“You picked the wrong diplomats”

That’s a line from Ambassador James Jeffrey from the most recent Irregular Warfare Initiative podcast.

There’s a lot in this episode. What I found particularly interesting was a light dissection of the culture at the State Department from a seasoned diplomat. It’s one thing for a defense official to bemoan peculiar aspects of another agency, but another when it comes from someone who has spent much more time within it.

Worth the listen for that alone.

Episode 60 of the Irregular Warfare Podcast explores both the recent history and the future character of insurgency. Our guests begin by arguing that insurgency will play an important role in great power competition, although states’ objectives will change from the transformational nation-building goals of the post-9/11 era to more hard-nosed security and political objectives. They then argue that despite perceived recent failures in counterinsurgency in cases such as the US intervention in Afghanistan, insurgencies rarely win—this has led insurgent groups to adopt new theories of victory. Lastly, our guests discuss policy implications, especially how to balance military and civilian means to counter insurgency.

INSURGENTS RARELY WIN: ADAPTATION IN THE FACE OF FAILURE

Enjoy these posts? Enter your email below to join the monthly newsletter.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

“A calamity in which we’ve been afflicted”

Drone carpet Afghanistan

The title refers to Osama bin Laden’s characterization of the drone threat.

A fascinating episode of the Irregular Warfare Podcast on the “Bin Laden Papers.”

Episode 59 of the Irregular Warfare Podcast dives into the internal workings and communications of al-Qaeda and uses that insight to draw lessons for counterterrorism strategies. From the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden to the recent strike against Ayman al-Zawahiri, targeting key leaders has long been a cornerstone of counterterrorism strategies, but what do these terrorist leaders have to say about the effectiveness of the campaigns against them?

THE BIN LADEN PAPERS: THE INNER WORKINGS OF AL-QAEDA’S LEADERSHIP

I remember in the mid-2000s when there was a lot of talk about whether the drone war was creating more terrorists than it was taking out. And General Petraeus says the same in this episode, that it was an important consideration.

I remember holding that same thought and being very skeptical of the value of drones.

But having listened to this episode, you can sense just how effective they were. You can make the argument that drones (and the drone infrastructure – intelligence, partnerships, etc.) effectively suppressed Al Qaeda for the length of the GWOT.

Does that invalidate the concerns? No. But it’s possible that those concerns were overblown.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention General Petraeus’ take on one of my favorite lines. At the ~40:30 mark, in reference to a past operation, “We’re getting hammered in the court of public opinion.”

Which, as you know, is basically the same as “we’re getting our ass kicked in the information environment.”


Enjoy these posts? Enter your email below to join the monthly newsletter.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

The Kodak Conundrum

Two things from this recent IWI episode.

The first, on assessments:

“We are now aware of the technological ubiquity, and we are disproportionately relying on assessments of capabilty – raw capability – like we used to, rather than understanding use.”

Honorable Susan Gordon, SPIES, LIES, AND ALGORITHMS: US INTELLIGENCE IN A CHANGING WORLD ~23:00

This applies in lots of places – not just intelligence.

Second, is the “Kodak Conundrum.” I had never heard of that before, and after some searching, it references the demise of the Kodak company, and specifically, their failure to adapt to a rapidly changing world.

Simplifying here, but the problem is that Kodak saw themselves to be in the film business as opposed to the photography business. And they failed to adapt quickly enough.

Very similar to the Red Queen Hypothesis.

 “The railroads are in trouble today not because the need was filled by others (cars, trucks, airplanes, even telephones), but because it was not filled by the railroads themselves. They let others take customers away from them because they assumed themselves to be in the railroad business rather than in the transportation business. The reason they defined their industry wrong was because they were railroad-oriented instead of transportation-oriented; they were product oriented instead of customer-oriented.” 

Theodore Levitt, “Marketing Myopia”, Harvard Business Review, July-August 1960

Enjoy these posts? Enter your email below to join the monthly newsletter.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

The First Thing They Hear

Most people, in fact, will not take trouble in finding out the truth, but are much more inclined to accept the first story they hear.

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War

Enjoy these posts? Enter your email below to join the monthly newsletter.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Well, it has “information” in the name

alice frustrated from alice in wonderland

There are titans and oracles among us in the fields we study.

From one, I’ve come to understand that “irregular warfare is the military’s contribution to political warfare.

From another, I’ve also come to understand that we don’t need to bring back the United States Information Agency (USIA) or any variation of it in order to be successful.

In case you missed it, Matt Armstrong and Dr. Christopher Paul wrote an article last week debunking some of the myths around the USIA. This has become a bit of a pet project for Matt, as there are new think-pieces on this topic sprouting up all the time.

How exhausting.

Part of this comes from the constant cries from some leaders that we’re “getting our asses kicked in the information environment.”

We’re not, by the way.

To address that concern, smart people look at the problem, do a little research, and come to the conclusion that the reason we’re “getting our asses kicked” is because we don’t have a mega-organization that manages all of this.

Well, we used to have a United States Information Agency – maybe we should bring that back?

After all, it has ‘information’ in the name.

The whole thing reminds me of something Colin Powell once said regarding seemingly simple solutions that have no basis in fact or history. He was on Face the Nation discussing the issue of how to try terror suspects in court. There were a lot of calls at the time to hand over terrorist suspects to the military to be tried in “military commissions,” instead of the federal court system.

Here’s how Powell responded (12:25):

“So the suggestion that somehow a military commission is the way to go isn’t born out by the history of the military commissions….a lot of people think just give them to the military and the military will hammer them.”

Colin Powell, Face the Nation, 2/21/2010

It’s similar to former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ statement that some people have a “cartoonish” view of military capabilities.

“It’s sort of a cartoonish impression of military capabilities and military forces,” he said. “The one thing that our forces are noted for is planning and preparation before we send people in harm’s way, and there just wasn’t time to do that.”

Robert Gates, Face the Nation, 5/12/2013

There are no simple solutions to what we are trying to accomplish. I’ve become a true believer in Matt’s thesis that to “do” information right (warfare, operations, whatever) it starts with setting a very clear vision for where we are trying to go. What is the vision? What is the story we are trying to tell? From there, we have robust capabilities to make that happen.

You have to be able to picture what “right” looks like first.

Sure, there are things we can do to tweak the system, and we should. But those things are mostly procedural, not organizational.

The challenge here is there is no shiny object being carted out. New organizations are exciting. So are new capabilities or tech. Think-pieces without a big reveal don’t get a lot of attention.

As frustrating as it must be to continuously have to champion the same argument, I’m glad that Matt (and others) are out there doing so. If you’re not following his newsletter (infrequent, but always great), you can subscribe here.


Enjoy these posts? Enter your email below to join the monthly newsletter.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Should platoons have a designated “hacker” assigned?

girl sitting at computer terminal cyberpunk hacker

Still catching up, so here we are.

Episode 53 of the Irregular Warfare Podcast was right on target.

In Episode 53 of the Irregular Warfare Podcast, we consider how cyber tools and weapons are used at the tactical level within irregular warfare.

DIGITAL IRREGULAR WARFARE: CYBER AT THE TACTICAL LEVEL

A smart and nuanced conversation that touches just about everything in this orbit – cyber, information warfare, psychological warfare, authorities, and more.

Reminds me of this episode: Should platoon’s have a designated “hacker” assigned?

Some choice excerpts below.

Being ‘afraid’ of information warfare.

In Army doctrine, we are afraid to introduce the phrase ‘information warfare.’ So, what can cyber contribute to irregular warfare? We’re going to limit ourselves if we only are allowed to talk about that in the context of creating technical effects, or using technology to create kinetic effects. I think there is a lot more possibility in the information warfare space, but we don’t have an organizational structure or an authorities structure, or a set of policies, or even a national strategy, or even a service strategy – we’re just missing all of the other stuff that allows us to execute that.

Sally White, ~14:00

I agree completely with the first part – fear of the phrase information warfare and limiting ourselves by thinking about cyber only in the context of tech. But I disagree with the second part, on being limited in our ability to operate because we’re “missing” something.

This is something that is discussed all the time – including right here. “If only” we had some mega-command or a special policy that allowed us to “do” the things we want to do. We also fail when we focus on the whiz-bang aspects of information warfare, instead of the hard work of navigating real bureaucracy.

At the end of the podcast Sally makes some important points that gets to the core of where it seems our issues lay.

There is a need for adjustment when it comes to the intersection of cyberspace as a physcial domain and the cognitive informational realm that frankly is also the primary purpose of cyberspace when it comes to how we’re operating with the human element and populations. When it comes to things like cyber-enabled information operations, or the information warfare question… I think we should probably devote a bit more time and intellectual energy to thinking through what is the actual problem that we need to solve, and are we limiting ourselves by keeping things separate in their distinct bins of cyber, of psychological operations, of information operations, et cetera. Are they [these distinctions] inhibiting our ability to be effective in the broader information environment of which cyberspace is a part?

Remember lumping vs splitting?

Cyber is not IO. Cyber is not PSYOP. There are terms (and everything that comes with it) that should be lumped, and there are some that should be split.

But, I tend to agree with Sally that anyone who is in this realm does themselves a disservice by playing too close to their own specialty. This stuff has to be a team effort.

A lot of this could be solved if we stopped thinking of information warfare as the “bits and bytes” or the “nouns and verbs” and instead focused on the actions we take. Everything else comes after that.

Lastly, I love this question posed as an area of needed research.

How can we come up with an integrated theory of information that encompasses both the physical and cogntive realms?

There’s a lot more in this episode, including some really good reasons for why we don’t push some of these capabilities down to the platoon level. Worth the listen.


Enjoy these posts? Enter your email below to join the monthly newsletter.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Kingdom of the Flies

never be game over eli metal gear solid 5

Interesting article at SWJ on child soldiers, specifically in a salafi-jihadi context.

In the terrorist mind, a child is not simply an expendable tool of war but a critical asset exerting an impact on the entire spectrum of 4GW networks, whether political, economic, social, or military.

Cecilia Polizzi, Fourth Generation Warfare: An Analysis of Child Recruitment and use as a Salafi-Jihadi Doctrine of War

It includes a section that explores children as objects of propaganda:

Fundamental social constructions regarding children relate to attributes of innocence, vulnerability, apprenticeship or socialization. It derives not only the significance of the child within society but also the high-symbolic value of child´s imagery as an element of psychological operations in the form of media intervention.

Children depicted as victims of Western-aided violence:

The theme of childhood innocence – most particularly depictions of children as victims of Western-aided violence – was found the most prominent representation in ISIL´s magazine Dabiq.

Child victimization may lead to criticism of policies:

Hereof, the importance of media in shaping policy is highlighted. Since the media are the ´major primary sources of national political information´ and presented issues, events and topics shown in the media are deemed vital to society and public interest, the portrayal of child victimization may lead to criticism for policies or warfare conduct, whereas actual or perceived, create social fragmentation and undermine social or political consensus.

But it’s not just child-victimization, it’s normalizing the child-soldier:

Dissimilarly from Al-Qaeda, ISIL and ISIL-affiliated groups, shifted in recent years from representations of the child as victim to the one of child soldier. The majority of ISIL media broadcasts feature the participation of children being normalized to violence, witnessing violence, training for violence and perpetrating violence with the next most prominent theme being state-building.

Worth checking out.

Unfortunately, now I feel compelled to do a post that takes a look at “Fourth Generation Warfare.”


Enjoy these posts? Enter your email below to join the monthly newsletter.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

What is hybrid warfare?

a venn diagram displaying the range of warfare

“In Putin’s mind, America is the country that has been waging hybrid warfare, political warfare, irregular warfare, against Russia for decades.”

That line from a recent IWI episode buried itself into my head where it has been sitting ever since.

I only recently took the time to dig into defining irregular warfare, and that was a slog.

These terms get thrown around so cavalierly and while I can’t be certain, my sense is that most folks who are using them don’t exactly know what they’re saying.

So what is ‘hybrid warfare?’

The first place to start is always the DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms – for which there is no definition.

Just because there isn’t a definition doesn’t mean it’s not real. Our doctrine could just be lagging behind the current reality.

Digging a little further, it becomes apparent that the biggest problem with hybrid warfare is the fact that no one can agree on what it is – or if it’s even anything at all.

There is a good article in SWJ from February that takes this on – ‘Hybrid Warfare: One Term, Many Meanings.’

Even better, after a bunch of senior defense officials began using the term in congressional testimony, there was a Government Accountability Office examination into the term (back in 2010!).

Check out the summary of their findings:

  • DOD has not officially defined “hybrid warfare” at this time and has no plans to do so because DOD does not consider it a new form of warfare.
  • DOD officials from the majority of organizations we visited agreed that “hybrid warfare” encompasses all elements of warfare across the spectrum. Therefore, to define hybrid warfare risks omitting key and unforeseen elements.
  • DOD officials use the term “hybrid” to describe the increasing complexity of conflict that will require a highly adaptable and resilient response from U.S. forces, and not to articulate a new form of warfare.
  • The term “hybrid” and hybrid-related concepts appear in DOD overarching strategic planning documents (e.g., 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review Report); however, “hybrid warfare” has not been incorporated into DOD doctrine.

I found myself feeling refreshed having read this. I’m not alone in thinking there’s not much there when we use the term hybrid warfare.

As the report states, when people use the term, they are likely referring to the increasing complexity of modern warfare, as opposed to some new form of warfare that we are only now discovering.

If we really want to use the term, though, we might be able to say that hybrid warfare is a blending of traditional warfare (state-on-state conflict using traditional armies) and irregular warfare (state and non-state actors vying for legitimacy and influence over a population).

Maybe sprinkle in some ideas about criminals and you’ve got yourself a Venn diagram.

Now, all of this is looking at the concept of hybrid warfare from a Western perspective. That is, what does it mean for “us?” 

As I’ve gone further down this rabbit hole, there’s another detour that looks at how others define it. How do the Russians define hybrid warfare? Or the Chinese? Or the Iranians?

Another post for another day…


Enjoy these posts? Enter your email below to join the monthly newsletter.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

“If you have a phone, you can be a resistance fighter.”

cyberpunk reaper mural art

Episode 50 of the Irregular Warfare Podcast.

In Episode 50 of the Irregular Warfare Podcast, our guests discuss the history of technological innovation, examples of current and burgeoning technologies that will impact future warfare, and how governments can (and sometimes cannot) regulate the development and distribution of potentially dangerous technologies to malign actors.

Power to the people.


Enjoy these posts? Enter your email below to join the monthly newsletter.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

How important is culture training, anyway?

afghanistan shura meeting culture

I was excited for this episode on the importance (or un-importance) of cultural training / cultural awareness in military operations.

Just like the information operations episode – which I wanted to dislike – this one nailed it.

It has become axiomatic that cultural intelligence is key to success in counterinsurgency operations. But is it? This episode examines this assumption—is the cultural training we receive in the military indeed the linchpin to success, or is it a red herring, even a harmful distractor, in the absence of coherent strategy? Why does cultural awareness tend to be absent at the strategic level, and does this really matter? As with much of the questions we discuss on the Irregular Warfare Podcast, the answers are by no means simple—but are important for both policymakers and practitioners to understand.

COIN AND CULTURE: HOW IMPORTANT IS CULTURAL INTELLIGENCE IN COUNTERINSURGENCY? Irregular Warfare Podcast

Cultural training has become an obsessive topic for me over the past few years. I have conflicting feelings.

On the one hand, it seems like cultural training – and especially language training – should play an important role in military operations. Knowing your adversary and the environment in which you might be operating is a no-brainer. The ability to understand what is being said and the writing on the wall will also help.

On the other hand, does that knowledge actually lead to any tangible wins? To develop the linguistic and cultural understanding we’re talking about – beyond the Wikipedia level knowledge – takes years and years of work. Is that juice worth the squeeze?

That’s what this episodes explores.

On the way military leaders treat cultural training as a “secret sauce” to achieving success:

[according to military leaders]…cultural intelligence was key to the success of counterinsurgency, or any intervention when you’re fighting wars amongst the people, and it’s held almost to be like some secret sauce – you get this understanding of the environment, you understand the people, and then you can exert influence and achieve your objective.

Dr. Christian Tripodi, ~7:00

Few people will push back against a senior leader saying “we need to understand the language and we need to understand the culture.” Yes, of course, that sounds good.

But why? Does it actually work? Can we demonstrate where this understanding meant something?

On politics as culture:

…politics – which is hugely important – and is the war-winning aspect of the whole shebang… Military actors become political actors and they are thrown into a deeply complex political environment and they are asked to become part of that environment…

Dr. Christian Tripodi, ~11:30

We tend to think about culture as the squishy things – the little rituals and norms of a society. Placing your hand over your heart after greeting, understanding differences in spatial boundaries, etc. But politics is a huge element of culture and one we tend to place in a different bucket altogether.

Think of the United States – our politics is part of the culture. How do you even begin to explain the way politics work in the US without roping in all of the cultural influences we see at play? They are deepy interconnected.

“We’re trying to be culturally aware, but we don’t like your culture!”

Sir Simon Mayall, ~15:30

This was a great portion of the episode which gets into how we “mess up” culture all the time. Sir Mayall uses an anecdote that demonstrates how we can get culture wrong at the organizational level by doing things which may make us feel good and demonstrate our cultural leanings but has harmful effects on the operational environment.

And of course, we see this all the time at the individual level. The GWOT is rife with examples. There’s a good anecdote from the end of the foreign fighters episode which illustrates this, as well.

On the military-centrism of applied counter-insurgency:

Western military professionals respond to counter-insurgency in very particular ways. They interpret it initially as a small version of “big war,” so they devote a primarily military response to addressing that… when they realize that only gets them as far as a stalemate because military primacy only matters to a certain degree in COIN, they incorporate some other methods, some population-centric methods, they engage with the locals, build some schools, build some hospitals, but they never divert far from their preferred mode of operation which is essentially the application of the compellence of force.

Dr. Christian Tripodi, ~19:30

It’s not going to matter – even if you’re Lawrence of Arabia:

Even if we had units who were fully culturally aware – they spent years immersing in this… it’s just too complex with local politics, for even the best-intentioned, best-informed external actor to ever fully-understand what they’re getting enmeshed in…

Kyle Atwell, ~20:00

This is the push back we don’t see very often, and it’s accurate. There is value in cultural knowledge, but it is not going to win the war. It might make things run a little more smoothly, and it might reduce the risk of a strategic faux pas, but that’s pretty much it.

Now, there is an argument to be made for integrating cultural understanding in the strategy that informs campaigns and operations. In many ways, that’s a more difficult proposition.

But in terms of the way we typically discuss it – training individuals and units on culture – all of this seems pretty dismal, no?

So at the end of the day, should we even being doing this culture stuff?

The simple answer is yes.

Sir Simon Mayall, ~40:00

Yes, it’s worthwhile. There’s a role for it. And it’s acutally important.

But the complicated answer is yes, we should train this stuff, but don’t expect it to win you any wars.

That’s just sorcery.


Enjoy these posts? Enter your email below to join the monthly newsletter.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.