Best Defense

Essay contest (7): We need to learn how to cut through the new megadata fog of war

A universal condition of future U.S. armed interventions is the dizzying amount of data that American forces will have thrust upon them at, each level of war and in every dimension of combat.

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By Chris Telley
Best Defense contest entrant

A universal condition of future U.S. armed interventions is the dizzying amount of data that American forces will have thrust upon them at, each level of war and in every dimension of combat. The single most important thing the U.S. military can do to adapt to the Information Age is to channel the impending torrent of information, from a multiplicity of data sources, to relevant decision makers in useful forms. The face of battle in this era will still be defined by blood and hardship, endured by small groups of people surviving their way to the next objective, but in a much more complex context. That complexity will be apparent, often paralyzing, when flooding through a cornucopia of sensor systems. Computers will help stem the tide, but distributed human innovation, in the space between information and knowledge, is the only force that can contextualize the flow.

Predictions of tomorrow’s battlefields sell like science fiction, with dystopian megacities and swarming robots, but there are more similarities than radical differences. A laser is still a direct fire weapon system in need of a trained operator, replenishment, and maintenance. War in a flat world will remain afflicted by geography’s revenge. Certainly the velocity will be greater. Tanks, airplanes, and ships are limited by classical mechanics. Information, in wires, waves, or neurons, accelerates the speed limits of human conflict. That increased pace creates complexity with component density and connectedness that forces us to strike precisely while simultaneously looking through a wider aperture.  An ironic fogbank — too much data — will obscure that required vision and aim.

Each new operational environment will be home to many times more information than the one before it. Buzzword trends from “big data” to the “mobile revolution” can be summed up to mean that there is more information produced in a given period of time than can ever even be acknowledged. Advanced military technology like swarming drones, space radars, and cyber collection tools create even more material in which the commander and staff can drown. The opportunities presented by large, complex data sets are concurrently changing the face of business, creating millions of jobs for coders, statisticians, analysts, and visualization staff. Even if Moore’s Law slows down, data analytics is likely to be a trillion dollar industry. Unfortunately, U.S. military adaptation to the information age has resulted in monolithic cybersecurity institutions but failed to produce robust data science capabilities below the strategic level.

The very computers swamping our collective analysts can help. DARPA has conducted research into dealing with increased size and rate of data flow through digital means. The diversity of signals across eight forms of intelligence, friendly systems and enterprise state, as well as various proprietary data conduits presents the greater rub. Synthesizing dozens of second order answers into a third order solution is a wicked problem. It will require an evasively unique blend of human and machine answers. Adapting through this particular gap will be hard, we can’t fix it with an ultramodern bomber or extra four-star command. We’ll need big, bureaucratic organizations to flatten networks and ‘ask the right questions’. Lots of startups and young leaders will need the money, and access, to solve constituent pieces of the puzzle. Finally, senior leaders must be willing to guide the first group and gamble on the second.

It may be tempting to assume that Department of Defense is already addressing this challenge. However, contrasting lists like LinkdIn’s ‘hottest jobs’ for 2016 and goarmy.com’s MOS listing indicates that we are not manned or trained for a tidal wave of data from a trillion online devices. A cursory comparison of any operations center with the National Football League’s data investments in physical common operating picture and information environment engagement shows us woefully unprepared.

War in the information age won’t be as revolutionary as defense contractor Super Bowl commercials would lead you to believe. The friction brought on by bigger, faster, and more diverse data is the decisive difference; it will humble traditional understanding. In an age where observation can occur in real time, we must work hard to ensure our decision making can keep up. Revelations in machine learning will help, but like any other really hard problem, this flood of data will be answered by creative leaders. Whether we find ourselves fighting insurgents, Gray Zone ambiguity, or an A2AD Rubik’s cube, bridging the gap between computation and cognition for effective decision making is the most vital military adaptation to the emerging realities of the Information Age.

Captain Chris Telley, U.S. Army, is currently the G3 Information Operations Officer for United States Army, Japan at Camp Zama, Japan. He holds a B.A. from the University of North Georgia. His past assignments include: 1st Squadron of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, 1st Squadron of the 4th U.S. Cavalry, and Office of the Secretary of Defense Joint Test Unit. He commanded in Afghanistan and served in Iraq as a U.S. Marine. 

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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