Archive for October, 2009

Another interesting piece on cyber warfare by Richard Clarke in the National Interest.

Sure, it has become sort of a cotton industry that the possibility cyber warfare is real, warfare is changing, etc. But the interesting part are the following nuggets.

Unfortunately, the government has no cyber-defense strategy. While the cyber warriors of Fort Meade may take comfort in America’s reputation as having the most potent arsenal of cyber weapons, they may be members of the national cyber-war team with the lowest overall capability. Indeed, America’s ability to defend its vital systems from cyber attack ranks among the world’s worst.

He goes on to drive the point home:

THE FACT that legislators and policy makers do not understand the strategy issues surrounding cyber war may stem from the lack of public discussion, absence of academic contribution, minimal media coverage and insistence on unnecessary government secrecy. A multidepartment effort this year to develop a cyber-war-deterrence strategy produced a paper that is still labeled “secret.” The last time someone thought a secret could deter an opponent was when 1960s movie character Dr. Strangelove yelled at the Soviet ambassador that a deterrent weapon only works “if you tell us you have it.”

So if the threat of a full-scale cyber warfare is real–and not something Dick Cheney hyped up from one of his perhaps many, many nightmares–why the lack of serious debate and strategy?



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One of the hottest concepts currently in vogue with policy making elites is sensemaking.  Policy makers in Singapore, particularly in the defence and national security establishments, have made sensemaking the central framework in which analysis and the policy making process occurs.

For example, the Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning (RAHS) system is essentially a sensemaking tool employed by Singapore’s national security agencies to give early warning of strategic surprises over a two to five year horizon.  RAHS’s unique feature is that it is driven by a technology that facilitates the extraction and organisation of open source information to augment analysts’ sensemaking process.  (The key word here is ‘augment’, not ‘supplant’, though a thin line separates the two.  Presumably, when the lever is cranked, the answer that this Deep Thought comes  up with isn’t ’42’)

More germane to this post, of course, is sensemaking as understood and practised in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).  A 2007 Pointer article very succinctly captures the SAF’s approach to sensemaking.  Sensemaking is seen to be the key enabler of the Integrated Knowledge-based Command and Control (IKC2) model that lies at the heart of the 3rd Generation (3G) SAF.  Furthermore, sensemaking is posited to be an organisation-wide tool, to be applied at every level of command.  In a nutshell, then, the name of the game is to out-OODA the enemy’s OODA loop.  And the way to win this game is the application of the sum total of the SAF’s (at the organisational and individual levels) cognitive tools and processes, collectively known as sensemaking.  Indeed, in this past July’s Straits Times special on the 3G SAF, its ‘sensemaking algorithms’ were identified as the primary catalyst for the SAF’s warfighting prowess.  And there are no shortage of sensemaking tools: OODA loops, Recognition-Primed Decision-Making process, Team Insight Model, even data mining techniques, just to name a few.

So far, so good.  Superior sensemaking ability would translate into dominant battlespace awareness, one of the principal premises (and promises) of the RMA.  So the theory goes.

The problem is that the sensemaking is being employed mechanistically as an algorithmic tool, rather than as a heuristic device to cope with ambiguity and uncertainty.  The very use of the term algorithm suggests precision, unambiguity, a well-defined set of instructions for solving a problem in an optimal fashion.  Heuristic, on the other hand, suggests trial-and-error, experiential learning, and most importantly, approximating the best possible answer.  Heuristics, in other words, evoke notions of bounded rationality, satisficing as opposed to optimising, and the art of ‘muddling through’.

Sensemaking is understood and practised by the SAF in a mechanistic fashion.  Needless to say, such an understanding of sensemaking resonates with policy makers, who intrinsically have a predilection for practical, easy-to-use tools.  Using sensemaking mechanistically as a tool allows for problem-solving; by contrast, sensemaking as conceived by Karl Weick engenders and encourages greater problematisation.

Weick’s original conception of sensemaking was as a device for rationalising actions that have been undertaken, and also as a locus of identity for organisations.  Sensemaking therefore consists in the ongoing retrospective formation of plausible images that allow people to rationalise and reconcile what they are doing.  More than that, it is the process in which meanings are enacted, which in turn inform and constrain identity and further action.  In other words, through sensemaking, situations, organisations, and environments are talked into existence, with more-or-less agreed upon meanings attached to them.

This retrospective dimension to the process of sensemaking contrasts starkly with the cognitive tools that are applied prospectively.  More than that, the mechanistic and prospective application of sensemaking is underpinned by important epistemological and ontological assumptions.  First, it assumes a positivist epistemology, which means a Cartesian separation of subject from object, and the ability to ‘truly’ know things through scientific and rational methods.  Second, it assumes an objective ontology, meaning there is an independent, objective underlying reality that can be uncovered.  Hence, there is an uncertain environment ‘out there’ which, through the application sensemaking tools, can be rendered certain, or at least less uncertain.  By contrast, the social constructionist roots of Weick’s sensemaking assumes a subjective ontology and an interpretivist epistemology: there is no ontologically objective reality waiting to be uncovered; rather there is a collaboratively-interpreted social reality that is more-or-less agreed upon.  In this sense (pun intended), sense giving is a more apt term than sensemaking.

Ultimately, sensemaking is not about the ‘truth’ and ‘getting it right’; rather, it is the continuous drafting (and redrafting) of an emerging story so that it becomes more comprehensive, plausible and comfortable, and incorporates more of the observed data, and is more resilient to alternative stories. It is not about rendering an uncertain environment more certain, simply because environments are not uncertain, people are.  In any case, organisations (and the people in them) do not need to perceive their problems and their environments accurately in order to act on them; they can act effectively simply by making enough sense of them such that they can move forward towards broadly defined, long-term goals.  The problem then arises when the number of parties increases, thereby making the sensemaking enterprise more challenging because the cost of reconciling disparate and conflicting stories becomes higher, and discrepancies and ambiguities persist.

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One of the more interesting things to develop in military studies has been the stark contrast between the language used to study the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), where terms such as network-centric warfare (NCW), cyber-warfare, non-linearity, simultaneity, battle space dominance and so forth are used to illustrate how radically different modern warfare is from all that has gone on before, and the language employed in the broader military studies that remains rooted in the mechanistic vocabulary of Newtonian physics and which reflects the Cartesian worldview of the rationality and certainty of scientific knowledge.  In a sense, studying the RMA has afforded us an opportunity to study not only how we study all things military, but how the ‘military’ itself is constructed and experienced.

Take the armed forces itself for instance.  The irony is that the very organization that is talking about open and adaptive systems, defence eco-systems, networks and so on is itself a highly structured, hierarchical, mechanistic, centralised organization (or should it be ‘organism’?)  The military organization, today as in the days of Frederick the Great, remains the pre-eminent example of Newtonian predictability.

Indeed, the metaphors we use reflect this: the soldier as a cog in the bigger machinery that is the military, where a critical turn of just the right gear will move the entire machine.  Which makes all this recent fixation with post-Newtonian science somewhat jarring, especially when juxtaposed against the still-dominant metaphor of the machine.  Quantum theory, relativity theory, Darwinian evolution, complexity theory – which following from the work of Fritjof Capra can be collectively termed post-Newtonian science – all suggest a world characterised by probabilities, arbitrary frames of reference, incremental yet unpredictable changes, and where slight variations in starting inputs can result in disproportionately large variations in final outputs.  Or, at the very least, suggest that Newton’s clockwork universe is only valid for a very small range of physical phenomena.

Such ideas have in turn spawned, in the military domain, concepts such as evolutionary approaches to organising, emergent strategy, networks/open systems, all of which preclude the possibility of prediction, much less control, that lies at the heart of the military organization.  And lest we forget, control is certainly something that is deeply embedded in military life.  In particular, the adoption of the ‘defence eco-system’ concept poses challenges to structure of, indeed the very rationale for, the military organization.  Evolutionary economists Kurt Dopfer and Jason Potts define eco-system, or complex open system, as follows:

Non-linear, quasi-entropic, partially stochastic, non-equilibrium, boundedly rational, self-organisational, path-dependent, complex adaptive ongoing process of variation, selection and replication.

All of which are concepts that are fundamentally opposed to the mechanistic determinism that defines military tasks and organisations.  More than that, the eco-system evolves in ways that defy any attempts to control it, even as it implicates any would-be controller.

The very rationale of the RMA itself comes under challenge if we concede the growing inadequacy, if not outright failure, of the Newtonian paradigm.  The Newtonian worldview holds that since all that happens has a definite cause and in turn gives rise to a definite effect, then the future can be predicted with absolute certainty if the present state is known accurately in all details.  The corollary to this is Sun Tzu’s dictum, ‘Know yourself, know your enemy, a hundred battles, a hundred victories.’  Translated into contemporary RMA parlance, dominant battlespace awareness through superior information and sensing technologies is a significant contributor to victory.

Yet, developments such as relativity theory, which argues against the privileging of any particular frame of reference, and quantum theory, which replaced mechanistic determinism with concepts such as probability waves and superposition, have invalidated Cartesian notions of certainty and rationality as well as Newtonian concepts of predictability and universality.  Sun Tzu’s dictum, which constitutes a major premise (and promise) of the RMA, fails simply because you cannot ever know yourself or your enemy with any certainty, only with degrees of likelihood.  Even the OODA (observe-orient-decide-act) loop becomes highly problematic, since an important consequence of quantum theory states that the process of observation alters that which is being observed, and that the Cartesian separation between observer and observed is untenable.  The OODA loop breaks down simply because the ‘observation’ fails as a stable basis for subsequent orientation, decision and action.

Clearly, the metaphors discussed above are powerful tools, not only for understanding the military domain, but for shaping how the military domain itself evolves (yes, the use of ‘evolve’ is deliberate).  The question arises, how then do you reconcile metaphors that are the antithesis of each other?  Something must surely give when the Newtonian ideals continue to dominate in a world marked by post-Newtonian ideas.

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Following the earlier post on the usefulness of military history, I thought I’d post this hilarious speech delivered in 1997 by one of the profession’s pre-eminent scholars, John Lynn, when he was President of the Society for Military History.

As the title suggests, things were not going well for military history as an academic discipline, in the 1990s.

Here’s a golden nugget:

Our colleagues seem bent on cloning themselves or scurrying after currently fashionable new subjects and methodologies. Job candidates now must demonstrate that they too have learned the latest steps or they will not be invited to the dance. So our colleagues search earnestly to hire more historians who have mastered the mental Macarena of the moment. Or perhaps that Caribbean dance craze of the recent past makes the point better. Hey everybody, its LIMBO time in history departments; you must bend to the trend, and the only question becomes “How l-o-w can you go?”

Read the rest here.

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Here’s another article from Pointer which I’m quite fond of.

Putting People First in Our Army

Putting People First

People are the key to capability. Human capital is the most important resource. The slogan has been shouted from the mountain tops but has the good word spread to the slopes and valleys yet? Are people being taken personally and seriously? Have we allowed ourselves to prioritise people?

Cynics would point out it’s all talk, an over-promotion of initiatives which gain so much traction at the highest levels, yet slip and slide at the lower levels where it matters the most.

Beyond the idealism, however, the late COL Bernard Tan does make several good points. Or observations at the very least. One is phrased as a question:

How often do our commanders invest intellectual effort to plan and create opportunities for our people to experience Defining Moments?

I’m no leadership guru, but the idea of “intellectual effort” is interesting. It’s not just effort in general, which is more action oriented – leading by showing care and concern for your men and making sure you make decisions in their best interest. They’ll feel comfortable and look up to you. You’ll earn their respect.

“Intellectual effort,” it seems to me, suggests a certain amount of philosophising about the leader-follower dynamic. As a leader, putting in intellectual effort requires you to engineer ways to convince your followers that you’re not just taking care of them, but building them up as members of the organisation. There’s a certain paradox involved to, where in order to effective philosophise about leadership, you’ll have to submit yourself to your followers, hear them out, then determine a leadership strategy based on that feedback. There’s a certain humility involved.

COL Bernard Tan passed away prematurely in 2006. He was only 39, and suffered a heart-attack just before he completed a biathalon. His last held appointment was Assistant Chief of Staff (Personnel), the HR head of the Army. It would have been interesting to see how he would have put “people first.” I am pretty sure he would have tried his hardest to institutionalise such an approach.

I never met COL Tan, but I worked with someone who had served under him for a while. This person had been  a comparatively lowly corporal, a full-time National Serviceman serving his NS as a clerk, yet COL Tan conversed with him as his equal, and even sought his advice and opinion on important matters. COL Tan was open to criticism, and never took it personally. He never “pulled rank” to shut a person up, if the person’s arguments had merit. COL Tan was apparently as good a listener as he was a talker.

According to the clerk, when told that he didn’t need to prove anything by participating in the biathalon, COL Tan replied, “That is true, but I have to lead my men from the front.”

Rather tragically, one of the SAF’s Core Values, “Leadership by Example,” ultimately did COL Bernard Tan in.

This was the eulogy delivered at his funeral:


Wan Cheng, Claire, Cayla. Bernard’s family. Friends.

We are here today to remember, to honour and to celebrate the life of our dear friend Bernard. We should not regret that he was taken away so suddenly. Or so soon. Though he may just have turned 39 last Friday, he lived a full life. In fact, knowing him, he can be quite greedy, he probably lived more than his fair share of the time God had blessed him with! He probably lived more than some of us would in our life time.

Let me share what I see as four key aspects about Bernard.

First. Bernard loved our Lord and sought to be Christ-like in all that he did. It is patently clear from these few days’ proceedings to know that Bernard has been tremendous witness for our Lord. When he was a Company Commander, he wrote as part of his objectives and I read:

“I hope to fulfil the Sandhurst motto ‘Serve to Lead’. To serve God and other so that I will be spiritually and physically equipped to lead…I hope to be like King David where, and he quotes from 1 Samuel 22:2, ‘everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was discontented, gathered to him, and he became captain over them.’ ”

Indeed, Bernard touched the lives of many. Let me read an excerpt amongst the many stories that I have received.

This was posted by an unknown Military Policeman, a Corporal who works in MINDEF. “Despite being a high-ranking officer, COL Tan always replied to my greetings to him whether if he was on the phone or even if he was coming out of the canteen. He never let his rank or appointment become a barrier to speaking with us NSFs or even to anyone, and had always came across to me as an officer truly deserving my respect.” (more…)

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Pointer is the Journal of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). Without saying anything else, I can just hear you skeptics out there sniggering. “It’s all propaganda!” you scream.

Then-MAJ (now LTC) Alfred Fox, in a 2004 Pointer article, captures this sentiment well:

The laughter these days is not as loud as before, neither are the sneers and sniggers so open. Mention the words “POINTER Journal” before and you would have received a sarcastic or snide remark or two.

Late last year, the journal was revived with a big bang, and the editors touted the change as not only cosmetic (it became bigger in size), but also the quality of writing and thought would improve. True enough, many interesting articles were solicited from senior officers and foreign writers to lend credibility to the relaunch, but many have been left wondering if such a resurrection is really sustainable. Indeed, there may be underlying issues which most speak about, but few would acknowledge openly.

His article, titled “What’s an Opinion?”, is an example of the gems you can find in Pointer if one bothered to look. They’re honest and do address controversial issues that organisation faces.

Fox even ends with a joke that pokes fun at the community he himself is part of:

A twist to an old joke comes to mind. Three SAF officers are asked their opinion on freedom of speech in the armed forces.

“Oh, things are changing, the armed forces seem to be becoming more liberal these days,” says the first.

“Well, the armed forces is exploring ways to get its officers to speak up,” says the second officer.

The third officer replies, “What’s an opinion?”

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by other gems I’ve stumbled upon.

A older piece based on a speech given 25 years ago by Lee Hsien Loong, then-BG and presently PM, had this observation:

Connected with this lack of a common vision is the question of goal stability.We change, we have new ideas, we try to implement, we are in constant ferment. Ferment is good, because stagnation is worse. We have been in ferment for a long time. We have our ideas, we have our predecessors’ ideas, and our successors will have their ideas. How do we constrain ourselves so that we are not stifled by what we have inherited, neither do we throw away the house into which we have just moved? We all have our own clues as to how to do things. “If I were there, I would do it differently.” Sometimes we are there. If we manage to do it differently that may be good, if we manage to do it the same, that may not be a bad thing. It all depends.

There is value in change, but there should also be value in stability. Recently I had to recommend choosing between option A or option B. I had already chosen option A a few months ago, given 50% of the information. Now 40% more has come in, and it looks like option B is the right answer. Should I back-track, undo option A and switch to option B, which appears slightly better? I reasoned that it is like choosing a bride — you look around and you meet so many girls, and eventually you settle for one and marry her. The next day another nice girl comes along, slightly better. What do you do? If you are wise, I think you will stay married. I recommended to stick to option A. Since then the last 10% of the data has arrived, and it has vindicated my choice.

This is how our decisions have to be. You already have a decision which is not optimal, but near-optimal. There is a better one, but there is a very high cost associated with changing. Our inclination is to say change and absorb the cost, the long-term benefits will be worth it — but the long-term never arrives.

There is indeed “value in stability.” As the SAF races ahead with its 3G agenda, it might be time to reconsider PM Lee’s s advice given a quarter of a century earlier, slow down, and not come up with a new initiative each time there’s a change in management.

Another piece now 10 years old, “Trends Towards Careerism: Where Does Our Profession Lie?”, examines an issue which I am sure will be ever-green – the Professional Soldier vs. the Careerist. Tan Kim Seng makes this observation of the SAF in the mid-90s:

The debate on careerism centers on whether the profession of arms is a true military profession or is it another occupation that parallels that of the civilian occupation. The main argument for this disease is that more military officers are developing this unhealthy tendency towards taking the profession of arms as another occupation, focussing their efforts toward promotion as their ultimate objective. They no longer care about the values of the profession of arms that have built cohesive fighting units. They are more concerned with their career advancements.

With the SAF’s recent revision of its career schemes, the question Tan asks needs to revisited. Phrased differently, is the profession of “soldier” any different than a civilian job? Do recruits sign on with an appropriate attitude? Are their expectations inline with the organisation’s? Or are they setting themselves up for disappointment as the task the SAF does–national defence–has no comparable equivalent in the private sector?

So you see, Pointer’s not that bad. Be patient. Give it a chance.

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One of the buzz-words that will be a classic in annals of military history is “jointness.” It’s so obvious–that cooperation makes it happen–yet few militaries have been truly successful in having their services work together in an efficient matter.

There are many reasons for this. The top two, in my opinion, are culture and resource scarcity, hence inter-service rivalry. First, when you sign up with the military, you’ve got to select a service to join. And from then on, your entire identity as a soldier, from the training you receive to the customs you practice, will be shaped by the service you belong to.In some way, the military is like a federation of entities. And sometimes, civil war breaks out.

That’s the second obstacle to “jointness.” You can’t please all the services equally. It’s because of the basic economic problem – collectively, the military has  unlimited wants, but resources to meet them are limited. Decisions have to be made, and not all services will benefit equally. Hence the jockeying to gain favour with the military’s political masters.

The post-war U.S. military was hardly joint for these reasons. Things have apparently gotten better since the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 which reduced inter-service rivalry.

But unique service culture still remains an obstacle. There’s just so much compartmentalisation in what the military does that room for organisation-wide interaction only happens at certain stages in one’s career (the joint tour), and only to a limited extent.

Allan R. Millett talks about this in an old Parameter article, cheekily titled “Why the Army and Marine Corps Should Be Friends.” It’s quite a colourful, yet substantive, piece.

I wouldn’t expect anything less from Prof. Millett, himself known to be a colourful (but effective) teacher.

Mark Grimsley, faculty @ Ohio State University, and owner of Warhistorian.org, shares this anecdote is this post:

Lest anyone wonder, Allan throughout his career has had an array of hilarious set-piece performances completely at odds with the first blush impression one may have of a rather imposing, even imperious, persona. My personal favorite was the introduction to his counterinsurgency lecture, during which the strains of the “Ballad of the Green Beret” began to play, a (disarmed) fragmentation grenade flew up and over the lecture podium into the lap of a bewildered undergraduate, and Professor Millett rose up from the podium to jab a bayonet — I kid you not, a bayonet — into the side of the podium. Great stuff.

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