By David Barno and Nora Bensahel

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As a rule, David Barno and Nora Bensahel’s regular War on the Rocks column is thoughtful, insightful, and well written. It provides well reasoned and informed opinions that hopefully help leaders — military and civilian alike — think through the complex issues surrounding the wide variety of topics they write about. Their book is no different. It is thoroughly researched, well written, and generally compelling to read. As an addition to the “military adaptation” literature — my favorites of which include Military Adaptation in War: With Fear of Change, and On Flexibility: Recovery from Technological and Doctrinal Surprise on the Battlefield— this will stand the test of time. The book makes a strong effort to provide concrete examples of “adaptation under fire;” although so doing it occasionally loses its way. There are myriad examples of adaptation that might have better illustrated their key points, although the attempt to use modern cases is laudable. …


Moving every two years or so can be really painful — but it helps to reinforce some key life lessons

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As I write this, my family and I are stuck in a hotel room at the midpoint of another permanent change of station (PCS) move. I have been in the military for my entire adult life — literally longer than I wasn’t, at this point. Since the age of 18 I have never lived in the same place for longer than two years. Since getting married my wife and I have moved 7 times; our kids (6 and 5) have moved five and three times, respectively. The last two have been overseas locations in very different parts of the world. It’s surely a difficult thing, moving. The stress is extreme, it dislocates everything you know as a family, and can be awfully hard to say goodbye to the amazing places we’ve lived. That said, the amazing opportunity to experience living with such different people in so many different places is really something I don’t think you could ever replicate. In twenty some-odd years of this business I’ve gotten to live in four different states (and a city — DC), five different countries, and spent time in thirtysomething other countries and probably twenty five or so other states, and our family has been together for many (most) of them. Is it worth it? I don’t know, but there’s definitely a lot of good that comes from such broadly varied experiences. …


Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution, by P. W. Singer and August Cole

This book is both entertaining fiction and thoughtful prediction. People who will most benefit from it are those who have not spent time deliberately thinking about the emerging future world. Those who have spent some time in that space already will not find the book earthshattering, but will probably still find much to enjoy and appreciate.

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As an inveterate sci-fi geek, I was cautiously excited for the release of Burn-In. I enjoyed Singer and Cole’s Ghost Fleet, although I did not find it either as ground breaking or as surprising as much of the U.S. defense establishment seemed to. This is probably due to the same reason that Burn-In only feels “pretty good” — to the heavy consumer of science fiction or futurism it just doesn’t feel all that surprising. It is a well written and engaging story. It builds a plausible future world that encompasses emerging societal issues, technology, and law enforcement specifics. It is not, however, a book that will greatly surprise tech junkies, heavy sci-fi readers, or deep thinkers about society’s future. Regardless, the good far outweighs the bad in Burn-In, whether you’re looking for a prediction of the United States of tomorrow, a glimpse of the possible future of law enforcement, or just a fun near-future sci-fi read. The thoughtful reader will come away with a great deal to consider; if only to wonder whether our society will truly grapple with the sorts of emerging issues the book highlights or just stumble into them without any sort of deliberation or planning. …


A Strategic Imperative for America in the 21st Century

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A few years ago I read a book called The New Grand Strategy: Restoring America’s Prosperity, Security, and Sustainability in the 21st Century. It is quite good. The key discussion in the book is that America needs to define a new strategic imperative for the 21st Century; the authors determined that the best one-word descriptor for this strategic imperative is “sustainability.” Although sustainability is certainly a laudable goal and makes a lot of sense, it made a lot more sense when the book was published in 2016. Looking around in 2020, this no longer seems to be the best fit for American grand strategy in the 21st Century. For sustainability to work as our strategic imperative, we would have to have far more nuanced ability to apply it across disciplines — everything from our international relationships to global economics, to the changing climate. Given our current era and political environment (both domestic and international), this sort of strategic nuance looks to be difficult at best and unachievable at worst. …


The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare, by Christian Brose

Worth adding to your reading list. If you’re someone who thinks and reads a lot about future war, you’ll be familiar with most of the content. If you’re a defense layperson, this book might surprise you and will potentially open your eyes to some serious problems.

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If The Kill Chain had been published even five years ago, it probably would have been earthshattering (although it would have been equally likely to be ignored). Published in 2020, it instead captures the emerging zeitgeist within DoD and across the defense community. Indeed, this is a book that brings together several strands of the emerging conventional wisdom from across the defense establishment. Brose’s three strongest points are where he does the most service for the general reader: first, that our military is currently unprepared for high-tech, 21st Century warfare; second, that our entire mindset for defense acquisitions — focused on specific platforms over our desired ends — is fundamentally flawed in the 21st Century (if it was ever right); and third, that the overall acquisition system — the method for coming up with requirements for new equipment and then funding it — is broken. …


So crazy, they just might work…

It is axiomatic that the institutional inertia of the “congressional-military-industrial complexstifles real innovation within DoD. Despite the fact that this is generally accepted and usually met with a “well, what can ya do” sort of shoulder shrug, it is an interesting thought experiment to consider “half baked ideas.” Pundit and author Jonah Goldberg and Congressman Mike Gallagher have done multiple podcast episodes on this theme — although the ideas don’t have a lot of intellectual rigor or even necessarily much deep thought put into them, it is nonetheless definitely worth considering these sort of half baked ideas. Of course, the hard part is actually getting the horsepower behind these ideas to make them happen; admittedly, it would be unlikely except in the event of existential conflict. That said, it’s fun to play “what if” and “in a perfect world.” …


Amazingly, my personal discipline changed…well…none

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Despite much of the crazy gnashing of teeth over haircuts that has been occurring around the Marine Corps (and Army, to a lesser degree) for the last month or so, where I’m stationed leadership has been fairly proactive with CoVID measures. This includes limiting haircuts to once a month. Thus, today I found myself in a an unusual position for the past month — I got my hair cut. I think this was the first time in my adult life that I made it an entire month without a haircut. Even in the most difficult days in Iraq and Afghanistan, I got haircuts within a month. Once in Iraq I didn’t shower for 62 days…but still got haircuts at least biweekly. At one point in Afghanistan I was sleeping in a puddle of mud every night and ate the same processed pork rib UGR for dinner for four weeks straight…but I still got a haircut at least biweekly. That is to say, regardless of how difficult life gets in a combat environment, the Marine Corps expects its (male) members to cut their hair regularly. The arguments for this range from discipline, to hygiene, to slightly more outlandish (I once heard Col Dave Grossman, of On Killing fame, suggest the short haircuts were so society could easily identify “sheepdogs.” Not sure I buy that one…). …


If staff work doesn’t enable and/or drive specific commander’s actions, it is unnecessary bureaucratic paper-pushing. We should use this as an opportunity to slim down and deliberately reduce staffs.

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Several years ago I was working directly under a service component headquarters. Due to a clerical error, that headquarters somehow managed to accidentally not renew any of its contractor positions and essentially lost half its staff overnight. Several weeks after this I had a conversation with the Director of Plans at that headquarters that went something like this:

DirPlans: “since all the contractors left we’ve really had to stop doing a lot of…


Although much of the American government has become a gerontocracy, only the military system has it as an inherent structural component.

The US Military is a gerontocracy. This has been the case for essentially all of the post World War II era — indeed, in the modern US military age and rank are directly correlated. Because of the requirements of the DOPMA, there is essentially no way to create a young senior leader in the US military. Conversely, there are also no old junior members of the military. Thus, the US military is both by definition and by law a gerontocracy. Although not automatically bad, in the case of the modern US military it does create significant challenges, both in warfighting capability and in general organizational design. Indeed, there are three key areas that the gerontocracy creates problems for the military. First, there is the real (but rarely spoken out loud) problem of age related cognitive decline. Next, this basic biological problem combines with rapid, accelerating, and potentially exponential change in technology and its integration into larger systems, and a period of significant cultural change within American society. These tectonic changes themselves have significant implications for everyone who lives in our society, but the implication for an organization with exclusively older leadership is significant. People generally start to become “set in their ways” around age 20. Even if many of our senior leaders were exceptions to this rule, it is unlikely that they would be exceptions after age 40 or 50. …


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A few years ago I watched a company of Marines in a dug in position defense get chased from their fighting holes without anyone firing a shot or even an order given. The culprit? One of the ubiquitous brush fires that start in Camp Pendleton almost year round. That got me thinking — if a little brush fire might do that, what sort of return could we get if we were willing to push the envelope with the elements to create natural effects? The US military tends to focus on technology as the solution to all of our problems — but in so doing we often neglect simpler, more elegant solutions (example: the space pen vs pencil story — although apocryphal, still relevant). If we really thought through ways to use the elements, could we weaponize them? Would it be useful to develop tactics, techniques and procedures for this? Although natural (and semi-natural) disasters are difficult to predict and certainly even harder to control once they begin, they have the ability to cause extraordinary destruction and/or significant defensive advantage. They could be particularly useful in tactical area denial actions, efforts to force the enemy to redirect his forces, or strategic destruction of economic and/or infrastructure targets. …

About

T. Drake

Grunt, planner, etc. I use this forum to write and think about military stuff. Usually Marine Corps focused.

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