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Archive for May, 2007

Saturday, May 26th, 2007


Dave Davison at Thoughts Illustrated has a post up, “Logic+Emotion – moving the needle on the Experience -O-Meter “, featuring the work of Chicago designer and blogger David Armano. I took a gander at Armano’s PPT presentation and was impressed. A wonderful combination of concepts and presentation:

Thursday, May 24th, 2007


Gregory F. Treverton writing in the latest issue of The Smithsonian:

Risks and Riddles

“During the cold war, much of the job of U.S. intelligence was puzzle-solving—seeking answers to questions that had answers, even if we didn’t know them. How many missiles did the Soviet Union have? Where were they located? How far could they travel? How accurate were they? It made sense to approach the military strength of the Soviet Union as a puzzle—the sum of its units and weapons, and their quality. But the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of terrorism changed all that. Those events upended U.S. intelligence, to the point that its major challenge now is to frame mysteries….

….Puzzle-solving is frustrated by a lack of information. Given Washington’s need to find out how many warheads Moscow’s missiles carried, the United States spent billions of dollars on satellites and other data-collection systems. But puzzles are relatively stable. If a critical piece is missing one day, it usually remains valuable the next.

By contrast, mysteries often grow out of too much information. Until the 9/11 hijackers actually boarded their airplanes, their plan was a mystery, the clues to which were buried in too much “noise”—too many threat scenarios. So warnings from FBI agents in Minneapolis and Phoenix went unexplored. The hijackers were able to hide in plain sight. After the attacks, they became a puzzle: it was easy to pick up their trail. Solving puzzles is useful for detection. But framing mysteries is necessary for prevention. “

This article, though written for a general audience, struck a number of chords with me. Specifically:

* “Noise” is an important consideration in an era of attention scarcity economies. Eliciting a surge in ” white noise” by unrelated third parties ( say disinformation that sends pro-lifers off on a media campaign and in turn, energizers their pro-choice enemies to respond, diverting the attention of the general public to “X” degree) is useful camoflague. Purpleslog had a deservedly well-received post at Dreaming 5GW on ” the Puppetmaster” as a “5GW Archetype”. Such a mentality would cultivate media noise the way the KGB once set up and subsidized endless Communist front groups in the West.

* Uncertainty is relative. Some “mysteries” are more decipherable with a change of perspective, scale or temporal framework; others represent questions of deep uncertainty. Imaginative scenario planning exercises can help pattern recognizers familiarize themselves with latent possibilities ( NeoEurasianism ? Pan-Turanism ? A derivatives-driven implosion of globalization? Eco-extremist bioterrorists longing for planetary genocide?).

We need radical thought experimentation.


IT security expert Gunnar Peterson has already covered this base well but from a different angle:

Vulnerability Puzzles and Mysterious Threats

“Risk differs from uncertainty in that risk may be measured and managed whereas uncertainty may not. Risk management efforts hinge on this important distinction because it highlights differences where a team may be more proactive. For instance, many vulnerabilities are known, hence they may be measured and managed whereas the threats to a systems contain a greater degree of uncertainty in that the threat environment contains numerous elements such as threat actors that one’s organization can not directly control.”

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2007


Michael Tanji, the IC veteran at Haft of the Spear, interviewed John Robb about his new book, Brave New War over at Tanji’s MSM gig, The SPOT Report ( have to add that to the blogroll…).

Brave New War Interview (Part I)

Brave New War Interview Part II

NEW!Brave New War Interview (Part III of III)

The interview is excellent. Tanji gets beyond the usual superficial questions into the meat of Robb’s analytical worldview. A sample:

TANJI: In The Long Tale of Warfare Emerges you take an Occam’s razor through the fundamentals about the size and capability of the insurgency. We can kill with precision and to any scale, but apparently cannot get the basic math right. Is dogma driving us to perform data-free analysis or are we just not preparing our strategists and planners to address complex or asymmetric problems?

ROBB: The problem may be whether or not we operate on best case data or worst case. If you always select the best case data in order to bolster the moral cohesion at home, then you are really lying to yourself — essentially, breathing your own exhaust. Another reason may be that that our intelligence system can’t handle the level of complexity involved within a closed environment (locked down by artificial barriers of secrecy). It’s not tapping into the vast pools of talent outside the organization effectively.

TANJI: Let me ask you a question that I get asked a lot: Why no major attack in the US since 9/11? Is it a question of difficulty in setting off systemic cascading failures? If major attacks suffer from diminishing returns and small attacks ratchet up the “tax” on targeted cities, why haven’t we seen IEDs on Wall St. or Main St.?

ROBB: Here are a couple of reasons. First is the diminishing returns of symbolic terrorism A big attack like 9/11 is hard to top. Anything less would hurt the al Qaeda brand and fail to return fear to anything near the levels of 9/11. Second, al Qaeda was severely damaged when we invaded Afghanistan. Those resources it had left were spent on staying alive and helping launch the operation in Iraq. Remember, a major reason for 9/11 was to get the US into a guerrilla war in Asia and repeat the experience of Russia’s Afghanistan. In terms of systems disruptions, this method has only recently emerged from the experience in Iraq. Not everyone gets it yet, but the insight is spreading quickly in an organic fashion. You could conclude that the attack on Abqaiq and the Golden Mosque were examples of systems disruption (the latter being social systems disruption) that al Qaeda didn’t have to project power to the US to accomplish. “

I found the section in BNW on Urban Takedowns problematic as well. I liked Robb’s concept of a ” terrorism tax” on targeted cities because that jives with a systematic understanding of applying market forces to societal analysis. I think, on the margin for certain important, narrow, questions, this idea works very well.

OTOH, historically, all cities were essentially death traps that could only be sustained by a daily influx of migrants ( usually peasants fleeing rural poverty) that exceeded those dying from disease, violence, fire and malnutrition at a rate that vastly exceeded the toll taken by today’s terrorism. Only in advanced states, with the creation of modern sanitation and water systems, public health, police and fire services has this dynamic changed for the better. Many cities in the Gap and a few in the New Core are still in this ” feral” state. The point being that as a complex social and economic networks, cities may have greater resilience than we realize, which makes estimating terror effects problematic.

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2007


Fabius Maximus critiques American generalship in his trademark style:

The Core Competence of America’s Military LeadersThird in a series about a serious threat to America

There’s a number of provocative arguments in FM’s latest piece but I wanted to highlight this one in particular:

“The events surrounding the fall of Iraq’s capital are difficult to imagine, even after four years have passed. US forces again proved invincible on the field of battle. They rolled up to Baghdad, occupied it and waited for orders. Then the capitol fell into disorder, with looting and burning of key infrastructure.

Apparently the Pentagon’s senior generals – the best-educated generals ever to lead an Army – failed to prepare for one of history’s most common scenarios. As a result they read reports from their field commanders and watched as victory tipped over to what might become a crushing defeat. Perhaps for the next war our top generals’ briefing books should include DVD’s of War and Peace and Gone with the Wind. Watching the burning of Moscow and Atlanta might remind them to plan for this contingency.

It’s not yet clear why and how this occurred, except in one respect. Our military is a full member of 21st Century American society – no separate military culture here – and its top leaders produce excuses suitable for a Superpower, featuring the new American mantra: “It’s not our fault.” An expert at RAND said it well:

While it can be argued that U.S. military planners could not have been expected to anticipate the emergence of an insurgency any more than they could have foreseen the widespread disorders, looting, and random violence that followed the fall of Baghdad, that is precisely the nub of the problem. The fact that military planners apparently didn’t consider the possibility that sustained and organized resistance could gather momentum and transform itself into an insurgency reflects a pathology that has long affected governments and militaries everywhere…

Bruce Hoffman, “Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Iraq”, RAND (2004)

RAND’s sponsors likely appreciated the diplomatic phrasing “while it can be argued”. Much nicer than suggesting that our generals should have foreseen the scenario that has dominated post-WW-II wars, guerrilla warfare against foreign occupiers.”

In the article, FM refers to American generals as being akin to corporate CEO’s. The personnel system of the U.S. military, in which zero defects and lavish ( bordering upon ludicrous) praise from your immediate superior is necessary for promotion under an “up or out” system, weeds out creative and divergent thinkers, candid speakers, risk-takers and even mild non-conformists. What is left is a finely honed and homogenous administrative class attuned to institutional norms and a received professional culture. A system that creates a surplus of first-rate political generals like Al Haig and Colin Powell but not Pattons, Grants or Lees. A few slip through, but how many ? And of these few, how many will have a chance at field command ?

Incentives must be geared to promote those who exhibit behaviors that tend to win wars on the battlefield rather than bureaucratic skirmishes in Washington.

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2007

650,000 MAN ARMY ?

Colonel Austin Bay’s op-ed “The bottom line is, U.S. needs a 650,000-troop Army” in The Houston Chronicle ( hat tip to Rob Thornton at SWC):

“Let’s return to 1990, just before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The U.S. Army had around 750,000 soldiers on active duty; the U.S. Marine Corps had 197,000 Marines. That same year, the U.S. population broke 250 million. Today, the U.S. population is slightly over 300 million.

That “old future” occurred during the final phases of the Cold War. Department of Defense budgeteers had already begun paring Cold War force structure. Though the Soviet Union hadn’t officially dissolved, cost-cutters identified Cold War air wings and armored divisions as expensive legacies.

Desert Storm briefly delayed the planned decline in strength. Based on “the near-term future” the Defense and Congress envisioned, the United States didn’t need Cold War troop levels. However, by 1995, peacekeeping commitments began stressing the personnel system. Then, the United States entered the Balkans, and hasn’t quite left yet.

The Army asked for a 30,000 troop “plus up” in the fiscal year 1997 budget request to meet those personnel requirements. It was denied.The Clinton administration began using the reserves as an operational force rather than as a strategic, war-winning reserve.The Bush administration continued to do this after 9/11, nudging Army end strength from around 480,000 in 2001 to approximately 515,000 today.

While that’s arguably close to the 30,000 “missing” since 1996, it’s a far cry from the forces on hand on Aug. 2, 1990, when Saddam Hussein’s tanks were on the move. It’s also proved to be inadequate to support Iraq, Afghanistan, peacekeeping operations and emergency contingencies”

Read the rest here. I recall when we had 300,000 soldiers in West Germany alone. It wasn’t all that long ago.

I’m inclined to agree that DoD and USG resources can be much better allocated to permit a significant increase on boots on the ground; the tasks assigned to the new boots though, is the critical variable. Not the boots themselves.

The spear needs more “point” and far less “butt”.

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