Real Networking

Stanley McChrystal on networks:

“Like all too many military forces in history, we initially saw our enemy as we viewed ourselves. In a small base outside Baghdad, we started to diagram AQI on white dry-erase boards. Composed largely of foreign mujahideen and with an overall allegiance to Osama bin Laden but controlled inside Iraq by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, AQI was responsible for an extremely violent campaign of attacks on coalition forces, the Iraqi government, and Iraqi Shiites. Its stated aim was to splinter the new Iraq and ultimately establish an Islamic caliphate. By habit, we started mapping the organization in a traditional military structure, with tiers and rows. At the top was Zarqawi, below him a cascade of lieutenants and foot soldiers. But the closer we looked, the more the model didn’t hold. Al Qaeda in Iraq’s lieutenants did not wait for memos from their superiors, much less orders from bin Laden. Decisions were not centralized, but were made quickly and communicated laterally across the organization. Zarqawi’s fighters were adapted to the areas they haunted, like Fallujah and Qaim in Iraq’s western Anbar province, and yet through modern technology were closely linked to the rest of the province and country. Money, propaganda, and information flowed at alarming rates, allowing for powerful, nimble coordination. We would watch their tactics change (from rocket attacks to suicide bombings, for example) nearly simultaneously in disparate cities. It was a deadly choreography achieved with a constantly changing, often unrecognizable structure.”

This is ultimately the heart of what John Robb, John Arquilla, and others have been writing about for some time. It’s often striking how militaries in the 1990s struggled to become network-centric, but other organizations achieved it at a fraction of the cost. Of course, networking did not bring AQI and others strategic success. It only was perhaps effective on the tactical and operational level.

This perhaps points at the problem with networking in military operations. With the exception of John Arquilla’s recent monograph (not available online, see Naval Postgraduate School for a copy) on what a netwar against al-Qaeda would look like, the writing about networking and military operations is overwhelmingly tactical and operational. Thus the risk is that would-be netwarriors get trapped in tactics and operations while neglecting the strategic whole.

There is a similarly here between Shimon Naveh and other writers’ discussion of “blitzkrieg” (I hesitate to use that term because of its ahistorical nature–the Germans never called it that) as a tactical system that provided a basis for operational imagination but was overwhelmingly focused on the smallest of levels.

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For All of the PLA-Watchers Out There

The latest Jamestown Foundation China Brief has some great articles from Willy Lam, Russell Hsiao, and PLA studies star Dennis Blasko (side note: his book The Chinese Army Today is probably one of the better single-volume reads on modern PLA).

The most interesting ones are by Blasko and Lam. First, Blasko shatters some myths about the China’s amphibious abilities for cross-strait invasion. China’s amphibious capabilities are not at the stage where they can credibly threaten a seaborne invasion and appear to be structured for different missions. Blasko’s article is very technical and difficult to summarize, but he does a detailed analysis based on both open-source reporting as well as the latest DOD report on Chinese military structures.

Second, Lam reports on an emerging foreign policy split between China’s “hawks and doves” over future strategy. Apparently China’s civilian security establishment–such as civilian professors of international relations and defense analysis at military academies and civilian universities, are warning of overreach and urging Beijing to hew to core interests more narrowly. Meanwhile, the more hawkish military intellectuals see themselves under broad threat from the United States in the Pacific and urge a stronger stance to expand Chinese power.

Hsiao also has an interesting piece on the continuing expansion of PLA military satellites, devices that can be used to further targeting of units operating on China’s periphery.

Expanding the Southern Battlespace

Sam Logan and John P. Sullivan have a new piece up at ISN on the expansion of the Mexican drug war to Panama and Honduras. Key graph:

Drug trafficking and the endemic criminal violence it breeds are a threat to the entire Western Hemisphere. The southern states of Central America are just encountering the risk involved. At least two Mexican cartels, the rival Sinaloa and Gulf Cartels are active throughout Central America. It is near certain that the Zetas and others are active as well. Add to this the traditional Colombian cartels and transnational, third-generation gangs such as the Mara Salvatrucha, and the potential for cross-border drug wars and criminal insurgencies rises.”

Scary stuff, but that’s what’s going on..

Information Access Problems and Policy

Expanding on an offline conversation with Russ of ICON on the general issue of non-governmental organizations and information access: the basic requirement of sound policy and decisionmaking is accurate information. NGOs have over time developed comprehensive means of gathering and analyzing this information. Perhaps the most promising distillation of this is the focus on developing conflict early warning resources along the same lines as the kind of early warning analysis (or indications and warning–I&W).

The problem, though is the assumption that greater access to information through things like spime intelligence translates into better analysis. It opens up new possibilities but it also means that better processing mechanisms for analysis are needed to cope with increased output.

Intelligence in Authoritarian Nations

The essential information problem that the US faces in understanding Iran is its lack of presence on the ground. Although there is HUMINT penetration, it does not necessarily add up to a strategic or even necessarily operational picture of the country’s internal dynamics–especially when it comes to Iran’s leadership elites. As the linked NYT article notes: “With no diplomatic relations and with foreign journalists largely expelled from the country, an administration that was already struggling to make sense of Iran finds itself picking up tidbits about the crisis in the same ways private citizens do: viewing amateur videos on YouTube and combing posts on social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.”

Getting information from authoritarian nations has always been extremely difficult. The CIA’s long and hard struggle during the Cold War to penetrate Russia is a case in point. Hence the importance of the superstitious tea-reading known as Kremlinology. More recently, the hermit kingdom of North Korea has posed immense difficulties for strategic analysis. Political analysis of North Korea’s policies is dependent on the insights of former cooks and other palace personnel who defected from the regime. Exiles and opposition members become some of the only exploitable sources of information. The problem is that they often have agendas of their own–and their interests don’t always coincide with yours. In the famous case of the “The Trust,” the early Soviet Union used a fictional grouping of exiles to lure other exiles in and Gulag them as well as spread disinformation in the West.

Without presence on the ground, news organizations also become dependent on opposition groups for the entirety of their footage and information during crisis situations. The excellent documentary Burma VJ chronicles how one Burmese opposition group’s network of underground video journalists essentially provided the entirety of footage for global media’s coverage of the 2007 “Saffron Revolution.” While many opposition groups’ causes (opposing their brutal regimes) are undeniably just, the unavoidable reliance on their information essentially turns the network news and mainstream media into a giant advocacy network and echo chamber that may not give viewers and readers a good picture of the situation. And it can also serve as a vector for regime elements to spread disinformation virally.