Perspectives on the C4ISR Conference – October 2011

I had the pleasure of attending a two-day conference on C4ISR.  Even though the thrust of the conference was at the operational and tactical level, I enjoyed the glimpses of strategic issues when the discussion reached that level.  Here is what I conveyed to one of the USAF retired senior military leaders at the end of the first day of that event:

I attended the first day of the conference.  It was more at the operational and tactical level.  Even the panel on the Human Terrain System (HTS) – a topic of great interest and personal involvement for me – was too tactical in its focus.

The strategic level was well covered by LTG Michael T. Flynn.  His presentation was good in the sense that he covered a number of intel-related themes that have been around since the days of General Norman Schwarzkopf.  My own take as an outsider (i.e., a person who does not tow any party line) is that our Achilles heel related to intelligence is the ever-growing complexity of our Intel bureaucracy and the mountainous nature of Intel data.  We collect a lot, but have no clue as to what to do with it.  I heard the evidence of that during the panel on HTS.  General Flynn’s point about data-focused intelligence versus problem-focused
intelligence was a thoughtful one.  It also proves another one of my long-standing concerns that we have not yet defined the problem in Afghanistan, as much as we encountered a similar problem in Iraq.

The highlight of the second day was the Intel Chiefs’ Roundtable.  Even though the focus of that roundtable was still more operational than strategic, it was an excellent occasion to hear what those senior leaders had on their minds these days.  In an answer to a question about how to deal with the ever-growing abundance of Intel data and institutional complexity, General Larry James’ remark was somewhat disappointing in the sense that he sounded like he was passing the buck when he said that future development of technological tools would enable us to cope with the problem of sorting out mountainous Intel data.  I don’t wish to be critical, but that also sounded like wishful thinking, which should, in reality, be envisaged as an unaffordable luxury by all senior Intel leaders.

Of course, one alternative to the ever-escalating abundance of Intel data would be to collect less.  However, that is a terrible option because, with the increasing complexity in the global arena, we have no option but to  collect more – especially when one considers the steady progress that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is making in the field of C4ISTAR (Command, Control,
Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, & Reconnaissance).  But my concern is about the vital necessity for timely analysis in the theater of war, which becomes increasingly difficult if we keep adding more to an already massive Intel database.

I also remain overly concerned about the ever-growing complexity of our Intel organizations.  The senior Intel leaders should be thinking about reorganization.  However, I realize that it is easier said than done.  Besides, reorganization of our Intel institutions is one of Congress’ prerogatives.  I remember what happened to a major round of reorganization of those institutions in the light of the recommendations made by the 9/11 Commission. Since those recommendations came out in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the U.S. homeland, all of us were hopeful that they would be taken seriously and that they would not become a victim of the congressional way of handling all issues by viewing them through the prism of “politics as usual.”  Contrary to our expectations, political considerations and political horse-trading took an upper-hand.  Politics aside, looking at this issue from the bureaucratic perspectives, organizations, once created, never die.  Even when they are transformed (i.e., reorganized), they remain very much alive.

My tentative conclusion after attending this very important conference is that we still remain vulnerable because the institutional complexity of our Intel organizations, and the voluminous data that they collect, brings with it lethargy or even temporary inertia in reaching important security-related decisions.  My classic example is the lack of cooperation between the CIA and the FBI before the 9/11 attacks, which is generally regarded as making an inordinate contribution in their inability to forestall those attacks.  One can argue that our security bureaucracies are currently in a cooperation mode on a sustained basis.  However, the worrisome factor is that bureaucratic complexity of Intel organizations has only increased since the occurrence of those
calamitous events on September 11, 2011.  And organizational complexity, more often than not, may become the enemy of timely decisionmaking.