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Driving in the Dark

A while ago I made some comments on Richard Danzig’s CNAS piece, Driving in the Dark.  It had been my intention to follow-up that post quickly, but as often happens, other demands rose to the top of the stack.  For the sake of completeness, I wanted to follow up with some additional thoughts on the second part of his paper.

The second half of Danzig’s paper is normative – it provides prescriptions for how to cope with uncertainty and the foreknowledge that prediction about the future are more than likely to be wrong.  His advice is sound but likely at odds with the existing institutional structure of the Department of Defense (DOD) and larger national security establishment (e.g. the Congress).  Danzig’s five recommendations are:

  • Accelerate tempo – and delay some decisions;
  • Increase the agility of production processes;
  • Prioritize equipment that is most adaptable
  • Build more for the short term
  • Nurture diversity; create competition.

When viewed as a whole, Danzig’s recommendations are essentially ecological or evolutionary in nature.  His objective is to increase the extent to which the DOD employs its resources to ‘explore’ rather than ‘exploit’ the international environment.  In doing so, this means emphasizing the ability make decisions faster, with far lower overhead in administrative, political, and industrial terms.  The DOD’s objectives should be to purist of generic capabilities and platforms that can be quickly modified for specific environments, rather than long, cumbersome development and acquisition cycles to provide niche capabilities that are at their best when predictions about the future hold true, but may have little utility under different circumstances.

At their core, these recommendations emphasize evolutionary or adaptive processes over more traditional analytic/engineering ones.  In a sense, Danzig’s advice is to reject the notion of optimality, arguing that there is too much uncertainty about the environment – one’s capabilities and goals, the identity and goals of future rivals, as well as their capabilities and the context within interactions will occur – to base any significant wager with respect to policy and even the technologies that undergird military force structure.  Instead, he urges the rapid development of effective but essentially disposable equipment, that can be replaced rapidly as new information updates decision-makers’ understanding of strategic and military needs.  Rather than develop platforms that they last decades, Danzig wishes them to be replaced on much faster time cycles.  Just as in biology, each generation of replacement provides the best opportunities to introduce new innovations (mutations or novel combinations of genes in the offspring of parents) into the military.

Danzig’s push for an adaptive and resilient military may be more important, and difficult, than realized.  As global networks become increasingly thick, the idea of military operations conducted in isolation against individual adversaries seems anachronistic.  Instead, every operation, regardless of its target, will be subject to the eyes and ears of allies, adversaries, rivals, and neutral parties.  These parties may share observations and information, piecing together the technical and operational details of US weapons and doctrine.  The likely result is a rapidly shifting environment with constant evolutionary pressures, making it nearly impossible to employ the same strategies and capabilities repeatedly.  Thus, Danzig likely understates the importance of adaptability in the international system, because operational and technical dominance will be increasingly difficult to sustain in the face of networked actors that constantly gather and share information.

The problem that Danzig does not fully address, although given his prior responsibilities likely understands, is the fact that organizations push for standardization in order ensure consistent and predictable behavior.  Rapidly changing technology and doctrine may indeed be necessary given strategic realities and uncertainty, but precisely how to train and equip a large organization sitting atop an ever changing mixture of doctrine and capabilities will not be a trivial problem to solve.

The likely remedy to this problem is one that is also a difficult one to accept – keeping a portion of the force permanently mobilized and engaged with rivals to ensure that evolutionary feedback is constant and that significant experience is embedded in operational units to allow for operational adaptation and learning as a group without.  This may not necessarily mean constant warfare, but it may mean protracted deployments that include foreign internal defense and training, liaison work, etc., with the primary goal to be maintaining our own information edge and awareness of rivals’ behaviors and capabilities.  The so called movement away from symphonies following the same sheet of music describing large bureaucratic military organizations may be replaced by the metaphor of improvisational jazz, but the players will need to work together and practice for long periods in order to understand and follow one another’s cues, and replacing parts will be more difficult if there is no script to follow.  If this turns out to be the case, then difficult political questions may arise about the burdens of service and the hardships of military life, unless of course much of this is simply contracted out.

The remedies described above may be extreme, but I think they may also portend the kinds of consequences that Danzig’s advice may have.  Of course, there may be few alternatives, and I am largely sympathetic, even in agreement, with him, yet I worry about the evolutionary treadmill that is implicit once prediction is deemed too unreliable to use as the basis of planning.

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