NEOPHILIA, PRESENTISM, AND THEIR DELETERIOUS CONSEQUENCES FOR WESTERN MILITARY STRATEGY

Neophilia

Today, I release the second of a three-part post re-publishing some of my favourite articles. This post was originally published by the Modern Warfare Institute at West Point in March 2019 and was the first of my articles to be published internationally. Enjoy!

It is often treated as an assumed truth in Western defense establishments that the world is experiencing a period of political instability unparalleled in over a century. This belief, combined with the observation that technology and its effect on society are advancing at an unprecedented rate, have become key drivers of military transformation. Evidentially, believers in this notion of exceptional instability point to recent, multiple emergent threats to the liberal rules-based system—the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 and annexation of Crimea in 2014, Chinese attempts to control access to the South China Sea, and the actions of belligerents in civil wars in Syria and Yemen, for example. At the same time, technologists use advances in information and cyber technology, artificial intelligence, and autonomy, to rationalize their own arguments regarding military transformation. Their case seems compelling from an early twenty-first-century perspective. But perhaps more important than what is seen—the trends of eroding stability and rapidly growing technological advancement—is the lens through which these are viewed. When that lens is characterized by presentism and neophilia, rather than placing the present in the context of history, the consequences might be dire.

Presentism—privileging the observed present over the experience of the past—leads to the “fallacy of tranquillity,” which is “the tendency to find the current era to be exceptionally, even uniquely turbulent, and past eras to seem calm in comparison.” Although our times are undoubtedly uncertain, they are by no means uniquely so. The period between the First and Second World Wars was arguably more complex; indeed, with the exception of the twenty years following the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is difficult to recall a time when international relations were not at least as complicated as those currently experienced. In terms of social and technical change, the era in which we live is actually relatively unremarkable, certainly less disruptive than the Industrial Revolution and the technical evolutions that followed it. Assuredly, some commentators believe that humanity is developing at a slower rate than at any time since the seventeenth century; ours is thus an age of refinement, rather than one of transformation. In military terms, presentism manifests as a belief that the character (and for some the nature) of war is changing, that observed asymmetries are symptoms of fundamental change, and that resultant operational questions are insoluble within the current paradigm of warfare. The effect of such introspection is the diversion of intellectual effort away from practical military problems and into esoteric debates.

Military presentism has many drivers, but is usefully distilled into financial and reputational factors. A quote often, and mistakenly, attributed to Winston Churchill—”Gentlemen, we have run out of money. Now we have to think.”—illuminates the former of these two categories. In general usage, the quote is interpreted as a positive call for greater innovation and adaptation. But in the search for answers on the cheap, and in an attempt to attract finite financial resources, militaries, industry, and academia create and amplify new theories, doctrines, and perspectives, often to negative effect. Arguably, conceptualizations like “hybrid warfare” and the concept of Multi-Domain Operations are the results of this scramble for budget share.

Reputation is important too. Shortly after the Second World War, the influential military philosopher Sir Basil Liddell Hart sought to bolster his reputation as the proto-theorist of Blitzkrieg by influencing former German generals, eager to please and avoid criminal conviction, to provide statements to that effect for his bookThe Other Side of the Hill. This attempt was both dishonest and ultimately futile; historians in the 1990s re-examining the theory and substance of German operations and tactics in the Second World War, found that Blitzkrieg was neither based on Liddell Hart’s theories nor a coherent doctrine. Sir Basil’s case demonstrates the lengths to which theorists will go to preserve, or enhance, their reputation.

The struggle for budgets and reputation is not a matter of harmless semantics and academic sophistry; it endangers military thought and practice. Similarly dangerous, though, is neophilia—the belief that what is observed and experienced in the battlespace is entirely novel. Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a proliferation of new theories aimed at explaining the changing character of war. We have seen the rise and fall of the theory of the Revolution in Military Affairs, witnessed the fervour of the COINdinistas, been seduced by novel ideas of asymmetry, and endured the putative theory of hybrid warfare. In each case, theory was based on a belief that the observable symptoms of warfare were either unavoidably determinist or wholly disconnected from previous experience. In the case of hybrid warfare, disconnected tactics employed asymmetrically by the West’s adversaries have been conflated to create an all-encompassing doctrine that flatters the talents of officers like Russian Gen. Valery Gerasimov, but which is no more coherent a doctrine than German blitzkrieg was in 1939. The result of this theoretical seduction is to tie Western thought leaders into an interminable debate about the nature and character of war and a search for a symmetrical counter to hybridity. The West should learn from its exploitation of Soviet weakness in the 1980s, looking to counter its adversaries’ tactics asymmetrically with its hand firmly on the hilt of its overwhelming conventional superiority.

The threat of neophilia is not merely restricted to the theoretical. Although the addition of cyber and space to the traditional domains of war—land, sea, and air—significantly predates the concept of Multi-Domain Operations, the added domains undermine that concept by fundamentally misunderstanding of the term “domain of war,” the effect of which is to erroneously conflate effect with enablement. Carl von Clausewitz defines war in terms of politics and violence, meaning a domain of war is thus a physical environment in which violence can take place. Cyber and space cannot currently be so defined. Cyber and space, and indeed human thought, which some commentators see as a sixth domain, are in fact enablers of the three traditional domains. Information, howsoever it is delivered, is merely in support to the original domains. That this theory and its effects are directly attributable to presentism is demonstrated by a comparison to historic military activity in the electromagnetic spectrum. Radio waves have been used by militaries to transmit information for over a hundred years, but despite its centrality to command and control, akin to cyber and space, radio was never defined as a domain of war. It is only in the era of satellite-enabled precision that information has been misrepresented as a domain of war. In terms of practical effects, defining information enablers as domains is likely to stovepipe each enabler, and the funding that accompanies it, into the purview of a single service. In the British military, this is exemplified by the ownership of space by the Royal Air Force; while it is not suggested that the RAF completely excludes the other services, the RAF’s budget demands will probably privilege its own interests. This model is similar to that in the United States, where the nascent Space Force will be subordinate to the Air Force.

Ultimately, the cult of neophilia is a symptom of intellectual laziness—a trope built on simplistic memes and the mistake of conflating disconnected occurrences. In defense terms, those who promote ideas like hybrid warfare and non-physical domains are boxing at shadows, in danger of creating a substantial threat where there is none—a digital blitzkrieg. The current age is far less unique than acolytes of presentism would have us believe. Practitioners and academics should therefore be wary of easy explanations and attractive narratives, instead concentrating on countering threats, while understanding that our adversaries asymmetric answer to the West’s conventional dominance comes from a place of weakness. Precision-enabled, combined-arms warfare, despite its dependence on vulnerable networked information, is still the key to success in war.

 

Tempus Fugit: Using Time for Cognitive Advantage

Conscious that I haven’t published a blog since the start of lockdown, I’m going to republish a couple of articles while I get writing. The first was published by ‘Grounded Curiosity‘, my favourite PME site, at the end of March 2020.

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Anyone who has found themselves searching for their house keys when running late for an appointment, will be in no doubt that the perception of time is wholly relative. In those moments, when every second counts, time seems to accelerate, filling the available space on the clock face at an exponential rate.

At times like that, our behaviour becomes increasingly irrational; we look for the lost in the same place, time and again searching in seemingly impossible places; in my case, the fridge or the dog’s bed are particular favourites. Then, out of the blue, recall kicks in and in a Damascene flash the ‘safe place’ is revealed; as memory triumphs, the time between the ticks of the second hand slows, the mind and body relaxes, and logical thought returns. This phenomenon, the cause of panic and poor decision-making in domestic life, can be replicated in the battle space and is at the heart of the struggle for what is termed ‘information advantage‘. This article will examine what happens to the quality of human decision-making when pressure is applied, the advantages to be gained from manipulating an opponent’s perception of time, and how that might be achieved in real terms.

In his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Israeli Nobel laureate, Dr. Daniel Kahneman posits that when faced with a problem the human brain has two replies; the first, System One Thinking, is lazy and instinctive, most likely used when under pressure, or paradoxically when little invested in the outcome, the second, System Two Thinking, is analytical and complex, carefully assessing the available data; typically, this is called upon when time and conditions permit. System One decisions are, as a result, often wrong, based as they are on prejudice and unconnected experiences, they are the type of conclusions that make searching the oven for car keys seem a sensible option. If Kahneman is right, and he has gathered a lifetime of evidence supporting his thesis, then pressure applied to an opponent will force them to use System One thinking, a type of thinking which often leads to poor decisions and increases the perception of the passage of time.

Making an opponent lean on System One, depleting the quality of their decision-making by applying pressure to constrict their perception of time is classic manoeuvrism; winning by not fighting. An examination of decision-making using John Boyd’s OODA cycle proves somewhat instructive, if not entirely comprehensive. Boyd theorised that decisions are made using a sequence of actions: Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act (OODA), these can be coincidental, but they are always part of the decision loop. Essentially, Boyd’s theory runs that to defeat an opponent, better decisions must be made faster, we must get inside our opponent’s decision loop, this is at the heart of information advantage – the gobbledegook which accompanies that phrase is nothing more than window-dressing which, either by the negligent use of language or by design, acts to exclude wider understanding.

possible counter to this theory – that the essence of winning is making better decisions faster and thence translating them into actions just as precipitously – is that advancing technology will imminently allow machines to think faster than humans, without having to resort to System One Thinking. It is tempting to believe that the technical possibility of decision-making by artificial intelligence and machine learning will remove the need for human input or supervision, but that time is further away than is imagined in the minds of presentists and determinists. Machine-learning and artificial intelligence are unlikely to play a part in kinetic decision-making, at least without human intervention or oversight, until targeting and judgement have been significantly improved. Western morality will require considerable technological advance before it trusts the robot with lethal force, indeed that could be a lifetime away. As long as a human remains in or on the loop, it will be possible to place pressure which will force System One thinking.

Back to John Boyd; his first action, Observe, offers perhaps the simplest way to alter an opponent’s perception of time and consequently the quality of their decisions. In his excellent 2018 book, The Eye of War, Dr Antoine Bousquet analyses how camouflage, concealment, and deception have played a key role in the history of warfare for centuries, and explores how today these skills must now also include disguising oneself from the discovery of heat, radiation, and electronic signatures. This is further amplified by the requirement to remain hidden on the post-modern battlefield, particularly underground, highlighted in Dr Raphael Marcus’ book, ‘Israel’s Long War with Hezbollah: Military Innovation and Adaptation Under Fire‘. The rapid development of subterranean warfare and the power of electronic camouflage remains poorly understood and somewhat unpractised by Western armies. The cause of this collective ignorance is either a result of political distaste, cultural and intellectual arrogance, or anti-intellectualism. Whatever the cause, Western armies would do well to pay as much attention to the lessons of Hezbollah’s Operation Truthful Promise and the Israeli responses, Operation Density and Peace for Galilee, as they do to the German Fall Gelb and Soviet Bagration.

As important as it remains to disguise one’s presence, the secret to confusing the enemy is to create multiple options and dilemmas for them. This is done by both displaying that which you wish your enemy to see and by offering both attractive and unattractive targeting options. This is not a novel concept, perhaps the most well-known example of a historic scenario occurred during the Second World War, Operations Fortitude North and South used physical and virtual methods to create an imaginary army in Eastern England, the purpose of which was to deceive the Germans into leaving sufficient forces in the Pas de Calais to resist a second invasion, thereby keeping their reserves away from Normandy. It is important, though, to invite as well as discourage; a fine example of this is provided by the action of Australian and British forces at Tobruk in April 1941, luring Rommel into an area of apparent defensive weakness in order to destroy him.  For our purposes, Observe should not be seen merely as a defensive measure, instead it represents an opportunity to distract, disrupt, and dislocate with multiple options, compressing time and forcing poor and rushed decisions.

Orient – making sense of what is observed – represents another opportunity to squeeze an opponent’s perception of time. In order to understand what they are seeing, the enemy must use their understanding of the world in which they operate, together with the communications and information technology with which they are supplied. Just as that which is observed can be disrupted, dislocated, or pre-empted, so can the ability to understand what has been seen. In an article for War on the Rocks in 2018, Alexandra Stickings and I laid the case for the effect on the Western model of satellite-enabled precision effects caused by a loss of space capability. Whilst, the wholesale loss of satellite, and indeed cyber, infrastructure in a military context is increasingly unlikely (both because of mitigation and the increasing certainty of retaliation) elements such as spoofing and the temporary removal of capability enable the manipulation of time and hence the quality and speed of decision-making.

Decide and Act are no less important opportunities for those seeking to manipulate an opponent’s decisions. It is important, of course, to understand that this denial of cognitive capacity is not a one-way street, the enemy is not a target. For political and cultural reasons, the West’s opponents can make decisions at a speed and of a type which cannot be matched. Using tactics, techniques, and procedures, this advantage can be limited, but can only be turned around by dislocation of command and control architecture. The denial of time and the degradation of decisions may also seem to favour activity in the ‘Grey Space’,  but this is a fallacious perspective. ‘Grey Space’ activity is an enabler of conventional activity; of itself, it is little more than traditional political manoeuvre – espionage, sabotage, mis- and dis-information, they are then a means to an end not an end in themselves, the end is conventional military action.

In conclusion, the mystique surrounding the current buzzwords of information advantage and manoeuvre is unnecessary and counter-productive, it is simply the cognitive degradation of an opponent’s ability to act. Degrading the enemy’s cognitive ability is not the end, rather it is merely an enabler for military action – part of the plan, not the plan itself. Time flies, but it flies higher and faster for the confused and blindfolded.

I will republish another article from another site in a few days time. Stay Safe.

Barney