With Air Force’s new drone, ‘we can see everything,’ in today’s Washington Post (attached below) is a good example of how the high-cost addiction to techno war is running amok. One thing ought to be clear in Afghanistan: A tiny adversary armed with the most primitive weapons, and a command and control system made up of prayer rugs and cell phones, has brought the high tech US military to a stalemate … or even worse, the looming specter a grand-strategic defeat, because we are becoming economically and morally exhausted by the futility of this war. It does not matter whether it is President Obama presiding over a vapid strategic review or a low ranking grunt on point in Afghanistan — the central problem facing the United States in Afghanistan is the absence of what the Germans call fingerspitzengefühlor the feeling in the fingerprints needed for an intuitive feel for or connection with one’s environment.
As the American strategist Colonel John Boyd (USAF Ret.) showed, fingerspitzengefühl is absolutely essential to the kind of synthetic (as opposed to analytic) thinking that is necessary for quick, relevant, and ultimately successful decision making in war, where quick decisions and sharp actions at all levels must be made and harmonized in an ever-present atmosphere of menace, uncertainty, mistrust, fear, and chaos that impedes decisive action.
To paraphrase Clausewitz, these difficulties multiply to produce a kind of friction, and therefore, even though everything in war is simple, the simplest thing is difficult. Clausewitz considered friction is the atmosphere of war. Nevertheless, according to the Post, the Air Force is about to deploy to Afghanistan a “revolutionary airborne surveillance system called Gorgon Stare, which will be able to transmit live video images of physical movement across an entire town.”
Quoting Maj. Gen. James O. Poss, the Air Force’s assistant deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, “Gorgon Stare will be looking at a whole city, so there will be no way for the adversary to know what we’re looking at, and we can see everything.” Nirvana. While the Post dutifully reports a smattering of opposing views, it misses the ramifications of the central idea epitomized by General Poss’s confident assertion: namely, how the American ideology of techno war assumes it can negate the human need for fingerspitzengefühl on a battlefield.
General Poss’s confidence suggests quite clearly he believes seeing everything enables one to know everything. This a stunning theory of knowledge. It is also a classic example of the American military’s unquestioned belief that complex technologies coupled to step-by-step analytical procedures can negate the friction of combat to solve any problem in war. Lifting the fog of war is, in fact, a phrase frequently used in contractor brochures touting the efficacy of these technologies. This reflects theory of knowledge — really an unquestioned ideology — that views war as fundamentally a procedural problem of methodical analytical thinking, as opposed to its messy reality of being in large part an art of synthetic thinking.
In that sense, it reflects a triumph of Decartes over Einstein, of method over imagination, that misses a distinction the great captains and theorists of war have intuitively sensed since the time of Sun Tzu. Clausewitz, for example, struggled to understand this analytic/synthetic distinction by invoking and defining his humanistic idea of genius as the way to overcome friction. Clausewitz’s idea of genius was inspired by his struggle understand Napoleon’s art of war. Why do I say this? Since at least the end of WWI, Americans have rigidly adhered to the seductive idea of war being a mechanical procedure. This belief has its doctrinal roots in the flawed theory of Methodical Battle propounded by the French during WWI and afterword, which led to the Maginot Line, a techno solution that failed so spectacularly in May 1940.
Over time, the Americans have linked the idea of methodical battle to the even more flawed theory that intelligence, or the ability construct a canonical picture of the battlefield, is simply an mechanistic problem of “connecting the dots.” How many times since 9-11 have you heard or seen that empty phrase? The see all-know all epistemology leads naturally to the conception of high tech sensor systems being connected to computerized decision-making templates and then coupled to precision guided weapons to quickly kill the high value targets identified by the first two links in the sequential process. The killing of high value targets (as opposed to defeating the adversary’s mind and will to resist), by the tautology inherent in the definition itself, becomes the desired outcome, and therefore reduces to self-referencing formula for victory that can be measured precisely by the attrition of those targets — and, voilà, the body count returns like phoenix rising from the ashes of Vietnam.
The logical simplicity and self-referencing nature of this conception make for a fabulously successful marketing pitch that takes the form of a modern reincarnation of the Cretan Paradox. That is, it becomes impossible to distinguish a priori between truth and falsehood of a self-referencing statement made by a Cretan when he says ‘all Cretans are liars,” unless one appeals outside the framework of the logic. But in the case of defense technologies, this is almost impossible to non-experts to appeal outside the parameters of the self-referencing argument, because they are masked by complexity and faux science.
That this kind of mechanistic self-referential thinking is now deeply embedded in the semi-concous substrata of our military mindset becomes quite evident when we listen to self-styled civilian grand-strategists, like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, when they cite platitudes about actionable intelligence, connecting the dots, and a counter-terrorism strategy focused on killing high value targets to measure success. George Bush took the absurdity to an incredible low with his silly deck of cards having faces of terrorist claimed to be the high value targets.
Think about how preposterous the situation has become: It is well established by the Defense Department’s Inspector General and the General Accounting Office of Congress that the Air Force whose leadership (among others) can not even construct a straight forward auditing system to accurately account for the the hundred of billions of dollars the taxpayer gives it to spend (such an accounting is an absolute requirement of the Constitution, which every Air Force officer has taken a sacred oath to preserve and protect). Yet the Washington Post is telling us the Air Force would have the taxpayer believe that it can spend more of the taxpayer’s money to buy technologies that will permit the Air Force to perform the far more difficult task of seeing, accounting for, and understanding everything on an ever-changing chaotic battlefield. Moreover, in this case, it is a battlefield where we face a wily adversary who, armed with primitive weapons and command and control technologies, has already brought the huge expensive hi-tech, “see all-know all” American war machine to a stalemate!
Of course, the driving factor in this madness has nothing to do with the disconnect between the military mind and its battlefield. The central fact is that the fallacies of techno-war are highly profitable for defense contractors. Moreover, given the revolving door, with its lucrative opportunities for post-retirement employment (see Brian Bender’s stunning report, From the Pentagon to the private sector, Boston Globe, 26 December 2010), few generals or colonels have an incentive to criticize these fallacies while on active duty. That these technologies do not produce success on the battlefield is of little importance to the real strategy of “don’t interrupt the money flow,” even when, as is now clearly now the case in Afghanistan, the American military faces a low-cost, lightly armed, but competent adversary who appreciates the nature of his environment and has a zealous strength of will to resist.
Only in an America, poised on the twin precipices of economic bankruptcy and cultural meltdown, has it become natural for such preposterous logic to proceed unchecked at ever increasing costs.
Chuck Spinney A brief introduction to Boyd theory of decision cycles (the OODA loop) in war can be found here, bios with more extensive discussions can be found here and here, and Boyd’s original briefings describing how to evolve an organic design for command and control to play the strategic game (i.e., including how to understand, build, and exploit a sense of fingerspitzengefühl) can be downloaded here and here.
Phi Beta Iota: The pure truth that there is no processing here, only video collection that must be viewed by a human analyst in real-time or be irrelevant forever, is the measure of this program. One analyst for each channel, 24/7. Nuts.
By Ellen Nakashima and Craig Whitlock Washington Post Staff Writers Sunday, January 2, 2011; 12:09 AM
In ancient times, Gorgon was a mythical Greek creature whose unblinking eyes turned to stone those who beheld them. In modern times, Gorgon may be one of the military’s most valuable new tools. This winter, the Air Force is set to deploy to Afghanistan what it says is a revolutionary airborne surveillance system called Gorgon Stare, which will be able to transmit live video images of physical movement across an entire town.
The system, made up of nine video cameras mounted on a remotely piloted aircraft, can transmit live images to soldiers on the ground or to analysts tracking enemy movements. It can send up to 65 different images to different users; by contrast, Air Force drones today shoot video from a single camera over a “soda straw” area the size of a building or two. With the new tool, analysts will no longer have to guess where to point the camera, said Maj. Gen. James O. Poss, the Air Force’s assistant deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. “Gorgon Stare will be looking at a whole city, so there will be no way for the adversary to know what we’re looking at, and we can see everything.”
Questions persist, however, about whether the military has the capability to sift through huge quantities of imagery quickly enough to convey useful data to troops in the field. Officials also acknowledge that Gorgon Stare is of limited value unless they can match it with improved human intelligence – eyewitness reports of who is doing what on the ground. The Air Force is exponentially increasing surveillance across Afghanistan. The monthly number of unmanned and manned aircraft surveillance sorties has more than doubled since last January, and quadrupled since the beginning of 2009. Indeed, officials say, they cannot keep pace with the demand. “I have yet to go a week in my job here without having a request for more Air Force surveillance out there,” Poss said.
But adding Gorgon Stare will also generate oceans of more data to process. “Today an analyst sits there and stares at Death TV for hours on end, trying to find the single target or see something move,” Gen. James E. Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a conference in New Orleans in November. “It’s just a waste of manpower.” The hunger for these high-tech tools was evident at the conference, where officials told several thousand industry and intelligence officials they had to move “at the speed of war.” Cartwright pressed for solutions, even partial ones, in a year or less. The development of Gorgon Stare began about 18 months ago.
It is based on the work of Air Force scientists who came up with the idea of stitching together views from multiple cameras shooting two frames per second at half-meter resolution. Currently full-motion video is shot at 30 frames per second from one camera mounted on a Predator or the larger Reaper drone. That makes for more fluid video, but also more difficulty in assembling frames quickly to get the wide-area view.
Technological advances now make it possible for a soldier on the ground to receive any portion of a panoramic view in real time, streamed to a portable device about the size of an iPad, Poss said. At the same time, nine other soldiers can get the same or a different view. The images will be stored so analysts can study them to determine, for instance, who planted an improvised bomb or what the patterns of life in a village are.
The Air Force has also taken tips from the purveyors of pop culture. It is working with Harris Corp. to adapt ESPN’s technique of tagging key moments in National Football League videotape to the war zone. Just as a sportscaster can call up a series of archived quarterback blitzes as soon as a player is sacked on the field, an analyst in Afghanistan can retrieve the last month’s worth of bombings in a particular stretch of road with the push of a button, officials said.
The Air Force placed a contractor on the set of a reality TV show to learn how to pick out the interesting scenes shot from cameras simultaneously recording the action in a house. And taking a page from high-tech companies such as Google, the Air Force will store its reams of video on servers placed in used shipping containers in Iowa. The Air Force is looking to mount wide-area surveillance cameras on airships that can stay aloft for up to two weeks. “This is all cutting-edge technology that is being fielded in a short period of time,” said retired Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, who served as deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. “If you look into the not-too-distant future, what these technologies will allow us to do is remove more and more ground forces and replace them with sensors where we normally would have to rely on people going somewhere to find something out,” he said.
But other military officials caution that a counterinsurgency requires an understanding of the local population. “That really only comes from human intelligence or boots on the ground,” said Army Col. Steven A. Beckman, the former intelligence chief for coalition forces in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. “We can get the 3-D geo-intelligence that tells us what every building, what every street looks like in Marja,” he said at the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation conference in New Orleans in November. But such intelligence needs to be “underpinned by a degree of local knowledge . . . to enable us to maximize that.” Beckman called full-motion video “the crack cocaine of our ground forces” – but often, he said, it’s a technology that is poorly utilized. He noted in an interview that he is an advocate of the technology but that in some cases, other tools might be a better solution for a commander’s needs.
Marine Capt. Matt Pottinger, who collaborated on “Fixing Intel,” an official critique of the intelligence effort in Afghanistan issued a year ago, said he found a disconnect between the intelligence requests for aerial surveillance issued by commanders in regional headquarters and the needs of the soldiers or Marines at the platoon level. “Often what the guys need it for is not to stare at some highway for five hours because they want to drop a bomb on some guy they see coming out to dig a hole in the ground to plant an IED,” he said. “Oftentimes, the questions that the soldiers and Marines need answered are ‘Where’s the traffic? Where are the cars going? Are they actually using this strip of desert or completely bypassing this district?’ ”
Pottinger, a visiting fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said analysts in regional headquarters should meet with troops in the field to understand their needs, otherwise all the “whiz-bang” gear will never be used to its full potential. Gorgon Stare is being tested now, and officials hope it will be fielded within two months. Each $17.5 million pod weighs 1,100 pounds and, because of its configuration, will not be mounted with weapons on Reaper aircraft, officials said. They envision it will have civilian applications, including securing borders and aiding in natural disasters. The Department of Homeland Security is exploring the technology’s potential, an industry official said. Poss said he would “never denigrate the need for good, solid human intelligence because even watching an entire city means nothing unless you can put context to it.” But, he said, “being able to watch an entire city, I’m convinced, is going to have a huge impact on operations in the war zone.”
Phi Beta Iota: Emphasis added. Every live channel needs a human analyst watching it constantly (actually two to keep them alert and provide for human needs). The actual value of this system for the real-world needs of the infantry is almost zero–for what this is costing (and remember, it costs us $50 million per Taliban body) we could give every infantry squad multiple gyrospopically balanced photo cams that could see over the next ravine–now THAT is valuable. And if MASINT could ever get serious and detect explosives irrespective of the container (the requirement officially laid down by the Marine Corps Intelligence Center in 1988), THAT would be progress. This is a money pipe that has nothing to do with national security and everything to do with personal and corporate greed and hubris.