The Best Defense

FoW (13): You think innovation means better drones? Faster jets? Wrong. We've been out-innovated for the last 13 years.

By Paul Lewandowski
Best Defense future of war entrant

To the American military, innovation means technology. Innovating on the battlefield is synonymous with more electronics, bigger robots, and better fighter jets. To non-state actors, insurgents and terrorists, innovation has taken on a fundamentally different meaning. Their tactics are moving away from technological solutions and into realms where technology does not play a role.

In the realm of military technology, the U.S. Defense Department and its host of contractors are the ultimate trump card. America's military budget is greater than the next 10 largest state actors' military spending combined. Any force attempting to develop technology superior to American forces will eventually be crushed under the weight of billions of dollars of DARPA contracts, DOD research grants, and rapid fielding initiatives.

The Iraq and Afghan insurgencies have struggled valiantly to out-innovate American tactical forces. From 2001 until recently, these insurgencies believed they could turn to technological solutions to outpace coalition counter-IED efforts. The first IEDs were simple -- a detonator, some copper wire, and an old artillery shell. It didn't take long for U.S. forces to answer. Humvees became armored, gunners' turrets grew taller and more protected. Soon, the insurgency evolved. They turned to pressure plates and infrared sensors triggered by an engine's heat. Again, U.S. technological savvy answered. Cell phone and radio IED detonators were countered as well. The insurgents' reliance on technology quickly became a hindrance rather than an advantage. US forces could hunt them down on their cell numbers, via their purchases, texts, and emails.

And so the terrorists began to innovate in the other direction. Insurgent techniques became simpler, low-tech. Military-grade munitions gave way to homemade explosives. Cell phone detonators regressed back to command wire. Suicide bombers and insurgents disguised as Afghan army or police proved more efficient than complex, electronic IEDs or expensive VBIEDs. After nearly 13 years of war, the terrorists have learned that the best counter to a techno-savvy force is simplicity.

The gospel of the simple insurgent hasn't just stayed in Afghanistan. In Kenya's Westgate Mall, insurgents lightly armed with assault rifles, grenades, and an active Twitter account were able to make the marginalized al-Shabab a global name in terror. They were able to instill fear in the citizens of Kenya and humiliate the Kenyan government as it bungled the response. The whole operation probably cost less than a used car.

Despite what defense contractors want to believe, the next war isn't going to be fought or won with drones, biometric readers, or robot suits. It will be won with smart, adaptive, culturally aware ground forces. Non-state actors and peripheral militaries have learned not to fall into the technological arms-race trap again. The 21st century insurgent won't have a cell phone to tap. He will have a few trusted associates and a courier. Emails, texts, and phone calls will give way to written plans, handshakes, and hard currency.

The next-generation terror network will look more like a drug cartel: deeply embedded in the local culture, regional in focus, and urban in operation. The new insurgent will be so low tech he will be virtually untraceable. Another face in a sea of faces. No biometric data, no name on a government registry, they will be known to their associates as just a nickname. A ghost in plain view. They won't be identified as terrorists until they decide to make their moves. Their tactics will be crude but lethal, more befitting of medieval warfare than modern combat: stabbing a policeman in the throat, a bucket of chemicals in the reservoir, a soldier who suddenly turns on the unit. They'll carry weapons that are innovative yet simple: The counterinsurgent could see them walking to their target, weapon in hand, and never register him as a threat. It could be a bucket of chemicals, a farmer with a sickle, or even a rancher with his disease-infected cattle. These low-tech, low-cost innovations are the insurgent answer to a modern, technologically-heavy force.

The 21st-century insurgent will be adaptive. He will seize opportunities as they break. A power transformer left unguarded, a truck full of food, even a herd of livestock are all opportunities for him to seize. His reaction time is minutes, not days. The counterinsurgent will struggle to fight him. Governments, by their very nature, are bureaucratic institutions. They demand supervision, approval, review. The counterinsurgent can't tap into the local, informal network the way the insurgent can. No one talks to the uniformed government official, but everyone talks to their neighbor. It's why the Autodefensa in Mexico can damage a cartel more in a week than the Mexican army can in a year. They react at the speed of the cartel and they glean intelligence straight from the source. They don't just have their finger on the pulse of the community -- they are swimming in its bloodstream.

The only way to fight and win as a state actor in the 21st century is to become as smart and as culturally sensitive as the insurgent. Forces will have to look at the herd of cattle and see the same target the insurgent does. The counterinsurgent will have to understand the culture of the streets the same way his enemy does. No military can afford to outsource analytical, in-the-moment thinking. The future counterinsurgent must know the culture and the enemy so well that he can think one step ahead of him. The future of war demands predictive abilities that only a living, breathing, thinking soldier can bring to the fight.

A drone overhead would have done exactly nothing during the Westgate Mall attacks. Biometric scanners are useless after a food supply has been poisoned. An F-35 can't put a bomb on a green-on-blue attack. These tactics cannot be countered by military technology. Believing that technology will answer our problems, and that money spent developing robots is better spent than on developing smarter warriors is a dangerous fallacy. It serves only to play into the hands of America's enemies.

Paul Lewandowski is a former Army officer and Operation Enduring Freedom veteran. The views expressed here are his own.


The Best Defense

Want to reform military education? An easy 1st step would be banning PowerPoint

By Richard L. Russell
Best Defense guest columnist

The winds of curriculum reform are blowing mightily on the campus of the National Defense University, the pinnacle of Professional Military Education (PME) in the United States. The changes appear aimed, in part, at infusing the curriculum with lessons learned from the last decade of war. 

One reform measure -- which no doubt is not in the docket -- would be easy to propose, extremely beneficial to PME's quality, and of lasting intellectual benefit to graduates as future military leaders: banning PowerPoint on campus. PowerPoint has become so acculturated and institutionalized in the military writ large that it retards the quality of research, analysis, planning, operations, strategy, and decision making at all levels of command. The banning of PowerPoint in PME for use by students, faculty, administrators, and guest speakers, however, would be horrifically difficult to implement given its powerful hold over the minds and practices of today's military.

Numerous serious strategists, practitioners, and soldier-scholars over the years have bemoaned and warned of the dangers of the military's PowerPoint obsession. These warnings from the lips and pens of serious strategic thinkers should squash any belittling dismissals that PowerPoint's use is not an issue for serious curriculum reform. Marine General James Mattis, former combatant commander of Central Command and no one to mess with on the battlefield, publicly commented, "PowerPoint makes us stupid." Accomplished conventional and unconventional warfighter, best-selling author, and soon-to-be three-star general H. R. McMaster observed, "It's dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control."

PowerPoint masquerades as serious research and analysis, but it is anything but. It should be used as a tool to provide audiences with the highlights or conclusions from extensive bodies of research and analysis. In other words, PowerPoint should be just the tip of the intellectual iceberg. In the daily reality practiced high and low in today's military, however, there are little to no substantive research papers and analyses behind the endless torrent of PowerPoint briefings. The briefing slides themselves are the beginning, middle, and end of thought and study. 

The routine use of PowerPoint bullets relieves officers from the intellectual burden of actually writing full sentences and complete paragraphs and stringing them together to create actual substantive research and analyses. T. X. Hammes, a retired Marine colonel with a doctorate in history from Oxford University, recalls that before PowerPoint, "staffs prepared succinct two- or three-page summaries of key issues. The decision-maker would read a paper, have time to think it over and then convene a meeting with either the full staff or just the experts involved to discuss the key points of the paper.... In contrast, today, a decision-maker sits through a 20-minute PowerPoint presentation followed by five minutes of discussion and then is expected to make a decision."

The military's infatuation with PowerPoint, moreover, does not endear senior officers to their senior-most civilian counterparts. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates -- a practitioner-scholar exemplar -- wrote in his superb memoir, Duty, that "PowerPoint slides were the bane of my existence in Pentagon meetings; it was as though no one could talk without them. As CIA director, I had been able to ban slides from briefings except for maps or charts; as secretary, I was an abject failure at even reducing the number of slides in a briefing."

The military's use of PowerPoint befuddles civilian and foreign counterparts, with whom the military needs strong working relationships for effective intra-agency processes and multinational operations. The military "masters" of PowerPoint cut against these goals by their refusal to use pithy sentences to highlight important issues. Instead, they insist on stuffing as much information on to each and every slide, in the smallest font, as humanly possible. The practice leads cynical observers to suspect that the military tries to cram the equivalent of an encyclopedia volume on to each and every slide as part and parcel of a "shock and awe" strategy to overwhelm the audience with so many factoids that no one is able to articulate a single insightful or critical question. The audience faced with information overload is compelled to assume that all is well because "the military must have thought of everything," when the reality might well be that it has thought of nothing of strategic import.

And our foreign security partners are mimicking our military's bad habits, fooled into believing that effective modern militaries are built on PowerPoint. Former Secretary of Defense Gates saw this first-hand in Iraq: "And right there in the middle of a war zone, in the equivalent of Fort Apache, Baghdad, I got a PowerPoint briefing by Iraqi officers. PowerPoint! My God, what are we doing to these people? I thought."

PowerPoint stifles substantial discussions, debates, and arguments essential for the formulation and implementation of strategy. To take just one stunning example we got from Tom Ricks, the commander of the invasion force for the 2003 Iraq war, Lieutenant General David McKiernan, could not even get the combatant commander of Central Command, General Tommy Franks, to issue explicit, clearly written orders on how to conduct the invasion. The best Franks would do for him was to pass along PowerPoint briefing slides which he had shown Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. McKiernan was exasperated and reflected that "It's quite frustrating the way this works, but the way we do things nowadays is combatant commanders brief their products in PowerPoint up in Washington to OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] and Secretary of Defense.... In lieu of an order, or a frag [fragmentary] order, or plan, you get a set of PowerPoint slides.... [T]hat is frustrating, because nobody wants to plan against PowerPoint slides."

The inability of a combatant commander today to issue clear, crisp, and direct campaign orders is a far cry from American military commanders in the past. One shining example is General Ulysses Grant, who wrote beautifully. His orders written in the midst of Civil War battles, sometimes on horseback, remain today as models of concise clarity. According to late military historian John Keegan, one of Grant's command contemporaries admiringly commented that "there is one striking feature of Grant's orders; no matter how hurriedly he may write them on the field, no one ever has the slightest doubt as to their meaning, or even has to read them over a second time to understand them." Not bad for a guy who didn't academically distinguish himself in his class at West Point.

General officers today have allowed PowerPoint and staffs to atrophy any writing abilities they might have had. I often joked with a former boss and former commander of our forces in Afghanistan, retired Army Lieutenant General David Barno, after he published several excellent journal articles. I told Barno that he was insulting me by proving wrong my thesis that general officers cannot write. On one occasion, Barno smiled and replied, "Of course, they can't. They have staffs to write for them." 

But as the art of writing papers among senior American military leaders is lost, so too is the discipline writing imposes on one's mind -- a discipline that often illuminates weaknesses in thinking that go undetected in the process of endlessly manufacturing bullet points for PowerPoint slides. Lest readers think this is only a concern  for an academic "pinhead," one should note that NASA found out about this PowerPoint pitfall the hard way. The NASA Columbia Accident Investigation Board argued that NASA had become too reliant on putting complex information on PowerPoint instead of technical reports, and as a consequence, "It is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation."

As the National Defense University, as well as other PME institutions such as the service war colleges and the Naval Postgraduate School, ponders curriculum reform, the issue of PowerPoint ought to be on the agenda. A workshop on the institutional and cultural role of PowerPoint in today's military and the embedded pitfalls of overreliance on the software would be an intellectual cold shower for incoming graduate students. Many of these field grade officers would be aghast at what they would see as an alarming attack on one of their core staff and command practices by "fifty pound brain" academics. They would liken PowerPoint pitfall charges to heresy because it is so ingrained in the military's daily routines of morning intelligence briefings, afternoon staff briefings, and nightly "hot washes." A welcome-to-campus workshop on PowerPoint pitfalls would set the stage for the outright banning of the use of PowerPoint -- whether by faculty, administrators, staff, and guest speakers and lecturers -- for the entire academic year of residence for masters' degrees.

Although the easily proposed banning of PowerPoint would be a nothing short of a call for revolt in the ears of many in the PME leaderships and ranks, if implemented it could become as routine, customary, and as practical and beneficial as Chatham House rules, or non-attribution practices, under which much of PME constructively operates. Such a curriculum reform would be an invaluable Socratic teaching tool to make students decidedly uncomfortable, force them to maneuver outside their intellectual comfort zones, and open new vistas for developing intellectual skills for debating, analyzing, and thinking about policy and strategy in the real world, not the virtual, mind-numbing world of PowerPoint.

Richard L. Russell teaches for the Security Studies Ph.D.Program in the Department of Political Science at the University of Central Florida.