Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Danger Room Debrief: How to do Defense, When the Money's Gone

This is the fifth of our Wired Danger Room Debriefs, where we ask smart folks in the military, intelligence, and homeland defense fields to outline some under-the-radar security issues -- and point the way towards potential, often-unorthodox solutions.

John Robb, a software entrepreneur and former Air Force special operations pilot. He is the author of Brave New War.

The current global economic and financial meltdown may yet become something worse: a protracted global depression. As with the last century's Depression, which spawned fascism and WWII, it could recast the world at a fundamental level. As such, it may soon represent our biggest security challenge in over 50 years. Here's what a global depression means:

* A proliferation of hollow nation-states globally. Rampant financial bankruptcy -- the double digit percentage growth in the U.S. national debt late this year bode danger here. Entrenched corruption -- think government employees unused to financial deprivation not getting paid except by graft. An inability to govern territory and a general loss of legitimacy. A global swiss cheese effect from Mexico to Pakistan, where thousands of small holes in the global security system appear with rapidity.

* A rapid increase in the number and power of criminal guerilla groups that will challenge nation-states. These groups will flourish within the ungoverned spaces that emerge, particularly in urban areas and even within the U.S. The combination of access to global markets, rapidly improving technology, and new methods of warfare mean that these groups will be ascendant militarily until successful strategies emerge to counter them.

* Worst of all, these criminal guerrilla groups (collectively known as global guerrillas) will be able to generate wealth via transnational criminal networks and control political services to local populations (through both disruption and parasitically draining national infrastructures), gaining legitimacy that nation-states will not be able to provide. This means that these groups will not only emerge quickly, they will grow stronger over time.

Unfortunately, the U.S. will be forced to navigate this dangerous environment with a small fraction of its former resources. The endless defense budgets of the last century are gone. Which means the development of the new strategies -- not new gear -- to fight this chaotic and complex panoply of non-state foes will become the seminal security challenge of our time.

Can it be accomplished? It remains to be seen whether a transition from the legacy mindset of 20th Century defense to the new environment can be accomplished. The array of financial incentives, political interests, and bureaucratic inertia arrayed against it are staggering.

Signs that we are on the right track include:

1. A radical reduction in hideously-expensive weapons systems and dreams of automated warfare (i.e. the Future Combat System), geared towards fighting an increasingly-unikely great power war.

2. A rapid increase in investments geared towards improving nation-state legitimacy. We need an array of technologies and processes that both support the construction of resilient communities. And we need the means to train, manage, and control (or punish, if the need arises) the militias/paramilitaries that will blanket the global landscape.

3. A move towards much more flexible military platforms and systems that can be rapidly configured to provide tactical, operational, and strategic advantage.

What does a flexible military platform mean? Due to budget constraints, we are going to see a much greater reliance on civilian hardware, software, and standards of interconnectivity. To prevent chaos from the influx of off the shelf hardware and software, the military will need to develop platforms that enable all of this externally derived hardware/software to interconnect and act synergistically. Further, with this platform in place, these technologies can be rapidly and inexpensively stitched together through ad hoc systems design to precisely meets the needs of the emerging situation to generate success.

Here's an example of ad hoc systems design. Let's say there's a perceived need by a deployed unit to track interactions with local militias (dozens are operating in its area). Rather than wait years for a centralized solution, the unit builds a simple Web application that operates in a way similar to a civilian sales tracking application (in fact, many of the components used are from the civilian sector). This new system is quick to deploy and it allows the unit to capture data on every interaction with militia members and track progress. If the system used simple Internet standards for data sharing, the system can be updated, connected, extended, and shared very easily. In an age of scarcity, that's the approach we have to take.

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