Overblown Fears and Exaggerated Capabilities

(Caveat about using “drone” instead of UAV)

When writing about drones as something new and scary, the most important thing to do is clarify how drones specifically offer something different from a piloted aircraft. That in mind, let’s begin a critique of “The Rise of the Killer Drones: How America Goes to War in Secret” by Michael Hastings. He writes:

The drone that was headed toward Iran, the RQ-170 Sentinel, looks like a miniature version of the famous stealth fighter, the F-117 Nighthawk: sleek and sand-colored and vaguely ominous, with a single domed eye in place of a cockpit. With a wingspan of 65 feet, it has the ability to fly undetected by radar. Rather than blurting out its location with a constant stream of radio signals – the electronic equivalent of a trail of jet exhaust – it communicates intermittently with its home base, making it virtually impossible to detect. Once it reached its destination, 140 miles into Iranian airspace, it could hover silently in a wide radius for hours, at an altitude of up to 50,000 feet, providing an uninterrupted flow of detailed reconnaissance photos – a feat that no human pilot would be capable of pulling off.

A few things, right off the bat: the RQ-170 is an unarmed drone, so comparing it to the F-117 fighter-bomber is at the least misleading. While the stealth is new, radio silence for vessels on covert missions isn’t; that’s been a feature of war as long as there have been radios to turn off. It’s streaming back information in hard-to-detect ways makes it no more threatening than activists sending phone camera pics from a computer with TOR.  As for the actual spying capability, it’s ability to hover for hours the 10% that is new on top of the 90% of already existing capabilities. And by “already existing,” I mean “existing since the Eisenhower administration.” The U-2 spyplane, in service since 1957, can fly up to 70,000 feet and stay airborne for 12 hours. It, too, now uses modern communications systems to transmit its pictures back, so the RQ-170 is not particularly unique in that regard earlier. What this drone adds that a piloted aircraft doesn’t: a slightly longer hover time & no risk of a pilot being captured or killed if it’s shot down. That’s it. If the capability “no human pilot would be capable of” is “having an unpiloted craft,” then the point boils down to tautology. Hastings:

What we do know is that the government lied about who was responsible for the drone. Shortly after the crash on November 29th, the U.S.-led military command in Kabul put out a press release saying it had lost an “unarmed reconnaissance aircraft that had been flying a mission over western Afghanistan.” But the drone wasn’t under the command of the military – it was operated by the CIA, as the spy agency itself was later forced to admit.

That the CIA lies about its assets should be a given; a completely open intelligence service is neither. That the CIA operates drones has been known for a long while; what’s murky about US drone policy is the Title 10/Title 50 division(pdf). While it’s a serious legal issue when it comes to armed drones & targeting, it’s more bureaucratic infighting when it comes to intelligence-gathering aircraft. Hastings:

All told, drones have been used to kill more than 3,000 people designated as terrorists, including at least four U.S. citizens. In the process, according to human rights groups, they have also claimed the lives of more than 800 civilians. Obama’s drone program, in fact, amounts to the largest unmanned aerial offensive ever conducted in military history; never have so few killed so many by remote control.

Hastings here paraphrases Churchill’s famous line about the Battle of Britain, which is an odd choice for making a point about unprecedented aerial assault, as “some 23,000 British civilians were killed between July and December 1940.” If it’s bombing civilians that is problematic, drones are much worse at it than many, many weapons platforms in history (including artillery). If it’s instead the distance of the craft from the target, then we’ve been bombing from at least 30,000 feet since WWII, and the B-52 (still in service!) can do so from 50,000. But I’m guessing the operative word here is “remote,” as the idea of a strike launched from far away is what people fear. Tomahawk cruise missiles, in service since 1983, have a striking range of 1,500 miles and use a precision guidance system, and like any explosive are just as capable of killing civilians if they miss. To bring the point back: drones don’t add a new, terrifying capacity here. In fact, as small & fragile platforms, they carry far smaller payloads than many weapons which have gone before. This doesn’t excuse the killing of civilians, but it’s worth noting that any previous era of war would have used a tool that killed far more civilians.

Also, a caveat about numbers used to assess civilian casualties, specifically in Pakistan: we don’t have good information. Where drone strikes occur, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the government of Pakistan doesn’t keep records of even have a tangible law enforcement presence. It’s largely ungoverned, in a way most reminiscent of the American wild west, if the wild west had AK-47s and multiple competing fundamentalist militias. As such, when the Pakistani press, intelligence services, or any academics trying to survey the populace go into the area, it’s easier & more socially acceptable to blame deaths on the US drones than, say, the militia down the street or a Taliban car bombing. The data out of the area is bad. Hastings:

“Drones have really become the counterterrorism weapon of choice for the Obama administration,” says Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown law professor who helped establish a new Pentagon office devoted to legal and humanitarian policy. “What I don’t think has happened enough is taking a big step back and asking, ‘Are we creating more terrorists than we’re killing? Are we fostering militarism and extremism in the very places we’re trying to attack it?’ A great deal about the drone strikes is still shrouded in secrecy. It’s very difficult to evaluate from the outside how serious of a threat the targeted people pose.”

A-ah! Here is a policy question, which is what every drone debate should really be about. Drones are a tool in service of policy, and we have to make sure the policy is good & the aims are just if we’re going to continue to use drones the same way. I’ve written about this before, here. Hastings:

By 2000, the Pentagon was pushing for a massive expansion of the drone program, hoping to make a third of all U.S. aircraft unmanned by 2010. But it was the War on Terror that finally enabled the military to weaponize drones, giving them the capability to take out designated targets. The first major success of killer drones was a Predator strike on a convoy in 2002, which assassinated the leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen. By 2006, the Pentagon had upped its goal, aiming to convert 45 percent of its “deep-strike” aircraft into drones. “Before drones, the way you went after terrorists was you sent your troops,” says Goure. “You sent your Navy, you sent your Marines, like Reagan going after Qaddafi in the Eighties. You bombed their camp. Now you have drones that can be operated by the military or the CIA from thousands of miles away.”

First, in the 1980s we used Tomahawk cruise missiles to go after Qaddafi, so that’s not exactly “Marines.” Secondly, we still bomb camps. We do so with drones, with harriers, with any myriad number of piloted craft in countries where we find al Qaeda or al Qaeda affliate camps to bomb. Afghanistan most obviously, but we also do this is Yemen a lot. Drones did not replace much of that. Secondly, one of the main alternatives to US drone strikes in FATA is the Pakistan army going in & driving militias out. When there is the rumor of that happening, refugees start to pour out, and when the army approaches the flow accelerates. How bad is it? As of 2009, 3.4 million civilians had been displaced and 40,000+ killed, in addition to over ten thousand militants killed and a few thousand Pakistani soldiers dying. That’s an active war, into which a targeted killing program from drones changes very little in the overall scheme of human suffering (That said: being born into FATA is one of the worst things that could happen to someone.) To resolve that would take tremendous effort on behalf of Pakistan, and is a conflict almost incidental to US drone policy. Hastings:

For a new generation of young guns, the experience of piloting a drone is not unlike the video games they grew up on. Unlike traditional pilots, who physically fly their payloads to a target, drone operators kill at the touch of a button, without ever leaving their base – a remove that only serves to further desensitize the taking of human life. (The military slang for a man killed by a drone strike is “bug splat,” since viewing the body through a grainy-green video image gives the sense of an insect being crushed.) As drone pilot Lt. Col. Matt Martin recounts in his book Predator, operating a drone is “almost like playing the computer game Civilization” – something straight out of “a sci-fi novel.” After one mission, in which he navigated a drone to target a technical college being occupied by insurgents in Iraq, Martin felt “electrified” and “adrenalized,” exulting that “we had shot the technical college full of holes, destroying large portions of it and killing only God knew how many people.”

While there were initial fears that drones were easier, PTSD-free, videogame war, the evidence doesn’t hold up. Writing in the New York Times, Elisabeth Bumiller notes:

“Although pilots speak glowingly of the good days, when they can look at a video feed and warn a ground patrol in Afghanistan about an ambush ahead, the Air Force is also moving chaplains and medics just outside drone operation centers to help pilots deal with the bad days — images of a child killed in error or a close-up of a Marine shot in a raid gone wrong.”

While pilots are physically removed from combat, this is a far cry from playing Halo. Remotely piloted doesn’t remove the exposure to trauma, and our assumption that drones are either autonomous or a game ignore that this is a tool used by humans, who then witness it’s effects. Hastings:

Obama actually inherited two separate drone programs when he took office – and at the urging of Vice President Joe Biden, who has pressed hard for a greater emphasis on counterterrorism tactics, he has dramatically expanded them both. The first program, under the purview of the Pentagon, is focused primarily on providing reconnaissance and airstrikes to protect U.S. troops on the ground. “The major success of the drones is in keeping American soldiers alive,” says Goure. The Pentagon’s program, which operates more or less in the open, is based at more than a dozen military centers around the globe, from Nevada to Iraq. In one large hangar at Al Udeid Air Force Base in Qatar, three JAG lawyers are on call around the clock, ready to sign off on drone strikes. The lawyers, who are required to take a class about complying with the Geneva Conventions, follow standard operating procedures similar to those used in calling in a traditional airstrike. “There’s a set of legal checks and balances that the Air Force does each time,” says Pratap Chatterjee, an investigative reporter who sits on the board of Amnesty International. “It’s an open secret – the manual is online.”

No actual disagreements here – when drones are treated as a military weapon and the program follows Geneva, it’s not a problem. Hastings:

The CIA’s drone program, by contrast, has evolved in secrecy. Agency lawyers are required to sign off on drone strikes, but the process remains classified, and oversight is far less restrictive than that provided on the military side. To make matters even murkier, the CIA is conducting its drone strikes in places where the U.S. is not officially at war, including Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.

The CIA part of the drone program is where it is most wrong. As Joshua Foust notes,

The rapid adoption of complicated technological systems happened at the same time as the shift toward the expanded counterterrorism mission. Lost in the shuffle was an equal focus on human intelligence (HUMINT) and local expertise.

Here it is from Jeremy Scahill:

Giraldi, the former senior CIA officer, expressed concern that in these circumstances, the “CIA is going to forget how to spy.” He also noted the “long-term consequence” of the militarization of the CIA: “every bureaucracy in the world is best at protecting itself. So once the CIA becomes a paramilitary organization, there’s going to be in-built pressure to keep going in that direction. Because you’ll have people at the senior levels in the organization who have come up that way and are protective of what they see as their turf,” he told me. “That’s the big danger.”

Over at Danger Room, Noah Shachtman highlights the evolution of the CIA into a paramilitary, and observes that the mission of gathering intelligence has become somewhat lost in this.

When David Petraeus got the job of CIA chief, he knew what job #1 was: find out everything he could about al-Qaida and its allies — and then assist in their removal from the land of living. Fourteen months and more than 110 drone strikes later, the breaking of al-Qaida’s core that began under Petraeus’ predecessors is almost complete. Yet a major chunk of the nation’s intelligence community remains singularly focused on terrorism.

If there is any narrative that a focus on drones-the-tech instead of targeted-killing-the-policy ignores, it’s the CIA’s singular devotion to its targeted killing program. Hastings:

Over the past year, however, the president’s increasing reliance on drones has caused a growing rift within the administration. According to sources in the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, Ambassador Cameron Munter was furious that the CIA was conducting drone strikes without consulting him over the potential diplomatic fallout. The strikes had stopped briefly in January 2011 after Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor, was taken into custody for killing two Pakistanis in broad daylight; the day after Davis was released, the CIA drone strikes began again. Munter, according to U.S. officials, complained to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and senior military officials about the drone program, and his concerns were brought to the White House. At issue was a particularly deadly drone strike in March 2011 that the Americans claimed killed 21 militants, and the Pakistanis claimed killed 42 civilians.

As I noted at the time of the Munter crisis, our Ambassador to Pakistan clearly felt that continued drone strikes by the CIA were counterproductive to long-term US interests in Pakistan, but his objections were overruled and ended with him being replaced. That’s a crisis of command, and sign of a very narrowly-focused approach to our role in Pakistan. But, again, it’s not drones that are specifically the problem – it’s a CIA targeted killing program, for which drones happen to be the weapon used. If it were in-person targeted killings, it’d be as objectionable.

Hastings goes on to spend a long time examining the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, the al-Qaeda affliated radical Islamic cleric & American citizen who may have provided material aid to Nidal Hasan & who was killed by a drone strike. There are a lot of long-standing and important legal questions in his death, none of which are relevant to the platform used to kill him & many of which depend on how the laws of war are read. Rather than get into a legal debate way beyond my depth (though I highly recommend Lawfare on this topic, specifically ““War” and the Killing of Al-Awlaki” and
Al-Awlaki as an Operational Leader Located In a Place Where Capture Was Not Possible,”) I will instead turn to Dan Trombly’s discussion of a policy alternative:

Should we be capturing AQAM suspects? Perhaps, but that would likely mean a return to some form of rendition, detention, and capture programs, which would use a plethora of CIA, JSOC, and likely private proxies to snatch up suspects. Capturing, say, Anwar al-Awlaki, would mean more U.S. covert presence in Yemen, and could easily have resulted in his death, as many attempted apprehensions do in warzones and in peacetime. Or should the U.S. be working with local governments to capture AQAM suspects? The brutality of our foreign partners’ security services often make CIA and JSOC operatives look like saints. In any case, it should be clear the real legal, moral, and political problems here have far more to do with U.S. counter-terrorism policy generally, not drones in particular.

Besides the military difficulty and legal questions of re-implementing a capture program, it’s worth noting the political costs. When Obama attempted to close Guantanamo, no state was willing to take in the detainees, either out of fear that a supermax prison could have a harder time holding terror suspects than it does any of it’s existing inmates, or because the political optics of housing suspected terrorists were not great. Similar complaints were raised when trying Guantanamo detainees in civilian courts, and only recently have any trials begun. A targeted killing program is politically efficacious compared to proper legal channels or anything resembling due process.

That is the problem, but that would be a problem regardless of the means by which such a program was pursued. If Congress were to resolve the Title 10 / Title 50 disparity in drone use, that would go a long way to both formalizing the way in which these are used, and also limited their paramilitary application.  It would take courage and an opening, which perhaps the Petraeus Affair allows, but until there is a desire to change policy targeted killings will be pursued, regardless of the weapon used.

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Lay a Wreath

1. Today, October 30th, 2012 is the tenth anniversary of my grandfather Alfred Leroy (Roy) Atherton Jr’s death. I knew him for just over half of my life, but his outsized legacy has shaped most of the things I do.

2. I’m writing this while listening to a 30 minute YouTube video featuring a conversation he had in 1986. The future captures our ghosts and shares them for posterity. The video, in full.

3. Here is a selection of obituaries and remembrances. From the Washington Post:

As a Middle East peace negotiator, he was said to have been able to understand and articulate the historic grievances of Israelis and Palestinians, and to have had the trust of both sides. In 1978, President Carter named him ambassador-at-large for Middle East negotiations, and Atherton spent two years as a shuttle diplomat, traveling between Middle Eastern capitals.

From fellow former Ambassador to Egypt Hermann Frederick Eilts:

The passing of Roy Atherton on Oct. 30, 2002 deeply saddened all who were privileged to know him and to work with him. We have lost a warm friend and a stalwart colleague. The nation, too, has lost one of the unsung heroes of the long, frustrating and still elusive Arab-Israeli peace process. Roy’s innumerable contributions to that process were seminal. For three decades, he was one of the primary architects of American policy in the Middle East. As widely diverse a cast of characters as Archbishop Makarios, Shah Ali Reza, Menachem Begin, Anwar Sadat, King Faisal and many others kept Roy busy, so to speak. He exemplified the very best in American professional diplomacy.

From a younger version of myself:

He was late to WWII, and spent his year or so in the war as the spotter in a plane scouting for an artillery division. It’s easy to make metaphors about that – “he saw the totality of war” or “he was removed enough from combat to get the big picture”, and it is very tempting to make these part of the myth. I don’t actually think his experience as a spotter specifically influenced his life that much, but I never had the chance to ask. What I do know is this: after the war, and after finishing his degree on the GI Bill, he joined the Foreign Service, and his first deployment was in what was becoming West Germany. He became a diplomat, and spent 36 years as an agent of his country working to prevent wars.

4. I would like to thank the Foreign Affairs Oral History Project  for existing. I’m staring at a 218 page interview with Roy. It’s through this that I’ve best been able to get to know my grandfather; there is only so much I was able to connect with him on when I was 13, despite my fervent interest in international relations even then. In an attempt to let the dead speak for himself, here are a few excerpts.

On his time in Syria:

Roy describing his post at the consulate in Aleppo in 1953

Roy describing his post at the consulate in Aleppo in 1953

On Camp David:

Roy describing the process of Camp David, and the limited objectives pursued.

Roy describing the process of Camp David, and the limited objectives pursued.

On the Foreign Service, which was undergoing congressional scrutiny when the oral history was taken:

The end of Roy's oral history

A reflection on the foreign service during a period of uncertainty.

5. The only appropriate way to end this post is with a toast. Let me raise a glass:

The camaraderie of young men is a reassuring constant of life.

Roy is second from the right. Raise a glass to American Diplomacy.

6: Weather permitting, I’m off to pay my respects at the DACOR section of Rock Creek Cemetery. Thanks for indulging me in this.

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You Sunk My Strawman

First: I would like to applaud Foreign Policy for recognizing the merit of games as simulations and metaphors for conflict, as I think there are valuable lessons to find in such comparisons.

That said, it’s really important to understand the limitations of the medium. A game like chess can teach you about evolving strategic choice, but because there isn’t chance in it, it can’t tell you about how random events beyond the control of either player can alter the outcome of a conflict. For a more complicated example, last May I took a look at the limits of an empire building game in modeling civil unrest. The game does a great job simulating guns/butter allocation problems & imperial conflict, but it does a much more limited job simulating unrest, and barely covers nonstate actors at all. Worth noting: this was a blockbuster game, the fifth iteration of its engine, and was able to model conflict using about as much computing power as a home PC had in 2009.

John Arquilla’s piece, instead, examines a game much further down on the complexity scale: Battleship. Simple isn’t inherently bad – a simple game can cover one subject very well. Chess  offers perfect information about unit capabilities and position, and forces better thinking in wielding them. Playing “War” with playing cards teaches people how actions entirely beyond the players control can still have a psychological impact (at which point the game often becomes “disgruntled 52 pickup”). Angry Birds is how to use limited firepower and angles of attack to dismantle fortifications that can’t fire back. Stratego and Kriegspiel, which Arquilla discusses favorably, both introduce combat with fog of war, and make imperfect information available to the player as an obstacle to be planned around.*

This brings us back to Battleship. As a game, Battleship is great at teaching people how to use coordinate planes. Aaand that’s about it. But let’s take a look at the lessons Arquilla pulls from it:

“Of course this is ‘Battleship.’ That’s why I want a lot of smaller, but still well-armed vessels for the U.S. Navy, not just a handful of extremely expensive, highly vulnerable aircraft carriers and a few dozen submarines. China has hundreds of lethal missile and torpedo boats. We need more small, swift ships of our own that pack a real punch.”

Before pointing out that this is the wrong when describing for actual naval combat, let me clarify out that this is the wrong point for the game. In the game, if you’re playing normal rules, a carrier is the most durable unit in the game. Sure, it is a big target, but it also take five correct shots to sink. With default one-shot-a-turn rules, that’s at least 5 turns of survival, with the possibility of a near-miss when figuring out its orientation prolonging the ships’ life. If you’re playing the Salvo version, where you get a shot for every ship you still have floating, the longevity of an aircraft carrier is less, but it is still greater than that of any other ship available. Those “small, swift ships with a real punch?” They are dead in one or two hits, tops. Given the rules of the game, they are the easiest firepower to disable once found.**

This is the inherent limitation of the game: Battleship, after all, is not an modern naval combat simulator, but is instead designed for an age in which we used actual battleships. Battleships were always of disputed naval utility and have had a long fall out of favor. The last US battleship was built in 1944 and the last in service were decommissioned in the early 1990s. The vulnerability of battleships to smaller attack craft has been long known: it’s why the United States maintained a fleet of hundreds of PT Boats to harry & disable larger vessels.

It’s not battleships that are the particular object of Arqullia’s attack. Instead, he focuses on aircraft carriers as “the game’s largest and most vulnerable ship — just as it is in the real world today, as the array of smart, high-speed weapons that have emerged in recent years pose mortal threats to these behemoths.” I’ve already addressed their in-game durability, so now I’ll just point out that carriers are significantly more capable than battleship allows them to be. Since battleship is players landing shots on a grid, an aircraft carrier can only serve as target and (if using salvo rules), a single additional shot. While games can have value for abstracting the world, here the rules alter the units nature so much it seems to have obscured the author’s perception of how the ship actually works. In the hider/finder game that Arquilla discusses, modern carriers deploy most of the craft that do the finding, and are capable of launching an attack when well beyond the horizon, leaving them capable of hiding as well. There are limits to this, but if Arquilla’s central argument is that the US should stop deploying carriers in because “China has hundreds of lethal missile and torpedo boats,” then at least note that China is using missile and torpedo boats because they are a reaction to carriers.

A strategy focused on harassment of larger vessels by swarms of cheaper vessels is pursued not because it’s fundamentally better, but because they cannot otherwise contest the open sea. Presently, we use Anti-Access/Area Denial to refer to this approach, but as The Diplomat reminds us, Japan used it in WWII and in antiquity Syracuse considered using it against the Athenian Empire:

Heck, Alfred Thayer Mahan reproached ancient Syracuse for its neglect of anti-access measures. During the Peloponnesian War, classical Athens dispatched its expeditionary fleet and army to Sicily, hoping to wrest away a breadbasket for that decades-long struggle while outflanking rival Sparta. The invasion pitted the Athenian armada against that of Syracuse, a naval power on the rise. Mahan praised Syracusan strategist Hermocrates, whom he deemed a natural genius of strategy, for urging the Syracusan assembly to forward-deploy the city’s capable but inferior fleet to Tarentum—a city in the heel of the Italian boot—to harry the superior Athenian fleet along its journey from Greece to Sicily.

Distant defense would have opened up a wealth of operational and tactical options while imposing strategic dilemmas on the Athenians. Syracusan commanders could have threatened to cut the Athenians off from their source of supplies back home. They could have compelled Athenian commanders to leave behind slow-moving transports and supply vessels that would have made easy pickings for the Syracusan navy in combat.

The tools Arquilla suggests we rebuild our fleet around, the new shiny China has that the United States doesn’t, are not ships one can use to project power. While they pack a punch in ship-to-ship confrontation, they are also vulnerable to aircraft and cannot control the sea so much as contest it. They also, and this goes unmentioned, lack the larger power projection capabilities an aircraft carrier has that a torpedo boat fundamentally cannot match. As true as this is in Battleship, it is doubly so in real life.

A model is only as useful as it’s limitations, and as a model for strategic naval planning and combat, Battleship is able to say very little. Fortunately, there are other models out there. For evolution of naval combat over time (and for use of guns/butter tradeoffs), I recommend Empire Earth. As for a game to evaluate current fleet makeup and combat situations? Put away the box, power up the PC, and dive into Naval Warfare: Arctic Circle.

*For the record: I have very few problems with the non-Battleship games Arquilla uses in his piece. Both Stratego and Kriegspiel favor armed reconnaissance, which used to be a much bigger part of war and should still be taught at least as a concept. Lu Zhan Jun Qi, with which I am unfamiliar, seems to add problems of transport, logistics, and ranged attacks to the Stratego forumla, making it more like a computer strategy game than I imagine many a boardgamer is comfortable with. 

**If it turns out Arquilla has been playing with awesome house rules that let you replace big ships for smaller ships equal to the number of hits they can take (so a 5-hit aircraft carrier could be swapped out for a 3-hit cruiser & a 2-hit destroyer, or 5  1-hit submarines), and he’s using salvo rules, then I retract this statement. Those sound like awesome house rules, and add an element of fleet selection in addition to placement & targeting that ultimately reinforce his point. I don’t think he’s playing it that way, however, and so I’m forced to evaluate it as though it’s the  default.

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Cyber Hurricane Katrina

The Foreign Policy Research Institute recently held a webinar on Why “Cyber Pearl Harbor” Won’t Be Like Pearl Harbor At All…
I listened in.
[What follows is extracted from this storify post]

First: I expressed some skepticism at the flashy premise of the webinar, as WWII metaphors are a tad overdone in security circles



The webinar opened with a lecture/powerpoint by Edward Turzanksi, whose name I finally got right on the 10th try. He started describing in some detail the different direct impacts of Pearl Harbor & 9/11, and of US immediate response…

…then immediately broke from the flashy title to point out that cyber is very different from conventional war.

The answer to why Cyber isn’t just signals intelligence? Cyber can directly attack infrastructure, not just communications.

a bit unfair of me here.^ Cyber attacks, as described for this presentation, have a political goal. Criminal networks don’t; disruptive though they may be, they are less about attacking states and instead focus on being left alone by them.

Using carpet bombing to describe cyber will always be a stretch, but the actual point of infrastructure being targeted at war holds.

the book described above? Unrestricted Warfare, published in 1999 but featuring a very misleading cover depicting the 9/11 attacks.

Of course, STUXNET itself played with gradual disruption, but the way this was described reminded me of nothing so much as this.


that clip? Children stomping bugs from Starship Troopers. Turzanski actually recommended stomping unknown flash drives as a way to stop them creating/exploiting vulnerabilities. I recommend we term this “boot-gapping.”

Shamoon was targeted specifically at Aramco, and was apparently the work of amateurs.

Husick addressed this later, noting that the invisible hand is really bad at addressing vulnerabilities present in the commons.

The actual problem here was not Windows software itself, which can update and be corrected, but that pirated/unlicensed Windows systems are paygapped from those updates despite those unauthorized copies being, according to Turzanski, 40% of operating systems. Here is a direct example of private sector poorly correcting a vulnerability opened up in the commons.

That above link is to a piece written for CTOVision, about how old-fashioned detective work, human intelligence, and boots on the ground caught a hacker who hid himself well online. Boots & detectives aren’t a quality we usually think of for countering cyber, but they absolutely should be.


The possibility of Estonia invoking NATO Article V for a cyber attack was brought up. Estonia has a stronger claim to this than most – incredibly tech-dependent and was clearly under a coordinated cyber attack. But incredibly unlikely anyone will start a shooting war over it, which calls into the question of cyberwar as a concept itself.

as a post-K New Orleans resident for four years, this metaphor seemed to match what I learned of people’s experience: misplaced investment, clear vulnerabilities shoved just a bit too hard, and then a long slow rebuilding in the directly-damaged area with unclear revision to response capability or actual resilience. A clear failure, but a contained failure.

That was not the actual answer. I paraphrased for space constraints, but the gist was the same.

Here an example was given of a 2003 rail failure, as one freight company linked it’s operational control computers to the internet proper and subsequently suffered a malware attack that left them blind, stranding all trains east of the Rockies for I believe he said 13 hours.

Redteaming: it works.

Maybe bootgapping is a viable strategy?Next we went to the Q & A, which was surprisingly infomative, despite it being a Q & A session.

Also mentioned in the response above was a modified nuke designed to EMP. Either would destroy solid-state drives, making it a destructive attack for which kinetics are a perfectly appropriate response, but also outside the realm of cyber security proper. This seems like the fundamental problem with terming Cyber things cyberwar – when they clearly cause war-like damage, that’s just war. When they don’t, they are crime or covert action. “Cyberwar” seems to be so thin a line that it is nonexistent.

Besides responding with overwhelming force, Farraday cages are a way to protect something from an EMP. Here’s instructions on a DIY version.

As a category, dark web is just what can’t be found conventionally online. In the above context, it refers to internet channels that won’t be effected if something like Google goes down.

The tragedy of the cyber commons was alluded to earlier – it makes little economic sense for anyone using the commons to devote resources to securing it from cyber attacks, and is especially unlikely for everyone to do so at once. (The second part of that tweet? Academia tangent: Mark Vail was a former professor of mine, whose work focused a lot on how European welfare states sought to solve the problems of the commons)


This lack of motivation to fix the problem is perhaps the best reason to start using “Cyber Hurricane Katrina” instead of “Cyber Pearl Harbor.”

It’s really, really hard to negotiate an arms treaty (of sorts) or a rule of battlefield ethics (which is what this would be) when the arms are rapidly evolving, can be designed and wielded by nonstate actors, and the actual battlespace is as broadly defined as any computer that could potentially be exposed to an attack. Compounding this are nations justifiably wanting to develop weapons in secret. My guess for a Cyber Geneva Convention? Only after a major problem reveals them to be both deadlier and less useful than anyone wants, like post-WWI chemical weapons.

Husick specifically mentioned that Saudi would label Pat Robertson’s website itself a work of cyber war. Layer that on top of the problems already expounded above, and Cyber Geneva Convention seems nigh-impossible.

Here we should be looking at cyber as covert action/spycraft/crime, where the channels of communication are important to maintain. The follow-up to this was that the US might expect cyber attacks on our allies, as China is less worried about severing economic ties with them. And, yes, the continued ability to steal US intellectual property was given as a reason for why China would not cyber-attack the US.

This led really well into the next point – STUXNET was able to disrupt Iranian centrifuges in a way that made Iran question it’s own equipment until they figured out, months and months and months later and after actually sitting around watching the centrifuges, that it was a virus at work.

Point referenced here is one from Gartenstein-Ross’s book Bin Laden’s Legacy, and very subtly illustrated by the burning dollar bill on the cover. An attack that yields a massively disproportionate expenditure in response is one that has succeeded in causing economic harm, whatever else it’s objective.

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Unmanned not Autonomous

Two weeks ago, I storified a short piece about Adam Elkus’ decision to stop referring to unmanned aerial vehicles/remotely piloted vehicles as “drones.” In it, Adam acknowledges that while it is better to use common language instead of jargon, “drones” is such an inaccurate term and so weirdly distorted from the reality of these machines.

[View the story “Drones, UAVs, and Terms d’art” on Storify]

This was highlighted especially well by a tweet from Teju Cole which read, simply, “Drones are guns too.” If this is where the common language takes us, it has become so over broad as to be useless. Certainly, there are some drones that deliver payloads, in much the same way that guns deliver bullets, but saying that “these are both weapons” is not a terribly useful point. At the very least, it misses the defining point of drones, which is not that they are weapons (and plenty aren’t, as they perform surveillance tasks), but that they are unmanned.

This does not mean, not yet, that because the machines are unmanned that they are undirected. The “p” in “RPV” is for “piloted,” and when drones aren’t assumed to be the apocalypse, this slips into the discourse, but often with an aside about piloting drones being like the a video game, as though that is enough to rule it out as an actual, deliberate, human activity.

Take, for example, this cartoon by Matt Bors from early June:

Hyperbolic Drone Fears

Hyperbolic Drone Fears

The drones being portrayed here are clearly a caricature of what people think drones can do, but look how autonomous they are. The drone is free from what makes humans expensive, like union membership and pensions, and as an independent actor it has no accountability. Drones freely roam the skies, acting with impunity and reporting back only to their cold mechanical programming. Drone as portrayed may as well be a Terminator or Cylon, for all the control humans have over it.

Drones may some day get to that point. But right now the robots we refer to as drones are piloted. There’s a pension for that pilot, and while there is some ambiguity over accountability when the pilot is a civilian, when they’re a uniformed soldier they fall under the Geneva conventions. And despite critics deriding those pilots as desensitized, video-game killers, those assumptions are increasingly being proven wrong, drone centers are adapting to the same psychological challenges that are encountered in the field.

Although pilots speak glowingly of the good days, when they can look at a video feed and warn a ground patrol in Afghanistan about an ambush ahead, the Air Force is also moving chaplains and medics just outside drone operation centers to help pilots deal with the bad days — images of a child killed in error or a close-up of a Marine shot in a raid gone wrong.

Autonomous killing machines don’t need chaplains, but people tasked with watching and occasionally firing into compounds certainly do. By treating the machine as new and independent, we downplay the very real experiences of the pilots.* The robot discourse, much like the video game discourse, distracts from the unchanged nature of war. It obscures the humans actually executing policy. Most tellingly, it makes US warfighting seem detached from the reality in which it takes place.  Sarah Wanenchuk, at Cyborglogy, highlights this quite well:

I think that Scarry and Bourke actually have it pretty much correct: the subtle dehumanizing effects of increasingly augmented warfare are not in the practice of the war-fighting itself but in the collection of official discourses that we construct around that warfare. We like to think of more highly technical warfare as cleaner, more controlled, less messy, less human – at least on our end. This kind of discourse is classically digital dualist; it assumes that the relationship between physical and digital – or between human and technological – is zero-sum in nature, and that less of one is necessarily more of the other. It rejects the notion that humanity and technology have been, are, and will be enmeshed, that the relationship between the two is complex and constantly evolving.

If we assume our weapons act of their own will, we’re free from thinking about the goal which that violence is supposed to serve. This is a debate we’ve been meaning to have for a long time, but so long as we’re distracted by the newness of the tech and we let science fiction stand in place of genuine understanding, we’ll continue to see wars fought without aims by weapons without controllers.

*Incidentally, this is something that has been done with air power for a long time:

Aerial bombardment of urban centers is credited with being a milestone in the history of direct civilian targeting. The guilt and psychological fallout that pilots in bombers feel has been correlated to the height at which they were flying at the point that they let their payload drop.

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Long War and Infinite Respawns: Games, American Culture, and a Narrative that just won’t Die.

The first video game I connected with on a gut level was Call of Duty. I was playing at a friends house, and he had me start on the first mission in the Soviet campaign. I took control, and for one tense minute could only turn my head and listen as the commissar told us how we were to be Stalingrad’s salvation. Then the Luftwaffe strafed our boats, and I had to reload the mission. I sat through the same speech a second time, knowing I could just as easily and arbitrarily die again. Several of my AI compatriots couldn’t handle the pressure, and jumped overboard only to have their backs filled with lead from the commissar’s PPsh-41. I looked the other way, and then rushed out of the landing craft, where I received only a five-round clip for the entirety of the mission. Unarmed, I sprinted between cover to draw fire so that a sniper could silence several MG-42s.  It was an immersion into one of the hardest moments in any war, the darkest night before the long, grinding conflict would lead to victory.

The first Call of Duty game came out in 2003, and like much popular content of its era, it was set in WWII. In Cinema, the WWII revival started with Saving Private Ryan in 1998 and the juxtaposition of war’s absurdity with WWII’s noble purpose, continued that trend through 2001’s Band of Brothers and by now has found itself with meta-commentary and alternate history in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds and the science fictional backdrop for 2011’s Captain America. As popular as WWII was in film, it was an all-conquering genre in gaming, where even Halo’s now-cliched space marine stood out against an environment composed entirely of GIs.

Yet at their core, Halo and Call of Duty (released only two years apart) fit into the same overarching theme: unequivocally good guys fighting evil in a faraway land, and sometimes getting messy doing it. Gamers spend so much time re-fighting WWII because it has the clearest-cut villains in recent history: strong, bent on conquest, with skulls on their uniforms and horrors systematically perpetrated within their borders. As such, fighting Nazis has gone from comforting to cliche to self-parody; the later Call of Duty games feature “Nazi Zombie” modes, combining the most ubiquitous of gaming enemies over the last decade into a survival shoot-’em-up.  It’s natural, then, that games would look elsewhere for inspiration, and modern wars have given at least the context, if not the substance, for many recent games.

Game makers have certainly tried to tackle our modern wars realistically, but they’ve run into problems, almost all of them political. Six Days in Fallujah, a shooter based on the direct experience of Third Battalion, First Marines in the Battle of Fallujah has been held back by publishers fearful of controversy.  Medal of Honor, a WWII first person shooter series started in 1999 and executive produced by Steven Spielberg, was relaunched in 2010 with a game set in contemporary Afghanistan. Almost immediately, a controversy erupted over the multiplayer mode, where one side would play as the American forces and one side would play as the Taliban. After a summer of public outcry, Medal of Honor backed down & replaced every instance of “Taliban” with “Opposing Force” in multiplayer, abstracting a portrayal of war to “cops and robbers” level absurdity.

Call of Duty also moved from WWII into modernity, and in Modern Warfare 2 the series featured a notoriously upsetting level. While Call of Duty from it’s inception had featured special forces missions, the Modern Warfare series highlights the blurred lines between intelligence operations, counter-terrorism, and the wars on the ground that have dominated this century of American conflict so far. The Airport Mission has the player in the role of an undercover CIA agent accompany a group of Russian ultra-nationalists as they massacre the innocents and, later, police in an airport. While the level was skippable and the player didn’t have to fire on civilians, the existence of the level alone was controversial enough to lead for calls to ban the game.

The entry point for Michael Vlahos’s culture piece on video games and war is Call of Duty:Modern Warfare 3’s “Face Off” trailer. He notes the strange setting, a post-apocalyptic duel, and from there extrapolates that our games are emblematic of a culture of defeat.  As with all media, changes away from once-popular subject matter is more in keeping with a general exhaustion with the theme. The heroic narrative that fueled the shooters of the late 1990s/early 2000s has been replaced by grim combat and covert missions now, but the genre it displaced was a 90s cyberpunk dsytopia, which itself replaced the foundational the explosion-happy juvenile gorefests embodied by DOOM and Duke Nukem, games that their origins in the pioneering shooter & WWII send-up Castle Wolfenstein. That said, the heroic narrative in shooters is hardly gone.

Fallout, a popular late-90s role-playing game, was re-imagined in 2008 as a shooter. It’s setting implies defeat – the protagonist emerges from a vault into a post-apocalyptic beltway, and there are traces of our destroyed world all around (in particular, WMATA tunnels feature prominently). But the apocalypse is the setting, not the narrative. The player is free to make a range of choices, not it isn’t an inherently heroic story, but the possibility for heroism exists, and many plot set pieces demand it. This is an inherited mess, and throughout the Fallout series the player has the option to work towards fixing it. In making sequels, this is the plot path assumed.

While writing this piece, I discovered a much more concise response to Vlahos, using Mass Effect as it’s primary example.  Mass Effect is, like Fallout 3, a hybrid shooter/RPG, which allows for more story telling than most one-track shooters. Part of that means high stakes, a longer narrative arc, and more potential for heroism or villainy. But a lot of it means really tedious chores.  As D. Gomez put it:

Instead of looking at Call of Duty et al, I’d compare military service and wartime service to the game ‘Mass Effect,’ where the key events driving the plot in that game are the decisions made in non-combat situations, the interactions between leaders, subordinates, and outsiders, and the development of relations over time. Mass Effect has its share of kinetic combat, but it happens less frequently and chaotically, and usually between long periods of ‘inactivity’ filled by user-driven dialogue, planning, and preparation.

What the long wars have brought to gaming is not a culture of defeat, but a culture of boring professionalism needed to tackle extensive but low-intensity conflicts. Sure, the world is saved in Mass Effect, but that’s after a lot more time spent talking to local notables and going through inventory. And it comes after the third game in a series, which were released over a span of five years.  Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, it’s worth noting, is the eighth game in a series that began the same year as Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Our games during the long war have evolved from high-stakes girt and heroism, in the guise of WWII or transcendent space marines, through shadow wars and special operations, to a workmanlike state now. The stakes are still high, but the journey is slow, the details important, and with the exception of a few crucial set-piece engagements, the combat, while still intense, is more incidental than decisive. Name a medium that describes our wars better.


While I was working on this, Adam Elkus released his own response piece to Vlahos. I’d be remiss if I didn’t include it here.

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Egypt and the Konami Coup

This weekend, a year and a half after Mubarak’s ouster was touted as the principal moment in the Arab Spring, a funny thing happened.  The SCAF, who were initially hoped to be good stewards for the transition to democracy, decided that after a year of ruling they wanted to keep all the machinery of the system in their own hands. As Tom Gara put it:

Saying SCAF are realpolitik geniuses is like saying a guy is a video game master because he has the code that gives you unlimited lives. It’s not hard for your moves to seem effective when they are implemented by every state institution up to and including the supreme court.

The cheat code metaphor tells us a lot here: the SCAF appear to operate in a very constructed environment, and they do so with advantages not afforded to the opposition. Such controls, ideally, turns the situation from one of high uncertainty and difficulty into a challenge they can tackle with ease.  In video games, this was first accomplished by the Konami Code:

Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right B A

The Konami Code

The code was popularized by Contra, a side scrolling shooter/platformer where the main challenge was completing the game with only three lives.  After the code was entered, the player had 30 lives, substantially reducing the difficulty.  Upon first appearance, it seems that the SCAF as seized power in a similarly cheaty way, by pulling secret levers and making it easier for their guy to win the election.

Only I’m not entirely sure that is what happened. As I write this, the presidential election results are days away from being clear enough to call. Both the SCAF supported Shafik and the Muslim Brotherhood supported Morsi have claimed victory. If the SCAF was straightforwardly manipulating the game in favor of their candidate, they probably would not have suspended parliament or declared martial law. This is a different game, one altogether more strange and arbitrary than anything a computer can hope to winMarc Lynch goes beyond my small video game domain to show us what the Egyptian election really is: Calvinball

For those who don’t remember Bill Watterson’s game theory masterpiece, Calvinball is a game defined by the absence of rules — or, rather, that the rules are made up as they go along. Calvinball sometimes resembles recognizable games such as football, but is quickly revealed to be something else entirely.   The rules change in mid-play, as do the goals (“When I learned you were a spy, I switched goals. This is your goal and mine’s hidden.”), the identities of the players (“I’m actually a badminton player disguised as a double-agent football player!”) and the nature of the competition (“I want you to cross my goal. The points will go to your team, which is really my team!”).  The only permanent rule is that the game is never played the same way twice. Is there any better analogy for Egypt’s current state of play?

There is only so much a person can do in a game with set rules, and usually when those rules are bent it is clear that the person bending them has been cheating.  But when the very nature of the game requires changing the rules, the opposing player can only suffer from expecting the rules to be fair, and instead has no choice but to adapt just as quickly and innovate in ways the game master doesn’t expect. As coherent as Egyptian politics are right now,  “up up down down left right left right B A” might work as well as anything.*


*Metaphor extended into meaninglessness.

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