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The Conference Will Be Televised

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

This afternoon I’ll be at the Center for New American Security (CNAS) annual conference in Washington, DC, headlined by Michele Flournoy, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. The conference is sold out. But, you can watch it here via webcast over the tubes. I’ll be curious to hear if the resident counterinsurgency brain trust still thinks a population-centric COIN strategy will work in Afghanistan. Tune in!

– Greg Grant

QDR Signals JSF and Counterinsurgency Planes Live

Monday, February 1st, 2010

Giving the DoD’s latest Quadrennial Defense Review a close look, it seems as if the Pentagon poobahs hashed out a juxtaposed message for the Boys in (sky) Blue. 

On page 10 of the executive summary of the 2010 QDR, it says that the US air force will be able to take advantage of F-22s and JSFs for air dominance and still buzz around in retro planes like the Super Tucano or Air Tractor when “training” counterinsurgency forces. 

U.S. air forces will become more survivable as large numbers of fifth-generation fighters join the force. Land-based and carrier-based aircraft will need greater average range, flexibility, and multimission versatility in order to deter and defeat adversaries that are fielding more potent anti-access capabilities. We will also enhance our air forces’ contributions to security force assistance operations by fielding within our broader inventory aircraft that are well-suited to training and advising partner air forces

That seems like a big victory for the COIN Air Force Wing advocates, but we’ll see what the details are when the services give their breakouts today (Colin and Greg are on the case). 

The QDR lays out more COIN-related aviation moves, including fielding two new Navy helicopter squadrons dedicated solely for special operations missions. One has to wonder whether those aviation assets will help answer the mail for those worried about a lack of dedicated aviation elements for MarSOF troops. And the fearsom Spectre will get a makeover as well, with the Air Force buying converting 16 C-130Js and phasing out older AC-130s for a net of 35 aircraft from 25. 

And, last but not least, my former Navy Times compadre will be glad to know the QDR calls for the Navy to add a fourth riverine squadron to the force. “PBR Streetgang this is Almighty do you copy, over…” 

– Christian

Time to Pull the Plug

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009


From the Passdown at Military​.com:

Six months after President Obama dispatched a new Afghanistan war commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to win the “just” battle there, the White House seems indecisive about giving the general all the tools he needs to fight it. For weeks, the administration has been urging caution after McChrystal’s leaked assessment called for 40,000 more troops to support the kind of comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy Obama proposed in March.

The first explanation was that the recent Afghan presidential election was potentially fraudulent — that Karzai might not be worth defending with American troops if Afghans viewed his presidency as illegitimate. Then it was that fulfilling McChrystal’s request for more troops without a strategy would be foolhardy — the White House needed more time to assess and discuss options from a variety of viewpoints before sending more resources. Now, National Security Advisor, retired Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Jones, says it’s “hypothetical” that a Taliban takeover of the Afghan government would mean a return of al Qaeda — and besides, he said during a CNN appearance on Oct. 4, al Qaeda is largely defeated in Afghanistan with less than 100 operatives in the country right now.

Recent polls show that the “all in” counterinsurgency strategy increasingly lacks American public support. With ever-aggressive assaults by Taliban militants killing U.S. troops in high-profile ambushes that nearly overrun American outposts and leave U.S. trainers stranded with dwindling ammunition and no fire support — the nation’s ability to eek out some kind of “victory” in the land where the 9–11 attacks were planned is in doubt.

Just six months ago President Obama said the U.S. must “overcome the trust deficit’ it faces in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where many believe that we are not a reliable long-term partner.” Now the Administration is considering a more antiseptic “counterterrorism” model of drone strikes and commando raids. In March, the administration said that its “new strategy of focusing on our core goal — to disrupt, dismantle, and eventually destroy extremists and their safe havens … will require immediate action, sustained commitment, and substantial resources,” but now it challenges the resources requested by its newly appointed commander to achieve security in Afghanistan.


The Afghan Dream Team

Thursday, June 11th, 2009


There’s a great story this morning in the New York Times about the Pentagon giving Gen. McChrystal a lot of leeway to put together his “dream team” of Afghan command.

It’s precisely what the doctor ordered and the kind of thing that folks like Nagl and the Kagans have been saying would be the key to success there. It’s the same kind of carte blanche control that GW Bush gave Petraeus — with great success in a very short time.

Also, it’s brilliant that McC wants these guys to stay on for three years instead of one year stints in their billets. They’ll become more invested in the success of the fight and have greater insight into the inner workings of Afghanistan.

The Times story says Gates and Mullen have impressed upon McChrystal that Afghanistan is the “main effort”…it’s about time from my perspective. And it’s a good thing that we have a steely-eyed special operator at the helm. He understands economy of force, unconventional warfare and rapid tasking — which is just the kind of mindset the conflict in Afghanistan needs.

Another interesting note…the Times piece mentions that McC asked Rear Adm. Greg Smith to be his chief of public affairs. Petraeus did the same thing when he asked Smith to come over to Iraq to assess the PA operation there and when Smith delivered his report said “OK, can you stay here and implement it for me?”

Smith was due to retire but has reportedly agreed to stay on with McC…true patriots all and we wish them the best of luck.

– Christian

The Mathematics of War

Sunday, May 17th, 2009

The TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conferences started out as a small forum to exchange cutting edge ideas about –as the name implies– science and technology. That was in 1984. Today, appropriately enough, the internet has helped the TED lecture series explode into a groundbreaking dissemination of cutting edge ideas that effect every facet of the human condition — including, well… modern warfare.
In the clip below, physicist Sean Gourley breaks anthropology’s grip on irregular warfare’s strategic evolution and introduces the mathematical contribution to winning –and preventing– 21st century conflicts. It’s absolutely fascinating stuff.

Giving up on NGB for a Nuke Free World

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009


Another interesting thing Elder mentioned at yesterday’s breakfast was the potential reasoning behind the delay of the so-called Next Generation Bomber (the one tabbed for fielding in 2018).

Elder wasn’t sure if this was the reason but thought it might have played a large role in the decision, but he said President Obama’s desire to reengage in strategic arms talks with Russia might have impacted the decision to punt the NGB. Reason is, if you go ahead with NGB you’re making it a part of the negotiation process, and Elder saw no need — based on arcane counting rules for warheads per bomber — to include the putative NGB in the negotiations.

I suspect that one of the things that could be in play here, I don’t know this for a fact, it makes sense to me, is that you don’t want to lock yourself in on an airplane until you know what the counting rules are going to be. Why would I want a program this year that puts me in a bad position in terms of how I’m negotiating what the START negotiations are going to look like. … I would not want to tie my hands in the negotiations.

If this is true, it would be a shame that the Obama administration would undercut our long-range strike capability for a more favorable negotiating position on some pie in the sky resurrection of antiquated nuclear arms reduction talks. What, am I watching “War Games” or “Failsafe” here? Are we getting back into Game Theory? I thought 1989 was 20 years ago…The Russians must be laughing all the way to the arms control bank on this one. Now their 100 year-old bombers are going to be matched up against our 100 year-old bombers — in that equation, the Russkies win.

Since they’re looking at doing these negotiations this year, and I don’t know this for a fact that the secretary brought this up, normally I would say strategy should drive your force structure. … The counting rules in START for bombers are pretty onerous. … The way a B-52 is counted, it’s counted as carrying more weapons than you would want to carry operationally. … It’s a matter of let’s not lock ourselves in and save some money.

Elder said the 2018 timeline for the NGB was tied to the retirement of the Air Launched Cruise missile which gives B-52s enough standoff range to be a viable strategic deterrent. But with the NGB falling by the wayside, then the B-52 will have to last until 2040. Yikes!

But, hey, maybe Obama and his negotiators with the Russians (and the Paks and Indians and Chinese and French and Israelis, etc.) can make good on his commitment to a nuclear free world before we even have to worry about centigenarian strategic bombers making up the bulk of our inventory? But I’m not holding my breath.

– Christian

Posturing for Success

Friday, April 10th, 2009


Our boy Greg Grant has an awesome scoop on DoD Buzz revealing key concepts in the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review.

Clearly Gates has pushed the services to embrace an affliction of “this-war-itis” in forging a plan to build a military that can respond more effectively to unconventional threats.

I’m a bit leery of abandoning the “big war” capability the U.S. has become so dominant in, but I then think about the Israel/Hezbollah conflict in Lebanon and reason that even a near-peer competitor would try to employ similar tactics. Then I bounce back to the Georgia/Russia spat last year and think “well, maybe a near-peer would try to bludgeon its way through”… and back and forth.

Be that as it may, when you strip all the scenarios away, I think it makes sense to posture the U.S. military to fight these unconventional wars because it relies on innovation, quick thinking, a broad skill set and the abondonment of rigid planning. Set-piece, conventional wars can be won with adaptability and outside the box strategy and tactics — the same prerequisits for winning a “hybrid” war.

Greg writes:

The strategic review will run through the summer with the intent to have it wrapped in time to inform FY 2011 defense budget decisions. There is some concern in the Pentagon that the short time line might prove inadequate for a comprehensive strategic review and could produce a rushed product, according to sources I spoke with. The worry is that the outcome will reflect the thinking and biases of the newly installed Obama team in OSD without adequately accounting for the views of the services. The QDR will be run out of the office of Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Michele Flournoy. Flournoy played a similar though less prominent role in the Clinton administration so she is familiar with games the services play during a QDR.

This QDR will use the 2008 National Defense Strategy as a point of departure. A big theme in the strategy document, and a point Gates emphasizes repeatedly, is the need to achieve balance across the military. Gates has clearly decided what the future of conflict will look like and he believes the services are weighted far too heavily towards large scale conventional war and wants to shift their focus towards the lower end of the conflict spectrum. Last years National Defense Strategy concluded that although U.S. predominance in conventional warfare is not unchallenged, it is sustainable for the medium term, given current trends, Gates said.

He also wants the QDR to capture battlefield lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan and believes those should influence force structure and spending decisions. His call for more aerial drones and his push for big investments in Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles are examples where battlefield lessons have influenced spending choices; we should expect more of these. Gates says fewer costly, leading-edge weapons are needed to insure against the rise of a great power; greater investment is needed to add troops and buy greater quantities of less technologically advanced weapons for hunting terrorists and waging counterinsurgency campaigns.

I’d encourage you to read the rest of his comprehensive report on DoD Buzz and give your own views on where Gates should take the services. One thing I will say is that the QDR tends to have an impact in the short term, but almost always reflects the trends of the day. If all of the sudden World War III breaks out, the 2014 QDR will look more like one that might have been written in 1980.

– Christian

An Alternative Future for the US Mil…

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009


Our boy Greg Grant has a great piece on a presentation given by Steven Biddle and T.X. Hammes on the future of warfare over at DoD Buzz.

I think it’s a good companion piece to the interview we just did with Dakota Wood at CSBA and also dovetails nicely with Greg’s previous piece on proposals from Mattis on how to better organize the Marine Corps.

Gates is heading in the right direction with a return to threat-based planning versus the capabilities-based portfolio planning of his predecessor that produced unaffordable procurement plans, Hammes said at the Washington gathering. Trying to guess the exact type or nature of future war the U.S. is likely to fight is the wrong way to go as more often than not youre going to end up with the wrong force. Instead, develop a force that can fight well enough across the spectrum of conflict to buy time to work your way up the learning curve. No matter what type of war, youll be forced into a game of adaptation, as that is wars true nature, and the outcome usually comes down to who can adapt the fastest.

I agree 100 percent with this and am frustrated when analysts use China and Russia as examples of “near-peer” competitors that we need to equip ourselves to fight. In fact, for all their excellent analysis, the CSBA tends to default to that contention — but I don’t think it’s out of some xenophobic reaction, just a way to compare apples to apples.

The challenge is preventing the services from defaulting to planning for another Cold War by substituting China for the Soviet Union. Setting aside for a moment the absurdity of going to war with your de-facto banker, Hammes said there is the little discussed issue of Chinas nuclear arsenal. A U.S. air and naval campaign against China would target the countrys command and control. How do you do that without threatening their nukes and national command authority? The Chinese lack a reliable second strike capability, attacks on their command and control could be perceived as an effort to take out their nuclear capability, possibly triggering a use-it or lose-it scenario. The Chinese know they cant stop individual aircraft attacking the mainland, instead, theyre building ballistic missiles to target airstrips and carriers to force the U.S. to fight at the extreme limits of range, taking short range fighters out of the equation. As for the Russians: in Georgia, the Russians drove a single division 60 miles after three months preparation. Not a threat.

Thank goodness there are at least some sober minds to help advance the debate in a more “middle ground” approach. Rather than swinging all the way to the left and say China isn’t a threat because they’ve just adopted a different political structure, or to go all the way to the right and say they are a threat because of it, misses the point. It’s about capabilities. When more than 3/4 of your population doesn’t have running water, I’m sorry but that’s not “near peer.” By the same token, we get all freaked out about Russian bombers flying close to Alaska or some such, but don’t realize that the pilots are so happy to just get the flight hours they don’t give a crap where they’re flying.

However, I do remember an article in the Atlantic about a year ago postulating how we’d fight China (it was part of Robert Kaplan’s series) and it made me think about something: How comfortable would I feel looking off the shore of my mother’s house in coastal North Carolina and seeing a Chinese aircraft carrier steaming nearby as apposed to a British or a French or a Japanese one? I’ll let you answer that one for yourselves.

Lethality in hybrid warfare is certainly increasing, as the vulnerability of even the most heavily armored vehicles will attest. Biddle questions the notion that situational awareness will prove adequate: In a hybrid form of warfare, the ubiquity of cover and concealment makes it possible for reasonably skilled opponents to stay out of our information grid. If we cant find them then we cant include them in a networked form of situational awareness. Instead of adding armor to vehicles or looking to information superiority to provide a battlefield edge, Biddle said the U.S. will be forced to adopt more hybrid war like tactics: dispersion, cover and concealment, combined arms, fire and maneuver.

A clear swipe at FCS…And this great line:

The U.S. military may be forced to undertake two transformations. If winning today means the military must transform for low intensity conflict, with larger ground forces and less emphasis on high-tech modernization, and then transform once again, after these wars are concluded, for a different kind of war, then thats probably the right path to take, as inconvenient and expensive as that may prove.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but I think Biddle’s right.

Be sure to check out the entire story on DoD Buzz.

– Christian

Hybrid Enemies — A Primer

Thursday, February 5th, 2009


[Editor: I just wanted to post this excellent article written by our colleague Greg Grant over at DoD Buzz as an add-on to my Afghan rant. He has a really helpful dissection of Hybrid Warfare (coined by old DT friend Frank Hoffman) and how the USMil is falling short.]

For the past fifty years, the military has sized, trained and equipped its ground forces to battle a conventional, mechanized, tank heavy opponent, organized in companies, battalions and brigades, with supporting artillery and aircraft. Training scenarios envisioned a repeat of World War II tank battles, Army units were run through simulated armored clashes in the open deserts at its premier training ground, the NTC at Ft. Irwin, Ca. Now, at its training centers, the Army, and Marines also train for urban counterinsurgency.

That the Armys big-battle mindset hasnt gone far, despite eight years spent fighting two counterinsurgency wars, can be seen in this article on the Small Wars Journal web site by an Army captain who recently completed the captains career course and had this to say: With rare exception, the exercises which hone officers skills in these areas are focused on the conventional Fulda gap-style battle Despite all that has been written about third-generation warfare (Blitzkrieg) and fourth-generation warfare (state vs. non-state), we operated largely in the second generation of warfare.

A small group of strategic thinkers are flexing their intellectual muscle, and a new opponent model is taking shape against which Americas ground forces will be configured to fight (with the Marines way ahead of the Army). Called hybrid enemies, they come equipped with high-end, precision guided weapons, yet fight in distributed networks of small units and cells more akin to guerrillas. One of the leading scholars in this group, Frank Hoffman, who advises the Marines and is a researcher at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, says hybrid wars, blend the lethality of state conflict with the fanatical and protracted fervor of irregular warfare. Theory moved to reality when Hezbollah, equipped with loads of advanced missiles and skillfully using urban terrain, fought the Israeli army to a stand still in 2006. Hezbollah, Hoffman says, is representative of the rising hybrid threat.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has given his imprimatur to the hybrid opponent as the new OpFor, first in his recent Foreign Affairs piece, and then again in his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee. In his Senate hearing, speaking about the Armys FCS program, Gates said that unless new weapons and vehicles can be shown to be effective in complex hybrid wars, they shouldnt be funded. Ive also heard that some services, Im thinking of the Marines here, were loathe to buy into the irregular warfare mission as they couldnt justify their more expensive new systems to fight counterinsurgencies, but they have a better chance at getting what they want if they play up the hybrid threat.

I thought Id flesh out a bit exactly what the military has in mind when they discuss hybrid wars. A good place to start is this article by Hoffman in Joint Forces Quarterly or this longer discussion here for those of you with more time.


Israel Can Win

Tuesday, January 6th, 2009


The IDF is operating to a well thought out war plan on the ground as well as in the air. This is a description of IDF ground operations from strategypage​.com:

For the last two years, the Israeli Army has been developing new tactics and equipment for fighting Hamas and Hezbollah-type gunmen in urban areas. The Israelis have built training areas, with dense urban construction, and run many of its ground troops through special exercises. How well the new tactics and training are will be seen in the next week or so. The new tactics are meant to minimize civilian casualties, while enabling Israeli troops to quickly move through the area and kill or capture enemy personnel and equipment. Reservist units that have not gone through the special training are being sent to the new training centers for at least a few days of instruction on the new tactics. These new methods, while officially secret, apparently involve some new fighting tactics, and lots of electronic warfare. Hamas has had to operate with both cell phones and landline communications down. In addition, their walkie-talkies are sometimes jammed, and apparently listened to carefully by Israeli electronic warfare troops. This is causing command and coordination problems for Hamas fighters.

What we are seeing here is an IDF version of the British Army urban tactics used in the 2003 Iraqi invasion at Basra, with IDF special forces reprising the role of the SAS.