One of the most interesting aspects of the current moment is how clearly we are enabled to see what we’re doing to ourselves – or, in many cases, what’s being done to us, as media coverage parades a surreal, seemingly unstoppable drama of institutional derangement and even open malfeasance in front of us day after day.
One running thread in the drama is the weird meltdown of our military, particularly at the top leadership level. In the last few weeks we’ve been treated to the bizarre spectacle of the nation’s top general officer, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking to Congress with twitchy defensiveness about his urgent professional desire to understand “white rage” – a ridiculously framed, totemic-orthodoxy topic that no one can possibly sound judicious and credible addressing.
The Chairman was preceded in Congress a few weeks earlier by the Chief of Naval Operations defending the choice for his annual reading list of a current book about “systemic racism” in America.
The Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, also assured Congress (here and here as well) that the Department of Defense, possibly the least racist institution today on the entire planet, will, in its Pentagon fastness, its noble uniformed millions, and its hundreds of billions per annum in budgetary privilege, be vigilant about “systemic racism” and “white supremacy” in its ranks – the only objective benefit of which might be that someone will at last have to define those ephemeral quantities in a way that allows for measurable progress and an actual end-state.
But, really: no. We all know that’s not going to happen. Politics defeats the military imperative for measures of progress and an end-state every time. Once declared, the war on “systemic racism” in the military will be the ultimate Forever War, more resistant even than Afghanistan to ponying up defined objectives and an end-state.
The civic pain and disappointment of this spectacle are melancholy things. Et tu, DOD? We shouldn’t really be surprised, given that these manifestations reflect perfectly the priorities of our political leadership. The U.S. military is under civilian command by design, and if it’s ordered by its civilian bosses to sight in its own foot and pull the trigger, that’s what it will do.
We don’t actually want a military that decides to resist civilian command – meaning that of the president – and seek ways to circumvent it. We appear to have had that to some extent, and for some few months, at the end of the last administration. There’s nothing to be done for people who think that was a good thing; they are wrong, but most of them will only see that long after it makes any difference.
So what we’ve got now, with the top brass braying about systemic racism and white rage, is what we’re supposed to have. It’s a top brass under the firm control of the civilian leadership.
Be grateful for that. The institution is performing to spec. It may not reflect well on the flag and general officers, but it makes understanding and situational awareness easier for the citizen.
We live in interesting times. It should not surprise us that just as a paroxysm of woke activism seizes the Pentagon, sending forth a horde of trainers to harass and eat out the substance of morale in the ranks, the reports are piling up that U.S forces are regularly losing conflicts with “China” in scheduled, broad-scale war games, and have been for some time.
This is a serious issue, and one on which serious answers and actions are needed. I am actually optimistic that America still has the mojo to redress the shortfalls involved in this situation, if we engage on all cylinders. What the USA is today is a vast, restless volume of idled capacity, artificially paralyzed, or perhaps stuck in low gear, by dysfunctional politics and deranged information institutions.
We don’t lack what we need to recover our strength. We are held back by an institutional carapace pulling against our national interests – against the best welfare of the American people – and straining to contain and even repress us.
So the point of giving heed to this survey of an ugly losing record in military war games is not to wallow in discouragement, but to scope the problem so we can gain a clearer perspective on it. There is far too much to discuss in a single article. But I want to hit a few highlights, and look at the problem through one telling slice: a slice that takes its meaning from the things we know China has been doing for the last 20 years, and from one of the most interesting developments in our own forces’ vulnerabilities in the last five.
The central problem for the U.S. “Blue” forces in the war games reported out in the last 18 months has been that China – played by a crack “Red” team – denies us the highly sophisticated use of information we rely on. This defeating condition applies to information in all its guises, from being spoofed and deceived by sensors to losing networking, communications, command, control, etc. Partly by this means, and partly through kinetic sabotage facilitated by our informational blindness, China delays and thwarts our logistics operations as well as disrupting combat action.
The war games have focused on a defense of Taiwan. But the central problem of information assurance would be the same fighting any other scenario in East Asia, so for our purposes here it’s not as important to put a bore sight on Taiwan as it is to think about information systems, and how they apply to the way we fight.
Before moving to that focus, note that there’s another key lesson from at least the most recent war game (reported out at a defense industry event just this past week, although it took place earlier). Public discussion of prior war games has also hinted at it.
The lesson is that gaggling up our forces in order to mass coordinated “fires” – the use of ordnance in all its forms – results in handing China a barrel to shoot fish in. (See Hyten links below.)
It’s hard to execute combat tasks without massing fires. A light spritzing with hot lead usually just doesn’t get the job done. So military planners are now rethinking some pretty basic concepts, in the search for ways to mass fires without over-aggregation of the weapon systems and platforms they come from.
That, in my view, is probably the most positive lesson – and direction of redress – to come out of the war game losses. Looking for ways to disaggregate and decentralize, but achieve the results of old-school concentration, is an excellent problem-set for our best analysts, tacticians, and inventors.
It does run counter to the rest of the lessons the war games appear to be suggesting, which makes it extra interesting. It’s not clear to me which approach is going to win out in our thinking.
Here, to set the table for what we’re talking about, are the four key lessons outlined at a recent defense industry event, the launch of the Emerging Technologies Institute by the National Defense Industrial Association (also here). The speaker was General John Hyten (USAF), Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He briefed the lessons as follows:
Joint fires – This refers to the problem of massing fires discussed above.
Contested logistics – This lesson is about China’s ability to disrupt our logistics, and ways to circumvent that opposition and deliver necessities to the combat forces. The popular example is the Air Force’s plan to experiment with “rocket cargo”; i.e., delivering cargo from Point A to Point B by rocket.
Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) – As summarized by Defense One, quoting Hyten: “’The goal is to be fully connected to a combat cloud that has all information that you can access at any time, anyplace,’ so that, like with joint fires, the data doesn’t get exposed or hacked because it’s housed in one centralized location, [Hyten] said.” This lesson and its reorganizing push are about information assurance, as is the final lesson:
Information advantage – Referred to by Hyten as the sum of the first three; in other words, as the product of organizing and resourcing better for the first three. “If we can do the things I just described,” said Hyten, “the United States and our allies will have an information advantage over anybody that we could possibly face.”
Three pings on the lessons and remodeling vectors: Ping One
As you can see, there’s a lot to discuss here. I will highlight just three top-level observations for now.
One is the generally positive and commendable aspect of the shift in thinking evident in General Hyten’s framing outline. Where once information was seen as one subdiscipline of the environment for military operations, Hyten’s presentation makes it clear the U.S. military now recognizes that information is the environment of military operations.
That was never not the case. Information has always been the environment of military operations. Technology has seemed to present that as a new phenomenon in the last 50 years, but it’s really a very old truth being manifest through newly engaged patches of the electromagnetic spectrum.
It’s information advantage that’s the sum of other parts in warfighting, not the other way around. The war games have apparently helped us relearn that perennial lesson by driving home how we lose information advantage in the modern era.
I’m not sure the entire lesson has been learned, and we’ll look at that below. But recognizing the poles and axes of the “information-is-warfighting’s-environment” paradigm is decisive, and salutary.
As mentioned earlier, there’s a tension built into the lessons and approach outlined by Hyten. The push for information assurance is expressed in terms of concentration and a single backbone. My ear picks up on that immediately; let’s listen again to Hyten: “’The goal is to be fully connected to a combat cloud that has all information that you can access at any time, anyplace,’ so that, like with joint fires, the data doesn’t get exposed or hacked because it’s housed in one centralized location.”
If this is an accurate statement – and I have little doubt it is; I’ve heard Hyten speak and he’s a smart, calm-tempered man who gets the wording right – I’m not sure the military planners have been listening to themselves. Centralization tends to be the enemy of assurance and survivability, whether a problem is seen through a military lens or an information lens. The nature of military activity is to attack what the enemy needs to fight with, and centralization eventually, inevitably, just makes that easier, regardless of discipline or context.
The war games apparently convinced planners of exactly this point with respect to massing fires. It’s a good point.
But it also applies to information systems, as telecoms, Internet service providers, and their customers have seen relatively often over the past 10-20 years. Denial of service attacks on single nodes, or even just outages caused by accidents or problems like weather, can take hundreds of millions of customers’ services out of operation for hours at a time. In civilian activities that can be annoying, even financially costly; in combat in can cost lives and objectives.
This brings us to the third observation, which arises naturally from the centralization-decentralization question as well as most of the discussion of the war games topic. This observation is that we seem to be a erring a bit on the chatty side about what our intentions are.
Perhaps we do intend, whether or not it’s a good idea, to go full speed ahead with vigorously centralized information and try to harden its shields as much as possible. The question in my mind is why we would say that. “Yo, China, look over here! We’re going to build a big, single cloud you can’t disrupt or break into.”
The same thing occurs to me about the mention of the “rocket cargo” project. Is there some reason we’re telling China, “You might want to get good at shooting down our rockets, because we’re looking to deliver cargo to our combat zones that way”?
It seems we’ve kind of lost the art of conveying more circumspectly the ways we see technology serving our concepts for warfighting.
Information advantage from time immemorial has involved communicating your core principles and interests (“messaging”) without giving away your ways, means, and tactics – or, for that matter, venting about your vulnerabilities in terms of politics and morale.
It’s somewhat difficult to thread the needle on this, of course, in a robust, First Amendment information environment with an accountable elected government. You don’t lie to the American people, and you don’t keep big secrets from Congress about what you propose to pay for and why, when it comes to fighting and winning America’s wars.
But on something like centralization versus decentralization, that’s exactly the point on which you want to keep a peer competitor guessing about the extent and nature of your commitment in either direction. At least make him work to figure it out, rather than just handing him a confessed solution that he can verify with a little light surveillance.
This topic could be extended to thousands of words without even breaking a sweat, but while it’s important, it’s not the main topic here. I’ll just add a couple of points.
One, if General Hyten was intentionally putting up distractors to throw China off the scent about our centralizing intentions, then I say, “Heckuva job, dude!” That’s a time-honored form of info ops, and while I doubt he was engaging in it, it would be gratifying to think he was.
The other point leads us to the final section, and it’s this: all aspects of info ops matter, when it comes to cultivating information advantage. There are things like bypassing Chinese sabotage in booting supplies across the Pacific, and things like knowing you’re not being fooled by fake radars when you think you’re tracking China’s spy-ship fishing fleet, and then the lights on your tactical display panel go out.
But there’s also dominating the information environment’s message about your own confidence, abilities, internal force cohesion, morale, and public trust.
Two pings on our key information problems
That’s a major reason why it mattered to launch this discussion with the uncomfortable reference to the military top brass earnestly embracing a race-obsessive propaganda campaign to divide and admonish the troops with.
Every enemy of the United States is gratified to see such a thing, because as information goes, it’s a gold mine for them. The basic fact is one that our opponents see clearly: the Pentagon is woefully out of step with the American people. The leadership of the U.S. military is in a form of debilitating “capture” to a political project working against America’s interests.
The people see the project without illusion, and are alarmed. Set before them is the vision of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs making the evasive “academic” argument that he needs to spend his days trying to understand “white rage” (possibly one of the most visually absurd interludes in human history), as if it really may be true that this is a solemnly theoretical exercise carrying mind-opening benefits.
Whereas the people know, from encountering the application of “critical race theory” as instruction in their schools, that implementing a curriculum sourced from CRT is no more neutrally academic than applying The Communist Manifesto (or, more modernly, Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals) to politics and claiming it’s just a mind-opening struggle session about Marxist ideas.
The application of CRT-sourced instruction is about sowing self-doubt, division, and fear in the target audience. It doesn’t matter what CRT is when it’s under critical examination in graduate seminars, any more than it matters what by-the-book Marxism is, for those very (very) few who can accurately define “excess value.” What matters is what practitioners of instruction and activism – “praxis” – are doing with either one in its retail franchises.
We thus start from the very top of the information heap with good reason to ask if our military leadership has really thought through this “information” thing. If the leaders are actively cooperating to promote divisions in the ranks, to the mistrustful alarm of the people, what does that say about unity of command and purpose – starting way above the tactical combat level – and the buttons an enemy can push to interfere with both? That’s information news the enemy can use, as North Vietnam and its patron in Moscow did in the post-Paris twilight of the Vietnam War. We must not dismiss political derangement at the very top-brass and civilian level as a significant loss of information advantage in any potential conflict.
In Part II we will look at the second “information problem ping,” which lays out the illuminating slice of the information environment in a conflict with China promised at the beginning of Part I, above.