme Commander due to his proximity to Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Or the unusually gilded career path of Colin Powell.

That said, there are many grounds, theoretical and practical, to find fault with pop-centric COIN theory and FM 3-24, from an anti-empirical legacy assumption of a Maoist model of insurgency, to a fundamental confusion of tactics and operational art with strategy to the hardening of COIN from a fairly flexible emergent doctrine in Iraq into a rigid, micromanaging, ROE dogma in Afghanistan. COIN is ripe for revision, not excision and substantive, informed, critiques of the wars of the past decade are sorely needed by scholars, military officers and defense intellectuals. Irregular conflict is never going away any more than war will go away.

Unfortunately, Vlahos was too busy with gossipy smears on Nagl’s character to make any substantive points of that nature which would have made her column something more than ad hominem rubbish.

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