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30 May 2007

Remembering capabilities-centric models

Former Spook has an excellent piece commenting on the continuing debate over USAF ISR issues, from acquisition to employment. His points regarding the underutilization of non-traditional assets – from pods of various flavours to onboard sensor suites and especially the Mark I eyeball, brain attached – are well noted indeed.

Intelligence operations planning, in the sense of orchestrated and robust deployment of collection, processing, analysis, and fusion systems of systems, is a rarely taught skill within many organizations – particularly as current players emphasize turf over mission and everyone else assumes that the –INT collection owner will step up in the fight as part of doing business (something that is rarely the case on anything but the most visible of all accounts.)

Those tasked to use such skills are often drawn from very different parts of the community than those taught, and than may have been originally expected to inherit operational or theatre level responsibilities. Under the pressure of real-time environments they will rarely have the chance to learn from the theory, but rather forced to evolve under the brutal Darwinian pressures of warfare and of covert conflicts.

Those in the acquisition community have no such excuses. The long lead lifecycles of major components of the intelligence and warfighting architecture ensure that there is substantial time to consider the implications of the platform, its possible sensor payloads, and its integration into the whole of the operation. And moving away from the strict platform-based thinking, there is plenty of room and potential for innovative new solutions to be integrated in a capabilities-based fashion, rather than waiting for new platforms to be built around them.

In the same manner, we note a fascinating analysis of the recent real world “cyberwar” involving Estonia and Russia, compared to its fictionalized counterpart from the dawn of the networking era. We are fans of mining the creativity and insight of storytellers for potential insights into the future, and are always interested to look back on their successes (or otherwise) in formulating accurate predictions. (It is most fortunate for many an intelligence analyst that their assessments are not public domain, to be subject to such merciless scrutiny over time. That job waits for the historians in the long decades to come after declassification, and usually the unknown authors are long since dead or retired into obscurity.)

What strikes us most about this comparison is the difference between the fictional vision of an advanced state-owned, platform and shooter heavy special operations mission – against the reality of a distributed, commercial off the shelf capabilities-centric event for which attribution, let alone intent, is difficult to characterize effectively.

Call this among the clearest evidence of the clash of mindsets between generations of warfare – leaping what was a 3rd generation model (based on a World War II kinetic analogy) with the prediction of 4th generation technologies (yet to be developed, and famously written on an ancient manual typewriter with a vision inspired by a single advertisement for an early Macintosh computer); into true operationalized 4th generation technologies used in what may be the precursor of a 5th generation fashion.

What is scary is how many intelligence and information operations professionals just entering the field still believe in the fictional variant (or at least want very much for it to be true…); and how much the acquisitions community is structured to support the fantasy rather than the realities. Because after all, it is easy to have advertisements for the large, flashy and photogenic platforms plastered all over the Metro, but it is extremely difficult to market abstract concepts in which a few inches of circuit board and a few lines of code are the real engines of capabilities.

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