The Information (R)evolution

I’ve been marking papers for the last week or so, some good, some indifferent and a couple, well, you know…I handed the last lot back on Friday and, on my way out of the office on Friday, tossed the September issue on C4ISR Journal in my bag to snap my mind back into reading structured material by people who at least know how to write…

I haven’t been disappointed in the content in this issue, although it has made me long somewhat for the free time to be able to read more if not ALL of the journals that we receive each month…the title of this thread comes from the editorial in this month’s issue…Keep the revolution on course…

In this item, editor Ben Ianotta, applauds the US Army’s initiative to adopt commercial ‘smart’ phones as means of distributing and sharing (they ARE two different functions) information to troops on the ground. The idea came from Army Vice-Chief Peter Chiarelli last year “Give troops the same power over information enjoyed by the average commercial iPhone user.” While I’m sure that Apple enjoyed the iPhone plug, it will have to move fast if it wants any significant share of this initiative. Already competitors using competitive operating systems like Google’s Android are hitting the streets and at considerably LESS cost than iProducts. Apple, I think, seems to have a habit of misjudging the market and relying on customer loyalty for expensive products that offer LESS interoperability for vague and illusory benefits.

Much like, perhaps, some military product developers…who have still not figured out that, since the end of the Cold War, primacy in technological development has reversed from military R&D leaders to the commercial sector…that it has taken two decades from the turning point for the Army to accept distributing commercial communication devices to soldiers as something that it MUST do is mildly disturbing and also somewhat ironic in that the information-based revolution in military affairs, the long-vaunted RMA, focussed on massive bloated central information systems that never really delivered. In the meantime, there was this thing called the internet…

Another change heralded by this programme is a long overdue acceptance that classifying any and all information relating to operations does NOT have to be classified up the wazoo, and even less so if you actually want it to get to those who need it…what was that definition of knowledge management, sorry…information management we use…the right information to the right people at the right time – AND ensuring that they know what to do with it…? Of course, this does NOT mean that everything should be tossed on the intranet and levels of classification done away with – although it would be an interesting experiment post-Wikileaks to see if the sudden flood of information could ever be processed by an adversary fast enough to act decisively on it.

On page 12 of this issue, there’s a short item on a mobile 3G network access system known as MONAX that would allow soldiers to access information with less reliance on commercial cellular systems. MONAX base stations “…could be positioned as fixed mast antennas on the ground, on vehicles, or in airborne assets such as aerostats, C-130 transport aircraft or – potentially – unmanned planes…” immediately below this item, is another on a Google Android-based wearable computer known as Tactical Ground Reporting or TIGR. It’s intended to facilitate situational awareness for individual soldiers and although currently designed to work over a tactical radio network, Android is designed for smart phone connectivity so it’s probably not too hard to join the dots here.

And speaking of joining the dots, page 8 reports on the first flight of the AeroVironment Global Observer. Weighing in it less than 10,000lbs but with a wingspan of 175 feet and a payload of 380lbs, the Global Observer is intended to fly at 65,000 feet for 160+ hours (that’s over a week!) for customers who might range from weather services to cell phone companies and others that need persistent coverage over an area.

More and more commercial off-the-shelf is the way to go, simply to get something out there now, instead of tediously slow, often bloated and inefficient, development projects…

The cover article starting on page 16 advises that Global Hawk will probably NOT be able to meet the current target date of 2013 to replace the venerable U-2 for high altitude long-range surveillance and reconnaissance. The problem is not so much that there is anything wrong with Global Hawk except it was never designed to replace the U-2 and thus has not been integrated with a number of the key collection systems employed by the U-2. This all dates back to a 2005 directive by the Rumsfeld administration in the US DoD to retire a number of older aircraft types including the U-2 and hammered home in 2007 with Rumsfeld’s certification that the U-2 was “…no longer needed to cover intelligence gaps…” I wonder which of that administration’s cronies might have stood to gain the most from contracts for a fleet of new S&R platforms..?

Unfortunately there is no even any agreement that Global hawk is a suitable replacement for the U-2…another go-round of the efficiency (cheaper) versus effectiveness (does the job) argument in which the chair polishing advocates of efficiency still demonstrate that they simply do not get that people are actually useful…SKYNET has nothing on some of these drones in diminishing the value of the human component of military, and thus national, power…

Woman to woman

MG Michael Flynn, 2Lt Roxanne Bras

I’m a little cynical about this next item, leading off on page 34, written by MG Michael Flynn, of Fixing Intel fame/notoriety (I thought it was both very good and long overdue but many consider otherwise) and 2Lt Roxanne Bras on the value of Female Engagement Teams (FETs). The one question that kept coming back to me as I read and then re-read this article was ‘What do FETs really do?’ Don’t get me wrong…I’m sold on the concept as it’s one that was used to considerable good effect during the six year BEL ISI mission on Bougainville (giving the lie to the description in the article of FETs as “…the newest tool to emerge from battlefield innovation…” and was also described as a key enabler in a recent brief here by a visiting UK psyops practitioner.

My first concern with this paper is that it feels like ‘spin’ – maybe I’m just a bit too set in my ways but I’m having trouble understanding why a two-star general and a junior officer would need to collaborate on a two page article (two and a half if you include the pictures) – paper? Yes perhaps. A book, definitely but this just doesn’t feel right or genuine. Perhaps a better approach would have been to have write the paper and the other provide comment from their own perspective? I always remember an instructor at Tac School who hammered into us the concept of ‘task with a purpose’ – what is something there to do. Reading this article, I wonder what the intent of the author’s is. Clearly there has been some resistance to the FET concept but I’m not sure that this article is going to help any…

The FETs are described as key to gathering information within Afghan village culture but are specifically excluded from collecting intelligence. This implies that there is some distinction between intelligence and information but surely ANY information on adversaries and competitors (once known as the enemy), the weather and terrain (physical, human, informational, whatever) might fall under the heading of intelligence…? And surely, by mere virtue of engaging Afghan women in conversation, FETs will be gathering elements of actionable information be it actionable in training, targeting, situational awareness, etc, etc…

The article even goes so far to distinguish between FETs and Human Terrain Teams which also gather information on social and cultural terrain on the grounds that “…FETs have not been trained in information gathering and they do not know how to vet the information they gather…” Huh? So a FET is not trained to vet information that it is not trained to gather but which is the primary raison d’etre for its existence in the first place i.e. “…the FET can provide valuable information to the commander…”. Moreover while FETs are (quite rightly) not “…working to change Afghan culture and ‘liberate’ the women…”, they “…are a strategic asset…” and  “…should be applied using the very same inkblot strategy applied to [the] wider COIN strategy…” However the inkblot in COIN is indicative of spreading change, typically in growing (hopefully) support for the government and security forces…so what FET-inspired effect will be inkblotted across Afghanistan?

I’m sorry but as much as I think MG Flynn hit the nail fair on the head with Fixing Intel at the beginning of the year, in this case, I think he would have achieved more stepping back and allowing 2Lt Bras to promote the case for FETs based on her own experiences than with this top-level ‘spin’.

Shifting Terrain

Following immediately on from the FET article is a rather superficial one criticising both Flynn’s Fixing Intel and the human terrain concept by “…US Army experts Paul Meinshausen and Schaun Wheeler… In arguing that “…information about the human terrain is not the information that decision makers need to be able to work with local populations or defeat insurgencies…” They argue (weakly) that “…more important than data…is an understanding of the influences that drive behaviour…

As near as I can figure, their concept is that physical terrain and, more broadly, the physical environment is the key factor that affects a population and if we understand that environment, we can not only understand but influence the population. “The US and its allies need to let go of the assumption that conventional operations are somehow fundamentally different from counterinsurgent operations and consider the possibility that the population is just another group of people that adapts to its terrain just like any other friendly, neutral or enemy…” Ya think? Is that the arrogant ill-informed assumption that the flawed shock and awe doctrine was based on; the same doctrine that proved so bloodily ineffective in the first three years in Iraq ? Are these two “…experts…” really trying to say that it’s that simple, that all the work in the last five years on the shift from platform-based to individual-based warfare was just wrong and we had it right all along? Give me a break, please…

Nowhere in this article do the authors actually define where such understanding might come from, more so in the absence on what they claim is worthless ‘data’. I wonder if they might stop to think one night about the simple concept that perhaps understanding might be based upon analysis of lots and lots of bits of data and the application of that data against the context of the local environment. While dismissing the means by which we learn about cultures, including the old chestnut about anthropologists specifically criticising the human terrain system programme (in reality only a very small proportion of very vocal anthropologists have done so – the remainder seem happy to go about their anthropological business), they tell us that we need to learn about those same cultures in order to be able achieve our objectives in Afghanistan.

In the last paragraph before the ‘The Human Terrain Fallacy’ heading, the article states that an abundance of information on Afghanistan already exists from a vast range of non-military sources. This is absolutely correct but it is false to say this removes any requirement for the intelligence community to collect its own information. If anything the real problem that the authors allude to but never pin down in this article is that the problem is not in the collection but in the processing and analysis of this data, as both individual data sets and/or as a collated fused national data set. That the authors don’t ‘get’ this is clear when they follow on to declare a finding (in isolation) like “Dispute resolution must remain adaptive and flexible to setbacks and changes” as “…uselessly vague…”. As a statement on its own, this does seem like a statement of the blindingly obvious but then so do many other doctrinal statement – which is probably why they are espoused in doctrine in the first place. Examining that “uselessly vague” finding through a doctrinal lens, one might expect the context from which it has been ripped to include:

Examples of how dispute resolution processes have been applied with varying degrees of success.

A description of how that finding was derived.

Some distilled best practice guidelines, tips and techniques to assist the practitioner in getting it right.

Having spent a decade or so in the lessons learned game, some many clear and distinct observations and issues are ultimately distilled into similarly “uselessly vague” lessons which then form the basis of doctrinal change and evolution. Nowhere has this been more or better validated than through the ABCA Coalition Lessons Analysis Workshop (CLAW) process which was first implemented in 2005 and is not a key driver in ABCA processes.

This paper actually (painfully) reminds me of some of the less sharp papers I have graded in the last week or so. Instead of tasking itself with a clear purpose, it has the feel of a couple of first-year students more focussed on being clever and impressing the staff with their brilliance…or what we call IntCorps-itis: always searching for the crucial piece of intelligence that will win the war instead of focussing on simply delivering good solid intelligence product…

I note that on Page 42, C4ISR itself awards this article a red ‘DANGER’ comment in its Attitude Check column and I wonder if someone else cancelled and this was all the C4ISR staff could find to fill the gap…it’s an article that’s not just immature but outright wrong and which would struggle to get an ‘F’ for ‘Fantastic’ on the marking scale….

In other news (in this issue)

There’s also some interesting updates on semi-autonomous EOD robots, iris scanning biometrics, the Blue Heron airborne multi-spectral imager and US Cyber Command and its challenges and opportunities.


3 thoughts on “The Information (R)evolution

  1. Thanks for this post. I would have missed the articles in C4ISR. I have too many comments to put here but, in short, I agree with your assessment of the Meinshausen and Wheeler article. I think they miss a lot of important points. In particular, while the ‘military’ may have tons of data that doesn’t mean a) it is equally accessible to everyone b) people who might need it even know it exists and c) it can get analyzed and processed with other information to produce analysis that can influence decisions.

    I haven’t read the Flynn article yet but seeing as he co-authored his ‘Fixing Intel’ article with a captain and a civilian I can’t help wondering if he’s got an ulterior motive in partnering with junior officers. Perhaps trying to advance officers he sees as particularly promising (co-authoring an article with the guy in charge of ISAF intelligence probably looks good on your OER), or adding his name to articles authored by others gives them a semi-official seal of approval? Of course, I’m looking at an n=2 here so I best not make too many assumption lest the evidence collapse underneath them.

    • In all honesty, I wouldn’t have even looked at the journal had the boss not had it on his desk and asked me to put it on the coffee table in the Centre’s foyer but I’m damn glad I did take the opportunity to put my feet up and read it. While I don’t think for a second that we should stop collecting data, I do think that it is way past time the we shifted focus from the easy parts of the intelligence cycle, plan and collect, and got down to the nitty-gritty of analyse and disseminate, both of which, to me anyway, come under the fusion banner. Fusing disparate data as part of analysis, and then fusing it with the ops plan as part of dissemination…

      Yeah, I’m still not comfortable with the Flynn co-authoring thing – it’s just too slick to be natural; I think it’d be more effective for him to write his own commentary from his perspective and level under which practitioners can put their own thoughts…then again, I can not say that I wouldn’t be flattered if a two-star asked me to co-author an article, nor can i say that I’d turn turn the offer…

  2. Pingback: Staying focused in Afghanistan « The World According to Me…

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