Harnessing Technology to Make War Safer

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Few subjects inspire more furious debate than the terms “war” and “drones.” There is vastly more heat than light on this subject.

That is why I was impressed by the reasoned arguments of a U.S. Marine who wrote an article entitled, “How Tech Can Make War Safer.”

Amidst all the shrill debate on the subject, Lucas Kunce explained how when the tech industry refuses to work on defense-related projects, war becomes less safe Here’s how he begins:

Last year, more than 4,600 Google employees signed a petition urging the company to commit to refusing to build weapons technology. A response to Google’s work with the military on an artificial intelligence-based targeting system, the petition made a powerful and seemingly simple moral statement: “We believe that Google should not be in the business of war.” Similarly, Microsoft employees in February demanded that their company withhold its augmented reality HoloLens headset technology from the Army, saying they did not want to become “war profiteers.”

As a Marine who has been in harm’s way a few times, I am glad that my peers in the tech industry have initiated this discussion. America is long overdue for a conversation about how we engage in war and peace; the difference between the decision to go to war and decisions about what happens on the battlefield during warfare; and what it means to fight, die and kill for our country.

My job has put me in places where I have witnessed and taken part in significant battlefield decisions. From my experience, I have learned that working with the military to develop systems would actually support the tech workers’ goal to reduce harm in warfare. (I need to note here that I am speaking for myself, and my views do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Defense.)

Tech workers might not realize that their opposition to the work their companies do on military technology does not change the decision-making of the American leaders who choose to go to war, and therefore is unlikely to prevent any harm caused by war. Instead, it has the unintended effect of imperiling not only the lives of service members, but also the lives of innocent civilians whom I believe these workers want to protect.

You can read the full article here

Look Range Threats

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Earlier this year, one of the giants in U.S. national security passed away. Few individuals have made more of an impact on the way the U.S. military – and indeed all the levers of U.S. national power – perceive, analyze and understand the threats our nation faces.

Many obits tried to sum up his manifest contributions. Julian Barnes piece in the New York Times perhaps did it best. Here’s how he began:

Andrew Marshall, a Pentagon strategist who helped shape American military thinking on the Soviet Union, China and other global competitors for more than four decades, died in Alexandria, Va. He was 97.

Mr. Marshall, as director of the Office of Net Assessment, was the secretive futurist of the Pentagon, a long-range thinker who both prodded and inspired secretaries of defense and high-level policymakers. Virtually unknown among the wider public, he came to be revered inside the Defense Department as a mysterious Yoda-like figure who embodied an exceptionally long institutional memory.

In the early 2000s, at a time when the Pentagon was focused on counterinsurgency and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Mr. Marshall urged officials to focus on the challenge of China — a view that many considered outdated. But today, national security officials are increasingly adopting Mr. Marshall’s view of China as a potential strategic adversary, an idea now at the heart of national defense strategy.

Through his many hires and generous Pentagon grants, estimated to total more than $400 million over four decades, Mr. Marshall trained a coterie of experts and strategists in Washington and beyond. One veteran of the office, Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, is now the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Another, Robert O. Work, was the deputy secretary of defense from 2014 to 2017.

The exact nature of Mr. Marshall’s office was poorly understood. But he cultivated thinking that looked beyond the nation’s immediate problems and sought to press military leaders to approach long-term challenges differently.

“His gift was the framing of the question, the discovery of the critical question,” said Michael Pillsbury, a China expert who advised and worked with Mr. Marshall throughout his career. “He would always pick the least studied and most strategically significant subjects.”

Want more? You can read the full article here

More Nukes? Really?

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The world in 2019 is a volatile place, and the news is full of reports of conflicts around the globe.

Little of that reporting involves nuclear weapons – and there hasn’t been a nuclear weapon fired in anger since 1945. That is a very good thing.

But just because the issue of nuclear arsenals is out of the news, we shouldn’t ignore it. That’s why I think that Bret Stephens recent op-ed is important for all Americans to read. Here’s how he begins:

“In the capitals of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, there is a clear lack of confidence in the United States’ reliability as a military ally.”

Sound familiar? It’s from a report in The Times dated October 7, 1979. Donald Trump isn’t the first American president about whom U.S. allies took a decidedly skeptical view.

Back then, the question was whether, and how, Jimmy Carter would respond to the Soviet Union’s deployment of the SS-20, a medium-range nuclear missile that threatened military installations in Western Europe and against which the Atlantic alliance had no equivalent. Later that year, Carter agreed that the U.S. would deploy hundreds of intermediate-range Pershing II and cruise missiles to Europe in response, a policy the Reagan administration completed in the early 1980s.

The history is worth remembering now that the U.S. has formally exited the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (I.N.F.) treaty, following many years of cheating by Russia and failed diplomatic efforts to bring it into compliance. Moscow has secretly fielded an estimated 100 ground-launched cruise missiles “designed to target critical European military and economic infrastructure, and thereby be in position to coerce NATO allies,” according to Dan Coats, the former director of national intelligence. Russia is also believed to be violating the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

You can read the full article here

Tiananmen Square Remembered

Last month, we marked the 30th anniversary of China’s crackdown on student protestors in Tiananmen Square.

Much ink has been spilled about this event, but less has been written about how that day shaped China today. Orville Schell’s excellent article begins by noting:

“In the spring of 1989, a democratic future for China seemed possible. Then came Tiananmen. The U.S.-China relationship still hasn’t recovered.” He goes on to say:

China was indeed experiencing a springtime. At last, its halting tradition of democratic activism and cosmopolitan aspiration seemed on the verge of triumphing over the rival traditions of imperial rule and Leninism. Here was definitive proof that ideas of freedom were not just a foreign import or imposition. For the first time since 1949, one could suddenly imagine a China that was both more democratic and more fully integrated into the outside world.

But the moment didn’t last, as we know in marking this week’s melancholy 30th anniversary. Whatever the power of China’s long-suppressed democratic hopes, they could not withstand the ideological determination and brutal might of the Chinese Communist Party. The crushing of the Tiananmen protest movement was a shock not just to all those intoxicated, idealistic Chinese demonstrators but also to Westerners like myself who believed that, with our help, China was starting to find its way to being a more modern and open society.

The tragedy of that possibly misplaced faith weighs especially heavily today. Under President Xi Jinping, a newly assertive authoritarian China now strikes many in the U.S. not just as a disappointment but as a threat. In retrospect, through the ups and downs of decades of diplomatic engagement and growing economic connection, the Tiananmen crackdown of 1989 now appears to be the moment when the regime most fully revealed the fundamental principles that now guide Mr. Xi and a rising China.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Artificial Intelligence

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Artificial intelligence (AI) may be the most beneficial technological development of the 21st century.  However, it is undoubtedly the most hyped technological development of the past two decades.  This hype has raised expectations for results and, unfortunately, has clouded public understanding of the true nature of AI and its limitations as well as potential.

The highest level U.S. security documents demonstrate a recognition of the power of AI to support U.S. national objectives.

The National Security Strategy notes: “New advances in computing, autonomy, and manufacturing are already transforming the way we fight…From self-driving cars to autonomous weapons, the field of [AI], in particular, is progressing rapidly.”

The National Defense Strategy puts it this way: “The security environment is also affected by rapid technological advancements and the changing character of war…New technologies include artificial intelligence [and] autonomy.”

The U.S. Navy knows it needs AI, but would be well-served if it articulates these needs better so it can harness this critical technology.

I addressed this subject in my recent U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings article, The Navy Needs AI, It Just Isn’t Certain Why.”  Want more? You can read the full article here

Iraq Misadventure

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Volumes have been written about America’s misadventure in Iraq. Those books vary in quality as well as readability.

I recently read one that was insightful and made me think. My interest was stirred by a book review of Michael Mazarr’s new book, “Leap of Faith.”

Mazarr’s subtitle, “Hubris, Negligence, and America’s Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy,” likely tells you where his book is headed, but here is more from the review:

The operative word in the title of “Leap of Faith: Hubris, Negligence, and America’s Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy” is the last one: tragedy. Drawing on extensive interviews with unnamed “senior officials” as well as recently declassified documents, Michael J. Mazarr attributes the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003 to good intentions gone awry. Here is an example of “America’s worthy global ambitions” that went “terribly wrong.”

The Iraq war was not a tragedy. It was more like a crime, compounded by the stupefying incompetence of those who embarked upon a patently illegal preventive war out of a sense of panic induced by the events of 9/11. An impulse to lash out overwhelmed any inclination to deliberate, with decisions made in a “hothouse atmosphere of fear and vulnerability.” Those to whom President George W. Bush turned for advice had become essentially unhinged. Iraq presented an inviting opportunity to vent their wrath.

The handful of officials who shaped policy after 9/11, writes Mazarr, a political scientist currently with RAND, were “not evil or pernicious human beings.” Instead, Mazarr credits them with acting in response to a “moralistic sense of doing the right thing.” Viewed from that perspective, “the Iraq war decision was grounded in sacred values,” even if the evil and pernicious consequences of that decision continue to mount.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Richard Holbrooke

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Volumes have been written about the Cold War, America’s involvement in Vietnam, and other issues that have led to what has generally been called, “The End of the American Century.”

But much of this has focused on the history and not the participants. Until now. Walter Isaacson’s review of “Our Man” a new book by George Packer focuses on a man at the center of it, American diplomat, Richard Holbrooke, one of the most iconoclastic statesman of the last half-century. Here is how he begins:

Richard Holbrooke was a large man with gargantuan appetites — for food and women and movies and acclaim and, above all, diplomatic and undiplomatic maneuvering — appetites that struggled to feed an outsize ego that was matched only by his insecurities. As the last great freewheeling diplomat of the American Century, Holbrooke, with his turbocharged zeal and laughable lack of self-awareness, earned fervent admirers and fevered enemies, including a few longstanding colleagues who fell passionately and paradoxically into both camps. In fact, Holbrooke himself was caught in this duality of being his own most fervent admirer and worst enemy (although when someone once commented that he was his own worst enemy, a national security adviser he had worked with snapped, “not as long as I’m around”).

Want more? You can read it here

High-Tech Weapons

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Earlier this year, I posted blogs regarding the new directions for U.S. National Security embodied in publications such as the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy. Each of these publications notes that the U.S. military must adopt high-technology to ensure the U.S. can deal with increasingly capable peer competitors.

The era of United States technological dominance has ended. Indeed, in many areas, including military technology, this gap has narrowed to parity or near-parity, and potential adversaries have all-but erased what was once the U.S. military’s trump card—superior technology. Nations such as Russia and China, as well as countries to which these nations proliferate weapons, are deploying advanced weapons that demonstrate many of the same technological strengths that have traditionally provided the high-tech basis for U.S. advantage.

One of the most promising emerging military technologies is directed-energy weapons. The U.S. military already uses many directed-energy systems such as laser range finders and targeting systems are deployed on tanks, helicopters, tactical fighters and sniper rifles. These laser systems provide both swifter engagements and greatly enhanced precision by shortening of the sensor-to-shooter cycle.

Now, directed-energy weapons are poised to shorten––often dramatically––the shooter-to-target cycle. Directed-energy weapons provide a means for instantaneous target engagement, with extremely high accuracy and at long ranges.

This is just a snippet. Want more? You can read the full article here

The Future is Unmanned

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One of the most rapidly growing areas of innovative technology adoption involves unmanned systems. The U.S. military’s use of these systems—especially armed unmanned systems—is not only changing the face of modern warfare, but is also altering the process of decision-making in combat operations. These systems are evolving rapidly to deliver enhanced capability to the warfighter and seemed poised to deliver the next “revolution in military affairs.” However, there are increasing concerns regarding the degree of autonomy these systems—especially armed unmanned systems—should have.

I addressed this issue in an article in the professional journal, U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings. Here is how I began:

While unmanned systems increasingly impact all aspects of life, it is their use as military assets that has garnered the most attention, and with that attention, growing concern.

The Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) vision for unmanned systems (UxS) is to integrate them into the joint force for a number of reasons, but especially to reduce the risk to human life, to deliver persistent surveillance over areas of interest, and to provide options to warfighters that derive from the technologies’ ability to operate autonomously. The most recent DoD “Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap” noted, “DoD envisions unmanned systems seamlessly op­erating with manned systems while gradually reducing the degree of human control and decision making required for the unmanned portion of the force structure.”

I’ve attached the full article here

Military Innovation

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Among the buzzwords circulating in the U.S. military, Innovation is likely the most common one we all have encountered over the last decade.

Countless commands have set up “innovation cells” on their staffs and have sought ways to become more innovative, often seeking best practices from industry, especially Silicon Valley.

The Department of Defense has created a Defense Innovation Board comprised of outside experts who are charged to find ways to make DoD more “innovative.”

And just a few years ago, former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter created Defense Innovation Unit Experimental – DIU(X) – (now DIU) at the old Moffett Field near the heart of Silicon Valley.

All of this is good as far as it goes – but the danger is clear – by establishing innovation cells on major staffs, by having outside experts tell the DoD how to be more innovative, and by establishing a large organization to be the DoD’s innovation “place” we may be sending the wrong signal to the rest of the military and civilian professionals: Don’t worry about being innovative, we’ve assigned that task to someone else.

Former Pacific Fleet Commander, Admiral Scott Swift was unique among senior commanders in that he purposefully and deliberately did not establish an innovation cell on the PACFLEET staff. As he shared in his remarks at the 2018 Pacific Command Science and Technology Conference, “I want every one of my sailors to be an innovator.”

As the old saw goes, the guy (or gal) who invented the wheel was in inventor, the person who took four wheels and put them on a wagon was an innovator.

We are taken by innovations and innovators, they help define our future and then make it possible.

From Archimedes to Zeppelin, the accomplishments of great visionaries over the centuries have filled history books. More currently, from Jeff Bezos of Amazon to Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Elon Musk of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, they are the objects of endless media fascination — and increasingly intense public scrutiny.

Although centuries stretch between them, experts who have studied the nature of innovators across all areas of expertise largely agree that they have important attributes in common, from innovative thinking to an ability to build trust among those who follow them to utter confidence and a stubborn devotion to their dream.

Now facing two peer competitors – China and Russia – who want to create a new world order that puts them at the forefront, the U.S. military needs every solider, sailor, airman and marine to be an innovator.