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.


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Infinite Competition

washington dc at night

Friend of the blog Cole Livieratos got there first.

As stated, another great episode from the Irregular Warfare Initiative – this one on the role of special operations forces in great power competition – with SOCOM Commander GEN Richard Clarke and Linda Robinson (RAND) as guests.

As an aside, I read and wrote a quick review of Robinson’s book 100 Victories back in 2014 in preparation for an Afghanistan deployment.

Will the role and capabilities required of special operations forces change in a geopolitical context characterized by great power competition? How will SOF balance enduring counterterrorism missions with new requirements to deter great power rivals? Episode 39 of the Irregular Warfare Podcast brings together the commander of US Special Operations Command and a leading researcher of special operations to dig into these questions.

SPECIAL OPERATIONS FORCES AND GREAT POWER COMPETITION

If you’ve been paying close attention to the IWI podcasts, especially when it comes to SOF and competition, there is a steady drum beat extolling the importance of influence and information.

And if you listen even closer, you’ll hear that in this next phase, we need to be leading with influence.

I enjoyed Cole’s thread on this episode. It’s a succint history of where PSYOP has been in the past two decades. With a lot of the internal drama out there on display.

But I heard the episode a little differently. I might just be more optimistic, but I think our senior leaders – especially, but not exclusively in the SOF ranks – get it.

PSYOP is great, but they don’t have a monopoly on understanding the impact of information. And scoring “wins” might be desireable to influence professionals, but it’s the senior leader who has to accept the risk.

And as GEN Clarke states succinctly in the episode, in leading with influence, “…this is an area where senior leaders, I believe, have to be able to accept more risk in the future.”

But don’t take his word for it (or mine), listen for yourself.

Things that captured my attention:

We expect every mission to go well.” Isn’t that true? Leaders don’t like signing off on anything too risky because a loss “looks” so much worse than a win. In fact, in GPC, we’re not going to even see the wins all that often. The problem is, if we actually want to move the needle in a meaningful way, we’re going to have to accept more risk. That inevitably means operations (especially non-kinetic) are going to be marginally successful, ineffective, and sometimes counter-productive. Until we’re ready to start signing off on those types of operations, we’ll be stuck in a reactive, “how do we counter this,” posture.

“Where do you think special operations forces are best equipped to integrate into this competition space?”

“I think that one area that is quite critical, for which SOF and particularly Army SOF, is suited is the information and influence realm. And I think that can draw on this competence that they have, generally speaking in this field. And it is the Army psychological operations forces, but it’s also more broadly this cultural knowledge that they gain and the understanding what messaging is and how it is being employed by the competitor, the adversary, as well as the ability to work among the population with both PSYOP and Civil Affairs.”

Linda Robinson, ~11:00

Where do we compete?

“It is quite clear that the Middle East is a critical arena for China.”

Linda Robinson, ~13:00

Competition is not a “phase” that happens before we shift into conflict.

“We’re in perpetual competition. We always have been and we always will be. And it’s infinite.”

GEN Richard Clarke, ~14:00

The return of political warfare.

“We are always struggling to find the right words to describe what we are talking about. Competition I think is an excellent, easily understood term. I understand the department may be working towards integrated deterrence as a term of art and to further enrich the word soup here I’ll just bring up the George Kennan term political warfare, which I think is an important term which shows our history with that.”

Linda Robinson, ~18:00

We don’t need no stinkin’ USIA.

“We no longer have a US Information Agency. Public diplomacy used to be a very strong discipline within our foreign service cadre.”

Linda Robinson, ~23:00

It’s not just Green Berets who can work with a partner force, you know.

“Most people when they think about this, they automatically go to ‘what’s the ODA Green Beret team that is going to be there or the SEAL team that is going to work in the maritime domain,’ but I think we have to think across all SOF functions. What is the best civil affairs team, and what does this country need and how can we train with their civil affairs, or potentially as Linda talked about, they also have information support teams.”

GEN Richard Clarke, ~36:00

Do we/should we promote for political warfare acumen? (what a great question!)

“Do you think the system is promoting the right types of leaders and talent to engage in political warfare or great power competition?”

Kyle Atwell, ~42:00

I really liked the above question, and I’m not sure we got a good answer on it. For all of the good things that are happening in talent management (and I’m speaking mostly about the Army here), promotions are still tied to an archaic system of hitting wickets in key positions in order to move up. The types of attributes that would make a SOF soldier “good” at political warfare may have absolutely no bearing on their ability to get promoted within the system.

This is part of a much bigger discussion on how we could retool promotions. What if, for example, we didn’t have centralized promotion boards, and instead let each branch promote internally based on their own needs and understanding of skills required?

The future of SOF is not landing on the roof from a little bird.

“What I think the coin of the realm is in the future, are really those who want to work with populations, and those who truly understand the strategic impact of developing partners in other countries. Also, I think we have to have SOF leaders who are comfortable operating in the policy environment and in the diplomatic environemnt.”

Linda Robinson, ~46:00

I agree. The thing that brings a lot of folks to SOF is the idea of doing the “cool” job. Well, in this environment, winning requires a SOF operator who can do those jobs, but also has the cultural, linguistic, diplomatic, and policy chops to move things along. That’s a lot to ask. But it is completely doable.

And it is a “cool” job.

It’s about assessing, selecting, and training the right folks – and incentivizing the behaviors we want.

Fantastic episode.


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We don’t need no stinking USIA

cowboys don't need badges

From now on, this is my repsonse/reaction article to overly simplistic calls for a rejuvenation of the USIA.

The org chart is just fine.

And I continue to think that folks think bringing back the USIA will work because, you know, it has ‘information’ in the name.

We have the tools and we have the talent.

What we need is a clear vision, direction, and commander’s intent.

And then, a willingness to let subordinates go to town.

USIA was the manifestation of segregating information from policy; USIA’s authorities were less than the organization it replaced; and, USIA was not charged with nor did it conduct an anti-/counter-political warfare mission. Today, the organizational chart as-is has the potential to surpass the relevance, integration, and effectiveness of USIA if the White House and Secretary of State would appreciate this function, hire the right person, and support and hold accountable this office and its role.

The Irony of Misinformation and USIA, MountainRunner

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