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08 March 2008

Vision and error

We have long been proponents of more predictive analysis in intelligence, and of increasing the prominence of truly strategic and futures focused assignments in order to get beyond the firefighting approach in which current and tactical accounts dominate more than the lion’s share of resources and energy. But this is not to say, as some critics might, that there are not extant attempts to elevate the line of sight.

The recurring debate regarding such matters has once again surfaced in a series of blog posts at Global Guerrillas, Fabius Maximus, Zenpundit, and Opposed Systems Design.

We must take exception with John Robb's comment that there "isn't a single research organization or think tank that is seriously studying, analyzing or synthesizing the future of warfare and terrorism”. Such statements, of course, are a common enough type of criticism which stems from what is also unfortunately a common error - the assumption that because one is not aware of a particular effort, then it must not exist. While not every shop which concerns itself with the problems of contemporary asymmetric conflict looks up from the current fight, there are a number of efforts which have attempted to answer the question of "what next" alongside the other work exploring the "what" and "so what" which tends to dominate current publications. Among just a few of the recent public aspects of such efforts that we can name off the top of our heads are the Proteus project, JFCOM’s Deep Futures project, and several of the publications authored by folks at the USMC’s Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities, the Naval War College and Army War College, the Naval Postgraduate School, the Air University, West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, the National Defense Intelligence College, and many other elements within the khaki tower. Of course, to this we should also add the Global Futures Forum effort where it touches upon related areas of interest.

Robb goes on to say that "Fatally, most of the big thinkers working on the future of warfare do their critical work in their spare time, usually while working other jobs to put food on the table for their families." There is some truth to this statement, but only insofar as the best work in futures intelligence tends to emerge from an analyst's own private war, and from their notes in the margins of other endeavors. Real insight tends to be generated not by those individuals who are given the blessing (or funding) from above to focus exclusively on pontificating unknown futures, but rather from those which are most fully immersed in substantive tasks - typically interdisciplinary in nature - which form the basis for illumination through a unique perspective. There will also always be a natural tension between the kind of research one wishes to conduct, and what is most needed at any given point in time.

Opposed Systems Design also weighs in with a line of thinking in support of a solution to this problem (be it perceived or real) that to us sounds very similar to Michael Tanji’s concept of Think Tank 2.0. We would certainly support such an effort – not because we are foolish enough to believe that no one else is considering the future problems which may arise in the dominant accounts of the 21st century – but because we strongly feel there is a need to better leverage the intellectual energies devoted to private crusades in support of a greater unified thrust.

We would also argue that this is already occurring to some extent within the intelligence community itself, particularly given the emerging style of smaller, more specific papers circulated in an almost academic fashion as discussion points. Indeed, we see this beginning to reshape coordination efforts prior to more formalized, and more visible assessments for major publications. We certainly see a greater role for outside subject matter experts and other thinkers in the process, but while far from perfect, this is quickly evolving given recent emphasis on analytic outreach.

In short, the there that these gentlemen appear to be reaching for is already there – just not evenly distributed. We would always agree that it could be better – but our focus for improvement is not on reshaping the org chart and mission statements to make some sort of new dedicated home for an “approved” effort, but through creating incentives around which positive effects in the field can begin to accrete.

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