The future of aircraft carriers (the scrap heap?)

Aircraft carriers are hideously expensive and, in the world of anti-ship missiles, increasingly vulnerable when facing a semi-sophisticated opponent.  Sir Humphrey takes a very good and detailed look at how the cost issue is pushing more and more nations out of the carrier club.

So, what will nations that worry about their bottom line do if they want to project power but can’t afford a carrier and/or might not want to put all their eggs in one basket?

Drones make sense.  They’re cheaper than outfitting a manned aircrew and have a great deal of future potential.  DARPA seems to be looking to address this issue with plans to create a drone that can carry a decent payload over an extended distance but can also take off and land on relatively small ships.

While we’re probably far ahead of most of our competitors, this technology will certainly be achievable and spread.  Once even a small ship is capable of launching a capable drone that can conduct offensive operations becomes a reality, aircraft carriers are going to look more and more like dinosaurs.  Why spend the huge costs involved in building a carrier (and airwings…and support ships…and escorts) when you can build a number of smaller ships which can operate individually for routine missions or ‘swarm’ when the punch of an aircraft carrier is needed?


How might we measure the usefulness of fusion centers?

It’s been a few months since the U.S. Senate (or at least one of their subcommittees) released a scathing report about the 72 fusion centers that have popped up around the country since 9/11.  While the initial firestorm appears to have subsided I’m sure it remains a touchy subject and be rest assured as soon as fusion centers have something to bolster their case you’ll be seeing a whole lot of crowing about how much value they have.

It does raise an interesting, and still unanswered, question of how we should evaluate the value of fusion centers.  Certainly there should be something besides anecdotal reports either in favor or against.  Right?  One would think so, but given we’re more than a decade into this experiment, the fact that we haven’t really gotten far in beyond simple quantitative figures (we’ve answered 1,000 phone calls! We sent out 5 bazillion emails!) should have you consider that nobody is really interested in finding answers.

Let’s face it, identifying metrics for the effectiveness of something as squishy and ambiguous like ‘homeland security’ (similar to ‘counterinsurgency’) is going to be really hard, fraught with errors and, even if you get it right today, subject to change as the operating environment changes.

But, allow me to provide one possible piece of the puzzle.  One of the problems of determining effectiveness of something as big as a fusion center or as simple as even the smallest intelligence bulletin is if people actually value the darned thing.  You can try to send out surveys but a) response rates are abysmal and b) if you think grade inflation is bad in our universities check out evaluation forms in government work.  Everyone has learned that by giving straight ‘excellents’ you usually aren’t asked to answer any open ended follow up questions.  Therefore, the quickest way to be done with an evaluation form is to say everything is great and forget about it.

Even if you can swing in person interviews (very time and personnel intensive) you’re likely to hear only praise if not conducted properly (and very few in the community know how to conduct such interviews even if they were interested in doing so).

And yet, across lunch tables, while sharing a brew or via electronic communication device I receive a steady stream of dissatisfaction among erstwhile ‘consumers’ of intelligence.  Why don’t they speak up when given the chance?  Most often it’s because of concerns about reprisals.  Either institutional (‘Oh, you said something unflattering about our agency.  Yeah, we’ll get to your request.  Look for it around half past never.’) or personal (‘Oh, Ms. T applied to work at your agency.  Yeah, she’s not really a ‘team player’. I’ve got a brother in law though who’d be perfect…’).  And with no payoff there’s only downside in speaking up.

So, if you can’t always rely on what people and organizations say in this environment, you can look to what they do.  Most organizations jealously guard their resources and don’t spend them unless they think they can make a net profit on the deal.  Fusion centers, as the name implies, are designed to bring elements from many different agencies together so that each representative can contribute their expertise.

I suppose you could, therefore, look to see who puts there money where their mouths are when it comes to providing resources to these fusion centers.  Specifically:

  • What agencies have ever provided personnel or other resources to the center?
  • Has that level of commitment increased, decreased or remained the same over periods of time?

Of course, this would by no means be a complete picture but it would give you an idea of who feels such a center provides value.  We all know that joint centers also provide agencies the opportunity to dump under-performers and sometimes contributions reflect more of a ‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine’ sort of arraignment but I think it could provide some important hints as to the value of the center.  Some agencies you could automatically exclude from this (for example the agency that owns the building or is mandated by law to participate and the Department of Homeland Security which has a organizational commitment to provide liaisons to these facilities but how many other partners are out there.  And how long do they stay?


On fauxhawks, cognitive biases and intelligence analysis

I’ve been out of the military now for slightly more than a year but still found myself adhering to AR 670-1 when it came to my trips to the barber.  Over the ears, over the collar…pretty short all over.  Some of that is necessity (my hair is very think and festooned with cowlicks everywhere and if left to its own devices would soon turn into a birds nest) but mostly it was habit.  So, I decided to change that…Here are the results :

photo(1) Note the Hitler Pillsbury Doughboy in the background. That’s a fuck you to white supremacists, not baked goods, for the record…

Now the reaction from the people I work with was quite interesting.  My close co-workers are used to my hijinks so this was just sort of a status quo but for those a bit further out from the center of our social circle there was some consternation.  My coworkers and I received questions along the lines of:

‘What’s going on? Did he lose a bet? What does it mean?’

In short…none of these people could imagine a scenario in which someone like me (or, at least someone in our community/situation/etc.) would do this unless he was compelled to.

I, on the other hand, couldn’t imagine why I wouldn’t do such a thing.

So, what does this mean for intelligence analysis?  Part of an analyst’s job is to ‘think red’ or, consider what may motivate our foes, what priorities they may have, and what actions they may take.  Part of doing that involves avoiding the cognitive bias of ‘mirror imaging‘.  Now, I’ve been working in this particular office for a couple of years now and many of these people have seen me, heard me, had the opportunity to get to know me and with regard to my haircut they were under no pressure to reach a snap decision.  Yet, these individuals were unable to come up with potential motivations for my actions.  Were unable to put themselves ‘in my shoes’ to understand my actions.  How much more difficult when dealing with people involved in more complex activities, perhaps intentionally attempting to deceive, maybe with different cultural norms, with incomplete information and when under time pressure?

Cognitive biases aren’t something to be addressed once and then considered ‘dealt with’ for all time.  We need to be aware that they are the default setting for our brains and without active measures to control for them, we’ll slip into the same old thinking ruts that can lead to shoddy analysis.

Friday Fiction

Here is part of a story I’ve been toying around with for awhile.  Enjoy!

1 June 2011 – Twenty thousand feet somewhere above the border between the Northwest Frontier Province, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“Two minutes!”

The Jump Master was attempting to look calm and composed as he walked up and down the center of the aircraft but Fredrick could tell he was nervous. He could almost see the pent up energy trying to burst out of his small frame. It wasn’t clear why he was so jumpy since in the half dozen times Fredrick had leapt out of a aircraft with this particular Jump Master the guy had never left the plane. He was always yelling and pushing everyone out and wouldn’t be seen again until everyone had made it back to base. What the hell did he have to be nervous about?

“You alright, bud?” Dave kneeled down in front of him and began checking his gear and tightening his straps. He didn’t think they could get any tighter but a good yank elicited a muffled ‘woof’ of air escaping his chest. He liked Dave. Training had been brutal and almost constant but whenever they could they’d spend a few minutes relaxing and playing catch behind the barracks. Kicking off your gear and running around without having to worry about orders or plans or timing was like a bit of heaven. He was pretty sure it’d be awhile before he even saw a ball again let alone had a chance to play.

Dave looked him in the eye. “This is the real deal. You’re heading into the shit. Be careful you sonofabitch.” There was the briefest of delays, most people would never have even noticed it, before Dave smiled. It looked more like a grimace, though, and Fredrick could tell it was an attempt, even if an incredibly poor one, to put a good face on. Fredrick moved to shake Dave’s hand which made the smile genuine and brought out a bit of a laugh. “Yeah, nice to meet you too.”

Fredrick looked up and down the aisle. The members of his small team were on either side of him getting their gear checked as well. Argos to his left and Shuck and Garm to his right. And Morris. He didn’t like Morris at all. None of them really did. He was added to the group rather late and just about everyone had tried to take a shot at him at one time or another. Sometimes the cadre had broken them up in time to prevent any serious damage but Garm had a nasty scar from one of their fights. Nobody would shed a tear if his chute didn’t open although the bastard would probably land on his feet and give everyone one of those crazy looks like it had been his plan all along.

Morris turned his head slowly down the aisle and met Fredick’s gaze. The guy looked bored and like he was ready to take a nap. Once their eyes met he broke out into one of those grins and licked his lips. ‘Great.’, thought Fredrick, ‘My first time leading a team and they give me a psycho to deal with. I really don’t need this.’ Unfortunately, command decided that Morris was needed. He was familiar with the country and had two missions under his collar. That alone made him valuable, never mind his other skills. Still, Fredrick wasn’t convinced Morris was on anyone’s side other than his own.

“Thirty seconds!”

The rear door to the aircraft began to open and the last rays of evening light crept through the cabin of the plane. The team began getting to their feet and shuffling into position with the help of their ‘handlers’. Fredrick always thought that was a strange and somewhat condescending term. The team had trained to operate independently and without outside assistance behind enemy lines for weeks or months and they needed ‘handlers’?

A light near the cargo door began flashing and everyone stiffened in anticipation. It wouldn’t be long. Argos took a quick look back at Fredrick and let loose one of his trademark howls. It was corny but effective as the rest of the team joined in, bolstering their courage for the next few seconds.

Almost immediately after they finished, the light went solid red and before the Jump Master even had a chance to say ‘Go!’ Argos ran out the back of the plane. He always did love that part. The rest of the team followed suit, gathering up as much momentum as they could under the weight of their gear and flinging themselves out of the aircraft.

Fredrick took his leap and felt the satisfactory tug of the static line and the opening of his parachute a moment later. He hated hanging from the chute as it was probably the most vulnerable he’d been since he was born. He also didn’t particularly care for the sensory experience either. Sure, the view was amazing but seeing a lot wasn’t as exciting as seeing well and he always preferred viewing things up close so he could scrutinize them. The lack of smells was also disconcerting. He wasn’t sure if it was the excitement of the jump or just that smells didn’t make it up that high but the lack of any scent just made the whole experience seem unnatural. He barked a laugh at that thought. As if hanging from a piece of cloth at 10,000 feet was natural.

To say the world they were jumping into looked uninviting was an understatement. The rocky, mountainous landscape was almost entirely barren and broken with only the occasional instance of pathetic scrub to indicate the countryside was totally devoid of life. A few miles away a ribbon of trees indicated a stream or small river as did the presence of farmland nearby. Fortunately, the evening sun had sunk over the horizon and the scant moonlight meant they were unlikely to be observed with their state of the art ‘stealth parachutes’. They were made from a material that absorbed and reflected light in such a way that people actually saw through them in light conditions like this.

As the ground rushed up to meet them, the team began looking at their landing spot. They had virtually no control over their parachutes or where they would land but it was always helpful to see what sort of trouble one was about to find oneself in. Fredrick saw Argos going down a short distance away from his landing spot but wasn’t able to see him hit ground as he had to focus on his own touchdown. He hit the ground harder than he had practiced and rolled, almost getting caught up in the lines of his chute. Upon contact, the automatic releases freed him from the parachute harness and he got to his feet quickly. He looked to see where the rest of his team was landing, listened for Argos to come towards him and sniffed the air for trouble.

Shuck and Garm came down about a couple of hundred meters to Fredrick’s left but Morris landed directly in front of him. While everyone swore those parachutes were impossible to maneuver, Morris appeared not only to land exactly where he wanted it to but he made it look like he floated to earth like a feather. Morris stared at Fredrick without saying a word but managing to emit both contempt and boredom at the same time.

‘I’m not going to let him bait me…I’m not going to let him bait me.’ Fredrick kept thinking to himself wondering where the rest of the team were. Unable to contain himself, Fredrick met Morris’ gaze.

“Ok…I give up. What?”

“Well,” Morris began “let’s just say I’m not exactly filled with confidence based on what I’ve seen so far.” The team had finally begun to assemble, everyone appearing to have made the jump without sustaining any injuries. “And while I appreciate you all are the ‘rah, rah, do or die’ types make no mistake that I have no intention of turning this into a suicide mission. So, make stupid mistakes at your own risk and don’t expect me to save you.”

“Now, I’m going to check out the area and see if I can find anyone in this country who didn’t hear your crash landings. Try to be useful and find something for us to eat.” Morris said over his shoulder while he padded off into the darkness.

Shuck walked over to a scraggly shrub and sniffed. “I’ve said it a hundred times now. I hate…fucking…cats.” With that he lifted his leg and urinated at the bush.

“Well, then, stop sniffing around the litter box.” Garm replied with a panting laugh as he came over and sniffed the shrub. “Ugh…dude, I thought you stopped drinking out of the toilet bowls at base. What are you, a stray?”

“Enough!” Fredrick snapped. He was always aware that given he was the smallest of the group he had to work hard to maintain his alpha status. “Morris is part of the Pisho Palang unit and the only one of us who’s ever been here in Afghanistan. He might not be as disciplined as us but the bosses decided to transfer him to our unit so let’s just deal with it.” Fredrick jumped up on a nearby rock. As a Jack Russel Terrier the move just brought him to eye level with Argos, a huge Mastiff and Garm, an Akita. “Now, Garm you go and recon the area. Argos, get the food from our jump packs. There’s no need to try to hunt tonight.”

“Got it.” The Akita said as she slid off into the night.

“What about me?” Shuck said. The black labrador looked at Fredrick.

“Why don’t you go with Garm.” Then he thought of Morris again. They said that this mountain lion breed was ‘domesticated and trainable’ but Fredrick couldn’t help feeling like lunch every time the cat looked at him. Even with his Kevlar armor Fredrick wouldn’t last two seconds against the cat. Morris wouldn’t really eat him, would he? He remembered a line from a movie he and Dave would watch after training sometimes. What did that actor say?

‘Do you feel lucky, punk? Well, do ya?’

Fredrick most definitely did not.

“On second thought. What don’t you hang around here with me.” We’ve got to come up with a plan to find our target. Those jihadi monkeys have their base around here somewhere and they aren’t going to find themselves.

“Yeah, monkeys.” Murmured Shuck as he sniffed around at a rock that appeared perfect for marking. “Just so long as we don’t have to deal with any more cats. I hate fucking cats.”

Music and intelligence analysis

So, last time I talked about trying to incorporate different sensory inputs in order to improve analytical production.  Now I’m entering into speculative territory here but while I was primarily looking to different types of visual stimuli (the written word, graphics, images, etc.) I’ve been thinking about the possibility of using our sense of hearing to either improve the analytical or production process.

I therefore submit to you, then, this interesting project.  It takes a piece of classical music and, while you’re listening to it, describes it with accompanying text.  In doing so it conveys more information that either the musical piece or the text individually AND more then if you experienced both but separately.  The ‘extra’ value comes from getting the explanation at the same time the music is playing.  That not only reduces the chance of miscommunication (‘Is this supposed to be the teeth chattering or….this?’) but also helps improve the ‘stickiness’ of the information.  Associating the text with the music helps ‘anchor’ it in your mind.  The next time you listen to the music you’ll be more likely to remember the text.

Is there any value in incorporating music into the production process?  Might customers retain more with particular accompaniment?  Could music be used to emphasize particular pieces of information?  How about in terms of explaining probability, risk or threat?  Does the human mind respond consistently to certain types of music and sound or is the process so individualistic that the incorporation of sound is just as likely to hinder the transference of meaning as enhance it.

Up to now I’ve been talking about the production part of the intelligence cycle but music might have an easier fit in the analytical part of the cycle.  There’s evidence that distraction can assist in problem solving, particularly in helping identify weak connections between items or when thinking about difficult problems with multiple variables.  Sitting down and trying to force yourself to solve problems doesn’t work well when compared having your subconscious take a crack at it.

The goal is to get into the proper mental state:

It means not actively working on a problem but instead letting yourself happily mind-wander, freely associating and relaxing into a quiet mental state. It is like being okay to feel how you feel when you first wake up in the morning – relaxed, with diffuse, easy attention.

I’ve found that some of my best insights came about when I was most definitely not working on the problem that needed solving.  Running, reading, sleeping or…yes…listening to music.  I began wondering if there was any possibility tapping into that insight potential collaboratively after playing with my latest time sink,  Is there any benefit to having analysts, working on the same problem, simultaneously sharing something like music playlists and listening to the same songs at the same time?  If you assume that a person’s choice in music is a reflection of their mental state and preferences, would sharing music give you a glimpse into how other analysts are thinking?  If so, would that help to look at problems through a slightly different perspective and, therefore, improve you problem solving skills?

Many questions for which I have no answers but interesting to think about.  Now, time to listen to some tunes….

Crowdfunding intelligence

You may not have seen it in the news but lately poachers have been killing animals at alarming rates in Africa.  Rangers aren’t only frequently outgunned (with reports of poachers not only using military weapons but also relying on aircraft to find animals) but usually outmaneuvered since they have huge areas to cover while the poachers hold the initiative of when and where they’ll operate.

One conservancy in Kenya has decided to embrace technology to address some of these problems through the purchase and use of an aerial drone.  Their program to fly a drone will allow them to cover significant amounts of territory, providing both real time visual data and, through a program of implanting RFID transmitters in some of the animals in the park, through tracking key members of the animal population.  They did have a problem, however.  How does a non-profit afford a drone aircraft with all the associated training, maintenance, etc?

They decided to launch a crowdfunding appeal on indiegogo.  They requested $35,000 and surpassed that with ease, thanks in part to pretty significant press coverage.

Allow me to take this opportunity to recycle a post of mine from almost one year ago where I spoke in a bit more detail about the potential of crowdfunding the analysis process.  It’s probably not efficient for a long term strategy but such a method could be used for a very specific program like this when more traditional funding isn’t available or would be too slow.  Of course, you’d have the regular problems with crowdfunding such as over-promising and under-delivering in various forms but they can be mitigated.

But beyond that, I’ve been talking to people about intelligence training.  Across the field training is pretty spotty with tons of beginner level training out there (of varying qualities) and much less advanced training, especially good advanced training.  There just doesn’t seem to be a critical mass of people who need such advanced training in a place that would justify the development and presentation of that sort of thing .

Would be possible to crowdfund intelligence training as well?  hmmm…more to think about.




If you aren’t reading Paul Pillar…

…you should be.

With far more clarity and deftness than I can muster up, he manages to discuss and raise a number of worthwhile questions about our (American) assassination program, entrenchment of institutional interests and inertia, and the (perhaps unintentional) use of language to convey subtle messages.  On that last point, allow my to butcher a passage of his (please read it in full) about the naming of the counter-terrorism manual a ‘playbook’.

In football, a playbook is a very tactical manual that organizes the quick thinking that coaches and players have to do on each play….But the playbook doesn’t provide any help in bigger decisions with larger and longer term consequences, such as whether to leave your injured star quarterback in the game…By routinizing and institutionalizing a case-by-case set of criteria, there is even the hazard that officials will give less consideration than they otherwise would have to such larger considerations because they have the comfort and reassurance of following a manual.

This sort of analysis can go too far at times.  As the saying goes, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and sometimes words reflect poor word choice, limited vocabulary, or some other factor.  But, at times, it can provide some extra insight.