Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 11, 2009

Exploring risk through open-ended experiences

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on April 11, 2009

Dennis Blair, retired Admiral and current Director of National Intelligence, has said the economic crisis is “the primary near-term security concern” for the United States.   No surprise, makes sense. 

It would also make sense if the Treasury Department, State Department, and National Security Council — along with other political and economic agencies — are actively engaged in thinking through and dealing with future risks emerging from current efforts to manage the crisis.

What is a bit surprising — but really shouldn’t be — is proactive engagement by the mililtary in considering the global economic crisis.  According to Politico the pentagon recently hosted its first economic war game.  Eamon Javers writes, “The two-day event near Ft. Meade, Maryland, had all the earmarks of a regular war game. Participants sat along a V-shaped set of desks beneath an enormous wall of video monitors displaying economic data, according to the accounts of three participants.”

The war-game is yet another example of the US military’s aggressive, imaginative, and outside-the-box approach to learning new skills and developing new perspectives.  Especially for such a large enterprise oriented toward a command-and-control culture, the ability of the US military to reach-out, relearn, and reinvent itself is an extraordinary and – in most ways – reassuring example of human and organizational potential.

What worries me is not what the military is doing, but what others are not doing.  Newsweek reminds us that back in 1994 US Senator Bryan Dorgan — among others —  raised serious concerns regarding the long-term economic risks associated with a new type of financial swap and related derivatives.  Dorgan and the others lost in their effort to impose more transparency and a modicum of regulation on the exotic financial trades. 

In 1994 or 1996 or at anytime — simply as an exercise in risk-readiness — did one or more of our major economic agencies engage in the imaginative development of intellectual capital of the kind now being undertaken by the military?  Did someone “war-game” a worst case scenario? I don’t know, but I expect not.  Outside DOD the typical approach to risk evaluation is to commission an academic study by the usual suspects and then convene a meeting.  The results too often tend toward an echo-chamber.

In the aftermath of Vietnam a profoundly dysfunctional US military very consciously remade itself.  A big part of this renewal was to embrace self-critical and creative intellectual capital-formation.  Research, outreach, gaming, exercising, training, long-term professional development, education,  rigorously seeking and speaking the truth, and problem-solving agility have become fundamental to military culture. 

Can we confidently say the same of our economic agencies?  Of our homeland security agencies?

Postscript: Yes, yes, I know.  There are still plenty of military Catch 22’s too, but the balance — especially for such a large bureaucracy — is remarkably healthy.

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5 Comments »

Comment by Beth

April 12, 2009 @ 9:39 pm

Recognizing risk with playful exploring and thoughtful action to me is contradictory. Risks are recognized to become “risk management” to playful exploring grants and thoughtful actions by rewarding those protecting infrastructure insteadof compensating, thanking, honoring, respecting and including in statistical data those who risked their life as a WTC federal responder, Vietnam Veteran and certainly not included in the “reassuring example of human and organizational potential”? by way of grant or grave?
In 1994 -1996 a little pre-historical why not 2001 – 2008 a little more current?

Why has the government, DHS, military, etc ignored all those Vietnam Veterans, Gulf War Veterans, etc who have died, sick, exposed to both Agent Orange, dioxins, carcinogens and WTC dust if so “remarkably healthy”?

Comment by Quin

April 13, 2009 @ 9:08 am

What we may be seeing is the beginnings of what may be our “5th generation” of warfare. Since the British burned Washington, D.C. in the War of 1812, there has never been an opportunity for our foes to strike directly at us until the last decade. Even the Japanese and Germans, after we bombed their major cities into ruin, were left launching hot air ballons with explosives, or daydreaming of using V-2 rockets towed across the Atlantic by U-Boats. No more. And its not terrorists hijacking planes either.

Napoleon once tried to build a tunnel under the Channel into England. His idea was right, but the technology wasn’t advanced enough until 180 years or so later. Now that tunnel that couldn’t be built across the English Channel, has now been dug, virtually, across the Atlantic and the Pacific into the U.S. Much like the Aliens who tie themselves into organs of humans in the movie, making it impossible to kill them without killing their host, we are inexorably tied into the internet. As the Chinese having been learning for a decade, our entire way of life depends on this virtual highway. This blog, our electric grid, our financial sector, pretty much everything we do has latched on to this spectacular invention. But the downside is that our infrastructure is no longer protected by the moats that are the Pacific and the Atlantic. There is no virtual moat. Compounding that is our reliance on space based communications, vulnerable to any power with the ability to reach space.

So what we may be seeing here is a 5th form of war (see TX Hammes for the other 4), based upon undermining, blackmailing, disrupting, even destroying the virtual infrastructure of a country, leading to the destruction of a country’s physical infrastructure and way of life. Instead of invading this country ala Red Dawn, spearheaded by armies of the Soviet Union and Cuba in some spectacular 3rd generation battle, the same devastation, minus the immediate loss in lives and physical property, but just as, or even more deadly, the assault on this country’s ability to function as a society.

The danger arrives from at least three possible sources. One, rival nation states (such as China). Two, non-national actors who acquire these technologies and knowledge. Three, non-national actors who leverage nation states who have these abilities, to make these attacks. I think those who follow these things know it’s harder than the general public thinks to acquire or build a WMD of national or international consequence (thank God!) but I fear the (likely) dual use technologies to assault our virtual infrastructure may not be as easy to stop once our enemies make a determined move into this next battlespace.

Like it or not, this may very likely put DHS on the frontline of the next Major Theater War this county faces that actually threatens these shores (outside of an “oil/energy war” before our country moves to a strategic energy independence). It is not a war fought with F-22’s, Abrams Tanks, or even a Marine with his rifle, but it will be fought on virtual battlefields, supplemented by the occasional physical attack (or arrest if so inclined) on those propagating these attacks. So instead of our next generation of warriors idolizing Chesty Puller and George Patton, maybe we should be looking for those with a poster of Neo on their dorm room wall.

Comment by Quin

April 13, 2009 @ 10:32 am

I forgot to add that this next generation, if that’s what it is, is not merely limited to the internet. Manipulation of global financial markets can be done without any attack on physical or virtual global/national infrastructures. Additionally, many of the methods of 4th gen warfare can be used in conjunction, or in support of, this next generation. For instance, if we attempted to disable some access to our internet or financial markets through physical or legal means, our attackers could use the media to attempt to portray these actions as “capitalist” methods to further disenfranchise poorerer nations or cultures.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 14, 2009 @ 10:59 am

Learning organizations should look to WALL STREET for its history–Nial Ferguson I belive has done it well in a recent book. Because of greed and compartmentalizaton Wall Street rarely acts as a single learning organization. But does DOD?

Given the wealth of the nation poured directly and indirectly into extending the American Empire (with a bow to Chalmers Johnson)it is incredible that the citizenry of the US fails so utterly to understand how remote and unconnected most of the US military is from civilian society and its concern. Like all self-pertuating organizations its recruitment depends in part on the turmoil in the economy. What really should be documented in the current warfare is that much of the success was due to the older more experiences and more cautious National Guard deployments. Because I would argue that the Warrior culture failed us greatly. If you want to see where a warrior culture leads just looks to the 30 M people that live in the AfPak mountains. We should have forced separation of Church and STATE in Iraq and in Afghanistan and forced equal rights for women. Culture changing yes but less religion and testerone would help the world greatly. Oh and WALL STREET also.

Comment by Quin

April 15, 2009 @ 10:49 am

I would have to respectfully disagree with Bill’s assessment of older more experienced national guard troops. Exhibit one would be Abu Ghraib, carried out by poorly trained, and even more poorly led National Guard troops. Despite the large numbers of NG troops activated, they are still a smaller proportion of the force deployed. In fact, getting back to the heart of the failed intial strategy into the war in 2003, it was the older generation of leadership, buying into, or failing to question the “shock and awe” 3rd generation strategy with which we entered Iraq. The assumption was that we would roll in (which we did in history making fashion) turn over the keys to a new government which would take over the expected to continue bureaucracy, and leave. Within weeks of Saddaam’s statute falling, Gen Franks was already making plans for the withdrawal. Oops.

If anything, the change in strategy, and accompanying change in tactics, probably began with the company grade, junior officers and a few progressive commanders at the battalion level. And all were active duty military. While there is a dispute where the genesis of our new policy in Iraq (and now Afghanistan) emerged, whether it was retired General Jack Keane, a handfull of junior officers in Anbar province, the White House NSC, or some other person/place to be determined (more proof that sucess has a thousand fathers), there is no doubt that is was a younger, progressive military that implemented it. While the NG might have some characteristics that makes it amenable to COIN with its more diverse force, it was clearly the active duty that created and implemented it in force.

And as to created a secular state in Iraq and Afghanistan, that was the same star struck goals of the former administration. It would certainly be in the interests of the US if that could happen. In the case of Iraq, it has been a generally secular government for some time (even if it was at the hand of a despot). But Afghanistan, and its tribal based structure predating Alexander’s pursuit of King Darius III, hasn’t even the fledgling bureaucratic or centralized government to rule much farther than Kabul, if that. If we are waiting for the Pashtun and others to change hundreds, if not thousands of years to change their political and conflict sturcture we’ll be waiting a long, long time. But what we can do for the moment, is try to ensure it doesn’t remain a black hole in the map where extremists and terrorists can’t regroup for strikes against America and its interests, hopefully without relying too much on preferred method during the Cold War of creating too many “friendly” dictators.

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