What if the PLA doesn’t need NCOs?

I’ve been a long-time reader of the Army’s “Mad Scientist Blog,” but I’m fairly certain I’ve never shared anything of theirs before – at least not on this blog.

From the ‘about’ page:

The Mad Scientist Laboratory blog is a marketplace of ideas about the future of our society, work, and conflict.

There’s something about the old-school ‘Web 1.0’ style of the posts that gets me all kinds of nostalgic.

Anyway, they also have a podcast that I only recently discovered. I started with this episode on How China Fights.

The format of the podcast is a bit different from many other national security podcasts I’ve listened to. There really isn’t a host that is driving the conversation – although they have a pretty intense announcer. Each episode has a main topic and then subtopics which are addressed by “subject matter experts.” It flows nicely.

There were a few things that struck me in this episode. The first is what gives this article its title:

What if the PLA doesn’t need NCOs?

This was said in response to a common retort one may hear about what makes a good Army. They may have the tech, and they may have the numbers, but they might be missing something. In the US, we hold our NCO corps in high regard and assume that is one of the things that gives us a qualitative advantage.

What if our adversaries can find a way to function without that? Is that possible?

Probably – but it’s an assumption that doesn’t often get challenged.

Two other things: China’s establishment of the “Strategic Support Force” and the concept of “information superiority” (think “air superiority”) during a crisis. I’ve never really thought about information that way – but I think there can be some relevancy – as the guest stated, in a crisis.

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“We can’t kill our way out of this”

Just finished the latest Cognitive Crucible episode with Ori Brafman (The Starfish and the Spider).

Whether you’ve read the book or not, if you have been in or around military circles for the past twenty years you’ve likely heard the thesis regarding human networks.

Towards the end of the episode, during a discussion about how the military has or has not changed, Ori, quoting military leaders he interacts with, says something which I’ve heard over and over again – also for the past twenty years:

We’re not going to be able to kill our way out of this battle. Lethality is no longer the way we’re going to be able to fix this.

~33:30 mark

He then goes on to talk about whether this might mean we need to do more/better IO, cyber, etc.

We’ve heard this line “we’re not going be able to kill our way out of this” or “kill our way to victory” a lot. And it’s usually a line that is lauded because it seems to indicate the person speaking it understands that the conflict is rife with human dynamics that need to be addressed.

And if we can pull the right levers and adjust the dials just right we can turn this thing around.

I have another take; if the problem we’re facing isn’t one that can be solved with a military solution then perhaps we shouldn’t be using the military to solve it in the first place.

When you mix flawed strategy with gung-ho leaders you get the GWOT effect.

Those leaders – who are intelligent, patriotic, and care about victory – will tear down the world looking for a way to win.

But it’s often a case of the Kobayashi Maru. These are no-win scenarios. It’s like showing up to a baseball game with a basketball team. Sure, you can retool and retrain and take all of the baseball lessons you can – maybe even hire some baseball consultants – but you’re still going to be a basketball team playing baseball.

The best you might be able to do with all of that hokum is keep things going for a while.

“Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow….”

Don’t be fooled – the proximate thing keeping things together in these situations is most often the presence of traditional military capabilities.

And what happens to all of that when those traditional military capabilities are suddenly removed?

In fairness, our system is such that when called upon to execute a mission as part of a greater strategy, you do it. And you do your best to make it work and get results.

But I don’t think we should conflate recognizing the lack of military solutions to a problem with some sort of epiphany that might lead to victory.

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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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The Culture Episode

A screengrab from one of the military’s many cultural training programs.

“I’m so sick of this squishy culture shit.”

From MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE: REBUILDING CULTURAL CAPABILITIES – AGAIN

I enjoyed this episode from the War Room podcast on the rise and decline (and rise and decline) of military cultural education programs.

The guests discuss their book The Rise and Decline of U.S. Military Culture Programs, 2004-20 (available as a free PDF download) from Marine Corps University Press.

The importance of culture ebbs and flows in the US military, right alongside our foreign military operations, not surprisingly. We go into a place, we lack a nuanced understanding of it, and senior military leaders bang their fists on the table demanding we produce a cadre of our own “Lawrences of Arabia.”

From there, the services begin finding ways to train the force on culture – a squishy topic, to be sure.

I can’t lie – my own academic interests were spurred by my personal inability to communicate or fully understand the people and culture of Iraq.

“If only I could communicate,” I thought…

The authors make a distinction between language training and culture. Language training has been a part of military training (for specific jobs) for decades. But it is more of a technical skill than a holistic something else that cultural training is or should be,

And that is where much of the struggle with cultural training comes into play. How do we measure or assess the effectiveness of such programs?

“That kind of a financial investment [assessment on par with language training] has never been made in cultural skills, of even a fraction of the investment has never been made in cultural skills. So, we still don’t have really good, validated tools to assess the cultural skills of military personnel, even after the number of years of these cultural training programs, assessing the learning outcomes, was never really received the kind of investment that it needed to be able to demonstrate those quantitative outcomes to the same degree that you have with language.”

Allison Abbe

Measuring this stuff is hard, and even if done to some degree, is going to be imprecise.

Many military leaders have an almost monastic devotion to “measures of effectiveness” – perhaps a result of decades of being told to read business books for good ideas on fighting wars.

Followers of the blog will know that I have an against the grain take on measures of effectiveness – especially if you read the last newsletter. Often, they get in the way of achieving actual results in lieu of just doing something we can measure.

My take – good cultural training will result in taking fewer “L’s” on the battlefield and avoiding silly own-goals. But we are highly unlikely to see a “big win” as a result of cultural training. The best you can hope for – I think – is praise from partners or enhanced relations over time. Not very exciting, really.

But preventing those losses can actually lead to victory.

This has to do with the “strategic corporal.” As a senior leader lamented to me back in 2011 – “The problem with the strategic corporal is that it doesn’t work in the positive, it only works in the negative.” What he meant, was that the strategic corporal is usually only strategic when he or she makes a mistake. And this is almost always tied to a cultural faux-pas.

And yes, it can also be a strategic lieutenant, captain, command sergeant major, or general.

As someone who is deeply invested in language learning and culture – I honestly do think this is important. We should spend time and energy understanding one another. Especially if we’re showing up with guns.

However, I think that the most important cross-cultural skill is simple respect. It translates everywhere and is tried and true. It’s easily understood and we can practice it daily.

Lastly, this episode focuses mostly on “big picture” cultural programs designed to train conventional forces. The special operations community has maintained (and continues to grow) its language and cultural programs, although focused on a much smaller population.

The authors’ key takeaway is that when we inevitably return to re-establishing cultural education programs, we ought to take a hard look at our recent (and not so recent) past before we start building the CONOP.

One-hundred percent agree.

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Smear War

It’s coming.

Faster and faster.

When you combine our open society, the deluge of information that exists about us and that is already out there – whether we like it or not – and good old-fashioned hacking, we have to get ready for smear war.

Add the weaponization of benign activity/information, a little AI and micro-targeting, and we’ve reached nightmare territory.

Our administrative systems and standard operating procedures are not suited for it. We will be paralyzed.

It’s not new. It’s been done before.

In the next “hot war,” it won’t be loudspeaker operations claiming the “statue of liberty is kaput.” It will be messages directly to your phone about your “sick” dog back home. Along with an AI-generated picture.

There is a way to defend against it. And it’s not hard to do, but it’s easy to mess up.

Patience and trust.

Patience. What looks like an emergency right now will likely dissipate with a little time. Don’t take rash action.

As Colin Powell famously said, “It ain’t as bad as you think. It’ll look better in the morning.”

Trust. We know this is coming, so we have to be ready. When it happens inside of your organization, you have to extend trust. It has to flow up and down.

This takes courage. Courage to push back against the aggressive calls to “do something.”

Be patient. Trust your team.

Don’t scratch the itch.

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GWOT Hangover: “I’ll take it from here”

I'll take it from here
I'll take it from here
Not sure of the origin of this cartoon – but it was everywhere in the military in the weeks following 9/11. Our company armorer had it posted right there at the weapons cage.

We’re in the deluge of 9/11 reflections. Articles, documentaries, ceremonies, and tweet storms. It’s everywhere.

And it should be.

I find myself wanting to do nothing but engross myself in all of them while also avoiding every last one.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve thought a lot about if I have anything useful to add.

I’m not sure that I do.

I’ve written about my experiences in and around 9/11 – a lot. I’m from New York City. My father worked for the FDNY. I joined the Army just before 9/11 and it happened while I was at jump school. My entire military and academic career has been wrapped up in what happened, why, and our response to it.

That’s all personally interesting, but it’s not that different from most folks I serve with. There are variations of intensity and experience, but it’s all very similar.

Instead of thinking about what it all means for me, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what it means for us.

9/11 was a psychological weapon of mass destruction.

It shocked us into action and overreaction. It was a power-punch directly to the forehead. We were shook.

Do you remember this video (2003) of Tom Friedman discussing our reaction to 9/11?

We need to see American boys and girls, going house to house, from Basra and Baghdad, asking ‘what part of this sentence don’t you understand?‘”

Watch the video. It’s angry. It’s absurd. It’s counterproductive. I don’t agree with the argument.

But I also remember this sentiment being the feeling in the air in the days, weeks, and years directly after 9/11. It didn’t matter what was logical. It mattered how we felt. We made decisions and we carried them out.

Then twenty years goes by.

When I think about 9/11 now, I don’t really thinking about 9/11 at all. What I think about is the GWOT effect.

What I think about is the burning desire to help, to marshal that patriotism into action and churn, and churn, and churn. And have it come up empty.

“To be sent overseas to divide by zero.”

I’ve seen men and women of all ranks and in all different jobs throw themselves into the fire only to get burned.

What began as a mission of justice became something much grander.

So here we are.

Twenty years is a long time.

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