What uncomfortable reality?

I’m a week late to this article over at War on the Rocks – The Uncomfortable Reality of the U.S. Army’s Role in a War Over Taiwan.

It’s timely given the recent rhetoric. The article discusses the fact that we don’t like talking about the reality of what a war over Taiwan would look like.

I agree with that.

It’s a good article that lays out many of the grim realities, without acknowledging the potential – and likey costlier – mission creep, however.

There are a couple of assumptions in the piece that deserve a closer look.

First, that “a majority of the American public supports defending Taiwan in the case of a Chinese invasion.” The cited poll suggests that 52% of Americans would support the use of US troops to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion.

Wars are often popular before they start.

And in this case, when asked if the US should commit troops to defending Taiwan in the event of a Chinese “attack” or “invasion” (both words were used), 52% responded favorably.

Interestingly, a smaller number (46%) support committing to defending Taiwan before the fact. The polling suggests less an interest in Taiwan and more of an interest in China.

And that resonates – I don’t think most Americans spend much time thinking about Taiwan in the same way they didn’t spend much time thinking about Afghanistan.

Until we were there of course. And even then…

Still, the author is right to raise a flag here. If we are going to commit US troops somewhere we ought to know the costs. And the costs would likely be significant in terms of both American lives and expenditure.

How popular would it be then? And does that matter?

Second, the author writes that the Army is in the midst of an “identity crisis.”

“After the withdrawal from Afghanistan and facing a U.S.-Chinese competition that seems to play out on anything but land, the Army is struggling with an identity crisis perhaps as dramatic as its reinvention after the Vietnam War.”

Two things here: that the Army is facing an “identity crisis” and the US-Chinese competition plays out on “anything but land.”

The first (identity crisis) is a major claim. I’m not refuting it, but I’m also not seeing it either.

Is the Army really in the midst of an identity crisis?

Maybe, but it doesn’t feel like it.

Certainly we’re all coming around to recognize a new reality. GWOT is over (right?) and we’re waking up after a twenty-year adventure trying to figure out what the next big thing is.

But it doesn’t feel like a crisis. It feels more like going back to work. It feels like doing what we’ve always done.

To quote a senior special operations NCO on what we should be doing:

I don’t think we need any more lines and arrows, I don’t think we need any more references to the NDS. I think everyone understands what the new threat is, and we just power it down to the companies and let the senior NCOs and Team Sergeants take charge of the training.

That is what the Army is supposed to do.

Units have missions. Units train against those missions. And if called, units execute those missions.

That’s all there is.

Everything else is noise.

Second, the idea that US-Chinese competition plays out on “anything but land.”

Competition and conflict are often thought of and used interchangeably. Many make the assumption that because China is “over there” and we’re “over here” this is mostly a Navy/Air Force thing.

The reality is that competition is everywhere. Everywhere includes land. It also includes the digital world. And I don’t think the Army is spending much time navel-gazing wondering what its role is.

It’s too busy dealing with the reality of competition all over the world.

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“Tactical things don’t matter for big-picture deterrence”

Get smart on the Russia-Ukraine developments.

Over the past several weeks, tens of thousands of Russian troops have gathered in the area near Russia’s border with Ukraine. But what does it signify?

Michael Kofman joins this episode of the MWI Podcast to discuss all of this and more. The director of the Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyses, he is a longtime observer of Russia and specializes in the Russian military. You can listen to the full conversation below, and if you aren’t already subscribed to the MWI Podcast, be sure to find it on Apple PodcastsStitcher, or your favorite podcast app so you don’t miss an episode!

MWI PODCAST: A LOOMING SHOWDOWN OVER UKRAINE?

I’m not a Russia-guy, so this was a good episode to get me up to speed on what is (and isn’t) going on on the border with Ukraine.

The whole episode is good – and Michael Hoffman clearly has firm control over his material (Russia and Russian military capabilities).

I love this quote:

“Most of the cockamaney ideas about sending some more weapons or things to Ukraine – fine, if you want to increase military costs but you have to just appreciate that it’s going to make no difference in the calculus.”

~26:00

And he goes on.

“Tactical things don’t matter for big picture deterrence. Javelins, drones, are completely irrelevant to political leaders. They don’t know and don’t care about the stuff.”

~26:30

I appreciate this take, and I tend to agree. It’s what I was getting at the other day in regards to culture and other aspects of the human dynamics in strategy. These are interesting things to consider, but at the political and strategic level, they ultimately don’t matter.

Should they? I don’t think so.

Even when it comes to military strategy – the input of this or that tactic or weapon system may make a difference on the margins, but if they don’t alter the overall endstate, then it’s an exercise in futility.

It doesn’t matter how smart you are on the capability. There are limits to military power – and if you are using any of these “things” in service of the military, they are also limited – mostly by the strategy you’re operating under.

Then again, maybe it’s worth just rolling the dice? What’s there to lose?

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In future war, we’re all getting canceled

A great piece of #FICINT that captures what I think will be a defining element of future war – and competition – smear war.

“All this is very fascinating, general,” she said. “But I think we could benefit from some clarity on how else you plan to change the Corps. Is it your intention to keep female Marines dressing differently from males? Do you want to keep female Marines ‘in a box’, so to speak?”

#CANCELMOLLY

We already see this happening domestically. Our society is very comfortable weaponizing benign information.

Is it really a stretch to think our adversaries won’t do the same?

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Human Dynamics in Great Power Competition

Interesting article over at MWI on the role of the ‘human domain’ in strategy.

The US military flounders in the human domain of conflict, with respect to foes, friends, and bystanders alike. Failure to engage with the building blocks of humanity—culture, society, politics, economics, and religion—leaves our strategies and plans untethered to reality. The result has been on display to the world for decades. The Afghan collapse provided a final exclamation point.

GETTING COMPETITION WRONG: THE US MILITARY’S LOOMING FAILURE

There is a lot I agree with in this article – like the importance of understanding human dynamics in warfare. The authors don’t really talk about language – but I’m coming around to believing that you can’t call yourself a “regional expert” if you don’t have some language ability in the region in which you claim expertise.

However, I’m skeptical about the idea of building strategy on all of the granular human stuff.

It seems like the powers that be should set the goals, set the objectives, set the end states. And then it is the role of the rest of us to use what we can to achieve those.

I’m not sure it works any other way.

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Against ‘threads’

I don’t like threads on Twitter.

Even the good ones.

Don’t get me wrong – they’re often entertaining, interesting, and educational.

And I do enjoy them.

But I don’t like them because they’re so ephemeral.

A lot of works goes into them, they’re fun to poke through, but then they’re gone. And there’s not really a good way to save them.

You can bookmark them, but then you’re stuck with a list of bookmarks. I tend to use bookmarks for things to check out later, and then I clear them out.

There is definitely a place for them, and I get their utility. And I understand how they are engaging.

But some of them are so engaging I want them to live somewhere that I can easily return to for reference.

You know, like a blog.

A few weeks ago I started building a thread on what ‘winning’ looks like in Great Power Competition. I had a good vision for it and I know it would be engaging. It was full of video clips, gifs, pictures, and smart copy.

I stopped building it because I knew that it would be a great thread that would quickly be pushed aside and forgotten.

Instead, I’ll turn it into an article where it can survive.

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Reflection Partners

Another good one from FTGN.

Joe and Cassie talk about the power of reflection and what got in the way of realizing its benefits earlier in their careers. They also share the story behind their recently released book, My Green Notebook: “Know Thyself” Before Changing Jobs. 

S3,Ep12: Cassie Crosby- Reflection for Busy Leaders

What I found most interesting about this one was the story and the history between Joe and Cassie.

This is such a small profession, and the pool of folks that dare to write (or podcast, or make videos) to ‘extend their influence beyond the chain of command’ is even smaller.

I’ve written about reflection before – and this whole blog (and newsletter) is an exercise in reflection.

But it feels like “small r” reflection. What they’re going after is “big R” Reflection.

They’re attempting to crystalize the process into something you can do as you change jobs to truly capture lessons learned and use them to grow – not just pontificate and move on.

As they discuss in the episode, there were so many opportunities missed because they lacked the process. And it is only when they were sitting there at their bunks at BCAP that they started to realize it.

What if you started earlier? What if you went through the process at the end of every assignment?

That’s what they’re going for.

And while I’m not sure this was part of their intent for the episode, it’s clear to me that both Joe and Cassie are reflection partners. I’m not even sure what that is yet, but it feels like it’s something that’s not quite mentorship and not quite just friendship. Through their work and effort, they enjoy a heightened reflective experience that I don’t think many of us experience.

It’s kind of like that peer at work who ‘gets it’ the same way you do. The one who goes out with you for a long lunch where you figure it all out.

Only this is a bit more professional. It’s good to have that peer.

Anyway, I’ve still got about six months before my next job change, but I plan on running their process when I get there.

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Flying the F-35 and making YouTube videos

This was a different kind of Cognitive Crucible episode. Not really focused on information warfare, but information processing.

During this episode, after a couple war stories, US Air Force pilot MAJ Hasard Lee discusses how the F-35 is embedded with technology which tends to reduce operator cognitive load and maximize human sense making. Our conversation also touches upon “chair flying”–a mindfulness practice, human-machine interface, g-force effect on the human body, dehydration, along with other physical and mental training initiatives which may optimize for better peak performance. The conversation concludes with a brief discussion about Air Force COL John Boyd and the OODA loop.

#71 LEE ON THE F35 AND COGNITIVE LOAD

It’s an interesting episode – especially the vignettes about what it’s like to sit in the cockpit and do the work.

But I found myself more interested in the fact that MAJ Hassard Lee helms an incredibly impressive social media empire. Check out this video below from his YouTube page (175k subscribers).

I find this interesting because he’s not alone. If you start poking around, there are lots of these military-themed influencer pages across the services.

I’m in my own little Army bubble but there is so much more of this going on out there.

It’s refreshing to see, and whether we like it or not, it’s the future.

The ease and comfort that younger generations have with “putting it out there” isn’t a fluke.

You can rage against the machine and fail, or embrace it and win.

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So Kill Them Back!

One of my not-so-guilty pleasures is the Bulaq podcast.

We look at new writing from Syria and about the experiences of Syrian refugees, including Ramy Al-Asheq’s Ever Since I Did Not Die, a book he categorizes not as poetry or prose but as “pieces of my body, haphazardly brought together in a paper bag.”

So Kill Them Back!

The below excerpt from the book Ever Since I Did Not Die struck me, and I’ve added it to my list.

Going back kills you.

A child running from his innocent features kills you, to become a hero.

But heroism ends up killing him.

It kills whatever can grow in a child who is planning to grow up.

There is no hero on that land sown with injustice and war.

There is no hero there except for death, standing victorious as it awaits your flesh.

The spreadout dirt of worms and intermittent wailing fades to silence.

Eventually, you fade too.

No one says your name anymore.

A child sinking in the drowning sea of death kills you.

A child born to be killed kills you.

A child born to kill kills you.

Yearning, love, family, light, age, god, homeland, and sea, kill you.

Earth, paradise, memories of old photos, mourning’s enterouage, happiness as waste, and exile, kill you.

Revolution, women of death, and grandmother’s stories, kill you.

Return kills you.

Going back kills you.

So kill them back.

It’s really worth listening to. The passage starts at about the ~15:00 mark.

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“Getting after it”

I don’t have much to say about this, other than I’m not a fan of the phrase “getting after it.”

I’ve seen it used too often in briefs as a cheap way of not explaining what is actually happening and instead leaning heavily on an inference that good work is being done, but it’s just kind of hard to explain.

Worst, I’ve seen commanders watch someone brief them, seemingly perplexed or confused, and then have that confusion wash away when the briefer attests that they’re “getting after it.”

Getting after what?

It’s a term that seems to make more sense describing a fitness enthusiast’s zeal for exercise than a complex military operation.

This is also a relatively new term. I don’t know if it originated in the military, but it’s all over the place now.

It’s only a matter of time until someone makes a military movie titled “Getting After It.”

You can add this to other terms that stand in for things that require nuanced explanations, like “setting conditions.”

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I thought it was about performance. Turns out it’s about PIE.

I used to think that if I worked hard and did the best I could wherever I was, that would be enough. Work hard, play by the rules, and you can still keep moving.

And that’s a pretty good formula.

But it has limits.

Especially when you find yourself among others who are also running the same program,

They’re all good. And they’re all working hard.

So how do you separate yourself from the herd?

PIE, of course.

Performance. Exposure. Image.

Joe and Chevy discuss the art and science of mentorship.  Chevy shares how important it is for people to find mentors and provides tips on how and where to find them. He also explains why peers can be a great source for development.  Finally, they share stories of their own journeys and the role peer and more senior mentors have played in their development.

S3,E3: Dr. Chevy Cook- The Mentorship Episode

This episode is mostly about mentorship, but I clung to this concept of PIE. I’ve never heard of it before, but it made perfect sense. Instantly.

Performance is always important, but it’s not everything. Especially as you move further and further along. You always have to show up and do the work.

Image. How do people think about you? What person are you? What are you known for?

Exposure. Who do you interact with? Or better, who do you get the opportunity to interact with?

These three things account for a lot more of success than I had considered before.

And the rest of this episode is good too!

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