How Technology Almost Lost the War, but Should Do Better

It was cool that ETech ventured into unexpected territory this year with Noah Shachtman’s presentation on technology’s failure in Iraq. The talk was derived from his provocatively titled Wired article “How Technology Almost Lost the War: In Iraq, the Critical Networks are Social – not Electronic“. In it he takes shots at the military’s infatuation with the bright shiny objects that support the big fight while missing the day-to-day realities of counter insurgency operations; a reality that revolves around people.

Leaving aside for the moment the fact that using technology to win the big fight gives one the luxury of discussing failures in the subsequent counter insurgency phase, Shachtman argues that the military’s “Network-Centric” technology is the wrong tool for the counter insurgency job. Systems like Command Post of the Future (CPOF) are cool, but in this phase of conflict, they are like bringing an iPhone to a knife fight.

I can’t disagree, but I think the reasons are as much about a monoculture focused too long on the Fulda Gap as they are about technology’s bells and whistles. But that’s a conversation for another day (and venue). An interesting question might be the one he doesn’t ask, what kinds of technology might help now in the midst of a counterinsurgency and how can we get them faster?

Released just before Shachtman’s talk, MIT’s Technology Review magazine covered DARPA’s Tactical Ground Reporting System (sorry, registration required), or TIGRnet. Where CPOF was designed for commanders fighting conventional battles, TIGRnet is for the patrolling sergeant and lieutenant fighting in a counter insurgency. While CPOF supports conventional ideas of command and control, TIGRnet gives troops on the ground new tools to share information horizontally (which might make it an accidentally subversive culture virus).

TIGRnet is interesting because it was built from scratch for the counter insurgency environment. This is no small thing in a one-size-fits all Army. However, it’s disappointing because it has been so long in the making.

Both CPOF and TIGRnet are cool compared to anything previously fielded, but in another context they would be trivial. Because what magic they have is focused on making up for poorly provisioned networks, it’s hard to get excited about them. If you’ve used Google Earth, Skype, and a wiki you wouldn’t be impressed. If you’ve used Google Earth, Skype, and a wiki through a 4.8 kbps modem, you might be.

It’s telling that both store similar data but there is no mention that they are connected. Neither offers simple and readily accessible API’s to the broader community or is designed as though it will part of an ecosystem.

So, I’ll leave it to Shachtman to talk about why the Army has the wrong tools from a cultural point of view. I want to talk about how it gets them and why they evolve so slowly to meet a changing mission.

Defense technology evolves in a world choked by systems engineering and onerous testing and certification; an approach designed during the industrial age to eliminate risk before you start bending metal. It sucks at thinking about risk/reward or dealing with urgency. That’s why, in two years longer than we were in WWII, we’ve delivered TIGRnet – essentially a replicating database with a map on top – and little else to the patrolling foot soldier. For five years new units have been showing up in Iraq with little more than a three ring binder left behind by the last guys to help them understand the social, political, or economic context of their new area of operations.

Jonathan Zittrain, in his excellent piece Saving the Internet, talks about the tradeoffs between security and generativity. I would love to see things like TIGRnet evolve in an environment with the generative attributes Zittrain describes, but defense technology lives at the other end of that spectrum. What the military needs is an Internet and stack that lets them have their cake and eat it too. Secure but generative. Five years is just too long to wait for a simple application; no matter how secure it is.

When Noah looks at CPOF (and presumably TIGRnet) he sees a military focused on the wrong stuff. When I look at them I also see missed opportunity for the technology to evolve so that it could be useful now instead of in some later conflict.

Instead of one problem = one application, I want a set of services and components that collectively add up to a generative environment for building stuff quickly. An infrastructure designed with agility as a requirement and with provisions for permanent beta. A Command and Control Platform as a Service – think wrapped around a map – with a vibrant ecosystem of component developers where Ajax scripting sergeants can take “parts off the shelf” and build their own new pieces of TIGRnet while their boots are still dusty. As if CPOF and TIGRnet were just two applications in a Command and Control Facebook platform.

In 1942 we focused our advantage of the time, industrial power, and built great quantites of all kinds of things to end that war in three and a half years. Nowadays we’re great at other stuff. We know how to do this. But through a combination of industrial age thinking and our government’s inability to engage us, our troops are fighting with last year’s tools, designed for a different war. We can do better.

tags: , , ,