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.

Jun 24

(Before we start, yes, this is probably the worst reference we have ever tried to pull off in a title.)

Since coming to UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, three subjects have made me say, “Goodness gracious, sakes alive, how did I not know this?” The first is advanced statistics (which I will cover in another series). The second is “organizational behavior”. (The military would make a fantastic case study for almost every theory I learned.)

The final field is “operations research” (OR), or its more modern sounding name, “management science”. Wikipedia describes OR as “the application of advanced analytical methods to make better decisions.” (Yes, “OR” is already an acronym; it will fit right in with the rest of the Army’s acronyms.)

Want to know why your paperwork takes so long at the S1 shop? Operations.

Want to know why every single weapon designed by the Pentagon runs over budget? Operations.

Want to know why it takes so long to get a flight to Afghanistan? Operations.

Naturally, before I started business school, I assumed that the Pentagon and the larger U.S. Army didn’t have any experts on operations. In fact, my post, “Hire an Efficiency Expert” basically asks for management scientists to work for the Pentagon, though I didn’t use that language.

So imagine my shock when I discovered this week--while listening to a podcast (“The Science of Better”) on operations research (Yep, that podcast exists.) from the Institute For Operations Research and Management Sciences (INFORMS)--that the Army created operations research. (Well, the British Army, followed closely by the U.S. Army.)

Physicists created OR to improve the use of the new technological tools they were creating. While most scientists were hired to run technology like radar or sonar, Baron Patrick Blackett, who’d already made his physics career and later won a Noble prize, decided that he needed to apply scientific rigour to the defence of Britain. So he started running experiments using mathematics to change tactics--changing anti-aircraft firing patterns, testing depth charges and other experiments.   

Baron Blackett’s commanders credited him with helping save England during the Battle of Britain. (This fantastic blog post on “Survivorship Bias” on YouAreNotSmart.com describes the role of operations researchers in America during the same time period.)

How does this relate to contemporary times? Because British Army officers never trusted Blackett, especially when they first met him. While Blackett created a whole intellectual field and helped defend Great Britain, he had to continually prove himself to military officers. No matter which organization he joined, they always told him, initially, that he couldn’t help. With all their military expertise and experience, they didn’t need a physicist to tell them how to manage (er, lead?) better. Later, after the data proved Blackett correct, the officers embraced OR.

Which begs the question, “Where were the management scientists in Iraq and Afghanistan?” With hundreds of patrols and millions of data points, couldn’t a few OR researchers have really helped out? That war begged for the use of predictive and prescriptive analytics. (The U.S., at best, uses descriptive analytics.) Maybe a Multi-National Corps HQ had some...or deep in some office in the Pentagon they have them...but we didn’t have it at the brigade, battalion, company and platoon level. So I ask again:

Where have all the Management Scientists gone?

Jun 18

A few weeks ago, at the request of a friend, I made a military reading list. When I finished, it was really long and frankly unusual. (This is On Violence after all.)

So I decided to break my list into three parts. Last Wednesday, I posted a traditional reading list, with books you could expect to find on the Chief of Staff of the Army’s list. Coming soon, as a guest post on another blog (hopefully later this week), I will have a list on the best books for “Officers as Managers”.

The final list is what I am calling my “non-traditional” list, including science fiction, philosophy and non-fiction works that are critical of the military; basically, books that wouldn't make sense on a traditional reading military reading list. Without further ado, the list:

1. World War Z by Max Brooks. This history of mankind’s war with the undead isn’t about zombies; it’s about international relations. Oh, and adapting (successfully) to fighting a new war. (Like Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, but with zombies.)

2. Top Secret America by Dana Priest and William Arkin. By joining the Army (or any branch) as an officer, you likely join Top Secret America. Along with 750,000 other people, you have access to information that a majority of Congress and their staffs can’t get, plus the constant threat of going to prison if you leak anything to a reporter (no matter how illegal or unconstitutional). This book tells as much of the story as you can find anywhere in the world. (Even Top Secret America doesn’t know much about itself.) Watch the Frontline documentary too.

3. One Nation Under Contract by Allison Stanger. I wrote an entire recommendation for this book for the New York Times “At War” blog, so check it out. Stanger describes how, over the last twenty years, the U.S. government outsourced possibly a majority of its work to the private sector, with the Pentagon doing the most. 

4. I have been engrossed in the last year by a trio of books--The End of War by John Horgan, Winning the War on War by Joshua S. Goldstein and Angels of Our Better Nature by Stephen Pinker--arguing that the world is not more violent, wars aren’t more frequent and we can end war as we know it. Over the summer, I hope to publish more extensive thoughts on those books.

5. The Ugly American by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick. Another book with sly counter-insurgency recommendations, The Ugly American is ostensibly a condemnation of the State Department in the 1960s. Since our military does as much diplomacy as it does warfare, this book is a must read. (We did two posts on this book two years ago and then used it as the basis for a post on Greg Mortenson.)

6. A People Numerous and Armed by John Shy. I have referenced this series of essays in countless On V posts since we launched (here, here, here, and here for starters). A classic in military history, John Shy analyzes how politics intersected with war in a very irregular conflict. He also created a more expansive view of military history that touched on the cultural and social ramifications as opposed to simply describing how generals moved troops on the battlefield.

Jun 10

If you run a military blog, there is only one requirement: make a reading list.

I kid. But there are more reading lists on milblogs than Navy Commanders fired for misconduct, so I’ve avoided making one. (The closest we came was this On Violence gift recommendations post.)

Nevertheless, a good friend from my ROTC days recently took command of a company, and he asked me for my suggestions on good books for his new lieutenants. He specified that his unit probably won’t deploy soon, so he wanted a more general military reading list than the hyper-COIN focused lists of a few years ago. And though the world has enough reading lists, I loved the idea of spouting off on my ideas for books to read. I decided to divide my list into three parts: Traditional, Non-Traditional and Management.

Today I’ll tackle the traditional military side; the books I fell in love with before I left to expand my mind at B-school. I tried (with great difficulty and much concentration) to limit my books about counter-insurgency,, whereas my management list covers the books every officer should read to learn about leading.

(Also, I ranked these books in order of priority.)

1. The Defense of Duffer’s Drift by Sir Ernest Dunlop Swinton. A 1904 novella about a British officer holding a drift during the Boer War, this book manages to explain the principles behind patrolling and small unit tactics better than any manual, while providing an unintended lesson on counter-insurgency.

2. The Accidental Guerrilla by David Kilcullen. Yes, I know this reading list isn’t supposed to be too counter-insurgency heavy, but if you’re going to read one book on irregular warfare/post-9/11 conflict, read this one. David Kilcullen captures the nuances of the motivations behind insurgents, terrorists and globalization.

3. The Art of Maneuver by Robert Leonhard. Shockingly, though this book wasn’t published in the 19th century, it brilliantly captures the principles of war, physics and maneuver warfare. The Art of Maneuver shows how most of the Pentagon’s leaders lacks true strategic and operational creativity. For instance, it describes how the U.S. Army still loves to attack an opponent at his strongest point, instead of his weakest. (That principle applies to regular and irregular warfare too.)

4. A History of Warfare by John Keegan. We should understand the phenomena we practice. A History of Warfare manages to combine a true history of warfare with brilliant asides on the cultural, technological and environmental ramifications of war.

5. Fiasco by Tom Ricks. The best history of the start of the disaster in Mesopotamia and a lesson on leadership in the military.

6. Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife by John Nagl. Yes, I know I said I was going light on counter-insurgency. However, Nagl’s text isn’t so much about counter-insurgency, but institutional learning. Specifically how a bureaucratic Army set-up to fight a conventional, maneuver war can learn to fight an irregular, counter-insurgency. I would argue the military never actually learned how to eat soup with a knife during the last ten years, but that’s partly what makes this a compelling read.

7. Once an Eagle by Anton Meyer. A book about an officer who fights in three different wars, it has lessons on bureaucracy, leadership and warfare. A very long, but very good encapsulation of what it means to succeed as an officer. (Oh, and it too has an ironic detour into irregular warfare too.)

Tune in Monday for our non-traditional reading list.

Jun 10

(To read the entire "Our Communist Military" series, please click here.

And as we now have to clarify in each one of these posts, we don’t actually think that the military is “communist”. That’s a rhetorical stand-in for socialist, liberal, progressive, what have you.)

Michael C and I are writing the “Our Communist Military” series to point out contradictions. Logical inconsistencies. Cognitive dissonances. Believing one thing, but acting another way.

To me (Eric C), the biggest, most stunningly-obvious example of this contradiction is Tricare, the military’s mostly-free health care system.

Which isn’t shocking if you’ve been in the military, but is shocking if you read conservative milblogs. They hate--absolutely hate!--Obamacare. This Ain’t Hell decries Obamacare and “government-run healthcare” here, here, and here. A Soldier’s Perspective has a whole post on taking candy away from kids at Halloween to teach them about redistribution.

Angered after the initial round of blowback we got from “Our Politically Correct Communist Milblogs”, I started thinking about the military’s government-run health care system, and I had some questions. Like...

First off, what do we mean by government-run health care?

I mean zero co-pay health care provided at zero cost to the employees in the military. Free for every employee--and nearly free for dependents and retirees--it’s the single best health care package for any employee in America.

Why does our red blooded, freedom-loving American military have a free health care system?

Simple. Protecting our country is an incredibly dangerous job. By definition, soldiers put their lives and bodies on the line. We don’t want to make people pay for getting injured, maimed or paralyzed while serving their country.

Other professions are dangerous (like crab fishing). Why do people do those jobs without similar health care packages?

Because they pay well. Arguably, the military could save money by going to this system: pay soldiers a lot more and make them get their own insurance.

Why don’t we go to that system?

Because it’d be political suicide.

Which brings us to logical inconsistency number one, the actual reason we provide government-run health care to our soldiers: what politician wants to tell a soldier who lost his legs in service of his country that he has to pay for the amputation himself? Especially since 30% of bankruptcies come from health care costs. We don’t want our soldiers going bankrupt paying for injuries they receive on the battlefield.

So we’ve instituted free health care for millions of Americans er, soldiers.

Has Congress tried to change this system?

All the time.

Any attempt by Congress to change the Pentagon’s health care system--especially increasing co-pays for dependents or retirees--is instantly pounced upon by conservatives (especially milblogs) as screwing the troops. This Ain’t Hell has a post titled, “Your “free health care” will get more expensive” followed up by “Your free healthcare just got more expensive”.

So conservatives endorse the military’s government-run health care system?”

Actually, they don’t.


Because they believe that Tricare (or government-run health care) doesn’t work. Tricare is a reward we offer our soldiers, except...Tricare is terrible. Don’t take my word for it, because I’ve never used it. Take these three examples, responses to our posts in this series so far:

“And TRICARE? An example of state-run healthcare if there ever was one. Its not as simple as walking in and getting treated as most of us know. Its a great example of Britian's NHS and we see it in the VA. Have a serious issue with your health? Wait years to get that MRI that would detect the problems in your body... then wait another couple of months while the Army decides the best way to fix it... then at least a year to find out if you're going to have a job in a year.”

From Doctrine man’s facebook

“I experienced the military healthcare system as an army brat where I sat in the E.R. for six hours with two broken bones in my arm when I was eight. I also witnessed the incompetence of a botched caesarian section with my second son. My wife still bears the scars and nerve damage twelve years later. The system is garbage and you’re not allowed to sue for malpractice. When Tricare expanded options to include private doctors in the late 90s, troops flocked to this option in spite of higher out of pocket costs.”

R.A. Mathis 

“After having Tricare who would want Govt Healthcare? (I once had a soldier whom had a scalpel sewn inside him after surgery)”


Which brings us to the crux of this post...

If Tricare/government-run health care is incompetent and terrible, why do we punish our soldiers by forcing them to use it?

If Tricare works, it means government-run health care works. If it doesn’t, it means we’re punishing our soldiers by forcing them to use it, hurting the heroes who protect our freedoms from Nazis, communists and terrorists by making them use government-run health care.

We can’t get rid of it, though, without conservatives (especially milblogs) accusing the President and Democrats of hating the troops.

Which forces me to ask...   

Why don’t conservative pundits and politicians and VA groups push for a Department of Defense voucher system? Or a privatized insurance program? Or any option other than government-run health care?

The military, according to conservative/anti-Obamacare logic, should provide insurance to its soldiers, like other companies. Better yet, why not move to a voucher system, like the one Paul Ryan proposed for Medicare? If those are truly better free market options, let’s use them.

And how can you complain about Obamacare--literally write that Obamacare will destroy this country--without arguing against the health care system you used when you were in the military? Without arguing that we need to get rid of it?

These are all inconsistencies. We love the troops, so we give them universal, no-cost health care. But universal no-cost health care doesn’t work, but we don’t offer alternatives. And so on. it’s just another inconsistency.

I’ll close with the words of John Lilyea:

“It doesn’t matter how much the increase is, it’s 100% higher than ‘none’ which is what the government promised when we decided to make a career out of the military and make the sacrifices we made in exchange for this benefit.”

Yeah, health care should be free.

Apr 03

(To read the entire "Our Communist Military" series, please click here.

And as we now have to clarify in each one of these posts, we don’t actually think that the military is “communist”. That’s a rhetorical stand-in for socialist, liberal, progressive, what have you.)

Yesterday, I told three different stories about bosses--coaches or military commanders--implementing group punishment. (The comments section added even more examples.) In each case, group punishment utterly failed to change behavior.

For “Our Communist Military”, should this be any surprise? Free market advocates absolutely understand why group punishment doesn’t work: it abdicates individual responsibility.

Take the most accountable/responsible system in our economy: sales. Virtually no sales forces uses group bonuses. Sales people are rewarded individually. Know why? ‘Cause it wouldn’t work. Eric C--who supervises a sales floor--has a theory: a great salesperson could show up to work in a bathrobe. If he’s an earner, no one will say nada.

Individual accountability works. For a football team at any level, the one thing every player cares about above all else is playing time, the currency of amateur sports. If a player who committed a personal foul lost his starting spot the next game, he would stop committing personal fouls. So would everyone else on the team.

In my brigade’s case, individual accountability would mean chaptering (expelling/firing) soldiers who got DUIs. In fact, while our brigade commander was implementing harsher and harsher group punishments, he refused to boot any soldiers. His reasoning--we assumed--was because he didn’t want to deploy short-handed. Getting rid of troublesome soldiers--and legitimately discouraging bad behavior--clashes with the need to field a full brigade before deployment.

So how does this relate to violence, foreign affairs and counter-insurgency? Because despite clinging to the value of individual accountability in economics and criminal justice, many military theorists suddenly embrace group punishment when it comes to warfare or military science.

1. Discipline in units. Group punishment wasn’t created in my brigade. Actually, the Army instills the value/vice of group punishment at the very beginning of every soldier’s career. Enlisted soldiers (who become NCOs) meet it head on during boot camp. Plebes, first year students at West Point, learn the “value” of group punishment during their first summer. It therefore becomes the de facto method of punishment for most leaders in the Army.

And since it doesn’t work, that makes the Army (and Marine Corps, which I assume uses group punishment plenty) less effective.

2. Fighting counter-insurgencies. Many commanders deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq wanted to punish villages, cities, and regions which allowed insurgencies in their midsts. This often led to the idea that, “Hey, if we withhold reconstruction money from Sunni villages, maybe they will expel the Al Qaeda insurgents on their own.” When they don’t, commanders safely lump all the people of that region as “terrorists”.

This attitude has been extended to larger international spheres too...

3. Because some countries let terrorists live around them. The most prevalent example of this is The Sovereignty Solution. I haven’t written about this book yet because I have way more thoughts than will fit into one blog post (or several). In fact, I could write an entire paper on it.

To boil its thesis down into an overly simplified sentence, The Sovereignty Solution recommends holding an entire nation’s population responsible for the actions of individuals living within it. If they or their government refuse to punish terrorists, the U.S. will do it for them. While the U.S. government wouldn’t specifically target civilians in their effort to pursue terrorists, according to the “Sovereignty Solution”, it wouldn’t avoid them either. By allowing terrorists in their midst, civilians are just as culpable. This would motivate populations to suddenly expel all the terrorists.

I hate the concept of group punishment, because it doesn’t work. But I really hate when it is used to support or allow the killing of innocents, as if that would change their behavior. According to The Sovereignty Solution, lack of knowledge or malice is trumped by knowing or living by a bad guy. Imagine if America applied that to Bernie Madoff. Or politicians who are corrupt. Or some of our allies around the world.

This last reason is what really worries me about group punishment. It just won’t work on the international stage the way economic sanctions--another form of group punishment--rarely work. And it won’t stop terrorism.

Feb 13

In Monday’s post, I argued that America should paint our warships headed to the Persian Gulf in rainbow patterns, à la Easter eggs. In short, disruptive camouflage would make Iranian asymmetric naval attacks harder to pull off. (Listen to this 99% Invisible podcast to understand the historical origins of “razzle dazzle” paint jobs.)

Of course, this will never happen. Not because it won’t work. No, innovative--neé disruptive?--ideas, like rainbow camouflage, die quick deaths in our risk-averse U.S. military establishment. In fact, the failure of innovative ideas like “razzle dazzle” combines several On Violence themes over the last few years.


1. The Pentagon/Military is inherently conservative.

Not in a political sense (though it is), but in a bureaucratic, traditionalist sense. I started my last post remarking that most armies prepare for the last war. In the U.S. Navy’s case, none of its current officers were even alive during the last true naval war. As I wrote here, I worry that our navy--filled with large, cumbersome but deadly aircraft carriers, battleships and frigates--might lose ships to Iranian small boats because warfare at sea evolved but our navy’s doctrine hasn’t. Even though small little changes like razzle dazzle camouflage could help, a conservative military won’t see the need for it until after the shooting starts.
As the 99% Invisible podcast described dazzle camouflage’s reception in World War I, “plenty of people who hated dazzle camouflage...traditional navy men mostly”. Not much has changed.

2. In the military, looks matter.

Consider this the triumph of style over substance. I’ve written about this explicitly here (about uniforms and “looking good”) and here (the obsession with shined boots).

So even if dazzle paint jobs saved lives, some Navy officers would ape their predecessors and object on the grounds that it would make their ships look silly.
3. Even if a bold admiral found the courage to adopt “razzle dazzle” it would pay [fill in over-priced defense contractor here] way too much to do it.

Wouldn’t Lockheed-Martin, General Dynamics or Northrop-Grumman compete to earn the contract, but conveniently find ways to keep the minimum paint job price over a 100 million dollars? And then wouldn’t the price keep inflating as they failed to meet the time requirements, which they already charged extra for? And wouldn’t the Pentagon insist on testing every possible variety of paint in every condition, then demand more tests?

In the end, the Pentagon can’t afford to be entrepreneurial.

4. All of the entrepreneurial officers have already left the Pentagon.

I wrote about this in “Why I Got Out: That’s Just the Way It Is”. But I am just one officer who got out expressing his displeasure. An outgoing Marine lieutenant on Thomas Ricks’ blog summed it up, “I’m leaving the corps because it doesn’t much value ideas”. This other Rick’s post has a great summation of all the articles bemoaning the intellectual state of our officer corps. And Tim Kane has an entire book on the topic that just came out.

It’s not hard to see how the Pentagon sucks the entrepreneurial spirit from its commanders. Imagine how many hurdles a Navy admiral would have to clear to paint his ships in razzle dazzle, even if he knew it would save lives. How many officers in the Pentagon would have to sign off on this? How much of his career would be on the line? And would he be considered a rabble rouser who didn’t just toe the line?

The answers: Dozens (and congress), his entire career is at risk, and absolutely. So, yep entrepreneurship is dead in the military.

In the end, winning wars is about making better decisions more often than your opponents.

This might be the new theme of On Violence for 2013. Here is a Robert Rubin quote from his book In an Uncertain World that perfectly sums up this thinking:

“An important corollary to recognizing that decisions are about probabilities is that decisions should not be judged by outcomes but by the quality of the decision-making...Any individual decision can be badly thought through, but be successful, or exceedingly well thought through, but be unsuccessful, because the recognized possibility of failure in fact occurs. But over time, more thoughtful decision-making will lead to better overall results, and more thoughtful decision-making can be encouraged by evaluating decisions on how well they were made rather than on outcome.”

In other words, processes should trump results. It seems counter-intuitive, but it makes sense. Especially in warfare, the side with better processes that makes better decisions more often will win more...on average.

Razzle dazzle represents the failure to embrace better decisions. On its own, razzle dazzle won’t win the war with Iran. But it could lead Iranian small boats into making poor decisions. Combined with our Navy making better decisions--on average--and razzle dazzle could save U.S. lives.

And I frankly can’t see how “razzle dazzle” could hurt the U.S. war effort. Painting ships colors which make them hard to identify at sea has almost all upside, besides the financial cost. Being harder to spot at sea helps no matter what type of war you are fighting, and that includes conventional wars with radar guided missiles.

Considering the enormous Pentagon budget, I can’t see why we can’t spend a few million dollars making ships harder to target at sea. I mean, besides the lack of willingness to embrace innovation within the Pentagon.

Feb 11

Eric C and I love the free market. Economics, historical experience and classically-liberal political thought all demonstrate that the free market, through competition, weeds out weaker competitors in favor of better, more efficient, more effective rivals.

War weeds out weaker competition too. Unfortunately, only war weeds out weaker competition; peacetime militaries mostly have to guess whether or not they’ve prepared adequately/properly for the next war. Doubly unfortunately, most armies hate change. Conservatism and tradition, embodied by bureaucracy, rule the day.

Today, I want to describe an innovation (admittedly, a 100 year old innovation) in naval camouflage that I think could save lives--possibly hundreds of American’s lives--that will never, ever in a million years happen:

The Navy should paint its warships rainbow colors.

Okay, okay, okay. You probably expect me to make a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” joke right about now, and I’m not going to give it to you, because I am 100% serious. In addition to multi-colored hues, I believe the U.S. Navy should paint all its ships in zig-zags, stripes and swirls.

It’s called disruptive camouflage. Instead of blending with the background, you confuse your enemy. Think zebras. At first, its like, “Man, zebras suck at camouflage. They blend into nothing. That’s the worst camouflage ever.” Unless they’re not trying to blend into the background, but each other...that might actually trick lions.

Disruptive camouflage works in naval warfare. In World War I, when German U-boats surfaced to fire torpedoes at enemy ships and cargo vessels, they only had a few seconds to determine the distance and direction of these ships. They would then dive again to avoid being spotted, resurface, locate the enemy ship and fire. Since torpedoes traveled slowly, U-boats had to lead their targets by several nautical miles, trying to predict where their prey would end up in a few minutes time.

Seems tricky, right?

Well, British and American warships knew that U-boats needed to predict within eight degrees the direction of their victims, so they developed some counter-measures. Since blending in with the ocean is pretty much impossible, they tried to confuse their opponents instead.

By painting zigzags of different colors all over their battleships, when the U-boats surfaced, they could spot the American and British vessels; they just didn’t know where they were going. Or how far away they were. The different colors, swirls, zigzags and shapes made vessels appear to be traveling forward or backwards, slower or faster. When the U-boats resurfaced, they would often be aiming in the complete wrong direction, and would have to start the entire aiming process over.

Eric C’s favorite model of disruptive camouflage is the “fake wake”. On the back of a boat, the painters would paint a large white wake as if the boat was steaming full speed in the opposite direction. Instead, it sailed off going forward.

The Navy called this camouflage, “razzle dazzle”. Since every second counted, the longer it took a U-boat to aim and fire, the more chances the allied ship had of discovering the U-boat and radioing for help. This 99% Invisible podcast keyed me into this entire phenomenon, and how, as host Roman Mars narrates, the US Navy looked like “a flock of sea-going Easter eggs” or “a cubist nightmare”.
I can hear the skeptics. The clever Navy officer has an easy counter to Michael C, faux naval surface warfare expert. “Yeah, Michael C, razzle dazzle worked when the enemy manually fired torpedoes. Our missiles and torpedoes rely on sonar and radar. Razzle dazzle won’t help a damn bit.”

The hypothetical Navy officer would be right...if all America cared about was fighting high-intensity warfare against the Chinese or Russians. In that case, naval warfare would happen at distances of hundreds of miles, and each side would use advanced imagery and surveillance to find naval flotillas. However, I think a war with either of those two counties is incredibly unlikely, despite how much the defense establishment prepares for that scenario.

But the single most likely nation the U.S. might fight a war against, especially a naval war, in the next year--or next five years--is Iran. As this post from last year lays out, Iran plans to prey on the U.S. Navy’s geographical limitations with low-tech weaponry. They will use mini-subs, speed boats and anti-ship cruise missiles to swarm our ships in very shallow and narrow waterways.

While razzle dazzle won’t help in a high intensity naval war, it could help in an asymmetric war like this. A suicide boat is essentially a surface torpedo. In the effort to swarm larger U.S. ships, timing is everything. Every second Iran’s small boats remain undetected is another second likelier they are to sink a U.S. ship. Imagine entire flotillas of Iranian vessels setting out in the wrong direction, finding themselves further away from their targets rather than closer because of American razzle dazzle camouflage. This could mean the difference between the U.S. Navy sinking a couple dozen Iranian small boats or an American aircraft carrier (with 6,000 sailors) sinking.

I’m a realist (not in foreign policy terms) though. I know I will never see razzle dazzle paint jobs on U.S. Navy vessels. I’ll address why on Wednesday.