Category Archives: Emerging Technology

Clearing up the Fog of War (Spending)

For the past few weeks, it seems like all the national security geeks in Washington have been hotly anticipating Defense Secretary Gates’ new five-year budget for Defense spending.  Now that it’s out, the conversation has turned to what it all means and what the implications are to the services, their contractors, and normal civilians.  Sometimes, that conversation gets confused when terms and concepts are misused or used without explanation for the uninitiated.  Here, I offer a few thoughts shedding light on how the military gets their technological systems from concept to deployment and offer some resources on where to find out more.

Words have Meaning

When a service wants to “buy” something, whether that be a new Ground Combat Vehicle or 300 Playstations, it is participating in the act of procurement. But tanks aren’t bought the same way as sandbags, and with good reason.  Used colloquially, the term procurement generally refers to a “commercial off the shelf” (COTS) purchase or to when a military organization buys additional units of an already existing item, such as helmets.  Sometimes, however, the military wants to buy things that don’t yet exist, so it has to invent them.

The term “acquisition” can refer to one of two systems within the Defense world.  “Big A Acquisition” refers to the interaction of three systems – responsible for deciding what military equipment is needed, how to build it, and how to pay for it respectively.  More on identifying needs and funding later.  “Little A Acquisition” is a euphemism for the Defense Acquisition System, the formal, tightly controlled system that manages the development of new technology for the military.

In Defense lingo, a new platform or system under development for the military is known as a program.  This nomenclature seems self-explanatory, but gaining program status is no small occasion for a fledgling weapons system.  Believe it or not, the military doesn’t like spending money on things it doesn’t need.  Ironically, it often costs a lot of money to prove that a given capability actually deserves the funds needed to be developed.  The process that helps refine what capabilities the military needs is known as the Joint Capabilities Integration Development System (JCIDS), another part of “Big A Acquisition,” from above.  JCIDS defines how the military writes and tweaks the documents that define what a new piece of gear must be able to do to meet a given need.

Only once plenty of brass from all over the Pentagon agree that a new technology should be developed does it become known as an acquisition program.  This process lends itself to irony, since it means programs don’t actually become programs until they make it through a large chunk of the defense acquisition system (remember – that’s the system that’s supposed to regulate the activities of programs).  It’s only after a program gets funded in the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP), a DoD accounting database, that it gets known as a program of record.  Here’s where things get really complicated: programs do get funded before they get punched into the FYDP and become programs of record, they just reach into a different pot of money.

Follow the Money

I’ve talked briefly about the Defense Acquisition System and JCIDS.  The final system that makes up Big A Acquisition is the Planning, Programming, Budgeting and Execution (PPBE) System.  It outlines how the military requests funds for various initiatives from Congress.  The complexities of PPBE largely escape me, but I will touch on a few points of nomenclature that I have seen confuse dialogue about acquisition.

Federal funds for the military are broken into five broad categories: Research, Development, Test & Evaluation (RDT&E), Procurement, Operations and Maintenance (O&M, sometimes seen as Operations and Sustainment, O&S), Military Construction (MILCON), and Military Personnel (MILPERS).  Splitting costs into these categories allow leadership to make tradeoffs between future capabilities and current affordability; between designing for maintainability and hiring more maintainers.  It’s important to note here that procurement budget does not mean the same thing as procurement as I had defined it above.  No doubt this mismatch has created significant confusion within the acquisition community, whether they know it or not.

What’s important to remember about the cost categories is that the pots of money do not touch.  While an acquisition can draw funds from multiple pots, it can only use money from each pot for specific purposes.  For example, RDT&E funds can be used to build functioning units of a new system, but only if those units are to be used for “test and evaluation”.  Judging by the headlines, the Marines’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle program seemed to be capable of staying within a reasonable RDT&E budget.  So why was it ultimately deemed unaffordable?  Because its cost per unit would have eaten up an unacceptable amount of the Marines’ procurement budget.

Other examples abound.  The RQ-4 Global Hawk faced opposition in Congress.  Why?  It was a new technology, so its RDT&E costs skyrocketed.  The F-22 was partially nixed, despite years of sunk development costs.  The culprit?  Replacing the bird’s stealth coating after every flight drastically drained the Air Force’s O&M budget.  When the people about the “Defense budget”, they are usually citing some combination of the five money pots, either service-specific or general to the military.

What does it all Mean?

In this short post, I’ve tried to clear up some misconceptions surrounding the dialogue about defense spending and also to spark curiosity in you, the reader, to find out more and question more.  There are over 133,000 professionals currently in the defense acquisition workforce and the President wants to hire more.  To assume that acquisition and defense budget issues are only relevant to national security geeks would be a mistake; the military-industrial complex is alive and well.  The processes and systems I’ve discussed here pretend as though outside influences don’t exist, as though program managers can read official doctrine and know how to navigate their programs through the competing interests of contractors, congress, and the public.  Sites like, which I hear radio ads for all the time, reveal how naive that notion is.

I’ve written previously on this blog about the role of contractors.  Nowhere is that role more apparent than in defense acquisition.  The services like to believe that every system they develop can be traced to vetted battlefield requirement and that when programs get funded it is because no other means of achieving a capability is viable.  In reality, one cannot discount the role of contractors.  Contractors dream up our military’s technology, they create it, and they sell it.  They know the ins and outs of the defense acquisition better far better than the average serviceman and are incentivized to use that knowledge to generate profit.  That is not to say that contractors are not patriotic or do not give their all to create quality products for warfighters, but their motives must be understood.

The DoD’s guide to understanding the Defense Acquisition process recently won the honor of being crowned the “Pentagon’s Craziest Powerpoint Slide”.  The title is actually a misnomer, as that poster is meant to be mounted on a wall, which is why most acquisition types refer to it simply as “the wall chart”.  The wall chart gives some perspective on why understanding Defense acquisition can be so challenging.  Secretary Gates is widely respected for trying to reform Defense Acquisition, but then again, all of his predecessors since Donald Rumsfeld (the first time) have tried their hands at reform as well.  Here’s hoping he succeeds in clearing things up.

Don’t take my word for it… Reference these helpful resources the next time the military budget stumps you

The Defense Acquisition Guidebook

Defense Acquisition University Glossary

Defense Acquisition System Portal

And for you nerdy/wonky types…

DoD 5000.02, Operation of the Defense Acquisition System

Joint Capabilities Integration Development System (JCIDS)

Wikipedia article on JCIDS

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The Army’s new MRAP Ambulance

New Caiman MRAP Ambulance

The office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology, or ASA(ALT), recently announced production of a new prototype Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected Ambulance. Vehicles of this class, known as MRAPs, are specially designed with heavy armor and V-shaped hulls to deflect any explosive force that hits them from below. The new ambulances will be based upon the Caiman MRAP chassis and will have room for as many as four litter as compared to three in previous models. It will also host improved electrical and oxygen distribution capabilities, significantly improving the resources available to medics for en-route emergency care.

Interior of an older MaxxPro MRAP configured for three litter casualties.

Published: 24 NOV 2010


What Defense Acquisition can learn from Apple

MilSpace on the iPhone

Why do people love apple?  Why do they line up around the block days in advance to buy an iPhone? Why is there a dating site set up exclusively for apple users to date other apple users?  Is there something I’m missing?  Since when does a personal computer preference say to someone of the opposite sex, “hey, I’m the one for you”? Even the military is falling in love with the company.  The Army is in talks with Apple to employ a number of its products for warfighting applications and recently launched a contest to encouraging development of military apps. Efforts by the military to better adopt mobile technologies, including Apple technologies, have been covered on this blog and elsewhere. By embracing commercial technologies, is the DoD taking advantage of a innovative opportunity or admitting that in some domains, Defense Acquisition just can’t get the job done as well?

Granted, Apple makes cool consumer electronics in contrast with the complex warplanes and ground systems of the Defense industry.  But the next frontier in technology will be driven by software, networks, and mobile devices, and the Defense industry would be foolish to not leverage existing consumer capabilities for military applications.  If Defense Acquisition is going to learn how to make these future products successfully, it might as well emulate the best in the business. Here are a few quick thoughts on why Apple has been successful in its latest endeavors and the lessons Defense Acquisition can take from those successes.

(1) User Interface is Paramount

The iPad was not the first tablet pc.  It wasn’t even Apple’s first attempt to build a tablet.  Yet, sales of the iPad reached 1 million sold in just 28 days and increased to 3 million after 80 days.  The iPad succeeded where previous tablets had failed due to its focus on user interface.  The concept for the iPad had been around for nearly a decade before Steve Jobs decided it was ready from a user interface point of view.  He knew that a truly revolutionary tablet couldn’t just have a functional keyboard; it had to have a keyboard that could be good enough to replace a traditional keyboard.  It couldn’t simply be light and flat; it had to be so light that users wouldn’t mind holding it for extended periods of time.

User interface also applies to system of systems that compose Apple’s products.  The individual devices are great on their own, but what really keeps and holds customers is an understanding that different Apple products are expected to simply work well with each other.  It doesn’t matter if the user is a teenager trying to make absolutely sure she can get to her latest Miley tracks no matter whether she’s at home, in the minivan, or at school (tsk.) or if the user is a professional photographer using Apple products to manage complex, data-sensitive workflows.  It just has to work.

What can Defense Acquisition Do?
– Support early human factors engineering and human systems integration (see chapter 6), disciplines meant to ensure the people of a system are considered when the systems is being developed.

– Focus less on technical requirements and more on detailed use cases that take into account actual human characteristics and limitations.  Require test and evaluation to use actual humans in prototype systems; avoid simulations where feasible.

– Invest in better web/software interface design.  Has anyone tried updating their TSP enrollment on MyPay?  It’s lots of fun.

(2) It’s About the Software

As a quick glance at the latest technology marketing quickly shows, the competition between mobile devices is not just about hardware – it’s about the apps. Even before iPhone and iPad, Apple distinguished itself from other computer companies by consistently producing great interfaces in its operating systems and by offering simple but powerful programs guaranteed to work with their base platforms.

Apple has made some difficult decisions in the past, most notably with regard to their exclusion of multitasking in earlier iPhone models and more recently barring flash from the iPad.  If sales are any measure, then these decisions were wise.  Apple understood that it was better to offer customers a product guaranteed to function to the high standards of their other products than to try to cram in too many capabilities.

What can Defense Acquisition Do?
– Restrict requirements creep.  If a platform was badly planned from the beginning, kill it and forge a new path rather than band-aid hopeless technology.

– Develop more in-house software competency.  The Army’s Apps 4 Army Challenge is a great idea, but why isn’t there a permanent pool of software geniuses ready to build great software for the military?  DoD is finally getting the message that it needs to recruit crack coders to combat cybersecurity threats, but those same capabilities are needed to build more benign software for weapons and information systems.

(3) Connect Management and Leadership

Managers keeps the cogs of an organization turning; they make sure people get paid, disputes are resolved, and discipline is levied.  Leaders, on the other hand, inspire change through vision.  Apple CEO Steve Jobs gets leadership.  He is as comfortable speaking in broad, glowing terms about a new product as he is answering personal emails about technical details at 2AM in the morning. His vision permeates his company and his products (or as Simon Sinek explains, Apple employees all start off by answering “why?” before they get to the “what?” and “how?” of products).  Of course, Steve Jobs the man is not Apple; he is only the current incarnation of what the company represents.  But from that company, consumers can continually expect consistent products, delivered on time and up to the standards it sets for itself.

What can Defense Acquisition Do?

– Establish a program manager earlier during development.  Program managers are given overall responsibility for programs’ cost, schedule, and budget.  They are supposed to make critical design decisions, but they don’t take over programs until after most important requirements are set.  This structure disconnects program managers from the “why” of their programs and incentivizes them to manage only, not to lead.  Program managers should at the very least be given a seat at the table during pre-acquisition phases of development.

What Else?

Defense Secretary Gates has been repeatedly applauded for his efforts to reform Defense Acquisition.  But then again, didn’t Secretaries RumsfeldCohen, and Perry all try their hands at “reform”?  Change defines leadership, so maybe continuous attempts at reform reflect constant improvement.  But in the technology sector, Apple seems to consistently represent as close to a sure thing as has been seen in consumer electronics.  Are the two industries too different to compare, or might there be principles that apply to both?

What else can Defense Acquisition learn from others’ successes?  Leave your ideas in the comments.

Posted on 6 Jul 2010


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Biometrics on the Front Lines

When it comes to the counterinsurgency (COIN) directive of protecting the populace by separating the insurgents from the people, there is no better technology to achieve this end state than biometrics. Coalition forces can use biometrics to separate friendly locals in their Areas of Responsibility (AORs) from seasonal insurgents and to conclusively identify known Taliban. Unfortunately, although this technology is highly conducive to achieving COIN directives, and is one of the most effective methods of removing IED makers from the battle space, it remains one of the most underutilized systems in Afghanistan.

Although there are several biometric systems in theater, most Coalition forces use the Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment (HIIDE) device and the Biometric Automated Toolset (BAT) to collect an enrollee’s iris, fingerprints and photograph. The HIIDE is a battery-operated handheld device that is utilized in a tactical environment, whereas the BAT requires fixed power and is likely to be found at an Entry Control Point (ECP) or Port of Entry (POE). These systems are issued and maintained throughout theater by Task Force Biometrics (TFB), a forward element which is overseen by Program Manager Biometrics (PMB) located in the United States.

After an individual’s biometrics are collected, they are sent to the Advanced Biometric Identification System (ABIS) database in the United States where they are analyzed against a database of latent fingerprints that have been taken from IEDs, weapons, documents or other items that originated from suspected Taliban sources. If an enrollment matches a latent print, the identity of the individual will be linked to that match and the individual will be added to the Watch List. The Watch List is updated on a weekly basis and has five different alert levels, with Level One being Joint Priority Effects List (JPEL) vetted targets, such as known IED makers, who can be detained immediately. The other Watch List levels are used to identify personnel who have been banned from ISAF facilities or are otherwise of interest. Once an individual is on the Watch List, Coalition forces can track his movement through the battle space by using tracking reports.

While the design of the data architecture makes biometrics very conducive to CIED and other intelligence-related operations, its untapped potential in Afghanistan lies in its role as a non-kinetic weapons system that can potentially restrict insurgent freedom of movement and deprive them of safe haven and hiding in plain site among the peaceful. In addition to storing the Watch List, both BATs and HIIDEs are capable of storing a local database consisting solely of personnel enrolled within a unit’s AOR. The BAT is excellent for keeping track of local nationals who come on and off a Forward Operating Base (FOB) or who belong to partnered units, but the HIIDE can allow Soldiers in the field to determine with a ten second iris scan whether or not a local national belongs in the area. Culturally speaking, Afghans love having their pictures taken and having a picture of themselves – the card, not an officially recognized identification card, still provides a sense of identity that the average Afghan citizen does not possess. BATs and HIIDEs can be used to print identification cards for local nationals that can be tailored by units for specific villages or districts within their AORs. These identification cards have proven to be very popular among the Afghans throughout the theater.

When properly executed, a biometric-oriented mission can enable the battle space owner to conclusively identify the peaceful local population, empower the local leadership and develop good will between local nationals and coalition forces. During a shura, a commander can explain how the biometric enrollment procedures will work and request permission to conduct an enrollment session where the village elders are responsible for identifying the people belonging to their village and having them get enrolled. When the cards are printed, they will be returned to the village elders who will then issue them to their people. By doing this, the authority of the village elders is emphasized in each step of the process and the commander now has a way to identify the peaceful population that belongs in the village. In the future, if a Soldier comes across someone claiming to be a local villager who does not have the identification card and is not registering in the local database on the HIIDE, the Soldier immediately knows to bring the individual to the elders for identification. The ability to conduct quick and conclusive identity checks is critical, especially when a unit is new to an AOR and still becoming familiar with its surroundings and its locals.

This technique is called Civil Census Engagement and has been successfully used in Afghanistan to help stabilize villages and shut off other bases of support for insurgents. Restricting freedom of movement and inhibiting the insurgents’ ability to blend in with the local populace will be critical in achieving victory in Afghanistan, and biometrics permits Coalition forces to do just that without endangering or aggravating the peaceful population. In the next article of this series, I will examine additional uses of biometrics to promote COIN objectives as well as some of the reasons that it has not been utilized to its full capacity in theater.

Posted on 23 Jun 2010

Photo: flickr

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Enterprise 2.0: Secure Social Software Would Save Lives in Combat

Blake Hall recently spoke about emerging Enterprise 2.0 technologies and their potential military applications at the 140 Conference in Washington, D.C. Here’s the transcript of his talk.

My name is Blake Hall and I am one of the co-founders of TroopSwap and a recent graduate of Harvard Business School.  Prior to grad school, I was an Army Captain, an Airborne Ranger qualified officer and I led a reconnaissance platoon of twenty-four scouts and five snipers during a deployment to Iraq from July 2006 through September 2007.  For the last two years, I have worked for European Command as a member of the Army Reserve and I just resigned my commission six days ago.  I’m looking forward to not getting a hair cut for a very long time.

I was invited here today to speak about Enterprise 2.0 and the military and I am going to lean heavily on my experiences as a platoon leader to do just that.  I was a platoon leader for thirty months, so it is as a platoon leader that I have the deepest knowledge of the challenges facing service members on the front lines and how Enterprise 2.0 can address those challenges.

Andrew McAfee, who coined the term Enterprise 2.0, defined Enterprise 2.0 as “the use of emergent social software platforms by organizations in pursuit of their goals.”  I will unpack that definition later, but the key word in that statement is emergent because it means that management does not impose structure on its employees, rather it means allowing employees to define their own structure over time.

In practice, Enterprise 2.0 means giving up control.  And giving up control is a scary proposition for military leaders.  But I am going to relate two stories that illustrate why the military needs Enterprise 2.0 platforms right now.

There is a neighborhood in central Baghdad, called Dora, that was so dangerous in 2007 that it was called Al-Qaida’s Alamo by the Washington Post.  I had never, and hopefully will never, see a place quite like it.  There was no running water in the neighborhood, no functioning markets, the sewage system had been destroyed by bombs so there was standing sewage in the street and the insurgents in the neighborhood imposed an atmosphere of fear and hopelessness that was so thick it was almost tangible.  The unit charged with establishing security didn’t have enough men to secure the neighborhood, so they asked my unit for help and we said yes.

Here is where things get problematic.  With two units operating in the same area, you basically have two separate organizations charged with a common goal – but reporting information to separate commands.  There is an urgent need for coordination in that arrangement between the two organizations.  So whenever the other unit received information or observed an attack, they were supposed to call my unit or transmit the information via a secure e-mail network and we would reciprocate.  Or so the theory went.

During the late hours of July 6th 2007, Al-Qaida militants attacked an Iraqi Army base in Dora from the rooftop of a nearby building.  The other unit received the report.  But they didn’t pass along the information to my unit.  The next afternoon, I walked up to our operations center with another platoon leader and we got a full rundown on what had happened the night before – except for the attack on the base.

The other platoon leader, my friend, needed to set up his men to observe a street in Dora and, in a stroke of very bad luck, he decided to use the same rooftop the Al-Qaida militants had used the night before.  An Iraqi Army private standing watch saw movement on the rooftop.  It was dark, he was nervous and he assumed the men on the roof were Al-Qaida insurgents returning to attack the base again.  He fired a burst from his AK-47 and an American soldier was seriously wounded.

When I was exposed to Enterprise 2.0 concepts, I immediately realized their implications for this type of scenario.  The two units could have used a secure common social software platform.  By granting users from both units access to the platform, there would have been little need for point-to-point communication unless the report left out key details.  In that case, anyone reading the report could pick up the phone, talk to the author of the report, and then edit the content on the platform appropriately.

I picture this alternative reality.  Upon logging in to our secure account, my friend and I would have received an alert from our RSS feeds notifying us of the enemy attacks in Dora that had been posted to the database since we had last checked.  We would have known about the attack and my friend could have used Google’s PageRank software to search the database to see if that building had been used by Al-Qaida for previous attacks.  Even better, if we had a secure military Twitter, we could follow platoon leaders from the other unit and maybe we would have seen, “AQI blasted the Iraqi base last night, stay clear, the IA are nervous!”

Systems that rely on point to point communication can fail to communicate the information leaders on the ground need to keep their men alive because coordination is difficult and because staff officers who don’t patrol very often might not realize how crucial a particular report is to a platoon leader who knows the neighborhood intimately.  Awash in administrative tasks, they delay the knowledge transfer and leaders go out on combat patrols ignorant of vitally important context.

Ronald Burt termed these information gaps “structural holes” in his influential book appropriately titled Structural Holes.    Burt had a flair for titles.  He defined these holes as “a separation between nonredundant contacts.”   Filling the structural hole in this case may have prevented a serious injury.

The second story deals with applications of Enterprise 2.0 that help the military capture bad guys.  I was walking out to my platoon before a patrol when I happened to pass the battalion intelligence officer.   He said, “Hey Blake, we have some intel that Al Qaida is using a mosque in Baghdad.  The mosque is serving as a kind of brokerage that matches up refugee families fleeing from the violence with abandoned homes in the Baghdad in exchange for their allegiance to Al-Qaida.  I’d appreciate it if you could check into that while you’re out.”

Three hours later, I had captured two Al-Qaida militants because of that tip.  And I can’t help but wonder how many more of those opportunities I missed because I didn’t happen to pass the battalion intelligence officer on my way out to my men.  Why is this the case?

The current reporting system is so inefficient I am tempted to term it with a few select words that have no place in a forum such as this.

After each patrol, and I led over four hundred of them in Iraq, I had to write a one to two page patrol report in Microsoft Word complete with pictures and detailed geographic locations.  I submitted these patrol reports to the intelligence section in my unit and I almost never heard anything back.  The report was deposited in a secure share drive that was nearly impossible to navigate even if I had time to do so.

The information flowed one way.  Up.  At each level, an analyst or commander made a decision to kill the report, to distill a small part of it into a powerpoint bullet, or to filter out anything that might reflect negatively on the commander.

For an organization charged with defending freedom, there is very little democracy in the information collection, analysis and distribution process.

I can’t articulate how frustrating and helpless I felt after I spent an hour writing a report following an exhausting patrol in 100 plus degree heat when those reports did little to directly benefit me or my peers.  Furthermore, there is no online coordination of the offline world.  That is, it was so difficult to access my peer’s reports, that I didn’t do so using technology.  I might catch them eating dinner at the base cafeteria and glean some insights there.

But information sharing was fragmented and ad-hoc.

An incredible amount of knowledge was lost every day.   And when units rotate home at least once every year an incredible amount of institutional memory and history locked in the brains of the men and women in that unit leaves with them.  We know from the data that units suffer their heaviest casualties during the first two weeks of their combat deployment.  What a shame.  What a shame that we haven’t created a platform to store and to distribute this life-saving information.

How can Enterprise 2.0 change this paradigm?  Imagine that an Iraqi informant told me the name of the Al-Qaida commander for central Baghdad let’s call him Abu Ali.  Instead of a word document, I could access a secure blog and search for the keywords Abu Ali and Al-Qaida.  After hitting search, three other patrol reports written by authors – and not just platoon leaders mind you – from outside my unit turn up different informants that name Abu Ali as the Al-Qaida commander for central Baghdad.  I could read their reports, gain additional context, link to their content in my report, use a Google Maps mashup as well as digital pictures to illustrate the location of the source and the Al Qaida target, tag the report with Al Qaida, Source, Baghdad and Abu Ali and upload the report for posterity, use an RSS feed to notify the intelligence section and the appropriate leaders, who could then supplement my report with analyst cables and signal intercept reports on a more secure database, and then, if I wanted too, I could e-mail one of the other patrol report authors and meet them offline to plan a raid to capture the Al-Qaida target.  Now that, that would be awesome.

I’ve worked with the best special forces operators in the world so I can tell you unequivocally that tactical proficiency will only take you so far.  Information is king on today’s battlefield.  Enterprise 2.0 has the potential to save American lives on the battlefield and it has the potential to allow us to capture more Al-Qaida targets.

The military’s bottom line is measured in lives, not in dollars.  That is why the “Apps for the Army” effort that Peter Corbett is leading along with Lieutenant General Sorenson in order to get applications that perform functions like these, fielded to American servicemen and women is so important.  Please take a moment and join me in a round of applause for Peter’s efforts.  I would also like to sincerely thank Laurel Ruma, editor at O’Reilly media, for her support over the last few months.

I will leave you with a final thought.  General Petraeus, speaking about strategic leadership and his role as the commander of Allied forces in Iraq, said, “What I could do was establish the big ideas… but at a certain point that can only be an azimuth to the lieutenant, to the captain, to the sergeant, to the battalion commander… at the end of the day, they’re the ones who have to translate that into activity.”

That sounds like emergent leadership to me.  With Apps for the Army, the military is headed in the right direction.  Thank you so much for your time, it is an honor to speak in such distinguished company.

Posted on 22 Jun 2010.

cross posted at
photo: flickr/drbeachvacation

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The Thor Approach to National Security

Thorium 90In recent weeks we’ve been hearing more about the BP oil spill than national security, but Jon Stewart injected into the national consciousness a reminder that the spill and national security are deeply related.  In a Daily Show segment, he looked at the bright side of the oil spill, noting that in 2006 oil dependence “only entangled us in two simultaneous wars, but now its gotten us into two wars and a giant spill.  That’s the push we needed” to do something about oil dependence.

Stewart has good company in stressing the national security implications of oil.  Former CIA director James Woolsey has been a leader in pointing out that eight of the top nine oil exporters are dictatorships, and people living under dictatorship have been instrumental in the rise of Al Qaeda.

But identifying that oil has a big effect on national security is the easy part.  The hard part is finding a solution that doesn’t create other problems.  Iran, for example, shares our concern about oil dependence, but their solution is an ominous nuclear energy program that has given us one of our other major national security problems.

So, when President Obama spoke about the BP oil spill, the stakes for national security were high.  The president, who promised in his inaugural address to “restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders“, seemed to foreshadow that he had an answer.  He mentioned that his Secretary of Energy won a Nobel Prize in Physics.  He dismissed doubts as to whether we would prevail by noting that “The same thing was said about our ability to harness the science and technology to land a man safely on the surface of the moon”.  One could imagine a 2010 version of JFK’s announcement of the moon program.

What came to mind for me was nuclear reactors based on the element thorium.  When the president said “we don’t yet know precisely how we’re going to get there” I wasn’t discouraged; I’m not sure either that thorium reactors will work.  But there was no lightning bolt from Thor and no mention of thorium.  But the president did say that he’s “happy to look at other ideas and approaches”, and several bills are going through Congress to make a major effort to develop thorium reactors.

Thorium is a radioactive element with some ideal properties as a nuclear fuel.  It is plentiful, produces little waste, and reportedly “it would be virtually impossible for the byproducts of a thorium reactor to be used by terrorists or anyone else to make nuclear weapons”.  Our nuclear energy efforts turned away from thorium decades ago because “Hyman Rickover, de facto head of the US nuclear program, wanted the plutonium from uranium-powered nuclear plants to make bombs”.

Thorium is the path not taken.  It was too clean for an era in which we wanted more bombs.  The world is very different today.

If thorium reactors do provide nuclear energy that is safe, clean and inexpensive, we can wean ourselves from oil.  The Iranian people, who overwhelmingly back their government’s efforts to modernize through nuclear energy, could be offered the choice to join the new thorium effort, or have their government unmasked as seeking a bomb.

Thorium reactors are an engineering project with an uncertain result, just like the moon project decades ago.  But a serious effort in this direction, coupled with an offer to share technology with others, will send two important messages.  One message will be to people in countries like Iran, saying that we will help them enter the future that they say they desire.  The second message will be to oil producers, warning those who hold back oil that its value may be undercut by our efforts to “wield technology’s wonders”.

Posted: 21 Jun 2010

Atomic Age Redux: Bring Back the Nuclear Cargo Ship

Nuclear Ship Savannah

Nuclear Ship Savannah

This is the first time that I’m talking about this subject sober. Generally it comes up when I get into an impassioned explanation after a few glasses of wine, a nice dinner, in well, ahem “permissive” company. You see, despite my cover as a staid businesswoman, I have a secret passion. And that passion is for nuclear-powered cargo ships.

I have not only tortured my friends, relatives, and long-suffering husband, but I’ve written many letters to my elected representatives. I’ve so far received numerous courteous responses on the importance of energy reform, and in one notable case, thanking me for my interest in animal testing  (thanks George Allen!)

Before I go further, let me take a step back and explain. I was researching the architecture of cargo ships (let’s not get into why) and I discovered NS Savannah, one of four nuclear-powered cargo ships ever built (only one, Russian-built, is still in operation). It turns out that they were incredibly time and energy-efficient and safe, but far too costly for widespread production. Cargo ships in general are enormously expensive, and many fleets use old ships and perform minimal maintenance instead of purchasing newer vessels (as any West Wing fan well knows).

Until very recently, nuclear power, in addition to being wildly unpopular in the United States, was just unfeasible economically. However, since the project was abandoned by our government, the world has changed, and there are three key reasons to adopt them (among other, less significant ones):

1)      Homeland Security

2)      Environmental Impact

3)      Economic Potential

1) Homeland Security

America owns very little of its civilian shipping. This means that goods shipped to American soil, used by Americans are transported there, by and large, on vessels owned by foreign nations with crews made up of non-Americans.

These tons upon tons of freight are transported through customs, into American ports and toward American consumers with only the smallest percentage adequately inspected for potential risk. Explosives, biological agents, and other threats are difficult to defend against with our limited level of scrutiny, due not to the inefficiency of inspectors, but the sheer volume of containers.

The largest container ships can hold 15,200 containers. Any attempt at an effective search of these is complicated not just by the number, but also the logistics of the tightly packed cargo. Verifying the entire contents against the manifest is a sheer impossibility—and now multiply that by thousands of ships each day. Given the small amount of explosive or biological agent necessary to cause wholesale destruction, it is a situation worse than searching for a needle in a haystack, it would be like seeking a specific microbe on that needle.

I’m not suggesting that American ships and crews would completely solve this issue, but the lax international guidelines on crew hiring, and maintenance for ships creates a significant security hole for terrorists to slip through. How much damage could be done if a single container processed through New York’s harbor was carrying a biological agent? What would be the economic repercussions if the contents of a ship were to disable the port in Portland or Boston?

2) Environmental Impact

I think that it’s clear to most that our dependency on fossil fuels, and specifically on oil, is unsustainable. We are stuck between two hard choices, one is to risk the significant adverse effects involved in deep-sea or Alaskan drilling, and the other is to pay enormous sums of money to Arab nations, putting us at their economic and industrial mercy.

Nuclear power is remarkably clean, it is also efficient, and fast.  Nuclear-powered ships cross the ocean in half or even a third of the time of conventional vessels, do not require the vast amount of oil (or transport of oil) of traditional ships, and in the event of crash, the environmental impact, instead of oil spills, is limited to used nuclear cores, around which sufficient safety measures have already been constructed for extant nuclear-powered ships.

3) Economic Potential

And now what makes this plan palatable in the current climate. Shipyards in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia have been grinding to a halt for the last 20 years, and the same scene is repeated all over the country. Industrial jobs in ship-building, as well as other types of industrial manufacture s are disappearing as consumers require fewer products, and buy cheaper ones from abroad.

Here America has a clear advantage, nuclear-powered civilian ships have only been produced by four nations: Russia (one cargo ship, and some icebreakers), Japan (one ship, never used to carry cargo), Germany (one, later refitted for diesel) and the U.S. (our friend the Savannah).

We build nuclear-powered ships for the navy—aircraft carriers and submarines spring to mind—so the technology is currently in use, and available. What would be necessary is a re-fit of factories, currently lying fallow, and design firms,  creating jobs for Americans in not just manufacturing, but research and development, two more sustainable fields.

I could go on, and on (and I have), but it seems clear that nuclear-powered cargo ships are worth exploring. Certainly worth some of the TARP money, which is currently propping up enfeebled banks.  They could create new industry, reduce our environmental impact, and help safeguard our shores.


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The Military as an Innovation Source: Combining Cutting-Edge Technology with Local Knowledge

Innovation involves utilizing existing or new technology in previously unknown ways.  Assuming this requires both physical technology and the local application of that technology, militaries can be major domestic sources of innovation by possessing local knowledge along with the funding and technology needed for massive R&D efforts; this can best be realized by partnering with large-scale organizations such as universities.

Militaries often possess a significant amount of cutting-edge technology in transportation, telecommunications, arms, and other infrastructure.  Soldiers are trained to use such technology and often have a high amount of human capital in many fields.  Militaries are also uniquely positioned for partnerships with other well-resourced organizations such as multinational organizations and major foreign militaries; this provides an avenue for direct technology transfer and associated high-tech training and support.  Further, soldiers operate in risky environments that force them to innovate by using all available means to accomplish their goal when surprises arise, as they often do during battles and training.  Thus, soldiers experience unique circumstances in new locations while using fairly advanced technology, which demands critical brainstorming to innovate on a regular basis.

Militaries often have large amounts of personnel.  If they were conducting socioeconomic development activities as outlined in my previous post, or if they had numerous bases around the nation, soldiers will probably be dispersed throughout the country.  They have the transportation/mobilization capabilities and the security training to operate virtually anywhere in the country.  Further, assuming they are somewhat representative, militaries contain citizens from throughout the countryside with experience from a variety of different local conditions.  Therefore, although militaries are a large-scale organization, they tend to possess a significant amount of local knowledge as well.

Large-scale organizations, as measured by money available and by ability to possess or work with cutting-edge technology, are a main source of building on existing technology, possessing the scale and the fixed capital necessary.  Such large-scale organizations include large firms, think tanks, and universities.  This blog will observe universities in particular, but similar ideas are applicable to other large-scale organizations.  Universities are some of the biggest sources of innovation due to a steady source of skilled, diverse, and often entrepreneurial manpower (students) to brainstorm and experiment on developing new technologies, knowledge of current cutting-edge technologies and how they work, and much funding available specifically meant for R&D.

Local knowledge applies cutting-edge technologies to make them locally useful.  Militaries do not have a comparative advantage in focusing many efforts towards R&D—they need to train for security first and foremost.  However, militaries can join universities in a mutually beneficial partnership to produce relevant cutting-edge technologies and spread them out to adapt them to specific environments.  Militaries can be a large source of R&D funding in universities; for example, the U.S. military is one of the biggest funders of R&D at MIT.  Also, although universities already have some level of local knowledge from their diverse student body, it may be beneficial for some soldiers to join in R&D efforts to offer their experiences throughout the country while using the technology in risky environments; this will add to local knowledge and provide ideas for innovation.  Further, although students may not able to implement this technology throughout the countryside, militaries often possess the manpower and capabilities to do so in unique ways.

To ensure this innovation is utilized in ways that maximize development, rather than keeping it solely for their own benefit, militaries should be encouraged to share this technology with civilians in the countryside and offer them training.  One way to achieve this is through a new socioeconomic mandate for the military.  Another indirect means of achieving this is by offering incentives for turnover of soldiers into civilians to maximize the amount of civilians with high-tech training.  This should be combined with efforts by universities to market and promote the new technology to the private sector.

Much of the R&D efforts will be tailored towards technology that may be only useful for the military; for example, it is not clear that innovations in arms, heavy machinery, and other battle-related technology directly contribute to development.  However, aspects of these products will likely advance technology in other areas that will only be recognized based on pre-existent local knowledge and a knowledge of current cutting-edge technology in other areas.  Certain radar systems in helicopters may be applicable to new innovations in telecommunications in certain locations, for example.  Further, if militaries had a socioeconomic mission complementary to their traditional security mission, they will be much more likely to fund R&D that also focuses on socioeconomic-related technology.


WikiLeaks: An exercise in free press or endangering US troops?

On Monday, 5 April, the whistleblower site WikiLeaks caused uproar when they posted a video from an Apache patrol from 12 July 2007, in New Baghdad. In the subsequent firing from attack aviation, two local Reuters employees, Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh, were killed. The US Government (USG) has not denied the authenticity of the footage. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange reported that the video was provided by government sources to WikiLeaks.

I applaud WikiLeaks for exercising the first amendment and playing a vital role in checks and balances in the United States. Though, in their attempt to uncover the “indiscriminate slaying” of the crowd of Iraqi men, they are now endangering service members currently deployed to Iraq. In addition to the ongoing string of bombings in reaction to the parliamentary election in March, more fuel has been added to the fire.

I am a big supporter of Amy Goodman and her independent media outlet Democracy Now!. In fact, I flocked to Columbia University’s auditorium Tuesday night to see her speak as part of the conference Facing the Fracture. Though I am disappointed that she failed to note the pattern of on-the-ground threats in the area and how this affects the operating capacity of these combat pilots. Dr. Bret A. Moore, a former Army psychologist noted that the neighborhood was contested and the assumed threat of a shoot down was very high. In the end, one of the men shot in the video was in fact carrying a RPG (rocket-propelled grenade), which had it fired, would have downed the Apache in seconds.

Independent journalist Rick Rowley essentially excused two of the Iraqi men in the group, for arming themselves with automatic rifles. During his interview with Democracy Now! he stated that since it was during a time of civil war, it is justified for Iraqis to carry AK-47s, in what he previously called a peaceful neighborhood of refugees.  In my view, the quelling of violence in Iraq will be largely dependent on Iraqis laying down their arms, despite their fears of instability. In addition, the economy won’t get the boost it vitally needs until the rifles are kept out of the marketplaces.

Upon my initial screening of the Apache footage, it was apparent to me why there was such a strong public reaction. The pilots were clearly heard on the audio laughing. To the outsider not familiar with the psyche in war, it seems that these combat pilots were actually delighted to pull the trigger. I laud Benedict Carey for writing in the New York Times about the psychological distancing necessary for combat soldiers to complete their missions. In fact, it is essential for the soldiers not to be overly emotional during moments of intense decision-making. Over the years, the American public has turned their back on the strain war causes, focusing instead on the isolated failures. At our computers now, we have the luxury of replay and fresh eyes. To the overworked, sleep-deprived attack aviation pilot, the threat was present, and in line with their training, they took the actions necessary to ensure their safety.

As Nancy Scola addresses, Reuters hit a wall when approaching the USG for the helicopter footage, citing the Freedom of Information Act. The line is unclear regarding civilian access to information that details ongoing combat operations and US tactics. The US military fervently defended the Apache pilots as engaging with a hostile force. The Reuters investigation claimed the men were innocent non-combatants. A game of he said, she said, ensues. Currently, the USG does not have plans for reopening the case for further investigation.

If anything, this video should give more insight into the stresses of a 3rd, 4th, or 5th combat deployment.  Attack aviation spots a military-age male through their scope, mounting a medium-sized object on their shoulder- what are they to think?  Had this been a different circumstance and had they hesitated, we may be watching videos of the Apache in flames on the ground with jubilant Iraqi men dragging the burnt corpse of the pilot through the street. This is not a hawkish statement in an attempt to write off this tragedy. The reality is that the fog of war does not allow one to see every detail. The number one priority is survival. To point out black dots on footage after the fact and call the pilots indiscriminate murderers is not just. If being a combat pilot were an easy job, couldn’t we all do it?