Friday, May 27, 2016

Special Forces and the threat of technological disruption

War on the Rocks asks whether emerging technologies threaten the mission of Special Forces.

What happens when the capabilities that we give to special operators can instead be deployed by amateurs? How will the special operations community respond?

. . .

To complete its missions in an increasingly chaotic world, U.S. special operations forces (SOF) must learn to rapidly adopt technologies that may only be months old. Just as machine intelligence transformed the professional chess circuit — today’s top chess teams are human-machine hybrids — so too must SOF evolve and drive emerging capabilities more deeply into its operational elements.

Fortunately for those involved in planning, training, and executing sensitive and special operations, no nuanced actor has yet synthesized all of these new tools into a precise instrument. But there are signs of experimentation by America’s potential adversaries, most notably in the special operations campaign run by the Russian government during its annexation of Ukraine.

. . .

For years we’ve been seeing an exponential increase in computer and communication capabilities. Exponential growth looks linear until it hits an inflection point. Are we there? Perhaps. The iPad 2, released in 2011, was more powerful than the 1985 Cray-2 Supercomputer, which cost $35 million in today’s dollars.

This comparison illustrates the commoditization of so-called “national technical means.” What was once the sole provenance of nation states can now be purchased at the corner store, and the downward price pressure on these capabilities is not limited to the digital spectrum. Unmanned aerial vehicles with cutting-edge optics, built and used by nation states for over half a century, are now available for the cost of a meal at a modest restaurant.

Combining sensors, actuators, transducers, and other analog and digital components hereto unknown provide a potential generational leap in asymmetric capability by non-state actors and non-elite units of potential competitor nations. How can we continue to man, train, and equip the best special operations forces in the world when the same capabilities they employ, which cost us billions of dollars to acquire and train up, are available to a weekend hobbyist for a few hundred dollars?

There's much more at the link.  Thought-provoking reading.

I suggest one place to start would be with Israel.  It's a highly technological society, reflected in the training and equipment of its defense forces.  It's facing terrorist opponents who are doing precisely as the above article postulates;  using over-the-counter technology to aid their operations.  Hezbollah has already deployed unmanned aerial vehicles operationally, and operates a drone base in Lebanon.  It's also intercepted radio transmissions from Israeli drones and used that intelligence operationally.  (The same was done more recently, in more sophisticated fashion, by US and British intelligence.)

Israel can probably teach us a lot about how to counter such dual-purpose technology.  I agree with the article's premise;  such technological overlap is going to make the life of our Special Forces troops - not to mention conventional forces - a lot more tricky.



Borepatch said...

At the risk of going off topic, the iPad 2 was *not* more powerful than the Cray 2 for a whole bunch of uses - like NSA doing brute force key cracking. The iPad doesn't have nearly enough cores, even though the cores it does have are faster.

Better user interface? Sure - although Unicos had its own nerdy appeal.

But "more powerful" is WAY too broad a term, at least for someone who used to work with Crays.

Odysseus said...

Having read the article the biggest obstacle is going to be developing the mental flexibility to deal with such rapid changes. On individual basis it's possible, but history hasn't spoken kindly about nearly any GHQ's ability to adapt to new dynamics in timely manners.

Inconsiderate Bastard said...

It's well overused and frequently misapplied - primarily through incomplete understanding of what it really means - but this is, basically, an OODA Loop issue. (Boyd developed it, everyone says it, few understand it, even fewer mean it.)

Application of technology is, from a technology standpoint, trivially easy. From an organizational standpoint, however, it's usually the equal of pushing wet noodles uphill. Making the bits and bytes do one's bidding is child's play compared to getting human-directed organizational structure to use that capability effectively. Odysseus (above) has it exactly right: protecting one's own rice bowl always comes ahead of organizational and mission flexibility.

Borepatch touched on something: "Cray" has become something of an incantation, a "technology touchstone." Seymour's outfit built some wicked fast boxes well before anyone else did, but time, and technology, march on relentlessly. For example, two decades back IBM finally "announced" clustered RISC 6000 sets, but only after HP's release of their version pressured them into it. There were problem sets for which those RISC arrays gave Crays a run for their money at pennies against dollars, even with IBM's ridiculously inflated prices. I don't accept the "iPad vs Cray" comparison except, perhaps, at an individual processor flop rate; it needs to be remembered that for hardware to meaningfully run at "faster than light speed" it needs to be driven by software to accomplish anything. and with disturbing frequency humans thoroughly corrupt the verb "accomplish."

m4 said...

It should be noted that spending money on military research is not about being the only one to have the tech, it's about having that tech first. It has always been so and it will always be so.

It should also be noted that special forces should not be, and certainly never were, about having fancy toys. Some of their greatest feats were not accomplished through superior technology but through their superior training and tactics and insanity-grade courage. The raid on St Nazaire was carried out with little more than a big bomb and a pair that clanked. That's what sets special forces apart from regular infantry, not some gizmo.

Jay Dee said...

This is really nothing new.

For instance, the US Navy believed the fleet was safe from aerial delivered torpedoes due to the shallow depth of Pearl Harbor and simply stopped thinking about it. No one dared to ask well how could torpedoes be adapted to work in shallow water. The Japanese Navy suffered no such illusions and developed the Type 91 "Thunder Fish" torpedo which could be used in shallow water. The rest is history.

The problem for any large organization is best described as intellectual senility. This is the way we do it. This is the only way to do it. Unfortunately such attitudes are dead wrong.

Then there are the issues of developing some revolutionary device but failing to plan for success. The first deployment of tanks are a grand example. They were unexpecred and were able to breach the trenches. Now what? An agile commander would have planned for a rapid mobile response but there were no plans for success. The tanks rolled several miles into Axis territory and stopped. By the time that Allied commanders realized what happened, the element of surprise was wasted and effective counter measures were developing.

Quartermaster said...

The only way to compare processors is via the instruction execution rate, the "flop." The Cray-2, IIRC, has a rate on the order of 2 gigaflops, which was utterly astounding in 1985. Where program execution depended entirely on the flops, the Cray-2 would beat anything at the time. Computer performance, however, also depends on architecture and memory fetch speed. I very seriously doubt that the IPAD-2 would match the Cray-2 on that score. On handiness considerations, the IPAD would put any Cray product in the shade, and it's fast enough for what is asked of it. I note that Cray computers are normally found almost exclusively in high powered research facilities, where huge mathematical models are run. Such applications could never be run on an IPAD simply because it does not have the resources required to do things like computational fluid dynamics of the sort required in Submarine or Aerospace design.

Anonymous said...

... I think it was some edition of westernized Sun Tzu with commentaries... anyway, something about the nature of "special forces" and how, in the general case, elements that have been found successful in "special" forces have a tendency to spread to general usage over time and thus lose the "special" thing.

Therefore any "special forces" element must either continuously evolve, or gradually lose the special status.

Basic infantry tactics and methods would be a case in point - way back when, non-special infantry didn't take cover much, or even aim their guns...

BTW, a lot of the lower-budget countries are quite happy about the reduced cost of technology, and the limiting factors are usually in the command/bureaucracy level. (As they should be in case of any "special" force element.)

Oh, and on the computing performance of today's handheld/mobile devices... yes, I actually did install a genuine old-style technical computing environment on a smartphone recently (Maxima on Android, a close descendant of MACSYMA), and yes, I could duplicate the calculations on it... if I really had to. The limiting factor isn't the raw hardware processing power, but user interface and also operating environment overhead. (Cray-2 didn't spend resources on fancy graphics, transition animations, font antialiasing and what have you...)