Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Future Shock

Jan 12, 2010…a magnitude 7 earthquake hits Haiti causing mass death and destruction.  The shanty houses collapsed on one another trapping and killing thousands.  Haiti is still recovering from that earthquake since its non-existent infrastructure and corrupt government made receiving and distributing aid nearly impossible.  What though is most memorable is that much of the financial aid collected was gathered through social media.

We've seen videos of flash mobs and received emails from friends asking us to sign petitions.  These seem like novelties but what is often lost is the power of social media and the Internet to change world politics.  Information and disinformation can be shared instantaneously.  Putin really didn't need an intelligence network to know what was going on in Ukraine, he merely had to have his advisors follow social media.

The advent of social media is nothing new and has been talked about for many years, yet the US continues to pursue foreign policy that ignores the compressed timeframe the Internet has introduced.  Like-minded individuals can recruit and solicit funds without ever having to leave their country.  Opposition groups can now reach much larger audiences faster and get the word out about the corruption of their government leaders.

For the US, the problem is now clandestine operations to overthrow unpopular leaders can be rapidly exposed via the Internet.  Atrocities committed by US backed governments are quick recorded via smart devices and posted to the Internet before the CIA or State Department can formulate a plausible excuse.  Given this reality, why does the US continue to talk about foreign policy as though it were still the 1950s?

Another technology that we have not begun to understand is 3D printing.  A father uses a 3D printer he purchased at home to make a bionic hand for his son who had lost his hand in an accident.  A musician uses a 3D printer to make an acoustic guitar that rivals ones made out of wood.  And of course 3D printers are capable of making firearms.  No longer will opposition groups have to "depend on the kindness of strangers" to arm themselves against oppressive governments.  It also means the traditional role of the US as the world's policeman is rapidly becoming irrelevant.

Biotechnology is another development that reduces US influence on world events.  Super-crops that can be grown in poor soil and requiring little irrigation are already being sold.  Biotechnology can be used to help combat illnesses in ways that don't depend on Western pharmaceutical corporations.  And of course biotechnology can be used to produce weapons that the US does not have antidotes for.

Robots and drones are becoming the next force equalizer.  You won't need to spend years and millions of dollars to produce fighter pilots and elite special forces troops.  You will very quickly be able to buy off the shelf ground robots, unmanned aerial vehicles, ships and even submarines at a fraction of the cost of building the equivalent of a conventional military force.  Just today there was an article about a self-aiming rifle that will allow snipers to engage targets beyond 1 mile.  Nations that used to be considered Third World will have the ability to pose serious threats to Second and First World nations unlike anything that has been seen before.

Of course the biggest expansion area is still in cyber warfare.  We read about it all the time but really the gravity of cyber warfare is almost too much to comprehend.  A successful cyber attack could shutdown the entire Eastern Seaboard power grid.  Nuclear power plants could be sent into critical states by shutting down their cooling systems.  Our air traffic control systems could be shutdown or aircraft could be turned into one another by sending them false course corrections.  Our trucking systems could be sabotage having trucks sent their loads to the wrong destinations.  Food on those trucks would spoil causing food costs to soar.  Hospitals could have their power and HVAC systems shutdown.

All of this means the US has to rethink how it will engage other nations in the future.  Will it only engage those governments or will it also have to engage the opposition groups as well?

To meet these challenges, the US government really has to change how it acquires new technology.  Kristina Harrington, director of the signals intelligence directorate at the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), said acquisition programs typically take about two years to initiate and execute, but rapidly changing threats in the cyber domain require a different approach.

"The current acquisition process is not fast enough to keep up with the speed (of the threat)," Harrington said at a space and cyber conference hosted by the Space Foundation. "Two years after we started is too late in the cyber industry."  Kristina Harrington, quoted in Reuters

"We need to be looking at a different way of doing things," Harrington said during her panel discussion, adding that private industry was increasingly driving change in the cyber realm.  And yet, we still are doing things the same old way.

The cuts to the military have been making new for some time.  Everyone agrees there is no money but no one can agree on what should be cut.  I read an interesting article that almost half of the defense budget goes towards personnel costs (recruiting, training, medical, payroll).  Washington politicians have long ago figured out that troops vote so cutting the military too much in the wrong sectors means no more trips to Congress or Senate.  But cutting new weapons programs is equally fraught with political risk since most major weapons systems like the F-35 bring thousands of unionized jobs to a Congressmen or Senators district.  All of those employees vote as well.

That leaves only one other way to cut spending by closing bases.  The last Base Re-Alignment and Closure (BRAC) was in 2005.  These are sneaky little ways of eliminating weapon systems and personnel without really looking like it.  Furthermore, it gives politicians and their civilian lackeys in DoD the ability to say they've saved money without having cut troop strength.

Apparently even this shell game has run its course as the Senate Armed Services Committee is rejecting about round of BRAC.   Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) said "government studies have shown that the 2005 base realignment and closure (BRAC) round cost $35 million, instead of the estimated $21 million." (The Hill).  No wonder the "savings" of the 2005 BRAC disappeared almost as soon as the bases were listed.  It costs millions just for studies, testimony and hearings to close these bases.

“Now is not the time to spend millions of upfront dollars on another BRAC round, especially as DOD has been forced to ground combat aircraft, cancel ship deployments and furlough workers,” she said.

To make matters worse, SecDef Hagel has not developed any relationship with the SASC.  Is it a wonder why the various branches have identified what systems they are willing to cut, only to be contradicted by Congressional recommendations?  He picked Shinseki to lead the VA despite Shinseki's unimpressive tenure as the Army's Chief of Staff.  No the VA finds itself embroiled in controversy over wait-lists for veterans.  All the while, we forget that they still haven't done anything to get the vets the care they need.

Albert Einstein perhaps said it best, "insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result".  

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