We need an MIA/POW flag for our missing drones.

Lockheed's Mach-3 D-21 drone could be launched from the M-21, a variant of the SR-71.

We’ve all reveled in the antics of anthropomorphic Drunken Predators and Party Reapers, chatting on Skynet as if it were their personal frat house.  And who could forget that wayward Raven, vainly Tweeting away in a gratuitous cry for male attention?  Or even her poor girlfriend, trafficked across borders and sold on eBay?

But errant drones are nothing new.  If anything, they seem to have mischief built into their robotic DNA.  Just witness the mayhem caused by Lockheed’s Mach-3 D-21 drone, first flown in 1964.

Many an infantryman has patrolled the streets of Iraq in search of a missing Raven; the drones go AWOL so often that US troops have spray-painted their fuselages with reward offers.  But that pales in comparison to the D-21, which went astray on a secret reconnaissance mission over China’s Lop Nor nuclear test site during the height of the Cold War.

The good news was that Chinese air defense systems failed to detect the high-flying drone as it rocketed across China’s northwestern Bayingolin region.  The bad news, of course, was that the D-21 overshot Lop Nor and strayed into the Soviet Union.

It was later revealed that the Tupolev bureau reverse-engineered the wreckage sometime in the 1970s.  In a bizarre twist of fate, CIA agents discovered that Tupolev’s engineers had named the drone the Raven.

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WOI Strategy Contest: Risto Ryti

Petriv, who hails from Finland, nominated Risto Ryti in the official WOI strategy contest.  Though not as famous (or infamous) as Napoleon, Talleyrand, or Metternich; Ryti is still a notable choice, based on his perspicacity, staving off encroachment by both Germany and the USSR.

Take it away, Petriv:

I’m nominating Risto Ryti, President of Finland during second World War. Ryti’s cleverness guaranteed reasonable starting point for peace negotiations between Finland and Soviet Union, thus ensuring us independence, albeit with heavy terms.

After Winter War it became obvious that an alliance against Soviet Union was needed and therefore Finland joined Third Reich in an uneasy and much debated agreement. However, the high command saw in 1943 that Germans would end up losing and thus Finland sought attempts to distance itself from Germany and negotiate a separate peace with Soviet Union.

However, at the same time materiel aid from Germany was needed to stop Soviet attacks: if Soviets would’ve breached the Karelian Isthmus, the Finnish heartland would’ve been wide open and the nation decapitated.

Enter Ryti, who tricked Germans into an agreement (2) where Finland would receive military aid while promising to stay by Germanys side. Ribbentrop and German high command didn’t however realize that an agreement made by President and Government was not legally binding: only Parliament can make decisions on war and peace.

Ryti knew this and when the time was right, he resigned from presidency thus voiding the agreement and Finland was able to seek peace. Ryti also knew that he might receive a death penalty after the war. This did not happen but ultimately he paid a heavy price in war crimes tribunal, which was largely dictated by the winning state.

I consider this as a successful grand strategy which looked beyond the war to ensure possibility for our nation to prosper alongside it’s former enemy, thus avoiding the fate of Soviet satellite states.

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And lest I forget…

Yesterday’s epic picture of an Otto von Bismarck stein was brought to you courtesy of Adam Elkus.  WIN!

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Greatest strategists in history: A WOI essay contest

If you haven’t picked up the most recent copy of Infinity Journal, you should.  (Go ahead and register, it’s free!)  Among the contributors is Colonel Gian Gentile, currently a visiting fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who penned an article lamenting the apparent death of US strategy.

Though the dearth of good strategic thinking is real, I doubt it was counterinsurgency doctrine which “killed” it, if it is even truly dead in the first place.  Certainly, the visible prominence of land power in long-term overseas occupations–rather than maritime and air power–may have led to a perceived death of US strategy.  Yet I suspect strategy is far from dead.  In fact, Col. Gentile’s co-contributor, Dr. Patrick Porter, even surmised that grand strategy doesn’t necessarily need to be well-articulated.  And really, the grand strategies of the great world powers generally seems coherent in retrospect.  After all, historians love to weave facts together into a concise narrative.  

With that said, I’m opening my website to guest posters.  I want to hear your opinions on the world’s best grand strategists.  Some questions to keep in mind.

  • Which strategists, nations, or empires practiced an effective grand strategy?  Between what dates?  If applicable, what strategic choices eventually led to this nation’s decline?
  • Was the grand strategy spelled out ahead of time?  How did it change?  Did the architects “make it up as they went”?  Who was responsible for formulating the strategy?  One person?  A cabinet?  Multiple heads of state?
  • Who were the nation’s rivals, and how did they influence grand strategy?  Did the nation in question capitalize on the mistakes of others?  How did the relative ineptitude of others play into the great power’s hands?

Note to the Clausewitz fanboys:  I’m not accepting Prussia as an answer.  Sorry, but I’m beginning to feel that America’s war colleges have such a hard-on for dead Prussians that they either have a pickelhaube in their pocket, or they just really love their Clausewitz.  

I will select a suitable prize for the winner.  If possible, I will try to pick up one of these awesome Otto von Bismark steins in Germany.  
PS:  Courtney, I already have your essay picked out.  The title will be “Ke$ha von Metternich”, and it will include the sick and sexified quote, “Let others wage wars, but you, O happy Austria, marry“.  You may select an appropriate picture.
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Our grasp of strategy is worse than I thought

Awww, thanks.

According to a recent Gallup poll, more more Americans responded that America’s land forces–namely, the Army and Marine Corps–were more important to its defense than the Air Force or the Navy.  It’s a touching gesture, no doubt a reflection of America’s gratitude following nearly a decade of war, but it doesn’t reflect the strategic reality.

Bordered by Mexico to the south and Canada to the north, the US hasn’t faced a credible land threat since the days of Pancho Villa (ahem, Plan Red and Defence Scheme 1 excluded, of course).  And though the menace to the north is certainly a tumultuous country–teetering on the brink of civil war after the recent defeat of the Vancouver Canucks–it remains America’s largest trading partner, and closest ally.

Thus, with few credible land-based threats on its borders, America’s strategic policy has traditionally mirrored that of the world’s greatest island nation: Great Britain.

Great. These guys…

Though Britain fielded a respectable army during the late 19th Century, it was spread thin throughout the world, with only a small army guarding the home island itself.  Britain’s first line of defense (ahem, defence) was its fleet.  And though the British Empire suffered from a perennial shortage of land forces, her imperial designs were more often hamstrung by the size of her fleet.  While naval warfare has evolved considerably since the days of sail, we still find ourselves in a similar predicament, with military commitments throughout the world.

Which leads us to perhaps the greatest revelation of the Gallup poll: that we’ve taken our mastery of the sea and air for granted?

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Barbarossa Day!

“The entire World will hold it’s breath!”

Unternehmen Barbarossa’s 70th Anniversary.

Just after 0300 hours local time – a 3 mile wide strip of territory stretching the length of eastern Europe from Baltic Sea to the Carpathian Mountains erupted in a torrent of fire and flying steel as Luftwaffe aircraft, Werhmacht artillerie und panzers blasted across the Soviet frontier. In the violence of her initial collision, the immensity and feriocity of her subsequent development, and her prolifigacy of destruction of human life and resources – Operation Barbarossa – the Deutschland – Russian conflict – transcended anything ever before – or since – in the human experience.

Flush with fast, relatively easy victories over Western Europa – NSDAP time Deutschland flung three ginourmous Armee Gruppen at Russia in a crazy scheme to knock out the Collectivist armies forcing Mockba to accept an uneven uneasy piece and destroy bolshvikism forever.

The 1st 6 months saw amazing feats of Teutonic arms, vast panzer pincers, desperate pockets of Soviets fought to annihilation or capture (often the same thing) and by Pearl Harbor Day the naughty Wehrmacht was fighting in Moscow’s suburbs.

The Moscow Battle – Operation Typhoon was the literally chilling climax of Barbarossa’s blitzkrieg portion. Ferocious defense of the the capitol city by freshly released Siberian Reserves (Russia learned Nippon wouldn’t be attacking their  far east anytime soon) ended any hap hap happy tho’ts of a ‘lightning campaign’ in Russia.

Operation Barbarossa ground on for three and a half years more the site of some of the largest battles, deadliest atrocities, highest casualties, and most horrific conditions for Soviets and Germans alike – massively complex military ops like Stalingrad, Zitadelle and Bagration – until 3rd Reich died in an orgy of blood and flame and shaped the modern world and lingers with us still: NATO, Russia’s near paranoia with her Near Abroad and fear of an awakened, reunified, riled up Germany. 

“Verlonne Siege”

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Blogroll Update

Defense analyst and LOLcat enthusiast Adam Elkus has been busy redesigning his Rethinking Security blog.  Make sure you update your blogroll accordingly:

  • Rethinking Security has moved to Tumblr.
  • The complete RS archives–2007 to 2011–have migrated to WordPress.
  • Adam also has a smaller Tumblr blog, complete with a giant killer robot in the background.  This alone makes it worth following.

(Did I just write that entirely in bullet points?  FML.)


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C2 By PowerPoint

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might suspect I dislike PowerPoint ever so slightly.  But though I often denounce Microsoft’s ubiquitous slide-view software, PowerPoint actually serves as a scapegoat for my frustration with tired thinking and poor communication.  I’m not alone, either:  top military commanders have lambasted “dumb-dumb bullet-points” again and again.  (And again) (And again)

After the inner details of my love-hate relationship with PowerPoint made their way to the front page of the New York Times, I received a Facebook message from Dave Karle, an executive communications manager at Microsoft and Iraq War veteran.  Through months of Facebook chats, we discussed the “dos” and “don’ts” of PowerPoint, which Dave subsequently incorporated into the Modern Presentation Method (MPM).

Of course, if you read Wired.com’s Danger Room blog, you’d know that already.

Blaming PowerPoint for an inscrutable slide is like blaming Twitter for DMing pictures of your penis to unsuspecting followers. ”If the military used Keynote, rest assured, they’d find a way to misuse that as well,” says Army Cpt. Crispin Burke, a Danger Room pal who’s put together his share of PowerPoints and PowerPoint criticisms.

In fact, it’s because of Burke that Karle’s whole effort got under way. Karle saw Burke quoted in a New York Times article in April 2010 that castigated PowerPoint and sent him a Facebook message soliciting his critiques.

Burke recalls his advice to Karle on making PowerPoint less of a soul-killing monster: “A common graphics library…. Use the default template…. By standardizing certain products across organizations, we can eliminate much of the time wasted re-formatting slides.”

Through Burke’s online contacts, Karle found the pseudonymous Army officer known as Doctrine Man, who rails on his Facebook page in cartoon form against the undignified foibles of military bureaucracy.

“My advice to Dave was pretty basic,” Doctrine Man reflects. “Knowing that there is a bias against PowerPoint that is building momentum, you don’t market Modern Presenter as a tool for better PowerPoint, but as a method to improve our communications skills.” (Doctrine Man made the Xtra Normal parodying PowerPoint Rangers that appears at the top of this post; the “tool behind the tool” phrase is his, too.)

In December, Karle launched a blog called, simply enough, Modern Presenter, that synthesized his experience giving endless presentations for Microsoft with the feedback he got from Burke and Doctrine Man.

He offered his Method as a way for people to focus on the goals of their presentations, rather than getting hung up on the technology — which results in the tangle of boxes and arrows that give PowerPoint its bad reputation.

“Presenters learn how to define what their audience needs, the presenter’s needs, and how to build a great story framework,” he blogged. Simply put: Visualize what you’re trying to say; map it out in storyboards; add some cool visuals. Refine it. Keep it pretty short. And it doesn’t have to be a PowerPoint: Let the message define the medium. “Hopefully the [Microsoft] Office team is not on its way to find me right now,” he joked.

On the advice of Microsoft’s chief defense liaison, Tim Solms, Karle trekked from Redmond to talk to the doctrine writers in the Army about his Method. By March, he got a sit-down at the Combined Arms Center, whose chief of staff, Col. Dominic Pompelia, assigned Roberson in May to work with him on developing an Army version of modern presenter.

The updated Military Presentation Method is a series of templates, graphics libraries and best practices tips to stave off the overuse of PowerPoint. Karle and Roberson literally scanned hundreds of field artillery graphics and more than 6,000 NATO-approved map symbols to spare officers the time of hunting for them online or in share drives.

“It’s all the tenets — less is more, don’t use 1,100 slides when you can use 20,” Karle says. Officers come to him asking, “How can I do it better, how can I do it less, how can I do it faster?” That’s missing the point, he explains: “I switch it from tools and more toward outcomes…. OK, maybe that’s what I’ll show you here, but what I’ll really show you is how to give a world-class presentation.”

All this work is gratis. Karle figures it’ll pay for itself by generating happier MS Office customers. At least if the Military Presentation Method doesn’t become a rigid how-to pushed out by the Army brass that results in even more labored presentations.

Weak thinking and bureaucratic rigitidy–manifesting itself through PowerPoint slides–featured in a vignette during the District Stability Framework class I attended this week, hosted by USAID.

Military commanders in counterinsurgency environments often plan their campaign along various “Lines Of Operation” (LOOs):  e.g., economic, social, security, and governance.    Of course, this also means staffs feel pressure to show their unit’s efforts along each of the various LOOs on a PowerPoint slide by cramming each line with activities (see below).  In the words of the Doctrine Man, “if you see “white space, fill it”.  


Although doling out billions of dollars in aid to one of the world’s poorest nations is, well, cute, it doesn’t necessarily address the root causes of instability.  After all, the Taliban are active in more districts than ever before, despite tens of billions of dollars in foreign aid from the international community.  Not to mention, the massive influx of cash is a short-sighted endeavor which could easily backfire upon NATO’s withdrawal (and, of course, line the pockets of unscrupulous figures).  Prioritizing stabilization activities through filling in the white space of a PowerPoint slide won’t make Afghanistan more stable:  although, sadly, many commanders seem to think it will.

If we attempt to solve “C2 by PowerPoint” by eliminating PowerPoint, we’ll only attack the symptom.  The disease, of course, is weak thinking.

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Calling Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot

Just when I think the nadir of US-Pakistani relations can’t get any lower, the world surprises me yet again.

The [Pakistani] military is funding a TV action series aimed at showcasing its role in fighting Taliban militants. To keep costs down, the army employs soldiers as actors, with no extra pay for their services, and uses real military equipment. The army says the stories are based on real-life encounters on the battlefield.

The series, “Faseel-e-Jaan Se Aagay,” or “Beyond the Call of Duty,” is low-budget. The soldiers’ acting is wooden. Each episode costs only $12,000, and the special effects look dated. Yet the Urdu-language series, which started in January and began a second season earlier this month on state-owned Pakistan Television Corp., has been a hit, especially among rural viewers.

In the recent season opener, two helicopter pilots who stormed a Taliban mountain redoubt in 2009 played themselves. In the show, as in real life, the pilots had lost a colleague during an operation earlier that year to clear militants from South Waziristan, a mountainous tribal region near the Afghan border. Against orders, they flew a retaliatory mission against the Taliban and captured an anti-aircraft gun that militants had used to shoot down their friend’s helicopter. They are reprimanded but become heroes nevertheless.

Great. All the old Hollywood movie clichés, on one percent of the budget.  Let me be clear by saying that there will be severe repercussions for any volleyball scenes set to Kenny Loggins music.  Let’s not forget that billions of US taxpayer dollars support funding for Pakistan’s military, some of which undoubtedly went towards funding the worst movie since Firebirds*.

Dare I say this might be the worst movie since Turkish Star Wars.  Where’s Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot when you need them?

*–I should note that Stephanie Carvin (of Duck of Minerva fame) suggested I replace Firebirds with Iron Eagle IV.

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Metrics: Love ’em or leave ’em

Photo courtesy US Army on Flickr

What do you call an aviator in a District Stability Framework seminar?

(I spent the entire day trying to come up with a punchline for this.  Suffice to say, the aforementioned aviator is yours truly, and attendance at a District Stability Framework seminar is somewhat unusual.)

District Stability Framework–known as “DSF”, among the true connoisseurs of counterinsurgency–allows military leaders to understand tactical level of stability operations in Afghanistan. Just be sure to check your clichéd “hearts and minds” rhetoric at the door at this excellent workshop conducted by the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

Of course, fans of Greg Mortensen will be shocked–shocked I tell you–to learn that misguided aid projects often destabilize poverty-stricken areas.  Of course, this comes as no surprise to snarky bloggers who relish in lampooning celebrity aid projects.  (And, incidentally, wear panda hats.  You know who you are.)

Yet, the most contentious aspect of counterinsurgency is the use of “metrics”–methods of measuring progress in a campaign.  Australian counterinsurgency theorist David Kilcullen’s list of counterinsurgency metrics–quoted in Small Wars Journal–elicited nearly eighty responses from the likes of Gentile, WilF, and Carl Prine (oh, my!).

Of course, we all realize that metrics have their flaws:  Robert McNamara and his “whiz kids” are proof enough.  That doesn’t mean we totally reject them, either.

One respondent at Small Wars Journal noted that, during the summer of 2007, “somehow, we knew” that security was beginning to improve in Iraq.  Unfortunately, we can’t simply “sense” the improvement in security; none of us has Jedi senses.  And the greater our emotional investment in the war, the more apt we may be to convince ourselves that our actions are making a significant impact.

Indeed, any argument will naturally fall back on metrics, flawed as they may be:  whether on the baseball field or the battlefield.  Without them, we’re left with anecdotes and attitudes.  And Jedi senses, of course.

Update (1715Z, 15 June 2011):  While we’re on the topic of flawed metrics and pointless anecdotes, Jason Fritz just pointed out some great ones in a recent feel-good piece at Small Wars Journal.

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