Jul 31

Before we started “Intelligence is Evidence” two years ago, I ran a quick series bemoaning some abuses of military language in the press. At the time, I criticized “terrorist”, “Al Qaeda in Iraq” (which I just heard the other day on a podcast) and some other terms. Well, I have a new term that I think the press just doesn’t use quite right:

Navy SEALs

What are Navy SEALs? SEALs are assault troops trained by the U.S. Navy to conduct amphibious missions when it can’t rely on the U.S. Army or U.S. Marine Corps. They started with underwater demolition missions to destroy enemy mines, bridges and other amphibious targets. Then they moved to securing vessels as well. Though SEALs still do those things, since 9/11, Navy SEALs have expanded their mission to include counter-terrorism operations. (I’ll get back to that.)

Did Navy SEALs kill Osama bin Laden? This is the complicated question most Americans won’t get right. Yes...and no. Navy SEALs who were members of the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU) killed Osama bin Laden.

What’s the difference? (Warning: jargon, terminology and acronyms ahead.)


Well, the gap between Navy SEALs and DEVGRU is as wide as the gap between the Special Forces and Delta Force (now called the, “Combat Applications Group” [CAG]). Navy SEALs and Army Special Forces both fall under their respective branches and under the command of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). Both have a rigorous selection process and are about the same size. Special Forces teams focus on waging irregular warfare (though in the last ten years they have deemphasized this skill set) and the Navy SEALs focus on amphibious operations (this skill set too has been deemphasized because of all the desert and mountain stuff in Iraq and Afghanistan). Navy SEALs and Army Special Forces are around the same size.

What are DEVGRU and CAG, then? After being selected for either SEALs or SF/Rangers, you can then try out to make one of those two organizations. Both DEVGRU and CAG fall under Joint Special Operations Command, which is SOCOM’s secret terror hunting force, which is roughly aligned with the CIA’s Special Activities Division. DEVGRU used to be called Navy SEAL Team Six and CAG, as said above, used to be “Delta Force”. These elite units specialize in counter-terrorism, which has been the cool kid on the block in the special ops world since the 1980s. (You know, before 9/11.)

SOCOM has been described by a friend of the blog as “the fifth branch of the Pentagon”, and that’s not too inaccurate. SOCOM has a huge budget for the number of people it employs and it has the perks to go along with that budget. (For instance, increased secrecy, increased operational tempo and more flexibility in budgeting.)

As I answered above, DEVGRU SEAL operators killed Osama bin Laden and have been responsible for many of the other widely-publicized operations around the world.

Why is this post in our “Getting Orwellian” series? Because most of the credit going to Navy SEALs actually belongs to DEVGRU. Most former SEALs speaking out on political issues are not DEVGRU operators, but plain old, non-DEVGRU SEALs. That’s not to take away credit, but too often I’ve heard people say (including the media), “He’s a former SEAL, like the people who took out Osama bin Laden.” They’re not.

This TIME magazine article shows what I mean. It dives into a photo gallery with this headline, “The elite force that killed Osama bin Laden has been serving as America's special warriors since 1961.” This CBS report is another classic example. I’ve also heard this in conversations with plenty of civilians who think all Navy SEALs could have been on that raid.

They couldn’t; only the best of the SEAL’s best could have and did. That’s how good DEVGRU is, and we should give them the credit they deserve.

Jul 29

While I was attending the Military Intelligence Career Course in 2009, I once badgered a professor about his use of a doctrinal term. We had to read the newest version of Field Manual 2-something “Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield”. Some of the terms in the new manual didn’t match with slides the MICCC gave us. So I called it out; some of the instructors hadn’t read the new manual. One of them, offhandedly, described my emphasis on doctrinal terms as my “bailiwick”.

That became a running joke in my squad. Since bailiwick is a fairly obscure word (Eric C, though familiar with the word, had no idea how to spell it), my friends in the MICCC claimed I had a new bailiwick everyday. (Other bailiwicks: rebounding in college basketball, rules of engagement, and America’s email addiction.)

Today, I introduce a new bailiwick for this blog. You see, I fell in love last year. Despite the predictions of my quantitative GMAT score, I have fallen head over heels in love with statistics. Specifically, regression analysis. I came to the following conclusion:

Statistics/big data/regression analysis is literally the coolest thing ever.

While falling in love with statistics is still not normal for my generation, it isn’t too unusual either. Want to pwn your friends with sports knowledge? Read Bill Barnwell or Zach Lowe. Want to win election predictions? Read Nate Silver. Want to win elections? Use data to find voters, a la the Obama campaign. Want to win an Academy Awards prediction pool? Eric C has won our family’s Oscar pool for three years now using analytics.

Numbers are your friend.

A few technological innovations--computing power, the internet, Excel, and R--have made numbers relatively easy for any layman to gather and manipulate. And the nerds are using this knowledge to their advantage. But you know who doesn’t have a clue how to leverage advanced statistics, analytics or simulations? No surprise, the U.S. military and national security community. For instance:

Intelligence. How many terrorists do we kill in Pakistan? How accurate are we? Which intelligence methods work best? Sounds like a ready made example for Bayes Theorem. (And not just in the CIA, but in every intelligence organization.)

Human resources. Who gets promoted in the U.S. Army? And why? Sounds like a perfect candidate for regression analysis. (Not just for the Department of the Army, but for every Brigade in the Army.)

Combat. Does any form of regression work from the battalion on down? Most importantly, do senior leaders use data to make decisions, or ignore when it doesn’t fit their “gut feeling”? (Not just for Corps headquarters, but for every battalion S3 section.)

Spreadsheets. Can we teach all analysts how to use a spreadsheet? I mean, not just to sum numbers to but to run simulations, data tables, pivot-tables and the like. Again, 99% of the Army doesn’t know the difference between an “if” formula and “vlookup”. Excel, not PowerPoint, should be the most popular program in the military.

The U.S. Army (and probably the rest of the military) needs data. Not even so-called “big data”; the U.S. Army barely has a grasp on regular old “small” data. I say this because I know how much I didn’t know or use statistics/analytics, and I worked in military intelligence, the most data rich field. And it wasn’t that I was lazy or ignored statistics, I was actually ahead of the curve on Excel...and it stuns me how much I didn’t know. I literally couldn’t regress a single variable, and I was swamped in activity data. (Here are some of my recommendations for management books to read to improve data analysis from my recent Thomas Ricks guest post.)

A lot of military leaders have MBAs, so that means they took at least one statistics course. And a lot of officers took statistics in their academies or for their majors in college (I assume). But that doesn’t mean the military has a data culture. Unlike the financial industry, operations research, consultancies, or even parts of the sports world, data doesn’t drive the military. And guess what? It’s not going to drive it in the future, unless officers start rigorously using data to make decisions.

In his controversial op-ed on military leadership in the Washington Post, Bruce Fleming summed up the data problem in one line, “Rather than prioritizing decisions based on justifiable evidence, we’ve been training our high-potential officers to believe their internal compass is king.”

So consider this a bailiwick of mine for the near future. My goal is to convince whatever officers I can that they need to make their organizations data cultures.

Expect more posts in the future.

Jul 23

(To read the entire "COIN is Boring” series, check out the articles below:

- Ice Road Truckers, Afghanistan: Coin is Boring Pt. 2

- Capturing Australia! COIN is Boring Pt. 3

- Full Metal Boring: COIN is Boring Pt. 4

- Actually, COIN isn't Boring Part 5: What COIN Media DOES Work)

So I called Michael C up and told him I wanted to write a post comparing video games about conventional war to video games about counter-insurgencies.

“Wait,” he asked me, “There are video games about counter-insurgencies?”


Since I started writing this blog with Michael C--who was a pop-centric COIN evangelist wayyyyyy before I ever started thinking about military theory or national security--I’ve taken a minor crash course in military theory. Since I’m a pacifist, I’ve naturally taken to (population-centric) counter-insurgency. (If a nation has to go to war--which is basically never--I’d rather they did it by rebuilding infrastructure and giving aid to locals, than, say, indiscriminately killing them.)

But if we’re being intellectually honest, if we really step back and look at population-centric counterinsurgency, we can admit to ourselves that both soldiers and the public hate it. Soldiers hate counter-insurgency. Hobbyist military nuts loathe it. The public--including liberal commentators--think it’s a waste of money. The military cannot run back fast enough to training for conventional war.

And I know why: counter-insurgency is boring.

It involves a lot of studying, and building, and creating alliances. Instead of moving units around on a map, you have to win over local populations and gather data. (Data isn’t cool.) Real war is much more straightforward. Bad guy is over there. Shoot and kill him. (Or the slightly more complicated formula of find the enemy--who might be hiding--then go kill him.) On the larger scale, enemy forces are over there. Shoot and kill them. (Meanwhile, pretend that nuclear weapons don’t obviate the role for ground forces.)

Just as the military prefers conventional war, gamers prefer conventional war video games. I could name off a dozen first-person shooters--Medal of Honor, Halo, Battlefield--that depict traditional warfare, particularly fighting in the street. Or you could look at strategy games--Starcraft or Command and Conquer--that again depict traditional warfare. Move units here. Fight enemy there.

(Counter argument: some of those games take place in insurgencies. Maybe, but do they look like any insurgencies you’ve seen recently? The games that supposedly depict insurgencies--Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Full Spectrum Warrior, Command and Conquer: Generals--don’t capture macro-level COIN, merely glossing a traditional first person shooter with the sheen of COIN. They use them as a setting. Check out this great article by Robert Rath for The Escapist for more.)

As I opened this post, I couldn’t name a single counter-insurgency video game. So I did some research and found one. Called Urban Sim, as the Atlantic describes it it’s basically “SimCity Baghdad”. To the nerd in me, this game sounds entertaining as hell. And it embodies, as I see it, the problems with making a video game on counter-insurgency.

First, this was the only counter-insurgency video game I could find. As far as I know, there are no mainstream irregular warfare strategy games. Mainstream video game publishers like EA aren’t making them. Even if some publisher did make a game I didn’t hear about, it isn’t popular, especially on the multi-million dollar opening weekend level like every other first person shooter I mentioned above.

Second, a COIN video game would divide the military. Who determines what defeats an insurgency? Any decision a developer makes will divide both COINdinistas and COINtras. FM-3-24-types would want the game to reward development; kill-centric advocates would want fear to change the most minds. For this reason, the larger military world, divided on this issue, would never embrace the game.

Finally, one large, looming problem remains: security. As Michael C and I try to mention in every COIN post, population-centric COIN is about building a stable government and enforcing security. Like love and marriage, you can’t have one without the other. Herein lies the problem: I guarantee that the security portion of any COIN video game would wildly out-entertain the counter-insurgencing part, in terms of enjoyment and sheer aesthetic gaming pleasure.

How do I know? Because I played The Oregon Trail. In The Oregon Trail, you control a small family headed out west in a covered wagon, navigating rivers, disease and starvation. It’s a sim game. You make choices every day about how hard to run your oxen, how much to feed your family. In all, very educational.

Except I didn’t play The Oregon Trail to ford rivers. I played The Oregon Trail to shoot bison...and rabbits and deer. (And bears in the later levels.) I went hunting. Every little boy did. Yeah, I couldn’t carry all that bison meat back to my wagon, but I shot them anyway and went out hunting again.

So what section of the COIN video game do you think soldiers will keep replaying?

All three points add up to the same thing: COIN is hard, complicated and confusing. It’s all fog of war, as much diplomacy as strategy. Hell, it requires studying as much as shooting. (Take the old On V recommendation: learn the local language. Outside of Northern Europeans, most people don’t like learning new languages because it’s hard.)

In other words, COIN is boring.

Jul 17

(In the ongoing, never-ending and ceaseless debate over counter-insurgency, Michael C has a unique take: the Army/Pentagon/military never truly embraced COIN and is actively running away from it. Today, he presents another piece of evidence. Click here to read the rest of the series.)

After reading the first draft of my post on building more urban training centers, Eric C called me up and asked, “Michael, what about the freeways? Did the U.S. Army build any of those to practice on?” I told him, “Of course not, America won’t go to war with countries that have freeways.”

Except for...



Libya, who will soon be a part of the Tripoli-Cape town Highway:


Oh, and Iraq has some freeways in it too, including Route Michigan or “IED alley”.

(Honest to God, we looked up North Korean freeways and couldn’t find them. Apparently, America is training for war with North Korea.)

As Eric C rightfully pointed out, we don’t just need urban training centers, we need combat centers with fake freeways and roads. Preferably, freeways and roads that mimic messy urban centers.

Because you train how you fight. The fight will be on freeways.

Jul 15

(In the ongoing, never-ending and ceaseless debate over counter-insurgency, Michael C has a unique take: the Army/Pentagon/military never truly embraced COIN and is actively running away from it. Check out the articles below for the proof:

- Exhibit A.1: Where Are the Mock Freeways?)


Listening to Colonel Gian Gentile and John Nagl debate American counterinsurgency, I cannot figure out which side I belong on. I disagree with Gentile that China or Iran or fill-in-the-blank actor will destroy the US in some future conventional war because we trained for counter-insurgency during the last ten years. I also don’t think we can credit counter-insurgency with victory in Iraq or Afghanistan, as John Nagl has argued.

I fall somewhere between this divide, because I don’t think the U.S. Army (stand in for all forces in Iraq/Afghanistan) ever embraced COIN. Can I prove that the Army never embraced irregular warfare in a single blog post? No, I can’t. (Just the way a single blog post couldn’t, say, deconstruct Carl von Clausewitz’ entire legacy.)

But I can present a single piece of evidence. (With more to follow in future months.)

Exhibit A: The Lack of Urban Training Centers

Army commanders love to repeat the maxim that, “You train how you fight.” I agree. If you slack in training, you’ll slack in war. If you practice shooting when you are tired and exhausted, you’ll shoot better when you are tired and exhausted. So if your Army trains in forests, grasslands, mountains and jungles, you’ll be prepared to fight in forests, grasslands, mountains and jungles.

But you won’t be able to fight in cities. The U.S. Army doesn’t train to fight in cities because it doesn’t have large, quality urban training centers, and it never built them. Consider:

- My last duty station, Fort Campbell, houses a light infantry division headquarters, four maneuver brigades, a Special Forces group, two helicopter brigades, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and a variety of supporting battalions. Its largest urban training center? 64 buildings (as of 2011). My neighborhood in Clarksville alone had more than 64 buildings. It has a few other urban training centers, but they are mostly made out of container units, which don’t truly resemble any urban area on the planet.

- Fort Benning, the eponymous home to “maneuver” training, has slightly superior facilities. When I trained there in 2007, they only had a single village with about two dozen buildings. Driving around it required all of two minutes.

- The Army’s largest training centers--Fort Irwin, Fort Polk and Hohenfels, Germany; homes to NTC, JRTC, and JMTC respectively--aren’t much better. Since 9/11, they all invested in building expanded mock urban cities. None, as of the time I left the Army, had mock cities larger than 100 buildings. Again, even 100 buildings is an excessively small city.

- Ranger School has a forest, mountain and jungle phase, but no urban phase. (They also cut out a desert phase in the 1980s because we’ll never fight a war in the desert again.)

How did this situation get so bad? First, building fake cities is expensive. (Using contractors with cost-plus contracts doesn’t make it any cheaper.) As a stop-gap, units use portable container units, which replicate cities, but don’t replace good mock buildings.

But costs aren’t really the problem. (I mean, how many buildings could you build for the 150 million it costs for one F-22?) In reality, maneuver officers don’t like cities. Cities bring civilians, and that limits the ability to use overwhelming fire. Armor units like hanging out in wide open plains or deserts; light infantry loves hanging in forests. As a result, the Army built bases in the plains, jungles or forests of America, well away from urban centers. (See Fort Riley/Fort Irwin for armor; see Fort Benning/Fort Polk for the infantry.)

Even though having mock cities seems vital to training for urban insurgencies, like Iraq and parts of Afghanistan, the military still didn’t build them. Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were always just passing fads, the Pentagon never wanted to invest in counter-insurgency cities.

Worse yet, this isn’t really counter-insurgency versus maneuver warfare issue. Whether we fight a counter-insurgency, civil war or conventional war in the future, we aren’t prepared to fight on the right terrain. The world is becoming more urban; refusing to build legitimate mock cities is madness. Future wars will occur in cities--urban environments--and the US Army isn’t training for this fight.

I’ll end with my solution. The U.S. Army needs to build a legitimate, 1,000+ building, mock city on every base with four plus brigades. Preferably, we need to build multiple cities, and design them after every continent on the globe: a European city, an Asian city, an African city, and a South American city. Streets should be designed so vehicles can’t maneuver easily on them. Cities should be designed haphazardly, like real world cities. Battalions should practice conducting regular patrols in mock insurgencies in cities large enough to mimic the real world.

In other words, the Army should train how it fights. And how it will fight in the future.

Jul 02

As we do twice a year, Eric C and I will be taking a break from posting for the next two weeks. (It's summer; we're busy.)

Expect new posts on the July 15th.