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The Economist's _Modern Warfare, Intelligence and Deterrence_ -- a Review

Posted By Grim • [March 09, 2012]

The Economist magazine is, famously, the magazine you are supposed to claim to read if you are ever granted a job interview by the CIA.  When they asked us here at BLACKFIVE to review their latest book -- it is chiefly a conglomeration of articles on military and intelligence technologies -- they were quick to mention that Xinhua has purchased the Chinese translation rights.  This is one of those pleasant games that intelligence and military professionals play:  we know that the Chinese leadership will have already read the articles, since they will have read them in the Economist's print run; so the purpose of the Chinese edition of this book will be to push these articles down to the lower-level functionaries and officers who do not read the magazine.  Thus, we should make sure to purchase lots of copies of this book as well, in order to make sure that our officers' corps understands what the Chinese are thinking....

I admire the clever maneuver by their marketing branch, which is worthy of a PSYOP/MISO officer.  So, what will the Chinese be learning if they read this book?  

Since this is a collection of reprinted articles, the value-added aspect of such a book is in the introductory material, as well as any useful appendicies or other reference matter.  As for the latter, there is only a lengthy index.  As for the former, I hope it represents a further attempt at psychological manipulation rather than a serious introduction to the topic.  It is a beautiful reconstruction of the argument for the "revolution in military affairs" and network-centric warfare circa, say, 2004:  its relevance to 2012 is highly dubious.  Reading the introductory matter, you might conclude that the Economist has learned nothing at all from the last eight years of experience.

So that leaves the articles.  If you are a regular reader of the Economist, you will have seen these already.  If you are not, however, there are some interesting insights to be had into ways that an evolving military like China's might improve itself.  The most important insight for the Chinese -- I would suggest to any American military officers reading this, and wanting to know what China will take away from it -- is this one:

To prepare for sorties in the run-up to the first Gulf war, the US AirForce needed to quickly retrieve about 500 containers on a logisticsship that carried five times as many. But tactical plans had evolvedsince loading, so the needed containers were not on top. The shiphad become an enormous crane-operated Rubik’s cube. The puzzlewas complicated by the risk of chain-reaction explosions: some containerscould not be placed near other containers. Nor could they beoffloaded dockside, for the ship, likened to a big powder keg, wasunwelcome in Persian Gulf ports. Digging out the containers required30 days of expensive, around-the-clock crane work.Eighteen years later, in 2009, a US Navy contractor hired to solvethe problem unveiled a solution. BEC Industries, a Florida company,had developed a container-moving crane system that uses combinatorial-mathematics software to work out efficient shuffling patterns,greatly reducing the number of times containers must be moved.

That's the kind of technology solution that represents a vast improvement to logistics capacity, but that is relatively cheap to implement:  it is, in fact, very similar to desigining a program aimed at solving a Rubix's cube.  As China pushes to increase its capacity to project force, it will begin to run into problems of this nature.  

The other section I found highly relevant was the section on the difficulties facing human intelligence collection and clandestine operations.  As the book points out, technology makes some kinds of collection vastly easier than they have been:  signals intelligence is getting better by the hour, for example.  Clandestine human intelligence is much harder, though:  the ability to cross-check vast fields of data mean that it's much harder to set up a fake persona that will stand up to investigation.  A credit card set up for the officer needs to show consistent history; they may need a plausible social media presence going back several years to avoid suspicion.  Their cell-phones are easily bugged, and while it isn't hard to disable the bugs -- you can remove the battery and put it in the fridge, as the book suggests -- doing so will be obvious to any counterintelligence service tracking you.  Dead drops can be watched by tiny hidden cameras; passports have biometrics.

What is the solution to this?  Well, as to that, there are clues in the book to a way forward:  it is a way that I will not describe in detail, precisely because the Chinese read BLACKFIVE as well as the Economist.  (Just check our logs.)  I will say that it is an area in which the American government is weak, but that we have the capacity to do it if we can get the bureaucracy to endorse it.  

This book is worth a few hours of your time if you don't regularly read the Economist.  Do skip the introduction.  If you want your organization to play the game of guessing what China will learn from it, so as to set up countermeasures, look for solutions that are cheap and easy to implement but that solve big problems.  China is, technologically speaking, a pirate culture:  don't expect them to invest magnificient amounts in never-before-seen technologies (even their anti-ship ballistic missile, which comes in for a mention here, is really a quite old technology).  Look for the things (like ad hoc directional antennae for cell phones) that are easy to make and that can create significant leverage for overcoming American technological advantages (like NSA eavesdropping).

Modern Warfare, Intelligence and Deterrence:  The Technologies that are Transforming Them, ed. Benjamin Sutherland, 2012.  Currently on sale for under $17 at Amazon.com.


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